Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion

By Morton Klass; Maxine Weisgrau | Go to book overview

PART THREE
The Healing Touch and Altered States

IN EVERY HUMAN SOCIETY SERIOUS AND SYSTEMATIC EFFORTS ARE MADE to penetrate the nature and causation of illness and thereby to heal the wounded, cure the sick, save the dying, and do something about the mentally impaired. And in most human societies, if not in all, the efforts frequently involve some variety of "altered states of consciousness" (ASC), whether it be entering a state of trance, possession by spirits (ancestors, deities, ghosts, etc.), or both. Western- derived biomedicine (that is, medical practices reflecting the scientific paradigm) has only recently begun to make tentative steps toward considering mental or psychological states such as those encompassed by ASC as contributing in any demonstrable sense to the healing process. This difference of opinion makes for many serious problems, only some of which can be pursued here.

There are, for example, problems of definition: What is trance? Is it synonymous with self-hypnosis (whatever we mean by that)? Is trance one phenomenon wherever and however it occurs, or are there varieties and/or degrees and/or conditions, all encompassed by outside observers with this single term? Can people fake it, and if so why would they, and how could the outsider tell if they are? Is what the anthropological literature refers to as trance a form of--or in any way related to--mental illness in either its human-universal or culturally specific manifestations?

These are just a few of the many questions that arise when trance is discussed from a crosscultural perspective--and trance, when compared to possession, is comparatively simple.

Possession implies the belief that an alien entity has taken control of, or even replaced, the mind of the person so affected. The alien entity may be the mind of another living human, the ghost or spirit of some deceased person, or some other kind of entity such as a demon or god. Possession may occur by invitation by the person to be "possessed" or against that person's knowledge or desire, and the

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