Sorcery and other forms of healing

Occasionally, Cambodian news media report slayings of traditional healers in the countryside because they were suspected of sorcery. In the most recent instance (April 2014), a man was beaten to death by a mob of fellow villagers. He had practiced as a traditional healer for several years but one of his patients had died and her relatives suspected sorcery. While for most people in Western societies, healing and sorcery are polar opposites, in the indigenous Cambodian medical world-view things are not so straightforward. To combat the effects of sorcery, one must know how it works, and therefore know how to practice it, so a healer is always aware of the thin line between healing and sorcery.

The complexities of healing, exorcism and sorcery are described in great detail by Jan Ovesen and Ing-Britt Trankell in their book, Cambodians and Their Doctors. Here is a slightly abridged extract from chapter 5, ‘Indigenous Practitioners: Healers, Spirit Mediums and Magic Monks’.

Khmer-healers

Within the general category of kru khmae [indigenous healer], practitioners may be classified according to the main methods they use, and/or to the kind of affliction they specialize in treating, or the services they provide. The classification is tentative and partially overlapping since individual healers may perform multiple roles.

  • Kru thnam, or kru phsom thnam (‘combine medicine’) are the traditional herbalists …
  • Kru bakbeg (‘broken’), also known as kru to chhang (‘connect bone’) are bone-setters …
  • Kru teay are diviners/fortune-tellers; they are often achaa [Buddhist lay functionaries]. Some do only astrological divination …
  • Kru sneh (‘charm’) provide ‘love medicine’ and promote good luck in the form of charms and the like; they are quite popular.
  • Kru son thith (‘stay with’) have permanent access to one or more spirits, with whose help they divine the cause of the illness …
  • Kru thmup are sorcerers who are said to inflict illness, on the demand of a client, on someone named by the client. They may magically insert a piece of nail or a bit of buffalo skin into the stomach of the victim, or use spells or curses to cause afflictions from evil (am peu).

Kru thmup is an elusive category. Sorcery afflictions are common and sorcery is widely feared in Khmer society. But almost nobody will admit to being actively engaged in sorcery, so it is virtually impossible to find a practising kru thmup. Those who are recognized as kru thmup are usually dead, having been accused of sorcery and therefore killed by others in the community. A person suffering from am peu will have to consult another kru (teay, son thith), a spirit medium or a monk for exorcism, which is the only way to cure am peu.

[…]

A further variation on the kru khmae theme is provided by kru Chhoy, a kru sneh who is doing a brisk business at his house in a rural village in Kampong Chhnang Province, where one feels far from the highway, hospitals, and clinics. Kru Chhoy makes no concessions to biomedical modernity. He is a friendly and cheerful person with considerable social skills that win him the confidence of his clients. His practice is conducted on the verandah of his house in a semi-public setting, and both his wife and waiting clients participate in the consultations by offering or being asked their opinions about the various cases brought before him. The same courtesy was applied to the couple of visiting anthropologists, and we did not feel out of place when observing the proceedings, occasionally being asked our opinion, and talking to Chhoy between his consultations. Chhoy made it clear to his clients that a promise is a promise. If clients have promised to pay him for his services, they need to come up with at least some kind of small payment, in order for him to do the lia ban non (‘pay offering’) ceremony, otherwise he will be in trouble with his kru thom. The shrine to his teacher is a modest one and kept inside his house. Chhoy himself has made the promise to his teacher that when engaged in his practice he is not permitted to stay on in other people’s houses or to eat with them, because this would bring them bad luck. He has to return to his own house and to eat in his own place, even if he is seeing clients outside his home area, or occasionally performing a ceremony in the house of a client. As already mentioned, observing such rules of asceticism, including food taboos, is common among most kru, but the particulars vary from one kru to the next. It is significant, however, that rules of asceticism do not pertain to sexuality; on the contrary, sexual vigour is an indication of a kru’s healing power.

Kru Chhoy had originally wanted to become a sorcerer (kru thmup) in order to take revenge on the people who had allegedly killed his parents by putting a spell on them. He never entered the monkhood. He went to Thailand for two years to study with a kru khmae in Samraong along the border. It turned out that his teacher refused to teach him sorcery but instead persuaded him to let go of the past and to accept his and his parents’ fate. Instead he should use his knowledge and power to support people and to heal them. He learnt how to combine his ‘lessons’, how to mix medicine, and how to use mantras (mon akum) to accompany the medicines to make them more effective. Since then he had studied with a number of other teachers …

He has been married three times. His first wife died before Pol Pot’s time. Their two children died of illness during [the Khmer Rouge period]. His second wife died after the Vietnamese invasion and left him with five children. He has four children by his third wife, and rumours have it that he also recently had a baby with his ‘minor wife’ in the village. His clients come from all over the country, and even Khmer from Australia and United States come to consult him. He showed us some pictures of himself with his clients in Australia. He had also received permission from the authorities to travel to the United States, but when he learnt that he had to stay on for five years in order to bring his family members over, he gave up the idea.

Chhoy told us that he had just had a client, a woman who was indebted to a moneylender and who had asked for his assistance to make the moneylender show her mercy. He had supplied her with a charm in order to make the moneylender like her more and show her kindness.

While we were talking, the next client arrived: a woman in her thirties, accompanied by her brother. The woman was a regular customer and she and the kru were joking with each other during the consultation, even though her problems were serious. The woman owns a small business, and another person had approached her with a suggestion to invest some money in her business in order for them to share the profits. She was ambivalent. Did this person really have the money, or would she be better off not accepting the suggestion? Kru Chhoy burnt his incense sticks and carefully observed the way the ashes moved and curled. Finally, he said that he estimated that there was a 50 per cent chance that the person would come up with the investment. As for the remaining 50 per cent, he suggested that he should perform some magic, to be on the safe side. If she agreed he would request 2 kg of longans from her. She put a small amount of money on his incense tray, thereby agreeing to his offer. He brought out a bottle of oil with which he massaged her forehead, chanting a mantra. He also blew (sdok phlom) his breath over the client. She joked with him and said that if the agreement with the new partner did not work out, he would not get any longans from her. ‘Oh dear’, he joked back, ‘And I who love longans’.

[…]

Next in line was a young couple with a 9-month-old baby girl. The baby was sick, her tongue was swollen, hanging out of her mouth, and covered with blisters. Oh! said the kru, this is puspus pong kyong (heat, the poisonous heat of snail’s eggs). For this the child needed herbal medicine. A basket full of bark and roots of different varieties was provided for the family. The father of the child was instructed to do the grinding and set to work. The mother rested with the baby on the verandah and joined in the conversation as other clients arrived. The preparation of the medicine took about an hour; the powder was mixed into a bottle of drinking water that the clients had brought with them; the kru blew on the bottle and put the cap on. The medicine was to be taken back home and boiled for the mother and child to consume together. With the medicine followed a number of food-taboos. ‘Do not eat chicken, duck, pork or beef. Do not eat seafood, and do not accept for food any creature lacking blood’. Only freshly cooked fish, rice, and fruit was recommended for the mother and child to eat. We were worried that the child perhaps still needed to see a doctor.

[…]

The last client of the day was a car dealer from Phnom Penh, who had travelled all the way from the city to obtain a charm from the kru, since he was about to sell a Toyota pick-up. The kru had previously helped him sell other cars successfully, so he was a regular customer; he put a 10,000 riel note on the tray. The kru listened to the man while adjusting the incense sticks. He came to the decision that he was a hundred per cent sure the client would be able to sell the car the next day. The customer produced an amulet, a little piece of soft lead sheet wrapped in paper. The kru smeared some balm on the amulet, recited a mantra and blew on it, and told the client to hide it well in the car, but make sure to remove it before handing over the car to the new owner. Then the car received its treatment; the kru took some incense and water to it and sprinkled the bonnet, reciting mantras; on the inside, the steering wheel and windshield got a mantra, a sprinkling and blowing. Our driver, who had parked his car next to that of the client, also wanted a blessing, and our car was sprinkled and had a mantra said over it for free. As we took our leave, all parties were happy with the afternoon’s work.

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