dedication and organization

opening words


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1st World Congress on Matriarchal Studies
Luxembourg 2003
Selected Papers


Center for the Study of the Gift Economy

International Academy Hagia

Cécile Keller

Medicine in Matriarchal Societies


The practice of medicine in matriarchal societies has not been much researched,, and we are only just starting to recognise its importance. I intend to use my knowledge and experience to highlight the significance and scope of medical systems in matriarchal cultures. This has great relevance, and could be groundbreaking in many areas for western medicine, which has, in many respects, reached a dead end.
It has not been easy to find sources, as matriarchal cultures are mainly oral cultures. The ritual and medical knowledge has been passed on orally, and often secretly. Only in the last century has this secrecy been lifted by indigenous peoples themselves, which has made it possible for outsiders to research this knowledge.
I applied quite narrow criteria to the sources: they had to be from societies that were both matrilinear and matrilocal. The single exception is the Mitsogho in Gabun, West Africa. They are matrilinear, but virilocal. They were selected because the overall structure of their society shows so many characteristic matriarchal patterns. Presumably, matrilocality existed prior to the slow development of virilocality.

Based on the available research undertaken on three societies with matriarchal patterns, I have come up with the first definition of medicine in matriarchal societies. One can rightfully assume that this definition also applies to other matriarchal societies. A major research project would need to be undertaken in order to make this clear. There is still much that can, and should, be done in this area.

Eliade and Lévi-Strauss were the first scientists to honour the healing arts and indigenous cultures cosmology and way of life. These scientists' empirical research demonstrated that these cultures are highly developed, and it freed them from the label of being "primitive". Attributions of this kind stem from the colonial and Christian attitudes of western civilisations. As far as indigenous cultures' healing ceremonies go, these were decried as psychopathological.
Lévi-Strauss and Eliade broke that taboo. Their work is very valuable, truly trailblazing work, and it has contributed to seeing the healing arts of these cultures from a totally different perspective than before.

In the book Ethno-Psychotherapies by Christian Scharfetter und Adolf Dittrich , the authors collected material about research into indigenous healing arts. I have chosen one study about the Misogho in Gabun. Additionally, I have used the chapter in Matriarchy II,1 from Heide Goettner-Abendroth which is about the shamans in Korea, and her study on the Iroquois in Matriarchy II,2. Furthermore, the book Women's Federations of North American Indians from Liane Gugel was an important source for my research, as well as Saskia Baier's M.A. thesis with the title: Women's Federations and the Importance of their Role Within Ceremonial work in the Iroquois Nation.

The impulse to do this work came from the realisation that the shamanic Healing Circle (Quetzalcoatl Lodge in Switzerland), which I attended for more than three years, still included remnants of matriarchal medical knowledge. The Deer Tribe Metis Medicine Society derives its knowledge from the various American Indian traditions in North, Central, and South America, and are being preserved and taught by Indian elders called the Twisted Hairs.

Their knowledge is taught in the form of the Medicine Wheel. This is an old tradition: wheels and circles have always been used to teach about the ways of the universe. There is nothing linear in their worldview, because linearity is seen as an illusion. There is no beginning and no end .

My main focus is on the Iroquois of North America, specifically the tribe of the Seneca, one of the six tribes of their League; it is very well researched and documented. I shall also refer to the Mitsogho in Gabun, West Africa, and the Hopi in Arizona, North America.

Furthermore I shall include Korean shamanism, which stems from the matriarchal culture in East Asia.

Main Part

I shall
  1. define the concept of medicine within matriarchal societies;
  2. look at the issue of who carries out the medicine, and then give a definition of the different practitioners of medicine;
  3. draw an outline of how sickness and health are understood in those societies;
  4. investigate how diagnoses are made in these systems;
  5. look at the application of matriarchal medicine;
  6. explore the treatment methods;
  7. explore the Iroquois system of medicine societies.
1. The concept of medicine in matriarchal societies

The philosophy of the Iroquois has an impersonal, omnipresent power at its centre which pervades every object and living being. On this spiritual basis, rites, ceremonies and healing rituals are created . In the Iroquois language this power is called ORENDA and seen as the underlying cause for everything in this world . This power of ORENDA is present in animals, plants, human beings, ancestors, elements and objects. It manifests in natural phenomena. This happens through song, as in the song of the thunder, the wind and the storm . Furthermore the Iroquois visualize life as a constant dynamic interchange between one ORENDA and another. When they both have equal strength there is a balance of power. This is regarded as most fortunate, and is seen as a concentration of power. However, if they are out of balance, the strong one can bring good fortune to its bearer, while the weak one can bring misfortune and even death. Female shamans, for example, have a very large ORENDA.

With the help of special practices, such as rituals and ceremonies which can be studied and acquired, ORENDA can be activated, potentised and augmented, and this is called magic. For this process of activation however, a catalyst is necessary. It is the spoken or sung word, a spell or a song. This is why songs or sung words have such an important meaning in matriarchal cultures.

Based on this understanding of ORENDA, a definition of medicine can be deduced. ORENDA is identical with the concept of medicine. Any object possessing ORENDA is called a medicine.

2. Who administers medical care in matriarchal societies, and how the different practitioners of medicine are defined

The following persons practice medical care within matriarchal societies, and may be male or female: shamans, medicine practitioners, healers, diviners, fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, diagnosticians, as well as medicine societies.

I have consciously chosen the female form. I am including men in this definition whilst stressing the importance of women, who have, in the older traditions, practiced medicine, protected the knowledge and passed it on. Scientific literature mentions women only marginally or not at all. Almost all medicine practitioners, shamans and healers are male. However from the very earliest ethnographic accounts about the Iroquois, we know that the ritual songs and ceremonies, as well as the medical knowledge, belonged to certain matri-clans. The women owned this knowledge and passed it on.
The shamanism of Korea also lies almost exclusively in the hands of women. This is evident from the statistics: 95% of the shamans of the ecstatic tradition are women.

Now I shall deal with the definitions of the different practitioners of medicine.

With the Iroquois, a medicine women is a women who possesses great ORENDA with healing powers. Or, she possesses great experience and drugs; sometimes she even has experience in performing surgery. She knows many magic practices, such as how to use rattles and invocations. And how to call spirits. Eliade limits the concept of the shaman, and he uses the male form when describing the ecstasy technique. With regard to North American tribes this definition is far too narrow. This is the reason why this term is defined differently in American literature compared to European literature. The American definition of a shaman is everybody who heals through supernatural powers, or is able to cause diseases . This definition includes all medicine women and every kind of fortune telling, which is not true for the European definition. I am therefore using the American definition.

The concept of priestess: Eliade believes the ability to go into ecstasy distinguishes the priestess from the shaman. However in many North American tribes the function of the priestess and the shaman are combined in one person. This is also true for Korea in pre-patriarchal times. The most prominent women in the tribe -- and in the kingdom -- were priestesses and shamans; they inherited their profession. The spiritual concerns of the culture were laid in their hands, and they were also healers and medicine women. In addition, they were visionaries and fortune-tellers.

3. The concept of health and sickness in matriarchal societies

The Iroquois derive their concept of health from their worldview. They believe the universe to be made up of polar powers. For a strong ORENDA unity to be created, these two powers have to connect, for this represents a balance of power. Therefore health is seen as a condition of balance inside and outside of the individual . Each disturbance of this balance is seen as a possible cause for disease. When an organism is out of balance, it is viewed as weak and therefore prone to attack by bad spirits. They can enter all living beings, so they can enter into human beings, animals, plants and animal spirits. Sickness is not simply an imbalance of power, but also involves the presence of a bad spirit. This is why sickness is doubly feared.

With the Hopi, a system is made up of transcendent beings, human beings, animals, plants, the sun, the moon, the earth and the stars. The maintenance of the harmony between the powers of the system is only achievable through correct lifestyle . Part of this is the maintenance of traditions, the correct execution of ceremonies and ethical ideals. Human misconduct, what they call qahopi, leads to sickness, drought and crop failure.

The Mitsogho in Gabun view health as balance and harmony in social interaction. This is mirrored in the individual. If a member of the community is sick, the imbalance has to be removed; this affects the community in the same way it affects the individual, and the sickness is simply pointing out the imbalance.

4. The Diagnosis

Traditional diagnosis aims to uncover the reason for this assumed imbalance. In this way the diagnosis is a statement about the cause. It is not the clinical picture which is the the focus of the diagnosis, but the uncovering of, and the search for, the cause is at the centre. . This is in contrast to the scientific approach to medicine, where symptoms and the course of the disease are the deciding factors in diagnostics, and the matter of the cause is largely neglected.

Some matriarchal cultures have specially trained diagnosticians such as the Mitsogho in Gabun and the Iroquois. With the Mitsogho, women's medicine societies for women, are responsible for a certain social sphere. For the area of health there are two medicine societies for women and one medicine society for men . One of the women's medicine societies is called Boom; this group also includes fortune-tellers, who are used to divine the sickness. During a night watch, the woman responsible for the divination takes Iboga. Iboga is a shrub containing a hallucinogenic. The people know the effect of this drug, and are able to regulate it very well. They are also familiar with the application and dosage for the particular purpose. For them it is the "bitter wood", and they call the drug, a "wonderful wood" which enables them to see the hidden issues of life. Behind closed doors the women dance and drum the whole night long, until the cause of the disease is uncovered. The following day the diagnosis and exact description of treatment is announced publicly in the village square. Then the treatment is begun.

The Iroquois call a traditional diagnostician a fortune-teller. She diagnoses the disease based on the person's dreams. The dream diagnostician attempts to find the spirit that has entered the person. She does this by having the dream recounted to her. On the basis of the dream symbols, she prescribes a healing ceremony.

5. Application area of matriarchal medicine

The application areas arise from the understanding these cultures have of sickness and health. They include the individual, the clan, the village, the whole tribe and nature, even the universe itself. The disease is not something that merely concerns the individual. This explains why most of the time the whole clan, the village or the tribe are part of the healing ceremony. In the case of the Seneca, the clan members decide what kind of treatment is to be administered, not the sick person .
An example of the usage of medicine for nature is given by a medicine society for women of the Seneca: The Towisas Medicine Society, the Society of Women Planters, carries out healing ceremonies for the well being of everybody. This means this ceremony applies to Mother Earth, who needs repeated healing according to Iroquois understanding, as each cultivation and planting hurts her . These healing rituals re-establish the balance between humans and the earth.

6. Methods of treatment

The treatment methods are holistic, and address the whole person: body, soul and consciousness, as well as the cosmological worldview. The rituals bring about a re-connection with the cosmological worldview, and with that a connection to the gods, the spirits of the dead, the ancestral spirits and nature spirits. This in itself is a process of healing in the broadest sense. A scenario is set up, the purpose of which is to call up, energetically, all spiritual forces, the world of the ancestors, and the gods. Through prayer, ritual songs, and tobacco sacrifice, the goodwill of these spirits is implored, for only they can grant healing. They are the ones who are continually granting the knowledge of healing to human beings and this knowledge is adhered to in their myths. Often, they appear in the body of the person who calls them, and they speak and act through them.

It is not the practitioner who decides what treatment the patient needs; it is the spirit beings, the ancestors and the gods who decide this. The practitioner acts in accordance with the spirit and ancestral world with the gods who impart their knowledge to them.

If we take the Iroquois as an example, their treatments are ritualised treatments, with herbal cures, water treatments such as washings, body cleansing, massages, and casting out of spirits. These will be administered by a medicine society or through a medicine woman. The ritualised treatment takes care of physical and psychological disorders . The following specific diseases are treated by the medicine societies in particular: poisoning; emotions like fear, aggression, depression, confusion, mental illness; the "false-face-disease", and possession.

The female shamans in Korea start their classical ritual by erecting the house altar in the house of the hostess, in the presence of the occupants and the patient. Accompanied by her musicians, the shaman begins the dance for the spirits. This dance leads her into a trance in which she is possessed by the spirits she invoked. In this engrossed, ecstatic condition the spirit talks and acts through her in a healing fashion. When the spirit has left the shaman again, she will still move in conformity to its gestures for a certain length of time; she will dance for it and then allow it to go, and then praises it . Sometimes there is a further treatment after this.

A significant healing ritual is the search for the soul. The search for the soul is usually conducted by matriarchal peoples as a "guiding-back" of the soul to the body. This is done by a journey into the "other, non-human world" by an experienced shaman who goes into trance. As long as a soul is outside its body it can be harmed by a bad spirit or by an occult attack, which can weaken vital energies and lead to sickness. The patient will find out about this attack through his dreams. With the Mitsogho for example, the dream pictures are not interpreted individually, but rather are understood according to a generally accepted and well known collective symbolism. Dreams are held to be so real that a person can bring a legal action against somebody on the basis of a dream, alleging damaging or occult practices.

7. The system of the medicine societies within the Iroquois

By way of illustration, I would like to address the subject of the system of medicine societies with the Seneca, as they have been very well researched . They have only been institutionalised under the acculturation pressure of the colonial powers. When I say institutionalised, I mean the process of keeping the matriarchal healing, cultural and medical knowledge secret from non-indigenous people. The institutionalisation of these associations started on the reservations. Only in recent history has the secrecy been partly lifted.

Medicine societies are federations of people with the aim of maintaining the health and well being of individuals, society, nature, the cosmos, the spirit world, gods and the ancestors. This is the reason why even today these ceremonies have such great importance.
Characteristic of these medicine societies are healing rituals, teaching and continuation of the medical knowledge within the medicine society, and renewal rituals which are mostly public and are in accordance with the agricultural cycle. They hold to characteristic creation myths that explain the meaning of the rituals, the holy objects and the help and animal protective spirits . Another feature is the unchanged rendering of ceremonies and song lyrics, which often contain words not understood even by the members. This is evidence of the great age of these rituals . These are secret and not to be passed on to the uninitiated.

Among the medicine societies for women there are three belonging to the domain of agriculture and two to hunting. The focal point of the medicine societies for women is the healing ceremonies. Nowadays the agricultural rites are celebrated publicly. I want to quote two examples, because they can provide indirect information on the content of the healing ceremonies, which are not public.
The Towisas Medicine Society is an agricultural society concentrated on the powers of fertility: birth and growth of plant life, animals and human beings. There are public ceremonies beginning in spring and extending throughout the summer; that is, from the sowing through the harvesting .
The Ogiwe Medicine Society which is also called, The Talkers with the Dead, is involved with ceremonies around death, and cultivates a relationship with the dead. The celebration of the dead happens twice yearly, in March and in late Autumn. Furthermore this medicine society celebrates the Renewal of Power Ceremony as part of the Mid-Winter celebration . In this way these two medicine societies are building up a complementary ceremonial body depicting the seasonal cycle and the cycle of all living beings .
It is not known which healing ceremonies the Towisas Medicine Society women celebrate in private. It can be assumed that since they are celebrating fertility rituals that the healing rituals relate to women's fertility.
The healing ceremonies of the Ogiwe Medicine Society happen outside the ceremonial calendar. They are better known than those of the Towisas Medicine Society. If there are diseases such as loss of appetite, insomnia, nerve disorders, or confusion of spirit, these will be treated by the Ogiwe Medicine Society women, as they are believed to be caused by spirits of the dead . The clairvoyant is of great importance during this ceremony, as she identifies the spirit in the patient. The ability to communicate with the spirit of the dead is a clairvoyant one, and is highly regarded within the medicine society.

To conclude, I would like to make a general comment in reference to the North American medicine societies for women. Most of these have been documented for the Iroquois, the Hopi, the Mandan and the Hidatsa. The aforementioned ethnic groups are all matrilineal and matrilocal. It can be concluded that the medical and cultural knowledge which these medicine societies for women are protecting and using is very old, and that these medicine societies for women, contrary to commonly held views, are most likely older then the medicine societies for men. For matriarchal societies are older than patriarchal societies.

(translation Jutta Ried)


Mircea Eliade: Schamanismus und archaische Ekstasetechnik, Frankfurt am Main 1974

Claude Lévi-Strauss: Strukturale Anthropologie I, Frankfurt am Main 1967

Christian Scharfetter und Adolf Dittrich: Ethnopsychotherapie, Stuttgart 1987, all, but especially "Tabernanthe iboga, die vielseitige Droge Äquatorial-Westafrika: Divination, Initiation und Besessenheit bei den Mitsogho in Gabun", M. Prins, p.. 53 ń 68.

Heide Goettner-Abendroth: Matriarchat II.1, Stuttgart 1991, "Schamaninnen in Korea", p. 104-117; and Matriarchat II.2, Stuttgart 2000, "Nordamerika: Am Kreuzpunkt südlicher und n–rdlicher Kulturen", p. 104 ń 127.

Liliane Gugel: Frauenbünde der Indianer Nordamerikas, Braunschweig 1997

Saskia Baier- Kleinow: Frauenbünde und die Bedeutung und Rollen der Frauen im Zeremonialwesen der Irokesen, Magisterarbeit (thesis for Master degree), Universit”t Freiburg 1992.

Mary Flaming Crystal Mirror: Süsse Medizin. Die Lehren der Twisted Hairs. Tübingen, vol.1, p. 13 ń 19.