My Great-great grandmothers healing methods

The following story from around 1916 describes the healing methods of my great-great grandmother Thorunn Gisladottir, who was a midwife and a herbalist. She was called Grasa-Thorunn, which translates to Herbal-Thorunn.

In the following interview, from 1993, Gudfinna Hannesdottir from Holar in Stokkseyrarhreppur (born in 1906) describes how my great-great grandmother healed her from pancreatitis and tuberculosis when she was a child.

"It was around midsummer and I lay in bed with pancreatitis (this was often a prelude to pulmonary tuberculosis) when Thorunn came to our farm, as asked by her aunt, to pick herbs. Upon seeing me, Thorunn said "It’s unbearable to see this young girl in this state. She’s like a dead person walking and needs to get out into the sunlight". This got people’s attention. By this time, the doctor had practically given up and thought that they needed to sting the skin to get the fluids out that were building up in my chest. The fluids were causing so much pain. I don’t really understand the procedures that followed, but Thorunn somehow managed to stop the progress of the decease. She burned my skin with kerosene oil. It was excruciating. She then soaked a piece of wool in kerosene oil, then added a watertight layer and lastly a big towel around all of that. This burn plaster was then wrapped all around my chest, I looked like an inflated doll. When Thorunn had finished dealing with the wrap, she told me that I had to lie in this for the next 10 hours. It was complete hell.

"This all got done because everyone wanted to do what they could and Thorunn recited traditional poetry to keep me occupied, in order for me to survive the horrible pain I was in."

She then went out to search high and low for medical herbs and boil the ointment that was supposed to heal this, which she called "life-herbs". She asked for some freshly-made butter, but to be careful that it contained no salt. It was called "plant butter" when the cows were out and solely fed on green grass. When this was all removed, there was one big scab around my entire chest and she brought the ointment that she had been boiling, which contained a leaf from tea willow, lady’s mantle, yarrow and she told me the fourth one, but I can’t remember what it was. Maybe stone bramble. (I believe this was actually bearberry - Soley adds) She boiled this in butter and some water. She then soaked a thin cloth in this mixture and laid it on the wound. These were meant to be the most healing herbs.

One week later, everything had healed and I was out on the field again. I cannot express how much I wish that everyone could get as good healing creams and herbs on their wounds as I got there.

"Thorunn said that she knew that God created us on Earth and created all the herbs that would heal all illnesses. That’s the thing with these young doctors. There’s more to it than just poking and cutting,"

After this she visited us every summer and we often went to pick herbs with her. It was like a lesson at school each time; she was always teaching and guiding. She recognised each and every herb and knew what role they played and how they helped."


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