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Death, Disease, and Ambivalence
The close association of village, local, and regional goddesses with disease, epidemic, disaster, and sudden death deserves further comment. Because the village goddesses institute, nourish, and protect villages, it would make sense to interpret their myth, cult, and worship as primarily revolving around their periodic struggles with invading demons who bring sickness, death, and disruption to the villages.
Yet given the over-whelming association of these goddesses with the diseases themselves, given the common identification of epidemics with the goddesses’ “grace,” it would make sense to interpret their worship as primarily the attempt to propitiate them so that they will withhold their wrath from their people. Unfortunately, neither point of view alone does justice to the facts, namely, that the goddesses are cast in two contrasting roles: (1) guardians of the village and (2) the cause and source of disease and sudden death that threaten the existence of the village. Richard Brubaker sums up the ambivalent nature of the village goddesses this way:
Thus the goddess is the one who manifests herself in epidemic disease, who guards against it and keeps it at bay, who inflicts it upon her people in wrath, who joins her people in fighting and conquering it, who suffers it herself; she it is who invites its appearance and then struggles against it; she enters people’s bodies by means of it, but sometimes heals them by taking it upon herself; she uses it as a means to enhance her own worship; she is enflamed by its heat and needs to be cooled, and may be cooled by the fanning of disease-heated humans, while the latter may also be cooled by pouring water on her image; she is both the scourge and the mistress of disease demons, and perhaps even their mistress in both senses of the term; she mercilessly chastises her people with the disease, but holds its victims especially dear; she delights in the disease, is aroused by it, goes mad with it; she kills with it and uses it to give new life.
The ultimate mystery and potency of these village/disease goddesses may well lie precisely in the fact that their ambivalent natures are not capable of being comprehended rationally. That the patron deity of a village who is its founder and protector should also assault that village with devastating epidemics seems to suggest a depth of irrationality beyond logical analysis.
Nonetheless, the ongoing well-being of a society and culture depends on its being able to participate periodically in chaos, disorder, and tumult. Religious ritual and festival are the traditional means by which this is done.
The festival rite utilizes the potency of disorder. It harnesses the disorder of the ‘other mind,’ possession, trance, dreams, ecstasy, etc. If these powers are harnessed properly, the society recovers a special potency from chaos beyond the limits of order.
Thus the shaman’s initiatory experience is represented as an involuntary surrender to disorder, as he is thrust protesting into the chaos which the ordered and controlled life of society strives so hard to deny, or at least to keep at bay. No matter how valiantly he struggles, disorder eventually claims him and marks him with the brand of a transcendental encounter.
At its worst, in peripheral cults, this is seen as a baneful intrusion of malign power. At its best, in central possession religions it represents a danger- laden exposure to the powers of the cosmos. In both cases the initial experience withdraws the victim from the secure world of society and of ordered existence, and exposes him directly to those forces which, though they may be held to uphold the social order, also ultimately threaten it.
The shaman is not the slave, but the master of anomaly and chaos. Out of the agony of affliction and the dark night of the soul comes literally the ecstasy of spiritual victory. In rising to the challenge of the powers which rule his life and by valiantly overcoming them in this crucial initiatory rite which re-imposes order on chaos and despair, man reasserts his mastery of the universe and affirms his control of destiny and fate.
Village goddesses, in their association with disease, sudden death, and other realities that threaten the stability or even the existence of the village system, might be understood as instigating society’s confrontation with the chaotic, demonic, disruptive dimensions of life, particularly in the context of festivals, when the village goddesses are fully aroused. From this confrontation a new, more vigorous, more durable order might be won. The very ambivalence of these goddesses heightens their effectiveness in this role. They, like the diseases so often associated with.
Bray RS. Armies of pestilence: the impact of disease on history. New York: Lutterworth Press; 1997
M. Williams, 1897, Indian Mother Worship, reprinted from the Athenaeum of Dec. 6, 1879 by H. C. Coote in Folklore Record, Vol. III, Pt. I., p. 120.
Old Rituals For New Threats: Possession And Healing In The Cult Of Sitala (in Ritual Matters: Dynamic Dimensions In Practice, ed. by Ute Husken, Christiane Brosius, 2019)
Proceedings. Indian History Congress (1980). Indian History Congress.
Pollitzer R. Cholera. Geneva: World Health Organization. 1959.
Whitehead, Henry. The village gods of South India. London, UK: Forgotten Books, 2015.