Epilepsy as a door between worlds

There’s a wonderful anthropology study on beliefs about epilepsy among the Guaraní people in Bolivia in the latest Epilepsy and Behavior.

The Guaraní believe that people with recurrent seizures are a gateway between the worlds of life and death.

Among the Guaraní, epilepsy is called mano-mano, which literally means “die-die” and refers to the concept of death with a notion of frequency (die several times) and also of being in a constant passage between life and death. In other terms, this word means always being on the border between life and death, reflecting the fact that mano-mano produces a constant interruption of life or a “partial death.”…

In fact, the expression mano-mano is meaningful. It refers to the idea of a round trip between life and death. This concept addresses the loss of consciousness and shows that epilepsy is recognized mostly in terms of generalized seizures. The uncertain state between life and death is seen as a kind of “third possible condition” for a human being, a state that generates hesitation over what attitude to hold. PWE [people with epilepsy] are omano-mano-vae, the “undeads,” different from the other members of the community and considered both as victims of this life–death relationship and as enablers of the meeting of these two worlds…

The representation of epilepsy as a state of human being and the perception of this in a vision that involves the entire community allow an interpretation of Guaraní attitudes toward PWE [people with epilepsy]. Guaraní PWE are rarely condemned, misjudged, or isolated as in other cultures. Apparently, PWE do not represent a threat to the Guaraní, who seem to hold the attitude of helping and protecting PWE. As noted, the restrictions and prohibitions cited by the Guaraní appear to derive from the need to take care of PWE, as heavy work, traveling alone, and being involved in problems are believed to worsen the condition or trigger seizures in PWE.

It’s worth noting that while their perception of people with epilepsy is generally positive, several of the people interview gave advice about avoiding contact between affected people and children or pregnant women.

As the researchers note this raises questions “that could be related to a belief that was not mentioned: possible transmission of the disease to those who are considered the weakest and most defenseless in the community.”

However, their general outlook is markedly positive in light of widespread beliefs about epilepsy being the results of evil spirits or a divine punishment.

In contrast, the Guaraní most frequently cited epilepsy as being caused by a “failure to observe the Yekuaku, a fasting period linked to special events”.

Link to locked anthropology study.

4 thoughts on “Epilepsy as a door between worlds”

  1. Sounds fascinating but alas and alack yet another locked in article. I just don’t have the money (yeah I know they have to earn a crust) if only they would except my bus pass number as a symbol o f my poverty. How is a chap expected to keep up to date and informed if they keep asking for money or a uni account? There should really be a way for the genuinely poverty struck to get this stuff gratis.

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