Bloom and Folk Remedies
Published in 1914, County Folk-Lore Vol. VII, Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Fife (with some notes on Clackmannan and Kinross-shires) is a volume of text-based folklore collected by John Ewart Simpkins. The Folklore Society, which still functions today out of London,
is a learned society devoted to the study of traditional culture in all its forms. It was founded in London in 1878 and was one of the first organisations established in the world for the study of folklore… The Folklore Society's interest and expertise covers such topics as traditional music, song, dance and drama, narrative, arts and crafts, customs and belief… popular religion, traditional and regional food, folk medicine, children's folklore, traditional sayings, proverbs, rhymes and jingles. (“Folklore Society”)
Volume VII, page 409, lists folk medicine cures for whooping cough. Of the seven options, a few are “passing the child under the belly of a donkey, “carrying the child until you meet a rider on a white (or a piebald) horse, and asking his advice,” and “taking the child to a gas-works” (Simpkins 409). In the “Hades”episode of Ulysses, Bloom passes a gasworks: “Whooping cough they say it cures” (6.121-2).
The volume of folklore that references the gasworks remedy is a collection of artifacts specifically “concerning Fife,” a council area of Scotland. The proximity and overlap in culture between Ireland and Scotland could explain why Bloom would be aware of this folk thought, but if the gasworks belief actually is native to Scotland and not Ireland, it also furthers Bloom’s characterization as both metropolitan and outsider.
Bloom, however, doesn’t just parrot this folk belief as if he is simply reporting what “they” say—Bloom himself buys into folk remedy. He carries a potato in his pocket (“Potato I have” [4.73]). The very same page of the Folk-Lore book that lists cures for whooping cough, page 409, lists “carrying a potato in the pocket” as a treatment for rheumatism.
If Joyce got his hands on a copy of Examples of Printed Folk-Lore to help flesh out Bloom’s folk remedy superstitions—which, since gasworks and the potato are on the exact same page, seems possible—other image echoes reveal themselves. In “Hades,” Bloom thinks about how “piebald horses” (6.323) are used in the funeral of a bachelor, and piebald horses factor into another whooping cough cure. A donkey brays at the end of “Hades” (6.836), one of only two donkeys in the entire novel—the other is in the “Ithaca” episode. Donkeys are another cure for whooping cough on page 409. (Interestingly, donkeys also feature heavily in Horwood’s “A Drive through Gibraltar”).
Bloom is aware of folk remedies and adheres to these superstitions like a religious person would adhere to the bible. Since he is Jewish, and an outsider in Catholic/Protestant Ireland, folklore provides a good ritualistic surrogate to replace religion. Especially in an episode that engages with Bloom at a Christian funeral, where Bloom is so clearly outside the ritual practices, the references to folklore fill a cultural absence revealed by Bloom’s alienation within the ritual. By introducing folklore into Bloom’s language and cognition, Joyce is also finding a means of integrating Bloom into the culture in a way that is accessible, since it is “of the land,” not “of the religion.” The use of folklore also adds to Bloom’s ever lovable and ever-growing list of eccentricities.
"About the Folklore Society." The Folklore Society. The Folklore Society, 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.
Horwood, Arthur M. "A Drive Through Gibraltar." The Illustrated Naval and Military Magazine VIII (1888): 234-40. Print.
Joyce, James. Ulysses: The Corrected Text. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler, Wolfhard Steppe, and Claus Melchior. New York: Vintage, 1986. Print.
Simpkins, John E., comp. "County Folk-Lore: Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Fife with Some Notes on Clackmannan and Kinross-shires." Ed. Robert C. MacLagan and David Rorie. VII (1914). Print.