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Representations of sickness and healing in art and ritual

Workshop – 15 December 2020

Subject to sanitary conditions.

History has shown us that outbreaks of epidemics are invariably followed by remarkable creativity in the identification of the supposed agents, and even more inventive means of prevention and treatment. The agents so identified are often human groups, sometimes with tragic consequences: thus the black Death in the 14th century was a Jewish plot to control the world; the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 was caused by pathogens produced by the German military; Ebola was a British or American experiment in germ warfare, and AIDS was disseminated by any one of a range of governments and social groups. While many reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic have been similarly characterised by xenophobia, there are other, more colourful attributions; for example, that the virus is the work of the humanoid reptilians that actually run most governments and international corporations (as well as the British Royal Family), or that its diffusion is made possible by G5 technology. Some of the treatments that have been proposed are no less marvellous: while the virtues of disinfectants and ultra-violet light are now well known, we should not overlook the power of certain numbers. When, in April 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Indian citizens to turn off electric lights for nine minutes and to light candles and shine flashlights instead, messages on social media about the therapeutic properties of the number nine went viral: “If 130 candles are lit together, temperature will increase by 9 degrees…. So, coronavirus will die at 9.09 p.m. on Sunday…;” and another example, evoking the fact that PM Modi had scheduled this gesture for 5 April:

“05.04 means 9 in total (5 + 4 = 9)
9 pm means 9
9.09 pm which is the end time is 9 in total (9 + 9 = 18 and 1 + 8 = 9)
Grand total is 36 which means 9 again (3 + 6 = 9)
9 is a magic number.”

The inventiveness in imagining causes and cures for epidemics is often matched by creative representations. The Black Death, for example, was responsible for the proliferation of paintings of themes such as the Dance of Death. The Covid-19 pandemic has already stimulated a wave of literary and visual productivity, as exemplified by the short narratives being collected and archived by the British Library in its Covid Chronicles project, or the hundreds of works available to the general public on the Instagram-based Covid Art Museum.

Given the highly topical nature of this theme, it seems appropriate that SEECHAC’s next workshop should be explore some of the literary, artistic and ritual inventions that have been inspired over the centuries by illness and healing in Central Asia and the Himalayas. Four specialists of the region will give short presentations:


Fernand Meyer (EPHE)

Health and illness in society. What is it all about? Some thoughts and answers in the Himalayan context.

We readily admit that the human sciences, particularly historical or ethnological, require the researcher to abandon his own preconceptions when trying to understand, account for or “translate” objects of thought from a more or less distant past, or from a culture other than his own.

At the same time, field experience shows that we must start this “reading” from anchor points which cannot be other than those provided to us by our own conceptual lexicon, a kind of glasses at the same time. both polarizing and filtering.

The researcher generally endeavors to protect himself from this when he looks at social-cultural facts. However, he tends to be less careful when it comes to health, and even more illness and medicine, so often understood as relating to natural “realities”, inscribed in the biological nature of man, and therefore deemed to be “universal”. This look comes to him spontaneously from a conceptual habitus that has been built in a deeply “biomedicalized” environment.

However, the semantic and value fields of terms such as health, disease, medicine are likely to be not only more extensive and polysemous, but also to have less clearly defined contours than what our habitus suggests.

This paper will aim to document them, to illustrate their abundant complexity, and to address the methodological challenges for research from the Himalayan context.

Anna Caiozzo (Bordeaux Montaigne, Ausonius)

Imaginaries of disease and contamination in the arts of the medieval East

Tabi'a, the demoness who presides over births. © Caiozzo
Tabi’a, the demoness who presides over births.
© Caiozzo

In the pre-Islamic world and in the folklore of the Muslim world, from Central Asia to the Maghreb, the history of the body is based partly on the state of beliefs and religious facts, and on the other hand on medicine, that is to say, explanations relating to the functioning of the body, its moods and the internal and exogenous factors that condition it. Certainly from an anthropological point of view, from the beginning of the 20th century, ES Drower or Edmond Doutté, who however ignored the work of James Frazer, proposed local studies – folklorists – as we would say today, which shed light on in more ways than one, the history of the body and its supposed diseases, especially those which are transmitted or which are caught. It is also these modes of operation, in which the imagination occupies an important part, that the two specialists in disease and epidemics Michael W. Dols and Lawrence I. Conrad underline in their work.

Thus, the concept of contagion ā adwā is problematic because it is negated globally and must be assessed against religious beliefs, medicine and especially superstitions even in the case of epidemics (wabā ‘).

Also, in the field of beliefs, we will evoke the history of the sick body or the contaminated body in the visual arts to show how man is dependent both on his own moral behavior but also subject to hazards which go beyond him. the interaction between man and the universe.

Furthermore, the pre-Islamic Iranian world has erected a vision of the body in which the latter is the stake of the struggle between Good, Ohrmazd, and Ahriman, Evil, and where only prayer or magic can work for its protection. The measures and laws of purity, doxa among the Zoroastrians of Iran, and those of Islam where it is commonly said, “Purity is half of faith”, reveal the fear of the pollution of bodies . Moreover, the religious texts of the two religions are used as prophylactic formulas (healing virtues of the surahs of the Koran). As a result, this conception of illness as external (generated by evil forces), or resulting from wanderings or sins, partly conditions the conduct of man, who by regular practices of religion, observances of what is lawful (ḥalāl) or taboo (ḥarām), can to a certain extent avoid the inconveniences of health.

In addition, the body is itself the place of contamination by the different humors it secretes and which can also be used to pervert: blood, urine, semen, hair, nails, feces …. But it is everyone’s body, and especially the period of menstruation, that represents a major danger for the community.

Brigitte Steinmann (Université de Lille et CNRS)

When words and looks become infectious agents: examination of some concepts and causes related to ailments and disease, as well as their remedies, among Buddhist populations of Nepal.

The goddess Durga kills the Coronavirus (Kolkata, artist unknown) © General
The goddess Durga kills the Coronavirus
(Kolkata, artist unknown) © General

In Nepal, as in many parts of the world, conceptions of evil and disease can be understood from ideas about physiology, as it is closely related to ordinary perceptions: see perhaps synonymous with ‘d ‘intention to harm’; to speak can be understood as “uttering threats” of a witchcraft type. We will try to show how all environmental perception is in fact affected with vital and deadly meanings, which only practitioners of complex rites are able to define and resolve. Finally, in popular Buddhism, there is a universal vaccine against evil, which we will discuss in conclusion.

Costantino Moretti (EPHE €CRCAO)

Depictions of disease, suffering, and death in Dunhuang’s iconographic sources

Suūtra de Guanyin, Manuscrit Pelliot chinois 2010 (+4513)
Guanyin Suūtra, Manuscrit Pelliot chinois 2010 (+4513)

In this paper, we will present a general overview of the different categories of paintings featuring depictions of disease, scenes of suffering, as well as images and expressions of death, based on Dunhuang’s pictorial materials. We will study the way in which these iconographic elements fit into medieval Buddhist painting, through a cross-analysis of relevant textual sources, in order to understand certain choices in the ornamental program of the scenes in question.