Portrait

Looking beyond the end of your nose

Yvonne Schaffler
The social anthropologist Yvonne Schaffler ist interested in the process of socialization of possession. She conducted her Hertha-Firnberg project on “Spirit Possession: Modes and Function” in the Dominican Republic. Source: Y. Schaffler

“It all started when I developed severe abdominal pain… I went to the doctor, but he was unable to find the cause. At some stage I lost consciousness. I didn’t know what was happening, and remained in the state for almost a whole day. Dancing, singing, and doing other things. But I myself didn’t know what was happening or what I was doing.”

Medical anthropology

For ten years now, the medical anthropologist Yvonne Schaffler has been investigating the phenomenon of ritual possession in the south-western part of the Dominican Republic. Her activities include those within the Hertha-Firnberg project entitled “Spirit Possession: Modes and Function”, supported by the FWF, which she conducted at the Medical University of Vienna. She recorded more than one hundred hours of video material and numerous interviews, including more than 20 thoroughly researched biographies. The headline of this article is derived from those recordings: a woman from the Dominican Republic describes her initial experience with spiritual beings in the context of the vodou religion. “Medical anthropology – previously known as ethnomedicine – is focused on the various definitions of health and disease in various cultures, and the resulting culture-specific methods of cure and treatment,” explains Schaffler. In addition to recording medical practices in several countries of the world, inter-cultural and comparative studies are the purposes of this science. The results of medical anthropological research are used, for instance, in dealing with patients from other cultures or in conducting medical projects in developing countries. Medical anthropology can also serve as a background for reflecting on one’s own comprehension of medicine.

Schaffler’s thesis was also focused on the subjects of possession and healing. Her interest in this science started in the course of her study of ethnology. In Bolivia, she studied the extent to which European health workers are aware of local disease concepts. “That marked the beginning of my interest in other medical systems,” she recalls.

Possession in the ritualistic context

According to the scientist, “The medical diagnostic manual (ICD) includes, in its spectrum of dissociative disorders, a diagnosis referred to as “trance and states of possession”. It is defined as follows: Possession is considered normal when it is occurs in a ritualistic context and occurs within the confines of a specific cultural

The phenomenon of possession has increased along with social problems. An increasing number of young persons are practicing vodou.

Yvonne Schaffler

environment. Beyond this context it is regarded as a disease requiring treatment. The ritualistic context in the Dominican Republic is a form of “vodou” (Haitian spelling) or “21 Divisiones”, as the religion is known locally. “When I started, very few researchers were working on vodou in the Dominican Republic,” recalls the 34-year-old. Today cities are growing at a very rapid pace, and so are social problems. One example is San Cristóbal, a small city on the outskirts of the capital city of Santo Domingo. Schaffler has worked here most of the time. “The phenomenon of possession has increased along with social problems. An increasing number of young persons are practicing vodou. Now an increasing number of researchers are also interested in the subject,” says Schaffler.

European witch-belief

The country on the island of Hispaniola is officially – just like Haiti which is most well known in connection with vodou – a Catholic country. “When you step on a vodou altar,” says the scientist, “you initially get the feeling of stepping into a Catholic chapel. It’s all full of images of saints. A large number of the spirits wear Catholic pendants.” Vodou was originally brought to the Caribbean countries by African slaves. At the time of slave trade, Europeans were themselves strongly entrenched in witch-belief. Vodou was – and is – frightening mainly because the Europeans themselves were afraid of spirits, witches and possession. Besides, the slaves at the time were preparing for rebellion by performing heated vodou ceremonies. This made the white people even more fearful. Today this task is performed by the American film industry. The term vodou creates the erroneous notion that it is a religion with established procedures and uniform rules. In fact, there is a religious canon here as in the Catholic Church. Vodou is passed on as an oral tradition through individual persons or centers. Besides, the oral tradition differs from region to region. Certain spirits are favored at each place. “Some spirits are very suitable for healing purposes; some are angry and one uses them for belligerent purposes or revenge, or to solve a very big problem,” says the scientist.

Spirits – a part of the family

“In vodou belief,” says Schaffler, “people live with spirits as if they were a part of the family. There is no clear division between daily life and religion. One goes on a pilgrimage when one believes the spirits expect it. One interprets dreams as if they were messages of spirits. When a person falls ill one may ask: What did the person do to make the spirits feel they were being neglected? Those who wish to be on good terms with spirits take care of them. This may mean, for instance, that one does not drink the first coffee one has brewed in the morning, but places it on the altar for the spirits.” Notably, possession with spirits – referred to in the local language as “misterios” – is basically regarded as a positive thing. Persons possessed with spirits are, in fact, considered privileged because they have been chosen by spiritual beings.

Vodou – spiritual and social network

However, early possessions may also be associated with suffering. For instance, sudden states of loss of control which the individual is unable to recall later can be traced back to the fact that the spirits have spontaneously taken possession of a body. According to depth psychology, unconscious desires or aggressions may be expressed in this manner; vodou devotees regard it as possession in an early stage and call it “wild possession” or “caballo lobo” (wolf horse).

“The causes of the symptoms of caballo lobo,” says the medical anthropologist, “are explained locally as follows: the spirits contact a person, but the person does not possess enough spiritual strength to endure the spirits.” Quite often these people say that doctors are unable to find any physical causes for the symptoms. Therefore, in their quest for a cure, at some point they start to rely on a vodou healer, who eventually attributes the symptoms to spiritual possession.

“This new point of view and integration into a social network helps the persons to cope better with their problems,” says Schaffler, explaining the dynamics. Besides, the social network in vodou centers extends beyond the spiritual aspect. People help

What interests me most is this process of socialization of possession.

Yvonne Schaffler

each other. “I think this is also an important reason why the persons start to feel better as time goes on. They are integrated into common activities. Severe cases are even admitted for a while at vodou centers, where they are cared for and can perform very simple tasks like cooking or cleaning. Vodou celebrations lift their mood because they are similar to a party. What interests me most is this process of socialization of possession. Besides: at what point in life do the symptoms of possession occur and what function do they fulfil in a person’s biography?” says the scientist, speaking about her points of focus in research.

Possession and trauma

The scientist approaches her subject not only by conducting interviews and recording video films, but also with quantitative statistical methods. A subject that is being investigated for just a short while now is the connection between possession and trauma. “To date we only have studies conducted in Africa on the subject,” says Schaffler. Obviously, not all persons who practice possession have had traumatic experiences. However, in a larger group of persons, the association between trauma and possession becomes evident.

Medical anthropology – an interdisciplinary field of work

Schaffler regards her science, medical anthropology, as a point of intersection – an interdisciplinary field of work that connects medicine and adjoining natural sciences as well as spiritual and social sciences, such as cultural and social anthropology, psychology and medical sociology. She no longer regards herself entirely as a social anthropologist because her academic home is the Medical University of Vienna – “surrounded by medical specialists” – and her work includes aspects of other disciplines, such as transcultural psychiatry.

“Of course I was aware of the fact that “my” vodou people have many characteristics which are regarded as pathological outside this specific context,” says Schaffler. Taking a reflective look at medical anthropology, however, it makes sense not to relate these features exclusively with disease. Dissociative conditions may, especially when they are incorporated in rituals, also be pleasurable. “And” she adds, “one gets castigated quite easily by social anthropologists when one starts to “pathologize”. This easily leads to misunderstandings which, according to Schaffler, arise from incomprehension within the discipline. “The problem is,” she summarizes, “that many do not look beyond the end of their noses and raise their own opinions to the level of absolute truths.”


Yvonne Schaffler is a cultural and social anthropologist, and works in the interdisciplinary field of medical anthropology. She conducted her Hertha-Firnberg project on “Spirit Possession: Modes and Function” at the Medical University of Vienna. In 2011 Schaffler wrote her thesis, for which she received excellent grades. The 34-year-old is teaching at the Medical University of Vienna. In addition to her research work she is training to be a psychotherapist.

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