Lewis Wolpert
Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

In central Australia at the beginning of the last century, the Aboriginal medicine-man would bend over his patient and suck vigorously at the affected part of the body, then spit out pieces of wood or bone. Pain was believed to be due to the presence of a foreign object, which had to be removed. Cause and effect beliefs are clear. In Indonesia, a variety of animals are eaten because they are believed to be health remedies. Bat hearts are eaten as a treatment for asthma. Other animal parts eaten as remedies for impotence include cobra blood, tiger penises and monkey brains. One woman swears that five years of cobra milk and powdered shark cartilage cured her intestinal cancer.

There are also beliefs that blame things such as taboos or the stars for illness. That the Zande in Africa believe in witchcraft, as Evans-Pritchard made clear, in no way indicates that they do not believe in physical causes and effects in much the same way that we do. Belief in death from natural causes and belief in death from witchcraft are not mutually exclusive; rather they supplement one another, the one explaining what the other cannot. The Zande accept a mystical explanation of the causes of misfortune, sickness and death, but turn to other explanations when social forces and laws require them. Thus, if a child becomes ill, it could be because the parents had broken a taboo, like having sex before the child was weaned, rather than witchcraft. Again, incest could result in leprosy in the offspring. Witchcraft can even be invoked to explain why the breach of a taboo has not been punished.

It is about health that the Zande most often consult their oracles. Even Zande in good health will consult an oracle at the beginning of each month. A negative response can lead to anxiety and depressed feelings, and they will try to undo the witchcraft responsible. The family of a sick relative will consult the oracle to find out who is bewitching the ill person, and a Zande who falls ill may ask a friend to consult a poison oracle on his behalf. The means by which the oracle determines who the witch is, and how to bring about a cure, can be complex. It can involve bringing a chicken wing, and giving poison to live chickens when naming someone who might have intended to injure the ill person. Another approach is to consult the rubbing board. Names are placed on the board, and the result depends on the final position of a piece of sliding wood. Once the witch is identified, there is a further complex social procedure for trying, in public, to persuade the witch to stop. In addition, every illness has special medicines for treating it.

In Papua New Guinea there are beliefs in powers and spirits that can respond to and influence human behaviour. Illness is explained by referring to things outside the body, rather than inside it. The causes of illness are considered in terms of agent and intention, and often the forces have a human-like origin, though food could be a cause of illness. A Western doctor working with Papua New Guineans found that his searching for signs and symptoms to diagnose the illness was irrelevant to them. What they wanted was to know who was the cause, the agent of evil intent. When a cricket jumped onto a man's painful leg at the same time as the grandchild of a man who had died from a bad leg passed by, he was sure spirits had entered his leg and made it more painful. But they accept causal explanations for a breast abscess if a baby dies, as the milk swells the breast and changes into pus. In many cases there are no explanations of the illness, just an acknowledgement that it existed. When a girl who suffered from fits drowned, the discussion shifted from the recognition other illness to why she was allowed near the water alone, and so to possible sorcery. Explanations of the cause of an illness often relate to planting, harvesting or gardening: 'The spirits of the plants were annoyed at being injured.' For treatment, they would address the spirits in a loud voice. Muti is the Zulu word for medicine. In its everyday form, its adherents-who include more than 80 per cent of the population of South Africa—use potions made from the country's indigenous herbs and plants to cure headaches and stomach ailments. More complex complaints call for animal parts such as crocodile fat, hawks' wings, monkeys' heads or dried puff adders. In a gruesome extension of the representativeness principle, some muti followers believe that human body parts can be used to heal them or imbue them with special powers. Human hands burned to ash and mixed into a paste are seen as a cure for strokes. Blood is given to boost vitality. Brains are used to impart political power and business success. Genitals, breasts and placentas are used for infertility and good luck, with the genitalia of young boys and virgin girls being especially highly prized as 'uncontaminated' by sexual activity, and therefore more pure and potent. Medicines to strengthen against the forces of the still a matter of strong African belief.

Hardly any studies have investigated the success of all these mystical medical treatments, but one may assume they had some success, for why otherwise would they continue to be used?

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.