Volltext: Anthropos, 85.1990,4/6

Anthropos 85.1990: 317-328 
Choosing Metaphor 
A Case Study of Sri Lankan Exorcism 
Victor C. de Munck 
Abstract. - An exorcism of a Sri Lankan woman is examined 
in two parts: (1) a discussion of factors which influence succes 
sive recourse to different cures leading up to a full scale exor 
cism and (2) an analysis of the symbolic/dramaturgical structure 
of the exorcism. The first part shows that treatment choices are 
based on availability and resource constraints, graduate from 
simple to complex, that illness is perceived as sociocentered 
rather than patient centered, that exorcism complements other 
medical systems, and that exorcism is a treatment of last resort. 
The second part examines exorcism in terms of contrasting 
paradigmatic sets of metaphorical statements. [Sri Lanka, ex 
orcism, treatment choice, metaphor, purity, pollution] 
Victor C. de Munck, Dr. phil.; Research fellow, Anthropology 
Dept., Univ. of California, Riverside; visiting Assistant Prof., 
Dept, of Anthropology, Univ. of South Carolina, Columbia. - 
Publications in Journal of South Asia, Journal of Development 
Studies, Central Issues in Anthropology, etc. 
Fieldwork for this paper was carried out in the 
Moneragala District of Sri Lanka in the hamlet of 
Monderavan. It is a case study of one woman’s 
illness which eventuated in an exorcism. Through 
an in-depths diachronic analysis the following ar 
gument will be fleshed out: (1) exorcism should 
be viewed as one of a series of treatment al 
ternatives included within a pluralistic medical 
system rather than outside this system; (2) illness 
is perceived as a collective, interpersonal concern 
and therapy decisions are made by the family 
head; (3) when illness symptoms are non-specific, 
treatment choices tend to graduate from simple 
to complex and low to high in terms of expense, 
distance, and treatment; (4) an exorcism is a so 
ciocentered rather than patient centered form of 
therapy (Kapferer 1983: 60; Crapanzano 1977; 
33); (5) exorcism functions as a rhetorical/dra 
maturgical form of treatment that systematically 
articulates culturally shared values and ontological 
presuppositions through a metaphoric paradigm of 
similar and contrasting symbols. 
This study has two distinct but interdependent 
foci: (1) a discussion of factors which influence 
successive recourse to different cures leading to 
a full-scale exorcism and (2) a descriptive analy 
sis of the symbolic/dramaturgical structure of the 
exorcism itself. The conjunction of these foci em 
phasizes my interest in contextualizing exorcism 
within a temporal frame proceeding from onset of 
illness to its cure. 
This paper is organized as follows: (1) a 
discussion of previous studies of exorcism; (2) a 
discussion of metaphor; (3) a descriptive analysis 
of treatment choices prior to exorcism; (4) an anal 
ysis of the metaphoric structure of the exorcism. 
1. Previous Studies 
Case studies of exorcism usually involve the ante 
cedent condition of a patient exhibiting episodes of 
trance-possession. This implies a one-to-one caus 
al relationship between trance-possession (symp 
tom) and exorcism (cure). The consequent theo 
retical-analytic perspective focuses on the psycho 
social causes underlying trance-possession and the 
therapeutic effect of exorcism. Hence, the em 
phasis on the susceptibility of women to enter 
trance-possession states as a result of problems 
arising out of their marginal, subordinate, submis 
sive, and/or procreative roles in a culture (Lewis 
1971: 84 f.; Obeyesekere 1970: 101; 1977: 242 f.; 
AmaraSingham 1978: 114; Kapferer 1983: 100- 
110; Skultans 1987: 675 f.). Trance-possession is 
typically viewed as a culturally institutionalized 
means to project repressed or otherwise unattain 
able desires (Spiro 1967; Obeyesekere 1970, 1977, 
1981; Southall 1969; Saunders 1977). 
From this perspective, exorcism is an indige 
nous form of psycho-therapy that effects a tempo 
rary cure through catharsis or a permanent cure if 
the psycho-social dimensions of the disease are 
effectively restructured. The exorcism may also 
transform the patient’s role into a socially accepted 
one as healer (Obeyesekere 1981; Zempleni 1977)


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