Print this page

Observations placeholder

Dr J C Barker - Australian aboriginal - Death prayers

Identifier

011940

Type of spiritual experience

A description of the experience

Dr J C Barker  MD, MRCP, DPM – Scared to Death – An examination of fear, its cause and effects

Cannon exercised careful judgement in his selection of examples of voodoo death by restricting his enquiries to medically trained observers and then methodically checking the validity of their testimony in order to establish the reality of the phenomenon beyond all reasonable shadow of doubt. Clearly it could be argued that some of these instances of voodoo death, particularly those resulting from the ingestion of forbidden foods, might have resulted from poisons, perhaps even administered directly by the soothsayer himself, and consumed unknowingly by the victim.

Under these circumstances, to invoke supernatural influences such as witchcraft or bewitchment would be quite unjustifiable. Similarly it is equally important to exclude deaths resulting from natural causes.

Among the Australian Aborigines in particular, where the phenomenon is characteristically observed, Cannon believed that poisoning could be virtually excluded.
"There are few poisonous plants available, and I doubt whether it has ever entered the minds of the Central Australian natives that such might be used on human beings."
With regard to the possibility of natural deaths, it was noted that young healthy males were characteristically involved, and that following a "malignant suggestion" of some sort, death usually occurred rapidly and post-mortems, when performed, failed to indicate any pathological lesions responsible for death.

Cannon then proceeded to examine the social attitudes of the other members of the tribe towards a man who has had the misfortune to fall a victim of voodoo-like suggestion and is consequently doomed.

The first attitude is one of active loss of support from his kinsmen. The doomed man becomes a pariah whose social life disintegrates and then collapses. He is alone and isolated, perhaps even viewed by his fellow men as sacred and taboo and quite different from the ordinary community to which he once belonged. He thus experiences what has aptly been termed "the greatest known extremity of tear" from which the only means of escape is death. He is now in a highly susceptible state and the cruel and callous behaviour of his former friends only serves to heighten the notion of death which already exists in his mind. He therefore loses his will to live, starves himself and pines away, becoming progressively weaker and weaker and actively co-operates in his own withdrawal from society.

He becomes what the attitude of his fellow tribesmen wills him to be and therefore assists in committing a kind of suicide.

The second attitude of the community occurs shortly before death. The social group, as it were, then performs its own last funeral rites and the ceremonial leader, who may be the victim's next of kin, severs his remaining contacts with the ordinary world and places him in the proper position "in the sacred totemic world of the dead" to which the victim reciprocates on his part.

The source of the experience

Australian aboriginal

Concepts and Symbols used in the text or image

Activities