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IX: Healing

Health of body and of mind are so related that, although the so-called medicine-man may be deficient in physical science, his function as a soul-doctor has to be treated as on the whole salutary, given the psychological condition of his patients. His sincerity is attested by the strictness of his training, the severest taboos being judged necessary to preserve his power over the forces of evil. As for his views about disease, this is normally treated as a sort of spiritual visitation, the result of an enemy's spells or of the patient's own sinfulness; so that his cure correspondingly takes the form of an exorcism designed to dispel fear and restore confidence. Accidentally, however, many of such methods of expelling evil by means of blood-letting, purging, trephining and so on have a physical no less than a moral effect.

Medicus nihil aliud est quam animi consolatio. ‘The doctor is nothing more or less than a spiritual comforter.’ So says a character in Petronius, and, although the sentiment might come better from a more reputable source, it may well embody the more important half of the truth about medical science. Or, to put the same thing in another way, health is at least as much a condition of the soul as of the body; while in many ways the two conditions overlap and merge in one another. If, then, by a division of labour that goes back no farther than to classical Greece, the cure of souls and the cure of bodies are assigned respectively to the priest and to the physician, it surely behoves the pair of them to make common cause up to a point; or at any rate to give due weight to the consideration that they are attacking one and the same problem from different sides, namely, the problem of maintaining the whole man in being.

Now such being is also, as viewed in either aspect, a becoming. It is a linked series of states, governed less by outer circumstances than by an inner law of development; and this, whether exhibited in the individual as working for his own advantage or for that of the race, must be given free play, if life is to pursue its normal course. Thus the normal can be identified with the good by all who make it their business to assist the health of mankind, either by educative or by sanitary means. But what is the normal? If we say that it is the natural, we must be careful to define human nature by its potential—by its latent capacity for actualization; and it may well be that the play of circumstance is too unfavourable to allow expansion to the full, or indeed in any degree at all approaching thereto. Here, then, is an opportunity for such conscious action on the part of Man as may modify external conditions, so that they cannot any longer check, or pervert, the self-realization that is germane to us. It is a question of liberating nature, of giving it its head.

For it would be a topsy-turvy view of the process of inducing health of body, or of soul, to think of it as the application of a system of artificial restraints—a strait waistcoat devised for what is sometimes called a ‘natural’, namely, an idiot. Unless the nature of Man depends for its perfectibility on its inherent power of growth, our case would be hopeless. Help from without would be unavailing, amounting merely to another kind of circumstance, if, thanks to an original sickliness, or an original sin, no adequate response from within could be made on our part. The living organism differs from the lifeless jelly in that it cannot be shaped to a mould. Rather, being instinct with purposive force, it readapts all surrounding influences, thereby achieving that self-adaptation which alone makes vital activity sufficient unto itself. Nay, a Reality comparable and in some sense congenital with human nature, as the highest known manifestation of life and experience, must be postulated before the material or passive element in the universe can assert any claim to that inferior being which it may be said to possess.

Now the supernatural cannot be conceived as altogether independent of the normal or natural; or, if it were, it could be nothing for us, since it is only reasonable that Man should confine his interest and practical attention to his own universe. On the other hand, between the actual and potential dimensions of living nature, and more particularly within those of our own, there is room for a real contrast, which yields a notion of the right kind of transcendency—one that meets human striving half-way, and yet puts no limit to it by premature definition of its ultimate aims. It is, however, in relation to the development of our souls, rather than our bodies, that the idea of a supernature is needed, in order to further the effective realization of the nature with which we already stand on terms of long familiarity. The same type of body that sufficed for our far-off ancestors will do well enough for us; and we account ourselves lucky in these latter days if we can reproduce it in ourselves in even moderately full measure. To feel like a healthy savage is the physical ideal that we try to realize on a holiday, and likewise treasure in our hearts during working hours.

But with the soul or mind it is different. If a modern man is ambitious to be a mental savage and nothing more, he can possibly do it, but he will not like it. It is not the psychological foundations that would require any great alteration, so far as these consist in an endowment of hereditary tendencies, which are racial characters more or less on a par with the bodily make-up. But our cultural acquisitions, which are both material and social, in that they involve readaptations alike of environmental conditions and of our relations with one another, demand an effort on our part to live up to them which brings into play powers hitherto dormant, or, at any rate, hitherto imperceptible in their effects; the increasing enjoyment of which is the spur and glory of conscious existence. Civilization does not, indeed, yet offer equal chances of self-development to all according to the measure of their capacities; which a little attention to selective breeding could, probably, bring to a tolerably high average. But at least it has proved a hot-bed in which some human souls, whether the innately best, or simply the most fortunate, have attained to a degree of mental efflorescence, individual and even collective, on which in sheer pride of race we cannot afford to go back. Regarded, then, from this stage of a process well advanced if by no means completed, the savage, however bodily fit, is spiritually backward, and, one may roundly say, repressed. In this fact we have a clue to the type of disorder to which he will be most liable. Bodily ailments are not likely to oppress him; but he will have real need of a soul-doctor.

Nevertheless, we must not exaggerate his troubles in this direction. As compared with the slaves of the modern labour-market, the savage enjoys a life of freedom, inasmuch as the responsibility and self-discipline that constitute freedom on its positive side are in his case directly and personally shouldered in his ceaseless struggle with starvation or the violence of human enemies. Yet we must not think of a primitive tribe as a sort of glorified camp of boy-scouts, practising amid rustic surroundings the rudiments of self-government, with food and shelter found, and benevolent superintendence in the background. Savages live at but one remove from death; and the wonder is that, knowing this, they are not more susceptible to panic than they actually are. Thus they may be happy-go-lucky on the surface; but there is strain underneath all the time.

This pressure of outer circumstance is reinforced by that of a uniform social drill. A régime of custom makes short work of the unorthodox. When a single set of well-tried rules of conduct stand between the folk and a pitiless fate, they can afford no monkeying with them. Such, however, is the nature of the human soul that, when thus ‘cabined, cribbed, confined’, it finds solace in a divine discontent. From within the iron bars of his cage the prisoner dreams of a liberty that encompasses him, and is yet denied him. What more appropriate than that the deserts of Central Australia should be haunted by the grim spectres of hunger and thirst? Yet, on the contrary, the natives, who, until the white man broke into their domain, were able to persist bravely in full and active being on a minimum of creature comforts, gave all their attention to vivid drama portraying the magnificent doings of their ancestors. These, in the most barely furnished of all the earthly paradises ever conceived by Man, nevertheless had mana—one might almost say, divinity—enough to do everything dear to the heart of Stone Age Man. Some authorities are apt to sum up all such ceremonies under the term ‘medicine’, while the mystagogues who preside over them are correspondingly given the name of ‘medicine-men’. Such a description, if not used contemptuously but meant to convey a functional meaning, is by no means inapt. As safety-valves for surcharged feelings of tension, such rites are undoubtedly remedial; and we can credit the savage hierophant with a general awareness of the value of such a panacea for the nerves of the public, even if he is not versed in our current jargon concerning inhibitions and wish-fulfilment.

Thus there is a whole class of ceremonial proceedings loosely classed together as Saturnalia, or Periods of Licence, to which the older anthropologists are wont to allude with bated breath as hardly fit for publication—and indeed the details are often such as are better left for the expert—whereby this method of doctoring on a communal scale can be admirably illustrated. It seems queer at first sight that religion should prescribe, by way of clearing the air, a sort of moral holiday; as may happen occasionally in times of sudden crisis, or else periodically in association with some recurrent phase of emotional intensity, as for instance a feast of All Souls or a harvest-home. For the time being, however, the religious experience of the savage tells him that there is more mana in breaking taboos than in keeping them. As for the underlying principle, the Rev. E. W. Smith, in commenting on the phallic songs and similar manifestations of the BaIla expounds it thus: ‘In normal times the abnormal is taboo, but in abnormal times the abnormal things are done to restore the normal condition of affairs.’1 A good example of such an outbreak of the carnival spirit is the Apo ceremony of Ashanti, in which Captain Rattray, in his character of a white witch-doctor, participated with scientific profit, and, one hopes, without moral scandal. Old Bosman long before had described it as ‘their eight Days’ Divine or rather Diabolical Service’.2 Apo probably comes from a root meaning ‘to speak roughly, to insult’; another name for the custom possibly signifying ‘to wash, to cleanse’—a very instructive collocation of senses, since a leading feature of the festival is what Bosman calls ‘a perfect lampooning liberty’, which at the same time operates as a purge of the passions.

We are fortunate in having the official version of its purpose straight from the lips of the old high-priest of Ta Kese, the great local god of Tekiman, in Northern Ashanti, where it was witnessed. He begins by explaining that every one has a sunsum, or soul, which may become sick, and so make the body ill. Thus, in particular, hate causes the sunsum to fret and become sick. ‘Our forebears knew this to be the case, and so they ordained a time, once every year, when every man and woman, free man and slave, should have freedom to speak out just what was in their head, to tell their neighbours just what they thought of them, and of their actions, and not only their neighbours, but also the king or chief. When a man has spoken freely thus, he will feel his sunsum cool and quieted, and the sunsum of the other person against whom he has now openly spoken will be quieted also.’3 Surely it would be hard to find an effort of theological exegesis to which less exception could be taken from a scientific point of view. No better justification could be wanted of the vis medicatrix of primitive religion, even if it take the form of shouting in chorus, ‘O King, you are a fool’. But the mighty also, it would seem, are moved to get rid of their spleen at this genial season. For the Chief said to Captain Rattray: ‘Wait until Friday when the people really begin to abuse me, and if you will come and do so too it will please me.’4 Human authority at its highest and stiffest must practise humility in the presence of the gods. Thus, at a Roman triumph, while the soldiers chanted libellous songs, an attendant whispered in the ear of the victorious general, ‘Remember that thou art a man!’

Indeed, the Ashanti would appear to have developed to the point of a fine art this salutary method of dissipating their repressions. For their folk-tales are often Rabelaisian in tone, and do not spare the characters of fetishes, spirit-ancestors, lesser gods, and even Nyame, the great God of the sky. It must be premised that, just as ordinarily ridicule is greatly resented, and entails severe punishment at the hands of the law, so decorous language is enjoined on all in such intercourse as takes place as it were in business hours. After dark, however, a story-teller, who, by way of prelude, announces that what he is about to say is none of it true, is permitted by custom to deal racily with subjects that are otherwise strictly taboo. It was held that it was ‘good’ for people to talk and laugh about what they were bound to ignore during their serious moments.5 When one thinks of those improper stories about Greek gods and goddesses which Lempriere so carefully collects, may it not be that, in the same spirit in which chaste Athenian matrons shouted disgraceful remarks from the bridge as the Eleusinian procession went by, so too a cathartic purpose may, very possibly, underlie a good deal of the unedifying matter which has come down to us in the guise of sacred story?

We may pass on to notice that rather large group of European folk-customs so well illustrated by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough, in which, at the end of the Carnival season, namely, on Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday, an effigy of the Carnival itself, after being promenaded riotously through the streets, is burnt, buried, or otherwise abolished and finished off. It would be a short-sighted view of the matter that saw herein no more than a symbolic atonement on the part of the people for their recent licence. On the contrary, the licence and the symbolized death are parts of one and the same process of moral evacuation. One perceives this, perhaps, more clearly where instead of a mere straw-man, the butt of boorish fun, some unlucky human scapegoat plays the part of the victim.

Consider, for instance, the Pharmakos or ‘man-medicine’ of the Attic Thargelia, also known as the Katharma or ‘offscouring’. ‘In time of plague, famine, or other disaster’, says the account in Tzetzes, which is probably derived from good sources, ‘the ugliest man in the city was led to sacrifice, as a purification, and an expiation of the city; bringing him to a suitable place they put cheese into his hand, and cakes, and figs, and having smitten him seven times on his genital organs with squills, wild figs and other wild growths, they at last burnt him with the wood of wild fruit-trees, and scattered his ashes to the winds of the sea.’ These ritual details are too precise to have been invented; though it remains obscure how far we must go back in Athenian history for such a barbarous custom to have been still in vogue. No doubt the negative motive of removing a pollution alternated uncertainly with the positive one of securing a blessing. Thus the Thargelia would seem to have been what Dr. Farnell terms an ‘early harvest-celebration’. Hence the victim may well have had the double character of a sin-bearer and a fertility symbol; as witness the figs that he carried, which may possibly be imitations of the long-standing horticultural process known as ‘caprification’, whereby a bunch of wild figs is hung on the stem of the domesticated variety to promote cross-fertilization.6

So, too, one is always in some doubt whether, when fire or water are used to purify, as they are physically so well suited to do, and hence to suggest, they may not, by an almost unconscious transference of meaning, be likewise thought to increase the solar heat, or to bring down the rain. Indeed, the more elaborate rituals often dramatize a psychological transmutation from a sense of the need of purgation to a triumphant contact of the liberated soul with some transcendent source of vitality; just as one sees the Old Year out and welcomes the New Year in. In short, purity pivots round on itself from an abhorrence of evil to a rejoicing in spiritual cleanliness for its own sake. Purification and communion, the execration of our worse nature and the consecration of our better nature, are thus but two aspects of one sacrament, differing only according as ritual happens to give prominence either to the imagery of rejection or to that of approach.

So far we have been envisaging the mystic evil with which religion aids mankind to cope as sin; nor can there be any doubt that this is the type of disease which most of all cries aloud for a soul-doctor. Seeing how hard it is to put the blame on ourselves for our own misfortunes, it is really somewhat remarkable how thoroughly at times a savage community can give way to a conscience-stricken mood, or, at any rate, to a ritual behaviour yielding all the appearance of it. From such a point of view any outstanding calamity is recognized as a more or less merited punishment, whether inflicted by a god, or proceeding as it were directly from the violated sanctities. Whereas, then, the individual offender can be treated as a social leper, and driven forth to live or die according as his fate determines, the community as such, since it cannot excommunicate itself, can do no more than ordain a sort of neutralization of its sinful propensities on homoeopathic lines—a sound principle enough, since subconscious troubles translated into manifest consciousness have a way of petering out.

As for the Pharmakos, he may be individually a worthless fellow, but he might just as well be the hero who for the sake of the rest volunteers to take their sins on his head. For it is as the representative of the society that he goes forth to his doom, and in his suffering his fellows acknowledge a common excommunication and requital averted. To those who live under a law of collective responsibility covering the greater part of private justice, so callous a victimization might seem less intolerable than to ourselves. Even so it is well for us to reflect that, in the last resort, we are corporately responsible for every sinner and criminal that we have somehow allowed to stray from the fold. Thus, when the executed felon takes his medicine, he is taking ours. Indeed, the gallows-tree, which now serves us to hang our malefactors, as it formerly served our Northern forefathers to sacrifice dedicated victims to the tree-god, stands both historically and Morally for a public confessional.

Whereas, however, it would be quite wrong to regard a contrite heart as the exclusive product of the higher religions, it would be equally false to conclude that primitive psychotherapy of the collective type is based exclusively on the principle that a moral inferiority-complex can be overcome by looking one's own shortcomings in the face. For it is likewise only too human to blame others for one's miseries. All the more easy is it to do so in the early rough-and-tumble world, where outrageous fortune deals in real slings and arrows; though, even so, for the savage ‘present fears are less than horrible imaginings’. In a word, witchcraft is made to account for whatever self-confessed sin cannot explain; so that the stock specific for quieting the tribal nerves is to fumigate or otherwise disperse a plague of devils, standing for ‘envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness’. Nay, the very flocks and herds are not safe from the invisible shafts of the evil eye. Yet, of course, even here one's own transgressions may lie at the root of the trouble; and, just as no hunted animal will allow itself to be caught by one who neglects the customary taboos, so a cow will go off her milk if treated without due respect for her feelings.

At the same time, it is well known that cattle are apt to be overlooked by witches, and in my own Island of Jersey, where we prize our animals, one of the chief functions of the décanteur, or white witch, is to remove such spells. Or, again, in Scotland, this is, or was, the chief use of the need-fire—teine-eiginn, that is, ‘forced’ or friction fire—which in old-world fashion must be derived straight from the sacred wood of the oak; and in Caithness, for an additional precaution, must be kindled in an island surrounded by pure water. In Morayshire all the cattle were made to smell the need-fire, a sick beast being sometimes forced to stand over it for a quarter of an hour with its tongue out. Nay, as recently as 1850, we hear from this county of a farmer who, having lighted his fire for the benefit of his herd, went on to dig a pit and slaughter one of their number therein, by way of ‘earthing’ the spiritual lightning.

Miss Eleanor Hull, from whose Folklore of the British Isles these facts are taken, is careful to note that the need-fire is unknown in her own country of Ireland. There, however, as she goes on to relate, an analogous method known as that of ‘the blessed turf’ employed the purifying power of fire to ward off a malign visitation, this time from the people themselves. Thus in 1831, on the first appearance of cholera in the island, ‘the Irish runners hurried everywhere carrying smouldering peat, small portions of which were left at wayside cabins, each family being placed under the sacred obligation to carry on the charm to seven other houses, with the exhortation to offer while the peat burned “seven paters, three aves, and a credo, in the name of God and the holy St. John”.’7 In my own part of the world, St. John used to lend his sanction to a ceremony styled faire braire les poêles, when enough noise was raised by the beating of pots and pans to create an atmosphere unfavourable to any flight of witches astride the most airworthy of broomsticks.

When such things are done so near home, then, is there any wonder that even simpler folk rely on similar devices for repelling noxious influences? In Queensland, for instance, as Mr. Roth informs us, every respectable native who has to walk by night—a thing which he does not do if he can help it—is careful to arm himself against evil spirits with a lighted fire-stick; though even a cold one is better than nothing. If he is found to be without one, depend on it that he is on a murdering expedition, or at best an elopement, and is to that extent in league with the powers of darkness. Fire, on the other hand, is a beneficent element, and came originally from heaven. It was the Wren who flew up thither, and discovered how it was made by twirling one piece of wood against another; and indeed on his back near the tail you can still see a little red patch showing how he brought it down. The same authority reports a fire-charm used to overcome a plague of mosquitoes. A grass-man called Nguru is constructed with plumed head, a stick through his huge nose, and large eyes of pipe-clay with charcoal pupils. He is carried in a sort of bier to a roaring fire built up outside the camp, and, as he burns, the whole congregation sets up a terrible din. A white onlooker avers that it really did put the fear of God into the mosquitoes, at any rate on that occasion.8 It seems as if our Guy Fawkes may have a longer pedigree than the history books would seem to warrant. After all, when one reads of up-to-date citizens of the United States recently celebrating the death and burial of the Depression as bodied forth in a lay figure, one cannot fail to realize how little crowd-psychology has altered in the course of the ages.

Indeed, it is for this very reason that, in order to understand the healing art in its full range, more especially when this overlaps with that of religion, such a study should start from the communal, rather than from the individual, reaction to all those influences affecting the soul, and through the soul the body, which are summed up under the word ‘exorcism’; which in its turn simply means to bind by an oath or sacrament, so as to render harmless. For in the crowd, as represented, not by its leader, that one-eyed man who is king among the blind, but by its average member, whose faith rests on mimicry more than on intelligent participation, one can read, as Plato would say, ‘in the larger letters’ how a process of suggestional sterilization can defeat those most deadly of microbes, the fears that make us traitors to our true selves.

As for the emblematic focus of attention, Carnival, Death, the Old Woman, or whatever this be called, it stands likewise for the focus of psychic infection which, being at first treated as if it were septic, as indeed it must be held to be, is theatrically and for all to see transformed into something innocuous, or even, it may be, positively benign and bracing. Such a swing of the emotional pendulum is immensely reinforced by crowd-sympathy. When, therefore, we go on, as it is high time that we should do, to consider the sort of doctoring with which we are nowadays more familiar, namely, the medical treatment of the individual patient, it is well to remember that a savage sick-bed is apt to be the centre of a public gathering; so that the professional gestures of the leech are usually addressed quite as much to the anxious relatives as to the actual invalid. The latter, indeed, would be lost, if this sustaining sense of communion were physically, any more than morally, interrupted; and it can be said of the savage that he lives or dies almost unconcernedly, so long as through him no evil is let loose to ravage his group. For simple folk, as for the more enlightened whose sympathies are not warped, death as such is infectious, an all-paralysing, all-devouring evil, only to be met and vanquished by the vigorous affirmation of a common right to live here and hereafter. Just because he cannot live alone, a man cannot die alone, without surrendering to annihilation; and it is pre-eminently the soul-doctor's business to see that this does not happen.

In examining the sick savage as an individual case and, so to speak, clinically, let us start from the fact of his extreme liability to auto-suggestion. Mr. Roth, himself a medical man, has coined the word thanatomania to express the fact that the Australian aboriginal who believes himself doomed exhibits a positive craze for succumbing accordingly.9 He had actual experience of some five or six examples of natives, including one fairly educated half-caste, who thus gave up the ghost of their own will, or rather want of will; one of them, who seemed to have nothing the matter with him worse than a sore throat, prophesying, with complete accuracy, that he would duly expire when three days were up. Such a frame of mind converts the immediate cause of trouble, if indeed there is any apart from an irresistible foreboding of a death-warrant sealed, signed, and delivered, into a merely secondary cause, an almost accidental feature or at most a symptom; so that the expert psychotherapist would in truth be justified in almost disregarding it in favour of the ultimate source of psychic palsy. Instead of agreeing with the well-known line of ‘The Ajax’, which warns the wise healer against chanting spells over a hurt that needs the knife,10 he must humour the patient who believes the spear in his side, or it may be the mere thorn in his foot, to be charged with the evil magic of an enemy; and, by means of an histrionic disenchantment that carries conviction to his awe-struck audience, must give the supposed wizard a taste of his own spiritual poison.

Here is, for instance, a typical instance of a successful diagnosis ending in a cure. An Arunta is ill, perhaps too ill to sit up. His relatives surround him, together with various local practitioners who feel that the case is beyond them. A really eminent medicine-man has, however, been called in, and has come a long distance on his kindly mission—all the more kindly inasmuch as it is not the custom to take a fee. After consultation with all present, it is discovered that this is no ordinary matter of a charmed bone inserted by a human enemy with magical powers. The cause of so serious and painful an attack can be nothing less than an Ullinka, that is, a short barbed stick attached to an invisible string which one of the Iruntarinia—malicious spirits, or at any rate freakish, since they are also known to make men into doctors—have placed in the sufferer's body, so that a twinge results from every jerk that is given to it. Only a master of his profession can tackle such a deadly mischief, but the present expert is full of psychic energy, derived from the crystals which permeate his entire system. First, standing back a little and fixing the patient with his eye, he makes passes outwards from his own body, so as to project some of these stones invisibly into the body of the sick man, and give him strength for what has yet to come. The tug of war arrives when the affected part is vigorously sucked. At last out comes the Ullinka, probably in bits; though the perfect Aesculapius will occasionally extract it whole, after having first cut the unseen string on which the evil spirit has a hold. To the wondering onlookers he displays the engine of destruction duly put out of action; and, presumably, the shock of the operation does not prevent the victim of it from participating in this demonstration of a hope accomplished. At any rate Sir Baldwin Spencer, who vouches for the facts, adds that the chances are strongly in favour of a recovery.11

Now the sucking-cure has at least this obvious merit, that it provides spiritual succour without the accompaniment of bodily harm; whereas so much cannot always be said for various beatings, or roastings, or duckings, whereby the theory of the quasi-physical expulsion of a moral evil is sometimes worked literally to the death—though, of course, the motive remains above criticism. If, however, disaster may occur per accidens, there are also other possibilities, hardly less accidental, yet of a more cheerful outcome. Sucking itself may be employed, as by Queen Philippa, to remove poison from a wound; though symbolism is ever ready to step in, so that the bad blood that is supposed to be drained away is just as likely to be drawn by the manipulator of the sucking string from his own gums, in order that he may spit out the bane into a shell that must then be thrown into the nearest water. Many a savage mother gets her mouth into a terrible state in thus trying to relieve an ailing child, who is quite unable to enter into the spirit of such blood-letting by proxy. On the other hand, direct bleeding by means of superficial cuts made with a stone knife is often used with success to relieve an inflamed joint, and is also tried as a palliation for rheumatic pains. If severe, however, the latter may necessitate the services of a medicine-man, in order that he may extract the poison—since the advent of the White man, it is apt to take the form of a piece of broken bottle—that an enemy has put into the tracks of one's bare feet.12

Again, wounds are treated with dressings, composed it may be of mere mud or wood-ashes, but sometimes of simples which appear to have genuinely curative properties. Mr. Roth has, indeed, compiled a herbal of some forty plants in use among the Queensland blacks, which he has shown to be more or less effective as sedatives, laxatives, astringents, counter-irritants, and so on. So, too, massage is well understood; or, at least, it works well enough in practice, whatever doctrine may prevail as to the precise origin of the malady, or as to the way in which it is induced to depart.13 Then we hear of liniments, lotions, poultices, fomentations, ligatures, and so forth, which in the closest association with remedies of another order, such as amulets, and chanted spells, indicate sufficiently that the savage, with his tough constitution to offset his feeble resistance to the mesmerism of abject fear, has a shrewd notion of how to withstand ‘the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’, so long as the spirit remains strong within him.

Now it is very interesting to note that the remedies belonging to the class which our own common sense can on the whole approve are just what the average man or woman tries first when things go wrong, and without requisitioning the aid of the specialist. In short, it is only when ordinary experience confesses itself beaten that the complaint is transferred to the category of the transcendental; or, in other words, that its physical aspect becomes subordinate to the moral. Hereupon the soul-doctor steps into the breach because he is really wanted, and because his methods are actually found to pay.

It is quite unscientific, then, to regard him as a humbug, as the less enlightened of our observers are fond of doing. No doubt there are charlatans in this ancient profession, as there always will be; and we are expressly informed by Mr. Roth that aboriginal Queensland finds it no easy task ‘to differentiate between the truly qualified practitioners and the quacks’.14 But the perfectly sincere believer in witchcraft—or as one might say the Devil—who, by symbolic passes and gestures verging on sleight of hand, casts forth the evil influences whose name is Legion, is neither knave nor fool; witness the fact that modern science is not above borrowing many a leaf from his book. Nay, even if the educated white man proves more or less completely unsusceptible to the type of fear, and consequently to the type of spiritual counterblast, which prove severally so potent with simple folk, it does not follow in the least that the immature mind will be any better for being cut off from such restoratives; even though they may have ceased to answer with what we are pleased to regard as our more ripened souls.

Nevertheless, if religion would follow what would appear historically to be its true bent, it is surely justified not merely in renouncing the Devil and all his works, but in declaring war on him in his very idea as a personified malignity striking, like sorcery, from the outer darkness, and embodying the antithesis of human or divine love, namely, hate pure and simple. Far better is it to deny resolutely that there is, or can be, any such thing. If truth is ultimately an affirmation of the heart, which but engages the services of the head to make reality—that which must be—come true, then the only true theodicy, or justification of the divine purpose, will be one that insists on evil being but a negative condition of a moral universe; which, being essentially a school of character, needs the threat of an alternative as a spur towards the good. Thus, instead of a purely external Devil, who is almost as much of a gratuitous assumption as a purely external God, the evil together with the good of this world is more truly, because more helpfully, represented as an immanent principle whose battle-ground is not outside but within the soul.

It comes to this, that the witchcraft-theory cannot stand up to the sin-theory as a sufficient explanation of how to ‘minister to a mind diseased’. Even the rude Australian, whose grim experiences of an unfriendly environment have unfortunately led him to overstress the witchcraft motive, is not altogether unaware that his spiritual troubles may be partly of his own making. Thus Mr. Roth has a whole section entitled ‘Disease and Accident produced by the Victim's Own Fault’.15 To put the matter summarily, if the savage has violated a taboo, he expects to suffer for it somehow. For instance, blindness may be interpreted as a judgement called down by a rape. Or we are told of an old man who failed to look properly after a dead body committed to his charge, and promptly found himself punished by sickness.

No doubt many of the offences that incur supernatural displeasure would by us be classed as of the ritual, rather than the strictly moral, order; so that to break a food-taboo, or to mention some one deceased by name, may fail to strike us as what they are for the person concerned, namely, gross derelictions of a sacred duty. Or, again, a man whose totem is a snake or an alligator is expected on the Tully River to say morning and evening prayers to it, so to speak, by mentioning the secret name in an undertone followed by the words ‘Where? Where?’ Such a person, so long as he piously fulfils these obligations, is reasonably safe from the attacks of his namesake; for it will at least give him fair warning, in the shape of a tingling in his thighs, or a sinking feeling in his belly. Woe to him, however, if he has sinned; for his second-sight will in that case desert him. A woman, by the way, is not supposed to benefit by her prayerfulness to the same extent; but whether this be due to the general shortcomings of her sex, or to those of the alligators and the snakes, it is impossible to determine.16

Enough has, perhaps, been said to indicate the chief interest and objective of primitive medicine, whether as exercised on the community, or on its members singly; though the subject is obviously vast, and could readily be illustrated from many another side. It would repay study, for instance, to follow the initiation of the medicine-man—the full M.D. course, so to speak—from his first selection as a candidate to his final investiture with his licence to practise, were it possible to obtain more than a glimpse of such esoteric proceedings. As with us, there are recognized grades of professional distinction, quite apart from such reputation as depends on the career of the individual; and, in general, we may be sure that the severities of the training increase with the degree of spiritual eminence thereby attained.

Thus among the Arunta education of the highest class of doctors is the immediate concern of the Iruntarinia or spirits. Nay, in a sense they are of their very creation or re-creation; since the first thing they do to the novice, who voluntarily presents himself, all alone and with considerable trepidation, in order to lie down to sleep at the mouth of the cave, is to pierce him from behind with an invisible spear. This passes through the neck, and leaves a great hole in the tongue; so that he can exhibit it among his credentials for the rest of his life. In a word, he undergoes a new birth, a spiritual regeneration involving the acquisition of an entirely new set of organs, for which more or less immaterial crystals supply the power. Such experiences induce a stupefied condition which but gradually leaves him; and in any case it is not etiquette to begin practising for another year, during which he meditates on what he has been through—doubtless persuading himself that it truly was as it seemed to be. At the same time his professional brethren take him in hand, and impart to him the manipulatory processes on which he will afterwards depend, not indeed for his inspiration, but for what we may call his stage-effects.17

Now in this bare sketch of what may be at its best a rather elaborate education on subconscious and mystical lines there are at least two main points to note: firstly, that the initiate is taking vows, is devoting himself to a sacred function for which he has experienced a ‘call’; secondly, that herein he has the active support of a body of men of similar disposition and training. In short, he participates in a sacrament which is on a par with that of Orders. Needless to say, then, he is no mere layman, if the word ‘lay’ imply lack of direct contact, and hence relative irresponsibility, in regard to mysteries which impose the highest and deepest valuation on those supreme concerns of mankind, namely, life and death. Again, needless to say, he is no magician, if the term magic is to preserve any unfavourable connotation at all in an historical context. A sufficient proof is that, far from being a malefactor like the sorcerer, he is on the contrary one whom his own society, in its purblind way, is ready and glad to regard as among its leading lights. Nay, if any modern upholder of naturalistic science be inclined to class all ritualism as magic, or even to regard religion in its entirety as little better, he is in the awkward position of having to welcome to his frigid bosom his predecessor in psychotherapy; whose experiments in hypnotism, crystal-gazing, and so on have laid the foundations of a department of medicine which up to this day has but barely succeeded in establishing itself on firmer ground.

For the rest, the modern world has perhaps something to learn from savagery; unless it is set on perpetuating that present divorce between the functions of the doctor and the priest, which bids fair to rob each of a good part of its efficacy. The fault is by no means all on the side of medical science; for its votaries are at least united in one communion pursuing a noble end with undivided will and authority. On the other hand, the churches are a babel of confused voices, preaching different versions of the gospel of divine love. Yet religion, which has always suffered from the practical disadvantage of not being able to live up to its pretensions, if only because it pitches its ideal so high, can, out of the heart of that kind of experience which escapes the grasp of clear thought, and is therefore best described as mystic, supply conceptions of health and vitality that exceed, in the force of their sheer appeal to human confidence, any notion of the mens sana in corpore sano that our favourite physician with all his eloquence can dangle before our eyes.

Moreover, as we have had reason to see, one entire section of the healing art, namely, that which operates wholesale on crowds and communities of men, was of old the most vigorous and honoured branch of the business. To-day, however, it is likely to be abandoned to untrained demagogues posing as politicians, unless indeed religion can reassert its old mastery over the many; or, at any rate, unless an education incorporating the religious spirit in its broader and more essential features can offer something better than a sanitary materialism as the uplifting hope of the nation, or of the race. Savages feel—if they hardly think—sacramentally when they seek an elixir of life in some faith that will lift up their hearts not only individually but together. What they achieve in a small way has to be realized by us in a far larger way to be of much avail; yet, though methods change and no doubt improve, the same end—spiritual health—will always beckon ahead.

  • 1.

    E. W. Smith and A. M. Dale, The Ila-Speaking Peoples of N. Rhodesia, ii 84.

  • 2.

    ap. R. S. Rattray, Ashanti, 151; see 151–71.

  • 3.

    Rattray, op. cit. 153.

  • 4.

    Ibid. 155.

  • 5.

    R. S. Rattray, Ashanti Folk-Tales, ix f.

  • 6.

    L. R. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, iv. 268 f.

  • 7.

    Eleanor Hull, Folklore of the British Isles, 160–1.

  • 8.

    W. E. Roth, North Queensland Ethnography, Bulletin 5, 27; cf. 11.

  • 9.

    Roth, op. cit. 28.

  • 10.

    Sophocles, Ajax, 582.

  • 11.

    Spencer and Gillen, The Arunta, ch. xv; see esp. ii. 399.

  • 12.

    Howitt, op. cit. 366.

  • 13.

    Roth, op. cit. 38 f.

  • 14.

    Ibid. 31.

  • 15.

    Roth, op. cit. 37.

  • 16.

    Ibid. 20–1.

  • 17.

    Spencer and Gillen, op. cit. ii. 392 f.