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4. Primitive Medicine


Primitive Medicine is timeless. It is as old as the Paleolithic cave-dwellers. It is as new as today. Early evidences of its practice can be traced back 10,000 years. Yet it is being practiced in some part of the world at this very hour-in certain remote areas of Africa, Asia, and South America, Australia, the islands of the Pacific; or among some of the Indian tribes and Eskimos in North America. The pace of advancement of medicine from its beginnings has not been even. In some societies living in today’s world, cultures remain at near Stone Age levels; and it is reasonable to assume that in their medical practices they have retained many characteristics of their prehistoric predecessors.

Members of primitive society do not distinguish between medicine, magic and religion. They, first of all (very much as do we), will deal with disease in a matter-of-fact way, using various household the remedies, without special theories or employment of parishioners. But when these measures fail, they will resort to measures very different from those we would take. While we assume that disease and death result from natural causes, primitive men regard them almost entirely as work of supernatural agents: gods, holy people, ghosts, or sorceress. Spirits and ghosts are provoked into action by neglect, or by the breaking of one of the sacred rules (taboos), either by the patient or by one of his family.

It follows logically that diagnosis of disease from such supernatural causes cannot be made by mere observation and examination of the patient. The medicine man must use supernatural techniques.

It follows with equal logic that treatments to combat, to placate or to overcome such super naturalistic causes, must themselves be primarily supernatural, magic-religious ceremonies. As a rule, they consist basically or prayers and incantations. However, they contain also elements which we would designate physiotherapeutic and psychotherapeutic, although they are interpreted in magic- religious terms. Primitive man is extraordinarily subject to suggestion, which explains his strong response to spells, to charms, and to other magic; and his fears of violation of taboos.

Unquestionably, primitive medicine achieves no small part of its results through psychotherapy. Confession and suggestion, which loom large in native practice, lately have enjoyed a considerable comeback in our own medical system. Primitive medicine does not differentiate between bodily and mental disease. Certainly, the patient must derive considerable sense of security from magic and religious ceremonies, both with family and with community participation. Corresponding improvement in morale and in physical response might well be expected; and, with upsurge of the body’s own defense mechanisms, perhaps even bacterial invaders might be somewhat thwarted.
The medical practitioner in primitive society, the medicine man, is primarily priest or shaman. He is a learned man, comparatively speaking, because he knows more than other people about the transcendental world, so much so that he sometimes has power over it. He very often is the only professional man in an undifferentiated society. He is neither fraud nor psychopath, as sometimes has been assumed erroneously. His magic or illusionary practices are done symbolically and in keeping with a strict code and well-established ritual. What he does, he do in sincerity; anthropologists believe he is just as sincere as the modern doctor.

All elements of primitive medicine- religion, sacred dances, magic, prayers, hymns, mythology, together with certain rational elements are to be found today in the beautiful, colorful, sacred song ceremonials which have been practiced, virtually unchanged, for at least a century, possibly more; by the Navaho Indians of the Southwestern United States.

Navahos are a deeply religious people of Athabascan stock (closely related to many tribes of northwestern Canada) who ranged down from the north into what is now the southwestern part of the United States around 1000 A.D. According to one school of anthropologists, Navahos, like all North and South American Indian tribes, are descendants of people who crossed a land bridge from Asia and Siberia, beginning some 10,000 years ago. At present, Navahos lives principally in a semi-arid region located in part of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.

Most Navaho rituals are performed with certain aims in mind: restoration of health, and insuring immunity to further disease. With these rituals they hope to supplicate, propitiate, or coerce the Holy people- supernatural Beings who have great powers over people on earth.

Navaho chant, or “sings,” always have mythological sanction. Each ceremonial has certain songs, prayers, and herbal medicines peculiar to it; and many of these have their own particular sand paintings. Around 600 different sand paintings have been recorded, each representing certain divinities or associated events in Navaho mythology. Technically, these pictures, made on a clean sand base, or occasionally on a buskin or cloth substitute, usually inside a Hogan (the Navaho dwelling, or on occasion, specially- built medicine hut), perhaps should be called dry paintings, for various crushed minerals and vegetable materials also are used for certain types of ceremonials. Patterns, retained in memories of medicine men, or “singers,” are handed down from one to another. Many years of apprenticeship and study are required of the Navaho tribesman who aspires to become a practitioner of religious ritual.

Though the chants may vary greatly as to songs, prayers, and sand paintings, the Navaho’s basic procedure is nearly always the same: family and friends gather in the Hogan; they participate with the patient in ceremonies; when a sandpainting has been done, the patient sits down upon it, and treatment by the singer begins, to the accompaniment of song and of prayer. When treatment is completed, the patient leaves the Hogan, the sand painting is destroyed, and the sands carried out and disposed of according to ritual.

Of Navaho healing “sings” or ceremonials, one of the more elaborate and colorful is the Mountain Chant, or the Mountain Top Way. Dr.Washington Matthews described this chant in great detail in a report to the Director of the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, published in 187.

Of the mountain Chant ceremony, Dr. Matthews says its purposes are various. “Its ostensible reason for existence is to cure disease; but it is made the occasion for invoking the unseen powers in behalf of the people at large for various purposes…. It would appear that it is also designed to perpetuate their religious symbolism…The last night… is an occasion when the people gather and have a jolly time. The patient pays the expenses and, probably in addition to the favor and help of the gods and the praise of the priesthood, hopes to obtain social distinction by his liberality.”

The first four days ceremonies (of nine in the Mountain Chant) are perhaps less colorful than the others. Early each morning, before eating, the patient, the singer, and all others who desire, men and women, enter the ceremonial Hogan. Seated around a fire, they take a hot emetic infusion of many different kinds of plants mixed together, and sweat profusely. Small sandpaintings sometimes are made around the fire, and other procedures, such as aspersing with a fragrant herb lotion, are involved.
On the fifth day, according to Washington Mathews’ description, the first of the holy pictures was drawn in sand and pigment on the floor of the Hogan. On the sixth day, another sandpainting was made. One of the more interesting paintings was made on the seventh day. The painters’ work began soon after 6 A.M. and was not completed until 2 pomp. About a dozen men assisted the medicine man, who did little of the manual labor but watched the work and frequently criticized and corrected it. When the painting, featuring four “tall gods,” was finished, the singer applied sacred corn pollen to brow, mouth, and chest of each of the gods. A whistle was blown, the sick woman and a companion entered and cast corn meal on the floor. The patient took off her moccasions and upper garments and sat on the form of the white god, and the singing and rattling resumed. Without interrupting his song the chanter sprinkled the picture with a cold decoction of herbs he had previously prepared. He then applied the moistened sprinkler to each of the gods, then administered the decoction to his patient in two draughts, to her companion, to himself in the same manner, then gave the dregs to the onlookers to pass from one to another. He applied pigments from different parts of the figures to corresponding parts of the patient. This was followed by fumigation rites by sprinkling pungent, aromatic herbs on hot coals.

A less elaborate sandpainting followed on the eighth day (although in some ceremonies the last painting is the most elaborate), accompanied by rituals much like those of the of the preceding three days. While this was going on inside the medicine Hogan, a great stack of wood was being assembled in the center of the corral outside. At this time, too, a great number of people began to assemble. Much food was prepared, and games developed for pastime. On the ninth day, until sunset, preparation of certain properties for use in the coming ceremonies went on. Just after sunset, the old chanter posted him in the east of the corral and began a song. The corral itself, a huge circle, was built of branches. Then people assembled inside the corral, the great fire was lighted, and many dances, remarkable for their daring and endurance, followed. At least a dozen dances took place, lasting throughout the night- and the singer chanted on through it all!

Shortly after sunrise, the corral was razed. The chanter packed his sacred utensils and left. The patient greeted and thanked her friends for having attended and aided in her treatment.

The technique of sandpainting is an art. Pictures are drawn to an exact system. According to the medicine men, designs are transmitted from teacher to pupil, and for each ceremony are unaltered from year to year and from generation to generation. Colored powders are taken from bark trays or other containers into the painter’s palm and allowed to pass out between his thumb and forefinger. The degree of accuracy achieved by this freehand method is astounding.

Logic of primitive man differs from ours. While his medicine appears strange, if not absurd, to modern observers, in the framework of the outlook upon life of a native society it is meaningful and logical. It is effective enough, too, to be retained by many primitive peoples even when in competition with modern medical concepts brought to them by medical missionaries, government clinics or administrators.


A moment in ceremonies of the nine –day Navaho Mountain Chant is captured in the painting. American Indians made much of primitive medicine and ancient sand painting ceremonials of the Navahos are among the more colorful. These ceremonies embody all elements of primitive medicine- religion, magic, chants, physiotherapeutic, and painting has been completed, the patient is seated upon it. The medicine man, or “singer,” chants, sings, prays, and utilizes magic-religious artifacts and sacred powders in the ritual. The patient is given draughts of decoctions of various herbs, which are shared by the medicine man and by spectators. Later, bits of pigments are applied to the patient’s body, and fumes of aromatic herbs sprinkled on hot coal are inhaled. Family and friends witness and join in the ceremonies, conducted in a medicine “Hogan.”


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