Presentations (Communicative Events)

Mentally Ill or Chosen by Spirits? Illness Concepts and the Revival of Spiritual Healing in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan

Penkala-Gawecka, Danuta

During many years of the Soviet regime and communist indoctrination in Central Asia indigenous healing practices were condemned and the healers, as well as mullahs, suffered persecution. Despite those efforts, traditional healing was not entirely eradicated and after the collapse of the Soviet Union it has been reappraised in the new independent Central Asian states. This paper, based on my fieldwork in Kazakhstan between 1995-2000, focuses on the concept of a specific illness, connected with spiritual calling, which was traditionally held by the local population and has acquired a new significance with the revival of spiritual healing. This illness was previously easily recognized as a manifestation of “shamanic calling“, visible proof that the sufferer had been chosen by spirits. When western biomedicine gained dominance and the communist policy reduced the strength of local traditions, similar symptoms got different meaning, assigned by biomedical specialists. Diagnosed as mentally ill, a person with such symptoms was usually sent to a psychiatric ward. The notion of illness caused by spirits has been restored in the 1990s, with the political, economic and social changes that led to the upsurge of spiritual healing. Although new, bureaucratic legitimization of the healers has been officially introduced, traditional legitimization remains crucial in the way of contemporary spiritual healers, with two main components: spiritual calling manifested through the illness, and shamanic/spiritual succession. I argue that particularities of the perception of this illness and its significance for the emergence of new healers can be understood only in the broader context of transformations following the independence of the former Soviet Republics.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Global Health Research Center of Central Asia
Columbia University
Published Here
October 3, 2011


First Annual Conference, Culture, Religion, and Communications Unit of the Global Health Research Center of Central Asia, "Healing Paradigms and the Politics of Health in Central Asia," Columbia University, April 8, 2011.