Healers of Arnhem Land

Healers of Arnhem Land

Healers of Arnhem Land

Healers of Arnhem Land


"For two decades, from 1970 to 1990, Professor Cawte annually visited the Yolngu clan of northeast Arnhem Land. During this time he recorded, with the clan leaders' permission, traditional medicinal knowledge, and healing scenes were specially enacted and photographed. This information is now presented publicly for the first time in Healers of Arnhem Land. In an attempt to span the gulf between European and Aboriginal cultures, and to encourage tolerance and understanding, this book presents anxieties and distress as intriguing mysteries, threats and challenges that confront both cultures." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


John Cawte is well known internationally as a pioneer in the study of variations in psychiatric phenomena according to culture. Commonly designated transcultural psychiatry, this field has been his lifelong interest and perhaps began with childhood experiences in Streaky Bay, South Australia, where some of his playmates were Aboriginal Australians. Even had he consciously chosen, given his English-Danish ancestry, Cawte could scarcely have picked a more interesting contrast between his cultural world and that of his childhood companions.

Over the past thirty-five years, John Cawte has published a steady stream of books and papers dealing with European-Aboriginal differences in forms and epidemiology of mental illnesses, notions about their cause and how they are managed. Perhaps his most important contribution has been his patient, year by year participation in the lives of these faraway peoples which has enabled his empathic entry into the thought worlds of at least a few of the major Aboriginal groups.

Cawte's in-depth knowledge and experience in medicine, psychiatry, anthropology and history permit him unusual bio-psycho-social perceptions. I remember the first time I heard Cawte lecture. He made the point that whereas long-distance European sea voyagers were plagued by scurvy, Indonesian colonisers of the Pacific never suffered scurvy even though their voyages were of equal duration. Long before the European discovery of the therapeutic and preventive value of limes and lemons, these intrepid seafarers carried tamarind pods which served the same preventive function. Cawte tossed tamarind pods to his audience to demonstrate how much more compact and convenient the tamarinds were than cargoes of fresh limes.

This present collection deals with the Yolngu of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, one of some 500 cultural groups comprising the original settlers. Cawte emphasizes that Aboriginal groups should not all be lumped together as they usually are-- there are many culturally diverse groups which are perhaps as different one from the other as are Irish from Italian Europeans.

These writings represent a distinct departure from Cawte's earlier publications. He modestly refers to them as 'stories', but they certainly are unusual stories. Indeed it is difficult to fit them into any known category. Perhaps they are unique to John Cawte! These writings escape the purely literary or scientific but present actuality on the ground in Arnhem Land and, in so doing, they communicate the pervasive anxiety of a people caught up in sorcery, social threat and impending cultural obliteration. Cawte evokes a kind of verbal magic, conjuring multidimensional images by juxtaposing Yolngu and European forms of consciousness.

Most of the stories are based on detailed descriptions of Yolngu life: case histories of illness or misfortune; odd biographical incidents; or unusual self-revelations. These incidents are intertwined with subjective interpretations in both scientific and mythic terms. There are medical descriptions of leprosy and of the causative organ, ism side by side with Yolngu conviction that the disease is the result of 'pay-back' or magical retaliation for misdeeds against a neighbouring clan. There are biological details of the remarkable box jellyfish or sea wasp . . .

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