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Sangomas, Shamans and New Age healing in South Africa - 01 Agnieszka Podolecka



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

From Sangomas, Shamans and New Age: the Hybridity of some Modern Healing and Esoteric Practices and Beliefs in South Africa - Agnieszka Podolecka

‘Shades [spirits] are like water. They are everywhere at the same time’ – repeats Berglund after his informants, and my sangoma informants agree with this description; spirits permeate the world, they are ever-present, ready to help and in some cases to harm.[ A.-I. Berglund] This is why people still ‘feed’ ancestral spirits by food offerings and rituals.

But spirits are not associated with humans only: there are water spirits, tree spirits etc. The difference between a soul and a spirit is difficult to explain as there is no English vocabulary that would make a precise difference in the case of living entities: trees are alive according to sangomas but in English they do not use the word ‘soul’ but ‘spirit’.

All my informants used the terms intuitively and lacked proper English names for the concepts. They all said that healing a sickness without healing a soul and unbalance in life would never result in making a patient truly healthy, hence divination and healing had to be done together.

 ‘All Southern Bantu illness and misfortune (…) is believed to be caused by one of at least three agencies – ancestors, witches or pollution – and divination is thus essential in diagnosing which of these is responsible’ for the sickness.[ W.D. Hammond-Tooke]  In African societies every disease has its spiritual reason: a mere flu can be caused by an evil spirit or a person, or an ancestral spirit who does not feel properly remembered by descendants or feels animosity.

Contemporary sangomas, especially those who use the Internet and have non-African clients, explain sickness as a result of an unbalance of energy in the body and patient’s family. It is just another way of saying that sickness, just as any other misfortune in life, is not a result of a bacteria or a virus but a result of some spiritual or esoteric reason.

 In such situations a pill from a Western doctor will not help – the person will get well only when he or she believes that the spiritual problem has been solved, because only this solving can take both the reason and the effect away. Hence, a great need for sangomas’ healing based on the balance of the physical and spiritual elements. Other misfortunes can result from a planned action of violence or a punishment for breaking tribal rules.

Sangomas, who co-operate with spirits, provide a way of locating the misfortune and offer the possibility to repair the damage. Sangomas are also believed to be able to counteract the evil done by sorcerers and witches. [Ch. David, Religions of South Africa, Rutledge, London 1992]  Any reason can lead to bad luck or sickness. If it is not a direct misbehaving of people, then it has to be a spiritual reason – a curse from a sorcerer or witch or an admonition of breaking law from ancestral spirits. All my sangoma informants used the word ‘energy’ as the best explanation in English, the very word not used several decades ago but very popular among holistic healing enthusiasts around the world. By energy my informants meant all good and bad processes in the body-mind-soul constitution; an illness should never be diagnosed in the separation of these three elements.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items


Activities and commonsteps