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Observations placeholder

Dr Stephen Black - The trances of the babalawos, or witch doctors, of the Yoruba people



Type of Spiritual Experience


flexibilitas cerea  or’Waxy flexibility’ is a psychomotor symptom which leads to a decreased response to stimuli and a tendency to remain in an immobile posture. For instance, if one were to move the arm of someone with waxy flexibility, they would keep their arm where one moved it until it was moved again, as if it were made from wax.

A description of the experience

Dr Stephen Black – Mind and Body

Spontaneous flexibilitas cerea does occur as the result of hypnosis induced by rhythmic stimuli in the rituals of primitive peoples. For many years this fact led to the mistaken belief that all the cataleptic trance states produced by witch doctors and voo-doo medicine men were due to physiological tetany produced by alkalaemia following hyperventilation. Or in other words, a lowering of the blood acidity by breathing too hard and 'blowing off' too much carbon dioxide: which is what makes the blood acid.

Over-breathing in this way produces tetany-a rigidity of the muscles due to changes in the calcium available in the blood-but it does not produce a wax-like catatonia. Over-breathing to evoke dramatic physiological results is quite a common 'mess trick' or 'dormitory lark' among young people in Britain-and is often carried to such lengths that total unconsciousness results. There is, however, no danger involved, so long as someone catches the young subaltern when he falls, because as soon as breathing ceases, carbon dioxide builds up in the system and consciousness returns.

However, in an investigation of the babalawos, or witch doctors of the Yoruba people in Nigeria, I was able to show fairly conclusively that the states of so-called 'possession' by pagan gods which are produced in the course of various rituals were all hypnotic (Black I967). In such cases it transpired that any accompanying catatonia was not in fact tetany at all, but the wax-like flexibilitas cerea of hypnosis.

The evidence of 'cure or symptomatic relief' by such primitive 'psychotherapy through magic' makes no mean contribution in support of my theories. But it is the point here that the hypnosis of such 'possession' is induced in a significant 5 per cent of the population, not by suggestions of 'sleep', but by the rhythmic stimulation of drumming, chanting and dancing. Among the 'Sopono' small-pox cult, the resulting wax-like rigidity is then employed by the 'witches' in charge as part of the sacrificial ritual.

With regard to respiratory changes in hypnosis, such trance states produced by rhythmic stimulation alone do not show the lowering of respiration rate which is common following suggestions of sleep and DSUH [Direct Suggestion under Hypnosis] of slow breathing, as part of the induction monologue. But according to my own observations among the Sopono cult, there was a change in respiratory depth, which continued far longer than could be accounted for by the violent exercise involved in the sacrificial dance previously performed.

Doust (1953) has shown that the level of arterial oxygen saturation -the amount of oxygen in the arterial blood-is a function of trance depth and that a relative anoxaemia - lack of oxygen in the blood -occurs as the trance deepens. Working with Pugh in the M.R.C. Physiological Laboratories in Hampstead, I investigated the alveolar ventilation - the amount of air drawn into the lungs-as this was affected under hypnosis and awake, by different concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air breathed (1965).

As the concentration of carbon dioxide was raised from the normal 0.03 per cent up to an uncomfortable 5 per cent, the amount of air breathed into the alveoli of the lungs increased. But under hypnosis there was a drop of 33 per cent in such 'alveolar ventilation'. We also found that under hypnosis, the subjects could hold their breath longer.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items




Science Items


Activities and commonsteps