Soc Sci Med. 1987 ; 24(4): 293-301.
The ambiguity of symbols in the structure of healing.
In his article, 'The Effectiveness of Symbols,' LÃ©vi-Strauss contends that the details of a Cuna birth incantation evoke specific physiological responses from parturient women, aiding them through difficult labors. His argument, which analyzes the incantation as a text divorced from its social setting, has drawn criticism from students of Cuna society on a number of substantive points, primarily centering around the difficulties that the special linguistic form of ritual language would present to a non-adept. If the patient lacks a thorough comprehension of the mythic details, how can the incantation change her physiological processes? In an attempt to evaluate the effect of myth upon a woman in labor, this article calls upon Cuna and Malay ethnographic data, and presents a Malay birth incantation as interpreted by the ritual practitioner who recited it. Following a discussion of the non-semantic aspects of the incantation and the extent to which the patient shares the interpretation of the healer in both the Malay and Cuna societies, recent biomedical studies are cited in support of hypotheses concerning the physiological and biochemical effects of myth in the management of childbirth.