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Witch-doctors and psychoanalysis


Caduveo shaman's outfit
© Claude Lévi-Strauss

While in Europe the mentally ill were shackled, some primitive societies treated them using methods much resembling psychoanalysis, explains Lévi-Strauss in the July-August 1956 Courier article, where he draws parallels between shamanistic rituals and modern psychotherapies.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Most of us regard psychoanalysis as a revolutionary discovery of the 20th century civilization and place it on the same footing as genetics or the theory of relativity. Others, probably more conscious of the abuses of psychoanalysis than of the real lesson it has to teach us, still look upon it as one of the absurdities of modern man. In both cases, we overlook the fact that psychoanalysis has simply rediscovered and expressed in new terms an approach to mental illness which probably dates back to the earliest days of mankind and which the so-called primitive peoples have always used, often with a skill that amazes our foremost practitioners.

A few years ago, Swedish ethnologists recorded and published a long healing ritual used among the Cuna Indians of Panama in cases of difficult childbirth.  In the ritual, the tribe’s witch-doc-tor or shaman stands before the suffering  mother  and  begins  a chant-recitation, explaining that her ailment is due to the temporary  absence  of  the  soul  which controls  procreation.  The Cuna Indians believe in the existence of a multitude of souls, each of which has charge of some particular functions in life.  In this particular case, the soul has been kidnapped and has been carried away to the other world by some evil spirits.

The witch-doctor tells the expectant mother that he is setting out on a supernatural quest for the lost spirit. With a rare luxury of detail, he describes the obstacles he meets and the enemies he has to face, how he over-comes them by force or guile before reaching the prison of the captive soul. Then he releases the soul and induces it to resume control of the suffering body lying at its side.

Witch-doctor cures, precursors of psychoanalysis

This cure (we have no reason to suppose it is not successful at least in certain cases) is interesting for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it is purely psychological; no drugs are used nor is the body of the patient touched. The witch doctor simply recites or chants, relying on speech alone to effect his cure. Secondly, two people must participate in the treatment – doctor and patient – although, as we shall see in a moment, this does not mean that other members of the community may not be present.

Of the two persons, the witch-doctor, whose powers are recognized  by  the  whole  tribe, embodies  social  authority  and order,  while  the  other  –  the patient  –  suffers  from  what  we should call a physiological disorder, but which the Indians attribute to an advantage gained by the spirit world over the human world.  Since  these  two  worlds should  normally  be  allied,  and since  the  spirit  world  is  of  the same  nature  as  the  souls  possessed by the individual, the problem as the Indians see it, really stems from a sociological disturbance caused by the ambition, ill-will or resentment of the  spirits  that  is  by both psychological and social factors.

In describing the causes of the ailment and recounting his adventures in the other world, the witch-doctor conjures up for his listeners familiar pictures drawn from the beliefs and myths which are the common heritage of the whole community. Since the cures are conducted in public, the adolescents of the tribe witness them and thus gain a detailed knowledge of the tribe’s beliefs.

Several of the characteristics described are strangely reminiscent of psychoanalytical treatment.  Here too, illness is considered of psychological origin and the treatment applied is exclusively psychological. Because of symptoms which he is unable to control, or more simply because he is suffering from mental stress, the patient feels cut off from the community and calls in the doctor whose authority is recognized by the group, to help him regain his place in society.  The treatment seeks to induce the patient to describe events buried in his sub-conscious mind but which, despite the passage of time, still govern his feelings and attitude to life.

Now there are events or stories that have their origin in so distant a past that the very recollection of them has been lost, yet, better than more recent events, they permit us to understand the nature of thing occurring today. These stories are what sociologists call “myths”, and it would be difficult to give a better definition to the word.

Converging and diverging aspects

The main difference between the medicine man’s treatment (as in the  example  of  the  pregnant mother above) and treatment by psychoanalysts is that in the first case it is the doctor who does the talking while in the second it is the patient. A good psychoanalyst we know says hardly a word during most of the treatment; his role is to offer the patient a stimulus (one might almost say pro-vocation) which the presence of another person provides, so that the patient can vent all his pent-up aggressive emotions on this anonymous “other person”.

In both cases, the creation of a myth is part of the treatment. The difference is that with the  Cuna  the  myth  is ready-made, familiar to everyone and perpetuated  by  tradition,  the witch-doctor  merely adapting  it  to  each individual case.

In the childbirth case, for example, the witch-doctor translates the myth into terms that are meaningful to the mother.  This  permits her to name, then understand and perhaps thereby  dominate  the  anxieties which  until  then  she  had  been totally incapable of expressing in any form.

In psychoanalysis, however, the patient elaborates his own myth.  When  we  stop  to  think about it the difference is not so great since psychoanalysis reduces the cause of psychological disorders  to  a  very  small  number  of possible situations from which the patient can choose, but do little more. All of them deal with the patient’s earliest experiences in life and his relationship with his family as a child. Here too, a state of release  is  reached when  the  anxieties which  the  patient could not express or dared not admit are at  least  translated into terms of a myth fits  his  particular story.

To  reassure  psychoanalysts and their followers,  let  me make  it  clear  at  once  that,  in using the word “myth”, I am in no way  implying  that  the  story  in question is either untrue or invented. Many myths are based on real occurrences but as I already have indicated,  what  makes  a  myth depends  not  so  much  on  how accurately it reflects the original story or event but its capacity to give meaning to the present.

Thus it is not surprising to discover that skilled psychoanalysts who have visited primitive societies to carry out enquiries with the most up-to-date methods of investigation, have found themselves to be on a footing of equality with the  medicine  man,  and  in  some cases have even  acknowledged the latter’s superiority.

This was the experience of Dr Kilton Stewart, an American psychologist  who  has  given  us  a delightful  account  of  it  in  his book, Pygmies  and  Dream  Giants[New York, 1954]. He had set off for the interior of the Philippines to study the mental make-up of the extremely primitive pygmy tribes called Negritos.  His methods closely resembled those of psychoanalysts. The witch-doc-tors not only allowed him to do as he wished, but immediately accepted him as one of them; in fact, regarding  themselves  as  specialists with a thorough knowledge of the techniques employed, they insisted on helping him in his studies. Dr Stewart considers that in certain respects their psychotherapy is even ahead of ours.

I have already mentioned that the treatment administered by the shaman is given in public. Thus, all the members of the community gradually acquire the beliefs that any  disorders  from  which  they themselves may eventually suffer can  be  treated  by  the  same methods they have so often seen used.  Furthermore,  since  they know all the stages of the treatment  in  advance,  they  are  all ready and willing to take part in it punctuating  it  with  words  of encouragement,  helping  the patient to marshal his memories, and  displaying  an  infectious enthusiasm as the patient recovers from his disorder.

As  Dr  Stewart observes  in  this connexion,  this takes  us  beyond psychoanalysis  to one  of  its  most recent  developments,    namely, group  psychotherapy.  One  of  its most familiar forms is the psychodrama in  which  several members  of  the group  impersonate the  characters  in the  patient’s  myth  in  order  to assist him to see more clearly and thus bring the tragedy to an end. This is possible only if the patient’s myth itself is social in character. Other individuals can play a part in it because it is their own myth too, or to put it another way, because the critical situation in which individuals are liable to find themselves in our society are broadly speaking, the same for all.

We  thus  see  how deceptive  to  think  that  the forgotten events which psychoanalysts helps the patient to  bring  back  to  mind,  are something private and personal.  Even that difference between psychoanalysis and shamanistic treatments, thus disappears.

“As in Paris and in Vienna”, writes  Dr  Stewart,  “the Negrito therapists were helping  the  patient  to  contact patterns and incidents from a long-forgotten  past,  painful incidents buried deep in the early time-layers of the accumulated experience which made up the personality. ”

Turn mental disorder into creative talent

In one respect, at least, the primitive system seems to be more daring and more efficacious than our own. Dr Stewart describes an experience he might have had anywhere in the world, among any of the peoples we like to call primitive.  When  he  was  about  to rouse a patient from the waking dream in which he was giving a haphazard account of incidents in his  past  life  –  conflict  with  his father transposed into myth-form of  a  visit  to  the  country  of  the dead  –  his  Negrito  colleagues stopped  him.  To be definitely cured, they said, the spirit of the sickness must bestow a gift on its victim in the form of a new drumbeat, a dance or a song. According to tribal theory, it is not enough to remove the social inferiority attributable to the illness: it must be transformed into a positive advantage, a social superiority comparable with that which we see in the creative spirit.

This connexion between an abnormal psychological balance and creative art is not of course unknown in our own theories. We have treated many geniuses, such as Gerard de Nerval, van Gogh and others, as psychotics. At best, we are sometimes prepared to pardon certain follies because they are committed by great artist.  But even the poor Negritos in the jungles of Bataan are far ahead of us in this respect, for they have realized that one means of remedying a mental disorder, harmful both to the individual suffering from it and to the community which needs the healthy co-operation of all, is to transform it into a work of art. This is a method seldom used among us, though it is to it that we owe the work of such artist as Utrillo.

We have much to learn, therefore, from primitive psychiatry. Still in advance of our own psychiatry in many respects, how far ahead  it  must  have  been  not  so long  ago  (traditions  die  so  hard with us) when we knew no other means of treating mental patients than to shackle them and starve them!


Claude Lévi-Strauss

Known for his studies and research at the University of Sâo Paulo in Brazil and the Institute of Ethnology in Paris, Claude Lévi-Strauss was formerly Deputy Director of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. He was the director of research in the religious science section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and Secretary-General of International Council of Social Sciences in Paris.