Tuesday, October 23, 2012

30,000-2600 B.C.: Medicine man wards off black magic

In the primitive world, the medicine man was the person you'd seek
out when you were sick.  He had the ability to communicate with
the spirits, and therefore had the ability to heal. 
Humans migrating to Europe around 30,000 years ago rationalized everything by transcendental forces. When you were sick or injured you were powerless, and you needed the help of the all powerful spirits and gods of healing.  For this reason a medicine man (or woman) was needed to intercede, creating a link between patient and the all powerful supernatural beings.

There were various names for these medicine men and women, such as witches, witch doctor, magicians, sorcerers, seers, shamans, healers, wizards, priests, etc. He would make noise with rattles and drums, chant incantations, and use a variety of magical maneuvers to hide whatever he was doing.  In the meantime, he'd be "pretending (or endeavering) to extract the active principle of the disease by sucking it through a hollow tube," according to Fielding Hudson Garrison in his 1922 history of medicine.  "To prevent future attacks, in other words, to keep the demon away for the future, he provides his patient with a special fetish or amulet to be worn or carried about his person."(1, page 21) 

He would create potions using a variety of plants and herbs, and these were believed to work by their magical qualities, probably provided by the spirits or gods. And over time he developed "a special talent for herb doctoring, bone setting, and rude surgery," writes Garrison. "We find that savages in widely separated countries easily get to know the most fatal arrow poisons—curare, ouabain, veratrin, boundou—as well as the virtues of drugs, like opium, hashish, hemp, coca, cinchona, eucalyptus, sarsaparilla, acacia, kousso, copaiba, guaiac, jalap, podophyllin, or quassia." (1, page 25) 

They also learned about viable remedies for asthma by experimenting with the leaves, stems and roots of the deadly nightshade called belladonna (and strammonium).  And he also must have experimented with the effects of drugs like opium, tea, coffee, and alcohol and learned they caused a sort of "artificial paradise," according to Garrison.  All of these would provide at least some relief to the sick and injured, if for no other reason than to provide some mental relief and relaxation, or to help them forget their misery.  Such relaxing effects may even have ended an attack caused by the spirits. (1, page 30)

And if these remedies didn't work, he might try a remedy called bleeding by using a sharp stone or flint knife to balance the humors of the body. Or perhaps he might try trapanation to let the evil spirits out of the sick man's body by cutting or sawing an opening in the scull.(1, page 26)

Although the emphasis of the medicine man was on more than just a healer of the human body.  Garrison writes: (1, page 23)
Primitive medicine is inseparable from primitive modes of religious belief. If we are to understand the attitude of the primitive mind toward the diagnosis and treatment of disease we must recognize that medicine, in our sense, was only one phase of a set of magic or mystic processes designed to promote human well-being, such as averting the wrath of angered gods or evil spirits, fire-making, making rain, purifying streams or habitations, fertilizing soil, improving sexual potency or fecundity, preventing or removing blight of crops and epidemic diseases, and that these powers, originally united in one person, were he god, hero, king, sorcerer, priest, prophet, or physician, formed the savage's generic concept of 'making medicine.' A true medicine-maker, in the primitive sense, was the analogue of our scientific experts, philanthropists, and "efficiency engineers," a general promoter of human prosperity. (1, page 20-21)
When these "sorcerers" first appeared is unknown, although it's speculated they originated as the smartest, wisest, most sagacious, most knowledgeable, most curious members of the families, clans or societies that grew from the ashes of mankind. These individuals listened to the lyrics told at night, and remembered them.  They asked questions about the human body, and searched for and experimented with the various plants and herbs amid the lands around them until they found the answers.

They created various medical recipes, and, by experimentation, learned of their poisonous or healing properties. Many of these sorcerers were seen as healers, and were sought out when needed.  Others were seen as utilizing what was referred to in Egypt as the "black art," and they were punished with death.  So how they were viewed differed from one nation to the next. Although, what is known about them is they were the first physicians, with their specialty in healing, divination, pharmacy, chemistry, and magic. Although many of these specialties evolved over time.

Primitive and ancient people did not have an understanding of the human body, and their curiosities of it were nary satiated because to investigate the human body was considered to be offensive to the gods. What they did learn about anatomy was accumulated by animals they dissected for food and sacrifices, and later by the process of embalming, although due to fear of the ubiquitous gods even the priests performing these duties were fearful to exceed the bounds of the task at hand.

The ancient Egyptians had knowledge of the vessels of the body, and they knew that they originated in the heart.  They knew the heart beat could be felt at various points on the body. And although they had some knowledge of anatomy, they in no way associated this with the various ailments and the remedies used to treat them.  They did not know diseases were caused by germs, or problems with the inner workings of the body, and they did not know that the remedies they created over time had anything to do with their effects on the body.

For thousands of years transcendental forces were at work all the time.  People had to "know prayers, sacrifices, rites, spells," to keep the transcendental forces happy and at balance.  (2, page 270) They were educated about these by the medicine man, and when their own self remedies failed, or when they could no longer tough it out, the medicine man was sought for his wisdom.

By all means, the spirits of the dead were abounding, and they needed to be satisfied and even fed.  If they were not satisfied, they caused diseases and injuries.  Another thing that caused disease was when a person was not pure, or did something wrong.  Often times when a person was sick the rest of the clan would wonder what god or spirit he offended.  And, of course, the only person who had the ability to learn this, and how to placate that god or spirit, was the medicine man; the sorcerer; the priest. He also had the ability to drive out demons, and to counteract black magic that might have been used to cause the ailments.

So the ailments that plagued the various clans, villages and civilizations were not caused by germs or problems with the body, and injuries did not just happen by chance: they were caused by spirits, demons, gods, and black magic.  People, therefore, didn't think of diseases the way we do today.  What we have today are a variety of diseases based on quantitative evidence about various systems of the body. We see diseases such as asthma, allergy, cold, sinusitis, rhinitis, etc.  Through most of history, however, ailments were diagnosed by the symptom.  If more than one symptom persisted, the diagnosis was based on the more prominent.

In other words, your sypmptom was your disease.  In this sense, even while the following may be caused by various disorders, most prehistoric, primitive and ancient people/societies considered them diseases (1):
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • Nausea
  • Hematuria
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Excessive sputum
  • Pain
The following definitions will help you understand the role of the medicine man/sorcerer:

1.  Black magic:  This is evil.  The use of supernatural powers for selfish and evil purposes.  An example is casting a spell on someone you don't like to cause a disease or to cause something bad to happen.  It can be as simple as an evil eye, witchcraft, or finding someone to make an evil potion for someone to drink.

2.  Black art:  This was the use of drugs for evil purposes.  This involved the mixing and matching of various drugs and solutions to create potions that were used to evil purposes, such as poisons to kill people you did not like.  Early alchemy, chemistry, and pharmacy was considered to be a black art in the early days of ancient Egypt.  

3.  Omen: Telling the future.  It can tell you if something good or bad is going to happen to you.  If something bad is going to happen you can seek out help in order to prevent it from happening.  

4. Amulet: An object that possesses magic properties to ward off evil spirits. Generally it can be anything from a bone from prey, a rondel (bone chipped away during trepanation of skull), a rabbit's foot, a squirrel's tail, stones, rocks, etc. It may be an object such as an ax, knives, necklace, bracelet, etc. They meet and destroy evil spirits. They catch and neutralize black magic directed toward the owner of the amulet. These are often the chief means of preventative medicine in many primitive and ancient societies. (1, page 40)(2, page ?) They are objects that must be worn at all times in order for their magic to work. Ancient Roman children were made to wear necklaces with amulets made of amber hanging from them. This was so that its magic would protect the child when the parents were not around. (4, page 80)
5. Fetish: An object that is the seat of magic power. It may be the abode of a spirit or may have been charged by the medicine man with the mystic power, mana, or manitou, or whatever it may have been called. It may be an object of worship. The owner of a fetish expects it to act according to his intentions.

6.  Totem:
 The totem is usually an animal or other natural figure that spiritually represents a group of related people such as a clan. 

7:  Charm:  
 Something worn or carried on one's person for its supposed magical effect, such as an amulet, talisman, incantation, conjuration, prayer and even exorcisms.  It could be a bracelet, necklace, ring, or just about anything. It could be anything that provides the magic necessary to ward off evil, either words or some object. It could be words like ABRACADABRA. (1, page 41)

8.  Talisman
These are amulets or charms that were "closely guarded but not worn." (1, page 41) It could consist of stone, metal, or even parchment paper that has certain characters engraved on it. (4, page 80) The ancient Romans would often have a talisman in their homes in order to protect it, although it would also have the ability to protect the owner too. It's simply any object that possesses magic properties and brings good luck, and does not have to be worn at all times like a an amulet does.

9.  Mascot:  An animated talisman, a person or animal that brings good luck

10.  Incantation
The chanting or uttering of words that are supposed to have magic qualities, as through preventing or healing disease.

11.  Prayer:  Words, a petition, meant to provide protection and healing by calling to the divination for such help.

12. Spells: According to dictionary.com it's "a word, phrase, or form of words supposed to have magic power" which may include a charm or incantation.

The following are what the sorcerer evolved into:

13.  Fumigation
Creating fumes or smoke with fires, incense, pipes, steam, etc., with the intent of healing through inhaling the fumes of burned or steamed herbs or otherwise, and more likely in ancient times, to please or ward off evil spirits to prevent and treat diseases, prevent bad things from happening, etc.

Now, it is true that you might see the medicine that is described here as poppycock and quack medicine. However, when you think of it, this was probably the best medicine available at the time as it gave people hope and faith. This was observed by Fielding Hudson Garrison in his 1922 history of medicine:
In surveying these different superstitions, one point becomes of especial moment. It is highly improbable that any of the remedies mentioned actually cured disease, but there is abundant evidence of the most trustworthy kind that there have been sick people who got well with the aid of nothing else. How did they get well? Short of accepting the existence of supernatural forces, we can only fall back upon such vague explanations as "the healing power of nature," the tendency of nature to throw off the materies morbi or to bring unstable chemical states to equilibrium, the latter being the most plausible. But, in many cases of a nervous nature or in neurotic individuals, there is indubitable evidence of the effect of the mind upon the body, and in such cases it is possible that a sensory impression may so influence the vasomotor centers or the internal secretions of the ductless glands as to bring about definite chemical changes in the blood, glands, or other tissues, which, in some cases, might constitute a "cure." (1, page 42)
He also wrote:
"The best inspirer of hope is the best physician," an aphorism which contains the germ of the Freudian theory of psycho-analysis—to "minister to the mind diseased" by removing the splinter of worry or misery from the brain, in order to restore the patient to a cheerful state of mental equilibrium... It is also the secret of the influence of religion upon mankind, and here the priest or pastor becomes, in the truest sense, tin Arzt der Seele. In practical medicine, the principle now has a definite footing as psychotherapy... Psychotherapy cannot knit a fractured bone, antagonize the action of poisons, or heal a specific infection, but in many bodily ills, especially of the nervous system, its use is far more efficient and respectable than that of many a drug which is claimed to be a specific in an unimaginable number of disorders. (1, page 33-34)
So while the magic of the medicine man/ sorcerer/ priest may not have healed you physically, it may have provided you with the mental relief, or peace of mind, necessary to buy time for nature to cure what ails you, even the dyspnea caused by asthma.

  1. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "An introduction to the history of medicine," 1922, 3rd edition, Philadelphia and London, W.B. Saunders Company
  2. Sigerist, Henry,"History of Medicine: Primitive and Archaic Medicine," volume I, 1951, Oxford University Press, page 322
  3. More references will be listed here soon as some of the wording among the lexicon here is not mine.  Sorry for any invonvenience.  Much of the lexicon comes from Sigerist's 1922 history of medicine, and I will update this reference as soon as his book arrives in the mail. 
  4. Bradford, Thomas Lindsley, writer, Robert Ray Roth, editor, “Quiz questions on the history of medicine from the lectures of Thomas Lindley Bradford M.D.,” 1898, Philadelphia, Hohn Joseph McVey

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