Spirits Captured in Stone: Shamanism and Traditional Medicine among the Taman of Borneo

By Jay H. Bernstein | Go to book overview

4

Explanations of Illness and
Their Conceptual Framework

The concepts of illness described in this chapter are part of larger cultural systems and must be understood in the context of a larger set of background premises. 1 These concepts are not entirely specific to the Taman; they are shared to some extent by other peoples throughout the Upper Kapuas and to a lesser extent in other parts of Borneo and beyond. The balien system is only one of the folk healing systems to which the Taman have recourse. Furthermore, there are several templates for comprehending illness that can be summed up in the distinction between the notion that illness is internally caused and the notion that it is externally caused, or sent. The latter concept includes ideas about spirits and ghosts, spells, poisons, and charms.

Among the Taman, the tendency to explain illness as originating outside the body is dominant, though not universal. Not only baliens but other folk-medical specialists and other healers mostly concentrate on the treatment of externally caused illnesses. As a whole, the Taman medical belief system may be described as an "externalizing" one, in Allan Young's (1976b) terms.

Externalizing systems concentrate on making etiological explanations for serious sicknesses. Here, pathogenic agencies are usually purposive and often human or anthropomorphized. Diagnostic interests concentrate on discovering what events could have brought the sick person to the attention of the pathogenic agency ... in order to identify the responsible category of pathogen, or, even, the responsible individual agent.... Often only gross symptomatic distinctions are made, since the intrasomatic links between etiological events and sequences of biophysical signs are not elaborated. (Young 1976b: 148)

While the Taman tend to think of illness as externally caused, they recognize that certain illnesses originate from within a person's own body. Illnesses originating from outside the body cannot be treated with medicines or therapies suited for those originating within the body, and vice versa. For

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