medicine man

medicine man, among Native Americans and other traditional peoples as far back as Paleolithic times, a person believed to possess supernatural healing powers. Like the shaman the medicine man was a specialist in spiritual healing. In some groups, women could assume an analogous role. The medicine man was often accorded many powers, including the ability to inflict pain, promote fertility, and secure good hunting and fishing. Most Native Americans typically regarded illness as resulting from the entry of malignancy into the body, or the departure of the soul from a body—through violation of a taboo or through the activities of a sorcerer from an enemy tribe. The medicine man strove through his ritual to remove or cast out the illness from the patient, or to induce the soul to return to a patient's body. The rituals might involve a variety of techniques (e.g., bloodletting, application of herbs, or the suction of the malignancy from the patient's body). Some traditional herbal remedies were undoubtedly efficacious; other practices, though deceptive, may have been of psychological benefit to the patient.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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