Shamans, Surgery, and the Driveway of Doom

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In which I explore the interface between the Jungian Subconscious and my own primordial anguish.

The blocked end tube pipe is a touchstone to the shamanistic world of the people we call the Hopewell. Similar artifacts are found elsewhere in the world, but the Adena-Hopewell cultural complex (dating to approximately a thousand year plus long period centering on “Zero” AD/BC/b.c.e.) has more of them than your average archaeological culture. The blocked end tube is made of soapstone, and is a cylinder almost hollowed out but with a wall of stone left intact so nothing physical can actually pass through the ‘pipe.’

A shaman takes the pipe, and as part of a ritual that probably went on for hours (there are ethnographic analogues) used it to suck objects out of ill or wounded ‘patients.’ Sometimes the patient was cut first. It is possible that sometimes the object was something really embedded in the patient, and perhaps removing it was a good thing. In other cases, the objects removed were small stones, bits of chicken bone, other household objects, and perhaps the occasional carved sacred thingie presumably put there by some other, evil, shaman.

Except in those rare instances where a shaman may actually have removed an object, the presumption is that the shaman used sleight of hand to make it appear that some object or another was pulled from the subject’s body.

So, one day I was walking along the path in my study area in the Ituri Forest, in what is now known as the Congo, and a man I barely knew approached me. He was someone whom I believed to be half “Pygmy” (Efe) and half “Villager” (maybe Lese or some other group). We had a common language or two, so we chatted a while, but he was clearly disturbed by something. Finally, he told me that he had come down from the north to find me in order to get some medicine. This was fairly typical. We anthropologists were the only people for hundreds of kilometers in all directions that had any western meds, so we were often prevailed upon to treat this or that disease. We had some training to do it, and we maintained as much of a supply of medicine as we could, and were happy to do what we could do even if it seemed sometimes like we were spending all of our time running an impromptu clinic rather than doing our research.

Anyway, the man had a leaf in his hand, a leaf of the type used to wrap up and carry around pretty much anything one might want to transport. These leaves served as wallets, baggies, waste disposal devices, cups, and so on. He unwrapped the leaf and as he did so, it became obvious that it was quite bloody, and in it were a couple of stones, a chicken bone, and a piece of string.

“The shaman removed this from my arm” he said, showing me where he had a bleeding abscess. “It worked, he cured me of the abscess. But now I’ve come to you, so you can give me your medicine and cure me of the shaman.”

It took me a while to understand. He was not using the term “shaman” but rather, the local word that I had come to understand as “Witch” according to the local lexographies compiled mainly by missionaries. But as the conversation progressed, I understood that the person who had used a tube (made of the aforementioned leaves) to suck these objects from this man’s arm was what we would call a shaman. Furthermore, the shaman was a Pygmy, and heretofore we had not encountered Pygmy shamans in this area. Later on I was to discover that one of my best Pygmy friends, and one of two or three key informants, had been a shaman all along. But whatever. At the time, it was a moment, for me, of discovery, and of great interest. I never got to meet this man’s shaman, but I did provide him with antibiotics to cure the man of the shaman’s efforts which, in turn, may or may not have helped with the abscess.

And this all came back to me yesterday as I lie on an operating table not drugged but numbed, and my shaman, I mean, doctor, moved his gloved tweezers-holding hand towards me to show me what he had just “sucked” out of my leg. It was a couple of inches of string, covered in blood and some cyst-like tissue. Through the procedure just accomplished in which this object was removed from my body, I WAS CURED!!!

I was thinking that I had to go down the street to find a Pygmy to cure me of the doctor’s activities. But just at I was thinking that, he told me he’d write a script for antibiotics, just in case.

The string was a small portion of what must have been a few feet of string used to tie my tendon back to my patella and quadriceps muscles in my right leg. Somehow this bit of string, which was no longer doing anything important, had elicited an immune response, which caused the growth of a cyst on the proximal/ventral surface of my kneecap. In other words, I had a painful bump sticking out of my knee. If it got rubbed (by wearing pants and walking around) it would become quite sensitive. At other times, it would just hurt for no apparent reason, and it would hurt a LOT, as in “Ice pick in the knee” pain. At all times, it made it impossible to comfortably kneel on that knee.

So I went in yesterday to have it removed. I was brought by a nurse to a “procedure room” where I laid down on a special bed/chair thing. Special juices were used to wash my knee, and I was draped in bright blue paper sheets. The surgeon came in and with the nurse’s help donned a funny hat and a backwards robe and some rubber gloves. The process of dressing up the surgeon was highly ritualized, with modestly stylized movements and highly selective touching and various choreographed moves. The cutting itself was all business, but the excitement of finding the source of the illness and removal of it from the body was palpable. We did not really know for certain what had caused the growth of this nodule, but we had guessed, it turns out, correctly.

There is another element to this which turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, in a sick and morbid sort of way. Many years ago, when I was very little, there was an evil girl who lived down the street … Mary Beth something or another. I won’t go into great detail about her at this point but at present you need to know this: During the summer weeks that we were living at home (we spent most weeks in the forest somewhere) on a very regular basis, every couple of days, Mary Beth would at some point chase me down the street and push me to the ground, laughing, and then just walk away. The thing is, no matter where she started chasing me, she always pushed me to the ground in the same exact spot. The spot was my parent’s driveway. And, I think she was trying to insult me. You see, we had one of the only driveways on the street (as I think back, I can’t recall any other ones) but, unlike other driveways in the larger neighborhood, it was not paved. It was a messy gravel driveway with a few patches of tar where the car’s wheels always stopped, but that was it. The kids around the block had paved driveways, but we had this slummy gravel driveway. Anyway, since it was gravel, that meant that when Mary Beth pushed me into the ground, I would get bits and pieces of gravel in my knees. There were occasions when I had to spend some time pulling bits of sharp gravel from my knee-skin before dressing the wound. At first this was alarming to my mother and other members of my family, but after a while, after it happened dozens of times, no one seemed to care any more and Greg pulling the gravel out of his knees became just one of those things that happened a few times a week, like my brother polishing his buttons (he went to military school) and my father sorting through multiple listings (he sold real estate) and my mother making a dress (yes, we made our own dresses).

So, I had in the back of my mind the idea that maybe the thing in my knee … the core of the nodule of pain and discomfort … was actually not a direct result of the surgery done to repair the tendon, but rather, a piece of driveway-gravel that had migrated (as an indirect result of the surgery, presumably) to the front of the kneecap from a more innocuous hiding place.

“But it would have dissolved by now” you say. Well, maybe. There are three things the driveway gravel could have been made out of: Slate, graywacke, or rhyolite. I’ve listed those three in order of hardness (increasing) and potential reactivity (decreasing) to an acidic environment. Believe it or not, I’ve occasionally wondered since then what kind of stone that gravel was made from. And, although I think graywacke or some sort of slate is the most likely (given the geology of the region), a rhyolite stone would likely survive for longer than metal shrapnel.

Eventually, the driveway was paved. The city came by to pave our ancient brick-paved street and put in concrete sidewalks to replace the deteriorating, undulating slate walks. They had no plans to pave any driveways, but when my father started buying the workers six-packs for their lunch breaks, they inexplicably discovered a work order apropos the laying of macadam on the Driveway of Doom … thus, ending that era of my life because, clearly, driving the gravel into my knees was Mary Beth’s only objective.

I wonder what she’s doing these days? Probably neither shaman nor surgeon.

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5 thoughts on “Shamans, Surgery, and the Driveway of Doom

  1. Dah! she clearly had a crush on you. boys are so slow to mature… 🙂

    glad for the story. hope to see you soon and elude to some of mine. xx

  2. I recall spending a lot of time picking gravel and random flora out of my knees and various other parts of my body as a child. I was pretty good at causing myself minor injuries – not so much because I was clumsy, as because I was prone to risk taking.

    About fourteen years ago I noted a rather painful bump under the skin of my left calf. While it is entirely possible that it was driven in their with a more recent injury, when I cut it open I pulled out a thorn that I am pretty sure was driven into my leg about eight or nine years before that. I had been riding my bike on some state game land, when I hit a rut and went body over handlebars into a bush with these nasty, two inch thorns.

    We got the majority out at the urgent care center, but some were in deep and would later surface – mostly over the following two years. The problem was that I was a pretty bloody mess with thorns in my legs, up my side, in my stomach, butt, arms, two in my face and a couple in my scalp – so it was easy to miss some. Now that I think about it, that was one of those times my mother was rather appreciating her god’s “protection” of me – because I didn’t lose an eye.

    In any case, I am sorry you had to deal with migrating string and that it was so very painful. I expect you have dealt with more than your fair share of pain over the last year and hope that this will be an end to it – at least the worst of it. I would assume that there will be some moderate pain for some time to come.

  3. I’m still carrying an oak splinter in my calf from a damaged chair leg. I picked it up my first year at university, nearly a decade ago, and I can still see (and even palpate) the dark lump under my skin. It’s never seemed worth cutting it out.

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