Popular Medicine

Lúcia Gaspar
Joaquim Nabuco Foundation Librarian
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Popular or rustic medicine is the drugs, substances, gestures or words used by the public to gain better health for people. It is not just a collection of medicinal plants used to prevent and cure disease. There is also its magical side, its actions and prayers that the people use to cure their physical and mental ailments.

Its origins can be traced. Watching the teju fight a venomous snake and, upon being bitten by it, stop the fight and eat a piece of castanhola potato as the antidote or seeing a dog eat grass to cure its aching stomach, primitive man discovered that certain plants can cure certain illnesses.

The use of medicine made from flowers, fruits, leaves, roots and tubers of certain plants is as old as the primordial history of humanity. Asians, Europeans, Africans, Americans and Australians have always searched and continue to find plants that can relieve or cure their sicknesses.

Pharmaceutical laboratories only began to emerge at the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s, medicines were prepared in hand-made form – or dispensed, as was said in the time of chemists or pharmacies.

In Brazil, it is the result of a series of culture-crossing techniques used by the Portuguese, indigenous and black people. The contribution from the American Indian medicine man, the black witch doctor and the European wizard was in such a mixed way that today it is difficult to distinguish what is purely indigenous, black or white.

There are several forms of popular medicine: phytotherapy, magical medicine, mystic or religious medicine, and eshcatological medicine or excreto-therapy.

Phytotherapy is that which uses medicinal plants through teas, licks, potions, ointments, purgatives and poultices and popular medicines that are called ‘meizinhas’ in the Northeast region of Brazil. Some of the most common ‘meizinhas’ are: pepper leaf, in the form of a poultice, for wasp stings; avocado tree leaf tea for kidney problems; mallow juice with honey for coughs; sweetened rice water or pitomba leaf tea to stop bleeding; rue for convulsions.

It is an inheritance that the Indians left us and one of the most ancient forms of treating diseases. The Africans also brought their native herbs that blended with species from the Orient. The Portuguese restricted their use and investigated more deeply the therapeutic properties of each plant, using the notes of the Jesuits to divulge throughout Europe and the scientific world the properties of, for example, quinine, ipecacuanha and curare.

Magical medicine looks to cure what mysteriously illness was given supernaturally to the sick person or to expel the evil that makes them suffer. This is strongly connected to Afro-Brazilian and indigenous rituals, especially those of ‘macumba’, ‘candomblé’ or ‘umbanda’ and ‘catimbós’. It is also based on dietary or behavioural taboos. The Indians transmitted their beliefs in the magical healing power of smoke; from ‘malé’ people, coming from Nigeria, we assimilate their concepts of magic and demons as the cause of disease. The techniques employed in magical medicine are ‘benzeduras’ (blessings), prayer meetings, gestures or words spoken by specialised people such as the healer, prayer-maker or ‘benzedor’; ‘simpatias’, a form of blessing, but which can be administrated by any person; charms, amulets, guardian angels and talismans, material elements capable of preventing and avoiding illnesses and danger, among other things.

Mystic or religious medicine uses religion as a magical healing force. A symbolic divination is made to discover which is the divinity offended by a broken taboo or disobedience of a divine determination and, through rituals, to pay tribute to them, such as what is done in candomblé, for example. In popular devotion, some Catholic saints are invoked as specialists in the medical field. Some prayers are to protect people, others to cure disease: St Sebastian cures wounds; St Roch cures and protects from plagues; St Lawrence toothache; St Blaise protects from illnesses of the throat and saves people from choking; prayers to St Benedict protect against snakebites, poisonous insects and rabid dogs; St Lucia from illnesses in the eyes; St Agatha the lungs and respiratory system; St Lazarus leprosy and serious wounds; St Michael malignant and benign tumour; Our Lady of Good Birth pregnancy and childbirth.

Eshcatological medicine or excreto-therapy uses repugnant or unhygienic substances or actions as a therapeutic method, such as faeces, urine, saliva and ear wax. These ancient practices were used by the Egyptians. In Brazil, especially in the Northeast, some excreto-therapy formulas are still very common, such as the use of ants roasted with coffee for asthma attacks, tea made from dog faeces whitened by the sun to fight measles; moist manure rubbed on the skin to cure chilblains; cow’s urine with milk to treat whooping cough; saliva soon after getting up, before uttering your first word, serves to cure wounds.

Popular medicine has never ceased to exist in Brazil, especially in the Northeast, where it continues to be widely used as much on the coast as in the semi-arid interior, especially by low-income people who do not have the resources available to purchase pharmaceutical products.

Recife, 18 July 2003.
(Updated on 31 August 2009.)
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2011.


ARAÚJO, Alceu Maynard. Medicina rústica. 2.ed. São Paulo: Editora Nacional; Brasília: INL, 1977. (Brasiliana, v.300.)
ARAÚJO, Iaperi. A medicina popular. 3.ed. Natal: Editora da UFRN, 1999.
SOUTO MAIOR, Mário. Algumas considerações em torno da medicina popular. Recife: FJN, Inpso, [s.d.]. (Trabalhos para discussão, 12).
______. A medicina popular e alguns remédios curiosos. Recife: FJN, Inpso, 1997. (Trabalhos para discussão, n.75).

Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Popular Medicine. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at:  <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.


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