Of Eggs and Witch Doctors

Several months ago I was sitting in a San Antonio airport, waiting to board a flight back home after an enjoyable week with my family in South Texas. I looked up at a girl walking past the gate and started laughing. She was wearing a black t-shirt that said “I’m okay, my grandma rubbed an egg on me.”

When I was around six years old, my grandma rubbed an egg on me too. It was at my great-grandma Wita (Juanita)’s house and I was laying under a white sheet and listening to a strange lady chant incantations to drive the susto (fright) out of me.

Weeks before, my dad, a racecar driver, had been in the middle of a race when his car spun out of control and went flying, an image I still have in my head. When the light tree hit green, the cars peeled away and sped off down the track. As they got farther away from us, my dad’s red and blue car darted off the track, hit the median barrier, and bounced all over the place like a pinball. People jumped up from their seats but the only sound I heard was my mom screaming as she dashed down the bleachers. I remember walking down to the crash site long after the ambulance had come and gone and being surprised at the mangled mess of that beautiful car.

Miraculously, my dad walked away with no injuries, but the terror of the crash was seared into my mom’s memory. She had nightmares for a while after that, and I think we did too. That was when we went to my great-grandma’s house to see a curandera, a Mexican folk healer. The woman laid us down one by one under a sheet and chanted around us, waving branches and an egg which she rubbed on our bodies to draw out the susto.

Of course, to “enlightened” minds the ritual seems exotic and silly. An egg, a sheet, tree branches, and a wrinkled old woman commanding the body to heal. But even many years later as an adult and a church member, I look back at this ritual with respect and even reverence. “True” prayer and the priesthood (not to mention common sense) tell me that there is no room in my new faith for the village witch doctor. And yet I want to make room.

“Magical” or “folk” healing is certainly not absent from our church’s history. Joseph Smith sent his handkerchief to be rubbed on the faces of the sick to heal them. Heber C. Kimball believed that canes fashioned from the boxes that carried Joseph and Hyrum’s bodies had healing properties. And Jesus healed with mud, spittle, and “magic” words. The bottom line is that as silly as these things sound to modern ears, they are part of our history — and what’s more, they worked. They worked, we are told, because of people’s faith in the healer. Similarly the folk magic of a curandera sounds silly but it is a part of my history and I have faith in the village culture that sustained my ancestors. Today I may not have faith in the healing powers of curandismo, but I do retain reverence for its ritual.

Magic can be dangerous because it is ultimately manipulative. Better is the prayer of the worshipper who pours out their soul to God and asks for His will to be done. The magician commands while the supplicant asks and offers. But prayer and religion should always keep a sense of magic, because we should believe that our prayers actually have effect and that there is still wonder in the world.

Comments

  1. Melissa,

    Great post, thanks for this. I have to quibble a bit with your last paragraph, though. I think the dividing line between magic and worship is probably messier than you suggest. Magic rituals often involve supplication, while religious rituals sometimes focus on commands (think exorcism, for example). The distinction between magic and religion is hard to draw, and it’s especially difficult to assign moral values to one or the other — but the distinction is usually subjectively valid for the people carrying out the magic and/or religion, and therefore of some real meaning.

    Mormons have special reason to be circumspect about assigning negative moral status to magic: our religion was ultimately born by way of a magical treasure quest.

  2. Excellent stuff.

    Of course our worship is manipulative. We do X and we expect blessing Y. Sure, it doesn’t always work, but then again Sagitarron rituals don’t always work either.

  3. We even have God saying, “I am bound when you do what I say.” That’s magic language.

  4. This is great! It’s also one of my favorite subjects. I don’t think we realize how much folklore and magic is involved in everday medicine. I always think it is interesting when the two mix, and when people assume it is all based on science. I love comparing the cultural differences in medicine too.
    NPR had a long piece one Saturday on Mexican folk medicine, it was very much like your post.

  5. One word.

    Placebo

    The mind is a curious piece.

  6. cj douglass says:

    I wish I could tell these kinds of stories….”My dad was a race car driver and almost died in a car crash….I was once healed by a Mexican witch doctor….”

    I’m jealous.

  7. I love this stuff. Staples and I were just discussing it last night as I made my way through Godbeer’s very interesting account of the relationships between magic and religion in Puritan New England (Devil’s Dominion).
    For those interested in American religion and magic, you should really read Jon Butler’s fast and readable but scholarly Awash in a Sea of Faith. David Hall (Worlds of Wonder) treats this as part of his lived religion among New England Puritans. There are scads of books about this in early modern Europe and England where it was more robust than in the New World.

    I agree mostly with RT, though I think both positions have merit. Magic really can be readily identified by people within a given culture, and while the dichotomy is culturally constructed, it is valid for participants. In some cultural constructions the main difference between magic and religion is in fact manipulative vs. supplicative. In others it relates more clearly to community and orthodoxy. In others to class and elite status or established texutal traditions.

    And the more I investigate the “magical milieu” of early Mormonism, the more inclined I am to find the 1980s-1990s revisions rather lacking in sophistication and rigor. (Not that I object to Smith as magus on grounds of faith–God spoke through Moses after all–but I am finding the discussion more voyeuristic than illuminating.)

  8. Ben, multivitamins and Xango juice are placebos. Folk medicine is richer than that in my estimation. Though I’m interested in the difference between secular magic (placebos) and religious magic. how clearly can the lines be drawn?

  9. Sam MB, I’m happy to agree that there’s a strong element of voyeurism in Bushman’s, Quinn’s, Taylor’s, Ashurst-McGee’s, Brooke’s, etc., approaches to 19th-century New England magic. But I’m also happy to allude to the Social Science Research Council workshop I attended in which an eminent historian rather seriously defined history as “voyeurism plus source documents.”

  10. True,

    I think they largely work in the same way. Lines are difficult to draw.

    There is a large power in the body to heal itself, I feel this is a display of faith. Much like religous healings etc. Of course God created our bodies and this healing sytem was derived as part of the creation process. So in effect could we not, when ailing simply bolster our faith that the Lord will heal our bodies?

    This is an interesting topic.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    People interested in this suject might enjoy Dennis Potter’s Dialogue article on different theories of how ordinances work. His preferred theory is that they work by magical means. Very interesting stuff.

  12. The whole mind body spirit connection thing is a fascinating process. This is why I study it for a living.

  13. Melissa D Mason says:

    The line between magic & religion certainly is blurred and perhaps I shouldn’t generalize. I guess I’m just suspicious of ritual (esp. magic ritual) as a means of supplication. We’re taught to be humble and in relationship with God (hence He being bound when we keep covenants), to accept that we may not get the results that we demand. But I recognize that there are many forms of magic and its relationship with religion.

    There’s a few interesting chapters on the history of magic within religion in the book Prayer: A History.

    Mami, in Paul Farmer’s bio Mountains Beyond Mountains, he discusses the mix of voodoo and medicine in Haiti and how doctors respond to it.If I recall correctly, he sees it as a placebo effect but encourages doctors to play along in order to best heal their patients. Very cool stuff.

  14. Steve Evans says:

    Melissa, this is one of those Wow! good posts. Thanks a ton.

    I think we would be utter fools, and would be utterly ungrateful to our respective heritages, if we dismissed these rites as pure showmanship and attribute everything they do to the placebo effect. To proceed along lines of skepticism with regards to non-Christian rites while maintaining belief in dunking in water and anointing with oil strikes me as hypocrisy.

    That said, if an old woman tries to rub me with an egg I’m going to feel a little weird about it.

  15. Even old wive’s tales subtly, or not so subtly,leak into modern medicine.
    In the US, OB’s tell their patients they shouldn’t use hot tubs and suanas because it could hurt the baby. THoguh this seems logical on some level, they have never done any studies on it. In Finland, mothers are encouraged to use hot tubs and suanas for the benfit of the pregnancy. But it is a long tradition there–and they have done studies showing no harm, so why do Americans continue to discourage it?
    There are so many of those kinds of myths and traditions with no rhyme or reason with how to treat a sore throat, etc–I find it fascinating.

  16. As part of Kris’s and my research we have cataloged healings throughout our history. There is a definite “magical” tradition in our healing rituals, especially with how oil was used, well up into the 20the century. I am a believer though, you can’t discount the faith of these good people.

    I think in many ways, Mormonism followed the path that occurred in general Christianity as there was a movement from magical healers to the use of holy or consecrated oil and royal healers to the prayer of faith.

    Kevin recently translated for me a passage in Latin were the medieval church encouraged the transition from folk magic to Christian magic:

    As many times as some infirmity comes on by surprise, sorcerers should not be sought, nor diviners, nor soothsayers, nor coragi [?], nor through springs or forked trees should diabolical phylacteries be used, but he who suffers should trust solely in the mercy of God and receive the Eucharist with faith and devotion and seek oil blessed faithfully by the Church, by which he anoints his body in the name of Christ, and according to the apostle the prayer of faith will make well the sick and not only the body, but also he will recover health of spirit.

  17. mami, the lists of similar practices with allopathic medicine (the technical name for the kind that M.D.’s practice) are almost endless, and the farther you get from the old Puritan strongholds (by this I mean the Harvard-Yale-Princeton nexus), the more likely you are to encounter them. This speaks to our magnificent inability to inhabit an intellectual world not built on anecdotes.

    However, with all due respect to placebos and herbs and the “wisdom” of pediatricians, obstetricians, and family practitioners (as the traditional emblems of a world-view much more widespread), I do think there is something usefully different about religious as opposed to more general beliefs, though it’s important not to go too far toward dogmatism on this point.

    Put more simply, I think it is possible to believe meaningfully in the interactive existence of God without requiring strong belief in these other ideas.

  18. JNS, I like that quote. What I was trying to get at in my distaste for voyeurism is that I think it’s possible to strive toward inhabiting or understanding or appreciating the actual idea world of the people under investigation rather than simply detailing how fascinatingly odd they were. that to me is the distinction I’m after.

  19. ps, my favorite (horribly voyeuristic) discovery from the Godbeer book was the particular nature of certain types of counter-magic (rampant in early modern England, still observed in Puritan New England (PNE)).

    If you think you are cursed, urinate (or sometimes bleed) into a special stone cup called a greybeard, then toss pins or other sharp objects (sometimes also a fabric cutout of eg a heart), and if you boil the mixture, you will harm the person who cursed you, as they are connected to your body fluids by token of the curse they implanted within you. One fellow killed his neighbor when he boiled his sick son’s blood in this manner, realizing that a dagger had pierced the cork and entered the heated blood.

    I keep thinking I’ll write a book about the metaphysics of body fluids. I’m fascinated by how people experienced these substances that seemed apart from them but derivative from them, almost like a physicalized flux of energy. Talk about navel-gazing…

  20. staples, Thomas talks a lot about this issue, and godbeer has an interesting discussion about how naked the Protestants felt in the face of the syncretic cooptation of folk magic by the medieval church.

  21. “metaphysics of body fluids”

    I welcome this study, smb; it is clear that it is long overdue. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids. You know when fluoridation first began? Nineteen hundred and forty-six. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy? It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.

    I first became aware of it, smb, during the physical act of love. A profound sense of fatigue… a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence. I can assure you it has not recurred. Women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, smb. But I do deny them my essence.

  22. smb, excellent. I look forward to those works.

  23. I watch that movie every year. One of the high points of American political discourse.

    And incidentally grounded in a pretty rich metaphysical history.

  24. movie?

  25. 13, Melissa, Paul used to get called for “Voodoo consults” in Boston (his disparaging term for the way Boston physicians tried to disentangle themselves from having to engage their Haitian patients on cultural terms). My memory is that these often turned out to be offended non-English speakers who had no idea why they were being roughly handled rather than actual folk medical beliefs. Paul is a master and exemplar of kindly rigor in these settings.

    And I’ll stop my threadjack now. Your post was quite beautiful and extremely relevant to Mormonism both then and now.

  26. What seems strange weird wrong to one is not to another. In discussion to medicine and folklore etc it is all over the map. With the exception of a few practices it boils down to creating a placebo effect for calming etc. I think of it as opening a conduit to cleansing. To some it may sound “new Agey” but I believe there is a definite link to the psyche and physical healing.

    In concern to veiwing such acts as egg rubbing etc as blasphemous It depends on how they are administered and how Religion is brought in to the situation or if it is even brought to the act.

    What are the “overtones” I think most of us are wise enough to distinguish which is which.

    When I asked my Dad who is a doctor what the best treatment or cure is once told me that…

    “Laughter really is the best Medecine”

  27. PS. My brother is a Pharmacist as well… Interesting. Also sorry for the mispelled word… “Medicine.”

  28. Melissa- thank you so much for this- it’s timeless in it’s beauty and your observations. Which, by the way, I entirely agree with.

    There is room for wonder and magic in the world- and I hope it is always so. Thank you again for opening the door a little for us to see your life.

  29. Melissa, I enjoyed reading your post. Reading many accounts of healing earlier in this dispensation has led me to think a lot about the nature of consecrated oil and our approach to it. Many now consider it to be a “dumbo’s feather” that focuses our faith, while Mormon pioneers seemed to have a firm belief in its healing properties.

    My own experience with some dramatic healings is that they were so abrupt that it was almost like magic. Interestingly, they camewhen the healer seemed to command and not ask or offer. Not sure what to make of this …

  30. I hope this is not a threadjack…

    What I think is very interesting is where the magic and priesthood combine.

    While I did not serve in a mission where such was the common belief, I recall coming across a purple silk bag among my dad’s mission things. When I asked about it, he told me the story of a recent convert who had become very sick. When my father went by to administer to the poor soul, the convert asked for my father to look under his pillow explaining he thought he had been cursed by a Kahuna (Hawaiian Shaman). Sure enough, there was the silk bad full of cursed herbs. The bag was removed and a blessing was performed. The man recovered.

    My wife tells similar stories from her mission in South America.

  31. Craig, you don’t need to go so far afield geographically. Just consult Heber C Kimball’s 15 March 1857 sermon in Salt Lake City (JD 4: 294). Fascinating how he urged support for the Deseret News.

  32. Wow, fantastic post. I was never rubbed with an egg, but I do often feel the power in traditions in which I have not faith. I’ve never really known what to make of that, I still don’t. But I appreciate the magic nonetheless.

  33. you can actually find the shirt here.

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