Scared to Death
Scared to Death: Self-Willed Death, or the Bone-Pointing Syndrome
by Patrick D Hahn
Accepted on: September 4, 2007
For a long time, explorers and anthropologists have reported incidents among traditional peoples in which magic spells cast by fetish priests, or broken taboos, have apparently caused the deaths of previously healthy individuals. Often such spells are cast by means of pointing a charmed bone or stick at the intended victim. One observer1 described the practice among the Australian aboriginal as follows:
The following bizarre story was related to me by Yaa, one of my informants in Cape Coast:
Similar accounts have been recorded among traditional peoples all over the globe. This phenomenon has been labeled “voodoo death,” but this term is a misnomer. The word “voodoo” (or “voudun”) refers to a specific religious tradition practiced by the people of Haiti. It is not a synonym for the religious beliefs of any nonliterate people. A better term would be “self-willed death,” or “bone-pointing syndrome2.”
Are these supposed occurrences coincidence, or the products of overworked imaginations? Or is there something more at work here? Can people living in traditional societies literally be scared to death in this manner?
It’s hard to say for sure, of course. This sort of topic is, by its very nature, hard to gather reliable data on. Traditional peoples usually live in small villages, and for obvious reasons, death by magic spells, or any kind of death for that matter, cannot be an everyday occurrence in a small village – not if that small village is going to exist for very long. Moreover, today there are few if any traditional peoples whose belief systems have not been thoroughly affected by prolonged contact with western culture. Most of these accounts come from old books, by observers who were not trained either in medicine or in modern anthropological standards of scientifically objective observation, and many of them are obviously second- or third-hand accounts.
A typical example is the account given by the Portuguese missionary Jerome Merolla da Sorrento3 who traveled to the Congo in the seventeenth century:
“A certain young negro boy being upon a journey, lodged in a friend’s house by the way; his friend, before he went out the next morning, had got a wild hen ready for his breakfast, they being much better than the tame ones. The negro hereupon demanded, “If it were a wild hen?” the host answered “No;” then he fell on heartily, and afterwards proceeded on his journey. About four years after the two met together again, and the aforesaid Negro being not yet married, his old friend asked him, “If he would eat a wild hen?” To which he had answered “That he had received the Chegilla, and therefore could not.” Hereat the host began immediately to laugh, enquiring of him, “What made him refuse it now, when he had eaten one at his table about four years ago?” At the hearing of this, the Negro immediately fell a trembling, and suffered himself to be so possessed with the effects of the imagination, that he died in less than twenty-four hours after.” [All sic]
An additional complication is that in many traditional societies, it is common practice to attribute almost any death to the agency of malevolent spells. An excerpt from M.J. Field’s book Religion and Medicine of the Gã People4will serve to illustrate this point:
“I once saw a man in a violent fit or seizure which paralyzed his breathing and contracted all his muscles. After some hours he died. His friends were convinced that nothing could save him as he had broken the conditions attached to his ‘medicine’.”
A bizarre variation on this theme is found in some cultures in which elderly women on their deathbeds confess to having been witches and having murdered dozens, or even hundreds, of people through magic spells. Again, let us turn to M.J. Field’s account:
“The knowledge which ordinary people have of bad medicine-men – also of some witches – is gained from death-bed confessions. These bad people are tormented on their death-beds by the dead whom they have killed and they are unable to die until they have confessed and cried out their victims’ names. Their dead victims come and pinch them and bite them until they shriek in torment. Their relatives often gag them with bits of rag to stop these disgraceful disclosure
Such deathbed confessions have also been reported among the Mano of Liberia5 and the Igbo of Nigeria6. Yaa provides us with a modern-day version of this story:
None of these accounts offer the slightest corroborating evidence for these deathbed confessions; even if these confessions could be shown to be anything other than the products of diseased minds, this would still not rule out the possibility of poisoning. Traditional practitioners in cultures all over the world are said to be skilled in the manufacture and administration of poisons. The account by George Way Harley5, a physician who worked with the Mano people of Liberia, is illuminating:
“Another chief who had prostatic disease died from a combination of his disease and native treatments for it. He was an old man, and made no accusations of witchcraft. But after his death his head wife admitted having poisoned him, and herself died mysteriously not long afterward. It was commonly rumored that her father, the paramount chief, had forced her to poison her husband so that the great wealth of the latter might be divided. In view of these instances it is therefore very likely that death by witchcraft in Mano land means poison more often than the power of suggestion.”
In fact, in a 1961 paper, the physician Theodore Xenophon Barber7 reviewed the literature on self-willed death, and found only one case which was not based on hearsay and in which the possibility of poisoning or organic illness could be ruled out. This case was reported in the book Social Science in Medicine8, in a personal communication to the authors. A thirty-year-old man in British New Guinea entered the Australian Regimental Hospital, stating that he had broken one of his tribe’s taboos and that a spell had been cast on him in retaliation.
“He knew, in short, that he was regarded as dead by his fellow tribesmen. On being ignored, rejected, and excommunicated, and after a period of panic, he had become listless, apathetic, and inert. He expressed at no time a desire to live, and acted as though convinced that the end was near. He had taken to his pallet and refused food and water before being brought to the hospital.”
A counter-potion was procured from his tribe and brought to his bedside, but he refused to take it. He remained listless and apathetic, and refused food and water. Nine days later he was dead.
Harry Eastwell9 reported two similar cases in the 1970’s among aboriginals in East Arnhem, Australia. Two individuals (a 24-year-old woman and a 35-year-old man), believing themselves to be bewitched, refused food and water and were close to death. Both of these individuals were saved by the intervention of western medical personnel, although the man died a year later under unknown circumstances.
A similar case was recorded some time before that by George Way Harley5. In a poignant account, he relates that:
“A girl in the Sarde was neglected by her people. She had no food and was very weak. When her people were warned and came to see her she said she was ashamed, and did not want to live. She had bewitched herself and would die. She did, but she died by self-inflicted starvation in protest of the shameful neglect of her parents.”
So there you have it. In traditional societies, exile from the group usually means death. Already given up for dead by family and friends, by all he has known and loved, the victim who has been bewitched or who has violated the taboos of his tribe, gives up on himself and refuses water. Death comes inevitably in a few days – or sooner than that, under the blazing sun of the Australian outback.
Walter Cannon, the pioneering physiologist who described the “fight-or-flight” response, was interested in the phenomenon of self-willed death. In a paper10 on the subject he wrote that, “The social environment as a support to morale is probably much more important and impressive among primitive people, because of their profound ignorance and insecurity in a haunted world, than among educated people living in civilized and well-protected communities.” Would that that were true. In developed countries, there are millions of people who lack meaningful connections to family and community. In his book A Cry Unheard11, psychologist James Lynch argues convincingly that loneliness still kills untold numbers of people every year, even though their deaths generally go unrecorded by anthropologists and unnoticed by the society they lived in.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Herbert Basedow: The Australian Aboriginal P.W. Preece, Adelaide, Australia (1925).
2. G.W. Milton, “Self-willed death or the bone-pointing syndrome,” Lancet June 23 1973
3. Jerome Merolla da Sorrento: A Voyage to the Congo in J. Pinkerton, ed. A General
Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World: Many of Which Are Now First Translated Into English Vol. 16 Longman, Hurst, Reese and Orme, London (1814).
4. M.J. Field: Religion and Medicine of the Gã PeopleOxford University Press London
5. George Way Harley: Native African Medicine, With Special Reference to it Practice in
the Mano Tribe of Liberia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (1941).
6. Charles Kingsley Meek: Law and Authority in a Nigerian Tribe: A Study in Indirect
Rule, Barnes and Noble, NY (1936).
7. Theodore Xenophon Barber, MD, “Death by Suggestion: a Critical Note,”
Psychosomatic Medicine No. 23 pp. 153-155, (1961).
8. Leo W. Simmons and Harold G. Wolff: Social Science in Medicine Russell Sage
Foundation, New York (1954).
9. Harry D. Eastwell, “Voodoo death and the mechanism for dispatch of the dying in East
Arnhem, Australia,” American Anthropologist No. 84 pp. 5-18 (1982).
10. Walter B. Cannon, “’Voodoo death,’” American Anthropologist No. 44 pp. 169-181
11. James J. Lynch: A Cry Unheard: the Medical Consequences of Loneliness Bancroft
Press, Baltimore MD (2000).
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