- Santería Healing: A Journey into the Afro-Cuban World of Divinities, Spirits, and Sorcery
Between 1996 and 2001, Johan Wedel performed fifteen months of fieldwork, largely in Matanzas and Havana, Cuba. This research led to a dissertation in social anthropology at Göteborg University in Sweden and formed the basis of his book Santería Healing. "My aim," Wedel writes, "is to develop an understanding of how Santería healing works, how it is carried out, and how it is experienced" (p. 4). The book largely achieves the last two aims but is less successful with the first.
Wedel carefully describes the elements of Santería: divination, trances, herbalism, a pantheon of gods, sacrifices of animals, and initiation into Santería. This last element is a complicated rite of passage that, in a very poor country, costs between $800 and $1,000 and is often paid in U.S. currency. The descriptions of the rituals are detailed and vivid. An appendix lists thirty-three herbs and plants, some of them as common as basil, okra, and sassafras. Another appendix analyzes one hundred Santería consultations. In 94 percent of these, a visit to a biomedical doctor was recommended, but in 100 percent a spiritual bath or cleansing was recommended; less frequently, the consultations advised a sacrifice, ritual, or initiation—long and expensive processes. Sixteen photos that Wedel took enliven the volume.
Since Wedel's approach is that of the qualitative participant-observer, he provides interesting observations about how participants (including himself) experience elements of Santería. The discussion of possession trances is valuable, examining links to other cultures and physiological reasons for altered states (pp. 70–74). However, Wedel does not discuss the placebo dynamics that surely play a role in patients' perceptions of healing, nor does he discuss nocebo concepts that would help explain illnesses linked to sorcery, envy, the evil eye, and the like. While links between mental imagery and attitudes toward the immune system are not yet well understood, both modern and indigenous cultures have evidence that healing and failing to heal are often intensified by how we think and feel.
Wedel typically describes basic concepts from the viewpoint of the believing Cubans. For example, he writes, "Through the presence of ashé [life force] in offerings, sacrifices, music, possession trance, objects, and herbs and plants, the sufferer is empowered, healing is achieved, and illness is prevented" (p. 80). This is a large claim, and for most of the book, Wedel writes as if Santería works. A young girl with optic neuritis is described as having a vitamin deficiency. The Santería consultation leads to a possession and ceremonies, including sacrifices and washing with herbs. "Shortly after the rituals the disorder ceased," Wedel writes (p. 80). Wedel does not ascribe causation between the two in this case, but such examples, in bulk, suggest that Santería works not only on nervios (nervous disorders) but also on more strictly physiological illnesses.
Chapter 7 presents narratives of "success stories," accounts of sufferers, mostly with psychological problems, who are healed by new relations with humans, spirits, and divinities. Chapter 8 is a critique of Santería, largely holding that it is inappropriately expensive and that some priests are corrupt. Some academics and intellectuals are skeptical of Santería, yet Wedel insists that the "priests have good reasons for what they do, and they achieve desired effects and results in terms of healing" (p. 171).
Some of Wedel's claims appear to be overstated [End Page 249] and are presented without supporting evidence, such as his assertion that Santería is "visible everywhere in Cuba" (p. 35) and prevalent "all over the New World" (p. 177). Wedel concludes that Santería is a valuable alternative that can teach something to standard medicine, but he seems unaware of the complementary and alternative medicine movement.
The fieldwork that takes us into the homes and minds of the Cubans is rich and...