WItches and Shrinks

I’m currently reading a fascinating book. It is called ‘The Discovery of the Unconscious’ and it was written by the psychoanalyst Henri  F. Ellenberger in 1970. While nothing can prove a substitute for reading the book itself – which is of the highest standard – it is a weighty tome of some 900 pages and I am sure many are not willing to make their through it. So I’ve decided to do a few sketch pieces of the key periods studied therein.

The book is not merely about psychiatry. It also deals with various experimental and parapsychological movements – as well as showing that their ancestors can be sought out in trends which we today think of as completely irrational. It is to these that we will turn today.

Many tribal and primitive societies have medicine men or, more precisely, shamen. Shamen are to be thought of as a sort of priest – but priests who deal with certain medical conditions. They do not concern themselves with the simpler forms of primitive practices – like the setting of broken bones, for example – these are left to lay practitioners. Shamen are more interested in the more extreme forms of diseases which many contend arise from the intrusion of the body by malevolent spirits.

It is obvious to us today that many of the patients shamen try to heal are simply terminally ill and that no amount of hocus-pocus will succeed in healing them. This is pretty much true, although these patients undoubtedly gain psychological strength through these practices – and this probably assists their bodies in fighting even the most extreme of diseases.

The other class of disorders that these shamen deal with are those that today would be recognised as psychiatric disorders. In primitive societies these are not as clearly delineated from organic disease as they are in modern medicine (although it must be said that many in the modern psychiatric world insist on the organic basis of the disorders they treat, so it could be said that in some sense we still lump all these disorders together – but let us circumvent this almost never-ending debate).

Shamen approach such disorders as spiritual crises and try to heal the patient through various methods. Sometimes – especially in such cases that manifest themselves in hallucinatory or overtly emotional phenomena – the shamen will attempt to accompany the patient on a sort of spiritual journey. In some cultures, for example, the patient will be instructed to undertake very specific tasks which aim to ‘cleanse’ them, before being sectioned off in a room – usually a ‘sacred place’ – where they will then be visited by spirits and other apparitions. Today this may seem like nonsense, but perhaps this is not the case. There is every chance that what occurs in these instances is a sort of suggestion – the patient is told that they will encounter spirits and the like and so they come to believe it. Indeed, one can imagine how this might easily be possible in the case of patients already experiencing various types of hallucination.

In order to better understand this one might consider the contemporary phenomenon of the ‘haunted house’. Even if one doesn’t believe in ghosts one cannot deny that the prospect of spending a night alone in a creepy house that is alleged to be haunted is somewhat daunting; if one does believe in ghosts – as tribesmen undoubtedly believe in their spirits – there is every chance that they will interpret various experiences inside the haunted house (creeping floorboards; semi-dreaming state etc) as ghostly encounters.

When the patient emerges from the room – sometimes after days – they will (hopefully) be cured. And indeed, by many anthropological accounts they are often cured. What seems to occur in these situations is that the emotional troubles which led them to the shamen are overcome through the experiences they believe they undergo when they are sectioned off from the rest of society.

Other procedures are simpler, such as when the shamen perform various chants and invocations. In such procedures the patient will often partake and both will try to interpret the patient’s spiritual disturbances through appeal to some of the tribes myths. Such procedures bare remarkable similarities to modern psychoanalysis – similarities which the eminent French anthropologist, and founder of modern anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss thought were the key to unlock the secrets of both.

The link between such practices and more modern forms of exorcism is – from an ethnological point-of-view, at least – quite obvious. Indeed there is an historical thread that can be followed quite substantially. Exorcism takes place in many primitive societies. In these societies the exorcisms are interpreted as the removing of negative or evil spiritual presences.

Fast-forward to medieval and early modern Europe and the practice can be found updated to accommodate Christian culture. In these times psychiatric complaints are made, not in the language of primitive spirits, but in terms of theological and demonogical doctrine. In these times possession – by the devil, for example – would often be thought to be the cause of various neurological and psychiatric conditions. Convulsions, for example, were commonly interpreted in this way. Some of these unfortunates were probably suffering from neurological conditions, such as epilepsy, and exorcism was unlike to help them. But many of these attacks were undoubtedly psychological in origin – today referred to as ‘psychogenic seizures’ – and the healing of these through exorcism was commonplace.

More extreme psychopathological manifestations were also interpreted in demonological terms. There is every likelihood that those who would not renounce the devil or their practices of witchcraft, and were consequently burned at the stake, were suffering from severe psychoses. While those who ‘spoke in tongues’ were probably suffering from schizophrenic conditions – these conditions often producing severe language disturbances.

Indeed, modern psychological pioneers recognised the important of demonology for earlier psychiatric pioneers and their patients. Sigmund Freud wrote a whole paper interpreting a 17th century ‘demonological neurosis’ which he saw as a manifestation of severe depression.

In hindsight all this looks irrational to the modern observer. But then so too do manifestations of mental illness today. Would those who scoff at shamenism and exorcism, however, be so quick to think of those suffering from paranoid delusions or conversion disorders as charlatans? I’m not so sure they would. Perhaps modern scientific rationality is, partly at least, founded on the fear of madness.

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