The Primitive Mind and Modern Man

Indexed in: Scopus, EBSCO

This book is in the field of cultural anthropology and transcultural psychology, and is intended for college courses in anthropology and psychology, and general readership. The book focuses on ...
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Death by Suggestion: Voodoo Death, Taboo Death, and Pointing the Bone

Pp. 167-171 (5)

DOI: 10.2174/978160805087111001010167

Author(s): John Alan Cohan


A phenomenon seen in primitive cultures is the occurrence of death by suggestion, in which strong cultural beliefs-in the violation of a taboo, for instance-cause people to believe that they will suffer imminent death or serious illness. The efficacy of these beliefs might best be explained by the phenomenon of autosuggestion whereby the subject has become convinced that death is inevitable, and for all intents and purposes gives up hope. A similar phenomenon has been reported in combat zones whereby soldiers may die of a combination of anguish, confusion and severe mental and physical shock. In communities that experienced the black plague in previous centuries many people died simply of fear of contracting an otherwise innocuous illness. Cancer patients informed of their condition are known to die, as if hexed, before the malignancy develops to the point where it could cause death. Voodoo is both a folk medical system and a means of casting spells. “Taboo death” is a phenomenon whereby people will die as a consequence of violating some taboo: People of many cultures believe that taboo violation carries automatic repercussions, even if inadvertent or accidental. The individual may well undergo a sense of panic, hopelessness and stress resulting in death in a few hours upon learning he has violated the taboo (e.g., eating a tabooed food, accidentally eating out of the chief’s bowl). Another form of death by suggestion is “pointing the bone,” whereby someone with evil designs literally points a bone at a targeted victim. Pointing the bone is thought to be so potent that the victim will be literally scared to death, gripped by paralyzing fear, and may start to get extremely weak and die.