While Arigó’s story remains dominated by polemics, the question of how best to care for the young woman with the meningioma seemed to require an exploration of something other than whether the most extraordinary claims of healing were simply true or false. After all, medicine and miracle have always been entwined. It was from medicine that magic was born, wrote Pliny the Elder, although one could make the reverse case as well: the very symbol of modern medicine—Asclepius’ staff—is named for a Greek divinity whose temples were sites of divine cures. And yet from its earliest years, medicine has tried to sever its ties, to shed the magical and to banish the miraculous. The more I read about Arigó, the more his story spoke to this uneasy history; from the nature of magical healers to the lasting impact they have had on the medical orthodoxy that has tried to stamp them out.
In his 1943 study of the psychology of medicine men, historian Erwin Ackerknecht surveyed a vast anthropological literature and distinguished between two patterns of initiation into the healing arts. For one group, medical knowledge was obtained through carefully practiced ritual, induced by fasting, drugs, or ceremonies invoking spirits who could lead the healer to a cure. For the second, Ackerknecht cited Russian travelers to Siberia, who had reported rituals among the Yakuts that were anything but methodical:
He who is to become a shaman begins to rage like a raving madman. He suddenly utters incoherent words, falls unconscious, runs through the forests, lives on the bark of trees, throws himself into fire and water, lays hold on weapons and wounds himself, in such ways that his family is obliged to keep watch on him.
Despite the ubiquity of the word shaman today, its diffusion is recent. It comes from saman, from the Tungus—known today as the Evenk—people of Siberia, and the first outsiders to take detailed note were exiled Russian intellectuals. After a trickle of reports in the late nineteenth century, shamanism arrived in the West in two principal waves: during the Russo-American cooperation in the 1897-1902 Jesup North Pacific Expedition, and later, in more popular works, describing convulsive “pre-shamanic psychosis” as a disease unique to the North Asian steppes. From then, the word proved infectious, acquiring the hazy meaning of any healer who works by mysterious means. Seeking a definition for his monumental survey, Shamanism, the historian of religion Mircea Eliade worried over these loose boundaries between medicine man, sorcerer, medium, physician. At the same time, he felt there was an essence—an archaic “technique of ecstasy”—that could be found in a spectrum of practices from around the world.
In Siberia, the dead Tungus healer’s spirit visits in a dream. A Zulu boy falls ill, becomes a “house of dreams,” then saves himself by learning to divine. New languages appear, from the spirit tongues of Batak healers in Indonesia to Pomo bird songs in Native California. While the practice of ecstatic surgery is less common, it is not unknown. Among the seventeenth-century Mapuche of Chile, the “happy captive” Francisco Nuñez Pineda y Bascuñan watched a machi healer slice open the body of a sick man and suck the bad spirit from his liver. And Waldemar Bogoras, one of the internal Russian exiles whose ethnological work would bring shamanism to the Americas, described a Siberian Chuckchi healer who appeared to open a boy’s abdomen and thrust her fists inside.
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