Explanation for illness and death among traditional peoples around the world. The temporary departure of the soul from the body may cause illness; its permanent departure results in death.
In the animistic system of beliefs (see ANIMISM), a person’s soul or one of his or her souls is believed to be detachable from the body and to wander at night during dreams. Some persons, notably shamans, are believed to be able to will and control such wanderings, which may in fact be Out-of-Body Experiences. Such wanderings are considered normal and are not a cause of concern, except when the soul for one reason or another cannot find its way back to its body. Soul loss may have a variety of causes, besides the simple inability of the soul to find its way back home. Sometimes it occurs because the ghost of a recently deceased person has managed to draw the soul away (see Ghost SICKNESS).
Soul loss may also be due to witchcraft or sorcery or the action of malevolent supernatural beings, or it may result from external injury or physical shocks to the body. One may kill a person by waking him or her suddenly, before the soul has returned from its nocturnal wanderings.
The illnesses that result from soul loss are especially of a psychological nature. Fainting fits, epileptic seizures, comas, and various other losses of consciousness are good indications of soul loss.
Upon its departure from the body, the soul usually heads for the land of the dead, and the closer it approaches this goal, the weaker and more delirious its owner becomes. When soul loss occurs, it is the task of the shaman to search for the soul and to restore it to its body. This is possible so long as the soul has not yet reached the land of the dead, although if the illness has been caused by sorcery or through the action of some discarnate entity, the shaman may have to enter into a spiritual tug-of-war with the offending party.
Soul loss may also occur without its owner feeling any ill effects. In these cases, the person does not know that his soul has been away until he is informed by the shaman, who may have become aware of the situation in a dream and have taken steps to correct it.
- Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964.
- Hultkrantz, Ake. Conceptions of the Soul among North American Indians. Stockholm: Ethnographic Museum of Sweden, 1953.
- Tylor, Edward Burnett. Religion in Primitive Culture. New York: Harper, 1956.