Monday, November 30, 2009

247. The Baseline Scenarios -- Part 23: The Sucking Cure

One of the most common techniques in the repertoire of shamans, healers, "medicine men," etc. is the method of curing the sick by literally sucking the sickness out of their bodies. Often it emerges in the form of a small stone, bone or "dart." Among the Aka Pygmies,

witches or sorcerers (the Aka make no distinction) practice secretly and are unknown to the general population, although ngangas (healers) are highly suspect. The witches send poison darts (ndoki) into the body of their victim, and the person eventually dies from the poison unless the nganga can extract the dart, usually by sucking it out ("Aka Pygmies of the Western Congo Basin" in Intimate Fathers, Barry Hewlett).
Similar cures performed by Bushmen healers have been described by Richard Katz and Elizabeth Marshall (as quoted in the Wikipedia article, Bushmen Healing and Rock Art):

Katz . . . states that the people can only heal when they learn to control their boiling n/um, or energy. The healer learns to “pull out sickness” from the people. When they do this, they use !kia, or enhanced consciousness, to see the things they need to pull out, like “the death things God has put into the people”, and they get them out.

According to Elizabeth Marshall, to cure people and get the evil out of them the medicine man, or healer, will begin by washing his hands in the fire. He then will place one hand on the person’s
chest, and one on their back, and will “suck” the evil from them. The medicine man often shudders and groans as he does this, and then will suddenly “shriek the evil into the air.”
Though I haven't been able to find any reference to the "sucking cure" among Mbuti healers, the importance of this method among both the Aka Pygmies and Ju/'hoansi Bushmen seems consistent with a tradition dating all the way back to HBC. It's also possible that sucking could have been introduced relatively recently by neighboring Bantu healers, though the centrality among the Ju/'hoansi of both the method and the belief system associated with it makes such a hypothesis unlikely, in my view.

Suction as a healing method is referenced several times in Mircea Eliade's comprehensive, though now somewhat outdated (1964), Shamanism. The following was written with reference to North American Indian practice, but its similarity with Hewlett's description of Aka healing (see above) is striking:

Injurious objects are usually projected by sorcerers. They are pebbles, small animals, insects; the magician does not introduce them in concreto, but creates them by the power of his thoughts. They may also be sent by spirits, who sometimes themselves take up residence in the patient's body. Once he has discovered the cause of the illness, the shaman extracts the magical objects by suction. (p.301).
Similar practices are reported by Eliade, along with many others, among traditional peoples in many parts of the world. Here, for example, is a description of shamanic practices among Nepalese Buddhists:

Both Wangchuk and Lhamo Dolkar are reputed to be able to cure both physical and complex psychosomatic or supernaturally caused complaints. Their main healing technique is sucking . . . Lhamo, who is in trance . . . when she heals, sucks any afflicted part of the body . . . extracting in the process either a dark liquid or a dark sticky substance . . . and in the event of a more serious
affliction, she may even extract stones, which are either white, brown or black (Buddhist
Healers in Nepal: Some Observations
, Angela Dietrich, p. 474).
Of special interest is the following observation, from Eliade's book:
By suction, the shaman draws out with his teeth a small object "like a bit of black or white thread, sometimes like a nail paring." An Achomawi told De Angulo: "I don't believe those things come out of the sick man's body. The shaman always has them in his mouth before he starts the treatment. But he draws the sickness into them, he uses them to catch the poison. Otherwise how could he catch it" (Shamanism, p. 307).
The skepticism of the Achomawi informant makes sense. In fact there is very good evidence that the healer's performance in a great many instances -- if not all -- is a clever sham. I remember a story I read somewhere concerning a healer disturbed at his inability to produce the necessary object -- until he learned the trick from an older colleague. He persisted with his investigations of the healer's "art" until he learned to produce an impressive display of blood along with the sucked out object -- by biting his tongue!

If the history of religion begins with shamanism, as many now believe, then a clever bit of deceit may lie at its heart.

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