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Scared to Death

Scared to Death: Self-Willed Death, or the Bone-Pointing Syndrome
by Patrick D Hahn
Accepted on: September 4, 2007
For a long time, explorers and anthropologists have reported incidents among traditional peoples in which magic spells cast by fetish priests, or broken taboos, have apparently caused the deaths of previously healthy individuals. Often such spells are cast by means of pointing a charmed bone or stick at the intended victim. One observer1 described the practice among the Australian aboriginal as follows:
The man who discovers he is being boned by any enemy is, indeed, a pitiable sight. He stands aghast, with his eyes staring at the treacherous pointer, and with his hands lifted as though to ward off the lethal medium, which he imagines is pouring into his body. His cheeks blanch and his eyes become glassy and the expression of his face becomes horribly distorted… He attempts to shriek but usually the sound chokes in his throat, and all that one might see is froth at his mouth. His body begins to tremble and the muscles twist involuntarily. He sways backwards and fall to the ground, and after a short time appears to be in a swoon; but soon after he writhes as if in mortal agony, and covering his face with his hands, begins to moan. After a while he becomes very composed and crawls to his wurley. From this time onwards he sickens and frets, refusing to eat and keeping aloof from the daily affairs of his tribe. Unless help is forthcoming in the shape of a counter-charm administered by the hands of the Nangarri, or medicine-man, his death is only a matter of a comparatively short time.
The following bizarre story was related to me by Yaa, one of my informants in Cape Coast:
“I quite remember in AccraKumasi area – one village – this thing happened. It’s not a story. A certain woman is having four boys. The woman trained all her children, they are all in America, they are big men, they have money, sending money to house, I mean, building houses. They didn’t know their mother is a witch. So, one day, the mother and one of the witches, they went to a funeral. So during the funeral they served them take-away rice in a pack. So when the other friend was eating the woman said, “Oh, let me chop some of your chicken.” When she collected the chicken and bite it – in the night when they went to the meeting – they were all witches – when they went to the meeting – meeting — the woman that gave the other one chicken said, “I want my finger.” Then she asked her, “Which finger?” Then she told her, “The finger I collected at the funeral.” And she told her that, “You gave me chicken, not finger.” The woman was annoyed. She said, “You gave me chicken, not finger.” And the woman was annoyed. “I didn’t collect finger from you. I collected chicken from you when you were eating your rice.” Then she says she will not agree with her unless she give her her finger.
“Then she called all her children from US to come home – come home. Then they came back home. Then she explained everything to the children that this is what happened. Then the children said, “Okay, this is what has happened. You are a witch. You’ve trained us, you didn’t kill us, but you gave us a good education, we are now rich, everything. What we are going to do to your friend is this. We buy a knife. And we go to your friend’s house. [Unintelligible] We cut the little finger of your friend. We ask her to eat it because she say she want a finger, not chicken. And they did that. Then after, the woman – the woman was saying that – she’s not – after they go to the place – they cut the woman’s finger [off]. That is, their mother’s finger. And gave it to the witch woman to eat it. The woman was shouting that she doesn’t want that one. And the children were saying, “No you said you want finger, so you have to eat the finger. So they forced the woman to chew the finger. After chewing the finger – after chewing the finger – they left her there. Then three days’ time the woman’s stomach got big – very big. Then this woman burst out and she died. She confessed and died.” [All sic]
Similar accounts have been recorded among traditional peoples all over the globe. This phenomenon has been labeled “voodoo death,” but this term is a misnomer. The word “voodoo” (or “voudun”) refers to a specific religious tradition practiced by the people of Haiti. It is not a synonym for the religious beliefs of any nonliterate people. A better term would be “self-willed death,” or “bone-pointing syndrome2.”
Are these supposed occurrences coincidence, or the products of overworked imaginations? Or is there something more at work here? Can people living in traditional societies literally be scared to death in this manner?
It’s hard to say for sure, of course. This sort of topic is, by its very nature, hard to gather reliable data on. Traditional peoples usually live in small villages, and for obvious reasons, death by magic spells, or any kind of death for that matter, cannot be an everyday occurrence in a small village – not if that small village is going to exist for very long. Moreover, today there are few if any traditional peoples whose belief systems have not been thoroughly affected by prolonged contact with western culture. Most of these accounts come from old books, by observers who were not trained either in medicine or in modern anthropological standards of scientifically objective observation, and many of them are obviously second- or third-hand accounts.
A typical example is the account given by the Portuguese missionary Jerome Merolla da Sorrento3 who traveled to the Congo in the seventeenth century:
“A certain young negro boy being upon a journey, lodged in a friend’s house by the way; his friend, before he went out the next morning, had got a wild hen ready for his breakfast, they being much better than the tame ones. The negro hereupon demanded, “If it were a wild hen?” the host answered “No;” then he fell on heartily, and afterwards proceeded on his journey. About four years after the two met together again, and the aforesaid Negro being not yet married, his old friend asked him, “If he would eat a wild hen?” To which he had answered “That he had received the Chegilla, and therefore could not.” Hereat the host began immediately to laugh, enquiring of him, “What made him refuse it now, when he had eaten one at his table about four years ago?” At the hearing of this, the Negro immediately fell a trembling, and suffered himself to be so possessed with the effects of the imagination, that he died in less than twenty-four hours after.” [All sic]
An additional complication is that in many traditional societies, it is common practice to attribute almost any death to the agency of malevolent spells. An excerpt from M.J. Field’s book Religion and Medicine of the Gã People4will serve to illustrate this point:
“I once saw a man in a violent fit or seizure which paralyzed his breathing and contracted all his muscles. After some hours he died. His friends were convinced that nothing could save him as he had broken the conditions attached to his ‘medicine’.”
Yaa explains:
“At the witch meeting – I don’t know, I’m not a witch, but I’ve been hearing that it’s true. That if – it’s a group. Today you will bring somebody that they will eat. That this person will die. Spiritually. Then, everybody will bring – so if it’s your turn – and if you don’t bring any meat for them to eat they will try to eat you.”
When asked if the victims literally die, she said, “Yes! If you are dead spiritually you won’t know. They will say maybe he is sick, she was having headache or she was having this and that.”
Her friend Mercy chimed in with, “When [the witches] eat you in spiritually you get sick physically and gradually, gradually, you get — dead. You will die.”
Yaa added, “The after that they will bury you. Nobody will know that that is the cause.”
A bizarre variation on this theme is found in some cultures in which elderly women on their deathbeds confess to having been witches and having murdered dozens, or even hundreds, of people through magic spells. Again, let us turn to M.J. Field’s account:
“The knowledge which ordinary people have of bad medicine-men – also of some witches – is gained from death-bed confessions. These bad people are tormented on their death-beds by the dead whom they have killed and they are unable to die until they have confessed and cried out their victims’ names. Their dead victims come and pinch them and bite them until they shriek in torment. Their relatives often gag them with bits of rag to stop these disgraceful disclosure              
Such deathbed confessions have also been reported among the Mano of Liberia5 and the Igbo of Nigeria6. Yaa provides us with a modern-day version of this story:
“Once upon a time, my mother’s father, when he got married to my grandmother – my mother’s mother – they had about ten children. They have twins, they have singles. My mother’s brother was – my grandmother had the firstborn which was a boy. Which was my uncle. After my uncle, the one that was delivered after my uncle, he died. The next, third one, too, he died. The fourth one was twins, they died. Then after deliverance, they died. Up to ten children. My mother was tenth. So, when my mother died – when they take my mother – we have some rituals that they do in Ghana here. They maltreat you, so when they come to pick you up, you will not die. So, not knowing that, all these years, all these days, All these months, all these weeks, it was my grandfather’s cousin that had been eating my mother – my grandfather’s children. So one day they were all in the house where they had somebody shouting and shouting and shouting. They didn’t know what was going on. Not knowing that it was my grandfather’s cousin that was shouting. She was a lady. The woman. She started shouting that my grandfather should forgive her. Then they asked her, What is the matter? Why should my grandfather forgive you? Then she confessed and said that she’s a witch. That she’s the one, that she’s been eating my grandfather’s children. That is, my mother’s sisters and bothers that have been dying. That she’s the one eating them. So we don’t know, but when she confessed – after confession – she saw a toilet in a bowl. She carried it and pour it on her. Then she died. “
None of these accounts offer the slightest corroborating evidence for these deathbed confessions; even if these confessions could be shown to be anything other than the products of diseased minds, this would still not rule out the possibility of poisoning. Traditional practitioners in cultures all over the world are said to be skilled in the manufacture and administration of poisons. The account by George Way Harley5, a physician who worked with the Mano people of Liberia, is illuminating:
“Another chief who had prostatic disease died from a combination of his disease and native treatments for it. He was an old man, and made no accusations of witchcraft. But after his death his head wife admitted having poisoned him, and herself died mysteriously not long afterward. It was commonly rumored that her father, the paramount chief, had forced her to poison her husband so that the great wealth of the latter might be divided. In view of these instances it is therefore very likely that death by witchcraft in Mano land means poison more often than the power of suggestion.”
In fact, in a 1961 paper, the physician Theodore Xenophon Barber7 reviewed the literature on self-willed death, and found only one case which was not based on hearsay and in which the possibility of poisoning or organic illness could be ruled out. This case was reported in the book Social Science in Medicine8, in a personal communication to the authors. A thirty-year-old man in British New Guinea entered the Australian Regimental Hospital, stating that he had broken one of his tribe’s taboos and that a spell had been cast on him in retaliation.
“He knew, in short, that he was regarded as dead by his fellow tribesmen. On being ignored, rejected, and excommunicated, and after a period of panic, he had become listless, apathetic, and inert. He expressed at no time a desire to live, and acted as though convinced that the end was near. He had taken to his pallet and refused food and water before being brought to the hospital.”
A counter-potion was procured from his tribe and brought to his bedside, but he refused to take it. He remained listless and apathetic, and refused food and water. Nine days later he was dead.
Harry Eastwell9 reported two similar cases in the 1970’s among aboriginals in East Arnhem, Australia. Two individuals (a 24-year-old woman and a 35-year-old man), believing themselves to be bewitched, refused food and water and were close to death. Both of these individuals were saved by the intervention of western medical personnel, although the man died a year later under unknown circumstances.
            A similar case was recorded some time before that by George Way Harley5. In a poignant account, he relates that:
“A girl in the Sarde was neglected by her people. She had no food and was very weak. When her people were warned and came to see her she said she was ashamed, and did not want to live. She had bewitched herself and would die. She did, but she died by self-inflicted starvation in protest of the shameful neglect of her parents.”
So there you have it. In traditional societies, exile from the group usually means death. Already given up for dead by family and friends, by all he has known and loved, the victim who has been bewitched or who has violated the taboos of his tribe, gives up on himself and refuses water. Death comes inevitably in a few days – or sooner than that, under the blazing sun of the Australian outback.
Walter Cannon, the pioneering physiologist who described the “fight-or-flight” response, was interested in the phenomenon of self-willed death. In a paper10 on the subject he wrote that, “The social environment as a support to morale is probably much more important and impressive among primitive people, because of their profound ignorance and insecurity in a haunted world, than among educated people living in civilized and well-protected communities.” Would that that were true. In developed countries, there are millions of people who lack meaningful connections to family and community. In his book A Cry Unheard11, psychologist James Lynch argues convincingly that loneliness still kills untold numbers of people every year, even though their deaths generally go unrecorded by anthropologists and unnoticed by the society they lived in.

1. Herbert Basedow: The Australian Aboriginal P.W. Preece, Adelaide, Australia (1925).
2. G.W. Milton, “Self-willed death or the bone-pointing syndrome,” Lancet June 23 1973
            pp. 1436-1437.
3. Jerome Merolla da Sorrento: A Voyage to the Congo in J. Pinkerton, ed. A General
Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World: Many of Which Are Now First Translated Into English Vol. 16 Longman, Hurst, Reese and Orme, London (1814).
4. M.J. Field: Religion and Medicine of the Gã PeopleOxford University Press London
5. George Way Harley: Native African Medicine, With Special Reference to it Practice in
            the Mano Tribe of Liberia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (1941).
6. Charles Kingsley Meek: Law and Authority in a Nigerian Tribe: A Study in Indirect
            Rule, Barnes and Noble, NY (1936).
7. Theodore Xenophon Barber, MD, “Death by Suggestion: a Critical Note,”
            Psychosomatic Medicine No. 23 pp. 153-155, (1961).
8. Leo W. Simmons and Harold G. Wolff: Social Science in Medicine Russell Sage
            Foundation, New York (1954).
9. Harry D. Eastwell, “Voodoo death and the mechanism for dispatch of the dying in East
            Arnhem, Australia,” American Anthropologist No. 84 pp. 5-18 (1982).
10. Walter B. Cannon, “’Voodoo death,’” American Anthropologist No. 44 pp. 169-181
11. James J. Lynch: A Cry Unheard: the Medical Consequences of Loneliness Bancroft
            Press, Baltimore MD (2000).

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