Climate Change Project

Table of Contents



Historic Public Health Books

Up Previous Next Contents


Both the St. Vitus's dance and tarantism belonged to the ages in which they appeared. They could not have existed under the same latitude at any other epoch, for at no other period were the circumstances which prepared the way for them combined in a similar relation to each other, and the mental as well as corporeal temperaments of nations, which depend on causes such as have been stated, are as little capable of renewal as the different stages of life in individuals. This gives so much the more importance to a disease but cursorily alluded to in the foregoing pages, which exists in Abyssinia, and which nearly resembles the original mania of the St. John's dancers, inasmuch as it exhibits a perfectly similar ecstasy, with the same violent effect on the nerves of motion. It occurs most frequently in the Tigre country, being thence call Tigretier, and is probably the same malady which is called in Ethiopian language Astaragaza. On this subject we will introduce the testimony of Nathaniel Pearce, an eye-witness, who resided nine years in Abyssinia. "The Tigretier," he says he, "is more common among the women than among the men. It seizes the body as if with a violent fever, and from that turns to a lingering sickness, which reduces the patients to skeletons, and often kills them if the relations cannot procure the proper remedy. During this sickness their speech is changed to a kind of stuttering, which no one can understand but those afflicted with the same disorder. When the relations find the malady to be the real tigretier, they join together to defray the expense of curing it; the first remedy they in general attempt is to procure the assistance of a learned Dofter, who reads the Gospel of St. John, and drenches the patient with cold water daily for the space of seven days, an application that very often proves fatal. The most effectual cure, though far more expensive than the former, is as follows:- The relations hire for a certain sum of money a band of trumpeters, drummers, and fifers, and buy a quantity of liquor; then all the young men and women of the place assemble at the patient's house to perform the following most extraordinary ceremony.

"I was once called in by a neighbour to see his wife, a very young woman, who had the misfortune to be afflicted with this disorder; and the man being an old acquaintance of mine, and always a close comrade in the camp, I went every day, when at home, to see her, but I could not be of any service to her, though she never refused my medicines. At this time I could not understand a word she said, although she talked very freely, nor could any of her relations understand her. She could not bear the sight of a book or a priest, for at the sight of either she struggled, and was apparently seized with acute agony, and a flood of tears, like blood mingled with water, would pour down her face from her eyes. She had lain three months in this lingering state, living upon so little that it seemed not enough to keep a human body alive; at last her husband agreed to employ the usual remedy, and, after preparing for the maintenance of the band during the time it would take to effect the cure, he borrowed from all his neighbours their silver ornaments, and loaded her legs, arms and neck with them.

"The evening that the band began to play I seated myself close by her side as she lay upon the couch, and about two minutes after the trumpets had begun to sound I observed her shoulders begin to move, and soon afterwards her head and breast, and in less than a quarter of an hour she sat upon her couch. The wild look she had, though sometimes she smiled, made me draw off to a greater distance, being almost alarmed to see one nearly a skeleton move with such strength; her head, neck, shoulders, hands and feet all made a strong motion to the sound of the music, and in this manner she went on by degrees, until she stood up on her legs upon the floor. Afterwards she began to dance, and at times to jump about, and at last, as the music and noise of the singers increased, she often sprang three feet from the ground. When the music slackened she would appear quite out of temper, but when it became louder she would smile and be delighted. During this exercise she never showed the least symptom of being tired, though the musicians were thoroughly exhausted; and when they stopped to refresh themselves by drinking and resting a little she would discover signs of discontent.

"Next day, according to the custom in the cure of this disorder, she was taken into the market-place, where several jars of maize or tsug were set in order by the relations, to give drink to the musicians and dancers. When the crowd had assembled, and the music was ready, she was brought forth and began to dance and throw herself into the maddest postures imaginable, and in this manner she kept on the whole day. Towards evening she began to let fall her silver ornaments from her neck, arms, and legs, one at a time, so that in the course of three hours she was stripped of every article. A relation continually kept going after her as she danced, to pick up the ornaments, and afterwards delivered them to the owners from whom they were borrowed. As the sun went down she made a start with such swiftness that the fastest runner could not come up with her, and when at the distance of about two hundred yards she dropped on a sudden as if shot. Soon afterwards a young man, on coming up with her, fired a matchlock over her body, and struck her upon the back with the broad side of his large knife, and asked her name, to which she answered as when in her common senses--a sure proof of her being cured; for during the time of this malady those afflicted with it never answer to their Christian names. She was now taken up in a very weak condition and carried home, and a priest came and baptised her again in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, which ceremony concluded her cure. Some are taken in this manner to the market-place for many days before they can be cured, and it sometimes happens that they cannot be cured at all. I have seen them in these fits dance with a BRULY, or bottle of maize, upon their heads without spilling the liquor, or letting the bottle fall, although they have put themselves into the most extravagant postures.

"I could not have ventured to write this from hearsay, nor could I conceive it possible, until I was obliged to put this remedy in practice upon my own wife, who was seized with the same disorder, and then I was compelled to have a still nearer view of this strange disorder. I at first thought that a whip would be of some service, and one day attempted a few strokes when unnoticed by any person, we being by ourselves, and I having a strong suspicion that this ailment sprang from the weak minds of women, who were encouraged in it for the sake of the grandeur, rich dress, and music which accompany the cure. But how much was I surprised, the moment I struck a light blow, thinking to do good, to find that she became like a corpse, and even the joints of her fingers became so stiff that I could not straighten them; indeed, I really thought that she was dead, and immediately made it known to the people in the house that she had fainted, but did not tell them the cause, upon which they immediately brought music, which I had for many days denied them, and which soon revived her; and I then left the house to her relations to cure her at my expense, in the manner I have before mentioned, though it took a much longer time to cure my wife than the woman I have just given an account of. One day I went privately, with a companion, to see my wife dance, and kept at a short distance, as I was ashamed to go near the crowd. On looking steadfastly upon her, while dancing or jumping, more like a deer than a human being, I said that it certainly was not my wife; at which my companion burst into a fit of laughter, from which he could scarcely refrain all the way home. Men are sometimes afflicted with this dreadful disorder, but not frequently. Among the Amhara and Galla it is not so common."

Such is the account of Pearce, who is every way worthy of credit, and whose lively description renders the traditions of former times respecting the St. Vitus's dance and tarantism intelligible, even to those who are sceptical respecting the existence of a morbid state of the mind and body of the kind described, because, in the present advanced state of civilisation among the nations of Europe, opportunities for its development no longer occur. The credibility of this energetic but by no means ambitious man is not liable to the slightest suspicion, for, owing to his want of education, he had no knowledge of the phenomena in question, and his work evinces throughout his attractive and unpretending impartiality.

Comparison is the mother of observation, and may here elucidate one phenomenon by another--the past by that which still exists. Oppression, insecurity, and the influence of a very rude priestcraft, are the powerful causes which operated on the Germans and Italians of the Middle Ages, as they now continue to operate on the Abyssinians of the present day. However these people may differ from us in their descent, their manners and their customs, the effects of the above mentioned causes are the same in Africa as they were in Europe, for they operate on man himself independently of the particular locality in which he may be planted; and the conditions of the Abyssinians of modern times is, in regard to superstition, a mirror of the condition of the European nations of the middle ages. Should this appear a bold assertion it will be strengthened by the fact that in Abyssinia two examples of superstitions occur which are completely in accordance with occurrences of the Middle Ages that took place contemporarily with the dancing mania. THE ABYSSINIANS HAVE THEIR CHRISTIAN FLAGELLANTS, AND THERE EXISTS AMONG THEM A BELIEF IN A ZOOMORPHISM, WHICH PRESENTS A LIVELY IMAGE OF THE LYCANTHROPY OF THE MIDDLE AGES. Their flagellants are called Zackarys. They are united into a separate Christian fraternity, and make their processions through the towns and villages with great noise and tumult, scourging themselves till they draw blood, and wounding themselves with knives. They boast that they are descendants of St. George. It is precisely in Tigre, the country of the Abyssinian dancing mania, where they are found in the greatest numbers, and where they have, in the neighbourhood of Axum, a church of their own, dedicated to their patron saint, Oun Arvel. Here there is an ever-burning lamp, and they contrive to impress a belief that this is kept alight by supernatural means. They also here keep a holy water, which is said to be a cure for those who are affected by the dancing mania.

The Abyssinian Zoomorphism is a no less important phenomenon, and shows itself a manner quite peculiar. The blacksmiths and potters form among the Abyssinians a society or caste called in Tigre TEBBIB, and in Amhara BUDA, which is held in some degree of contempt, and excluded from the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, because it is believed that they can change themselves into hyaenas and other beasts of prey, on which account they are feared by everybody, and regarded with horror. They artfully contrive to keep up this superstition, because by this separation they preserve a monopoly of their lucrative trades, and as in other respects they are good Christians (but few Jews or Mahomedans live among them), they seem to attach no great consequence to their excommunication. As a badge of distinction they wear a golden ear-ring, which is frequently found in the ears of Hyaenas that are killed, without its having ever been discovered how they catch these animals, so as to decorate them with this strange ornament, and this removes in the minds of the people all doubt as to the supernatural powers of the smiths and potters. To the Budas is also ascribed the gift of enchantment, especially that of the influence of the evil eye. They nevertheless live unmolested, and are not condemned to the flames by fanatical priests, as the lycanthropes were in the Middle Ages.

Up Previous Next Contents

The Climate Change and Public Health Law Site
The Best on the WWW Since 1995!
Copyright as to non-public domain materials
See DR-KATE.COM for home hurricane and disaster preparation
See WWW.EPR-ART.COM for photography of southern Louisiana and Hurricane Katrina
Professor Edward P. Richards, III, JD, MPH - Webmaster

Provide Website Feedback - https://www.lsu.edu/feedback
Privacy Statement - https://www.lsu.edu/privacy
Accessibility Statement - https://www.lsu.edu/accessibility