Animism is a form of religion practiced in the mountain villages of Nepal. In animism, everything has a spirit—trees, rocks, flowers, animals, rivers—and one needs to be aware of these spirits and their effects on us.
Animism also melds into magic—both good magic and so-called black magic. Things and people have the power to disrupt our lives. Often one does not know exactly who or what is disrupting one’s life, only that it is occurring, and that things are out of balance. Such disruptions of one’s life can include such things as crops failing, losing money, or more commonly, getting sick.
Someone or something is causing these things to happen, and by praying, making offerings, or doing other ritualistic acts one can propitiate spirits, or counter the ill intentions of others.
Shamans are those who have access to this world of animism and magic. By divination, they can tell who or what is causing problems, and what needs to be done to remedy the situation and return things to balance.
During the day trekking along the trail, we had seen small offerings of plant leaves and flowers placed on rocks and under trees—offerings to animistic spirits.
Our Nepalese guide, Nema, was telling us all this in a dark teahouse lodge. We had finished eating and a faint fire still flickered from the wood-burning stove on the floor while we sipped hot dudh chiya, milk tea, to stave off the cold.
“I have black magic placed on me,” Nema continued looking up for a moment. “For many years I sick and no make money. I have burning pains all across here.” He rubs both his shoulders and neck. “And sharp pain here.” He touches his chest. “Long time sick. Someone want to kill me.” He stops.
“Why?” I ask him, a bit startled. “Why would someone want to kill you? You’re a good man.”
“Jealous,” he answers.
“Woman in village.”
“Jealous of what?”
“She want my fields. She want take them.”
“So what did you do?”
“I get very sick. I try many things. I go to doctor but don’t know what’s wrong with me. No can help. I sick for long time. Finally, my friend in Kathmandu say he know great shaman in mountains and I send for him to come help me.”
“And he comes?”
“Yes, he comes.”
“Do you pay him money?”
“Yes, I pay lots money and he come Kathmandu.”
“And what does the shaman do?”
“First, he do divination. I tell you about divination before. He look at me and then he touch me all over like this.” Nema rubs his hands over my chest and shoulders, then continues. “He say woman bury stone at bottom of river to make me get sick. And he says she stick needle—you know ‘needle’ like to make sew? She stick needle in me to make burning neck and shoulders and cough chest. Shaman he break open chicken egg and find needle inside and show me.”
“So do you get better? What does the shaman do?”
“No, not get better right away. He need do treatments. He take me up on roof of building at night when very quiet. I only in underwear, then he say prayer and chant and beat me all over body like this.” Nema forcefully pounds his arms and legs. “All over.”
“Yes, very hard. He pound very hard.”
“And then you are done and get better?” I ask.
“No, need many treatments. Shaman he stay three months and twenty-seven days.”
“The shaman stays three months and twenty-seven days!”
“Yes, he move into my house to do treatments.”
“And he does treatments every day?”
“No, not every day. Not Tuesday and Saturday. No treatments those days.”
“Same treatment? How long do the treatments last?”
“Yes, same. Oh, maybe thirty minutes.”
“That’s all. One treatment a day. Where does the shaman eat?”
“He eat with me. I feed him and his wife.”
“Yes, his wife come with him. She stay too.”
“And you feed them and they live with you for three months?”
“Three months, twenty-seven days.”
“What does the shaman do the rest of the time?”
“Just hang out.”
“Then what happens? Do you get better?”
“No, then one night, I wait for treatment and shaman in bed. He shaking real bad like this.” Nema shakes vigorously clutching his shoulders and rocking back and forth. “No can do treatment.”
“So the shaman’s sick now,” I say. I think maybe whatever sickness Nema might have had, maybe he has now given it to the shaman.
“Sickness passing to shaman,” Nema says. “But shaman need do more stronger magic now. He tells me I need to get some things . . . “ At this point, Nema relates a long list of items. I can’t understand what many of them are. One of them, he says, is a plant that grows only a high altitude in Nepal, but fortunately a neighbor has some of that plant and gives it to Nema. There are also various grains and finally the shaman specifies that he also needs a red chicken. Once all the items are acquired, the shaman makes some sort of dough out of most of the items, and then sacrifices the chicken on the roof of the building pulling out its liver.
“And then what happens?” I ask after Nema relates in detail this final ritual.
“I get better and shaman goes home,” he says matter-of-factly.
“And the shaman is better too?”
“Yes,” Nema nods, “shaman better too.”
We sit in the dark. The fire has become small, glowing coals now and no one says anything for a long time.