The first time I saw a telly spot for this show, there was a very sensational-looking clip showing a re-enactment of what was ostensibly a traditional African diaspora ritual, and a comment from a nurse about “voodoo”. While I do watch a lot of television, about half of the programmes I play off the DVR box are reruns that I tend to keep on for “white noise”, cos for some reason, I’m one of those people who finds it easier to read, write, or work at my badge press when there’s some active sound, and sometimes, I think that the flickering lights of this old tube model telly helps me concentrate better, too. I am not the biggest fan of how television people tend to portray traditional, pre-Christian religions, even ostensibly “reality” programmes or documentary series like to tweak up the “omg, this shit is bananas” factor for the ratings, and then immediately have an expert covertly, if not overtly, make comparisons to Christianity. It can be frustrating, and programmes with a science-and-history theme are often some of the greatest offenders, but National Geographic (which has more of a social bend) is pretty far from being blameless here.
Then, out of curiosity, maybe a bit of a masochistic streak, I decided to watch Untold Stories of the E.R. Eventually, one of the “voodoo” episodes came on, and I’m actually kind of impressed with the overall portrayal. Now, this isn’t my religion, but they keep the re-enactment of rituals performed in the hospitals pretty simple –a little ritual dancing, maybe waving a bit of burning herb or incense. What impresses me most is the interview segments with the doctors about these things witnessed.
It always kind of begins the same way: Person comes into the E.R., typically an immigrant from Africa, with some symptoms, but the various hospital instruments and tests reveal nothing. Patient, at some point, reveals that they have been cursed by someone in their old village, or the local immigrant community, but the doctors still try to look for something physical. Eventually, the doctor in charge of the case admits that there’s nothing left he can do, but Patient isn’t getting any better, so Doctor takes a leap of faith and calls in a spirit worker from the local immigrant community.
The doctors say a lot of the same things:
“This was clearly a spiritual problem, it was out of my hands.”
“I could only do just so much for the body, the rest was left to something else.”
“I don’t know everything that’s out there, but I do know if the patient didn’t get this ritual to remove the bad spirits, she’d've died.”
This reminds me of reading about studies of people attempting to cure patients wbo believe themselves to be cursed. If untreated through ritual, no matter how much medical help is given, there is a clear correlation of patients dying. While many Western doctors use language that treats this as no different from any other placebo, the number of doctors who describe these “voodoo prescriptions” with the same language afforded to the “miraculous” recovery of people whose loved ones sat beside them, prostrate in prayer (thus ostensibly mainstream Christian), is something that I not only welcome and am generally happy to see (even if there is still some sensationalism for ratings), but I find this affirming in some ways.
No, it’s not the same as with Hellenismos, where (at least in this day and age), the curse culture is barely functional, if a quick survey of Hellenists visible online can be believed, but if an E.R. Doctor can not just accept, but be willing to find and call in a tribal spirit worker to help a hospital patient, then surely that is positive news for other traditional religions and even neopagan religions that, by their natures, have some similar features.