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Record Type: Review   ID: 474

Experiencing Ritual: A New Interpretation of African Healing

Turner, Edith, with Blodgett, William, Kahona, Singleton, & Benwa, Fideli

 This is a very important book not only for anthropology but for students of exceptional human experience, especially the psychic and encounter varieties. Anthropologist Edith Turner is the widow of the well-known anthropologist Victor Turner who coined important terms such as liminality and communitas. The basis for the book is a revisit she made to the Ndembu of Zambia to study the Ihamba tooth ritual, which her husband had described in a field trip they had made 31 years earlier. This time she observed the ritual twice, and actually participated in the second one; she was very much personally involved in parts of it, and she saw the shaman healer withdraw a 6-inch form from the body of the woman the group was healing—a kind of phantom tooth form that was captured in a medicine bag and later came out as a real tooth. The book is about all the field events, including social aspects and relationships, leading up to the second healing ritual and the events of the ritual itself as she perceived them, and then accounts of others, including the shaman’s own account of what happened. In the final chapters, Turner discusses the impact of her experience on the act of doing anthropology. She reviews the sparse literature in which anthropologists report on actually observing acts of magic, sorcery, and shamanism at first hand, not simply recording what the natives say they are doing but not believing it for a minute. That her experience (which was far more than simply a detached perception of the strange object extruding from the woman’s back but a result of being in a deliberately induced group altered state of considerable duration and involving many people, including their individual feelings and quarrels with one another—and Edith Turner, too.) In fact it was her personal feeling of the need to reveal her own forgetfulness in relation to one group member and the effect of that inner surrender on the entire group that seemed to release the possessing spirit and let it come out. She tries to convey "intimately the impelling process which leads the participant from ritual frigidity to the orgasm of experience" (p. 163). Certainly she could be said to have had an exceptional human experience at many levels, and in characteristic fashion, her book is a revelation of the way it is changing her view of herself and her work and the way anthropology, and especially fieldwork, is conceived and carried out. The book could even have this second subtitle: Or, How My EHE Changed My View of Anthropological Fieldwork. The book also, in her own words, "is an attempt to vindicate [Vic Turner’s] ... insight that there is something beyond the social context—though it needs the social for its soil and root system. Thus we may be talking of a world of religion ... not as mental prayer, but in the form of ritual objects in their own right, a matter of spirits, and people with knowledge of them operating a ritual process that can actually be sensed" (pp. 179-180). There are 11 appendices, mostly on ritual aspects of healing. Of special interest are the first two: African Spirit Healing and Ihamba and Types of Spirit Healers.
Publisher Information:Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 242p. Bibl: 221-227; Chap. notes: 215-220; 1 fig; 25 illus; Index: 229-239; 2 maps
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