223: The Role of the Healer

I’ve touched on this subject in my post titled “The Ordinary Healer” but it’s been on my mind so I thought I’d talk about it a little more.

It’s interesting to look at the role of the healer in both traditional societies and the modern society we’re living in today. I think what tends to happen, or at least what I’ve seen happening, is an idealization of the healer as a specialist within their society. To some extent yes, the healer had a very specialized set of skills, e.g. good memory, access to a teacher, good eye for plants, good eye for noticing illness in a patient, ability to talk with spirits, propensity for divination, but what people miss most often is the fact that the healer is an active member of the society they live in. This is seen in almost every society around the world throughout history. In a society relying on subsistence farming you can’t have someone who isn’t willing to contribute to the society as a whole. Healers have always had other work alongside those things that they were good at. In the Ozarks healers have been farmers, ranchers, butchers, blacksmiths, preachers, etc. but they’ve always had their worldly work and this other work on top of that. I wouldn’t goes as far as to call it a hobby because I think that word doesn’t cover how important the healing work is to the community, but I would say that healers have always been born from ordinary folks. You won’t see people meditating in the woods all day. The healing work, gathering plants, making medicine, etc. has to, for the most part, come after the daily toil has ended.

This idea is a little different when we talk about monastic societies. Take the Tibetan tradition, for instance, where there was often a merging of the healer and the monk, although there are also lay healers not necessarily associated with the cloistered religious life. The same can be seen in Christian monasteries where there may be a monk or nun who has a natural ability to heal, or an inclination toward growing, gathering, and using plants in healing. But I would say that these monasteries are still active, often self sufficient communities and even those healers amongst the population would still be working the fields and participating in all aspects of monastic life.

The so called druids is always a touchy subject as I think they are often romanticized, idealized, and many times completely fabricated. Ancient Irish society would not have allowed for a spiritual leader or healer who didn’t earn their keep in the same ways as the rest of the society. They would have starved to death. By and large what is often called a “druid” or “fili” would have been someone who, alongside other jobs and work, had a great deal of knowledge on remedies, divination, ritual, folklore, etc. They would not have been isolated individuals nor the sort of spiritually enlightened gurus that most label them as.

One item of interest for me is the seer in the History Channel series “Vikings” who, based upon the show, and I’m not saying this show is 100% accurate by any means, is the isolated hermit type. But, it’s interesting to note that the seer has a disability that would otherwise prevent him from living a so called “normal” life based upon the Viking community standards. This seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon where members of the society with disabilities would often take on the role of the healer. An example from Ozark and Appalachian culture is the individual who because of a severe sickness, perhaps early in life or chronic, is left in a weakened state but may be inclined toward faith healing and herbalism.

It’s only when communities moved out of subsistence farming that the role of the healer became a sort of full time profession. I don’t think, however, that this has manifested in such a great way until today where you see individuals making a living i.e. getting paid a livable wage, from healing or making herbal preparations.

Whether this is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing is debatable, and while I have my own opinions I tend to let people believe what they want. Where we need to be careful is in applying the standards we have today to ancient cultures or to those more traditional cultures that are still with us. The danger with ancient cultures is in misrepresenting the past, or as is often the case completely fabricating it. The danger with traditional cultures today is in creating a situation where the paid healer is commonplace, thus sacrificing traditional beliefs surrounding healing and the role of the healer itself. We can see examples of this with ayahuasca tourism where the ayahuascero is becoming a sustainable profession and what’s being lost is the traditional knowledge that would require a lifetime of study. This opens the door for abuse and providing ineffective or fatal treatments.

I don’t have any answers about what can be done to remedy this situation, I’m only offering something to think about.

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