The Transference of Disease

Universally, animals have been used as a vehicle for carrying away or transferring disease. In Morocco, the highland folk customarily transfer a headache to a lamb or goat, and then beat the animal until it falls to the ground, believing that the headache will thus be passed on. In Sumatra, women who remain childless perform a ceremony of making the curse fly away. After sacrificing three grasshoppers, which, for this ceremony, represent a buffalo, a horse, and a cow, a swallow is set free with the prayer that the curse might fall on its head and be carried away by the bird.

In many African countries, it was and still is customary for witchdoctors to conjure up the demons of disease when curing a very ill patient, and then ritually take the illness into their own bodies. The witchdoctor then reclines on a bier, shaming death for some time, and eventually jumps up to claim his reward.

In Peru, twenty-first century folkloric medical practices to extract illness and disease include ‘passing the egg’ or ‘passing the guinea pig’. The curative procedure entails rubbing an egg or a guinea pig over the patient’s affected body area, thereby absorbing the malady. The patient either buries or ingests the egg, now thought to contain the sickness, to then pass the sickness out of the body naturally. Similarly, the guinea pig is chased away or killed. 

In England, an advocated cure for whooping cough was to pass the patient under a donkey’s belly, contending that the donkey absorbed the cough. This cure was especially popular in Scarborough, where many donkeys were for hire, specifically for such a purpose.21 Similarly, it was customary in seventeenth century Ireland to place a live trout near the mouth of a child with whooping cough. Immediately after inhaling the cough, the trout had to be thrown in a fast flowing stream, carrying off the disease. Alternately, a hair was plucked from a sufferer’s head and then fed to a dog. If the dog coughed up the hair, as it got stuck in its throat, this was seen as a sign that the whooping cough had been successfully transferred to the animal.22 

In European countries, it was customary in the past to preserve a sick person’s nail clippings in wax, and by sticking this mixture on someone’s door, thereby transferring the illness to a different person. A popular superstition contended that to cure the fever, one should take the sufferer’s nail parings and hair clippings, place them in a bag, and put this under the threshold of a neighbour’s door. So much for ‘love thy neighbour’. Hundreds of years earlier, the ancient Romans similarly used nail parings embedded in wax, from fever-suffering patients and symbolically transferred the disease by sticking the wax onto an unsuspecting stranger’s door. 

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, it was also quite common in Europe to transfer sickness and disease that resisted conventional treatment to the family cat by dousing the poor animal with the patient’s washing water and then driving it from the house.

In the early parts of the twentieth century, farmers in England and on the Continent customarily kept one or two goats with their other livestock, believing that the goats absorbed all physical ills that would otherwise affect the livestock.23 It was thought that the stronger the smell emanating from the billy goat, the less likelihood of any cows, horses, or other livestock falling ill. Responding to such beliefs, owners usually lovingly cared for their goats. If a goat was unaffordable, a goat’s horns, a hoof, or simply some hair nailed over the barn door, had the same magic effect in warding off evil.


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