The thousand-year-old rainforest shamanistic tradition of healing touch
|Detail from Serpent and Ant-Eater. Allan Palm Island, c. 1997. Private collection.|
An interview with the last Aboriginal healer from the Kuku Nungl (Kuku Yalanji) tribe on the sacred art of healing touch in Far North Queensland, Australia.
The indigenous people of Australia, the Aboriginals, have an ancient tradition of healing that uses only talk, touch, and other active principles. In contrast to the shamans and healers of the Amazon jungle and to North American natives or African Sangomas, the shamans of the Australian rainforest use no psychedelic drugs or medicinal plants in their sacred healing rituals called “Molgulbanga”. Several jungle plants are used as pain killers but do not heal the patient.
There is no written language, so a shaman passes on the healing tradition orally to his young follower. The follower must be a person recognized from childhood as having the gift of magical powers of healing.
In October 2016 we traveled though the northern Australian rainforest from Cairns to Cooktown, moving from tribe to tribe to find a working healer from an unbroken tradition of Aboriginal healers. After weeks of searching we found shaman Harold Tayley (with the native/spiritual name “Mooks”), who claimed to be the last existing shaman healer in the rainforest of Far North Queensland. Given the bloody conflict in 1864 between British settlers and the North Australian Aboriginals,1 Harold Tayley is very likely to be the last medicine man in the unbroken line of rainforest shamans. During that historic conflict, the few thousand Aboriginals who lived in the ten rainforest tribes were decimated.
We had tried for several days to get in contact with the forty-five-year-old Tayley, but the tribe protected him and refused to give us his contact information. They forbade us to go near his house or even enter the village where he lived.
Eventually a young woman said that we could meet Harold the next morning. We had been observed and tested; only if we respected the tribal direction could we have the meeting. Since we had respected their refusal, in spite of the obvious frustration of having traveled 20,000 km from Denmark only to be stopped a few kilometers from our destination, we were finally able to meet the last existing traditional shaman in the Far North Queensland rainforest.
Harold received us very kindly. He had a sad look that made him seem infinitely wounded. He told us about the inhumane massacres of his people carried out repeatedly by the white man as they annexed more and more aboriginal land. Eventually all usable land was gone and changed into the white people’s sugar cane plantations.
Harold, who speaks several native languages as well as good English, claims to have thirty-one years of healing practice. He works both as a healer for about three patients a week and as rainforest guide, the latter giving him a fair income.
He was chosen as medicine man early in life. He was raised by his uncle, a shaman carrying the English name George Mosgrave, and also by his grandfather, a shaman with the English name Harry Sikes. These people were the last shamans of the Kuku Nungl tribe. (Harold does not know how “Nungl” is spelled as there is no written language of the Kuku Nungl tribe; “Nungl” is the phonetic spelling).
“You gonna be helping many people,” his uncle always said to him as a child, and Harold had no problem believing that. He was only eight years old when he was chosen to be the next shaman and started to practice healing. Although he is not clear about his age, he believes he was about fifteen when he was initiated as the tribal shaman.
Although there have been many successful healings, none of them have been documented scientifically, as is often the case with native healers. He shared one story of a six-year-old girl with a brain tumor who is alive and well. A thirty-three-year-old man who lost his ability to talk and suffered from seizures after a cerebral bleed now speaks and is seizure-free.
Both physical and mental disorders are cured, as well as behavioral and relationship problems. “Anything can be healed,” says Harold, “but it sometimes takes more than one healing session, often two or three, and it is important that the patient is involved in the healing, working on caring for himself, giving self-care in the form of daily healing touch and massage with oil—preferably Emu. The time it takes to heal is related to the time the sickness had taken to develop.”
Harold explained that the key to shamanistic healing is in the trance. To be trained as a healer-shaman, the child learns to chant. As the art of chanting develops, consciousness becomes deeper and more silent until one day the child or young man is able to enter the state of trance, also called “meditation.” This ability signifies that he is ready for initiation as the shaman. The initiation is a long series of rituals where dancing, smoking, chanting, and meditating prepares the new shaman for his art of energetic seeing.
In the state of trance, the shaman can see the energy of the body and mind, and also the problems causing the disease on the energetic level. Harold told us that his grandfather used a piece of rag or old cloth to cover the body of his patient. Looking through the cloth in the state of trance he was able to see the problem energetically and got a clear picture of the person’s state, including a complete knowledge of their past. Harold uses a handkerchief for this purpose. The trance is described as omniscient, similar to the descriptions of shamanistic consciousness from other continents.
As soon as the medicine man is in trance he can see and understand the problems on an energetic level and also manipulate the energies. Using his intention he removes the blocked and dark energies by sucking them up in his own body, then sending them out into the universe where they came from. To avoid being disturbed by the bad energies, shamans of the Kuku Nungl line use sweat to protect themselves, often taken from the armpits during the procedure of healing.
Water is another important ingredient in the healing ritual. Cold water is used to remove bad energies and warm water is used in the patient’s self-treatment.
Female healers in this tradition were trained by the medicine woman. The principles of healing were the same, but the methods somewhat different. Today the female line has been broken and lost. If Harold died now the male line would also be lost, so he is looking for children with the power so he can train them. He has found a few, so there is hope that the line will continue.
Aboriginal healers acknowledge different levels of disease causation: physical causes such as bad food or poisonous plants; or spiritual causes such as negative energies the person picks up or has in his blood by heritage. In order to observe Harold directly, I asked him to heal my hand which remained swollen and painful after an attack of herpes zoster six month earlier. We met in a sacred place in the jungle—a place obviously meant for healing and sacred rituals. An altar held minerals and fruits used by the Kuku Nungl tribe for dyes, spears, and shields. A bucket of water had been taken from the river that flowed next to the sacred place. Benches were placed around an open area with space for about fifty people.
Harold entered his state of trance immediately, and then looked through his handkerchief at my hand. “I see too much fluid in the tissue,” he said. “It looks like inflammation, and you have had it for some time, like a year.” His diagnosis was fast, precise, and correct. He then started to massage the affected part of my hand with total precision. “It will take some time to heal,” he said. “Massage it every day with Emu-oil, and get back in contact with me after some time.” His touch was pleasant, intimate, loving, and kind. As a trained body worker myself, I recognized a skillful peer in action. The healing took only ten minutes. Harold did not charge for the session despite my offer to pay him.
“I am also teaching on the parking lot of Thala Beach Lodge in Port Douglas every Monday night from 6pm,” he smiled. Obviously his work was not limited by the need for a wonderful jungle location.
After the healing the hand slowly got better, as predicted by Harold.
This interview with shaman Harold Tayley is consistent with earlier descriptions of the healing work of Australian aboriginals. In Marlo Morgan’s famous description of the “Mutant Message Down Under”,2 the Aboriginals of the central desert of Australia also use a state of consciousness that gives access to secret information about the body structure, then manipulate the body to heal the patient.
Morgan’s book was brutally criticized in Australia where the media called it “Marlo’s Mutant Fantasy” and people found the omniscient state of the healer-shaman highly unlikely. However, a state of consciousness similar to that described by our shaman Harold is found in the shamanistic traditions from other continents.
It is remarkable that Australian Aboriginals from diverse areas of the vast Australian continent all use the same basic philosophical concepts and practical methods of healing. It is also remarkable that healing touch is used without any hallucinogenic substances. This is rare in the shamanistic world. The healing system of the Australian Aboriginals appears to be closer to the old European system of mind-body medicine known from Hippocrates than to the other shamanistic healing systems.
In keeping with the Hippocratic healing tradition of mind-body medicine, the Aboriginal healing process appears to be competent and adequate.3 Most of the essential elements for healing found in the ancient Hippocratic healing system, such as confrontation of the problem on an emotional/energetic level; understanding the body as energy and information; and addressing the patient’s consciousness3-10 seem also to be found in the Australian aboriginal shamanistic healing system.
The acknowledgment of a living healing tradition by Australian authorities could help to improve the respect and understanding for the Australian indigenous people who lack written traditions. A deep scientific analysis of their healing art may also illuminate the spiritual dimensions of ancient and contemporary visual aboriginal art, much of which is about spiritual growth and healing.
- Morril 17 years wandering among the Aboriginals / James Morrill : with photographs published by Eric Mjoberg, 1918. Virginia, N.T. : D. Welch, 2006.
- Morgan M. Mutant Message Down Under, Tenth Anniversary Edition. Harpercollins NY 2004
- Jones WHS. Hippocrates. Vol. I–IV. London: William Heinemann, 1923-1931.
- Ventegodt S, Merrick J. Principles of holistic psychiatry. A textbook on evidence-based holistic medicine for mental disorders. New York: Nova Sci, 2010.
- Ventegodt S, Merrick J. Sexology from a holistic point of view. A textbook of classic and modern sexology. New York: Nova Sci, 2011.
- Ventegodt S, Merrick J. Textbook on Evidence-Based Holistic Mind-Body Medicine: Basic Philosophy and Ethics of Traditional Hippocratic Medicine. New York:Nova Science,2 012.
- Ventegodt S, Merrick J. Textbook on Evidence-Based Holistic Mind-Body Medicine: Basic Principles of Healing in Traditional Hippocratic Medicine. New York: Nova Science, 2012.
- Ventegodt S, Merrick J. Textbook on Evidence-Based Holistic Mind-Body Medicine: Holistic Practice of Traditional Hippocratic Medicine. New York: Nova Science, 2013.
- Ventegodt S, Merrick J. Textbook on Evidence-Based Holistic Mind-Body Medicine: Research, Philosophy, Economy and Politics of Traditional Hippocratic Medicine. New York: Nova Science, 2013.
- Ventegodt S, Merrick J. Textbook on Evidence-Based Holistic Mind-Body Medicine: Sexology and Traditional Hippocratic Medicine. New York: Nova Science, 2013.
SØREN VENTEGODT, MD, originally trained as a medical doctor and holds an European Union Masters degree in Complementary, Psychosocial, and Integrative Medicine. For the last ten years he has been practicing holistic mind-body medicine as an alternative therapist. He is the director of the Research Clinic for Holistic Medicine and the Nordic School of Holistic Medicine in Copenhagen, and together with Pavlina Kordova, runs a retreat center in Sweden for young people with mental illness.
Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 10, Issue 3– Summer 2018
Fall 2017 | Sections | Anthropology