Of Mountains, Moons and Rainbows

More than a month has passed since I attended the Dia de los Difuntos celebrations in Salasaka, and I have returned there since to start the survey phase of the project. At present we are in the process of conducting ‘preliminary interviews’ with different members of the Salasaka community, and also the Comuna of Zuleta, Imbabura province, as a northern component in the study, to 'pilot' how the questions are understood. Although much of the questionnaire seeks to determine indigenous people’s health beliefs and practices, they are set within a wider understanding of the ‘cosmos’ in general, which is to say how people experience and respond to the ‘phenomenal universe’ around them: the natural environment, animals, inanimate objects and so forth. It is known from studies of other Andean peoples that people sometimes see the human body as a mirror of the wider cosmos and understand the way it functions through analogies with geographical features around them, commonly mountains. So the questions have been designed to explore this perception, as: “Is the human body seen to mirror the wider cosmos, or any particular feature (e.g. a mountain)?” (Refer to the full questionnaire below).
Member of the Salasaka community

There are a range of general questions for all participants, then questions specifically targeting younger people – to see how their traditional beliefs might be changing under the influence of the modern education systems and ways of living (use of mobile phones, computers, social media etc); the experiences and beliefs of traditional healers (shamans, yachaks) and finally the views that modern clinicians have about traditional medicine. Already the few trial interviews have produced some interesting results. Of two young women of similar ages from the same community, one completely believed in many of the range of traditional maladies, whereas the other did not and had wholly converted to modern western concepts of health and illness. It will be interesting to explore the reasons for these kinds of variations in more depth, which is one of the overall objectives of this survey. Traditional concepts of illnesses include the following: mal - also malaire, malviento (illness caught through being exposed to negative environmental/wind borne energies), mal de ojo (evil eye), susto, espanto (shock/fright), soroche (altitude sickness), agarrado del cerro (caught by the mountain), la luna (moonstruck), cuichig (caught by the rainbow), hualambario (caught by a small intense wind vortex/tornedo), brujería (witchcraft), San Gonzalo (a Catholic saint with the power to inflict harm), castigo divino (divine punishment), mala suerte (bad luck), envidia (the bad consequences of nurturing envy). Many of these are not uncommon throughout folk beliefs globally, that exist as a sub-stratum underlying both superimposed formalised religions (Christianity, Islam etc) and latterly, more formal modern medical understandings of illness. Many people reading this list will have heard of some of them (e.g., evil eye; witchcraft, bad luck), although others are rather more enigmatic and are probably of autochthonous Andean origin (cuichig, hualambario; the notion of being ‘caught’ by the mountains etc). Some, however, are clearly of Spanish/European origins ('castigo divino', San Gonzalo, probably 'mal' as with Christianised notions of 'evil' etc).
Zuleta archaeological site

To our very modern ways of thinking, they seem interesting, ‘quaint’, but the products of purely superstitious beliefs, without any kind of basis in fact and something that modern medicine has properly eradicated. Yet it is a mistake to interpret these too literally, as the premise adopted here is they do have a powerful symbolic relevance and contain important valid information about health states. It is one of the objectives of this study to look more closely at symbolism of this kind and arrive at a means of understanding it in a way that might allow a ‘bridge’ between very traditional approaches to health, illness and healing, and those that we now increasingly use in modern biomedicine.

Andean Health Beliefs and Practices Questionnaire

About this blog entry

This blog entry was posted on Sunday 10th December 2017.
Dr Elizabeth Currie

Dr Elizabeth Currie is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Experienced Researcher and Global Fellow at the Department of Archaeology, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Health Sciences, University of York.

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