Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Kissing a donkey and spitting on a frog!

In the throes of agonising toothache, could you imagine kissing the teeth of a living donkey in an attempt to cure yourself? If you can't, that's understandable - but it's exactly what you would have done in the 14th century... and much more besides.

The cures for toothache in the past are difficult to believe and some of them are difficult to stomach. From spitting into the mouth of frog in the hope it would take on your pain for itself to sucking on the freshly extracted tooth of a dead man, past populations would try anything to alleviate the pain of cavities and gum disease.

Until the germ theory of disease was discovered in the late 19th century, how teeth became cavity ridden was a mystery. In 1890, WD Miller discovered that bacteria lived on the surface of the teeth and their acidic waste products could erode the enamel. Prior to this discovery, common lore attributed cavities to a tooth worm. The worm was a popular explanation for dental problems across the globe throughout the ages.  Ancient Babylonian priests are purported to have called upon the sun god Ra to summon the worm for them so that they could banish it with a curse and medieval Europeans would try to smoke the worms out by taking in the (poisonous) fumes of henbane.

Here be monsters: tooth worms and eternal suffering.

Animals, as with many folk cures, lose out in this situation, with common traditional cures for toothache in England including: wearing a necklace made of mole paws and noses, cutting spines off a dogfish or rubbing the afflicted teeth with the burnt brain of a hare or the horn of a hart. Apparently, hare brains rubbed into the gums were also used to aid the safe eruption of infants' teeth. Lovely.

Nineteenth century Americans would even bite snakes, including deadly rattlesnakes, in an attempt to get rid of their toothache. I'm pretty sure that the threat of getting bitten by a rattler would definitely take your mind off the tooth pain, so at least this one might have worked for a short time...

The Teeth in Folklore (1968), Jeri Tanner
Folklore of the Teeh (1934), Leo Kanner
Of the Teeth  (1961), Byrd Howell Granger

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