Healing magic

The information below is all about Dutch folk magic in (mostly) the late 19th/early 20th century:

Magic healers in the Netherlands and Belgium

Magic healers are known under many names in the area that is now the Netherlands and Belgium. They are often correlated with other cunning folk. One name for a certain kind of healing is ‘bezetten’. It was especially known in Drenthe and Groningen, in the north-east of the Netherlands. The ‘strieker’ would heal ill and wounded body parts from adder bites, bee stings, and warts and many other inconveniences. They were also able to heal cows and horses. One farmer in Roden was especially known to be able to do all of this. He could even take down a swarm of bees out of the air into a tree by whispering a formula.

The pintjesmeester/es, or ‘pint master/mistress’ as I will dub them, were healers from the Kempen near Antwerp (Belgium) and Noord-Brabant (Netherlands). They worked with a pot (pint) filled with a mixture called ‘powder of sympathy’, which was mostly made of filings from several metals such as copper, steel and zinc. In this powder some of the blood or pus of the ill person was placed – the pint master basically put the illness in his pot. The pot was then warmed by a fire. The pain would slowly disappear, but the pint master could also make the pain re-appear when someone refused to pay him!  This healing magic actually came from Asia to England in the 17th century and it became known in the Netherlands through a Dutch translation of the 1658 book Theatrum Sympateticum. The pint master could also heal burning wounds; he would make the sign of the cross three times over the wound and say “Brand, brand/vlieg van ’t vuur/in ’t zand” – “Burn, burn/fly from the fire/into the sand”.

Healing magic of trees and plants

An old and in Europe well known manner of healing is transmitting a disease from the diseased to a tree, plant or animal by binding it with a thread or piece of fabric. If one loosens the thread or fabric, they get the disease instead. In Roman-Catholic areas, people skipped from trees to the doors of special chapels. Related to this might be the practice of ‘afschrijven’, which litteraly means ‘to write off’. This was supposed to help especially against fever. Maarten Douwe Teenstra notes how in Zevenhuizen near De Leek, one would cut two lines in a piece of turf when a person had been ill for two days, and three when they had been ill for three days. This was then thrown into the fire. These lines could also be cut in a tree.

Broken bones could be healed by hitting a nail into the nail-tree, a lime tree in Ide in the northern Netherlands, while saying certain words and taking off one’s hat. This lime tree was popular up until a century ago and it was visited even by people from Germany. Willows and poplars are also known to have been used in this way. When the head of the nail has been completely overgrown, the wound is healed.

Burying disease

Closely following the idea of the nail-tree is another widely held belief, that says that if one buried some part or possession of the sick person, the disease would disappear together with the buried object. For example, someone with rheumatics would urinate in a newly made urn, which was then buried in the ground so that the person would be healed of his rheumatics.

Cures against bedwetting

How strange and varied folk remedies can be, shows this list of cures against bedwetting that Ter Laan (see sources) gives: the eating of – among other things – a roasted mouse, a roasted chicken’s stomach, bread with salt, a spoonful of salt, two egg spoons of soot in the evening, the roasted placenta of a sow. Or one could drink tea made of stone nettles, a decoction of cherry’s stems, or cooked milk with onions. Sympathetic magic can be found in the eating of porridge with woodlouses (woodlouse in Dutch is ‘pissebed’ which litterally means ‘piss bed’), the drinking of one’s own urine, the eating of a roasted pig’s penis or the burying of a bottle of the child’s urine with a corpse into the ground.

The thunder chisel

A special magical tool that could be used for healing was the ‘donderbeitel’, or ‘thunder chisel’. It was thought to be forged in heavenly fire and then fall down during thunderstorms. Because of its fire associations, it especially helped against hot, feverish diseases. The stone also helped animals : in a pig’s stable it helped the pigs grow, and sick cows could be rubbed with it. The donderbeitel also helped against the falling sickness, and dangers that come with childbirth.
In the 13th century, the writer and historian Jacob van Maerlant wrote:
Deze steen van alre pine / Es sonderlinghe medieine
This stone from all pain / is a mysterious medicine

The animal bath and other animal medicines

A particular gruesome healing ritual is known as the animal bath (balneum animale in Latin). An animal was cut open, its guts taken out. Then what was left was laid on the sick body or the wound that needed to be healed. Thus, a dog would be gutted and its corpse placed over the wound. In Amsterdam one would stick the wounded limb in the freshly killed torso of a cow until it grew cold. The idea behind this, is that the warmth and life force of the freshly killed body should seep into the sick body and thus heal it. And the other way around, the dying body of the animal takes with it the disease in the human’s body. This ritual has been obscured for ages, so that its original meaning has been forgotten. Though it is said that particular animals can heal particular diseases:  A young pigeon heals tubercolosis and young frogs suck away the bad juices of cancer wounds. In more recent history toads and frogs were used to lay on wounds, and living worms were used against throat ache. A cure for healing sweaty hands was to take a frog in the hands and crush it to death.

The snake or adder is an animal associated with eternal life. The adder was supposed to be so strong that it never dies before sunset, even when chopped into pieces. When bitten by an adder, people made use of a very old solution: taking a live adder, putting it in a bottle with rape oil and hanging it up a tree. This is akin to sympathetic magic, using something alike in a magical ritual to receive a certain effect – in this case the use of an adder will heal the wounded from the adder bite.

We can see the use of signature lore in laying cancers on the body of someone who was diagnosed with cancer – meaning that since they both have the same name, they are somehow connected. According to the same lore, deafness can be cured with bitter almond oil and finely cut cyclamen in red wine – the leaves of cyclamen look like ears!

The dead as healers

It’s strange how often death itself is used as a cure: thus a mole, also known as a ‘death spot’ in some places in the Netherlands (though more commonly as ‘mother spot’), could be cured by rubbing it against a corpse. Rubbing the spot with a cloth that was earlier placed on a dead body worked, too. After that, the cloth is laid on a threshold  over which the person who has the mole walks often. When the cloth rots away, so the mole will disappear. Similarly, it is believed to be the first part of the body that starts to decompose after death.



K. ter Laan. Folklore en Volkswijsheden in Nederland en Vlaanderen. Utrecht: Het Spectrum. 2005 (Third print).