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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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Ceremonial Healing

Paul Kiritsis - Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Totem Mask

From the scope of indigenous therapies covered thus far there is one important methodological aspect that is a therapeutic agent in its own right–ceremony. In many indigenous tribes unknown pathogenic causes can be cast in personified roles with formative powers of the universe where the healing ceremony becomes something of a vigorous re-enactment intended to exorcise the illness from the patient. What we find in a great many of these cases is that the tribe will utilise cosmological narratives mythological and/or religious in nature that resonate with the individual as to facilitate a supernal atmosphere through which the sickly might find respite and meaning. This creates a psychological state conducive to healing. It’s no surprise that ceremonial treatments incorporate beautiful headdresses, scents, costumes, musical compositions, dances, and other elements that might please the physical senses. Pleasure and indulgence are foremost of the ways in which we become removed from our problems, misfortunes, and sicknesses.

In some Indian tribes of California like the Pomo the sickly are subjected to theatrical re-enactments that hope to expunge the disease by transposing the vibrations incited by the former onto the physical plane and then magically transferring them into the psyche of the sufferer. During the diagnostic phase the physician–called an outfit doctor or singing doctor by the people–will try to ascertain certain facts about the physical or psychological illness that pertain to etiology, symptomology, and evolutionary course. The ambiguity around such matters usually results in a supernatural or metaphysical diagnosis where the patient is affirmed to have had an unconscious encounter with a malevolent spirit. Usually, the singing doctor gathers specific information about the formative environment at the exact time of the illness’s onset from family members and friends and attempts to recreate it as closely as possible in the presence of the afflicted. He or she (the doctor) may even choose to portray the pathogenic agent by assuming the guise of an apparition or creating it out of base materials like sand, clay, and foliage. The reception to a traumatic simulation involving the antagonist ultimately reveals the prognosis; an expression of fear or hostility indicates a correct diagnosis whilst an absence of countenance denotes an incorrect one. Once the cause has been identified the treating doctor will employ magical invocations and rites to extract the disease-object from the patient’s body. This disease-object, symbolized by a tangible object or substance that the doctor will garner during the theatrical process, is subsequently shattered together with any other demonological images for the sake of authenticating the expulsion in the eyes of the individual being treated. According to some of the tribal elders, the treatment spurs a swift recovery in all patients who are treated using this particular method.

In one case a man who had fallen ill after a full day of hunting out in the mountains was diagnosed and treated by a singing doctor for deep trauma believed to have been caused by the sight of a menacing water entity. To remedy the situation he synthesized a puppet that supposedly looked exactly like this creature and staged a re-enactment of the meeting between the two. The consequence wasn’t a pleasant one; the sight of the beast provoked such a hysterical reaction on the part of the man that a host of eyewitnesses were called forth to restrain him from hurting anyone, including himself. Suffering from exhaustion the man later collapsed onto the ground. When he came to the medicine man had already conducted a series of therapeutic rites that comprised bathing him and providing refreshments. The ritual concluded with verbal reassurances of a steadfast return to optimum functioning and health. Within a few hours the man’s ailment disappeared. Looking at these re-enactments of trauma from a modern psychiatric perspective it seems likely that the dramatic improvements to health witnessed after the culmination of these psychodramas isn’t due to the efficacy of physiological treatments but is instead a testament to the power of autosuggestion as perceived in modern psychological studies that examine the placebo effect.

One of the most elaborate rituals of this type involves the autochthonous Zuni whose healing ceremonies are facilitated by a group of healers who purportedly allow the numinous spirits of their respective gods and goddesses to possess their bodies voluntarily (voluntary possession) for the duration of the ceremony. One that was described by anthropologist Mathilda Stevenson featured a triad of theurgists dressed in the sacral paraphernalia of their deities. Their attempts to cure a male patient from a sore throat involved a meticulous performance of chants and dances to rhythms and beats belted out by various instruments whereby the patient had to cough up phlegm and pass it through a ritual mask depicting the most powerful god of all. As anyone might guess the symbolic act of passing saliva through a mask representing a deity is one and the same with divine renunciation of the illness. The ritual culminated with the ingestion of a ritual meal, an offering of two cakes that had to be divided equally between the patient and a stray dog. In sharing a small banquet anointed by the theurgists the Zuni believed that the illness might relocate to another living but lesser host.    

These treatments incorporate some very fascinating elements that have only recently become avenues of inquiry for psychiatry and psychotherapy: the therapeutic style is communal and tribal in nature, involving a large cluster of people; the process is conducted in the context of a theatrical play and is therefore a psychodrama; the narrative is mythological or theological in nature, making it a form of religious rehabilitation; the paraphernalia used allows an alignment with physical therapy that appeals both to the carnal self and the physical senses; there are obvious elements of physical and psychic transference, exemplified here by the transmission of the illness from patient to animal; and attached to the culmination of the ritual is a predetermined belief that the illness has been successfully surmounted and that the “cured” patient is now a member of an exclusive circle. The latter of these recalls the action of joining self-help or professionally-operated support movements, groups, or societies with which one wishes to be affiliated by right of having experienced and/or overcome a certain detrimental condition or habit; alcoholics may join Alcoholics Anonymous, depressed and mentally ill persons with Beyond Blue, cancer sufferers with the Cancer Buddies Network, and so forth.

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