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

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies




by Ariana Perez

“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

~W.I. Thomas, the Thomas Theorem 

“Every theory is a self-fulfilling prophecy that orders experience into the framework it provides.”

~ Ruth Hubbard 

Ever repeat a word in your head, or out loud, enough times so that it seemed foreign, clumsy, or just plain strange? The word ‘prediction’ is like that for me. Ever since I started tapping into the etymology of words to try to get a better grasp on how they’ve been used in the past, and trying to mark their eventual growth, I reflexively dissect words into their prefixes and suffixes. It wasn’t until one day I noticed that prediction is self explanatory. Pre-Diction. Speaking of the future. Not so strange. At least, I thought. Until one day I stumbled across something known as the Golem effect. The Golem effect is essentially the phenomena that when individuals have lower expectations placed on them either by authority figures or themselves, they actually do worse; essentially, a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The Golem effect, as well as its logical opposite the Pygmalion effect (which works the opposite way, with higher expectations being placed and actualized) are two sides of a concept that humans have been aware of, and using to the advantage and disadvantage of themselves and others for a very long time. In fact, self-fulfilling prophecy could be asserted as one of the fundamental properties of human magic. What is a spell, anyway? Or an incantation? An enchantment? A charm? The etymology alludes to the historical idea of magic, and its mediums, as opposed to the more modern, media based aesthetic of thinking of magic as firing fireballs out of your hand, Dungeons and Dragons style, or magic being akin to the television show series “Charmed” that was so popular years ago. Each word has its root in language, in voice or symbols representative of things.

And is it so hard to see the very idea of a spell being something ‘spoken into existence’? While it may not be as romantic as other ideas on how such things work, self-fulfilling prophecy is a far cry from impotent. Think about some of the things we speak into existence, that we make real by consequence of our belief. Nothing powerful right? Except law, money, and societal moors and folkways, things that shape our reality’s foundations.

The Thomas Theorem, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” was formulated by sociologist William Isaac Thomas in 1928 and serves to underline the power of talking things into manifestation. It essentially posits that if you believe something to be real, regardless of whether or not it could be said to be ‘objectively’ real, it becomes ‘real’ by virtue of the consequences that are begotten from the belief. And while many may bemoan that the idea one is simply ‘self-suggesting’ as boring, or mundane, I would remind them that this has some evidence of being the root of magical practices the world over. Believing in things in a way so that they perpetuate themselves into existence, sounds like magic to me, even if its completely within the natural realm.

~ Seth Moris

Do you have a Synthetic or Analytic Cosmology?



“I’ve always been fascinated by physics and cosmology. It gets more and more scary the older you get.”

~John Banville



1. The study of the physical universe considered as a totality of phenomena in time and space.”

Most people have a functioning folk-cosmology that they live within and interpret information with on a daily basis. The question is what kind are they utilizing? For the majority of people, this question goes unanswered. Indeed, the question itself is usually never asked. Cosmological presumptions are nearly invisible to the average person, precisely because it is the foundation for their personal reality.  They do not question it more than the average person of any age questioned their personal or cultural cosmological ideas, instead viewing it as completely rational and attributing to other cosmologies past and present an air of ‘mythological’ triteness.

However, today we are going to take a look at two ways to quantity a cosmological outlook; analytic and synthetic, or Top-Down and Bottom-Up designs.

Analytic cosmologies would function on what is known as a Top-Down design. It is based on breaking down systems into smaller sub-systems. Generally speaking you would see this in a cosmology that starts at the “Top” with God, the Prima Materia, the Big Bang  or some kind of force or cause that started out the whole cosmic shebang and works itself all the way down to little ‘ole humans, and further down into atomic particles and the like. The big tell of a Top-Down design is that humans are generally considered somewhere near the bottom, or end, of the cosmic machine.

The world of a person who believes that God or some First Cause pushed humanity into being could be considered Top-Down. An idea that many material positivists and Christians could find in common for once perhaps, since they both run around the same Fiat Lux themed idea, though they disagree on what exactly caused it. The Top-Down cosmological design is especially prevalent in Post-Christian cultures. An example of Top-Down cosmology can be seen in the book of Genesis.

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty,darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so.8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

~New International Version (NIV)




On the other end of the spectrum we have what could be called Synthetic cosmologies, or Bottom-Up designs. These get a bit trickier for the average person to wrap their mind around simply because we are used to being the end result of whatever forces we put our faith in for begetting our existence, be they ‘scientific’ or ‘religious’.

Bottom-Up design cosmologies would focus on the piecing together of smaller systems into larger ones so as to understand the universe, or reality. Synthetic design is sometimes referred to as a “seed model”, because of the way it grows outward with ever more complexity. Bottom-Up designs can start at the atomic level, or the idea of fundamental particles that make up the world and have convalesced things into existence, but it can also denote starting at your personal existence and moving outward, a ‘first-person’ cosmology so to speak, where your birth and life and experience are the foundation for your understanding of the universe.

An example of a ‘first person’ Bottum-Up design can be illustrated well with the Buddhist ‘Parable of the Arrow” which was allegedly given by Gautama Buddha to his disciple Malunkyaputta when the disciple asked why the Buddha would not answer the the Fourteen Unanswerable Questions, the Buddha’s response  follows below and illustrates a Bottom-Up, or first-person relevant world approach.

“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison.
His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’

He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’

He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.”

— Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya” (MN 63), Majjhima Nikaya


Essentially it comes down to which point you want to start in and which direction of cosmological complexity you want to go in. I say ‘which point you want’ because at the end of the day, cosmologies are ultimately less important than your actions. Analytic and synthetic designs aren’t mutually exclusive, and  human brain is more than capable of utilizing each.
~ Seth Moris

Consideration of Vitality



ERI~ Ishibashi-Yui

“Then the second thing we observed, is the web as an analogy of mutual interdependence, we could call it the idea that all existence is relative, that all existence is transactional.”

~ Alan Watts 

It is perhaps not effective enough to realize that inevitably one day we will die, to be able to reap the benefits of living. Being able to absentmindedly assert that one understands that life must end, does not mean that one is being mindful of the cessation of vitality. We cannot comprehend death without giving a long hard stare at what it means to say something is “alive”. What is life? What is vitality?

I once read a definition of life that stuck with me, that a living thing was  “a closed thermodynamic system that exports entropy”.  In other words a syntropic system. Everything breaks down. If you abandon a house and it is not repaired over time, it will degrade and fall apart. If the entropy is exported, via repair and the ‘trashing’ of garbage, the house may stand for a hundred years or more (depending on the materials). The same is true for the human body, in that we are a system that is under the effects of entropy, except that we stave it off. Not forever either, as we are all at least abstractly aware of aging and death.

To survive, we put organic matter into our mouths, chew it up, and consume the vital nutrients that make up the food. Our bodies digest it, break it up into smaller bits and uses it to fuel, construct and repair our bodies. We burn calories, but we cannot burn infinite calories before we break down.

We are used to measuring our vitality in ‘time’. We say we are X amount of years old. That we are Y amount of years young. We say that someone has lived a long time, or lived a short time. But time is fleeting, and while clocks synchronize to each other this does not change the first-person subjective expansion and contraction of time that we all experience every day. We lose time to movies, reading, playing music and so forth. Time drags on when we are bored, in pain or anxious. Perhaps a more accurate way of viewing things would be to think of our lives not in a manner of years, or time, but rather to think of it as a finite vital essence. This is of course meant as an abstract, I am not suggesting anything akin to Franz Mesmer’s “Vital Fluid”. But the use it serves as an abstract is to remind us that all things have a price.


Lets suppose you work for ten dollars an hour (just to make the math easy) and forty hours a week. By the end of the week you’ve got a crisp 400 dollars in your pocket. We often hear people refer to work as trading time for money, or that time is money. But what is it exactly that the clocks are measuring? Your vitality, waning. You are trading a piece of your life, for the monetary gain. I am not putting this in a negative light either. If you didn’t trade the vitality for money, you’d just be trading it for something else. Setting traps for game, growing crops, making shelter, all have their cost in vitality. Money is simply another way of exchanging this vital essence, but we are mistaken to think of it as ‘time’. But at the end of the work week, you can look at that 400 dollars and see forty hours. Five work days, eight hours a piece. You can look at these ‘eight hours’ and divide it further.

If you would, stop for a moment and count out a full minute (preferably using a clock). While you do, note your breathing. Note any bodily functions that arise. Any feelings or sensations. Your heart beat. Consider that your body is using a large portion of the nutrients you eat to give you body heat (this is why mammals generally eat a great more than reptiles). While you are thinking these things take note that your brain requires approximately 20% of your daily calories to even function.   Take note of all of them for a minute. An hour is sixty of those. Eight hours is 480 of those. A forty hour work week is 2,400 of those.

Our vitality is finite. It’s not enough to simply understand that one day ‘we die’. Its not that simple. Every day, we lose more and more of a finite store of vitality, constantly replenished and guarded over, but ultimately squandered away by many due to a sheer lack of appreciation. Every moment is an exchange. Every choice is a transaction.

Nothing is free, and this is precisely why our actions have value.

~ Seth Moris


Humans actually appear to be considered open thermodynamic systems, not closed. My mistake.