My Friend The Witch Doctor

Animal skulls at the Lome fetish market

Animal skulls at the Lome fetish market

Animist Practice In Yorubaland

In many societies there exists an ever widening chasm between the ideals of their mythological heritage and the activities of ordinary life.  It often seems with every new nugget of information and technological innovation the relevance of cultural myths and legends as templates of practical action in daily existence recedes.  Their pragmatic authority marginalized, traditional mythology tenuously survives as an existential metaphor of the higher, more abstract ideals of existence as yet not fully explained by contemporary knowledge.  Societies continuing to live in accord with these “archaic,” metaphysical notions are widely considered to be uneducated, superstitious throwbacks destined to eventual doom by their lack of modern awareness.   Possibly the most conspicuous examples of such retrograde behavior lies with cultures who believe in the active, unseen role of spirits; those referred to as “animists.”  However, closer examination of the nature of animism suggests modern judgments may be in need of modification.  Could animist belief and ritual reflect a deeper more accurate ontological understanding than many realize?   Is it possible in many ways the advancements of science are leading us back to the essential truths of our distant mythological past?  The traditional Yoruban cosmology of western Africa may be a relevant case in point.

The Yoruba are one of the largest ethno-linguistic groups in West Africa.  They have historically occupied the area from what is now Nigeria in the east to Togo in the west, (including the country of Benin, once called Dahomey.)  The Yoruba trace their roots back to the fifth century A.D. when a series of loosely confederated tribes began settling into numerous urban societies.  The military, political and economic influence of these small cities quickly spread through the surrounding countryside eventually leading to the formal establishment of a network of kingdoms.  At one time there were as many as twenty different Yoruba kingdoms each living under the rule of their own hereditary monarch.  Within the area of Yorubaland two kingdoms in what is now southwest Nigeria began to emerge in prominence above the others; Oyo, owing to its dominant military and political influence and Ife, the center of cultural and religious life.  Successful cultivation and trade of yams, plantains, kola nuts, cassava and taro stimulated the rise of the Yoruba’s regional supremacy.  However, the migration of these dietary staples was accompanied by another formidable export; a powerful and intriguing cosmology that would eventually reach outwards from the heart of Yorubaland to infiltrate and reshape the spiritual behavior of millions across the western Horn of Africa and eventually into the Americas.

Penetrating the spiritual underpinnings of any culture is a thorny proposition made exponentially more difficult in direct proportion to time and geographical span.  Simply put, the more adherents you have the more varied the mythology, interpretation and practice.  As all cross cultural studies are quick to confirm, people put their own spin on things in relation to differences in circumstance and material particulars.  Such is the sanity snapping case of Yoruban cosmology.  However, for those brave enough to ignore the confounding variations in names, spellings, supernatural powers, gender, sequence and motivation a certain fundamental picture filled with powerful personas, alliterative names, befuddling incarnations, lurid behavior and intriguing insights begins to arise.

Beginning with the undisputed; the Yoruba believe all elements of existence are populated and controlled by a vast number of different spirits.  These spirits are hierarchically ordered according to powers and areas of dominion.  Topping the spirit pyramid is a singular Supreme Being from which all spirits initially emerged and remain subordinate.  Following the Supreme Being there exist in descending order of influence: primordial divinities, divine spirits and hundreds of lower spirits of specific domains.  The Yoruba claim all in existence, (animal, vegetable and mineral,) were created and endowed with an all encompassing and penetrating life force known as ase.  All entities possessed of ase exist in a constant and perpetual state of deep interconnectedness and interaction with one other.  Humans have two distinct kinds of existence; one physical and a more important spiritual existence referred to as ori-inu. The purpose of human life is to allow our spiritual essence to transcend our physical being into a higher spiritual realm known as orun-rere. These are the broad strokes.  Like all things spiritual, concept is one thing, practice quite another.  It’s the details that count.

Though the ultimate creating force of the Yoruba is singular it’s been personified by many names; Olorun, Olodumare, Eledumare and Eleda are just a few of the possible nom de voyage to choose from.  Once again, title is dependent on region, era and custom.  For consistencies sake I opt for the most common usage of record; Olorun.  Though Olorun is the divine creator, source of all energy, spirits and divinities he is never worshipped.  Following the tone of many mystical traditions the Yoruba feel Olorun is beyond the realm of any other divinity or power and is so overwhelming an ideal/personification he can never be conceptualized or understood.  This rather profound perspective is curiously elucidated by the claim Olorun is “too lazy” to intervene in human events.  While suspecting something is getting lost in translation the point is clear; the unknowable aspect of existence is indifferent to worldly affairs.  Olorun’s laziness or reluctance to get involved with earthly existence is not shared by the infinite swarms of other, lesser deities; deities whose personification and powers are grounded within the particulars of earthly existence and are thus better grasped by human sensibilities.   And therein lies the tale.

Olorun had a son named Obatala, the lord of the firmament who in conjunction with his wife Odudua, (paternity unknown,) keeps an eye on earthly events.   Yoruban mythology is mixed with respect to Odudua.  In some cases she is considered the sole arbiter of earthly affairs and in others is conceived of as being male.  Obatala and Odudua were a poor match.  Shaky conflict resolution skills eventually led Obatala to claw out Odudua’s eyes.  In retaliation she cursed her abusive husband to forever eat snails long before they became fashionable.  However, temporarily shelving their differences, they created two children: a daughter Yemaja who ruled the waters and a son Aganju who watched over the wilderness.  In fine biblical fashion these two married and begot a son named Orungan who grew up to rape his mother.  Shortly thereafter, Yemaja gave birth in gory fashion to a whole host of major gods such as Ogun, god of war, Olokun, the sea, Oshosi, the hunter, Orun, the sun, Oshu, the moon, and for the sake of alliterative difference, Shango, god of thunder.  This was just the beginning.  From these gods came literally millions of secondary gods; one for every entity in existence from oceans and mountains to singular rocks or blades of grass.  In this way was the world animated.  These lower gods are known as orishas and deal directly with the affairs of humans.  The appeasement of the orishas is the central preoccupation of human existence.

As the Yoruban cosmology migrated north and westward it underwent many cosmetic changes.   Adapted to the cultural specifics of the regions and tribes through which it passed the names of the various gods, their specific personalities, powers and the particulars of their worship began to vary. The most prominent offshoot of the Yoruban format is known as Vodun or, as those in the west refer to it, Voodoo.  Today, within Africa, Vodun is most prominent within the country of Togo on the western extreme of the traditional boundary of Yorubaland.  However, regardless of name the core similarities remain; there is one Supreme Being , transcendence to the spiritual world is the aim of human life and all elements of existence are filled with spirits or orishas, (in Vodun they are referred to as loas,) that have the capacity to effect the differing aspects of corporeal existence.  This continuing attribution of conscious life or spirits to all natural objects and the active attempt to appease these spirits remains a classic definition of animism.

Animist theory is real basic.  All objects, elements and creatures of the world are possessed of their own special supernatural force.  This force goes by many different metaphysical labels but “spirit” with all its attendant connotations remains the reigning king.  These spirits have strong powers and pending on their mood elect to help you out or inflict grievous harm.  Like humans, spirits all have different personalities and are filled with a numbing plethora of likes and dislikes.  Though a tad temperamental, through proper ritual they can be propitiated and rallied to your cause.  It’s all a question of knowing the preferences of your spirits and where they can be found.

Despite the occasional hiccup, (you pray for rain you get drought, locusts instead of crops,) animism remains popular stuff with the planets rank and file.  Animism is the world’s most specialized and flexible spiritual practice.  Every region, area and village has their own spirits and attendant mythology corresponding to the geographical, material and cultural specifics of life.  The great thing is spirits are available to anyone.  There’s very little higher theory at work.  You don’t need a unique talent, specialized education, rigorous training or fluency in Latin to prevail upon them.  Though empirically hard to defend, the appeal of the utter simplicity of animism is universal.  While scientific superiority traditionally demeans spirit worship as the product of ignorance and superstition most people of all cultures continue to quietly have loads of empathy for the animists.  As good materialists we love and understand our possessions.  Most of us feel some of our objects to have certain, intangible, subjective qualities we sense to be personal, endearing or maybe even lucky.  Snicker if you will, but a societal compendium of all objects felt to be lucky by someone would embrace every noun in the dictionary.  It’s easy to posit our thoughts and feelings into objects.  Abstraction can be tough and lacks a certain immediate, tangible gratification.  Concepts just seem more real when grounded in the physical.  All of the so called modern religions understand this.  High minded intellectual pretension aside, most spiritual seekers of all faiths have a latent animist streak.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the continuing scope and vitality of animist practice in Yorubaland can be found at the fetish market outside Lome, the capital city of Togo.  The Lome fetish market is an animist’s fantasy come true.   Tumbling across a large open patch of dusty, dull orange soil are all the ingredients necessary to make any fetish, charm or amulet or perform any conceivable animist ritual.  It’s a scene of unimaginable gore.  Under the weight of a stark white heat are strewn the remains of anything that ever walked, flew, crawled, swam or breathed just awaiting the right shopper in the right situation.  Towards the front lay massive piles of bleached skulls of different animals sorted by species.  Crocodile, monkey, zebra, hyena, gazelle and dozens more unrecognizable without their skin or fur are all represented.  Tucked to the side, under a hissing layer of flies lie their decomposing carcasses, deftly incised for the removal of specific organs; a liver here a heart there.  The next area contains different disassembled species of birds.  Tossed carelessly in woven rattan baskets, they rot in the thin shadows of carefully stacked mountains of mystical rocks ordered according to supernatural properties.  In the herb/vegetable section, scattered upon tattered tarps are endless varieties of plants, flowers and barks bundled in frayed twine.  Towards the rear are mounds of teeth, many of them human.  Most are “necklace ready” with small predrilled holes.  Strategically positioned throughout, for those fickle “impulse” moments are stacks of mismatched bones, pallets of dried frog skins and bargain bins filled with paws, claws and tails.  You never want to run out of the basics.

Ringing this central area of carnage are shacks made of mismatched planks with corrugated metal roofs that function as pharmacies.  In their windows dangle odd arrays of talismans and small vials filled with colored potions used in a variety of cures.  At the furthest point, in curious isolation is a doleful looking hut made of mud.  This is the office of the market witch doctor.  Though in general animism is a fairly egalitarian theory which virtually all are capable of practicing, on occasion something really big or complicated arises and a specialist is called in to cover your bases.  Usually this spiritual specialist is referred to as a shaman though in some instances they are colloquially labeled witch doctors.

Severed crocodile heads and bleached gazelle skulls at the Lome fetish market

Severed crocodile heads and bleached gazelle skulls at the Lome fetish market

Traditionally the shaman is the embodiment of tribal animist practice.  They are thought to be living compendiums of tribal lore and experts in the healing powers of natural materials, (Harner, 1990.)  It’s believed shaman draw their powers directly from the gods themselves and possess the ability to enter at will into the ecstatic, altered states of experience from which they ply their trade, (Kalweit, 1987.)  Shamans are a peculiar bunch by nature.  Those destined to become shaman are usually predisposed to a variety of nervous disorders mentally distinguishing them from other tribal members of more conventional constitution.  Most are naturally edgy, nervous and prone to solitude.  Many eventually graduate to such unusual behavior as eating embers, gnawing the bark off trees, beating themselves with sticks or slashing their bodies with knives, (Eliade, 2004.)  Those afflicted with epilepsy, frequent fainting spells or the good fortune to be struck by lightning often jump to the head of the class.  It’s believed few of normal mental bearing are capable of entering into a trance state on command to visit the spirit world.

Despite their unusual psychological temperament, shamans are by necessity intelligent people who endure years of arduous training to acquire and perfect their skills.  In addition to long periods of study they submit themselves to relentless physical rigors considered unendurable for most people.  Elements of their training include foregoing food, water and sleep, continuous exposure to the elements, rubbing stinging herbs into their eyes and submitting to beatings and other bizarre abuses of their bodies, (Eliade, 2004.)  The traditional culmination of a shamans training requires the initiate to undergo a trance induced ritualized death that includes having the flesh stripped from their bones, their organs removed and their skeletons disassembled.  Once totally dismembered the shaman is reassembled by the spirits and returned to this world to begin a new, multidimensional existence.  Given this litany of experience its little wonder they are considered to be more spiritually attuned than most.

For all intents and purposes witch doctors and shaman are one and the same.  Both are diviners and traditional healers of similar background who work in communion with the spiritual presences within the world.  However, in the case of witch doctors common parlance often has a life of its own unrelated to tradition, history or training.  As a side line to routine shamanic work, witch doctors are sometimes called upon to use their powers to combat perceived instances of witchcraft; most commonly removing spells and hexes cast upon unfortunate people or underperforming national soccer teams.

At first glance the witch doctor at the fetish market didn’t seem to carry much of the spiritual aura expected of one descended from such a traditional and storied line of healers.  With a distinctly disinterested gaze buried beneath the depth of his facial wrinkles and a week’s worth of stubble he seemed more weary than manic.   Nor did he seem dressed for the part.   Most shamanic studies note the importance of the shaman wearing a traditional spiritual costume to help separate themselves from the surrounding profane space and bestow upon them a magical body capable of supernatural feats, (Eliade, 2004, Kalweit, 1987.) This fellow shuffled along wearing a torn T-shirt emblazoned with the distinctly anti-spiritual slogan “Delta Gets You There” and faded blue, mud encrusted jogging shorts.  Despite this visual incongruity he was a busy man.  During my time at the market I watched an endless stream of people enter his hut for consultation.  After a brief meeting, the doctor usually escorted the patients into the shopping area.  There the proper curative agents were selected and learned instruction in their use dispensed.  It wasn’t long before the onsite pharmacist persuaded me to make an appointment for myself.  Surely, he reasoned I must have some kind of physical or psychological demon I wished to treat.  It was an offer too tempting to resist.

After confiding the nature of my maladies to the witch doctors assistant, who in turn relayed them to the doctor himself, I was told to go inside the hut and wait.  Futilely swatting at the dense swarms of files and gnats I settled onto the bare earthen floor and sat in the darkness and stifling heat.  Just one look at his examination room told me I was a long way from the neighborhood mediplex back home.  Instead of diplomas a desiccated warthog head hung on the wall.  The walls themselves, made of mud and dried manure were sheeted in the webs of spiders the size of my thumb.  Oh, for a good sanitized coat of semi gloss paint on a sleek drywall surface.  There were no magazines lying around to help pass the time.  In the corner of the hut lay the requisite medical equipment: a claw hammer, a broken hack saw blade, two carpentry awls and a pair of pliers all of which were slowly corroding under a crumbling veneer of rust.  I had the distinct impression my HMO wasn’t going to pay for this one.

Soon the doctor arrived.  After holding my hands and studying me for a minute he stood up and walked out into the market area.  He soon returned with a scrap of darkened wood about two inches in length.  Using the rusty blade he began expertly shaving the wood into a tubular shape.  He completed his sculpting by crudely gouging a series of holes designed to resemble a pair of eyes, a nose and mouth into the top part of the wood.  The finished result was a fetish resembling a tiny, armless torso crowned with a blunt, disfigured head.  He then tightly coiled a length of fraying black twine around the body area.  Clutching the fetish tightly in his fist, for the next five minutes he whispered unintelligible incantations while blowing over his hand the smoke from a cigarette I’d provided.  Once the cigarette was finished he sat contemplatively for a few minutes and then carefully handed the finished object over to me.  Reappearing, his assistant instructed me in the sacred particulars of the use of my fetish.  His lesson concluded with the stern admonishment to never reveal the purpose of this fetish or the manner in which its powers are activated.  However, I can say to date the fetish has worked in exactly the manner I’d hoped.

The shaman’s assistant, (his nephew,) did a great deal more than translate for his uncle.  He organized the incoming patients, conducted pre-treatment interviews and discreetly took care of the tawdry business of payment.  Owing to either my new found status as a trusted patient, my enthusiastic interest or my endless supply of Marlboro Lights we quickly established a voluble rapport.  During those rare lulls in business he was amenable to answering questions about his employer.  I was told the doctor was a fifth generation shaman from a gradually depopulating village in the northern region of the country.  As local work dried up they both moved to the capital city.  In Lome business was plentiful.  It’s a city filled with rural refugees whose departure from their ancestral homes has done nothing to diminish their need for a traditional healer and diviner.  Though I understood the patterns and particulars of rural migration, when it came to matters of a transplanted shaman and animist practice I was confused.  How could there be something as an all purpose commercial witch doctor?  How could spirits who were so unique in name, character and purpose to different locales be understood and accommodated by a shaman or witch doctor from an outside region or tribe?  Wasn’t a deep familiarity with a specific spirit, its history and relevance to the tribe a necessary condition for its appeasement?  Surprisingly the answer was “no.”

I was reminded witch doctors are engaged for one of two possible reasons; either their knowledge or their access.  In the first instance they impart their expertise on the physical qualities and healing properties of natural substances in much the same manner as any doctor or pharmacist.   When addressing more nebulous, metaphysical matters of the psyche they advise clients of the best ways of enticing their own particular spirit to respond in the desired manner and help them devise the necessary ritual or prepare the proper cure.  Once the doctor has been apprised of the problem and the specific realm and traits of the spirit in question a practical solution may be drawn.  Though the names and personalities of the spirits may differ by region and tribe, when it comes to their appeasement it seems knowledge of and experience with the intrinsic and all encompassing nature of the Supreme Being is more useful and overrides any of the idiosyncratic traits peculiar to any lesser deity.

The shaman’s superior spiritual access is needed in those more extreme circumstances where the client lacks the ability to handle their problem themselves.  In these cases the shaman directly intervenes using his talents to enter and manipulate the realm of the metaphysical.  Bypassing the transitory material manifestations of the differing worldly spirits the shaman works directly with the all encompassing singular life force, (ase,) to affect any necessary change.   The assistant noted in such intercessory cases entering a detached ecstatic state is not always required.  He suggested under normal circumstances the shaman exists on a plane of greater metaphysical awareness than most.  He possesses a type of perpetual sympathetic resonance with the higher forces allowing him to influence and be influenced by the spirit world.  This constant state of spiritual awareness is what allows him to deal expediently with the differing variety of cases he encounters daily without existing in a permanent state of pronounced ecstasy.

Afterwards I wondered about the nature of animism and its enduring presence within the world.  It seemed obvious before the practicality and techniques of animism can be evaluated it must first be determined if the basis for animism, i.e. the reality of spirits or forces of like character can be established or reasonably inferred.  In other words, are there such things as spirits to appeal to?  If the answer to this question is a categorical “no,” further inquiry on the topic is pointless.  We may slam the book closed and proclaim animism a whimsical, baseless pursuit grounded in elements of human superstition and walk away.  Only if the answer is other than “no” may we then proceed to the next logical query; does animist practice really work and if so how?   Does the appealing to supernatural powers through prayer, ritual and the purposeful manipulation of material objects bring about any empirical, practical results?

The question as to the existence of spirits or any other kind of dynamic, animating life force transcending empirical existence is possibly the oldest and most profound issue confronting human beings.  Needless to say as yet no undeniable, unambiguous, categorical evidence in favor of the existence of such an entity or entities exists.  However, there are many scientific facts and tightly drawn lines of reason suggesting such a possibility may not only be conceivable but is in many respects likely.  Physical science is the first discipline to acknowledge matter as we know it is anything but static.  Knowing that atoms, (the constituent elements of matter,) are essentially electromagnetic particles whose structure is mostly empty space is a sobering concept.  This information clearly indicates that below the level of ordinary sense perception what we consider to be solid form is in reality congealed patterns of energy in a perpetual dynamic state.  When this perspective of matter is extrapolated on a wider scale it’s understandable why most physicists now conceive of existence as a complex field of energy whose interacting forces give rise to and eventually dissipate what we term the elements of “reality.”  Lending further intrigue to the nature of physical existence are the more contemporary notions of quantum theory.

The concept of quantum entanglement and its attendant phenomenon known as “non locality” are particularly pertinent.  Noting sub atomic particles can instantly communicate and react with one another regardless of the distance between them, (quantum entanglement,) reinforces the notion of a deep level of reality where all phenomena are simultaneously connected.  In other words, contrary to what our eyes reveal, nothing we see is really separate and independent.  This idea is no longer considered the radical concept it once was.  It is now and has been avidly supported by numerous researchers over the last one hundred years.  Perhaps the greatest clarity given this notion comes through the work of the physicist David Bohm, (student of Oppenheimer, colleague of Einstein, Manhattan Project heavyweight.)  Bohm conceived of all matter, time and space to be contained within a large ethereal cloud composed of powerful electromagnetic waves in constant interrelation with one another.  Bohm claims our universe has no independent existence in and of itself.  However, within the energy cloud our universe is like a tiny ripple on the surface of a cosmic sea of energy; a ripple in which little streams, eddies and whirlpools of form emerge and eventually dissipate, (1980.)  All entities appear separate and distinct but are in actuality composed of, and eternally connected to the entity from which they arise.  What we know as objective reality is the product of our brains interpreting and arranging the energy frequencies contained within this vast singularity of existence he terms the “Implicate Order.”

The more contemporary concepts of String Theory add a particularly relevant twist to the discussion.  Through the process of intensely deconstructing the constituent building blocks of matter, (atoms,) String Theorists suspect we will eventually find a world in which everything is composed of infinitesimally small, two dimensional particles resembling tiny strings.  These strings emit individual, differing frequencies or resonances much like musical instruments.  These individual resonances give the strings, and the objects they constitute their unique and individual character.  This element of vibration is critical.  Even if the string theorists are wrong about theoretical two dimensional bodies vibrating, an element of vibration is already present within conventional atomic theory.   As the nuclei of atoms are surrounded by their own arrangement of orbiting electrons, atoms by nature possess an inherent level of continuing motion and subsequent vibration.   It is thus reasonable to assume all matter, depending on the specifics of its atomic constitution had its own resonance signature.   Thus even without the theoretical elements of string theory we have a world filled with entities emitting their own “vibratory” waves, identifiable by their own frequencies and constantly resonating with one another.  Synthesizing the above observations leaves us with a model of existence in which all elements are aspects of a singular undivided energy field in which particular congealed energy forms, (matter,) are delineated by distinctive signature vibrations and exist in constant interrelation with one another.

Many theorists like to conceive of the collected totality of these energies and resonating waves as that of a vast existential field.  Physics at its current level is only willing to concede this field to be filled with electromagnetic and gravitational energy.  However, there are many ambitious thinkers who cogently argue this field carries another entity; information, (James, 1997, Sheldrake, 1981, Talbot, 1991, Laszlo, 2004.)  They theorize all the resonances generated by existence continue to perpetually linger within this existential field thus rendering it a type of cosmic memory field recording all the actions and events within history.  Many claim all entities are affected by the memories contained within these fields and they may on occasion be deliberately accessed.  Though yet unproven, given our current knowledge of the physical nature of existence such a speculative jump seems relatively small.

For the time being the reality of any informational aspect within the existential energy field is peripheral.  Nor for the purposes of this discussion is it important whether one refers to the energy laden, interconnected and vibrationally distinct character of objects as “spirit” or “qualities of matter.” A rose by any other name……  What is important is all matter possesses many unseen internal dynamic qualities that likely have discreet causal relationships on the internal workings of other real world phenomena and may be subject to external influence or manipulation.  It would seem apparent the scientifically sanctioned nature of physical reality offers a number of conceivable ways in which traditional animist activity may be understood and defended.  But what would some of those ways be?  How can the shaman manipulate or prevail upon the unseen forces within matter?

Cultural or mythological explanations notwithstanding, the physical nature of reality itself suggests certain possibilities.  The most obvious approach would have the shaman accessing or aligning his own resonance or “life force” with that of the “frequency” of the person or object in question.  By channeling the electromagnetic power of his own thought and biometric field he could perhaps change or manipulate certain vibrational patterns within other humans to eliminate elements of disease and restore their previous condition.  Perhaps, as in the case of charms, talismans or fetishes he could use his resonating powers to amplify or modify the inherent properties of objects of “lesser animation” to allow them to function in more potent or specialized ways; to in effect convert them into objects of causation.  To use the terms of Yoruban mythology, by synchronizing his own psyche with the flux of ase he may be able to affect physical change through his thoughts and actions.  Or, in a nod to those convinced of the reality of memory fields, sense the residual resonance and patterns of ancestors no longer incarnated within their previous physical form.  Those at home who have experienced little success in using their mind to control matter or events should keep in mind that shaman occupy their positions because of their greater native ability to access the realm of the metaphysical and years of specific training.

The power of thought has long intrigued the scientific community.  It’s ability to empirically influence both the living and inanimate has been suggested through numerous controlled studies over a long period of time, (Eisenbud, 1982, Gazzaniga, 1988, Radin, 1997.)  Of particular relevance to the topic of shamanic practice are those investigating the power of mind in combating disease.  Many contemporary studies have produced results that would seem to support the long held contention that mind, whether one’s own or that of someone else can be an effective healing force, (Collip, 1969, Byrd, 1988.)  The power of thought to combat one’s own infirmities has frequently been demonstrated by the “placebo effect” in both formalized experiments and random individual cases.  On a more routine basis biofeedback and hypnosis are commonly employed as successful methods of controlling and regulating one’s own physiological responses to stress and sickness.  However, the more dramatic instances of the healing power of thought are revealed through the controlled studies of therapeutic touch and remote prayer.

Therapeutic touch, commonly known as the “laying of hands” is practiced by a healer moving their hands over the patient’s body to detect and correct areas of disease or imbalance.  Some of the more persuasive studies of its effectiveness have been noted by Krieger, (1979,) and Keller, (1984.)  Much more controversial is the phenomenon of remote prayer; the practice of praying for the recovery of the infirmed.  Using either practiced meditation techniques or focused individual thought, well intentioned people actively attempt to mentally “merge” with the patient to activate the subject’s own healing powers to reverse the course of injury or disease.  To date there are a numerous studies on remote prayer whose significant results strongly suggest the outside power of thought can be an effective medicinal tool, (Miller, 1982, Leshan, 1974.)

Many of the new revelations and theories, (and for that matter older ones as well,) of physical existence suggested by science are not without challenge.  Disagreement and contention will always be an intrinsic part of any empirical process of discovery.  The purpose of this discussion is not to provide comprehensive explanation of the reigning theories of reality or to endorse any existing school of thought over another.  The aim is to determine if within the current scientific perspective an adequate defense for the historic claims of animist practice exists.  Clearly the answer is yes.  However, just because physical rationale exists for the explanation of certain animist practices does not imply a wholesale accommodation of animist claims is in order.  The capabilities of animist rituals and the extent to which they effectively function are at best unknown.  Could the power of thought and harmonic resonance be used to move clouds into position to rain, strengthen crops to grow or entice animals for capture?  Can shaman possibly sense the residual vibrations of the recently deceased to provide some kind of communication with what we call the dead?   Unquestionably such claims exist.  Certainly it’s reasonable to suggest some supernatural abilities are more conceivable given the accepted nature of physical reality than others.  Even the most experienced, highly trained and psychically gifted must have limits as to how far the strength of their resonating capacity and their ability to navigate the vagaries of time and space carry forward.  Obviously shamanic intervention is anything but foolproof.  As the degree of sickness, death and natural disaster in places where animism is still actively practiced indicate, many times the efforts and rituals of the shaman go for naught.  That animist practice endures within many parts of the world often relates to necessity rather than proof of its power.  Many people remain too poor, powerless and isolated to avail themselves of much else.  For them the capabilities of modern medicine and the promise of scientific innovation to improve their lives remain out of reach.  The efficacy of animist ritual notwithstanding, this is an undisputed reality.

When it comes to contemplating the nature of animist belief contemporary Westerners and their materialist paradigm tend to focus on the externally obvious.  How do animist rituals and beliefs square with our empirical knowledge?    While it is true modern science now suggests the nature of physical reality may be receptive to elements of animist practice perhaps we are missing the bigger point.  Could the greatest insights revealed by the Yoruban cosmology and many of its animist brethren be more philosophical than practical?  Perhaps the most valuable elements of their spirituality relate to the higher, more fundamental concepts of existence they espouse.  Concepts best articulated and understood through the broader points of their unique mythology.  By any other name, Olorun represents a singular, ground of existence; an all encompassing First Cause from which all else is a part.  Olorun is possessed of intelligence and purpose.  From the power of Olorun all of existence sequentially emerges in a multitude of descending forms.  The ultimate nature of Olorun is far beyond the scope of understanding of mere human beings and totally indifferent to their earthly concerns.  As such, Olorun is never worshipped.  Only limited aspects of Olorun’s essence may be contemplated or known through lesser, more tightly defined deities such as gods, spirits or orixas. Through these lower supernatural/paranormal entities are the larger elements of existence glimpsed and certain localized phenomenon manipulated.   Most importantly, there is a uniform purpose to human life.  The fundamental imperative of corporeal existence is to allow our spiritual essence to transcend our physical dimension and move to a promised higher realm of being.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of the Yoruban cosmology revolves around the concept of ase. The life force of Olorun, ase represents an all penetrating and surrounding psychic field animating and defining all within existence.  It is the universal force whose powers and qualities form and energize all.  It is the fundamental ontological reality within the mythical structure of Yoruban thought.  It is the essence that fills existence and responds to the actions, (intentional or not,) of all who are a part.  To take a metaphor from David Bohm and his Implicate Order, ase is like the water in the sea; to move your hand through any small area creates motions and ripples eventually affecting every element of the whole.  This is likely the operative concept behind animist belief and ritual.

Collectively, Yoruban mythology presents a picture of existence as an unfathomable, all encompassing, psychic singularity.  All apparent physical entities exist as animated and interrelated facets of this greater whole whose nature remains beyond the realm of our limited comprehension.  Few physicists or philosophers would deride this existential perspective as being quaint, underdeveloped or indicative of an inferior cosmology.  Most who study the topic would consider these notions insightful, profound and the product of formidable reason.  That the Yoruban’s traditional cosmological perspective remains consistent with many of the world’s leading spiritual traditions as well as the current state of physical science is worth noting.


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