A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.
Of all the common pains to experience, toothache has to be one of the worst. Thankfully in modern times we know what causes toothache. With regular dental check-ups, a good cleaning routine, and a diet low in sugary snacks you're likely to still have all your teeth by the time you're in your sixties. And should you find yourself in trouble, modern medicine can fix it.
In times past, fillings and antibiotics were of course, not available. So people had to look for other solutions...
Babylonian Tooth Worms
It was a widespread belief that toothache was caused by tooth worms, burying themselves into the patient's tooth and eating it from the inside. The wriggling of these worms was thought to be the cause of tooth pain.
One of the earliest known account of tooth worms comes from ancient Babylon, from a cuniform tablet dated to around the first millennium BC.
Written in Akkadian, the "Tooth Worm Incantation", the text describes the origins of tooth worms, and their desire to live in the teeth and gums. It believe that this incantation was an early cure against toothache - to be read to the patient whilst the tooth was extracted.
After Anu created the heavens,
And the Heavens had created the Earth,
And the Earth had created rivers,
And rivers had created canals,
And canals had created mud,
And the mud created the worm,
The worm went, weeping, before Shamash,
its tears flowing before Ea,
"What have you given me for my food?
What have you given me to suck?"
"I have given you the ripe fig and the apricot."
"Of what use are they to me, the ripe fig and apricot?
Lift me up and among the teeth and the gums to dwell!
So I can suck the blood of the tooth,
and mince up the gum!"
Drive in the peg and sieze the foot (and say)
"Because you said this, worm,
may Ea strike you with his mighty hand!"
It is thought that the "worms" could in fact be the nerve of the tooth. Once a tooth rotted away, these strands of pulp would be seen protruding from the gums.
The cure for tooth worm would be to strike out the tooth, then pull out the "worm". If the worm was indeed the nerve, this would cure the toothache for certain, but would be quite a painful experience!
You can listen to The Tooth Worm Incantation as read by Alex Barker, by clicking this link. From The University of London's Department of Babylonian and Assyrian Poetry and Literature, this version comes from the cuneiform copy by L. W. King that was first published in Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum vol. 17 (1901).
By the late 10th Century, Britain was by majority, a Christian nation. Folk remedies were frowned upon as being a form of witchcraft, so if you needed a cure for a toothache, it would be time to call for a priest.
The Lacnunga, meaning 'Remedies', is one of the most famous books from this time, and is the source of this remedy. The prayer would be read to the patient so that they would be cured of their toothache.
For Pain of the Teeth
Christ sat upon a marble stone; Peter stood sad before him, holding his hand to his jaw, and the Lord questioned him, saying: “Why are you sad, Peter?”
Peter replied and said, “Lord, my teeth hurt.”
And the Lord said, “I adjure you migraine or malignant drop by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and by heaven and earth and by the twenty orders of angels and by the sixty prophets and by the twelve apostles and by the four evangelists and by all the saints who have pleased God from the beginning of the world, that the devil cannot harm him, the servant of God, neither in the teeth, nor in the ears, nor in the palate, neither break his bones, nor chew his flesh, so that you may have no power to harm him, neither in sleeping, nor in waking, nor may you touch him for sixty years and a day.”
Rex pax nax in Christ the Son. Amen. Our Father.
Henbane was truly a favourite cure for toothache well into the Medieval era. Thomas Culpeper, herbalist and astrologer would later praise it for among other things, its anti-inflammatory properties.
Heat and applied pressure also would give relief from the pain. A remedy for toothache from 1180 was to insert a heated pin behind the ear, whilst inhaling heated leek seeds and henbane through a funnel.
Overcrowded teeth, poor hygiene, and diet, all contributed to problems, and interestingly it was often those with a simpler diet such as the peasant class, that suffered less from toothache than the more well-to-do. The suffering of Edward V was well documented; the King would be in his sick bed for sometimes months at a time thanks to his toothaches and infections.
Another remedy from a "Leechbook", describes a cure for getting rid of those troublesome tooth worms.
"For toothwark, if a worm eat the tooth, take an old holly leaf or one of the lower umbels of hart wort, and the upward part of sage, boil two doles in water, pour into a bowl and yawn over it, then the worms shall fall into the bowl.
If a worm eat the teeth, take holly rind over a year old and root of carline thistle, boil in hot water, hold in the mouth as hot as thou hottest may.
For tooth worms, take acorn meals and henbane seed and wax, of equally much, mingle these together, work into a wax candle and burn it, let it reek into the mouth, put a black cloth under, then will the worms fall on it."
The concept of tooth worms was not going to be going away in any hurry. People still believed that their movement around the mouth was the cause of toothache, and used all sorts of remedies to kill them off.
At least by 1607, it was understood that cleaning your teeth helped to keep them healthy.
This remedy comes from "The Englishmans Doctor, or, The Schoole of Salerno", and describes how to clean a hole made by a tooth worm with herbs and frankincense (the hole of course, would be what we would today call a cavity):
"If in your teeth you hap to be tormented,
By meane some little wormes therin do breed,
Which pain (if heed be tane) may be prevented,
By keeping cleane your teeth, when as you feed:
Burne Francomsence, (a gum not euill sented)
Put Hen-bane unto this, and Onyon-seed,
And with a Tunnell to thy tooth that's hollow,
Conuey the smoke thereof, and ease shall follow."
A less pleasant cure was recommended in 1605 in "The General Practise of Physicke" whereby the patient was advised to rub the painful tooth with the burned head of a hare, or the burned horn of a hart.
Henry Cornelius Agrippa in his "Three Books of Occult Philosophy", recommends that, "a tooth taken from a mole, whilst she is still alive and permitted again to escape, and hung about the neck of a patient cures the toothache."
There have been a number of recorded folk cures for toothache, a few of which we still carry out this day - who among you I wonder, has been advised to chew a clove to relieve toothache?
In the early 1500s, a remedy for toothache from Wales was to roll up a ball of honeysuckle, ivy bark, and holly leaves, then either chew on them or place the ball between the cheek and the infected tooth.
In Wicklow in Ireland, it was said that "the points of three smoothing-irons are pointed three times in the name of the Trinity at a painful tooth - for then, sure enough, the pain vanishes."
A cure from North East Scotland advises that the patient, "Go to a churchyard when a grave is being dug, take a skull in whose jaw are teeth, and with the teeth draw a tooth from it. A cure follows."
Rather grim, but not uncommon. A dead man's tooth carried in the pocket was believed to ward off toothache in north Hampshire. Carrying a tooth from a corpse, worn in a little bag was a widespread practice once.
Slightly more savory was this cure from the Butt of Lewis, Scotland where one particular well known as Toothache Well was believed to cure this painful affliction. Malcolm MacPhial's "Folklore from the Hebrides" of 1900, describes that,
The cure consists in taking in succession three mouthfuls of water of this well, which are to be kept in one's mouth as long as convenient. Then each mouthful is to be spurted out on a large stone in a cave close at hand, on which the sun never shines.
Transferring the toothache to someone else was another suggestion. An Irish remedy was to kiss a donkey's teeth so that it might take the burden. Whilst in Cheshire, blood from the infected tooth was to be rubbed onto the bark of a tree, then return it to the tree and cover the whole spot with mud. Perhaps it was thought that in healing this up into the tree, it would heal the patient?
Early medicine slowly got to understand that the main cause of tooth trouble was a dirty mouth, although some causes could not be avoided. Wisdom teeth were not such an issue in earlier times as by the time they grew through, your molars had usually rotted away to leave space for these. Or you would not live long enough to see wisdom teeth give you any trouble!
Early dentistry slowly advanced from prayers, superstition, and worms, into looking at oral care to prevent cavities and gum disease. Surgery slowly became more advanced, and with the invention of pain killers, tooth repair and extraction became less uncomfortable.
Whilst a trip to the dentist can still be a scary prospect for some, in light of some of these strange remedies, the profession looks far less barbaric! Next time I go for my check up, I'll be sure to ask my Dentist if he has ever seen a tooth worm!
© 2019 Pollyanna Jones