The Reality of Spirits
By Edith Turner
© Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1997, Vol. 10, No. 1

Edith Turner, a Field Associate of the Foundation, is a distinguished anthropologist who teaches at the University of Virginia. She is known for her fieldwork in Africa with her late husband, Victor Turner, and for her more recent work among the north Alaskan Eskimo (the Iñupiat), results of which are to be found in her book, The Hands Feel It: Healing and Spirit Presence among a Northern Alaskan People (Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb, Illinois. 1996.)

This article is from the FSS journal, Shamanism, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring-Summer) 1997.

"A keen and sympathetic researcher on indigenous peoples' spiritual and ritual life, she makes a courageous and eloquent stand in this article."
— Michael Harner

In the past in anthropology, if a researcher "went native," it doomed him academically. My husband, Victor Turner, and I had this dictum at the back of our minds when we spent two and a half years among the Ndembu of Zambia in the fifties.

All right, "our" people believed in spirits, but that was a matter of their different world, not ours. Their ideas were strange and a little disturbing. Yet somehow we were on the safe side of the White divide and were free merely to study the beliefs. This is how we thought. Little knowing it, we denied the people's equality with ours, their "coevalness," their common humanity as that humanity extended itself into the spirit world.

Try out that spirit world ourselves? No way!

But at intervals, that world insisted it was really there. For instance, in the Chihamba ritual at the end of a period of ordeal, a strong wave of curative energy hit us. We had been participating as fully as we knew how, thus opening ourselves to whatever entities that were about. In another ritual, for fertility, the delight of dancing in the moonlight hit me vividly, and I began to learn something about the hypnotic effect of singing and hearing the drums.

Much later, Vic and I witnessed a curious event in New York City in 1980, while running a workshop at the New York University Department of Performance Studies, which was attended by performance and anthropology students. With the help of the participants, we were trying out rituals as actual performances with the intention of creating a new educational technique.

...the Africans were right. There is spirit stuff. There is spirit affliction; it is not a matter of metaphor and symbol, or even psychology.

We enacted the Umbanda trance session, which we had observed and studied in one of the slums of Rio de Janeiro. The students duly followed our directions and also accompanied the rites with bongo drumming and songs addressed to the Yoruba gods. During the ritual, a female student actually went into a trance, right there in New York University. We brought her 'round with our African rattle, rather impressed with the way this ritual worked even out of context. The next day, the student told us that she had gone home that night and correctly predicted the score of a crucial football game, impressing us even further.

Since then, I have taken note of the effects of trance and discovered for myself the three now obvious regularities: frequent, nonempirical cures; clairvoyance, which includes finding lost people or objects, divination, prediction, or forms of wisdom speaking; and satisfaction or joy—these three effects repeating, almost like a covenant.

What spirit events took place in my own experience?

One of them happened like this. In 1985, I was due for a visit to Zambia. Before going, I decided to come closer than on previous occasions to the Africans' own experience, whatever that was—I did not know what they experienced. So it eventuated, I did come closer.

My research was developing into the study of a twice-repeated healing ritual. To my surprise, the healing of the second patient culminated in my sighting a spirit form. In a book entitled Experiencing Ritual1, I describe exactly how this curative ritual reached its climax, including how I myself was involved in it; how the traditional doctor bent down amid the singing and drumming to extract the harmful spirit; and how I saw with my own eyes a large, gray blob of something like plasma emerge from the sick woman's back.

Then I knew the Africans were right. There is spirit stuff. There is spirit affliction; it is not a matter of metaphor and symbol, or even psychology. And I began to see how anthropologists have perpetuated an endless series of put-downs about the many spirit events in which they participated—"participated" in a kindly pretense. They might have obtained valuable material, but they have been operating with the wrong paradigm, that of the positivists' denial.

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