Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Sex, Sorcery, and Swordfish

     The power of mind over matter can be quite spectacular, when the "matter" is the human body, and not always for the best. Take, for instance, a phantom pregnancy, when a woman wants a child so much that her body goes through all the features of pregnancy, except that no child has been conceived. The classic case was that of England's first queen regnant, the unfortunate Mary I ("Bloody Mary"). Married to the King of Spain at the age of 40, and desperate for an heir, she was apparently pregnant for eleven months, but nothing came of it. Even worse is "sorcery death" or voodoo death. Recorded in many parts of the world, the most dramatic is the phenomenon of "pointing the bone", also known as "singing to death" among the Australian Aborigines. When a person has a curse put upon him by a witchdoctor by having a bone pointed at him, he literally wills himself to die within a few days or a few weeks, unless the curse is removed.
    But what happens when both phenomena occur together?
    From 1913 to 1920 Sir Arthur Grimble served as a District Officer in what was then called the Gilbert Islands, but is now known as Kiribati, finally describing his amazing experiences in A Pattern of Islands (1952).  It is one of the all-time great travel books, and I strongly suggest that you find a copy and read it. In fact, in one of my other blogs I recounted his experience with a ghost, but it was on the main island of Tarawa that the following events took place.
    According to tradition, if a girl consistently refuses the sexual advance of a man, as a last resort, and in an act of malice, he may invoke the swordfish spirit, Terakunene. First he must acquire one of the girl's hairs, which he then binds around his leg just above the knee, after which he fasts for three days alone somewhere near the beach. Just before dark on the third day, he would make a small fire of sticks on the beach, then, while seated facing the sea, wave the hair over the fire, north, west, and south in turn, reciting the following spell.
Terakunene Terakunene-o-o,
Go thou to make her answer, even that woman Nei Ioa.
Go thou to make her come to me.
Go thou to madden her if she comes not.
(If she comes not) she shall be mad for me,
She shall swell with thy child for me,
She shall be dead for me.
She shall be dead!
      With the last word, he throws the hair into the fire. She now has three days in which to come to his bed. If not, on the third night, Terakunene will visit her and rape her. She will wake up, mad with the dream of his embrace, screaming his name, her belly swelling with his monstrous child. Three nights after that, she will die, and the invisible child will be born.
      Nor was this simply a legend. One morning Grimble was doing his paperwork, when he was disturbed by a loud, high-pitched feminine wailing. After a while, he went over to the house where it originated, that of one of the native policemen. There sat his daughter, stark naked, her eyes shut, and her head thrown back, her mouth open in a loud keening. Her belly was so swollen, it seemed the skin would burst.
      In those days a woman rarely allowed even her husband to see her completely naked, but when the girl's mother cast a sheet over her, she immediately flung it away. According to her mother, the girl had woken in the night, called out the name of Terakunene, thrown off her clothing, and had sat bolt upright, naked, and silent until, about an hour before, she began the loud wail. Grimble called for a paramedic, and they gave her potassium bromide, as a mild sedative. That evening she slept from time to time, but refused all food, while the distension of her abdomen remained unrelieved. On the third night she died, as predicted. Also as predicted, her belly returned to normal within an hour.
     Grimble reported that he never found any evidence that sorcery had, in fact, been used against her. He suspected the belief system had developed to explain the workings of a mysterious organic disease. However, I doubt it. First of all, it would seem strange that such an unusual disease was limited to that small area, and it does not appear to have been reported since. Secondly, wherever people believe in magic, there will be those who attempt to practice it.
     Nevertheless, if the young lady had in fact been informed by a vengeful would-be seducer, one wonders why she didn't attempt to save her life by submitting to him - or at least tell her parents of the danger she ran. I suspect there was no actual attempt at sorcery. What likely happened was that she was having boyfriend trouble, and when she had a vivid nightmare, perhaps with a sexual content, she jumped to conclusions which ultimately proved fatal.
     But that, of course, was 100 years ago. These days followers of the traditional religion number less than two percent of the population. Or, to be precise, less than two percent do not identify as either Christian, Mormon, or Baha'i. Of course, that does not preclude the existence of residual superstition. However, sorcery death relies on complete confidence in the curse on the part of the victim, coupled with a lack of confidence in any countermanding power. I suspect, therefore, that the swordfish spirit no longer wreaks havoc among the island maidens. And a good thing, too.

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