For as long as human beings have had maladies, we’ve been trying to cure them in the best ways we know how. For centuries before the development of modern medicine—and even today, for common ailments like hiccups and warts—we have turned to folk remedies. Some of these were gleaned from experience, based on traditions passed down through generations, and surprisingly effective. Some, though, were based on magical thinking and proved to be just plain bizarre.
From ancient history to the present day, evidence of folk remedies can be found all over the globe. For those who remember the 2002 indie hit film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you may have gotten a laugh out of Toula’s dad and his absolute faith in the curative powers of Windex, but chances are your own family has some sort of folk remedy that your parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles swear by.
In fact, the World Health Organization acknowledges the important role that such traditional medicine plays in many communities, and has implemented a program to “support Member States in developing proactive policies and implementing action plans that will strengthen the role traditional medicine plays in keeping populations healthy."
This list isn’t about those more explicable remedies, however, nor even the Windex-as-cure-all ones. No, these are some of the most bizarre things people throughout history have believed would cure their assorted ills, where the cures are sometimes worse—and always weirder—than the disease.
1. Apply Mouse to Affected Area
Egypt, date unknown
While we had trouble finding a primary source on this one, plenty of people repeat the claim that, in ancient Egypt (which, admittedly, spans an awfully long time) people would use mice to cure toothaches. How, exactly, the mouse was used depends on who’s doing the telling, with variations that include slicing the poor mouse in half, grinding it up and mixing it with other ingredients, and even placing a live mouse along the tooth and gums, which seems like it would present logistical difficulties…
2. Incinerated Dog Skull
England, c. 410 CE
During the era in which Anglo-Saxons were settling what was then Roman Britain, it was believed that one treatment for cancer was to burn a dog’s skull and powder the patient’s skin with the ashes, which at least more closely resembles medicine than some of the other things you’ll find on this list.
Just about anywhere, just about any time
Few ailments are accompanied by as many superstitions and folk remedies as warts, many of which are still prevalent today. Take the commonly-held belief that toads, with their bumpy, moist skin, can cause warts in humans who handle them. In countries all over the world, “wart-charmers” proposed a bewildering array of cures for the affliction, some of which are still in use. One particularly odd cure suggested that you could take a small piece of raw meat, rub the wart with it, then bury the meat. As the meat decayed, so too would the wart disappear.
4. Pricking a Tree
England, date unknown
One commonality among many folk remedies is transferring the ailment from the sufferer to someone or something else. An alternative cure for warts, for example, involved pricking the wart with a pin and then sticking the pin into an ash tree. If you then repeated a rhyme that went something like, “Ashen tree, ashen tree, pray buy these warts from me,” the tree would get the warts and you’d be off the hook. A similar old English tradition suggested a way of getting rid of boils by wrapping them in a poultice and then placing the used poultice in a coffin with a corpse, thereby transferring your affliction to the dead body, who presumably wouldn’t mind so much.
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5. Intercessions from the Dead
Wales, c. 15th - 16th centuries
Many folk remedies also involved asking the dead for help, in one way or another. Often, this came through a relic or emblem of a saint, said to protect the wearer from the ailment, or to cure it when touched. In one particular part of Wales, there was an ointment made from the scrapings of a 14th century tomb (we don’t know what they were scraping, precisely, and we’re afraid to ask) that was said to cure various diseases of the eyes. This remedy was so popular that by the 17th century, the tomb had become too damaged to keep supplying ointments.
6. Spider Web Pills
England, c. 1740s
John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, also published an 18th-century book called Primitive Physic, Or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. One of said diseases was ague, which Wesley described as “an intermitting fever, each fit of which is preceded by cold shivering and goes off in a sweat.” The cure? Well, Wesley proposed several, but one that was apparently popular among other practitioners at the time involved taking pills made from spiderwebs. According to Wesley, “I never knew this to fail.”
7. Dirty Socks
England, c. 19th century
The origins of this widely-occurring folk remedy may be obscure, but it can be found in countless books of folk remedies, often linking it back to “Merry Olde England” or even Tennessee. What’s the remedy? Simple enough: if you’re suffering from a sore throat, just take one of your own dirty socks, tie it around your neck, and leave it there until morning.
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8. Chickens Can Cure Chicken Pox, Right?
United States, c. 1920s
A lot of folk remedies involved a kind of sympathetic magic. If two things were alike—even if they simply shared a name—then obviously the one would be efficacious in treating the other, right? Such seems to be the logic behind a remedy for chicken pox which suggests going into a chicken coop and letting the chickens fly over you.
9. Eel Skin
United States, c. 1920s
From the same source as that cure for chicken pox, here’s one to help cure alcoholism: “To break your husband of drinking, skin a live eel, put the skin in some liquor and give it to him. He will never drink again.” If he drinks some eel-skin liquor, he might very well give up drinking afterward, but maybe not due to the curative powers of eel.