© 2017 Natalia MAZALOVA

2017 – №1 (13)

Keywords:Russian folk medicine, eastern reflexology, healer, active points, biologically active zones, folk concepts of illness, knowledge transfer.

Abstract:The article discusses practices of acting upon the body for therapeutic purposes, comparing the points on the body that healers work on to treat diseases with the active points in eastern reflexology which form the basis of Chinese acupuncture. The author suggests that healing rituals in Russian folk medicine not only used healing spells and herbs but also knew biologically active zones. It is considered possible that Russian healers and eastern practitioners worked on the same parts of the body to treat the same diseases. However, in the Russian tradition, the area acted upon was much larger in size, while eastern acupuncture worked on multiple points located in close proximity to each other to treat certain diseases. By analyzing the peculiarities of the Russian tradition, the author emphasizes that practices of working on specific parts of the human body and knowledge about the “points” were transferred from one generation to another. This is “explicit knowledge” which comprises an important part of the “secret” knowledge of Russian ritual specialists.

Russian folk medicine

Russian folk medicine is a complex set of both rational and magical methods of treatment and preservation of human health. It is not so well known in the world as the traditional Chinese, Indian or Tibetan medicine practices which were transferred through written sources and described in treatises and teachings.Russian folk medicine practices were transferred orally throughout many centuries and often preserved archaic ideas that have survived to this date.

It was believed that folk medicine knowledge and magical ways of healing were known to healers, as well as to shepherds, horse doctors, blacksmiths and other specialists. Moreover, every peasant woman learned some medical knowledge and was able to treat certain diseases, such as colds or children’s crying, and also to perform child delivery. According to folk concepts, illness was seen as a mythological character invading the human body that had to be expelled and removed. This was done using various methods and techniques.

Healers treated diseases by performing healing rituals. It was believed that the major component of a ritual was a spell — a sacral text kept in secret from those uninitiated. In the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars tried to write down texts of healing spells, but paid little attention to the procedure of performing rituals or the items used by healers in rituals. They also forgot to capture another very important aspect of a ritual: the organs that a ritual specialist worked on by touch or other means.

“Biologically active zones”

According to my own observations of the activities of healers and the surviving records dating from the 19th and 20th centuries regarding methods of treatment used by horse doctors and other “competent” people, Russian folk medicine practices knew biologically active zones or points, just as the Eastern traditions did. For example, it is not only healing spells that healers used to remove the evil eye, bad spells, uroki(a type of evil eye, literally “lessons”) or cure some other diseases (scientifically referred to as neuropathology). Where a spell is made using water (the most common approach), a healer uses such water to wash the patient’s face, elbows, knees and the heart area of chest, while saying: “Washing under the knees, washing around the heart”. This means that she works on certain organs of the body. Some other diseases are also treated by acting upon different parts of the human body (Mazalova 2001).

The doctrine of active points forms the basis of eastern reflexology (Luvsan 1986). As early as in ancient times, people knew that one could find painful points on the patient’s skin by pressing on small areas. These points were called “life points”. Ancient oriental doctors believed that by puncturing the skin at these precisely localized “life points” (or “holes of the spirit” in old Indian parlance), one could open orifices through which the agents of disease would leave the patient’s body, and cauterization would kill these substances. We can assume that Russian healers have also empirically discovered that diseases of some internal organs have external symptoms. By acting upon certain areas of the skin or external organs, it was possible to cure particular internal organs. In other words, biologically active zones were discovered. Ancient eastern medicine has made much more progress than old Russian medicine in this respect. They have identified an order in the arrangement of the “life points”. The points are located along certain lines known as meridiansthrough which the life energy flows. It is believed that the system of and interactions between meridians can be considered as the greatest discovery relative to the discovery of individual points.

There are different systems of acupuncture that have similarities with the methods used by Russian healers. However, most of all, these methods resemble the system that is based on Chinese acupuncture. In eastern acupuncture, zones are acted upon by inserting needles or cauterization, while the Russian tradition uses sharp objects (a spindle, knife, pike teeth, bear claw, nail, human teeth, etc.) or, as in traditional oriental massage, mechanical action, such as stroking and pressing. It is only sometimes that cauterization is used. We can assume with some degree of conventionality that the parts of the body acted upon by a healer are the same or, to be more precise, close to the zones acted upon in eastern reflexology. Methods of treatment in Russian folk medicine and eastern acupuncture are compared based on external similarity of techniques and common types of targeted diseases.The main difference is that a healer does not act upon a localized tiny point, but upon a certain larger area. However, it should be noted that for some diseases (for example, neuroses), both eastern reflexology and Russian folk medicine act upon individual parts of the body that include multiple points. According to folk beliefs of the Russians, diseases are mythological characters that get into the body via external organs located on the surface (openings of the body), such as the mouth, eyes, nose, ears or distal points (shoulders, elbows and knees), and then penetrate into the veins and are carried towards the heart by blood. By acting upon the zones of external organs and upon the skin, the disease can be “extracted” from the body and “washed away with water”, blown away, “gnawed” or “stabbed”.

“Gnawing hernia”

The Russian tradition has a widely known method of treating hernia in newborns, which is referred to as “gnawing hernia”. Most frequently, it was used to “gnaw” an umbilical hernia which is the bulging of the internal organs from the abdominal cavity in or near the navel. The hernia is “gnawed” by the teeth by the infant’s mother or a healer. They cover the affected area with a kerchief or povoinik(a woman’s headdress) and carefully bite it with their teeth, while uttering the spell describing the healing ritual:

“Mother has given birth herself,

has delivered a baby herself,

and she has gnawed his hernia herself,

all the twelve hernias…

I’m gnawing, I’m gnawing, I’m gnawing”.

Then the healer has to “gnaw the navel through a kerchief”. It is believed that the “biting” method is particularly effective against the umbilical hernia. In eastern medicine, hernia is treated by inserting needles into the points located slightly below the navel. Both “nibbling” the navel and inserting needles in the navel area contribute to the development of the muscles in infants, thus facilitating the closure of the umbilical ring.

Also, the hernia healing ritual involves healers’ saying a spell in which the hernia is being “gnawed” by a pike:

“In the blue sea, there is an alatyr stone. Under the stone, lies a copper pike, with its teeth of iron and its eyes of tin. It is eating, it is gnawing all the twelve hernias — in the navel, in the groin, in the scrotum…”.

While uttering the spell, a healer prickles the affected organ with the pike teeth (just as Chinese specialists insert needles into the points located on the child’s navel).

According to archaic beliefs, some parts of the human body and animal bodies have the highest concentration of the life force. These include the teeth, the hair and the nails (claws). The life force remains in the teeth even after they have been removed from an animal or a human. A high concentration of the life force significantly determines the magic power of the pike teeth, their “ability” to gnaw out disease and scare away the evil spirit. Besides, pike has a number of characteristics that determine the mythological meaning of the context in which it is found. For example, it is associated with the underground world. According to mythological beliefs, pike can “carry away” the hernia to the other world.

Other chthonic animals were also used in healing rituals against hernia. For example, a living mouse with its paw tied with a thread was put on the hernia and teased with a view to make it bite the child in the sore area. Then the mouse’s eyes were pierced with a needle, and a coarse thread was dragged through them and then used to gird the child. The mouse was let go to a field with the following words:

“Mouse, carry Andrei’s [the child’s name] gryz [hernia]. We have pierced your eyes so that you never come back with the gryz.”

Another method is to bite the heels of newborns who have a hernia. Probably, this is aimed at restoring sleep, as the hernia in infants is accompanied by anxiety, crying and sleep disturbances. Let’s consider that for patients with sleep disorders, Chinese acupuncturists also insert needles into the center of the heel.

Amazingly, the ritual of “gnawing a hernia” is known even today. In many cases, even doctors — mothers of babies with hernia — do not agree to surgery (in official medicine, surgery is needed when the child’s hernia has not closed by the age of five). They bring their toddlers to a “babka” (a common name for healers in many regions in Russia) who successfully heals the hernia by “biting”.

A similar approach is used for other diseases. For example, to treat diarrhea in children, a healer usually bites their navel with her teeth. Interestingly, Chinese specialists insert needles into the center of the navel, at the point located in the center of the navel, to treat newborns with stomach disorders.

“Biting utin”

The “biting” method is also used to treat other surgical diseases. Let us note that acting upon biologically active zones with the teeth is particularly close to eastern acupuncture practices. For example, people suffering “gryz” (aching in the arms and legs caused by arthritis) ask a boy to bite their knee, legs or elbow, while the healer is talking to the patient:

“What are you gnawing on?” “I’m gnawing gryz.” “Gnaw stronger.”

In Chinese medicine, pains in the arms and the shoulder or elbow joint are treated by working on the points located on the outer area of ​​the elbow. Pains in the shin area, arthritis and arthrosis of the knee joint are treated by working on the points in the area of the knee cap.

One of the ways to heal utyunor utin(radiculitis) is as follows: A broom is placed on the patient’s loins and gently hit by a back of an axe. This is accompanied by a dialogue between the patient and the healer:

“What are you chopping?” “I’m chopping utyun. I’m chopping it out so that it never comes back.”

In Chinese medicine, pains in the loins and spine are also treated by working on the points located in the loins area. During our expedition to Karelia in 2004, the best acting healer Agafia Zuyeva in Valdai village told us that in this way she had successfully healed the head of the local village administration. Nowadays, her successor treats radiculitis using the same method. In the old times, there was also another way of healing utin, where a healer laid the patient face down on a bench and “gnawed” at the sore spot with her teeth, while talking to the patient who advised her: “Gnaw, gnaw so that there is no belching” (that is, so that the disease never comes back again).

“Washing off uroks”

The method of acting upon certain areas of the body was often used by healers when treating the evil eye, uroksand other diseases (mainly nervous disorders) that are accompanied by headaches and increased blood pressure. Stroking or washing an elbow to treat an urokor the evil eye is similar to what eastern reflexology does when manipulating the main point located on the outer extreme point of the elbow bend, which treatment is indicated for neuropsychic and psychosomatic disorders. Working on the inner surface of the knee joint near the end of the popliteal fold to treat the same diseases corresponds to the point on the liver meridian. Indications include headaches, irritability and manic states. Washing the chest in the area of the heart corresponds to working on the point located in the seventh intercostal space on the gallbladder meridian. Manipulating this point is indicated for treatment of psychomotor agitation. Let us note that in Chinese medicine, working on the distal points of the limbs (from the elbow joint or the knee joint to the fingers) and on the face is accompanied by the activation of a considerably larger number of nerve elements than when stimulating the points on the trunk. The distal points belong to the zones that offer a wide range of effects. This is perhaps why Russian healing rituals against various diseases use the arms, hands, fingers, elbows, knees and the face. Washing the hands and shaking water off, washing the face or sprinkling it with magic water are almost indispensable attributes of many healing rituals.

People in northern Russian villages still believe that if a baby does not sleep at night he or she is bothered (“tagged along”) by a mythological character called “Polunochnitsa” (a night owl). Treatment of Polunochnitsa (insomnia) in children was often accompanied by working on their heels, for example, by putting a cross in the center of the heel with tar oil using a kindling wood. Tatiana Mironovskaya, a famous healer from Borok village in Vinogradovsky district of Arkhangelsk Region, performed the following ritual for a child suffering insomnia where his mother complained that he “confused the day with the night”: She oiled the heels of the sick child with vegetable oil and attached them to the warm oven, while saying the following spell:

“Polunochnitsa of the night, Polunochnitsa of the day, let alone mine, don’t bother mine or I will burn yours”.

As was indicated above, Chinese medicine also treats similar diseases by manipulating the point in the center of the heel.

Treating the heels with heat is also used in another ritual aimed at getting rid of Polunochnitsa. In the Russian North, there is a healing ritual for insomnia which is performed by two persons, a healer and the mother of a sick child. The healer “plows with a hearth broom” (sweeps with a broom) in the oven to the extent that hot sparks remain on the broom, and then uses it to “flog” the patient (moving it along the child’s body from the head to the foot), with a particular emphasis on the heels of the child. The participants of the ritual have the following conversation:

“What are you flogging?” “I’m flogging Polunochna so that it never comes back.”

The symbolic meaning of the ritual is to expel the disease out of the child’s body to the outside world.

It is believed that some diseases are inflicted by word, for example, “uroks” (from recti, to speak). A mother or a healer “licks” “uroks” (a nervous disease accompanied by convulsions) off the sick child’s forehead with their tongue. According to traditional Chinese medicine, manipulating the point in the center of the forehead can relieve headaches and convulsions in children.

Bloodletting by horse doctors

Biologically active zones were also acted upon by bloodletting. People believed that blood is the most important substance in the human body. According to folk beliefs, blood was “spoiled” by illness. It was believed that “bad blood” is a cause of many diseases, such as headaches, eye diseases, increased blood pressure, etc. Peasants used to say: “My blood has tired me out. My blood makes me restless.” “Bad blood” had to be released. Bloodletting was done by horse doctors. Those were specialists who wandered around villages, castrating cattle (pigs, horses and rams) and treating diseases. Each strolling horse doctor had a leather bag with lots of straps, metal rings and locks. It was seen not only as a symbol of their occupation, but also a repository of magical power — devils. In the same bag where they carried their tools for castration, horse doctors also kept a cow horn which was used for bloodletting. It was a common practice to let blood from the points located at the back of the neck in elderly people suffering from headaches and hypertension. Bloodletting was also known among other Slavic people. For example, the Montenegrins let blood from cuts on the neck in order to cure headaches. What is worth reminding is that Chinese specialists use needles to work on the point located between the first and second neck bones to treat headaches and dizziness.

The Russians used the following method of bloodletting: A cut was made on the skin, and the blood was first sucked through a cow horn with the lips, and then it flowed on its own. To relieve headaches, blood was released from the point located on the forehead between the eyebrows. In Chinese acupuncture, the point located in the center of the forehead is also worked on to treat headaches. In patients with headaches, horse doctors also let blood from “sokolok”, a vein on the thumb, while Chinese acupuncturists work on the point located between the first and second metacarpal bones to treat heavy headaches.

In case of the evil eye, blood was let from the veins on the elbow. It was believed that the blood from the entire body (known as seredovaya, i.e. located in the center) was accumulated in the elbow arteries. Interestingly, in eastern tradition, the point at the bend of the elbow is worked on in order to treat mental disorders. To cure aching legs, horse doctors let blood from the subcutaneous veins on the thumb “delyanka” (compare: in Chinese medicine, working on the point located on the medial metatarsal artery is indicated for pains in the foot). Another similarity between Russian and Eastern medicine is that both used a seasonal approach to bloodletting, usually performing it in the spring or autumn.

Bloodletting was also used to treat people possessed by demons. According to folk beliefs, a demon could be implanted into someone by a sorcerer with an evil intent. During a church service when the Gospels were read and the Cherubic Hymn was sung, such sick people (referred to as klikushaor ikotnitsa) could have seizures resembling epileptic attacks. Klikushas produced sounds resembling animal cries or they spoke in a different voice on behalf of the demon. They became so incredibly strong that several men could not cope with them. The “demon” caused them incredible suffering. During seizures, their heel was cut to let the blood out. It was believed that the implanted demon would go out together with the blood. In the East, to treat epileptiform seizures, a needle was inserted into the points located on the foot.

The Russians had another way to ease the suffering experienced by a klikusha, at least for a while. During a seizure, one had to take their little finger and squeeze it tightly (compare: working on the point located on the tip of the finger is indicated for epileptiform seizures).

* * * * *

In a healing ritual, magical and rational elements are intertwined so closely that it is very difficult to extract knowledge about the extent to which the Russian tradition knew the functions of certain areas (zones) of the body, working on which could cure a number of diseases. Often, magical concepts were predominant. It was believed that a spell was the main remedy. It was believed that a pike would gnaw out and take away a hernia into the underground world or that a demon would go out of the patient’s body together with the blood through bloodletting. Acting upon biologically active points of the body was seen by healers as a supplemental, albeit compulsory, element of a ritual that must be performed. It was consecrated by tradition — “this is something that has to be done”, “this is what my grandmother did”. They were firmly convinced that the patient will only be healed if they precisely perform all the elements of the healing ritual.

Knowledge of the points to be worked on in treating a certain disease was transferred as a matter of tradition. It should be regarded as explicit knowledge (Polanyi, 1966). Knowledge of the points may be defined as “technical knowledge” which includes constant iterations of activities and skills that an individual had and is difficult to formalize in the form of prescriptions. However, it plays an important role in shaping the “secret” knowledge of Russian ritual specialists.


Luvsan G. (1986) Tradicionnye i sovremennye aspekty vostochnoj refleksoterapii[Traditional and Modern Aspects of Eastern Reflexology], Moscow, Nauka.

Mazalova N.E. (2001) Sostav chelovecheskij. CHelovek v tradicionnyh somaticheskih predstavleniyah russkih[Human Composition. Man in Traditional Somatic Ideas of the Russians], St. Petersburg, Peterburgskoye Vostokovedeniye [St. Petersburg Oriental Studies].

Polanyi M.[1966] The Tacit Dimension.London, Routledge.

This article is available in full version in Russian

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