In the Ozark the “Power Doctor” or “Goomer Doctor” is a folk healer who is versed in charms, prayers, and healing work that generally does not involve any internal medicine. In looking at the traditions that influenced this role we have to mention the Fairy Doctor. This figure comes mostly from Ireland and represents the folk healer who uses supernatural abilities to remove illnesses like witchcraft, evil eyes, fairy “darts”, etc. There’s no doubt in my mind that this Fairy Doctor tradition came into the Appalachian mountains, and later the Ozarks, by way of immigrants and settlers to the area. Although the names may have changed, the same traditions from the Old World live on in New World variations.
The Power Doctor, much like the Fairy Doctor, uses charms, prayers, and the making of certain objects to heal and protect their client. The realm of expertise for both characters seems to be with the folk illnesses, many of which aren’t connected to any sort of physical disease, but may still manifest in very physical ways. The medicine of the Power Doctor isn’t an internal medicine, although often herbal remedies will also be given, but instead is predominantly of a spiritual nature.
A few folk illnesses found in the writings below include the fairy “stroke”, fairy “dart”, fairy “blast”, and of course the well known evil eye. Many of these illnesses, although not carrying the same name, appear in the repertoire of the Ozark Power Doctor as well.
From Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde (1887):
If a healthy child suddenly droops and withers, that child is fairy-struck, and a fairy doctor must be at once called in. Young girls also, who fall into rapid decline, are said to be fairy-struck; for they are wanted in Fairy-land as brides for some chief or prince, and so they pine away without visible cause till they die.
The other malign influences that act fatally on life are the Wind and the Evil Eye. The evil power of the Wind is called a fairy-blast; while, of one suffering from the Evil Eye, they say he has been “overlooked.”
The fairy doctor must pronounce from which of these three causes the patient is suffering. The fairy-stroke, or the fairy-bleat, or the Evil Eye; but he must take no money for the opinion given. He is paid in some other way; by free gracious offerings in gratitude for help given. A person who visited a great fairy doctor for advice, thus describes the process of cure at the interview:-
“The doctor always seems as if expecting you, and had full knowledge of your coming. He bids you be seated, and after looking fixedly on your face for some moments, his proceedings begin. He takes three rods of witch hazel, each three inches long, and marks them separately, ‘For the Stroke,’ ‘For the Wind,’ 'For the Evil Eye.’ This is to ascertain from which of these three evils you suffer. He then takes off his coat, shoes, and stockings; rolls up his shirt sleeves, and stands with his face to the sun in earnest prayer. After prayer he takes a dish of pure water and sets it by the fire, then kneeling down, he puts the three hazel reds he had marked into the fire, and leaves them there till they are burned black as charcoal. Ali the time his prayers are unceasing; and when the sticks are burned, he rises, and again faces the sun in silent prayer, standing with his eyes uplifted and hands crossed After this he draws a circle on the floor with the end of one of the burned sticks, within which circle he stands, the dish of pure water beside him. Into this he flings the three hazel rods, and watches the result earnestly. The moment one sinks he addresses a prayer to the sun, and taking the rod out of the water he declares by what agency the patient is afflicted. Then he grinds the rod to powder, puts it in a bottle which he fills up with water from the dish, and utters an incantation or prayer over it, in a low voice, with clasped hands held over the bottle. But what the words of the prayer are no one knows, they are kept as solemn mysteries, and have been handed down from father to son through many generations, from the most ancient times. The potion is then given to be carried home, and drunk that night at midnight in silence and alone. Great care must be taken that the bottle never touches the ground; and the person carrying it must speak no word, and never look round till home is reached. The other two sticks he buries in the earth in some place unseen and unknown. If none of the three sticks sink in the water, then he uses herbs as a cure. Vervain, eyebright, and yarrow are favourite remedies, and all have powerful properties known to the adept; but the words and prayers he utters over them are kept secret, and whether they are good or bad, or addressed to Deity or to a demon, none but himself can tell.”
These are the visible mysteries of the fairy doctor while working out his charms and incantations. But other fairy doctors only perform the mysteries in private, and allow no one to see their mode of operation or witness the act of prayer.
If a potion is made up of herbs it must be paid for in silver; but charms and incantations are never paid for, or they would lose their power. A present, however, may be accepted as an offering of gratitude.
From Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry edited and selected by W. B. Yeats (1888):
Witches and fairy doctors receive their power from opposite dynasties; the witch from evil spirits and her own malignant will; the fairy doctor from the fairies, and a something–a temperament–that is born with him or her. The first is always feared and hated. The second is gone to for advice, and is never worse than mischievous. The most celebrated fairy doctors are sometimes people the fairies loved and carried away, and kept with them for seven years; not that those the fairies’ love are always carried off–they may merely grow silent and strange, and take to lonely wanderings in the “gentle” places. Such will, in after-times, be great poets or musicians, or fairy doctors; they must not be confused with those who have a Lianhaun shee [leannán-sidhe], for the Lianhaun shee lives upon the vitals of its chosen, and they waste and die. She is of the dreadful solitary fairies. To her have belonged the greatest of the Irish poets, from Oisin down to the last century.
Those we speak of have for their friends the trooping fairies–the gay and sociable populace of raths and caves. Great is their knowledge of herbs and spells. These doctors, when the butter will not come on the milk, or the milk will not come from the cow, will be sent for to find out if the cause be in the course of common nature or if there has been witchcraft. Perhaps some old hag in the shape of a hare has been milking the cattle. Perhaps some user of “the dead hand” has drawn away the butter to her own chum. Whatever it be, there is the counter-charm. They will give advice, too, in cases of suspected changelings, and prescribe for the “fairy blast” (when the fairy strikes anyone a tumour rises, or they become paralysed. This is called a “fairy blast” or a “fairy stroke”).
The fairies are, of course, visible to them, and many a new-built house have they bid the owner pull down because it lay on the fairies’ road. Lady Wilde thus describes one who lived in Innis Sark:–“He never touched beer, spirits, or meat in all his life, but has lived entirely on bread, fruit. and vegetables. A man who knew him thus describes him–'Winter and summer his dress is the same–merely a flannel shirt and coat. He will pay his share at a feast, but neither eats nor drinks of the food and drink set before him. He speaks no English, and never could be made to learn the English tongue, though he says it might be used with great effect to curse one’s enemy. He holds a burial-ground sacred, and would not carry away so much as a leaf of ivy from a grave. And he maintains that the people are right to keep to their ancient usages, such as never to dig a grave on a Monday, and to carry the coffin three times round the grave, following the course of the sun, for then the dead rest in peace. Like the people, also, he holds suicides as accursed; for they believe that all its dead turn over on their faces if a suicide is laid amongst them.
”'Though well off, he never, even in his youth, thought of taking a wife; nor was he ever known to love a woman. He stands quite apart from life, and by this means holds his power over the mysteries. No money will tempt him to impart his knowledge to another, for if he did he would be struck dead–so he believes. He would not touch a hazel stick, but carries an ash wand, which he holds in his hands when he prays, laid across his knees; and the whole of his life is devoted to works of grace and charity, and though now an old man, he has never had a day’s sickness. No one has ever seen him in a rage, nor heard an angry word from his lips but once, and then being under great irritation, he recited the Lord’s Prayer backwards as an imprecation on his enemy. Before his death he will reveal the mystery of his power, but not till the hand of death is on him for certain.’“ When he does reveal it, we may be sure it will be to one person only–his successor. There are several such doctors in County Sligo, really well up in herbal medicine by all accounts, and my friends find them in their own counties.
All these things go on merrily. The spirit of the age laughs in vain, and is itself only a ripple to pass, or already passing away.
This is a cool post! And that lady Francesca Speranza Wilde's writing goes back to 1887, so cool!
I think old lore, customs and superstitions are fascinating to learn about :)