Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger (1966): Ndembu Doctor. This page looks at Douglas's use in Chapter 4 of Victor Turner: A Ndembu Doctor in Practice.

A Ndembu Doctor (Chapter 4)

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This comment on a point in Douglas's Chapter 4 on Ritual has been given a page of its own on account of its extreme length. There are more notes on ritual on the Chapter 4 page.

Further exploration of ritual has begun at Ritual and Performance.

A very weak example October 2006:

The Turner example used by Douglas is from a 1964 article, A Ndembu Doctor in Practice. This is conveniently reproduced as the last chapter in Victor Turner:The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual [1967], still in print as a paperback. Page references given here are to the book.

1 Shamanistic

Let's note firstly that Turner refers to his African practitioner as a doctor, never once using terms like shamanistic. Thus for Douglas to refer twice to the treatment Turner witnessed as a Shamanistic cure is interpretation on her part.

This is not nit-picking. For Douglas to use the term in 1966 signals her acceptance of the claim that shamanism was a worldwide phenomenon rather than one restricted to Siberia. The claim had been made by Mircea Eliade in his Le chamanisme [1951], the English translation of which, Shamanism, had made a big splash on its publication in 1964: presumably while Douglas was preparing her book. It was a highly controversial claim, particularly as far as Africa was concerned.

Eliade made the essential characteristics of shamans (as opposed to other magico-religious practitioners) their control of spirits and their ability to make spirit journeys. But as described in Turner's article the Ndembu doctor just does not correspond to this model.

For the Ndembu treatment to be described as a Shamanistic cure a redefinition of shamanism in broader terms would be required. Douglas does not address this issue, leaving us to suppose that, with her seemingly characteristic slapdash, she is simply making use of a current buzz-word.

Note that Ronald Hutton: Shamanism [2001], a very valuable introduction from a British perspective to the study of this topic, is summarised on this site. Here is a link to the chapter summarising Hutton's main treatment of Eliade on shamanism: Hutton on Eliade's Shamanism

2 Ritual or performance?

Far more importantly, examination of the Turner article reveals the treatment he witnessed to be a very weak example for Douglas to have chosen. The fact is, Turner does not establish that what he had witnessed was in a significant sense a ritual at all.

As we have seen in a previous note, this site has understood ritual as

a pre-determined sequence of actions or behaviours, prescribed by some controlling source of authority: tradition, the Church, habit, neurotic personality, animal instinct etc.

The prime example of ritual for your present writer is the Catholic Mass of my youth, in the pre-Vatican II days when it was still in Latin: I don't know what happens now. As I recall, everything about the Mass was fixed: the priest had no room whatsoever for personal variation.

This choice of the Mass as a prime example of ritual is not just a personal one. The traditional Catholic Mass has surely always been at the back of all Western understandings of ritual.

The improvisational skill of the doctor

Now the Ndembu treatment that Turner describes just is not comparable to the traditional Catholic Mass. The Ndembu doctor works within a certain framework, making use of certain customary elements, such as calling on certain types of participation from the assembly of villagers and others. But within that framework he improvises. Indeed it is in the improvisational skill of the doctor, in his deployment of the elements available to him, that the efficacity of the treatment lies.

Thus, we learn that the villagers have called in Ihembi, the practioner whose treatment Turner focusses on, because their original choice of doctor has not been successful in treating the subject, a sick villager.

Again, Turner actually finds that:

whatever efficacy the rite possesses ... resides in the degree of skill wielded by the doctor in each instance of its performance. [p 370]

In the course of his brief account of the performance of what Turner calls the rite, we find paragraphs starting as follows:

Ihembi's greatest skill was in managing this stop-start routine so that, after several hours of it, the congregation felt nothing but a unanimous craving for the removal of the ihamba from the patient's body [pp 388-389].

Here, the ihamba is the proximate cause of patient's illness. It is a tooth of a dead hunter believed to be lodged in the patient's body. The ultimate cause that the treatment must address is discord within the village community.

Ihembi was also skilled in allocating appropriate ritual tasks to the patient's kin. [p 389]
Others too numerous to mention were assigned minor parts in this ritual drama by the old impresario Ihembi, who sought ... to get everyone working together, despite the issues that divided them in secular life, to please the shade, and thus cure the patient. [pp 389-390]

Creating a performance

In the paragraph starting thus, Turner goes on to recount how at one point the old doctor asked the women present to move closer and sing louder, the Ndembu believing that singing imparted power, which in this case would help the cure.

From all this it is clear that the practitioner was using culturally determined elements, such as the village women for singing. But he was deploying these elements to create a performance that he personally deemed appropriate. Clearly, this is a world away from the old Catholic Mass, which was prescribed in the liturgy down to the last iota, with absolutely no place for the celebrant's personal initiative.

ex opere operato

Most decisively, the Mass is (still, I think) ex opere operato: its efficacy does not depend on the skill of the celebrant. As long as he is an ordained priest, has the proper intention, uses the proper words and the proper materials, the Mass is valid: the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, so Catholics believe.

We may note also that the moral worth of the priest is for nothing in this matter. However great a sinner a priest may be, his masses are still valid masses if the formal requirements are met.

God's power, doctor's skill

Looked at another way, the distinction between the Mass and the Ndembu treatment involves a distinction between the supernatural and the natural. The Catholic priest's efficacy is believed to be automatic because the power involved in his ritual is not his own, but God's. The Ndembu doctor's efficacy not automatic because all he can call upon is his own personal understanding of the issues involved in his patient's illness and his own skill in resolving them.

So we are faced with the question of what point there is in labelling the Ndembu treatment a ritual at all.

A who's who of Ndembu society

It is pertinent to understand that Douglas's inclusion of this Turner example in her chapter on ritual makes it seem as though the article is actually about ritual. This is by no means the case. For Turner offers no significant discussion of ritual and furnishes us with only cursory information on the course of the Ndembu treatment. He says himself:

I shall not give a blow by blow account of the rite here [p 388]

and he certainly does not. Of the 34 page article, only the 3 quoted from above, pp 388-390, give his eyewitness details of the treatment.

In fact, Turner's major concern is with the social context of the treatment rather than its nature. Indeed, the article is something of a who's who of a segment of Ndembu society. You get the impression that there is at least as much social information in the article as in say a whole book by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.

Did Turner decline to provide a fuller account of the actual treatment because he would have had to address the issue of whether the Ndembu treatment was a ritual at all in any significant sense?

In the Ronald Hutton book previously mentioned, the author opts to characterise Siberian shamanic treatment sessions as performances. This is the case in his chapter 8, summarised on this site at Shamans as Performers. Turner himself on occasion uses the term performance. Perhaps it would have been more helpful for him to have done so exclusively.

So why did Douglas choose the Turner example? Was it simply because it was something new at the time? What we certainly can say is that the choice just adds to the impression that Douglas's thoughts on ritual were very confused indeed.     [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2006

Links to Other Chapters:
Purity and Dangerch 1ch 2 |  3 |  ch 4ch 5 |  6 |  7 |  8 |  9 |  ch 10

Extended Comments Pages:
Ndembu Doctor (ch 4)Zande Poison Oracle (ch 5)