PART 1: “EL TOPO”
“If you are great, El Topo is a great picture. If you are limited, El Topo is limited.”
“EL TOPO” 1970 directed by Alexandro Jodorowsky
the Dancing Plague of 1518, the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic, and plagues of Koro…
In July of 1518, a woman referred to as Frau Troffea stepped into a narrow street in Strasbourg, France and began a fervent dancing vigil that lasted between four and six days. By the end of the week, 34 others had joined her and, within a month, the crowd of dancing, hopping and leaping individuals had swelled to 400.
Authorities prescribed “more dancing” to cure the tormented movers but, by summer’s end, dozens in the Alsatian city had died of heart attacks, strokes and sheer exhaustion due to nonstop dancing.
For centuries this bizarre event, known variously as the dancing plague or epidemic of 1518, has stumped scientists attempting to find a cause for the mindless, intense and ultimately deadly dance. Historian John Waller, author of the forthcoming book, “A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518,” studied the illness at length and has solved the mystery.
“That the event took place is undisputed,” said Waller, a Michigan State University professor who has also authored a paper on the topic, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Endeavour.
Waller explained that historical records documenting the dancing deaths, such as physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council during the height of the boogying rage, all “are unambiguous on the fact that (victims) danced.”
“These people were not just trembling, shaking or convulsing; although they were entranced, their arms and legs were moving as if they were purposefully dancing,” he said.
Eugene Backman, author of the 1952 book “Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine,” sought a biological or chemical origin for the dancing mania. Backman and other experts at the time believed the most likely explanation was ergot, a mold that grows on the stalks of damp rye. When consumed unknowingly in bread, the mold can trigger violent convulsion and delusions but not, Waller says, “coordinated movements that last for days.”
While at Australia’s James Cook University, sociologist Robert Bartholomew proposed a theory that the dancers were performing an ecstatic ritual of a heretical sect, but Waller counters, “there is no evidence that the dancers wanted to dance.”
“On the contrary,” he added, “they expressed fear and desperation,” according to the written accounts.
Unusual Events Preceded the Epidemic
A series of famines, resulting from bitter cold winters, scorching summers, sudden crop frosts and terrifying hailstorms, preceded the maniacal dancing, Waller said. Waves of deaths followed from malnutrition. People who survived were often forced to slaughter all of their farm animals, secure loans and finally, take to the streets begging. Smallpox, syphilis, leprosy and even a new disease known as “the English sweat” swept through the area.
“Anxiety and false fears gripped the region,” Waller said.
One of these fears, originating from a Christian church legend, was that if anyone provoked the wrath of Saint Vitus, a Sicilian martyred in 303 A.D., he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing.
Waller therefore believes a phenomenon known as “mass psychogenic illness,” a form of mass hysteria usually preceded by intolerable levels of psychological distress, caused the dancing epidemic.
Ivan Crozier, a lecturer in the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh, told Discovery News that he “agrees completely” with Waller’s conclusion.
“His cultural explanation, combined with a contextualized view of the conditions in which people lived at the time on the Rhine and Mosel, is very convincing and is superior to the arguments about ergot, which is a compound like LSD,” Crozier said. ”Ergot gave people visions, not energy to dance,” he added.
Crozier is a world authority on yet another mass hysteria epidemic: koro.
Since at least 300 B.C., plagues of koro — an irrational male fear that one’s genitals have been stolen or are fatally shrinking into the body — have swept through various parts of the world, particularly throughout Africa and Asia. Most recently, a 1967 outbreak, documented in the Singapore Medical Journal, caused over 1,000 men to use pegs and clamps in hopes of protecting themselves from the gripping fear.
“In both cases we see cultural issues impacting on collective behavior,” Crozier said, explaining that preexisting superstitions, fears and beliefs surrounding both koro and the dancing epidemic led to group beliefs turning into “collective action.”
Waller explained that victims often go into an involuntary trance state, fueled by psychological stress and the expectation of succumbing to an altered state. ”Thus, in groups subject to severe social and economic hardship, trance can be highly contagious,” he said.
More Deadly Dancing, And Laughing
At least seven other outbreaks of the dancing epidemic occurred in medieval Europe, mostly in the areas surrounding Strasbourg. In more recent history, a major outbreak occurred in Madagascar in the 1840′s, according to medical reports that described “people dancing wildly, in a state of trance, convinced that they were possessed by spirits.”
Perhaps the most unusual documented case of mass psychogenic illness was the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962. A paper published the following year in the Central African Journal of Medicine described what happened.
Triggered by a joke among students at a Tanzania boarding school, young girls began to laugh uncontrollably. At first there were spurts of laughter, which extended to hours and then days.
The victims, virtually all female, suffered pain, fainting, respiratory problems, rashes and crying attacks, all related to the hysterical laughter. Proving the old adage that laughter can be contagious, the epidemic spread to the parents of the students as well as to other schools and surrounding villages. Eighteen months passed before the laughter epidemic ended.
Curing the Mind
According to medical epidemiologist Timothy Jones, an assistant clinical professor of preventative medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, who also reported an incident of hysteria in Belgium following soft-drink consumption, “Outbreaks of psychogenic illness are likely to be more common than is currently appreciated, and many go unrecognized.”
Jones recommends that physicians treating such problems “attempt to separate persons with illness associated with the outbreak,” conduct tests to rule out other causes, monitor and provide oxygen for hyperventilation, attempt to minimize the individual’s anxiety, notify public health authorities and seek to assure patients that, while their symptoms “are real…rumors and reports of suspected causes are not equivalent to confirmed results.”
Aside from their medical interest, Waller believes such epidemics, particularly those from past centuries, are “of immense historical value.”
He said the dancing plague “tells us much about the extraordinary supernaturalism of late medieval people, but it also reveals the extremes to which fear and irrationality can lead us.” He added, “Few events in my view so clearly show the extraordinary potentials of the human mind.”
planet Earth’s oldest surgical procedure…
Trepanation is the process of cutting a hole in the skull. According to John Verano, a professor of anthropology at Tulane University, trepanation is the oldest surgical practice and is still performed ceremonially by some African tribes. A trepanned skull found in France was dated at about 5,000 BCE. About 1,000 trepanned skulls from Peru and Bolivia date from 500 BCE to the 16th century.
Bart Huges (b. 1934), a medical school graduate who has never practiced medicine except for a bit of self-surgery, believes that trepanation is the way to higher consciousness. He says that he wanted to be a psychiatrist but failed the obstetrics exam and so never went into practice. In 1965, after years of experimentation with LSD, cannabis, and other drugs, Dr. Huges realized that the way to enlightenment was by boring a hole in his skull. He used an electric drill, a scalpel, and a hypodermic needle (to administer a local anesthetic). The operation took him 45 minutes. How does it feel to be enlightened? “I feel like I did when I was 14,” says Huges.
What led Dr. Huges to believe that trepanation would lead to enlightenment? His first insight came when he was taught that he could get high by standing on his head. He came to believe that by permanently relieving pressure he could increase the flow of blood to the brain and achieve his goal. After he took a little mescaline he soon understood what was going on. “I recognized that the expanded consciousness was attributed to an increase in the volume of blood to the brain.” How has such a simple fact eluded scientists and mystics alike for so many millennia?
In the past, trepanation was used either to relieve pressure on the brain caused by disease or trauma, or to release evil spirits. The former is still an accepted medical procedure. The latter has died out in those parts of the world where scientific understanding has replaced belief in invading demons. Huges has yet to command a large following of trepanners, but he has managed to attract a few supporters with holes in their heads. One of his most illustrious pupils was Amanda Fielding from Oxford, England, who not only lived through the filming of her self-surgery but also became a candidate for Parliament. She received 40 votes from the people of Chelsea in 1978 where she ran on the promise of free trepanation from the National Health Service.
Feilding maintains that having a hole in her head allows more oxygen to reach her brain and helps expand her consciousness. It’s safer than LSD, she says, apparently convinced those are her only two options to expand her consciousness. She claims she now has more energy and inspiration, and is on a permanent natural high. She claims the trepanned are better prepared to fight neurosis and depression and less likely to become prone to alcoholism and drug addiction. One could say that she is very open-minded.
It should go without saying but it must be said anyway: trepanation is risky and can cause brain damage and infection. Also, according to Sugey Restituyo, many trepanners “later claim to have alien contacts and join the Raël movement.”
the Raël are folks trying to build a nice place for Aliens to land when they finally arrive…
have a look at the trailer for “A Hole In The Head” — a documentary on practitioners of contemporary trepanation…
“A HOLE IN THE HEAD” 1998 directed by Eli Kabillio