Back to the basics

I’ll be gone all weekend, so here’s a bonus post for today.

I’m reading Boiling Energy: Community Healing Among the Kalahari Kung, by Richard Katz (Harvard University Press, 1982). This is a groundbreaking study of the central ritual of the Kung, one of the click language-speaking San peoples of Southern Africa (formerly known by the derogatory name “Bushmen”). They have attracted a great deal of anthropological attention due to their uniquely egalitarian social structures and (up until two or three decades ago) their sole dependence on gathering and hunting for survival. While we should be wary of romanticizing the Kung, as representatives of a way of life that was universal for Homo sapiens for 95 percent of its existence, and as inhabitants of the African savanna – the cradle of human evolution – they may have a great deal to tell us about human nature.

Such, at any rate, was the author’s assumption when he traveled to the Kalahari desert of remote northwestern Botswana in 1968. Though he spent only three months among the Kung as a participant-observer, he brought the training of a PhD in clinical psychology to bear, and he benefited from the insights of other team members in the Harvard Kalahari Research Group, especially Richard Lee (who also served as his interpreter) and Megan Bielsele. Rather than write the book immediately upon his return, Katz says, he decided to let the lessons percolate for over a decade. This also gave him the opportunity to absorb many of the other findings that came out of the Harvard team’s ten-year-long research effort.

Although I’m less than halfway through the book, I am very excited to find many of my own, pet theories about human nature seemingly validated. For example, long-time readers of Via Negativa might remember my holding forth on more than one occasion about the centrality of healing to religious experience. I’ve also been looking for ways to relate such experience with communal dancing and consciousness-altering festivals, which only in the last couple of millennia have been seen as profane activities. Katz writes,

For the Kung, healing is more than curing, more than the application of medicine. Healing seeks to establish health and growth on physical, psychological, social, and spiritual levels; it involves work on the individual, the group, and the surrounding environment and cosmos. Healing pervades Kung culture, as a fundamental integrating and enhancing force. The culture’s emphasis on sharing and egalitarianism, its vital life of the spirit and strong community, are expressed in and supported by the healing tradition. The central tradition is the all-night healing dance.

Four times a month on the average, night signals the start of the healing dance. The women sit around the fire, singing and rhythmically clapping. The men, sometimes joined by women, dance around the singers. As the dance intensifies, num or spiritual energy is activated by the healers, both men and women, but mostly among the dancing men. As num is activated in them, they begin to kia or experience an enhancement of their consciousness. While experiencing kia, they heal all those at the dance. Before the sun rises the next morning, the dance usually ends. Those at the dance find it exciting, joyful, powerful. “Being at a dance makes our hearts happy,” the Kung say.

Pace Mircea Eliade, the Kung have no concept of a domain of the sacred separate from the profane. “Like hunting, gathering or socializing, dancing is another thing they do,” Katz says. Crude jokes are common even when healers are deep in kia. “The earthiness of the Kung’s jokes is very much a part of their contact with the supernatural.”

The Kung do not conceive of a division between matter and spirit. God is a real person, and god’s home a real place. Both are described in detail as precise and intimate as in a Buddhist Pure Land visualization sutra.

The concrete reality of healing is acknowledged simply and repeatedly by the healers. Wa Na talks about the healers who used to travel at night in the form of lions of god; they were real lions, different from normal lions, but no less real. . . . Num really does exist. It actually boils, and it is painful. For the Kung, there is no philosophical distinction: experiences of healing are simply one other event, concrete and real, in their everyday lives. . . .

The reality of the unseen is captured in the phenomenon of num “killing” the healer, or of the healer “dying” in kia. I often hear: “You want num? Don’t you know it is painful and can kill you?” I learn what those who become healers must know. To “kill” is not simply a metaphor, a statement about the overpowering strength of num, a warning about the difficulty of getting it, a test of one’s desire to heal it. Although the Kung distinguish between final death, when the soul permanently leaves the body, and the death of kia, when the soul goes out but then hopefully returns, there is only one experience of death, and the experience is what matters.

Kau Dwa is teaching me that lesson as I struggle to maintain my Western notions of reality. “Kau Dwa,” I ask, “you have told me that in kia you must die. Does that mean really die?”


“I mean really die.”


“You mean like when you are buried beneath the ground?” I am struggling with my words.

“Yes,” replies Kau Dwa with enthusiasm. “Yes, just like that!”

“They are the same?”

“Yes, the same. It is death I speak of,” he affirms.

“No difference?” I almost plead.

“It is death,” he responds firmly but softly.

“The death where you never come back?” I am nearly at the end of my logical rope.

“Yes,” he says simply. “It is that bad. It is the death that kills us all.”

“But the healers get up, and a dead person doesn’t.” My statement trails off into a question.

“That is true,” Kau Dwa replies quietly, with a smile, “healers may come alive again.”

Death happens when the gods and spirits take a person into their own country. Thus, even though the Kung are famously peaceful in their relations with other people, their relationships with divinity are often quite agonistic.

An experienced healer can see the spirits hovering around the edge of a dance; they remain invisible to all others. After diagnosing the cause of an illness, healers may plead with the spirits to make the illness go away. . . .

Though the lesser god and the spirits may inhabit the darkness outside the dance because they enjoy watching the dance, the ever-present danger is that they will also bring sickness and death. The healer’s job is to drive them away, thereby preventing sickness from striking anyone. Usually the healers’ friendly overtures to the gods or spirits become more assertive. “Get out of here. You are a bad thing.” “Go chase yourself. You will not take this child. I will beat you.” Often healers yell out insulting or profane phrases to the gods and spirits. They scream at them, calling them “Big penis,” or “Elephant-penis,” or “You will shit,” or “Filthy face,” meaning a face covered with excrement. The healer often becomes aggressive, even violent, toward the gods, gesturing menacingly and hurling sticks into the darkness to drive away the spirits.

Katz rigorously avoids cross-cultural comparisons. For right now, I’ll follow his example, except to point out that the “gods” mentioned here are really only two, a greater and lesser divinity who seem to have a similar relationship as that between God and the Satan in the book of Job. As in many mythologies of indigenous peoples, the great god is more of a “straight man” and the lesser god is a trickster. They share the same name – a not uncommon situation in Kung society, where

The namesake relationship is . . . the most open, informal, and free relationship available in the society. This relationship between the lesser and greater gods allows for a full and varied set of interactions between them, including trickery and laughter as well as deference and obedience.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.