At the SASS conference last May in San Francisco Tom DuBois, a folklorist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, presented an engaging paper on his work with a grad student, Jonathan F. Lang. The two of them had teamed up to investigate the science behind the medical healing practices that Johan Turi described in his books An Account of the Sami (1910) and Lappish Texts (1918–19). Although the practices often sound arcane, DuBois rightly supposed that many of them must have been efficacious enough to have been remembered. Lang researched these healing treatments, many of them related to ethnobotany and animals, and DuBois supplied the context for Sami folk healing in Northern Scandinavia a hundred years ago.
Their scientific paper, “Johan Turi’s animal, mineral, vegetable cures and healing practices: an in-depth analysis of Sami (Saami) folk healing one hundred years ago” is now available online from the Journal of Ethnobotany and Ethnomedicine.
I recall when read An Account of the Sami (in its earlier translation by E.Gee Nash, Turi’s Book of Lapland), that I was struck by Turi’s references to treatments using frogs: “The frog is a creature that, if one dares takes it in one’s hand and the frog happens to pee, that hand acquires healing power. If one only presses an affected area with such a hand, the pain will diminish at once. And the frog is also a remedy for when one has skin eruptions around the mouth: one presses and rubs the frog on the affected area.”
But it turns out that the Sami were on to something. As Lang found in his research and literature review:
“The ways in which Turi suggests to use frogs—i.e., either to directly rub a live frog on the affected area or to ingest a frog dried and cooked in milk—suggest the presence of bioactive compounds in frog skin. In the 1980’s it was discovered that frogs secrete antimicrobial peptides in their skin. These peptides inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi, and induce osmotic lysis in protozoa.”
The article has many more fascinating links between science and Sami folk healing.