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Shaman, Psychoanalyst or Obstetrician: A Critical Reading of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Essay “The Efficiency of Symbols”

Author(s): Staffan Mjönes

Journal: Folklore : Electronic Journal of Folklore
ISSN 1406-0957

Volume: 45;
Start page: 7;
Date: 2010;
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Keywords: birth | cosmology | disease | medical anthropology | obstetrics | shamanism | structuralism | traditional medicine

This article intends to clarify the obstetric, medical-psychologicaland ethnological credibility of a well-known essay in structural anthropology. Claude Lévi-Strauss claims that it is possible to heal a person with an acute, life-threatening, physical, medical condition, in this case a complicated delivery, with purely psychological or magical methods. His reasoning is based on anincomplete source as well as on a grave anatomical misunderstanding. An obstetric analysis of the complete source furthermore shows that the medicine man or shaman uses a combination of a manual intervention, drug treatment and psychological influence. Lévi-Strauss’ claim must therefore be refuted. The empirical basis is also insufficient for Lévi-Strauss’ far-reaching conclusions on the topography of the human mind, the function of the subconscious and thecomparison between psychoanalysis and shamanism. The medicine man is described by Lévi-Strauss as a “noble savage”. However, Lévi-Strauss also points out the importance of the psychological support of the patient in a valuable way.
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