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Healing interactions between shamans and clients (Kyzyl, Republic of Tuva)

Healing interactions between shamans and clients (Kyzyl, Republic of Tuva)

Key research issues: curses and practices of sorcery; explanation of misfortune and affliction; accusation of sorcery; the cultural symbolisation of guilt; the interplay between revenge, forgiveness and ritual innovation in shamanism; "shamanic power": experience, meaning and its implications for therapeutic efficacy.

I conducted a twelve-month ethnographic field research in the capital town of Kyzyl, the Republic of Tuva, Russia (September 2002 - September 2003). Focusing principally on private consultations between shamans and their clients, this study is primarily concerned with occurrences of misfortune and illness resulting from affliction with "black" sorcery and curses. Based on a number of case studies as characteristic examples of illness and misfortune invoked by curses and ill-intentioned sorcery, this research attempts to grasp and analyse the psycho-cultural underpinning of the explanation of these occurrences. Analytic purchase is offered to the interaction between accusation of affliction with curses or sorcery and the client's deep motivation (guilt-ridden states). Accordingly, analytic emphasis is laid on the cultural modes through which guilt and envy are objectified into the symbolic idiom of affliction with curses and sorcery. This study aims to explain the efficacy of shamanic healing by probing into the symbolisation of guilt and its "therapeutic" implications for the resolution of episodes of psychosomatic distress. The relation between affliction with curses or sorcery and the social-economic milieu in which they occur is also considered.

Accusation of affliction with curses or sorcery constitutes the most common explanation of incidents of misfortune and illness in all the consultations between shamans and clients that I examine. In most of the cases, this explanation is grounded on the client's suspicion of being afflicted with curses or sorcery by an enemy, which is confirmed by the shaman in the practice of divination (with forty-one stones). As evidence of affliction with curses or sorcery are considered - from the clients' point of view - occurrences of misfortune or illness followed (or even preceded) by dreams rich in symbolic effusions of the enemy's evil intention and by indefinite feelings of being cursed or ensorcelled. This finding leads me to consider the accuracy of the divinatory pronouncement not in terms of revelation of information not previously known, but as an implicitly rendered acknowledgement of the client's need to proclaim herself as the victim of the enemy's rancour.

The explanation of the client's misfortunes in terms of cursing or sorcery afflicted by an existing or imagined enemy entails "therapeutic" effects for the client herself: a) the latter is absolved from guilt or responsibility for misfortune, which is displaced to an enemy; b) the client's envy and hatred against a particular person - usually a close kin or a business partner - is fully justified and retaliatory measures by means of shamanic revenge (return of the curse to its sender) are undertaken as a vital necessity for the client's redemption from the disastrous effects of cursing or sorcery.

This theory of "displacement of guilt and externalisation of hate-envy through the symbolic idiom of affliction with curses and sorcery" was espoused by the main shaman-informant of my research, who ascribed the client's need for accusation of sorcery-inflicted misfortune to the struggle of coping with poverty and destitution in a post-Soviet marginal society, where resources are diminishing and the antagonism for survival is increasing. In the urban contexts of such towns as Kyzyl and ak-Dovurak (the latter is considered as the leading centre of black sorcery throughout the Republic of Tuva), suppressed aggression as a result of antagonistic inter-personal relations is allowed symbolic ventilation and externalisation in the cultural idiom of affliction with curses and evil sorcery or its reverse, vengeance by the shamanic practice of curse-return. The privacy of the consultations between shamans and clients facilitates the expression in a symbolic idiom (sorcery-inflicted misfortune) of hatred and desire for revenge as results of inter-personal conflicts occurring in hierarchical professional structures or in kinship-relations.

An overarching premise pervades all the case studies I examine in my research: this is the cultural assumption that the client's redemption from the effects of cursing or sorcery can be accomplished by the shaman's "counter-attack", the ritual return of the same effects to their original sender. As such - and in stark contrast to Christian ideology - the shamanic ethos of interpersonal conflict prescribes revenge by means of ritual action as a vital necessity for the person's survival, involving the instigator of a sorcery-invoked affliction and the victim in a "your death-my life" relationship and precluding any possibility for reconciliation between them. In one case study (a rare occurrence as the client is Russian) the necessity of displacing responsibility for misfortune engenders remorse of conscience and intensifies the client's guilt, which is externalised in the candle as a Christian symbol of compassion and forgiveness, used by the shaman in expiation of the client's desire for revenge. At the same time, the symbolism of the candle functions in a "therapeutic" mode for the shaman himself by permitting the latter's subjective externalisation of guilt-ridden states through an innovative ritual act, purification with the candle, justified in the name of religious cultural notions, such as forgiveness and expiation.

Thus, I argue for the case studies of this research that the effectiveness of shamanic healing as a form of "indigenous psychotherapy" derives from the symbolisation of deep motivation (guilt and hatred or envy) into the culturally acknowledged idiom of affliction with curses or sorcery. This process involves shaman and client in a simultaneous experience of a shared state of mind, which leads a distress-episode to its resolution by the shaman's vital experience of abreaction, the vicarious reproduction and acting out of the client's intra-psychic conflict through the shaman's personal symbolism of affliction, suffering and its transformation into a divine charisma. In a manner reminiscent of the pattern of psychoanalytic therapy, the pattern of contemporary shamanistic cure in Kyzyl requires that the client or patient enters a therapeutic process, which takes on all the qualities of the shaman's own initiation: an occurrence of affliction leads the apprentice to internalise a religious state of mind, or even to become a shaman in her own right.

I would welcome comments and suggestions from researchers and scholars engaging in research on relevant subjects. I would also welcome invitations for seminars and lectures based on my fieldwork as well as for workshops and conferences on the subjects of ritual healing and shamanism.

All expenditure for my fieldwork in the Republic of Tuva was covered by an award from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, 220 Fifth Ave. 16th Floor, New York, NY 10001-7708.

A shaman purifying the audience in a ritual held in the sacred site chalama of the region Khaan Daglar

A shaman purifying the audience in a ritual held in the sacred site chalama of the region Khaan Daglar


Shamans propitiate the spirits in a ritual held in the sacred site chalama of the region Khaan Daglar

Shamans propitiate the spirits in a ritual held in the sacred site chalama of the region Khaan Daglar