Psychic Plagues and Witch-doctors: Part Zero
“A depiction of dancing mania, on the pilgrimage of epileptics to the church at Molenbeek.”
Painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger
“Thus, the cause of the disease chorea lasciva is a mere opinion and idea, assumed by imagination, affecting those who believe in such a thing. This opinion and idea are the origin of the disease both in children and adults. In children the case is also imagination, based not on thinking but on perceiving, because they have heard or seen something. The reason is this: their sight and hearing are so strong that unconsciously they have fantasies about what they have seen or heard.”
~ Paracelsus, on the Dancing Mania
This will be the first section of a “five” part blog series I will be writing on the topic of “Psychic Plagues and Witch-Doctors”. This will serve as an introduction firstly into what I mean when I say “Psychic Plagues” and “Witch-Doctors and explanations for my word choice.
The first part of the series will focus on what is known as the Dancing Plagues or Dancing Manias that occurred in Europe from the 1300’s and intermittently popping up until about the 1600’s. I had been interested in them before, being one of the classic examples of mass hysteria and a culture-bound syndrome, but recently had found a free, public domain audiobook on the LibriVox website and after giving it a good listen, found that this subject spans multiple incidents throughout human history, continuing on to the modern age.
“Psychic plagues’ and the witch-doctors that attempted to treat the illnesses could be the topic of blogs on their own, but I will stick to only four for this series. The second, third, and fourth parts will cover Witch epidemics, Lycanthropy and Modern Examples (TBA) respectively.
You might be wondering why I chose to call it a “psychic plague”. The answer is that I use the term psychic as is meant in the term ‘psychology’. In modern terms we call it the ‘mind’, but psyche originally meant the ‘soul’, which in turn has the attributes of our concept of ‘mind’ and its cognitions. In short, different terms for the same phenomena in at least this instance, while not being true for ideas on an ‘immortal soul’ which is a different concept altogether. The reason for using the word plague is because what I will be talking about is not the psyche, but rather things that are contracted, and spreads in the psyche of many. The plague descriptor serves as a useful analogy due to the epidemiological nature of such things.
You may also be scratching your head at the term ‘witch-doctors”. In this context I am referring to those who treat ailments or illnesses that exist and are transmitted through the psyche/mind/soul and who utilize their own control of the psyche/mind/soul to actualize psychic/mental health. While the term is usually used in a derogatory or pejorative term to denote quackery, I choose to address it as a sort of cross-cultural ‘role’ that can be filled by Latin american Curanderos, modern Therapists, Christian exorcists, Mesmerists/Hypnotists, and many, many more types of traditions who deal with “psychic medicine” either in addition to or individually from “material medicine”, though in truth, the two are intrinsically linked in a way that prevents isolation from each other even if the connection remains ignored. Psychosomatic and somatospychic loops essentially, reliant on each other for their existence. The reason why “witch” doctor is preferable to other terms will be clarified to a greater extent in the coming “Witch epidemic” post, as well as what it means in a historical sense to be ‘witched’. I will also ask the reader to keep in mind that the methods of said figures will not always be agreeable to one’s own morality; for example, human sacrifice and projection of guilt upon innocents to ward off a psychic epidemic, something that is sadly not isolated to one culture.
~Examination of a Witch (1853) by T. H. Matteson
While many of these traditions are considered ‘shams’ or ‘woo’ by many, it must be taken into account that whether or not the person in the role of ‘witch-doctor’ actually believes in what they are doing to dispel the illnesses, if it is performed the right way the ‘patient’ will indeed free themselves of the psychic distress. The issue that a large amount of people take with these kinds of figures is that many ‘witch-doctors’ in the ‘modern world’ are sham artists that try to convince their potential patients that the cure will work on the ‘materia’ at a level of success that they simply will not achieve, will usually also demanding large amounts of money for the attempt. This may be con-artistry, but I ask the reader to keep in mind that most if not all forms of con-artistry rely to one degree or another on mimicking an extant skill or procedure, and that generally it is easier to pretend to be an expert (someone whose purpose is to know something others don’t) than to actually be an expert, so it is inevitable that more charlatans exist than professionals. With the added pressure that many charlatans actually believe that they can do what they claim (with or without proof, on what can only be called a delusion) it is no shock that people distrust the very idea.
I hope to illustrate however, how psychic outbreak, epidemics of the mind, have not only risen up multiple times in history but continue to do so; I will also attempt to elucidate the roles that historical/cultural ‘witch-doctors’ have had in treating these outbreaks, past and present.
Stay tuned for the next parts!
~ Seth Moris