Rip Van Winkle And The Eagle Eating Welsh Farmer

Written by Dr Chris Madoc-Jones

 A stone’s throw from the Clawdd Offa Path, above Tremeirchion, is an old farm which long ago was home to one of the last practitioners of an ancient folk remedy for the treatment of shingles.

Shingles is one of the two unpleasant, but not life threatening, illnesses I hope I will never get (the other is gout). It is caused by the chicken pox virus and anyone who has had chicken pox, no matter how long ago, can get shingles later in life. It affects mainly older people but younger people are sometimes affected. You can’t catch shingles from someone who has it but you can catch chicken pox from them if you have never had that before.

After an attack of chicken pox the virus goes to ground and slumbers silently inside the root of a nerve – it is the Rip Van Winkle of the germ world – until, one day, it awakes and attacks the nerve, travelling along it causing at first pain and then an angry blistering rash. The interval between the original chicken pox infection and the shingles may be as long as sixty or seventy years. Usually there is no apparent reason why the virus comes to life again, although occasionally it is spurred into action by another illness which is weakening the body’s defences.

The body’s nerves are arranged in pairs, like the bones of a fish, but only one nerve is affected. The commonest areas affected are the trunk and the limbs but it can affect the head and sometimes the eye, where it can cause blindness. After a few weeks the rash starts to clear although pain can linger on for months or even years. Modern treatment is with anti-viral drugs and is aimed at preventing chronic pain.

Our ancestors believed that if the rash encircled the body the sufferer would die. Fortunately for them there was an old folk treatment to prevent this disaster. This required a specialist, not just any old quack doctor. It had to be someone who, at some time, had eaten the flesh of an eagle. He or she would call every day for three days before the patient had breakfast and would blow on the rash. And, of course, they would charge a fee for their services, as alternative practitioners do today.

Why the flesh of an eagle? The Welsh word for shingles and an Eagle is the same – “ Eryr “. But the word has another meaning in Welsh which is hilly or mountainous, giving rise to “Eryri” (Snowdonia) and “Eryrys” ( a village in the hills behind Mold). So it may be the bumpy appearance of the blisters erupting from the skin that gives it this name. The English name comes from an old Latin word for a girdle.

The Golden Eagle disappeared from Wales early in the Nineteenth Century so these healers must have had their eagle meat in Scotland or overseas. In Victorian times young men went all over the world in the army or navy and could well have eaten eagle’s meat abroad and, once home again, they would be assured of a reputation in their neighbourhood as a useful man to know if you went down with the shingles. I have heard of three other people in North East Wales, two men and a woman, who treated shingles in the same way.

In 1983 Tom Griffiths, a Denbigh postman in his sixties and a native of Tremeirchion, told me that his taid’s brother, when he was a small boy, had been treated by the healer from Aelwyd Uchaf.

This treatment never failed. The rash never encircled the bodies of their patients ( but then it almost never does !). I envy those practitioners their record of 100% success, which is far better than anything I or my colleagues can do today. Next time I go to the Welsh Mountain Zoo the keepers had better count their eagles.