From Artifice to Actuality: Ritual, Shamanism, Hypnosis and Healing

Etzel Cardeña, Wendy Cousins

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


From a purely rationalist stance it would seem that a number of ritual actions are absurd or require convoluted evolutionary explanations (e.g. Boyer & Liénard 2006). In this paper, we will present converging lines of evidence, mostly from psychological and medical research, suggesting how specific behaviors and cognitions can alter the reality of individuals participating in rituals. Thus, apparently nonsensical actions such as following precise verbal formulations or dressing up and imitating someone or something else can affect the actor’s and the audience’s experience and physiology, spinning reality out of mere pretence. In his 2005 Nobel Lecture Harold Pinter (2005/19858) stated that "There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false." It was particularly trenchant that a theatre writer whose work revealed the extent to which speech hides rather than reveals would conclude that some matters could be both true and false. Many rituals, which from one perspective can be seen as an elaborate ruse, may produce valid experiences, thus blurring the distinction between what is, and is not, real. The anthropologist Turnbull (1993), while describing the molimo ritual of the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri rainforest in Zaire, provided a good example of how becoming fully engaged in a ritual reveals a reality that participants seek and that cannot be apprehended from a purely “objective” analysis (another example of the distinction between directly experiential and conceptual knowledge that William James (1911), Bertrand Russell (1970/1917, and others have made). In this paper, we will describe how other phenomena besides rituals can begin as pretence or trickery (Cardeña & Beard 1996) and then become experientially, physiologically, and socially real. We will concentrate on three domains: the importance of language or incantation, the importance of the body or action, and the importance of other people. We start with a review of relevant research in hypnosis and placebo, discuss the embodiedness of emotions and cognition, and then move to more social areas while simultaneously making the case that the boundaries between the intra-personal, the inter-personal and the trans-personal are as shifting as those between artifice and actuality…
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Varieties of Ritual Experience (ed. By Jan Weinhold & Geoffrey Samuel) as section of the series "Ritual Dynamics and the Science of Ritual", Volume II: Body, performance, agency and experience”.
PublisherHarrassowitz Verlag
ISBN (Print)xx
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - Feb 2010


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