Psychosis or Social Sanction

A.L. Kroeber, Journal of Personality, 1940, 8, 3, 204-215.


Psychotic Factors in Shamanism

On a chance, I said to an old Lassik Indian woman: “I bet youare a doctor.” “Well, I nearly was,” she answered. “My baby died. I was sitting around the next afternoon. All at once I heard a baby cry overhead, and fell over unconscious. My sister brought me back; but from time to time I heard the crying again, and became more and more sick. I gave an old doctor twenty dollars to cure me, and he said it was my baby’s shadow coming to tell me to become a doctor. But I did not want to; and when the shadow began to talk, urging me, I told him, ‘No, I would not,’ and urged him to go away. So at last he left off, and I got well, and did not become a doctor.”

In our civilization this happening would be diagnosed as a psy-chosis. It manifests recurrent hallucinations, fits of loss of contactwith the sensory world, distress and worry, and a sense of illness.Twenty dollars was a considerable amount for a backwoods Indianwoman to pay in a lump sixty years ago.

From the native point of view, one may at once suspect the functioning of a cultural pattern, because all through native northern California the onset of shamanistic power is marked by a seizure in which the candidate experiences an hallucination — always auditory and usually visual also — in which objectively he is unconscious,or unaware of his surroundings, and acutely ill. To his family and village mates he seems actually stricken with disease. But the older shaman who is consulted, promptly diagnoses the disease as the onset of shamanistic power, predicts cure as soon as the patient adjusts himself to his new power, and, with other shamans, helps to “train” the novice, that is, to find the adjustment. In most cases, apparently, the novice accepts the power which has come upon him: considerable prestige attaches, in a simple society, to one who cancure or exercise other special faculties. …