Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Possession (pt. 7)

French ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget in "Music and Trance. A theory of the relations between music and possession":

"[In] the famous epidemic of Saint Vitus' Dance (or Saint John's Dance or Saint Guy's Dance) that swept Europe and Germany during the Middle Ages, dance was of course the primary sign of trance. But was it the cause of this trance or, on the contrary, its effect? The second hypothesis would appear to be the right one. These dances did not, in fact, occur without music, and since the music was provided by musicians, the dancers were consequently musicated, that is, their trance was induced. This is clearly evident in a drawing by Bruegel the Elder, the Epidemic Dance in Moelenbeek, which depicts a woman falling into a trance as a result of the music being played for her by a bagpiper. I know nothing in Europe that is as close to a black African possession scene. Except for the costumes and the particular instruments being used, one would think it depicted a ndöp ceremony in Senegal. There, we need not hesitate, the subject is a musicated person, and we are indisputably on the side of possession. But a question does arise. Whereas in Bruegel's drawing we are undoubtedly in Christendom, we are not necessarily within Christianism and transcendence."

Interestingly, Rouget's analysis tallies with that of German physician Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker's analysis in his 1832 book 'The Dancing Mania of the Middle Ages'. Hecker hypothesized that the Saint Vitus dance originated from pre-Christian customs. "Bacchanalian dances, which have originated in similar causes among all rude nations of the earth, and the wild extravagances of a heated imagination, were the constant accompaniments to this half-heathen, half-christian festival." The dire living conditions of the late Middle Ages - natural disasters, the Black Death, famine, social unrest - made Medieval Europeans seek relief in 'the intoxication of an artificial delirium'.

In analyzing Saint Vitus's Dance as a possession ritual - that is: as a cultural phenomenon, perhaps related to Tarantism - Rouget discredits theories which ascribe the Dance to neurological disorders (apraxia, chorea), to ergot poisoning or to mass psychogenic illness.

This has the great advantage of providing an explanation for the long period in which Saint Vitus' Dance was prevalent: it occurred to thousands of people from the the 14th to the 17th century. It seems highly unlikely that rare medical disorders or poisoning with a psychedelic fungus could cause the relevant symptoms on such a massive scale for such a long period. Furthermore, in the Middle Ages the effects of ergot poisoning were well known under the name of 'Saint Anthony's fire': thus, Medieval Europeans were well able to distinguish ergot poisoning (associated with Saint Anthony) from dancing mania (associated with Saint Vitus). The diagnosis of 'mass psychogenic illness' or 'mass hysteria' is a sorry excuse for the want of a better (dynamic sociocultural) explanation and as a 'diagnosis' it deserves to go the same route as female hysteria.

Post scriptum

Here is a video for 'Saint Vitus', performed by legendary Doom Metal band Saint Vitus:

Interestingly, the lyrics to this song make no reference to the possessed dance for which the Saint has become most famous. Instead, the song focuses on Saint Vitus' martyrdom under Diocletian, giving the Saint's story a very America anti-government meaning:

Saint Vitus

Saint Vitus was a young lad
No one knows how old
'till the kingdom took his life
for the things he told
The world is full of wickedness
So Vitus says
"If you believe in god above,
you will all be saved"
Lust can breed corruption
So wash it from your life
Don't believe in the government
Let your soul decide
And so the king grew angry
He saw his end in sight.
Young Vitus must be stopped
The little child must die

Saint Vitus – hear his distant scream
Saint Vitus – died for his belief

So if you're breeding wickedness
Keep this in mind
Vitus' soul is watching you
Through the veils of time
Well, people always stay the game
They never seem to learn
'till they all have lost their faith
and their souls have burned

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