Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Dead people healing alcoholism

Maria Barna
Sibiu, Romania

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were many villages in the Moldavia region of Romania where doctors hardly ever came. When people became ill they found hope in prayers or in the secret knowledge of initiated women. Thus the treatment of alcoholism was based on empirical and magical medicine.

Alcohol and alcoholism in traditional Romanian culture

Romanian peasants toasting to good life

“There hardly goes by a day without us drinking some alcohol,” said four Romanian peasants during the ethnographic field research conducted in 2016, a state of affairs confirmed by folklore and medical records. Alcohol not only gave pleasure1 but was also nourishment, medicine, and an important agent in social and ritual practices: “Old people and youngsters drink alcohol; they drink during the summer to cool down and in winter to warm up! (. . .) We drink when someone is born, showing our happiness; we drink, out of grief, when someone dies. We drink at engagement parties, at wedding and birthdays. We drink after sealing a successful business or any negotiation (. . .) Men drink, women drink, working people drink and lazy people drink.”2 These tough words were uttered in 1904, when alcoholism was widely discussed and many admitted that alcoholism was a generalized problem,3 with almost one quarter of adult Romanians alcoholic.4 Researchers agree that alcohol abuse was a significant problem; our folklore abounds in references to alcohol, the pleasure of drinking, and the benefits of a beverage. A famous Romanian saying urges: “Let’s drink another rakia, till you bring more wine!”

Magical practices in healing alcoholism 5

More than one hundred years ago, Romanian doctors defined alcoholism as an “artificially-caused disease”, “an intoxication condition”, or “chronic disease”6 affecting peasants and town folks. At that time only a few doctors were located in urban centers, but townsmen suffering from alcoholic disorders could be admitted to hospices or go to reunions of the League against Alcoholism, founded in 1897. In 1908 a Spirituous Beverages Monopoly Law was issued in order to reduce alcohol consumption.

In the villages, however, doctors were few, and there were many diseases caused by poverty, poor living conditions, and alcoholism. Squalor and violence abounded, children were often undernourished, and houses were in ruins. Few peasants went to doctors, preferring the well-trodden path of empirical and magical healing by empirical cures (herbs) and appeals to the dead. Four magical remedies were identified:

  • a coin was put in a dead person’s mouth, taken out after three days, washed in rakia (fruit brandy), and given to the alcoholic to drink;
  • butter and nine eggs were hidden in a hole dug in a grave and left there for nine days, then taken out and used to make scrambled eggs to be offered to the alcoholic;
  • a bottle of rakia was hidden in a hole dug in a grave while uttering an incantation; three days later the bottle was taken out, grave dust poured into it, and  the alcoholic was given that rakia to drink;
  • the candle placed in a dead person’s hands during the three mourning days was extinguished in rakia, the beverage then drunk by the alcoholic.7

The rationale for these rituals seems to have been based on a relationship between a dead person’s incapacity to feel and the disease which people were trying to make insensible; to destroy the disease just as the dead man’s life is destroyed. This transference of the disease was to be found in other old European and American cultures,8 but the Romanian one is interesting in the variety of methods, agents, intermediates, and incantations.

All four rituals were based on a pattern that includes: the man to be healed (the alcoholic); the dead or the grave; the agent—the person performing the ritual; the magical object—a coin, a candle, butter and eggs, and the beverage itself, which becomes medication. The use of alcohol in healing alcoholism was placed under the sign of the similia similibus curantur principle found in magical medicine. It is also interesting that these rituals involved healing mediums to be transferred from the dead to the living, while in American culture the transfer is made from the living to the dead, the dead being the last ring in the healing chain.9

The first ritual illustrates the status of the corpse as first agent in the healing process, while coin and beverage become intermediate agents (Zwischenträger10). The coin is a common object in Romanian funeral ritual, being placed in the decedent’s hand, mouth, or coffin in order for him to pay customs taxes when passing to the other world. Another important element is the magic number “three,” symbolizing progression and the mystery of the Holy Trinity, so it has the power to function as an invocation of divinity.

The second ritual uses another magical number “nine,” meaning more power because of its three times three component. The intermediate agent—eggs and butter—is placed in the grave and later prepared and given to the alcoholic to eat. The man to be healed must not know the story behind the meal; this prohibition might have existed in the first ritual too, because in magical medicine the healing powers often unleash when the suffering person does not know about the ritual.

The third ritual is the only one to use an incantation and the rakia as magical object. According to traditional thinking, this must be one of the most powerful remedies because of the combination of healing methods: similia similibus curantur principle and incantations.

In Romanian culture, incantation was used to heal about sixty diseases11 and was performed by initiated old women or by common women for their family members when fighting the “evil eye.” In this case, folklore does not mention the origin of the person performing the incantation, but it seems that the ritual was performed by initiated women in the evening because in the morning, the decedent’s relatives incensed the grave. The incantation uses the principle of evoking the name: “Ioane, (decedent’s name), I brought you rakia; just like you being unable to drink because you are dead, determine Niculaie (alcoholic’s name) to drink no more.” With such words, the initiated person transfers the disease to the decedent by means of the object and healing power of words. Often the ritual gesture was doubled by uttering the Lord’s Prayer or by making the sign of the cross. This interference between magic and Christianity is found across Romanian traditional culture.

The fourth ritual, using a candle placed in a dead man’s hands for three days of mourning, has the power to light his way. The power of light is transferred to the alcoholic by means of extinguishing the candle in rakia. It is a symbolical gesture, augmented by candles burning during the funeral service and candles offered to funeral participants.

All these rituals were common in Moldavian villages at the dawn of the nineteenth century, when the sanitary system was just developing. But people living in a traditional civilization were confident in magical prevention and practices, in the power of words, of objects, and of protective forces.12 In an environment where for hundreds of years people cured themselves by magical thinking, they went to the doctor only in extremis.


  1. Oana Andreescu, Florin Leasu and Liliana Rogozea, “Alcoholism in Romania in the Late Nineteenth Century and at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century”, Clujul Medical (2014): 87 (4), doi: 10.15386/cjmed-369.
  2. Constantin Barbulescu, Romania medicilor (Bucharest: Humanitas, 2015), 178.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 171.
  5. Karl Mann, Derik Hermann and Andreas Heinz, “One Hundred Years of Alcoholism: The Twentieth Century”, Alcohol and Alcoholism (2000): 35 (1), doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/alcalc/35.1.10.
  6. Barbulescu, Romania medicilor, 178.
  7. Aurel I. Candrea, Folclor medical comparat: Privire generala. Medicina magica (Iasi: Polirom, 1999), 416.
  8. Wayland Debs Hand, Magical Medicine: The Folkloric Component of Medicine in the Folk Belief, Custom, and Ritual of the Peoples of Europe and America (University of California Press: 1980), 13.
  9. Ibid., 24.
  10. Jonathan Roper, “Towards a Poetics, Rhetorics and Proxemics of Verbal Charms”, Folklore. Electronic Journal of Folklore (2003): 24, doi:10.7592/FEJF2003.24.verbcharm.
  11. Candrea, Folclor medical comparat, 335.
  12. Ilie Moise, “Practici traditionale de prevenire, combatere si vindecare a bolilor”, in Patrimoniu cultural imaterial din Romania. Repertoriu I (cIMeC: Bucuresti, 2008), 89.

MARIA BARNA, PhD, is the cultural expert at the County Center for the Conservation and Promotion of Traditional Culture “Cindrelul – Junii” Sibiu and adjunct professor at the “Lucian Blaga” University of Sibiu. She has practiced journalism for twelve years. Her interests include tangible and intangible heritage, field research, in situ events, and communication.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 10, Issue 3 – Summer 2018

Spring 2017



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