An American Mystagogue

Psychic Plagues and Witch-doctors: Part One



~ Saint Vitus, Patron Saint of Dancers, Comedians, Actors, and Epileptics; often an intercessor for those suffering from the Dancing Mania.

“The effects of the Black Death had not yet subsided, and the graves of millions of its victims were scarcely closed, when a strange delusion arose in Germany, which took possession of the minds of men, and, in spite of the divinity of our nature, hurried away body and soul into the magic circle of hellish superstition.

It was a convulsion which in the most extraordinary manner infuriated the human frame, and excited the astonishment of contemporaries for more than two centuries, since which time it has never reappeared.

It was called the dance of St. John or of St. Vitus, on account of the Bacchantic leaps by which it was characterised, and which gave to those affected, whilst performing their wild dance, and screaming and foaming with fury, all the appearance of persons possessed.  It did not remain confined to particular localities, but was propagated by the sight of the sufferers, like a demoniacal epidemic, over the whole of Germany and the neighbouring countries to the north-west, which were already prepared for its reception by the prevailing opinions of the time.”

~ Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker, The Black Death and The Dancing Mania

         One of the oddest and most readily available to research cases of a ‘psychic plague’ is the outbreak of what became known in various forms as St. Vitus’ dance, St. John’s dance, tarantism or the dancing mania that swept through Europe between the 1300’s and 1600’s. The mania itself would die down and rise up in those times intermittently, eventually fading from existence around the same time as the Age of Enlightenment.

The first record of the dancing mania was in 1374, in which a group of men and women from Germany were reported to have coalesced in Aix-la-Chapelle and started dancing in hand-held circles until they would collapse from exhaustion and lay in the streets. While caught up in the dancing frenzy dancers would allegedly be unable to see or hear what was going on around them and would be plagued by a variety of phenomena they attributed to demonic presence, including the perception that they were submerged in a river of blood, seeing the Heavens open up, and experiencing other demonic or spiritual phenomena.

Months after the incident in Aix-la-Chapelle, another group of people numbering near five-hundred were seen to have developed the dancing plague in Cologne, Germany, as well as another case in which about a thousand people reportedly caught the mania in Metz, France. Vagabonds were known to either have contracted the mania or have pretended to do so, traveling city to city for aid and succor against the ailment, and thusly spreading it even further.

While it may be tempting to say that they suffered from some chemical or microbial illness that caused such things, the rapid spread of the mania and subsequent peaks and valleys of its manifestation make it unlikely; this is partly due to the fact that the dancing mania would manifest itself in wildly different ways depending on the culture and people of the area affected, in the end reflecting the mindset of those involved. In some areas seeing the color red was known to have sent the afflicted into spasms of rage, and other colors having an affect (though this was found mostly among Italians, and less in Germans). Music was known to send some into frenzied dancing, some songs about the sea when heard would compel the afflicted to throw themselves into rivers, while it would put other afflicted into a deep fugue.


One of the few common themes in the mania that seems to have had a widespread anchor were the lowering of cognitive and social inhibitions (peasants left their farms work, children ignored their parents, unmarried women engaged in revelry and the dissolution of gender norms), making this in my opinion a sort of Dionysian-archetypal outbreak, ecstatic altered states of consciousness that releases one from the chains of society and self-responsibility. The subtle, unconscious draw towards the ecstatic revelry bringing people to the ‘infected’, and the belief that it was a ‘force’ that existed beyond the mind kept people ‘infected’. This was probably triggered by the recent experience with the Black Plague that one must remember had just recently ended before the first accounts of the dancing mania. The black plague wasn’t something you chose, it was something that happened TO you, and the dancing mania was treated in the same way, even if the affected were unconsciously drawn to the Bacchanalian frenzies after an era of horrible death and disease. I am not suggesting that this unconscious attraction and subsequent mental over-ride by the psychic plague was not ‘real’ or that those afflicted did not suffer from it, since there were even casualties such in the case of the Dancing Plague of 1518 among other incidents, in which some of the afflicted danced themselves to death, from strokes or exhaustion.

This may also account for the negligible effect of subsequent exorcisms performed upon the dancing maniacs. Somewhere between a third to a half of Europeans were killed by the plague, possibly instilling broken faith in the clergy (if not God) who failed to deliver their flocks from the black death leading to the ineffectual ability of the priests to dispel what was considered another ‘plague’, authority being a key component to psychological witch-doctoring and general hypnotism.

However, the mania did not go untreated. Exorcisms were not the only attempt at cures. In Italy, where the belief was that the mania was caused by the bite of a tarantula, traveling musicians who catered to this market explicitly (to those afflicted with what was known as Tarantism)  would play music for the afflicted who would dance ecstatically until the music ended, sometimes because of the exhaustion of the musicians, and would instantly fall into painful fugues. Binding the afflicted in strips of cloth was also employed. Dancing and praying to St. Vitus was also used to treat some of the afflicted, with various results.

One form of treatment was devised by a man named Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, or better known as Paracelsus, a German-Swiss physician, botanist, alchemist and occultist of the Renaissance who had divided the dancing plague into three categories, Chorea imaginativa (stemming from the imagination), Chorea lasciva (stemming from unconscious desire and will) and Chorea naturalis (stemming from biological disease).


~Paracelsus, copy of a lost portrait, Born- 1493  Died-1541

To treat St. Vitus’ dance, Paracelsus devised of a psychological ritual that removed any Catholic trappings, notably doing away with prayers for intercession from St. Vitus, which reflected a growing animosity towards the Roman Catholic Church.  Those afflicted with Chorea imaginativa were told to create an image of themselves in resin or wax and to focus all of their own sins  upon the image before burning it to ash.  Those affected by Chorea lasciva were recommended by Paracelsus to endure fasting and a general stripping of their liberties. Paracelsus’ opinion was that the afflicted should be placed in solitary confinement and forced to sit in uncomfortable positions until such a time in which the misery of doing such would result in feelings of sincere penitence. This may sound harsh, but he also warned against doing anything that would anger the afflicted on the basis that infuriating them would cause the illness to be worsened, perhaps illustrating that such afflicted may have participated willingly in the cure.

~ Seth Moris

Psychic Plagues and Witch-doctors: Part Zero


dancing mania

 “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