Monday, March 8, 2021

International Women's Day: Woman healers

It has become a tradition on the blog to post lists of folktales centered on women for International Women's Day. I did Badass Grandmas and Women Helping Women, and this year I thought it would be fitting to give a shout out to some of the many spectacular woman healers of myth and lore. Here we go!

(Links in the titles, as usual)

The daughters of Asklepios (Greece)

More personifications than active characters in mythology, the daughters of the God of Medicine represented various parts of the healing process. Their mother was Epione, the Goddess of the Soothing of Pain. Myths tell of five sisters: Hygieia (Health), Panakeia (Panacea - Medicine, Cure), Iaso (Remedy), Aigle (Radiance), and Akeso (Healing process). They also had brothers, making up a large, divine extended medical family. 

Eileithyia (Greece)

Greek goddess of childbirth (sometimes there is more than one of her). In mythology, she travels from the Far North to the island of Delos to help Leto deliver her twins, Apollo and Artemis. There is also a fun story about how she was tricked by a handmaid at Herakles' birth.

The Witch of the Forgotten Island (Scottish Travelers)

I read the tale of The Snake Shirt in this new collection, and fell in love with it. A prince gets a cursed shirt from his stepmother that turns into a snake and tries to crush him. He travels far and has many adventures until he finds the Witch of the Forgotten Island, the only one who can save him. He falls in love with her daughter, and the two women together find a way to rid him of the snake.

Bebind (Ireland)

Bebind is a fae woman, one of the Tuatha de Danann, who heals the hero Caoilte Mac Ronan after he receives a serious chest wound. In the book I linked above there is the full story of how the cures him while also demanding he fight for her people in exchange. It even has some love-hate romance woven in. Cool story.

Airmed (Ireland)

Another woman of the Tuatha de Danann, Airmed is the daughter of Dian Cécht, the God of Healing. Together with her brothers she helps her father treat the wounded during the war between the Tuatha and the Fomorians. When her father kills her brother, she mourns for him, and from her tears spring 365 different kinds of healing plants and herbs. She organizes them all, but her angry father mixes them up, so no one knows which can be used for what, except Airmed.  

He Xiangu (China)

Chinese immortal known for her association with health and healing; the only female member of the famous Eight Immortals. In one tale she disguises herself as a mortal girl and helps young Lan Caihe (a gender-fluid singer who later joins her as a member of the Eight) figure out how to cure a wounded man. Her symbol is the lotus flower that promotes good health.

The fairy midwives 

This is not a single story, but rather an international folktale type. It usually features a midwife who is spirited away by fairies or other supernatural creatures to help with a difficult birth. When she does, the supernatural family usually rewards her handsomely in some way (but if she goes to far, they can punish her too). 

Yirang Pamo (Bhutan)

This powerful female shaman features in a very interesting Bhutanese legend. On her way home across the mountains one day she meets a young woman who begs her to come help her sick son. The woman turns out to be a spirit, and her son has wounds caused by mustard seeds: he made a human to fall ill, and when he was exorcised by a healer the exorcism left him sick. Not sure how to heal a spirit of illness, Yirang Pamo prays to the guardian spirits of humans for forgiveness. The boy gets better, and the mother hands a cow to the shamaness in return. The cow, however, later on transforms into a giant rat. Rude.

Hiiaka (Hawaii)

In Hawaiian mythology Hiiaka is a powerful goddess of dancing, magic, and medicine, and the younger sister of the volcano goddess Pele. She fights demons and defeats monsters in many amazing stories. In one of them she meets some girls mourning their drowned father, and she takes it upon herself to find his ghost, and slap it back into his body in an elaborate ritual.

Saint Elizabeth of Hungary 

A princess born in 1207, Elizabeth was married off to a son of the Landgrave of Thuringia very young. Her most famous miracle is the Miracle of the Roses: she was sneaking bread to poor people in secret, and when she was caught, the stolen food turned into flowers in her apron. After her husband's death she founded a hospital and worked as a nurse, caring for many patients herself. She is the Catholic patron saint of hospitals, nurses, mothers, wives, and loving care.

Crescentia (Germany)

This medieval romance gave its name to an entire folktale type (ATU 712). The story revolves around a noblewoman who is repeatedly (innocently) accused of adultery and murder, and goes through a whole lot of trials and hardships. Eventually she gains great healing powers, and her enemies come to her to be cured from various illnesses. At the end of her life she attains peace by retiring to a convent. 

Pari Gongju (Korea)

Also known as Princess Bari/Pari, she is the ancestor of shamans in Korean tradition. As a seventh daughter, she is abandoned by her father, but later on when the king gets sick she is summoned back to court to heal him. She sets out on a long and adventurous journey to the Otherworld for magic healing water; she saves her sick parents, and becomes a goddess of shamans and the companion of souls on their journey to the other side. 

Anne Jefferies (Cornwall)

Anne was a famous healer in the 17th century, who allegedly got her magic healing powers from the fairies, who abducted her into their own realm for a while when she was nineteen years old. She was almost accused of witchcraft for her powers, but she survived and lived to a ripe old age. According to the stories, she never accepted any payment for her healing services. 

Biddy Early (Ireland)

A legendary woman from the 19th century who made her way into the folklore of Co. Clare as an herbalist and a clairvoyant. She was an expert of healing plants and folk remedies, worked spells, and knew a lot about fairy lore. There are entire books written about her. (See this one too.)

You have more stories that are not included in the list? Add them in the comments!

After this list of legendary ladies, let's give a shout out to all women working in healthcare and medicine! Happy International Women's Day!

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