Historian and author of
“The Once and Future Goddess – A Sweeping Visual Chronicle of the Sacred Female and Her Reemergence in the Cult”
As I reflect on my evolving understanding of the role of the healer, I remember my awe at discovering some years ago that, for the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, healing encompassed all dimensions of well-being, not just the physical as in Western medicine, but also the emotional, psychological and spiritual as well. I’ve never been to Africa; my first acquaintance with the world of the Bushman was not, alas, face-to-face, but in a book by a specialist in trance healing, Richard Katz, Boiling Energy (1982), in which he describes in great detail a Bushman healing ritual.
When first encountered by anthropologists in the 1950’s, the Bushmen were hunters and gatherers who lived much as their Stone Age ancestors had lived some 10,000 years ago. They had had virtually no contact with Europeans or even with their neighbors the Bantu, who were pastoralists. The Bushmen lived in a collective, in bands of 35 to 50. They hunted and gathered together, and together they followed their semi-nomadic seasonal rounds. An egalitarian culture, they had no leaders per se, only some wise elders. Those who felt called became healers; these were mostly men, although there was no gender discrimination. Women were believed to have a sacred power within their own bodies during their menstruating, child-bearing years, so strong that it would interfere with !num, the cosmic force healers called upon to come into their bodies and act as healing agent.
Fifty percent of all Bushmen adults became healers. What seemed most significant to me was that whenever anyone in their small community felt unwell, be it a physical, mental, emotional or psychological unease, they held an all night healing ritual to which everyone came—men, women and children, even infants. The women clapped and sang, the men danced and healed. The healers would go into trance and call into their bodies the healing force of Mum which, as they told Katz, “boiled up” within them, hence the title of his book. This force was often very painful to the healers, and so powerful that it was considered dangerous for them.
Another important insight for me was prompted by the fact that in her/his entire life, no Bushman was ever out of hearing range of other members of their clan—for example, to call upon for help. As I pondered on this I was also dealing with my own healing over the death of my son Bill, who took his life at age twenty-five. I could understand his despair and torment, and accept his decision, but continued to grieve for my loss. I have come to feel that Bill died of the failure of our family and the failure of our culture. In his spiritual crisis he was in desperate need of some healing. Alone in south Texas, far from family and friends, he had no caring community to call upon.
When Katz asks in his epilogue why is it that the more resources we put into training community mental health specialists, the less able we are to heal – a bell tolled for me. What is the understanding of healing in our culture? Who are the healers? I am reminded of another of Katz’s provocative questions. In an address to the Harvard Medical School faculty, he asked, “Can doctors be trained to heal?” The Western medical science approach is to treat the body as fragmented parts and systems, not to look at it as a whole. Traditional healing acknowledged the inter-relationship between body, mind and spirit as well as the impact of forces-human, environmental and cosmic-outside of the body. In the traditional world view of prehistoric and primal peoples, like that of the Kalahari Bushman, healing is concerned with well-being, the individual’s well-being as well as that of the larger community of which she/he is a vital part. Healers were the shamans, midwives, herbalists, oracles, and wise elders working for both the individual and collective good, specialists whose skills and functions often overlapped. As ritualists, their work was part of a sacred whole in which all of life was interconnected.
What special role do women healers play? Are women by their nature, either biological or “gender-constructed”, especially gifted as healers?
In ancient times and the Middle Ages they were the wise women whose special knowledge was handed on from mother to daughter, generation to generation. But by early modem times their power became suspect, particularly to the Christian Church which then for the next three hundred years waged a holocaust against them through the Inquisition. Women healers were persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike and burned as witches and heretics said to be in league with the devil. Those who survived were the targets of a patriarchal medical establishment which denigrated women healers’ ways as anathema to the rigors of the scientific revolution. Women healers were condemned as ignorant and superstitious.
Despite this continuing oppression, women were still practicing as midwives and herbalists in the rural areas of the United States and Europe until the major demographic shifts of the mid-twentieth century. In Latin America the curandera has continued to function as midwife, herbalist, hands-on healer and shaman in the face of more than four-hundred years of oppression from the Catholic Church.
According to Vicki Noble, “…each woman is an instrument of the healing forces that have always existed, even in our time, and each ‘instrument’ can be opened and made effective through the use of certain practices and techniques.” In her classes, she teaches both individual methods of healing such as yoga, chanting, meditation, and visualization and group experiences of ritual and hands-on healing.
French philosopher Julia Kristeva claims that women have privileged access to the cosmos through the connection of their menstrual cycle with the rhythms of the moon. Poet-theorist Judy Grahn enlarges this concept to embrace the notion that menstruation created culture—in effect, the conscious world. Through awareness of this peculiarly human menstrual/lunar relationship, which our women ancestors first observed and then ritualized, the human mind was created. Her radical thesis is based on her concept of metaforms, embodied ideas that exist as a combination of mind, body and spirit. “Metaforms display idea-feelings overtly, passionately, connectedly.”‘
How are we to understand the relationship of these provocative notions of female power to the emerging role of the woman as healer in our late-twentieth century culture?
The Bushman’s belief in the field of energy embodied in the menstruating woman as a power not unlike the god-given healing !num suggests one possible link. Another is a woman’s anatomy, which leaves her body through the vulva open to the energies of the earth. I recall a woman who came to one of my workshops who, after viewing images of the sacred female, sat bare-assed all night long on the naked earth to get in touch with the healing energies of the goddess. Yet another biological factor and socializing force is a woman’s capacity to nurture a child, both within her own body during the nine months of pregnancy, and after, from the milk of her breasts.
In our evolving contemporary culture, some women have perhaps been more open than their male peers to the paradigmatic changes that are taking place in our views of ourselves, life styles and institutional relationships. Today women are again active as healers. The reclaiming of her many-faceted role as legitimate is part of a growing shift in values through which diverse cultural strands are coalescing. Their common link is the disillusionment with the systems of a society increasingly viewed as dysfunctional, no longer serving its citizen’s essential needs. Included among these dysfunctional systems is Western medicine, with its increasing depersonalization and alienation, the byproducts of medical technology, as well as run-away costs threatening even the limited viability of our health care system as it now exists.
Among present day women healers, those most popularly known are the midwives. With a desire to treat pregnancy and childbirth as a natural process, not a medical problem, many women have turned to midwives whose presence has resacralized birthing
Emerging in recognition are woman herbalists, once again providing the life enhancing ointments and medications made from organic rather than synthetic substances, advising their clients on more wholesome health habits.
With the trend to a more holistic view of health care, fostering wellness and prevention rather than the curing of illness, people are looking more to a variety of non-traditional medicines and health strategies. These include “hands on” healers. As hands-on healers, women use the power of their own bodies to access vital energy that will restore balance to those who seek their help. Health problems are often the physical result of imbalances in this system. Through touch, the healer identifies those areas lacking energy and those blocked by excessive energy. These areas are then filled or cleared by the healer. This can then allow one’s own healing energy to work effectively.
Female shamans have been active since the late Paleolithic as spiritual leaders. This tradition has never died out in Central Asia or Korea. Today as we reclaim the role of the shaman in our post modem Western culture, we are enlarging our understanding of our relationship to the universe, acknowledging unseen forces, a world beyond our material ken. The shaman’s ability to activate these forces for healing is awesome to the uninitiated. She is drawing on the body’s natural power to renew, a power that all of us could access if only we believed.
While we cannot return to a preindustrial age where most people lived simple lives in rural, tightly-knit communities, we can work to create new communities where the age-old values that the women healers teach prevail. They, like the prophets of old, are prescient, leading the way.