Magical Cures

Enjoying a strong position in the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 16th century, the Catholic Church strictly prohibited all practices of magic and sorcery that were seen as intervening with God’s will or even attempting to change it. However, when faced with insoluble problems, when trying to have offspring or bewailing unrequited love, the people of GDL would resort to magic. Most often they invoked magical powers when they fell seriously ill with an incurable disease or in order to protect themselves from severe health complications.

The healing power of words

The most popular magical cure was various incantations – chants or spells created using specific verbal formulas having alleged miraculous power. Those who knew them would secretly pass them on to their pupils, who were not to reveal the secret so as not to lose its healing power. Incantations were usually muttered inaudibly or whispered, intoning and repeating them a certain number of times. Trying to help the sick, folk healers used other treatments, too – medicines prepared in various ways, herb incenses. It was believed that special magic actions strengthened the power of the words. An unknown author of the 17th century wrote about wide-spread treatments and those practicing folk medicine: “In sorcery they always use words. They can blow away a carbuncle, swelling, erysipelas and similar human and animal afflictions; they murmur some words, blow at the sore place three times and the wound disappears.” The citizens of the GDL believed that by incantations folk healers could cure various maladies: headaches, tumours, wounds, uncontrolled bleeding as well as dangerous animal and snake bites, lameness and severe infant illnesses.

Glimpses of the old faith

In the 16th-17th centuries, pagan faith and worshiping ancient pagan deities were still alive among the lower social strata of GDL, where the Church teachings found it more difficult to penetrate.

It was believed that severe illnesses and disabilities was a punishment of wrathful or offended gods that could be averted by magic rituals of sacrifice for which various animals (most usually goats and rams) and their body parts were used.

In 1583 Jokūbas Lavinskis described a Lithuanian custom: “When somebody’s son or daughter fell ill, a sorcerer would be invited; he would sacrifice a ram to the gods and then the slaughtered ram would be eaten up by the family […]. It was thought that the ritual performed, pagan gods would restore the lost health.”

In order to protect themselves from the wrath of the ancient gods and from the maladies and diseases sent by them, certain rituals were performed regularly, every year, or on certain occasions. In his description of Lithuanian customs, Jonas Maleckis-Sandeckis wrote in the middle of the 16th century that at a wedding party, instead of dessert, bear or goat balls are served as it is believed that having eaten them on the wedding day, the couple will be fertile. For this reason, no castrated animal is slaughtered for the wedding.

The magical rituals were performed by old folk magicians and sorcerers, who though no longer as important at the period considered as they had been in pagan times, were still wandering around the villages. People thought highly of them and believed they could help in the event of illness or adversity.

The universal cure, or where to get the unicorn’s horn?

Amulets varied depending on the strength of their magical powers. It was believed that the most effective were those made from rare materials that were difficult to obtain and were the subject of various legends.

In the middle of the 16th–17th centuries the most desirable charm was the horn of the mythological unicorn.

Belief in its power was particularly strong both in Europe and in GDL. The horn was believed to possess the power to identify and counteract poison, to protect against the plague, it could heal practically all illnesses. The preparation that was considered to be the horn of the unicorn was very expensive. At the beginning of the 17th century it was said to cost as much as “half the city.” The wealthiest population and the dignitaries craved for it. In 1611 Sigismund III Vasa, the ruler of GDL and Poland, instructed two of his courtiers to bring him such a horn. There is no information as to whether this instruction was carried out. In the medical writings of the period the unicorn was depicted as a mythical animal, like a horse with one horn. In the modern world of science there is no doubt that what was taken for the horn of the unicorn was actually a narwhale tusk. This kind of whale possesses a large tusk, up to 3 meters long, from a protruding canine tooth similar to the traditionally depicted horn of the unicorn.

With the Church gaining power and the advances in the science of medicine, belief in the magic powers weakened. Yet even today in remote rural areas one could come across old people who know magic incantations and who believe that they can heal some minor health problems.

Literature: Baltų religijos ir mitologijos šaltiniai XVII a., compiled by N.Vėlius, vol.3, Vilnius, 2003

Monika Ramonaitė