There is great wisdom in the age-old belief that all we need to heal and cure ourselves can be sourced from the natural world around us, and many a Greek yiayia (and pappou) have lived by this concept of self-reliance and self-sustainability during the toughest of times. What for some is information of the shaman, witch doctor or priest, luckily for us in Greece, was thoughtfully and carefully studied by sages of the ancient world who, living in a period of human enlightenment, transcribed medicinal remedies that were being in part empirically tested. It is not by chance that Greek remains the ‘linguafranca’ of modern medicine; Great medicinal times such as Theofrastos’ ‘Enquiry into Plants’ and Dioscorides’ ‘De Materia Medica’ to name but a few were translated into Latin and Arabic, so this knowledge would not be lost. Indeed, Aristophanes seasoned some of his plays with practical recipes for herbal remedies in order to pass the knowledge of the elite to the common people. So let’s take a look at some of the most common- and most unusual - natural remedies practiced by wise yiayias across the land for millennia and up to the present day.
Sucking out the pain
One of the top ‘yiatrosophia tis yiayias ’ is the use of ventouzes, known in English as cupping therapy. This has been practiced throughout Greece for millennia (and is also a popular ancient Chinese treatment). The practice recently shot back to prominence since the supreme Olympian Michael Phelps was spotted at swimming events sporting purple cupping marks on his body; later he claimed that cupping was an essential part of his recovery programme. Gwyneth Paltrow also made the headlines a few years back for the red circles on her back - probably a treatment by one of her personal holistic doctors such as Greek Vicky Vlachonis. Traditionally vendouzes are still widely used for improving blood flow, stimulating the lymphatic system, removing toxins from the body, relieving rheumatic, arthritic and period pains, and clearing the respiratory system, especially when there is cough, asthma and cold.
When a cough starts to get rough and the sniffles too strong, one of grandma’s home remedies (that can also be enjoyed just for the pleasure of it) is ‘rakomelo’. This is a hot brew of raki, warmed with cloves (which relieve respiratory infections and reduce inflammation) and antibacterial, antiviral cinnamon, with a thick dollop of antioxidant, antibacterial honey. Although this potent concoction is said to alleviate even the heaviest of colds, having too much of this easily potable potion can lead to another, for some, common ailment... the dreaded hangover, so beware! Perhaps a safer way to use alcohol is to have it rubbed on your chest, back and feet, all popular rituals performed in villages across the land to treat bad colds, aches and pains.
Salty milk, anyone?
Now for a slightly more dubious sounding treatment for fevers, some yiayias would suggest a soothing 15-20 minute foot bath. The catch? It’s made of warm milk sprinkled with thick salt. After soaking, one should wipe his/her legs well, put on a thick pair of socks and lie down to rest. It sounds a tad odd but at least it seems pretty painless.
Just beat it
On the other hand there is the practice of beating oneself with stinging nettles. This remedy is prescribed by yiayiades in some villages, possibly to cure their husbands wondering eyes or after-hours kaffenion habit, but most commonly for arthritis and several skin conditions. Brushing the affected areas with nettles, it is assumed that since the plant contains natural antihistamines and anti-inflammatory elements, the stingers on the leaves help these enter the body and thus relieve the symptoms. Worry not those of you who would like to try out the therapeutic qualities of nettles, self-flagellation is not the only way. Making yourself a cuppa packed with vitamins and rich in minerals can offer a lot of benefits- yiayia knew a thing or two when she made that steamy green brew. Whether it’s for treating inflammatory arthritis,hay-fever symptoms, urinary infections, lowering blood pressure or a whole host more of benefits, growing scientific evidence is plumping on the side of grandma.
Chamomile tea is a panacea that grandma can use for everything too- to calm the nervous system, induce sleep, reduce indigestion or bloating, or even soothe eye infections (cotton wool dipped in cooled tea and rested on the eyes.)
There are of course many more - chicken soup, which is considered to be a “natural antibiotic” full of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory ingredients (celery is shown to reduce fever for example, lemon is antiviral and antibacterial), or treatment of ear infections by warming olive oil and dipping cotton wool in it which is then placed in the ear before sleep, or a daily spoonful of olive oil or mournelaio, cod liver oil for bone and blood health. Basically the evidence shows that when it comes to doctor-free health needs, Greece’s yiayias really do know best!