Death and sorcery
Death and sorcery
Roger W. Byard 0 1
0 School of Medicine, Level 3 Medical School North Building, The University of Adelaide , Frome Road, Adelaide, SA 5005 , Australia
1 & Roger W. Byard
‘‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of
in your philosophy’’
Hamlet (1.5.167-8), William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
The paper on customary law, traditional wounding and
death in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY)
Lands of Central Australia raises questions about the safety
of using certain forms of tribal punishments outside a
controlled context [
]. It also provides an opportunity to
examine other indigenous beliefs around life and death,
particularly that of sorcery or witchcraft. Indigenous
populations often have well-entrenched beliefs around sorcery
and the use of supernatural powers, which may be evoked
to explain the deaths of certain individuals. As these beliefs
may appear at odds with standard forensic diagnoses in a
medicolegal setting, it is useful to explore possible
mechanisms of death that may provide a link between the
morgue and traditional communities.
In Central Australia the setting up of ‘‘sorry camps’’
after a death enables tribal elders to examine the body and
the circumstances surrounding the fatal episode to
determine whether they think that sorcery may have been
involved. Ceremonies that are undertaken following deaths
can be extremely elaborate and may last for many weeks
]. Methods of crafting autopsy reports to assist the elders
with specific concerns around these processes have been
previously outlined [
]. The most fearsome form of magic
in this area involves a ‘‘kurdaitcha man,’’ a sorcerer
capable of causing death by taking a bone (known as neilyen,
gundila or injilla) and pointing it at a victim while cursing
or singing. Ritual bones can be emu, kangaroo or human,
and are characterized by an attached braid of human hair,
which some believe can drain a victim’s blood. Once the
intended victim finds that he or she has been ‘‘sung’’ death
often follows quite quickly [
]. An alternative
explanation for some of these deaths has been that pointing bones
are sometimes soaked in putrefying corpse fluid before
being used to prick a victim [
]. In these cases lethal sepsis
would have to be considered.
Sorcery is also found in many other contemporary
traditional communities around the world in areas as disparate
as South America, Africa, Australasia, and the Pacific
], and also among groups who may have
immigrated to other countries. Thus forensic pathologists and
investigating officers in any location may encounter cases
where families believe that magic has been involved in the
fatal episode. In socially disadvantaged rural communities
in South Africa, sudden deaths or fatalities following an
acute illness are often attributed to witchcraft [
], as are
cases of sudden infant death in rural Tlaxcala in Mexico
The cause and mechanism of death in individuals who
have been cursed has been the subject of some debate [
Death may, of course, be completely unrelated to a possible
cursing and be due instead to significant, possibly
unsuspected, underlying organic disease. Such was the case of an
East Timorese man in his fifties who was thought to have
been the victim of witchcraft after he collapsed and died
unexpectedly. His death was, however, found to be due to
the effects of a bicuspid aortic valve with annuloaortic
ectasia and a sinus of Valsalva aneurysm [
advantage of having an autopsy performed in this situation
is clear. Brugada syndrome provides a good example of
how a mysterious cause of unexpected nocturnal death was
explained once the appropriate genetic markers had been
identified. Called bangungut in the Philippines (‘‘to rise
and moan during sleep and then die’’), Brugada syndrome
is now known to be an autosomal dominant condition with
variable penetrance caused by mutations in the SCN5A
gene that encodes for a subunit of the cardiac sodium
channel gene. This results in lethal arrhythmias and sudden
Deaths may also occur from organic disease that may
have been exacerbated by the stress of being cursed. For
example, a 53-year-old man has been reported who it was
suggested succumbed to asthma after being cursed by his
]. Sudden death is also known to occur in Jervell
and Lange–Neilsen syndrome, a long QT syndrome with
additional congenital sensorineural deafness, precipitated
by an auditory startle or a strong emotional stimulus [
Then there are the deaths where there is no apparent
significant illness; these have been referred to as voodoo,
psychogenic or hex deaths, and ‘‘psychic homicides’’ [
The cause of these deaths has been discussed at some
length in the literature with some authors postulating that
prolonged sympathetic overstimulation may be responsible
for a fatal outcome involving catecholamine toxicity [
This contrasts with other authors who suggest that death
results merely from ‘‘giving up’’ [
]. Examples from zoos
where caged wild animals had suddenly died are used to
support the latter theory, although not all agree that this is
relevant to cases in humans [
]. Lester correctly notes
that most cases do not have toxicological testing to rule out
poisoning . Although he also states that voodoo deaths
should not be sudden, Comfort has pointed out that while
victims of witchcraft in Europe in the sixteenth century
could certainly ‘‘go into a decline,’’ they could also with
equal frequency be ‘‘struck dead’’ [
A somewhat pragmatic suggestion has been made that
Aboriginal deaths due to sorcery in Arnhem Land in
Northern Australia could simply result from a failure to
drink when relatives withhold food and water causing fatal
]. This concept has been criticized with
comments made that withholding of food and water is not a
usual practice among the Yolngu people of that area and
that most of the victims in the study were old and infirm
. However, my only experience of a ‘‘singing’’ did
occur in the same region and involved a young Aboriginal
woman who appeared very ill on hospital admission but
whose laboratory tests merely revealed dehydration.
Although she was refusing to take food and water she was
rehydrated with intravenous fluids and eventually left
hospital without a diagnosis. It was then intimated by one
of the Aboriginal elders that she had been ‘‘sung’’ [
in that case there appears no doubt that she would have
succumbed to dehydration from her cursing if she had not
been brought to hospital and treated. For that reason
vitreous electrolyte levels (in addition to blood toxicology)
are essential in assessing deaths of tribal individuals where
the autopsy fails to reveal an adequate cause of death.
Death may also occur in those accused of practicing
witchcraft or sorcery, as was clearly documented in
previous centuries in Europe and the Americas [
]. This still
occurs in South Africa where one quite recent report
documented 50–60 elderly women each year brought to a
hospital mortuary in the Transkei whose deaths were
associated with witchcraft; allegations of which had led to
]. In East Timor the killing of a suspected
witch may be preceded by torture, most often involving
burning of the skin [
In conclusion, it appears that fatalities allegedly
associated with sorcery may have quite complex and different
causes and mechanisms. While there may be a subtle
interplay with underlying organic disease, the role of
possible poisoning in these cases has yet to be clarified.
The possibility of failure to drink fluids because of a belief
in the inevitable outcome of the cursing must also be
considered as this could lead to quite rapid dehydration and
death from acute renal failure. However, as a number of
subtle synergistic factors could contribute to the final
episode we may have to recognize the validity of Hamlet’s
opinion and realize that we may not always understand
exactly what has occurred in these culturally complex
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