Raising the Dead: Medicine Women Who Revive and Retrieve Souls I

© 2013 Max Dashu

Isis the Healer, the Mistress of Magic, in whose mouth is the Breath of Life,
whose words destroy disease and awake the dead.
[1]

Shamans are known for their power to heal. They may lay on hands, extract negative energies from a diseased person’s body or infuse it with life essences, chant power songs and curative charms, or make journeys in the spirit to find and recover the soul of traumatized people, thus restoring them to health. Much of the written commentary about “shamanism” focuses primarily on males, so much so that they give the impression that women’s participation is negligible. In stark contrast to this picture are the many world traditions that cast medicine women as the greatest healers, so powerful that they are capable even of bringing the dead back to life. We’ll look at this theme in Egypt, Mali, Greece, Finland, Manchuria, Korea, and Tibet.

Isis

One of the 10,000 names of Auset (Isis) is Weret Hekau, meaning the Great Enchantress, or “strong of magic.” One way that she heals is by words of power. This is how she restored the scorpion-bitten son of a lady in the Delta marshes. Auset is often depicted shaking the sistrum, the sacred rattle of Kemetic temple women, which itself has strong shamanic associations. (Some modern healers in Kenya, Namibia, and elsewhere in Africa, use gourd rattles in their curing ceremonies.) And Auset also possesses the shamanic power of shapeshifting into a falcon-form. She spreads out her protective wings, and beats them powerfully, to arouse vital spirit.

Auset in the form of a kite bird beats her wings over the body of Ausar
Auset in the form of a kite bird beats her wings over the body of Ausar, infusing life-force into the Stillheart.

To revive the slain and dismembered Ausar (Osiris), she changed into the form of a kite (a falcon-like bird with a flat, owl-like face) and hovered over his body. She “made a shade with her plumage / Created breath with her wings.” [2] Temple reliefs at Abydos and Denderah show Auset flying and beating her wings all around Ausar. Serpents of regeneration rise in the underworld beneath his bier. The deep-eyed Hekat, frog goddess of generation, birth and resurrection, watches over this transfiguration in the Denderah relief. [3]

Although Auset is indisputably a deity, she is also described as a First Woman, with an array of foundational acts to her credit. She is not only a model of queenship, but a powerful sorceress who is “mighty of tongue.” Her shapeshifting and power to restore the dead to life recur in numerous stories about powerful shamans. A very close parallel exists near the bend of the Niger River in Mali, where the great tungutu Pa Sini Jobu shapeshifts into bird form and uses her wings to impart life to a dead body.

Pa Sini Jobu

The Soroko people of Mali remembered Pa Sini Jobu as the greatest of all tungutu, their name for a shaman. She lived a very long time ago. “Pa Sini Jobu is regarded as the ancestress of a Soroko-Bosso tribe which dwells below Jenne ; she attained to extreme old age, and was a mistress of the most marvellous powers. Now, when she arrived at the time when women generally get husbands, she sent all her suitors away.  She had no desire towards marriage.” [4] Pa Sini Jobu’s abundant vital power is signaled by her very long hair and her preternaturally long life.

One day a man killed the sacred ram of the king, whose fortunes were bound up in the animal. The king sent out a desperate call to all the tungutu to come and revive him. “Then all sorts and conditions of men from the uttermost ends of the earth flocked together ; all who were Tungutu… some who could stay under water for three days. There were others who could stay buried in the earth for three days. There were people who could change themselves into fire. Each one tried his powers of wizardry. But the sheep was still dead; he gradually rotted and could not be made living and whole again.”

Then Pa Sini Jobu herself invited a tungutu named Yena to take up the task. He said he could do it if she was able to recover the ram’s liver and other body parts that the hyenas had devoured. Through her second sight, Pa Sini Jobu described the place where the jackals were holed up. She summoned them, and they came to her running. She commanded the jackals to retch up the organs. But the male tungutu was unable to do anything with these dead and chewed body parts. He said, “Thou hast brought back the parts that were missing by thy skill and use of powers, so that I cannot marvel at thee enough and I recognize thy superiority to me without more ado, but I am unable to restore the sheep to life.”

The King sent once more to Pa Sini Jobu, asking her if she knew of any way to revive the now rotting and stinking carcass of his ram. She agreed to help: “I will see to this matter myself. The sheep shall live.”  She set about her task through a classic shamanic ceremony of ecstatic dance:

The tungutu Pa Sini Jobu dances with her staff as the Kie play music
The tungutu Pa Sini Jobu dances with her staff as the Kie play

Thereupon the King caused all the Kie (musicians) to come together to beat their calabashes. The Kie sat around the square. Pa Sini Jobu took her seat on the ground in the midst of them. Because she was a Tungutu, she had such long hair that it reached far, far down her back, and she could sit on her own hair instead of a stool or a mat. This hair was the gift of her powers.

The Kie began to beat time. The Kie played music. They played and sang faster and faster still. Pa Sini Jobu began to get into a frenzy. Her power was awakened. The Kie played and sang and beat time with ever-increasing quickness. The power of Pa Sini Jobu grew stronger. Pa Sini Jobu screamed ! The Kie beat time.

Pa Sini Jobu rose up. She floated aloft. She floated up to the clouds. She changed her arms while up in the clouds into wings, like the great birds have, and then sank slowly down over the ram. Pa Sini Jobu rested over the ram for the space of six days. During this time she covered the ram with her outstretched wings. On the seventh day she got up. The ram was alive!

She had revivified the animal with her wings, as Isis did for Osiris.

After this exploit, Pa Sini Jobu left her country and traveled. She came to a country ruled by a woman, Queen Na Manj. The queen joyfully welcomed her with a stately procession at the gates of her city. All the townspeople came to greet Pa Sini Jobu, to bring her presents and do honour to her. Na Manj greeted the tungutu warmly, saying: “I have heard of thy great gifts. Do me the pleasure to stay awhile with me so that I may show how greatly I honour thee.” Pa Sini Jobu said: “Thou art very gracious. For a while I will stay with thee.” And she entered the city.

After a few days, Na Manj asked the Tungutu for her advice. She replied, “All that has happened is known unto me. Ask me, therefore, and I will answer thee gladly.” Na Manj said that she needed her help in fighting off a neighboring king whose warriors were disturbing her country. Pa Sini Jobu agreed.

The king lived on an island in the Niger, and the river djinns tried to dissuade her, saying: “Thou art a strange Tungutu, great and mighty — in other places — but here thy powers avail not. Let it be, Pa Sini Jobu.” But Pa Sini Jobu only said, “We’ll see about that.” She went ahead with her ceremony, and the djinn swallowed up the queen and her entire army, leaving only the Tungutu. “Then the djinn took her under the water and instructed her about ‘all the illnesses and all misfortunes and all life on the earth,’ and how each could be remedied. These were teachings about ceremonially seating spirits in sacred pots filled with sacred and charged substances.

This keeping of spirit pots was widespread in West Africa, and the Yoruba and others disseminated it across the African Diaspora. [5] The spirits taking the tungutu “under the water” also compares to the San signification of “underwater” as the Spirit Realm of Ancestors, a timeless dimension where animals spoke to humans and where shamans accessed their powers. [6]

Another tradition of Mali briefly touches on this theme of a woman healer who has power even over death. The Nine Sorceresses of Mande appear in the epic Sunjatta Keita. The Ninth Sorceress is Kulutugubaga, who is able to restore broken arms, heal flesh wounds, and bring the dead back to life. [7] The poet says that all but one of these women fell dead at the coming of Sunjatta — and yet mentions them later, as if they were timeless and deathless.

 

Medea

Medea of Colchis also was said to have revived a dead ram, but by putting it into a cauldron with potent herbs and incantations. All accounts emphasize Medea’s powers of herbs and enchantment, and repeatedly describe her as restoring life and youth. In Nostoi, she rejuvenated Jason’s father Aeson in a cauldron. Aeschylus has Medea revive the Nurses of Dionysos and their husbands with an herbal potion.

Medea revives an old, dead ram in her cauldron of regeneration
Medea revives an old, dead ram in her cauldron of regeneration. Greek vase painting.

But Euripides casts Medea’s restorative cauldron in a negative light. He makes her ram-rejuvenation into a ploy to convince the daughters of king Peleas to dismember and boil him, in order to make him immortal. Euripides also cast Medea as the murderer of her own children, against older Greek sources who named the Corinthians. [8] Thus Medea was demoted from a goddess, granddaughter of Helios, and the high priestess of Colchis (in the Caucasus), to a witch demonized for fighting back against powerful men.

Notes

1. Margaret A. Murray, Ancient Egyptian Legends. (Mineola NY: Courier Dover, 2000) 47. For the words of power of Isis, see also Nora E. Scott, “The Metternich Stela,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, online: http://www.metmuseum.org/pubs/bulletins/1/pdf/3258024.pdf.bannered.pdf

2. Lichtheim, Miriam, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume II: The New Kingdom. (University of California Press, Ltd., Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 1976) 83. Her hovering over Ausar/Osiris is made clearer in this translation: “She overshadowed him with her feathers, she made wind with her wings, and she uttered cries…  She raised up the prostrate form of him whose heart was still…”  E.A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead: the Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum, (New York: Dover, 1967 [1895]) liii

3.  Max Dashu, Woman Shaman: the Ancients (dvd). Oakland, California: Suppressed Histories Archives, 2013  (forthcoming)

4. Frobenius, Leo. The voice of Africa : being an account of the travels of the German Inner African Exploration Expedition in the years 1910-1912. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1913  Online: http://www.archive.org/stream/voiceofafricabei02frobuoft/voiceofafricabei02frobuoft_djvu.txt. The entire account and all quotes are drawn from this source.

5. Aina Olomo, The Core of Fire: A Path to Spiritual Activism. (Brooklyn NY: Athelia Henrietta Press, 2002) 53

6. J.D. Lewis-Williams, “The Thin Red Line: Southern San Notions and Rock Paintings of Supernatural Potency.” The South African Archaeological Bulletin, Vol. 36 No. 153 (Jun 1981) 11

7. Frobenius, online. See also Dashu, “The Nine Sorceresses of Mande,” 2012, online:  http://www.suppressedhistories.net/articles/9sorceress.html ]

8. Sarah Iles Johnston, Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997) 34. Pausanias (III, 27) also mentions these positive traditions of Medea. See also Miriam Robbins Dexter, “Colchian Medea and her circumpontic sisters.” ReVision. San Francisco, June 22, 2002
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