Causes of Illness and Misfortune

Harmful magic, the dead, and demons have already been mentioned individually as causes of sickness and misfortune, but the various causes must be further differentiated.[1] Although my classification is guided by the Gadaba’s statements, a list of this kind is inevitably an artificial construction, since in concrete cases, causes may be bound up with one another, and ritual practice is concerned at times with an entire bundle of causes. The different causes that are distinguished are transgressions, attacks by demons, neglect of the dead and the gods, destruction (nosto) by human beings, fate, and illnesses that come of themselves (nije).

If the proper order of things (mam) is violated by transgressions (niam pit- bar, niam bangbar), misfortune and illness may be the consequence. Transgressions are called dos or umrang*,[2] terms that refer both to the forbidden action and to its consequence or sanction. Dos lagibar means the attachment (lagibar) of the transgression/consequence to the person concerned. Incest is considered the most severe violation, the consequences of which cannot be lifted by any ritual. I know of no case of marriage within the bonso, but the village randan married a woman from the Murjia group, about which it is said that they were once members of the Cobra clan, and the Twelve Brothers had not taken wives from them. They became Tigers through the unauthorized consumption of tsoru, but marriages with the group are nonetheless considered questionable. My informants linked the randari’s loss of sight in one eye to this marriage alliance. More often than blindness, however, pox is mentioned as the consequence of incest, as is also evident in the myths.

What needs to be kept in mind is that misfortune is the automatic consequence of a transgression and is not caused by the gods or other powers. A man described to me how his head suddenly turned back on his neck while he was far from the village doing wage labor. He later found out that an unauthorized person had entered the inner room of his house in his absence. In this case, the misfortune happened simultaneously with the transgression, but it is also reported that this can happen with a considerable delay. Along with pox, fever, and blindness, a typical consequence of transgressions is vomiting, especially vomiting blood (rokto banti). In such cases, the attempt is made, through healing rituals and vows, to reestablish order and make balanced (soman korbar) what has become unbalanced; the ritual actors under these circumstances are usually the tsorubai.

Not only human beings, but animals as well can act contrary to right order, something that is perceived as a bad omen or a sign of an unacceptable state of affairs, on the one hand, and can unleash misfortune, on the other. Dogs and goats that get onto the roofs of houses have their ears and tails cut off in order to prevent negative consequences. It also happens that chickens crow or lay unusual eggs.[3] The chickens are then wrapped in a net, tossed over the roof multiple times, and eaten after a brief ritual. This is supposed to keep the house from experiencing misfortune. The appearance of wild animals may also be perceived as a bad omen or a transgression. If a chameleon (alang tend- kar) skitters across the path on which a person is walking, he will kill it and fasten it to the path with a stick. If such bad omens accumulate, specialists are consulted in order to find out the cause. For example, gods can send such signs as an expression of their dissatisfaction, something that in itself illustrates the connectedness of different causes.

Human neglect of the gods or the dead is also considered dos. In such cases, however, those neglected are seen as causes of the evil, and not the transgression itself. In general, the gods are considered more patient than the dead, who take possession of living relatives without warning and can kill them. Gods first send the signs just described as signals of their dissatisfaction and then wait. Eventually, they cause small misfortunes, injuries, the deaths of domestic animals, and only if the guilty party ignores these signs does he himself become the victim. Like the dead, gods are in a position to enter human bodies, which they do, for example, in a controlled form in the seances of the ritual mediums (gurumai); only rarely do they attack without warning.[4] The dead, like the gods, also communicate their requirements in the dreams of the living, but it is often the specialists who transmit their desires.

Entirely unforeseeable - and only in a very limited way to be traced back to errors by the individuals concerned - are the attacks of demons and sorcerers (pangon lok). Accidents are most often linked to the rau demon. Fatal accidents are frequent in the collection of colored earth from quarries; rau “eats a person there every other year” (tini borso tore lok kailani), it is said. Rau has no specific location, but is associated with the wind; his distinguishing characteristic is his sudden and, as a rule, death-dealing appearance. Soni - a different demon - makes his appearance by way of fever, and as a pair, soni rau is a synonym for unpredictable misfortune. In addition, human beings are often misfortune for one another. The various forms of malicious activities are called “destruction” (nosto) as an overarching term. Sorcerers (pangon lok) cause harm to others by means of the evil eye, the sending of objects into the victim’s body or house, or the manipulation of rau or the dead. These activities are also considered morally objectionable and dos.

Finally, two causes should be mentioned that cannot directly be combatted as such in healing rituals and that play a subordinate role in ritual contexts: fate and illnesses that come of themselves (nije). The time of birth is decisive for the future course of an individual’s life. An inauspicious time of birth (gat) stays with a person for a lifetime. This may have the effect of particular susceptibility to attacks by soni rau or by the sun. Like rau, the sun can enter the body and unleash fever, as well as states of unconsciousness (murcha bemar). These traits, such as the mentioned links to the sun or rau, are written (leka), that is, determined, at birth, some say by the god of the dead (jom raja), who also shapes the embryo’s body. Correspondingly, I heard at the time of var?ious deaths and in conversation that the time and manner of death are predetermined, a perplexing statement in view of the multiplicity of the possible and in part apparently entirely contingent causes of illness. This arbitrariness applies, for example, to illnesses of which it is said that they come of themselves (nije, ape), sometimes also with the wind. In none of the cases of severe illness I documented did the specialists or others involved identify fate or unmotivated influences as the cause of the illness, perhaps because healing rituals appear to have little chance of success against unmotivated illnesses or fated personal characteristics, while demons, the dead, and sorcerers are at least opponents who can be driven away or placated.[5] In this way, human beings remain socially capable of action.

  • [1] Cf. for the Rona of Koraput Otten (2007, 2008).
  • [2] Additional synonyms are pap and tapu.
  • [3] Such eggs may be either small and hard (rai dim) or small and soft (sam dim).
  • [4] Some informants were of the view that village gods like hundi and pat kanda generally did notpossess individuals. These gods’ vengeance, they said, brought misfortune to the entire village.
  • [5] The Rona classify causes of illness in accordance with the idea of seniority. Fate is considered to be the cause with the highest status, while those illnesses that come of their own will(“tar monke heba rog,” Otten 2008) - identical to the Gadaba ones that come of themselves (nije)- are considered subordinate and socially insignificant. The relatively modern concept of malarial fever also belongs to this latter category (Otten 2007, 2008). As the examples will show, theGadaba often ascribe malaria to other causes (e.g., soni rau), but they also assume that malariais unmotivated and therefore socially irrelevant. In contrast to the Rona, the Gadaba do notclassify the causes of illness according to the principle of seniority.
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