Methods employed by folk healers are varied and eclectic, consisting of herbalism, medicinal diet advocacy, massage, magical objects, as well as shamanic and Buddhist elements such as pulse treatment, prayers, cleansing rituals, and divination. Magical objects include medicinal stones, metals, animal bones, meteorite fragments, silver and copper coins, sticks, rosaries, lamps filled with oil, a Buddhist bell and vajra, statues and depictions of deities, etc. As a repository of diverse knowledge, the institution of folk healers employs a number of assumptions about the causes of illness or misfortune. For example, depending on the patient, sometimes folk healers work on the assumption that illnesses are caused by the dissatisfied or angry spirit of a deceased relative. Once the needs of this spirit are satisfied – for example, by offering food if the cause of the spirit’s dissatisfaction happens to be hunger – the patient is expected to return to health. Another healing method is used when a child becomes frightened or psychotic. Firstly, the head of the child is covered with a white sheet. Then a piece of melted lead is poured into a bowl with cold water held by another person above the head of the child. When the lead cools down, the folk healer takes it out to read for the shape(s) which indicate what the fear was – for example, a dinosaur or a dog. Afterwards, the shapes are destroyed with a hammer, signifying the destruction of the cause of fear or phobia. The child is advised not to watch cartoons with dinosaurs or keep away from dogs. Magical objects such as meteorite fragments (called ‘dragon’s arrow’), animal bones, and saiga horns are used to cure various tumors and bone growths.
Alexandr Tarancheev, Healing Methods and Incantations
Alexandra says that one day her son went to see Shurgan lama. During the session the lama said to him that the wheel in his car had a problem. Indeed, when her son went out to check his car, everything turned out as it had predicted by the lama.
About traditional medicine. A stick of maple tree is good to subdue a pain in the joints or in the breast. A saiga antelope’s horn is good for a tumor or a headache.
She points out that people should not receive religious objects, such as rosaries, without repaying the giver. In the end, Alexandra shows how to tie a rosary.
Alexandra Sangadzhieva, Shurgan Lama, Folk Medicine and a Rosary
Alexei talks about how copper coins collected from the ground were used by folk healers to cure sick children.
Question: How did people build houses? How did they choose the land for construction?
Alexei: People chose a pure land where people did not relieve themselves, did not drink vodka, did not walk.
Q: Would people consecrate the land with a sprinkle?
A: Yes, people uttered well wishes.
Q: Which well wishes did people say?
A: People tossed copper coins to the ground. Such coins were also used to cure sick children.
Q: Did people toss the coins before the construction work?
A: Yes. Afterwards, when they found the coins during the construction work, people kept these coins at home and put them on their altars.
Q: You mean, the coins that they found?
A: Yes, for this purpose people tossed copper coins on the ground in the first place.
Q: How did people move into their new homes?
A: They purified the new house with fire. The copper coins were then used to cure sick children.
Q: Did you see how sick children were cured with copper coins?
A: Yes, I did. A folk healer puts the child on the chair, and draws the coin along the child’s spinal cord, touches with the coin the child’s joints and hand palms. After that the healer gives the child hot fat to drink.
Alexei Naranov, About Curing Sick Children with Coins
In the past, Kalmyk milk tea and a soup made of sheep’s neck were used as medicine. Since many illnesses among the Kalmyks were connected with cold, or exacerbated by catching a cold, Kalmyk tea and soup were consumed widely, for they were believed to be good for colds. Folk healers also used various medicinal herbs.
Anatoliy Safinov, About Traditional Medicine
Anna relays a story she heard from her father-in-law who claimed to have found a luugin sum (a dragon’s arrow). There is a belief that only those who are supposed to find it, find a luugin sum. Having said this, not all who do find it can benefit equally. A luugin sum looks like a small lump of metal. It falls from the sky during lightening. Once fallen, it is only after about eight years that it resurfaces from under ground. The luugin sum is used in the treatment of swellings not only in humans but also in livestock. Especially cows and sheep that have their udder swollen, for example during suckling, can be effectively treated with a luugin sum by touching or massaging the swollen part with it. Anna keeps her father-in-law’s luugin sum on her domestic altar along with other gods. Sometimes she lends it to others in need. Anna points out that her luugin sum has helped many people. When people return the luugin sum they are supposed to give her white and red coins, which is a custom.
Anna heard from her father-in-law the following legend about luugin sum. Once upon a time monks prepared an elixir of longevity in a cup. While they were away, a dragon drank the elixir and filled the cup with its urine. Upon their return, the monks decided to shoot the dragon down. But the dragon flew high up beyond their reach to the sun. Since then the dragon returns to earth during solar eclipses. It is the arrow with which it was shot that falls from the sky.
Anna Mandzhieva, About Luugin Sum (A Dragon’s Arrow)
Badma says that when her family lived in Siberia her grandmother collected hare’s fat. It is good for both burns and frostbite. In Siberia people also drank hare’s fat and that of the ground squirrel. Since it is very cold in Siberia, hare’s fat was in great demand. A Tatar man, Badma recalls, would ask her grandmother to give him hare’s fat, which means that other nationalities were also aware of its medicinal qualities.
Badma Ochirova, About the Healing Properties of Hare’s Fat
Baira talks about two healing methods, namely khorglzh tsutkh (pouring lead) and amnya dol’g (substitution ritual).
When I was little, I had a ritual of ‘pouring lead’ performed on me. When small children are frightened of something, they cry all the time. In such situations Kalmyks melt lead on a fire, then pour it into a cup with cold water, which is held over the child’s head. In doing so the child’s head has to be covered with a white cloth. Once in water, the molten lead solidifies and takes the form of the object or creature that the child was frightened by.
My husband’s aunt, Nurgaeva Evdokia Sankaevna, performed this ritual on my eldest daughter. The cause of her fright was immediately revealed, so I was really amazed. Usually lead is poured three times. The child needs to be seated facing the door so that his/her fear leaves through the door.
A substitution ritual is done when a person is gravely ill or something happened to him/her during a trip. One of my nephews was wounded. I heard that he had this rite performed on him. He survived and is still alive.
Baira Goryaeva, About Traditional Healing Methods
Boris talks about how to perform a ritual to remove fear in children by melting lead. It is done as follows. A piece of lead is melted and poured into a bowl of water which is mixed with small amount of salt. The bowl has to be held above the patient’s head which should be covered with a white cloth. Once in cold water, lead takes various shapes that signify the source of fear. This process should be repeated three times. Afterwards, the lead is melted into a round shaped mass, wrapped in a white cloth and put under the child’s pillow for the night. The next morning the lead should be buried somewhere far away.
Boris Dochkaev, A Ritual to Remove Fear
Boris shows how to do fortune-telling using a stick.
One should hold a stick, measure a space equivalent to the width of two fingers, and from that point start doing cuts downwards on three sides of the stick. Then peel off three cuts at a time. The number of remaining cuts, that cannot be more than three, is used for fortune-telling. It is done as follows. Three cuts signify ‘closure’. Two cuts – ‘a road’, and one – ‘a joy’. For example, if one is to make divination regarding lost cattle, three cuts left on the stick means that ‘someone has closed the cattle somewhere’, two – ‘the cattle wanders by themselves or someone has taken them somewhere’, one – ‘the cattle will be found soon’.
Boris Dochkaev, Fortune-Telling with a Stick
Bosya talks about how she found a luugin sum (a dragon’s arrow). It looks like a small metallic object with a sharp end. Before picking it up, Bosya prayed three times. It is believed that luugin sum is good for toothache and other swellings. It also helps cows that have swollen udders. To cure a swelling or a lump on the skin, one has to prick that place with the sharp end of the luugin sum. Bosya kept her luugin sum wrapped in a red cloth, as tradition requires it. However, she did not keep the precious object for long, for she gave it to a folk healer called Volodya who convinced her that the luugin sum was not meant for her. Later Bosya learnt that the same Volodya also got hold of her uncle’s luugin sum. Bosya regrets her decision to give it away. People can borrow a luugin sum from each other, but are expected to compensate the owner with red and silver coins when they return the object.
Bosya also says that snake’s skin is good during childbirth. This story happened to a woman from her village in 1965. After giving birth, the woman had a pain in her stomach. After she drank a cup of water boiled with snake’s skin, her pain stopped. Cattle having a difficult birth are also treated with such water. In Kalmykia snakes are believed to be the embodiment of the masters of localities.
Other items used in traditional medicine include dog’s meat, ground squirrels’ fat, fat from the intestines of a pig and various herbs. Water mixed with milk or grain is also good for a cold.
Bosya Ochirova, About Traditional Medicine
This video features an interview with Bulyash about traditional healing methods.
Bulyash: Lamas read prayers. For example, when a child becomes sick, coughs or has temperature, people call a lama. Lamas are different. Some are doctors who specialize in curing sick children; there are lamas who read prayers; there are also lamas who cure with water and make a diagnosis by looking at one’s excrement. When babies get sick, lamas look at their urine and say things like ‘in your house you keep a foreign object, get rid of it’ or something. They read prayers and the sick babies recover.
Mergen: If a baby’s urine is yellow, what does this mean?
B: This means that the baby has fever. In the past, there was a lama-doctor specializing in children. People would bring him water, and he, after looking at the water, would give instructions, something like ‘give the baby a dietary food’ and then he would read prayers. The parents had to follow all the instructions if they wanted their children to recover. If a child was afraid of something, the monk used to perform a gavg ritual and read prayers. Things were like this in the past.
M: Grandma, what is gavg?
B: It is a ritual. A lama reads prayers and touches the head of the person for whom he reads. These prayers cure children’s illnesses. Gavg is a ritual to sort out complications.
M: What about a ritual of pouring lead?
B: By doing this I am actually pouring the fear away, you know. For example, a child is running, gets afraid of a cow or something, and starts crying. In this situation you need to pour hot lead over the child’s head 3 times. The lead turns into figures representing the source of the child’s fear.
M: Who pours the lead?
B: It is the child’s parents. The lama only says that ‘your child has been afraid of something, you need to pour lead’. First, lead is melted in a cup. One of the parents holds a bowl with cold water over the child. Once the lead is in the cold water, it turns into figures and shapes that the child was afraid of. This shape could be, for example, a cow or a person. Someone may have entered the room suddenly, freaking the child out. This ritual is performed 3 times and the child recovers. In the past the work of lama-doctors was difficult.
M: Grandma, how to cure a broken leg?
B: For this there were special people. They took a sheep’s skin, cleaned it and with its help collected the broken bones, putting them back in their place. Then they wrapped the limb with the skin. It served like a plaster.
M: With a sheep’s skin? How would a sheep’s skin be used on a leg?
B: For example, if someone broke a toe or twisted it, the toe was wrapped in a small sheep’s skin like a plaster. Between 1966 and 1968 in our village there was a healer. One day a man got drunk, fell, and broke a bone. His friends brought him to the healer. The healer, who was an old man, ordered the drunk man to stand up and walk. Healers were like this in the past.
M: Did healers heal people with their words or with their hands?
B: For example, if someone had pain in his hands, a healer would hold this patient’s wrist, read prayers, and then the pain would go away. There were special prayers for this.
M: When healers read prayers did they close their eyes while holding their patients’ hands?
B: Yes, they would take their patients by the hand, close their eyes and read prayers. Depending on the situation, they held their patients’ hands either tightly or loosely.
M: What about the back pain?
B: When someone had pain in the back, that person was asked to lay on his belly and was massaged with fists. Afterwards his back was covered with a sheep’s skin.
M: Should the skin be from a freshly killed sheep?
B: Yes, up to 3 days old. It should be moist. When you put it on the back, it sticks like glue. In several days time the sheep skin detaches by itself.
M: Grandma, how to cure a person who has his/her cranial suture displaced?
B: When you have headache, you go and see a healer. The healer measures your head with a thread and says: ‘You have your cranial suture displaced’. The healer fixes it with his hands and then bandages your head with a cloth.
M: Why does the cranial suture move?
B: From hits, if you hit your head against something. Not everyone experiences this. It happens rarely. You can determine whether it is the case by measuring one’s head.
M: How do you massage the head?
B: You bandage the patient’s head with a cloth and then look whether the suture sits correctly.
M: If it does not sit correctly, what can the healer do next?
B: If the head continues to ache, the healer looks at it again. The patient cannot take off the cloth and touch his/her head by himself/herself. In 3 days the healer measures the patient’s head again. That is how it was cured in the past. How they do it now, I don’t know. Perhaps they do x-rays, and a surgeon looks at it.
M: Grandma, sometimes when you wake in the morning there is a white layer on your tongue. What does it mean?
B: This occurs when you have fever. When I have fever, my mouth gets dry. In this case, just drink water and rinse your hands. In the past people ate dairy products, but today people eat a lot of sweet that does not necessarily suit everyone. As a consequence, it dries up the mouth. Rinse your teeth and drink water at room temperature.
M: When you feel a burning sensation in your chest or throat, what do you do?
B: You need to wake up early in the morning, boil water, add bit of salt, butter and drink for 3 mornings. Then it will go away. It is okay to drink during the day too. When you have a burning sensation, you feel sick. Water purifies you.
M: What is the cause of this?
B: Food. People who drink vodka rarely have this sensation. Perhaps vodka prevents it somehow. We, old people, have problem with digesting food. When you drink hot water or take a pill called mezim, it goes away.
M: How do you cure a cold?
B (misheard the question as ‘how to cure bad dreams?): In the past, when people had bad dreams, they went to see a lama who read prayers for them. Some old laymen could also read these prayers in case there were no lamas available.
M: When you feel a weight in your chest, how do you cure it?
B: There was a cure for this as well. It is when someone coughs and his/her chest pounds. I do not know exactly the cure, but people probably went to see a lama.
M: Are there mantras against bad dreams?
B: Yes, lamas read them. For every bad dream there is a mantra. There are also mantras from fear and chest pain. In the past, people went to the temple. When someone died a lama would come to read prayers.
M: How did people cure a cold?
B: Today they use pills. In the past, there were no pills. A person with a cold was put inside a winter coat so that he/she sweated. The person had to sweat for 3 nights.
M: What food did they give (to a person with a cold)?
B: When a person had a cold, he/she was not given any food. Sweet or fatty food was not given to patients either.
M: What did people drink who had a cold?
B: They drank tea and ate bread. They did not eat meat soup though. In the past, people were healthy because they lived in tents. In winter the floor was covered with a double felt layer. The walls too had a double felt layer. I myself saw tents and even went inside them to play. Every family had a tent.
Bulyash Chumudova, About Traditional Medicine
In this interview Dordzhi talks about folk healing methods applied to humans and horses.
Dordzhi: Let me tell you what I have heard about folk medicine. Kalmyks know the names of many diseases. In Kalmyk gout is kerkg gem and pox is called mu khatg.
Question: Do you know how to cure them?
Dordzhi: No, I don’t. When I was a child my mother fell ill. She had a headache, and the area below her eyes at her nose ached. After inspection, an astrologist from the Ik Khurul Temple said to a lama (who was also there): ‘She has got a strange ailment, I cannot define what it is’. Afterwards they smoked something and asked my mother to inhale it. It turned out she had sinusitis. My mother was cured in this way. When in Siberia, my brother had his teeth swollen, and suffered from scurvy (in Kalmyk khar yam). He was shown to many doctors. My mother, who believed Tatars to have powerful spells, took him to see an old Tatar women that read a spell 203 times, after which my brother’s health improved. Although he lost many teeth, he recovered. He was at the edge of death with his face and teeth swollen, his cheeks turning dark green.
Q: When a child had a fever or a toothache, how were they cured?
Dordzhi: For every ailment there was one panacea – mutton soup or cooked mutton (there was a belief that people fell ill because of bad diet). My mother told me that she was a sickly child and that her mother gave her soup made from the meat of three sheep. After eating the mutton and drinking the rich soup, she recovered. In my childhood, we did not keep sheep. My mother would ask me to buy meat at the market. By the way, there is one funny story. One day my friend, Leonid, went hunting. Since he had pus around his eyes, he attributed this to his bad diet and decided to eat mutton (and not the game that he had hunted). Another funny story. There was a Kalmyk man whose ears ached. Thinking that he was not eating properly, that man killed a sheep, made soup and cooked the meat. After eating the meat and drinking the soup he still had pain in his ears. He decided to kill a second sheep and eat it. But the pain in his ears did not go away. Finally, he decided to go to a Russian doctor who said that he had dirt in his ears. After cleaning his ears, the pain disappeared. Also, in our neighborhood there lived a woman who cured sick horses. Can I tell you about how people cured sick horses?
Q: Yes, please do.
Dordzhi: Her sons are still alive. Their mother – I forgot her name – was a good vet. She used penicillin. After her, Lag Otiev from Barun, a Torghut himself, cured horses in our place. Lag Otiev had powerful vets among his ancestors. Since my friend was his neighbor, we often went to see Lag Otiev. He told us all kinds of stories about how the Kalmyks were transported by train to Siberia and how Kalmyks cured horse diseases with hot iron. For example, sometimes horses may turn suddenly and twist their legs. Lag said that in this case the horse should be treated by applying hot iron on its muscle. Back then I was studying at a medical institute, and compared the modern medicine with the traditional one. Lag’s methods were similar in many ways to modern medicine. If a horse has its joint dislocated, for a human being it is impossible to put it back. When you burn the horse’s muscle with hot iron, it gets loose and relaxed. At this point you need to push the dislocated joint back into its place. This is a Kalmyk method.
One day one of Baatr Gedeev’s mares began to limp. Lag determined that it was because of the dislocated thighs. He took its tail, wrapped it around the thighs and asked two men to pull the tail when someone pulls the mare in the opposite direction. After this, the thighs fell into its place. He was a very good vet. In the past, people used strange healing methods. For example, sick horses were smoked with a burning old shoe sole. Or when horses limped they were driven into muddy water and made to stand there. Today we understand that Kalmyks had many methods to cure sick animals. My father knew the names of cattle diseases that I do not know.
Q: When cows had a tumor on their neck…
Dordzhi: I do not know about cows. People have tumor on their neck. It is called nyazr in Kalmyk. Kalmyks still use folk methods. My mother has pain in her knees. Recently my older brother invited a healer from Elista. The healer said that he would warm up her knees. He nearly burnt her knees. Why? Because people have forgotten traditional methods.
Dordzhi Nandyshev, About Folk Medicine
Dzhidzha relays a story about how her mother performed a ritual of removing fear on her children which involved melted tin.
The ritual is performed as follows. A piece of tin is melted in a metal scoop. Then the tin is poured into a big bowl of water diluted with butter. The bowl is held over the head of the patient, then at the level of the forehead and then at the throat. In the water the liquid tin consolidates and takes various forms that are believed to represent the source of fear (i.e. animals, birds, etc.). After this the child spits into the bowl three times. Three pinches of ash from the oven are added to it. After the contents are poured far away, the bowl is left outside the house for three days.
Dzhidzha Araeva, A Ritual Involving Melted Tin
Ekaterina cures sick children. She says that she first heard about her curing abilities from an old woman called Bosya who lived in the village of Dzhalykovo. Being a teacher herself, Ekaterina did not believe what the old woman said. Bosya gave Ekaterina a coin with which she was supposed to massage sick children and said that Ekaterina’s healing gift came from her mother. She also asked Ekaterina to sew a pink robe. Ekaterina did what she was asked to do and came back to see the old woman. Bosya explained to her how to cure sick children. For example, if a child cries and bends her/his neck, stretch the child’s legs and hands and metaphorically cut the belly with the coin. The child will gradually calm down. If a child is scared of something, the following ritual should be performed. Cover the head of the child with a white cloth, hold a cup with cold water over the child’s head and pour hot lead into the cup. The figures that form in the water (people, animals, objects etc.) indicate the source of fear. The sore eyes of children should be treated with their mother’s milk. Ekaterina says that she received her healing knowledge from Bosya.
The reason for children’s illnesses may be envious looks from others. Since children are pure and innocent, even envious words can harm them. The face of a sick child should be cleaned with the skirt of their mothers. According to Kalmyk tradition, newborn babies should not be shown to strangers until they are a year old. The first bath of a child should be performed in a bathtub placed on four red bricks so that the child grows strong and healthy. The people who bath the baby should be their mothers and paternal grandmothers. During the first haircut boys’ hair should be shaven completely and kept in the house.
Ekaterina Boldyreva, Healing and Upbringing Children
In this interview Ekaterina says that in the past traditional medicine was very limited.
Ekaterina: In the past, there was no medicine. When children had a fever, they were quarantined. Since there was no medicine, people boiled water, added flour and drank it. There were no doctors either. The sick who were destined to recover, recovered. Others died.
Question: How did people cure toothache?
Ekaterina: In the past, there were no methods. Teeth rotted away and simply fell out.
Q: How did people cure sores?
Ekaterina: People went to see folk healers who applied hot butter to sores and burned the soars off. Syphilis was cured in this way. Simple soars were not treated, but were left to heal by themselves. I heard so, although I was never treated by the ‘burn off’ method.
Ekaterina Zhuzhaeva, About Traditional Medicine
Elza says that in the past people used boiled water and herbs for treatment. A liter of water was boiled down to 200 mg and drunk. People also added various herbs to their drink. Elza herself keeps some medicinal herbs at home. In the past there were no hospitals or doctors in Kalmykia.
Kalmyks have a healing ritual involving hot lead. Once Elza celebrated her anniversary where she wore her medals. After that she fell ill. Her daughter took her to a folk healer who performed this ritual. The healer melted lead, poured it into a cup with cold water and saw the lead take the form of human tongues. After the ritual Elza says she recovered. Elza tells how to perform this particular ritual: ‘Melt a piece of lead in a pot, cover the head of the patient with a white cloth, and pour the molten lead into a cup with salty water, which has to be held over the patient’s head. Once in water the lead sets and takes on the form of whatever has caused the illness. For example, jealousy can take the form of human tongues.
Elza Badaeva, About Folk Medicine
In this video Galina performs a ritual to remove fear. For this she melts a piece of lead on a gas stove. Her patient is a girl who suffers from anxiety. The girl’s mother covers the head of her daughter with a white cloth and holds a cup with cold water over her head. Then Galina pours the hot lead into the cup. The lead freezes into forms that resemble dinosaurs and prickly objects. Galina takes these figures out of the cup, puts them on the table and destroys them with a hammer, which symbolizes the destruction of the source of fear and anxiety. If the patient experiences a high level of anxiety, this ritual can be performed three times on three consecutive days. One can recycle and use the same piece of lead for these rituals.
If anxious children are not treated, they may become ill, cry and throw their heads back. This ritual of removing fear can be performed on toddlers, children and grown-ups alike.
Another ritual to remove fear, which Galina performs on the girl, is done with matches. She lights a match and moves it clockwise over the head, shoulders and the back of the patient. Galina explains that this should be done 9 times with 9 matches. She puts the 9 burnt matches into a cup with clean water one by one. Then she gives the bowl to the girl to blow the surface of the water. Then Galina looks at how the matches are floating and which direction their burnt heads are facing. Galina says that this ritual can be seen as a purification with a fire.
Galina Badnyaeva, Rituals to Remove Fear and Evil Eye
Galina talks about how her grandparents healed people. This is her story:
In the olden days folk healers, who lived in every settlement, used special methods (domnkh). When I was a child, there were already no folk healers around anymore, and people were treated by medical assistants.
In the past, when a small child got frightened of something and cried a lot, in the evening my grandfather used to put a cup of water, melt tin or lead in a pan, and then pour the metal into the cold water. The lead always took the form of what the child was afraid of, and my grandfather always correctly determined the source of fear. My grandfather never entrusted this ritual to others, and always did it himself. My grandmother also performed the ritual of amnya dol’g (substitution). She would take a piece of dough and rub the front and then the back of the patient with it. After having whispered some incantations to the dough, she could say what the reason for the disease was. After the ritual she would throw the dough into the rooftop for birds to eat.
Galina Mamonova, About Folk Healing Methods
Galina talks about two medicinal herbs, namely shagan budg (silverweed) and sharljn (wild grass).
Shagan budg grows in Kalmykia. It is good for coughs. People with tuberculosis must drink an infusion made from it. The herb grows in April and May in places where sheep graze. It is collected as follows. After a sheep steps on it, bring the herb home and dry it. Then boil it in water to make a medicinal drink.
Sharljn, by contrast, does not grow in Kalmykia but is imported from Tibet. That is why it is an expensive herb. People with tuberculosis should drink it, especially when they have a lung inflammation.
Galina Suikieva, About Medicinal Plants
In her childhood Gerel witnessed in Lagan' how sick people were cured with leeches that were collected from the local lake. In Gerel’s native village there is a hydrogen sulphate spring which is good for mosquito bites. But the spring is poisonous and many children in the village suffered from goiter.
Gerel says melted butter was widely used in the treatment of many diseases. People smeared their hair with butter, massaged their ailing joints and drank butter with Kalmyk tea (which is believed to be good for breastfeeding mothers). Also, soup from mutton or wolf’s meat is believed to help to recuperate.
People made a decoction from wormwood to cure alcoholism. Alcoholics were also treated with powdered lobster shell.
When she was a child Gerel was frightened and had seizures. An old woman treated Gerel with a coin: she drew a line with the coin along Gerel’s arms and body, imitating a cutting movement. Another woman performed a ritual consisting of pouring melted lead into water. To cure Gerel’s seizure, healers also massaged her head and face.
Gerel’s furunculosis was cured with sulphuric ointment made from various ingredients, including pig’s fat.
Since traditional medicine helped her, Gerel has a respect for those who practice it.
Gerel Shakeeva, Traditional Medicine
Sometimes small children have fever or they cry without any reason. The elders say that a child was frightened of something. To cure from a fright, people perform a ritual of removing fear. It is done as follows: parents take the child in their arms and cover the child’s head with a white cloth. At that time the lead is melted. A bowl with cold water is held over the child’s head and the hot lead is quickly poured into the water. The lead takes the form of the cause of fear.
If a child has an evil eye, nine matches are lit and moved around the child’s body. Then the burnt matches are thrown into a cup with water, if matches drown then it is definitely an evil eye. Then the child’s face is washed with the water from the cup, then the child spits three times in the remaining water, which is then poured outside in the easterly direction. People did this. I do not know other methods of curing.
There was also a ritual of prolonging one’s life. If there was no possibility to go to a temple then this special ritual would be carried out at home. Ulankin Sandhzi himself, a gelyung, told us so, especially for women. This ritual is conducted as follows: one needs to cut nails from feet and hands, cut off some hair and bury all this in a place where people do not walk. It can be close to the root of a tree or under the fence. This is the ritual of prolonging one’s life.
As for traditional medicine, for high temperature Kalmyks consume kimr. Consuming kimr was similar to fasting. Kimr was made of milk and water, people drank it until the temperature subsided. Another medicine is shirgyamr: one litre of water should be evaporated to half a litre. Probably, sodium was produced by boiling the water.
Ksenia Kardonova, Traditional Medicine and Rituals
Not far away from where Maria lives is a well called Kets where water is believed to have medicinal properties. People from far away come here for water. In the past people who carried the water from the well were not supposed to greet others on their way home. Toddlers that had a temperature were given a cloth to suck had been dipped in the medicinal water.
Maria Dordzhieva, About Medicinal Water
Maria talks about folk medicine.
Maria: I make shirgmr myself. When food does not digest well, I drink shirgmr early in the morning. I boil water until half of it reduces. Then I add a bit of salt and butter and mix it.
Darina: Is there such a thing as boiled vodka?
M: Yes, there is. Add 100 grams of vodka to the same amount of water and boil until half of the content shrinks. This drink is used to cure a cough.
D: Do you drink kimr?
M: It is boiled water mixed with milk. It is given to people who suffer from foot convulsions so that they do not have fever. We Kalmyks are heavy people. Our elders used to say that we came from Mongols. That is why we are heavy. The Russians, by contrast, came from sea foam. That is why they are light and white. When we eat sweet food, it affects our legs. After giving birth, women should eat light food. That is what our elders said. They gave us boiled water mixed with milk. When I gave a birth, my grandmother brought me a bucket with such drink. The Russian women laughed at me, saying, ‘Masha, stand up quickly and have something to eat. Otherwise your grandmother will bring a bucket full of water’.
D: Was meat soup used as a remedy?
M: Some people used it. This is how I make it. I cut 400 grams of meat - do not wash it - and put the meat into water and boil it. The meat is as tasteless as a rug. When Yura fell ill, I cured him so.
D: What about a snake’s horn?
M: With a snake’s horn people cured sore throat or ill children. My mother told me that after she gave birth to me, she collected soil from an ant’s colony. When babies have a bath this soil should be added into their bath water. So, when my mother went out to get some soil she came across a snake with a yellow belly that crawled into its hole. She said a prayer and picked up the snake’s horn. This horn is good for sore throat, as well as for swellings. When a cow’s udder swells, people cure it with a snake’s horn.
D: Have you heard of a ‘devil’s nail’?
M: Yes, I did, though I do not know how to take a nail from him (i.e. the devil). He must have given it away himself.
D: What about a ‘dragon’s arrow’?
M: Yes. It falls from the sky after thunder. I heard that recently in Chkalovo, dragon’s arrows fell from the sky.
D: In the past, how did the Kalmyks heal legs?
M: An old woman who lives nearby told me that when she had pain in her legs her mother used to make her a compress from melted butter. After that her legs never ached again. People also make a compress from urine. Some even drink it.
D: When do people drink urine?
M: When they have gastritis, pain in the stomach.
Maria Erdnieva, About Folk Medicine
In this short interview Maria talks briefly about how people cured their children in Siberia.
Maria: In Siberia when children fell ill or had fever, how did we cure them? As far as I remember we gave them shimrg, i.e. boiled water with oats.
Saglara: What is shimrg?
M: You take 3 cups of water and boil it. We cured so. God looked after us - every nomadic settlement had a healer. Healers cured people secretly. Sometimes parents cured their children themselves. We also cut coins from the edge and massaged the joints with butter.
S: During childbirth - there were no doctors. Were there?
M: We looked for midwives who were old women. The fact that there were no doctors was not obvious.
Maria Lidzhigoryaeva, About Folk Medicine
In the past, everyday treatment was simple: the wound was burnt and sprinkled with ash, for example. People also used urine as a saline solution. When sick, people drank mutton broth and consulted with lamas. For fever people drank boiled water or water mixed with oats. This improved the heart muscle. Diseases often originated from dirty hands, dysentery, and infections. Since surgery did not exist, people died of internal diseases. Child mortality was high.
Mikhail Erentsenov, About Traditional Healing Methods
Oleg says that he heard about sweating stones from the Kalmyk writer Sandzhi Kalyaev, who spent his entire life looking for an elixir of immortality. These stones, the whereabouts of which Oleg cannot recall, produce a droplet every half an hour. These droplets, which are believed to be medicinal, are salty and sour by taste. In the past, old men collected these droplets in small bottles. Oleg’s father also collected such droplets and mixed them with something, probably with seeds of some kind.
In Yashaltinskiy rayon of Kalmykia there is one salty lake that has medicinal mud. In a laboratory in Moscow it was established that this mud has medicinal properties.
Oleg Mandzhiev, About Sweating Stones and Medicinal Mud
Purvya talks about a ritual to cure people with amnesia or who have lost their soul. She also talks about the medicinal property of spring water that flows near the famous Poplar Tree.
Purvya: In the past, such people were cured with the help of prayers. People who suffer from amnesia are like walking dead. Confused, lost, and uncomprehending, they walk and walk. This means they must have lost their soul as well. In order to return the soul to such individuals, you need to cut a sheep. During this ritual, a lama would read prayers. Afterwards someone would take a hat with a large tibia bone attached to it, and go out to the back yard, waving his hands and shouting: ‘Hey, come here, I am here!’ At that moment the lost soul would return to the individual.
My parents are from Orgakin. I was also born there. The land is situated near a big tree. I always wanted to be buried in my native place. My paternal uncle, Ochir Boldyrev, lives there. One day he sent us a message saying that a big ritual was going to happen at their local temple. 4 of us went there by car. At the ceremony we ate food and watched a concert. The head of the village, a young guy, organized everything well. From there we went to see the big tree (i.e. the famous Single Poplar). There we read prayers and fetched water from a nearby spring. My daughter-in-law is a diabetic. She used this medicinal water. She had a sore on her finger that grew bigger and bigger until they cut off her finger. Before treatment the medicinal water has to be diluted 50-50 with normal water. After treatment, she has not had a single sore. This water has to be taken from the spring at certain times – either in spring or summer.
Tsagan: Was the tree planted by Purdash himself?
Purvya: People say that he planted it himself. You must have been there before. Its branches are very wide.
Purvya Volod'kina, How to Cure People Who Have Lost Their Soul or Suffer From Amnesia
Roman heard from elderly people that in the past the Kalmyks dried the wolf’s gall bladder, turned it into powder and mixed it with food. A fresh gall bladder was also mixed with bread pieces and refrigerated to be consumed later in small portions. The gall is believed to be good for lung inflammation and pneumonia.
If a wolf’s skin was damaged and not fit for use, the skin around the wolf’s mouth, usually that of a female one, was cut off to use it in the following ritual. Toddlers were passed through this piece of skin in a belief that this keeps them healthy.
Roman also heard that the wolf’s genitals are used in the treatment of infertility. The male’s genitals are used for the treatment of men’s infertility and that of female wolves for women.
The wolf’s lung and liver are also believed to have medicinal properties. They are fried wrapped in the wolf’s own fat.
Roman Lyariev, Traditional Medicine: Wolf
Roza talks about her grandmother who cured sick children by using traditional methods. This is her story:
I would like to tell you about my maternal grandmother. Her name was Nyudlya. She died when she was 80. I grew up with my grandmother in Jangar village. My grandmother had 6 children. During Tsagan Sar her children paid her a visit. My grandmother welcomed them all and gave them red and yellow coins as a present. My grandmother read prayers, used prayer beads, and cured sick children. Before seeing her patients, she would lay out a white cloth to put the children on. She would use a longish white thread to measure their heads. She massaged the back of their head with hot butter. Afterwards she stretched their arms and massaged their legs 3 times. After this, her patients recovered. Children with different problems came to see her: with headaches or those who had their cranial suture displaced. My grandmother examined their heads from all angles, measured their ears, the back of their head and eyebrows. She made children feel better by touching them.
Roza Khokhlova, About Traditional Medicine
Sanal talks about traditional healing methods involving a ‘snake’s horn’, wolf’s meat, and a gallbladder.
Sanal: There are people who believe in signs and behave cautiously. I, for example, am not afraid of snakes. I touch them, hold them in my hands. In my native place people cure with snake horns. There are snakes with horns. I heard this from our elders. If you see a snake with horns, put a white cloth in front of it, read prayers and bow 3 times. Then it will shed its horn. That is what I heard from the elders.
Darina: What did people do with these snake horns?
S: Healers used horns to heal sick people. They massaged their patients and scratched them with a horn.
D: Do you know a healer who does this?
S: I know one person who cures sick children. When I was a child, there was also one elderly man.
D: Do people use wolf’s meat?
S: In the past people ate wolf’s meat less. Today they do. The meat is very expensive. It is good for a cough. People also use the wolf’s gallbladder.
S: A dried gallbladder is cut into tiny pieces and then it is diluted with water. You drink it. You can also put it on your tongue and then wash it down with water.
D: When do you drink it, before or after a meal?
S: When your stomach is empty, before a meal.
Sanal Lidzhiev, About Traditional Medicine
When people, no matter what their age, are afraid of something, a ritual is performed to deal with their fear. It is performed as follows. After a mantra, the head of the patient is covered with a white cloth and a vessel with water is held over their head. Then melted lead is poured into the vessel. The ritual is performed three times. In Kalmyk understanding there are 5 elements in nature, including a fire, water, air, earth and metal. During this ritual all the 5 elements are believed to interact with each other, thus producing a splash of energy which cleanses the frightened person.
Sangadzhi Kononov, About a Ritual to Remove Fear
Apart from supernatural powers, people could be affected negatively by other human beings. For example, people envy each other. Envy or jealousy turns into a negative energy and blocks the life of the person who is the object of the envy. People who are envied feel that something is not completely right with them. In this case, it is advisable to perform a special ritual of pouring melted lead into a vessel with water.
When people say good things about others, this may attract malign supernatural beings to the recipients of these praises. That is why the Kalmyks give bad names to their children in order to keep malign beings away. Such names include Nokha (a dog), Gakha (a pig) etc.
When people say bad things about others, it is not good either for the person to whom it is directed. If a person reads mantras of cutting evil tongues, prays with beads and lights candles on fasting days (matsg odr), this diminishes the effect of evil tongues.
In order to protect oneself from envious looks the following ritual has to be performed. Prepare a bowl with water and purify it with incenses. Prepare 9 matches. Light the first match. The person for whom the ritual is being performed has to look at the burning match. When the match burns out, throw it into the bowl by saying ‘khar nudn’ (the black eye). When the second match burns out, say ‘shar nudn’ (the yellow eye) and throw it into the bowl. The third match should be accompanied by the phrase ‘kok nudn’ (the blue eye). Do this three times (3 x 3 = 9). If the matches drown in the water vertically, this means that the patient has been affected by something negative. Afterwards, move the bowl over the head of the patient three times, both clock-wise and anti-clock-wise. Give the water to the patient to drink and then sprinkle it on the patient’s face, arms and legs. Then take a knife and make a movement three times as if you are cutting the surface of the water that is left in the bowl, while saying the following phrase three times – ‘khar kelyan uttulzhanav’. After the ritual, pour the water where people go or cars drive by, while wishing that all the negativity that has been absorbed in the water goes away by being picked up by the legs of by-passers. Turn the bowl upside down and leave it outside for a day.
Sangadzhi Kononov, About Rituals to Avert Evil Tongues and Jealous Eyes
In a place where thunder hits the ground one can find small metal objects that resemble the head of an arrow. In Kalmykia these objects are referred to as lugin sum (the dragon’s arrow) and are used in the treatment of both sick animals and people. It is believed that a lugin sum contains powerful energy.
Snakes with horns come to some people. If you see one, put a white cloth on the ground and pray to the snake. The snake will throw off its horns. These horns are also used for the treatment of sick people.
Sangadzhi Kononov, Healing Implements: The Dragon's Arrow and the Snake's Horn
One woman had a son who grew up, got married and had a son of his own. That child cried nonstop. The woman understood that her daughter-in-law had watery milk and that the baby cried out of hunger. She went to the market and bought fat from a sheep’s tail. One evening her son said: ‘Mama, we are going to the cinema, could you look after your grandson?’ The woman relied: ‘Of course, off you go’. As soon as the young couple were gone, the woman boiled the fat and gave it to the baby. The baby sucked it and slept without interruption until the next morning. This is a real Kalmyk tradition.
Today people say many strange things like ‘don’t eat this or that, because it is fatty’. Let people eat whatever meat or fat they want. Not long ago someone asked me whether I eat honey. I replied that I do not eat anything sweet. As a real Kalmyk, I drink milk tea with butter, eat bread with butter and horse meat sausages. I really like horse meat sausages. In the past, there were neither doctors nor medicine. When a person feels weak and sick, the following should be done. Cut meat into thin slices, put it into a pot and boil, without adding water. 2 spoonsful of soup is what you get from the meat. Give this soup to the sick person.
Some people say that water diluted with milk is also good. Half a spoon of milk is added to a cup of water. Here it is important to have the correct ratio, which we have already forgotten today.
It is important to know the correct ratio. Sometimes it is difficult to determine what is wrong with a child. A Kalmyk person would immediately say that the child has a bad diet and that he/she needs a mutton soup. I think all people have their own remedies. A relative of mine used to chew tea leaves and say that it was good for his teeth. Today when we cook mutton, we throw out the head and legs. I personally think it is wrong, because no part of the sheep should go to waste. Why do we have a tradition called ‘ze byarlgn’ when we give a sheep’s tibia bone to our grandchildren to eat? The reason is so that their teeth become strong. Today, by contrast, people boil meat until it falls apart. The Mongols boil it a little bit and then eat with a knife. Why? So that the meat tastes like meat. When we boil meat for too long its taste goes to the soup (and little remains in the meat itself). Bone marrow is also edible. I teach children to eat bone marrow. They sit, knock the bone on the table to push the marrow out.
Sergei Muchiryaev, Medicinal Diet and Kalmyk Cuisine
Sofia grew up in Dolbanskiy rayon of Astrakhan oblast’. This place is rich in terms of flora and various plants grow there, including the poppy flower which was used by the Kalmyks for medicinal purposes. Sofia’s mother collected poppy flowers, dried them and kept them in bags. Decoctions prepared from poppies were used for various illnesses. For example, a boil on top of Sofia’s head that she suffered with from when she was a child, was treated with a poppy decoction.
In Sofia’s childhood decoctions prepared from fish and rice were also used. Sofia used to cook a decoction from rice by boiling it in water without adding salt.
For the Kalmyks the Kalmyk tea (a tea with salt, milk and fat) is the most important drink. Not only does it help with tiredness, it also invigorates people.
When they were in Siberia, many Kalmyks suffered from frostbite. A decoction from poppy flowers and a dog’s or goat’s fat are good for this. Since there was no medicine available in Siberia, many Kalmyks also used massage. Sofia’s grandmother knew how to do it.
Sofia says that every person has a belief inside themselves. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union which created a spiritual vacuum, Sofia decided for herself that she needed to believe in something. She characterizes herself as a spiritual person. Spirituality helps people overcome illnesses and stay optimistic. According to Sofia, there are two aspects to healing – physical and spiritual healings. Physical health depends on the spiritual one.
Sofia Lidzhi-Goryaeva, Healing and Belief
Svetlana talks about medicinal diet, animal blood, an antidote made from a sheep’s skin, herbal therapy, the medicinal properties of melted butter, medicinal water and a place called Single Poplar where people perform various rituals. This is her story:
Kalmyk folk medicine originates from the Tibetan. It is based on three principles, including 1) acupuncture, 2) burn-off and 3) bloodletting. The Kalmyks have traditionally been nomads and received everything from their livestock, including food, clothes and materials for their dwellings.
Mutton is used in dietary medicine. The Kalmyks kept four kinds of sheep. In dietary medicine people usually use merino’s meat. I heard this from many people, including my grandmother. In the past, the Kalmyks treated many ailments with mutton soup. People still do. For old people, it is healthy to have this soup at least once a week. We, Kalmyks, are nomads and grow up eating meat, whereas the Russians grow up on vegetables.
Let me tell you about a healing method called ‘shilin shim’ (lit. ‘juice from a bottle’). In my native village of Khar-Buluk there lived an elderly woman who was often sick, felt sleepy and had low blood pressure. My grandmother filled a 3-litre jar with fatty mutton, closed the jar and hung the jar over a pot of boiling water. When the meat in the jar absorbed some steam, she took the meat out and squeezed around 200 grams of juice out of it, then added butter and gave the mutton juice to that old woman. After drinking it, the woman recovered.
I also witnessed how blood was used in healing. The blood of a sheep born in May – such sheep feed on juicy grass – has to be dried, before using it. Other animals whose blood is used for medicinal purposes are wolves, hares and saiga antelopes. Boiled water with a saiga horn is good for fever. I also witnessed people mix sheep’s blood with butter and smear it on sores to cure scrofula. Whilst modern medicine is powerful and there are many good doctors, traditional medicine is also helpful.
Once I saw an antidote made from a sheep’s skin. In Khar-Buluk we had an old neighbor named Zhamsar Khalinginov who was a hunter. One day he went hunting and was bitten by a poisonous tarantula. His leg swelled up and he had a fever. The tumor on his leg started to spread to other parts of his body. In our village there was only one paramedic who at that time happened to be away in Elista. This was in May, a time when sheep get their wool sheared off. My grandmother and the hunter’s wife boiled water in a big pot, salted it and put a sheep’s skin into it. Afterwards, they squeezed the water out of the skin and wrapped it around the hunter’s leg, while covering the patient with a warm blanket. The sheep’s skin was changed regularly. The next morning a doctor arrived and said that that method worked as an antidote and that the effect of the poison had been stopped. Had the hunter not been treated on time, he would have died of the fever.
Camel’s wool is used for rheumatism and the inflammation of joints. The Kalmyks have known about the medicinal properties of this wool for long time.
The skin of a black sheep or cow is used for the treatment of burns. First the skin has to be burnt, and ashes applied to the burn. In my childhood, I helped my mother who worked as a milkmaid on a farm. One day I sprained the muscle in one of my legs and could not walk. My grandmother soaked the skin of a black sheep in salty water and wrapped my leg with it. Then she poured chigyan (sour milk) on top of it. In a couple of days my leg healed.
I also witnessed the use of dairy products in healing. Melted butter is a powerful medicine. Those Kalmyks who managed to take with them melted butter when they were exiled to Siberia (in 1943), later returned to Kalmykia healthier than others. My grandmother told me that a spoonful of butter given to children replaced their daily ration. She herself always had melted butter at hand. She would fill a black bottle with hot butter, wrap the bottle with a black cloth, and keep it underground for three years during which period the butter turns into creamy white substance. She used such butter to cure burns and tumors. When my mother’s nipple got sore, my grandmother treated her breasts with such butter. This butter is also good for women after giving birth. If women had watery milk, they were given tea mixed with butter. My grandmother always had two bottles: one to hand and the other getting matured underground. People came to see her to ask for her butter.
A mix of water with milk, called ‘kimr’, is good for fever. The ratio of water to milk has to be 7 to 1. The mix has to be boiled, before drinking.
The Kalmyks ate cottage cheese and other dairy products from childhood which is good for bones and teeth. In the past, old people did not know what a toothache was.
One can talk a lot about treatment with water. In Khar-Buluk village we have good water. We have a place where a single poplar tree grows where people come to pray. Recently seven stupas have been built around that tree which was planted by the lama Purdash bagsh. Khar-Buluk is where people from the Bogdakhn clan live. Not far from the tree there is a spring. The name Khar-Buluk (meaning ‘a spring’ in Kalmyk) derives its name from the springs of that place. When the Kalmyks returned from Siberia, there were many springs in that place. Gradually they became polluted and dried up. Today we only have two springs left with good water.
I will tell you about phytotherapy (healing with plants) now. In the Kalmyk steppe there grow 357 varieties of plants, flowers that can be used in healing. The most useful plant is the sagebrush. One who inhales it, remembers his/her native place. The sagebrush is good for inflammations, fever, and its smell drives away insects and cockroaches. A carpet infested with moths can be treated with this plant as well. It can be also used as a tea. In Kalmykia we had a doctor named Semyon Rafaelovich Zalkind who travelled to nomadic settlements, collected folk healing knowledge, and healed people using various plants. The topic of healing with plants is very wide and unstudied and many young people could do their PhDs on this topic. People should study folk medicine more.
There is one spring by that Single poplar tree. The story has it that 180 years ago the lama Purdash bagsh brought poplar seeds from Tibet and planted them there. After a tree popped up there, one day a spring also appeared nearby. To the left of that spring soon appeared another spring. One of them had sour water and the other sweet water (later, one of the springs dried up). Today people take water from the remaining spring usually in May. In our house we always had water from that spring that we used to treat toothaches, headaches and general weakness.
One Kalmyk girl from Khar-Buluk got married to a Russian man named Steklov Mark Isaakievich who was a good doctor. One day he took water from that spring to a laboratory in St Petersburg for analysis. Upon his return, he said that the water was exceptionally powerful and asked us to keep the spring in purity. Today pupils from the local school look after the spring, pick up the rubbish around it. I personally think that livestock should be banned from grazing there.
Today young people go the Single Poplar tree often. One guy, who is my close relative, got married recently. Today, I hear, he and his wife are going there. It is place where people perform rituals to appease the masters of land, or before setting off on a long journey, or before going to the army, or before a wedding. I also heard that people who do not have sons, or no children at all, go to that place to pray, especially after seven stupas have been erected.
Svetlana Suktueva, About Traditional Medicine
In this interview Svetlana talks about traditional medicine and medicinal diet.
Svetlana: The Kalmyks have always valued cow’s milk. After they settled in Russia, the Kalmyks started to use goat’s milk under the influence of the Russians. I would like to talk now about the medicinal properties of cow’s milk. The Kalmyk breed of cows is called ‘the red steppe species’. Although it gives less milk, its milk is very dense.
The Kalmyks use cow’s milk to make 36 different meals, from tea to dairy products. Having several varieties, Kalmyk tea has a relaxing effect. It should be drunk while hot in winter, and cold in summer. I drink tea every day. Dairy products made from cow’s milk are called chigyan (water mixed with milk in the same ratio) and chiidmg. In the past the Kalmyks often fasted for up to three weeks, drinking chigyan or chiidmg only, in this way cleansing their stomach. Butter is used in candles, as well as to make bulmg. It also has medicinal properties. I heard from my grandmother that when the Kalmyks lived in Siberia they did not have much food to eat. A thin layer of hot butter spread on a piece of bread was enough to restore one’s strength. Also, people who were starving were given a small amount of bulmg, a dish made from flour fried in butter. My grandmother filled a bottle with hot butter, wrapped the bottle with a black cloth and then buried it for three years. During this time butter turns white and becomes like ointment. This ointment is good for fever, skin burns, tumors, earache and toothache. In the three years that the butter is stored underground, its medicinal properties only increase. My grandmother always had a bottle at hand, and another buried underground.
Question: How can one use butter to treat a headache?
S: Smear the head with butter and wrap the head with a towel. It is okay to drink butter in small quantities as well. Since it is very dense (and powerful), it should not be overused.
Q: Do people make such butter today?
S: I don’t know. My mother used to make it, but now she has stopped. Butter does not have to be stored for three years though. You can bottle it in spring and add it to your food in winter. It is very good for one’s health.
Q: I heard that people eat wolf’s meat when they have bronchitis.
S: People use a wolf’s gall. I didn’t hear about wolf’s meat being good for bronchitis though. People use the gall of a wolf or hare. If we return to the topic of dairy products, kimr is a drink made from water diluted with milk with ratio 7 to 1. So, 8 cups (i.e. 7 cups of water and 1 cup of milk) has to be boiled until a cupful of liquid remains in the pot. This is called kimr. Kimr is good for fever. Also, 1 cup of salty water is mixed with 1 cup of milk and boiled until half of the content evaporates. This is called shingyavr, which is also good for fever or diarrhea. In the past, after giving birth, women drank tea, kimr or shingyavr for 49 days. For both Kalmyks and Mongols, 49 is a sacral number symbolizing reincarnation. 49 days after one’s funeral people perform a special ritual. After birth, it is also 49 days that people believe it takes for the baby to settle in this world.
Q: What is milk vodka used for?
S: Milk vodka can be of four different distillations. 50 liters of milk is enough to produce only 5 liters of vodka, referred to as khar ark, meaning ‘pure vodka’. After first distillation we get ark with 30 to 40 per cent alcohol content. When this vodka is distilled further, it turns into arza which is 60 to 70 per cent strong. When arza is distilled once more, it turns into khorz with 70 to 80 per cent alcohol content. After the fourth distillation comes khorn shu, or ‘pure spirit’, with 90 to 100 alcohol content. This spirit is used to clean purulence wounds. It was also used during massages and to treat frostbite. In the past, 200 grams of milk vodka (of the first distillation) mixed with butter was given to people with fever. I never saw how milk vodka is made. Although my grandmother told me about it, she herself never distilled vodka.
The Kalmyks have an old tradition called ‘dem’ when relatives pull resources together to contribute to their relative’s wedding. In the past, people contributed milk, because to make a barrel of vodka required a lot of milk.
Q: How did people cure a toothache?
S: I heard from my grandmother and other people as well that people treated their aching teeth with butter stored for three years. Also, people rinsed their mouth with spring water mixed with salt. When inhaled, steam from water boiled with the datura grass stops toothache. Near the village of Khar-Buluk there is a spring with medicinal water that is good for toothache.
Q: How did people cure a headache?
S: There were several methods. When I drink Kalmyk tea, my headache goes away. People also massage with hot butter, wrap their head with a towel soaked in mineral water.
Q: How did people cure aches in the eyes?
S: I cannot say much about this. But I saw how a stye was treated. My grandmother used to read incantations to the ailing eye: ‘Stye, stye take away your stye’. After the incantation, she poured mineral water on the stye. In the past, Kalmyks lived in yurts which was always filled with smoke. Many people suffered from trachoma, which was considered a genetic disease. People suffering from trachoma also went to see shamans who read incantations and cleansed the ailing eyes with mineral water. The first person in Kalmykia to cure trachoma was a Russian doctor named Semyon Rafaelovich Zalkind.
Q: How did people cure pimples?
S: I don’t know.
Q: What about furuncle?
S: People read incantations and cleansed with water.
Q: Which incantations?
S: Those of the Buddha of Medicine. I do not know these incantations though. Every treatment started with an incantation. I also heard that people used flint stones as well.
Q: How did people cure deafness?
S: Cannot say much about it, but I saw how otitis, an inflammation in the ear, was treated by dripping butter.
Q: How did people cure pain in the joints?
S: Compresses, usually made from the wool of a camel, a black sheep or cow, were put on the ailing joints. Wounds with pus were sprinkled with ash from the burnt skin of a black sheep or cow. Camel wool is good for rheumatism. Our grandmother kept wool from a camel’s mane. Whenever we fell and hurt our legs or hands, she would bandage the wounded part with that wool. One day my grandmother’s grandfather found a piece of meteorite. He took it to the temple, and then brought it home. With this meteorite he cured tumors. He touched the tumor and read incantations. It was also used to cure muscle sprains and furuncles. This meteorite is still kept by my grandmother’s youngest daughter-in-law who uses it. People who borrow her meteorite for healing purposes should return it to the owner along with red and white coins, as well as a piece of cloth.
Q: How did people cure heartache or heart problems?
S: It was treated only by a burn-off method. Today in Kalmykia we do not have people who can do this properly. In Komsomol’skyi there lived someone who cured heartache with a kopek coin that was massaged into certain parts of the patient. Heart attack was treated with incantations only.
Q: How did people cure the liver?
S: I did not hear much about how to cure liver. I only heard that in this situation people cut a sheep’s liver into small pieces, boil it in hot butter and give it to the patient.
Q: What was the most widespread disease among the Kalmyks?
S: Tuberculosis and trachoma. Nomads got a cold during nomadizing, and people often suffered from tuberculosis. The first and foremost medicine for tuberculosis is kumis, or fermented mare’s milk. The Kalmyk who opened the first clinic to cure with kumis was Garya Balzanov whose youngest daughter Loola suffered from tuberculosis. The village of Loola has been named in her honour. After the girl was cured with kumis, her father decided to open a clinic to help other families as well, since at that time whole families just died out from this illness. He brought a hundred mares from Bashkiria and opened his clinic in 1915.
Q: Does this clinic still work today?
S: The clinic survived, but it does not offer kumis treatment anymore. The second most widespread disease was trachoma.
Q: What is trachoma?
S: It is the inflammation of the eyelids when a person cannot open his/her eyes. The eyesight deteriorates and a blood clot appears in the eyes. It is a very serious illness.
In order to keep their teeth healthy, the Kalmyks did not boil meat for long and gave their children dried cheese to chew.
Q: What kind of teeth do the modern Kalmyks have?
S: Very bad, because we have neglected our traditions.
Q:Which medicinal plants do the Kalmyks use?
S: There are more than 300 varieties of plants in Kalmykia. Take the sagebrush: tea made from it is like an antidote that cleans the organism. It also suppresses fever. In the past the Kalmyks hung this plant inside their yurt to keep insects out. The smell of the sagebrush cannot be compared with any other smell. My grandmother used it as incense. Thyme also suppresses fever and helps clear the throat. Corn, sunflower, cane, oak bark and many other plants can be used for medicinal purposes as well.
Q: Were nettles also used?
S: Yes. Dandelion, chamomile, salvia were all used.
Q: Did people use plants that do not grow in Kalmykia?
Q: Were mushrooms used too?
S: Rarely. I did not hear of that. Today people soak amanita in vodka.
Q: If we return to the topic of meat, we have saiga antelopes and ground squirrels. Was their meat used?
S: Saiga horns were used. My grandmother used the horn of a male saiga as a fever suppressing remedy. Its meat is believed to cleanse the stomach. The gall of a saiga, wolf, hare or a sheep was also used. It was mixed with butter and smeared on skin burns. The fat of a ground squirrel is good for diathesis, scrofula, cough, heart problems and aches in the spine.
Q: The fat from a sheep’s tail, was it also used?
S: I heard this from my grandmother that when the Kalmyks were sent into exile to Siberia, many people ended up in Shiroklag camps. From there people returned home sick and very thin. Those who were given food with sheep’s fat, gradually recovered. Having said this, fat should be given in small quantities.
Soup made from dove meat is good for high blood pressure. When my mother had high pressure, we made her dove soup, after which her blood pressure went down. Dove meat is also considered dietary.
Q: Were hooves and bones also used?
S: As I said, the horns and hooves of a saiga, cow or a sheep.
Q: Was dog’s meat used to treat lungs?
S: Rarely, but yes.
Svetlana Suktueva, Traditional Medicine and Medicinal Diet
Tatyana talks about traditional healing methods and medicinal objects, including herbs, snake’s skin, onion peel, cream, hair, hedgehog’s urine, copper sulphate, wolf’s bile, one’s mother’s clothing, and wool.
She says the following: Kalmyks used what was available around them for treatment, including herbs and animals. One of them is the licorice which grows in the steppe. My mother told me that people collected its root, which is sweet in taste. We, children, gnawed this root.
Let me tell you how Kalmyks treated coughs. Kalmyks were prone to tuberculosis because girls wore corsets that tightly wrapped their chest. Hence, any disease could develop into tuberculosis.
People treated a cough with a drink made from a moss variety called ‘goose foot’. Snake’s skin was also used for this purpose, which serves as an absorbent.
People also used onion peel.
If a child had diarrhea, people boiled cream for a long time and gave a spoonful of it to the child. Although dairy products cannot stop diarrhea, boiled cream really helps.
During childbirth, a woman who was giving birth had her hair cut, which was then burned. The ashes were smeared on the newborn’s umbilical cord which causes it to dry up.
I heard from my cousin how to cure enuresis (a condition when a child cannot control urination) with a hedgehog’s urine. You take a hedgehog, wash its paws clean, and put it on a clean dish to collect its urine. A drop of urine was diluted with clean spring water with a ratio 1 to 20 and given to the child to drink. Maybe the urine has some kind of enzyme or maybe it just had a placebo effect.
Many diseases were also treated with hunger or dieting.
Other objects used in traditional medicine are copper sulphate and wolf’s bile.
In the tradition of many nations, one’s mother’s clothing is considered sacred. People wrap their children in their mother’s clothing or protect themselves by wiping their faces with such clothing.
There is also a method when you burn a piece of wool and make a sick person inhale it.
Tatyana Dzhambinova, About Traditional Medicine
Ubush’s cousin suffered from anxiety and continuously cried at night. The following ritual was performed for her. A piece of melted lead was poured into a cup with water. When it hardens, lead turns into shapes that indicate the source of fear and anxiety. In the case of his cousin, the lead turned into shapes resembling dogs and pigs. After the ritual, the girl was explained that she should not be afraid of these animals.
Ubush says that the Russians have a similar ritual, but they use wax instead.
Ubush Darzhinov, About a Ritual to Remove Fear
Valentina talks about a ritual of ‘pouring lead’ (to heal scared children), a ritual of ‘life substitute’ and other traditional healing methods.
About the ritual of ‘pouring lead’. First melt a chunk of lead in oil and then pour it into a cup with cold water, which must be held above the patient’s head, who is usually a child.
In Kazakhstan, to protect from evil tongues, children were given dried snake heads.
About a ritual of ‘life substitute’. In the olden days when a person fell ill, a sheep was brought in and designated (mal zaakh) as a special animal. That sheep was supposed to take the illness of the person to itself.
In order to counteract slander or envy, people also made small human-shaped sculptures from dough, smeared it on their skin and then buried it. Lamas told people how to perform this ritual.
If someone had a fever, that person was given kimr, a drink made from water and milk. Kimr was also given to women immediately after childbirth. Before childbirth women were given melted butter to drink, which was believed to make childbirth easier and quicker. Melted butter was also considered good for liver related diseases.
A story about a devil’s claw. In the village where Valentina lives there was an old Caucasian man who healed people and was a clairvoyant himself. One day while driving cattle to the grazing field Valentina found an old lamp and a ‘devil’s claw’ on the ground. She brought the findings home, gave them to her sister and forgot about them. Later the old Caucasian man said to Valentina: ‘You, Valya, have found what ordinary people do not find’ to which she replied: ‘What did I find? I do not know, I found nothing’. Later Valentina remembered the lamp and the claw that she had given to her sister. She took the claw back home where it is still kept. Valentina uses this object to heal both her children and herself. This object is yellowish in colour, thin, long in shape and has a pointed tip. Valentina’s paternal grandmother used to say this to her: ‘If you crumble this claw on an ulcer, it will heal that ulcer. It crumbles like chalk.’ In the past, people called such objects ‘a devil’s claw’ or ‘a claw of the master of death’.
Valentina Badma-Ubushaeva, About Traditional Healing Methods
Vladimir talks about divination. This is his story.
Kalmyks used a wooden stick for divination. Its length was supposed to be equal to the space between one’s index and little fingers. This divination permitted three answers only, namely ‘joy’ (bair), ‘delay’ (totkh) and ‘obstacle’ (torlgn).
Kalmyks also used a rosary and a whip for divination. Divination with a rosary was done as follows. The diviner rolled the rosary around his hand and counted the beads. This divination was usually done to find lost livestock or people, or to make a decision.
Each person should choose a rosary for personal use very carefully. Kalmyks mainly used wooden rosaries, and those made from the maple tree were especially valuable.
Vladimir Boldyrev, About Divination (with a Rosary and a Stick)
In the past, Kalmyks used boiled water, melted butter, and salted butter as medicine. Zinaida says that, after her family returned to Kalmykia from Siberian exile, her son fell ill with a typhoid fever. She approached an old folk healer who asked her to bring her son’s urine. After examination, the folk healer told her to give the boy a soup made from 100 grams of fatless meat. Then the healer told her to increase the meat to 200 and then 300 grams. After drinking the soup, the boy gradually recovered.
Datura grass is good for toothache. It is used as follows. A folk healer reads prayers and then smokes the patient with the grass. The same method is used for a cold or angina.
When Zinaida was young, her ears secreted pus. Her mother used all sorts of remedies that she learnt from folk healers, including putting a hare’s tail on the inflamed ears, inserting cotton pads into the ears, and filling the ears with yoghurt. Nothing helped. Then Zinaida’s mother cut fresh beef into long thin slices and inserted it into Zinaida’s ears. She heard about this method from her friends. Although Zinaida recovered, one of her ears remained permanently damaged. Whenever water gets into it, the ear inflames. Also, she has headaches when exposed to noise.
Zinaida talks about how to heal a stye in the eye, a stomach ache, and a cough.
Zinaida Lidzhieva, About Traditional Medicine
Zurgada talks about an old female folk healer who healed sick children. The folk healer used a coin (a Soviet kopek) with which she touched the body of the patient. Frightened children were treated by melted tin as well. A piece of tin is melted on a fire. The head of the frightened child is covered with a white sheet. A white sheet of paper is put into a wooden cup and filled with water. Then the melted tin is poured into the cup above the head of the child. The hiss produced by the hot tin interacting with water makes the child jerk. When the tin cools down, the healer reads for the shapes which indicate what the fear was about – a dog, bird, a man etc. After the ritual, the cup is kept outside for three days before it can be brought back into the house.