Theatre Forum International 1996
George goes to the sick woman, listens to her back, and massages her with the red powder medicine mixed with cooking oil. With the wooden tip of his rattle he finds the point of her illness and presses into the woman, then slowly pulls the rattle away and, taking the invisible illness from the tip of the rattle, puts it into the medicine on the plate and quickly covers it with a white cloth. Turning the woman over, he feels her neck, head, and stomach, pausing with absolute stillness over something only he sees. The intensity of the singing rises in support. After working with the patient for a time, he sits and sings, as if calling on powers within himself. His eyes roll white and his body shakes as he bolts up and dances around the fire. His shoulders and hips shake back and forth quickly and sharply. Such movement activates the nerve endings in the spinal column to create the “heat” necessary for healing.
There are several short breaks in the healing process. Participants pass around cigarettes, pipes, and cans of beer as they talk and laugh. Even George tells what seem to be jokes. The healing ceremony is as much a social as a spiritual event. For Bushmen, like other indigenous people, the two spheres of human endeavor are not mutually exclusive. The healing is as much for the well-being of the community, as it is for the sick person--social interaction is a healing, too. But each break also serves as a necessary release for the build up of heat. Heat is necessary, but too much could overpower George.
The singing resumes. George sits very still and his young male assistant massages his neck. Soon George stands, talking to something only he sees, his body shaking with dance. He removes the white cloth from the plate and takes up the knife. He kneels next to the woman and lifts his shirt, exposing his stomach. Using the rattle as a hammer, he pounds the knife into his stomach. “It is hard to believe what I am seeing,” I thought. “Is it a sleight of hand trick, or something I am imagining?”George takes the knife out of himself, leaving no scar or blood. He dips the knife into the plate of red powder and wipes the knife on the woman’s neck. He pounds the tip of the knife into her chest. The singing is like a sea of aural ebb and flow, embodying, surrounding and supporting an emotional wave of human energy. It is unlike anything I have ever known.
Field notes excerpt
Miao Xian Niang (spirit medium)
Yup'ik Shaman, The Angatkok
excerpt: Traditional Alaska Eskimo Theatre, Theatre Topics 1991
Research, fieldwork and archival, in the Shamanic and traditional healing practices of Korea, the Miao (China), Alaska, Sakha (Siberia), the Zulu and !Xuu and Khwe Bushmen.
When did you become a Xian Niang?
I started one I was about 28 years old. I started learning to be a Xian Niang when I was 28 but has been practicing full now for 20 years.
What is the process of becoming a Xian Niang?
My practice is learned from nobody. It is given by Ying-Yang, we say Tai Chi, Yang is positive, Ying is negative. I studied Xian Niang from nobody, but from the Ying negative. Also the Ying is that somebody teaches you secretly. Not by somebody physically.
When I was about 28 I went out from this village to another village which is called Li On Cur to cut wood, to saw the big wood. One night I fell half asleep and half awake, and I saw soldiers from heaven riding horses with their whips come to me and ask me, and said to me you must go with us to save people. I felt so surprised, and said No, I have no skill, "You can, just follow us" and I refused many times. And those soldiers from heaven went back and said "Think, you must do this!"
This was on the first night.
On the second night these soldiers come again, with the hermits and the soldiers with armor, many military costumes and horses like the first time, but more, and said again you must come with us and again I refused these people. Then I finished the work in that village and came back to my home village and on the first night back I slept. And those people came again, like an army, more and more people, an army assembly and said to me again, "you must come with us."
This time I was so surprised and my body was shaking and my body was sweating. I said I can do nothing, they said, "You can, you can just do it. Follow us!" I struggled and woke up with all my body sweating.
Then, after this time some people from the village came to my house and said, "One of the members of my family is sick seriously so please with us to save him." Already!?
Then, three times heaven’s soldiers come to me to save people so I think it must be something connected. So I go with this person to his village to see the person who is so sick so seriously. I tried to see him as if I had such a skill to take care of sick people. I tried to see were the sickness was.
You just discovered this?
Yes. I treated the sick person and made him well. I found the person’s sickness by looking at the paper, the spirit paper or they call it coin paper. And with the help of incense. I started to study to find the sickness by reading the paper as it burns. This is how I began as a Xian Naing.
In most theatre performances the elders worked in conjunction with the angatkok, the shaman, the healer, the medicine man or woman, the keeper of the community's spiritual well-being. The angatkok was a person either chosen, trained or called into his or her position because of special expressed attributes which generally included the ability of spiritual vision. The calling of the angatkok was a gift, something that came to a person naturally or something a person sought to obtain and to develop because with it came power and responsibility: a responsibility to the very survival of the community and a power to effect physical and spiritual well-being.
The angatkok was responsible for improving the weather, healing the sick, procuring game, foretelling the future, contending with evil spirits. All of the angtakok's activities were performed in public and with the community's interaction, for the role of the angatkok was, at its core, that of a performance artist. The performance of the angatkok reassured the community by demonstrating that there was indeed interaction between the human and spirit world and that decisive action was being taken.
To the community, the angtakok's performance, trance, dance, vocalizations or ritual, was a bridge to a mysterious and ineffable world. Like the secular theatre artist of the Western tradition, the angatkok gave form and feeling to the intangible ideas and spirits that surround and live with the community.
The role of the angtakok in the community's theatre performance was that of master of ceremony cum stage director, choreographer, musical director, actor, priest, prop, light and scene designer. Although each community was familiar with virtually all of the songs, stories and dances of a theatre performance, it was the domain of the angatkok to make sure it happened in a way concomitant with sacred practice for nearly all community performances. Even the secular comic and entertainment aspects were in manifestation and/or propitiation of the spirit world.
SHAMANIC RITUAL STRUCTURE