Folk Healers and Healing

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Folk Healers and Healing

Illness, pain, misfortune, decay, and death are realities that people in all cultures confront, recognize, and interpret and manage in one way or another. Scholars use the term healing to describe the ways in which people cope with and try to alleviate suffering and the term healers to describe individuals who have expertise in alleviating suffering. The descriptor folk is used to indicate healing beliefs, practices, and experts not mandated by, affiliated with, certified by, trained by, or officially recognized by the dominant religious or medical institutions of their societies. In many societies the mainstream healers, such as priests and doctors, are men, whereas the folk healers may be men or women. Although priests and doctors typically have more prestige and receive better remuneration for their work, at the popular level folk healers may be seen as having better insight into human suffering, being more compassionate, and being more sensitive to local traditions.


Folk healers rarely differentiate between illness and other types of suffering. For Korean shamans, for example, misfortune includes all sorts of bad luck, illness, and financial loss. In northern Thai cities female spirit mediums are consulted for matters such as arthritis, back problems, goiters, social difficulties, business problems, and care of children (Wijeyewardene 1986). In Okinawa the great majority of the people who consult yuta (shamans) do so for health problems. Among the roles of the yuta, however, are giving advice about plans, business, and wedding dates; interpreting unusual experiences such as dreams and accidents in religious terms (neglect of rituals, etc.); communicating with relatives after their death; leading exorcisms to guide lost spirits to the tomb; leading rituals of thanks to the house deity; and teaching traditional rituals (Lebra 1966).

Folk-healing repertoires often follow what Roger Bastide (1978) called the law of accumulation. That is, rather than sticking with a set arsenal of cures, folk healing tends to embrace a variety of foods, herbs, baths, incantations, massage, pilgrimages, amulets, spirit possession, and other techniques in efforts to do whatever it takes to alleviate suffering. It is often the case that within a specific cultural setting, various healers specialize in particular techniques and those who are suffering consult with numerous healers to maximize their chances of successful healing. For example, Black Caribs understand a variety of reasons why people become ill: germs, sorcery, lack of practical caution (such as wearing insufficient clothing), angry ancestors who were not properly treated through rituals, and taboo behavior on the part of an individual's mother. Various causes of illness legitimate various solutions to illness: European and North American medicine, bush medicine, and ancestor rituals to cure disease. Women predominate as healers in the last two categories (Kerns 1983).


Because the first line of healing response tends to take place in the home, mothers and grandmothers often predominate as folk healers. As primary providers of child care. Women are likely to function informally as domestic healers. Often certain women, perhaps the oldest woman in a household or a particularly gifted or competent woman in a neighborhood or community, serve as informal domestic healing experts. This scenario is particularly prominent in African-American communities where poverty and racism as well as slavery and its legacy have led to difficult relationships between many African Americans and the white-dominated formal medical establishment (Mitchem 2005).

A second reason women may predominate as folk healers as well as those who consult folk healers is that in most societies, women have the primary culturally assigned responsibility for infertility and the physical consequences of pregnancy and childbirth. Matters of fertility and infertility are simultaneously part of the usual female life course and matters that tend to be unpredictable and not totally controllable as a result of biological or social causes. For these reasons women often turn to folk healers for help in managing the complexities of navigating a path of socially and personally acceptable fertility choices. Expert knowledge of fertility-related matters represents cultural power. Although in many cultures the dominant religious and medical institutions attempt to gain control over women's fertility and sexuality, folk healers often serve as women's advocates in those areas. As a result folk healers may risk stigma or persecution as witches, abortion providers, or sorceresses (Ehrenreich and English 1972).

A third reason women often predominate in the realm of folk healing involves institutionalized gender inequality. In contemporary North American society women are sick more often than men, visit physicians more often, and take more medicine; they also are more likely than men to evaluate their health as poor. Although there is some variation on the basis of race and country of origin, statistics generated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consistently show that women of all age groups have a variety of chronic illnesses at rates higher than those for men. Explanations for why women are sicker (especially when, as is the case in the United States, women outlive men) include the double load of paid work and housework; the feminization of poverty; relentless responsibilities of caring for sick children, aging parents, and other family members; cultural expectations that women are weaker than men; medicalization of women's bodies (especially in relation to menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause); a tendency to treat women's bodies as unique or exceptional (in comparison with male bodies, which are treated as normative); repeated traumas of the threat and reality of sexual violence; harmful fashions such as high heels or extreme dieting; and the stress caused by systematic exclusion from the arenas where the economic, military, and political decisions that affect everyone's lives are made. This constellation of ongoing social factors is a poor fit for the dominant North American biomedical model, which typically identifies specific causes for specific pathologies and prescribes specific treatments regardless of the patient's worries, family situation, cultural beliefs, and so on (Sered 2000).

Women healers often describe a path to their ritual roles that begins with a personal history of chronic illness. For example in Brazil signs of incipient spirit mediumship (spiritual callings) include excessive crying, protracted illness, unexplained events, unsolvable problems, and unusual occurrences (Leacock and Leacock 1972). The path to becoming a spirit medium usually involves a stage of sickness or another type of misfortune that a ritual group leader interprets as being caused by undeveloped mediumship. The husbands of future mediums may object to or not believe in the mediumidade (mediumship) of their wives. Most women mediums and cult leaders believe that a married woman should have her husband's consent but that if he will not give it, the spiritual order should take precedence over his resistance.

In some societies women's healing has important communal expressions. In parts of Africa, for example, women and some men who have chronic or intractable illness may conclude that their suffering has been inflicted by zār spirits and that they need to join zār ritual spirit possession groups to bring the spirits under control. Janice Boddy (1988) describes the following steps likely to be taken by a sick person in such African societies: advice from family members, home remedies, patent medicines, European or North American doctors, and feki Islam (male religious specialists) who perform divinations and provide charms. If spirits are found to be the cause of the distress, the feki Islam will perform an exorcism. However because the zāiran (zār spirits) are immune to Islamic ritual techniques, women patients may consult a female zār practitioner. Many women join these ritual spirit possession groups because of fertility and childbirth problems. (According to Boddy [1989], possessed women have been pregnant more times than have nonpossessed women and have lost more children than have women who are not possessed.)


As people who deal with aspects of life that are inherently uncontrollable (death and decay are inevitable for all living creatures), dirty (bodily effluvia are not aesthetically appealing), and emotionally charged, folk healers may occupy an interstitial position in their societies: Healers are necessary and helpful, but they also spend a lot of time dealing with parts of life that others prefer to avoid. This may explain why in some cultures transgendered people, who for reasons of their sex and gender status reside in a betwixt and between social position, are particularly active as healers.

Among the Mescalero Apache, multigendered adults "are usually presumed to be people of power. Because they have both maleness and femaleness totally entwined in one body, they are known to be able to 'see' with the eyes of both proper men and proper women. They are often called upon to be healers, or mediators, or interpreters of dreams, or expected to become singers or others whose lives are devoted to the welfare of the group. If they do extraordinary things in any aspect of life, it is assumed that they have the license and power to do so and, therefore, they are not questioned" (Farrer 1997, p. 249).

For similar reasons very old women (past childbearing age), people who experience dissociative psychological states, and other exceptional or marginal people may find an important social niche as folk healers. That niche, however, tends to be an ambiguous one because of the nature of healing and threats from the dominant medical and religious establishments.

see also Folk Beliefs and Rituals.


Bastide, Roger. 1978. The African Religions of Brazil. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Boddy, Janice. 1988. "Spirits and Selves in Northern Sudan: The Cultural Therapeutics of Possession and Trance." American Ethnologist 15(1): 4-27.

Boddy, Janice. 1989. Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zār Cult in Northern Sudan. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. 1972. Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. London: Compendium.

Farrer, Claire R. 1997. "A Berdache by Any Other Name … Is a Brother, Friend, Lover, Spouse: Reflections on a Mescalero Apache Singer of Ceremonies." In Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality, ed. Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Kerns, Virginia. 1983. Women and the Ancestors: Black Carib Kinship and Ritual. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Leacock, Seth, and Ruth Leacock. 1972. Spirits of the Deep: A Study of an Afro-Brazilian Cult. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Natural History Press.

Lebra, William P. 1966. Okinawan Religion: Belief, Ritual, and Social Structure. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Mitchem, Stephanie. 2005. "'Jesus is My Doctor': Healing and Religion in African American Women's Lives." In Religion and Healing in America, ed. Linda L. Barnes and Susan S. Sered. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sered, Susan. 2000. What Makes Women Sick? Modernity, Modesty, and Militarism in Israeli Society. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Wijeyewardene, Gehan. 1986. Place and Emotion in Northern Thai Ritual Behaviour. Bangkok, Thailand: Pandora.

                                               Susan Sered