Bridget Maher MB, MRCGP
University College Cork, Ireland
Illustration by John Bauer
Although superstitions abound in all societies, Irish tradition has an especially long and rich tradition of folk beliefs and superstitions. Thus, when a newborn infant was recently diagnosed with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome,1 a triad of port-wine stain, varicose veins, and hypertrophy, his mother burst out crying saying: “My mother says that someone must have thrown water at me when I was pregnant.” It was apparent that this young mother was grappling with a pishogue—a Gaelic word (piseog) meaning “a curse, a charm, a spell, or a superstitious practice or mystic rite.”2 She presumably perceived the capillary nevus on the baby’s leg as a water splash, result of a curse by a vindictive person who meant to harm the mother or her baby.
In Ireland, as elsewhere, superstitions have long influenced human behavior.2 In the 19th century,3 superstitions were considered the poetry of the people, the bond that knit the peasant to the soil, the cheer and solace of many a cottier’s fireside. There are many examples of living pishogues in Irish society, often recalled lightheartedly, but with cautious undertones so as not to draw a curse upon oneself or for fear of “offending the fairies.”
JM Barrie, the Scottish novelist of Peter Pan, described the origin of fairies as follows: When the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping around and that was the beginning of fairies. And now when every baby is born, its first laugh becomes a fairy. However, there are good fairies and bad fairies. In rural Irish tradition, it is considered a dangerous thing to compliment a newborn baby too much, as this could put the baby in the fairies’ power. Thus, praise has to be counteracted with a blessing to protect the baby, such as “He’s a fine looking boy, God bless him.”
There were thought to be two reasons for theft of babies by fairies. The first was to bring in new blood into the fairy population. The second was that fairies were said to have great difficulty with childbirth,4 with the result that fairy babies often died or were deformed. WB Yeats, the Irish poet, recalls in one of his poems, the lyrical persuasive power of the fairies who stole children from their cribs at night:7
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand.
For the world's more full of weeping
than you can understand.
This superficially jolly poem, with its dark undertones, suggests that the child is better off with the fairies. However, it does not address the trouble and loss of the unfortunate parents. When a human child was stolen, it was replaced by one of three things: a deformed fairy child, an old or senile fairy, or even a piece of wood. Thus, preventive measures against baby theft included placing a piece of wood inside the baby’s cot. This, however, was not foolproof, and other strategies had to be adopted, such as placing a St. Bridget’s cross—a Celtic symbol woven from reeds—at the top of the baby’s crib. For some mysterious reason, a man’s suit left at the cot-side was also said to be effective in protecting the child from the fairies.4
It had been said that changeling babies brought great discontent into the house, crying with a piercing, nonstop wail. This reminds us of what many parents say about their colicky babies: “We can cope with the crying as long as the baby is all right.” Were they subconsciously worried about it being a changeling? A real giveaway trait of a changeling, apparently, was their huge appetite. They shunned liquids and ate enough solids “to eat you out of house and home”; and yet, being fairies, they never gained weight. Is it possible, at least in some cases, that the parents were observing not a fairy changeling, but a baby suffering from celiac disease, more common in the Irish5 and associated with intestinal symptoms, irritability, and other mood disturbances?
In primitive societies congenital anomalies would have been so inexplicable that, understandably, they were often attributed to witchcraft. There is folklore, in some parts of Ireland, of babies being thrown onto a fire or hot water because they were considered deformed fairy changelings. The story goes that God would have spared a human child, while a fairy changeling would reveal its age and escape up the chimney. Other infants were left in a manure pit overnight, or poisoned with foxglove.4 Were these practices just folklore or a form of eugenic killings of sickly or handicapped children? Infantile convulsions were said to be brought about by fairy influence, representing the struggles of the child trying to escape from the fairy clutches.6 It was said that drinking milk boiled in a human skull could cure epilepsy.
Pishogues, handed down from their Gaelic ancestors and collected by schoolchildren of Cappabue, Nova Scotia, Canada, included the following pieces of advice related to the newborn and the cradle:7 “It is bad luck to carry a cradle upside down: Never rock an empty cradle: Don’t put a small child into a cradle in which another child died.” Suggested infant sleeping pishogues included: Put a young child into a sling before going into a cradle: A child should be put to sleep in his/her christening robe and don’t make or buy a christening robe—get one on loan.
Infection control specialists would be very unhappy with this pishogue: When you meet a newborn child, you should rub your saliva to his face. However, this practice would support the hypothesis,8 that early childhood exposure to infectious agents may decrease susceptibility to allergic disorders. Saliva was also applied to minor wounds: Och! They say there is great virtue in spittle.6 According to Hickey,6 any person could cure a burn by licking it, provided that he had previously licked the under-surface of a lizard from tail to head. Hickey’s paper on medical superstitions explained that one could cure a toothache by rubbing the gums with the finger of a corpse. Warts would disappear when a fasting patient spat on the hearth and applied spittle with his second finger. The seventh son of a blacksmith was in great demand for curing boils, achieved by merely opening and shutting his tongs three times in front of them. The blood of a black cat was said to cure ringworm.6
Childhood injury prevention pishogues for parents included:7 Don’t allow a pup into a house until a child has his/her first tooth. Cats have also been blamed for infant deaths: Keep cats away from babies because they "suck the breath" of the child.
Pishogues, superstitions or "folk beliefs" are irrational beliefs arising from ignorance or fear. They may have helped primitive societies to come to terms with phenomena they could not otherwise explain and to cope with uncertainty-induced anxiety. They may represent an attempt to exercise of exert control over a universe perceived as capricious, rather than as predetermined or fated.9 Some superstitions can be logical and contain practical common sense (e.g., Don’t walk under a ladder) but mostly they are absurd and anxiety provoking. During a medical consultation they need to be approached with a spirit of understanding. Listening to patients’ perspectives and being sensitive to folk beliefs is important. Explicit, understandable explanation of the phenomena is essential to enhance patients’ ability to face superstitious thoughts competently.
- M Samuel and L Spitz, “Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome: clinical features, complications and management in children,” Br J Surg 82, no. 6 (1995): 757–61.
- Lady Wilde, Ancient legends, mystic charms, and superstitions of Ireland, with sketches of the Irish past, (1888). Available from: http://www.libraryireland.com/AncientLegendsSuperstitions/Contents.php
- Anonymous, Ireland: Her wit, peculiarities, and popular superstitions with anecdotes, legendary and characteristic (Dublin: McGlashan & Gill, 1900), 11.
- Paz Whyte, “The madness of being Irish,” Ireland Myths Stories and Pictures. Available from: http://irelandmythsstoriespictures.blogspot.com/search/label/Piseog
- CC Cronin and F Shanahan, “Why is celiac disease so common in Ireland?,” Perspect Biol Med. 44, no.3 (2001): 342–52.
- EM Hickey, “Medical Superstitions in Ireland,” Ulster Med J. 7, no.4 (1938): 268, 269–270.
- Schools Integration Project No. 022, “Piseogs,” An Awareness, Appreciation and Enancement of the Local Environment. Available from: http://www.sip.ie/sip022/piseogs.htm
- AB Fishbein and RL Fuleihan. “The hygiene hypothesis revisited: does exposure to infectious agents protect us from allergy?,” Curr Opin Pediatr 24, no.1 (2012):98–102.
- J Goodall. “Superstition and Human Agency,” Religion 13, no.3 (2010), 307–318.
C. ANTHONY RYAN, MB, MD, FRCPI, is a consultant neonatologist in the department of neonatology, Cork University Maternity Hospital, Cork, Ireland and an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health, Brookfield College of Medicine and Health, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
BRIDGET MAHER, MB, MRCGP, is a General Practitioner and Lecturer in the School of Medicine, Brookfield College of Medicine and Health, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland.
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