I didn’t mean to have two Zora Neale Hurston or two scatological posts in a row, but this item from the glossary at the end of Jonah’s Gourd Vine made me very curious:
SHEEP SHADNEY, tea made from sheep droppings. It is sweetened and fed to very young babies.
The Internet has a few tidbits on this folk remedy. “Sheep shadney” returns only references back to Jonah’s Gourd Vine, but “sheep shandy” gives us a reference from the Floripedia prescribing the concoction as a remedy for whooping cough.
Covey’s African-American Slave Medicine confirms the practice in Kentucky and Indiana as a treatment for measles (another childhood disease). Other kinds of dung (cow and chicken) are also mentioned as cures for the common cold.
The wonderfully Victorian title Scatalogic Rites of All Nations finds “sheep shadney” remedy for measles (under the name “sheep nannie tea”) among the Navajos, who supposedly learned it from the Spanish.
While making a tea out of manure seems nauseating to 21-st century suburbanites, I wonder if that same revulsion would have been present among agricultural people two hundred years ago. Living closer to the hummus, these smells would have been omnipresent and familiar and possibly not as off-putting. Body odor and bad breath weren’t considered particularly offensive smells until companies wanted to sell us deodorant and mouthwash; perhaps manure wasn’t smelly until we weren’t around it every day.
However, part of the cure may be the bad smell. Do we drive away “bad airs” (like measles and whooping cough) with sweet smells: a pocketful of posies? Or do we drive them away with worse — yet familiar — airs: animal manure? If the tea didn’t stink, would it work against measles? Would anyone have thought to try?