Morbus Sacer in Africa: Some Religious Aspects of Epilepsy in Traditional Cultures
Article first published online: 2 AUG 2005
Volume 40, Issue 3, pages 382–386, March 1999
How to Cite
Jilek-Aall, L. (1999), Morbus Sacer in Africa: Some Religious Aspects of Epilepsy in Traditional Cultures. Epilepsia, 40: 382–386. doi: 10.1111/j.1528-1157.1999.tb00723.x
- Issue published online: 2 AUG 2005
- Article first published online: 2 AUG 2005
- Accepted July 13, 1998.
- Religious aspects;
- “Supernatural” causation;
- Psychosocial effects;
Summary: Epilepsy when manifested as grand mal seizure provokes strong and ambivalent feelings in those witnessing it. Terms such as morbus sacer, denoting both a sacred and demoniac condition, or folk names indicating divine punishment, have expressed these feelings in European societies from antiquity to the Middle Ages and beyond. An atmosphere of fear, shame and mysticism surrounds epilepsy even in our days in many non-Western and also in Western cultures. In the course of work and studies in Tanzania, where I organized the Mahenge Clinic for Epilepsy in 1960, and in other parts of Africa. I found that epilepsy is conceived of as an “African” affliction, a manifestation of supernatural forces that makes it difficult to reach epilepsy sufferers with modern medical treatment. Epilepsy is traditionally looked on as caused by ancestral spirits or attributed to possession by evil spirits. It is also thought to be due to witchcraft, and “poisoning,” and often taken to be contagious. Epilepsy may, under Christian missionary teaching, have come to be considered as due to demoniac possession or divine punishment for sins, in accordance with biblical examples. In many parts of Africa, syncretic amalgamation of indigenous traditions with Judeo—Christian doctrines influenced popular attitudes toward epilepsy. We demonstrated that persistent efforts at health education in the context of organized treatment of epilepsy can result in a change of popular notions about epilepsy and consequently lead to significant improvement in the quality of life of epilepsy sufferers.