"You Are the Goat, I Am the Tiger”: The Rituals of Healing

Each illness is a reminder of a relationship.

Piers Vitebsky (1993, 89)

The Social Meaning of Illness: Precarious Relationships

Illness refers not only to physical pain or disturbances in the body’s function, but also to the cultural meaning ascribed to such occurrences. Who is considered “sick” is a matter of definition and interpretation that is socially determined, but also depends on individual disposition. With regard to this cultural and individual acknowledgment of illness, Vitebsky writes about the Sora:

Fevers are frequent and people of all ages may continue to work strenuously and cheerfully in a state in which most of today’s Westerners (and middle-class Indians) would not even attempt to sit up in bed. Most people carry most of these ‘diseases’ in their bodies most of the time. Yet they are ‘ill’ only sometimes. (Vitebsky 1993, 81 f)

Vitebsky describes how the Sora’s dead pass their own experiences of illness and suffering on to the living and so cause in their offspring the illnesses of which they themselves died. The dead make themselves noticeable in an individual’s life by causing illness on multiple occasions, but it depends on the living to perceive and interpret the symptoms and take ritual steps or to ignore them (88). Healing rituals are thus in themselves the acknowledgment of a symptom and hence also of a relationship to a deceased individual who is causing the symptom and thereby wants to establish or demonstrate a relationship to one of the living.

[T]he Sora word for ‘healing’ the patient also implies ‘acknowledging’ the claims of the person who is causing the illness. [...] Each illness is a reminder of a relationship and each is temporarily satisfied, or blocked off, by the performance of an acknowledgement [a ritual] which addresses itself to that relationship. (89)

Without going into detail about the Sora’s complex practices and ideas, I would like to focus on two aspects that are also significant for the understanding of illness and healing among the Gadaba. First, illnesses are not objective and necessarily perceived facts, but depend on the acknowledgment and interpretation of those affected, the healer, and public opinion (cf. Levi-Strauss 1963,179). Sec?ond, many illnesses have social relationships as a theme and in the eyes of the participants also as a cause. Illnesses are thus generated by society, and their healing makes reference to society; they are social and relational.[1] In the broadest sense, illness can be described as a precarious or destroyed social relationship, and healing, correspondingly, as the activities aimed at bringing this relationship back into balance or getting rid of it entirely. This broad definition makes it possible to avoid focusing exclusively on individual states of health and to locate phenomena of illness in areas not restricted to those with which we are familiar.

For the Gadaba, the domain of illness and health in the sense of precarious relationships contrasted to balanced and good ones often includes the entire village and even beyond. The gods of the village protect the people (lok) and animals (gai goru[2]) who reside within it. “Fever-pain/sorrow”[3] (jor duka) is the most common idiom for the things and beings that the gods keep away from the village and is an extremely broad category, including attacks by leopards just as much as those by harmful magic (nosto). Regular sacrificial rituals and the com- mensality of the Four Brothers ensure the gods’ support in keeping illness away. A hypothetical question about the consequences of the neglect of these duties is answered with misfortune (bada, bipod) and illness (bemar) or more drastically with the complete destruction of the village (ga sapa). Less hypothetical are errors that may creep into the performance of the rituals or transgressions by the pujari, which can have an impact on the village’s health.[4] Among the terms that characterize the domain of health are good (niman, bol, nik), happy or carefree (suk[5]), right (tik), and even, correct, and balanced (soman). An excerpt from the invocation to the house deity, given earlier in full, makes clear the encompassing character of the protection sought from the gods.

Greetings, Great God

The earth below, the heavens above [...]

See [protect] the children, the daughters The cattle, the sons, the agriculture, the harvest

[We] hurry to bow down

[Protect us] where [we] walk, where we go

Maintain [it] good [and] even

The Gadaba’s readiness to recognize a phenomenon as illness is also linked to its intensity and the suddenness of its appearance. A symptom that makes a severe and unexpected appearance attracts attention and sparks speculation about its cause. Nevertheless, apparently mild pains can also be categorized as significant. In one case, a woman’s stomach pains were the subject of lively interest, while a child’s inflamed burns were largely ignored. In such and similar cases, medicine (oso, sindrong*) is sometimes smeared on, but no further measures are taken or causes sought at first. In what follows, I will concentrate on occurrences and symptoms that were judged significant by those affected. In these cases, a symptom is perceived, a cause is sought, and finally, a measure is taken. In “Western” medical terminology, there is a diagnosis and a therapy. As a rule, the interpretative authority belongs to the specialists, who discover causes and suggest and carry out ritual steps. In the following section, I will discuss the causes of illness, after which I will turn to the processes of diagnosis and treatment and the distinct participation of the various specialists. After describing the healers’ most important means in another section, I will discuss various forms of precarious relationships, each of which will be illustrated with examples.

  • [1] These remarks on the double relationship between illness and the social draw on StevenLukes’s explication of Durkheim’s collective representations: “Durkheim wanted to say both thatrepresentations collectives are socially generated and that they refer to, and are in some sense‘about’, society” (Lukes 1992, 7).
  • [2] Literally, “cows-cattle,” meaning all domestic animals.
  • [3] “Fever” (jor, sorong*) is often used as a synonym for “illness.”
  • [4] Mistakes and transgressions by others, in contrast, result in harm only for their own houses.
  • [5] The word most often occurs paired with its opposite, sorrow/grief (duk). Duk suk describesemotions in general.
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