Medicine under the Shamans

The entire life of ancient men was prophylactic; their religion was in no small measure a technique for disease prevention. And regardless of the error in their theories, they were wholehearted in putting them into effect; they had unbounded faith in their methods of treatment, and that, in itself, is a powerful remedy.

The faith required to get well under the foolish ministrations of one of these ancient shamans was, after all, not materially different from that which is required to experience healing at the hands of some of his later-day successors who engage in the nonscientific treatment of disease.

The more primitive tribes greatly feared the sick, and for long ages they were carefully avoided, shamefully neglected. It was a great advance in humanitarianism when the evolution of shamancraft produced priests and medicine men who consented to treat disease. Then it became customary for the entire clan to crowd into the sickroom to assist the shaman in howling the disease ghosts away. It was not uncommon for a woman to be the diagnosing shaman, while a man would administer treatment. The usual method of diagnosing disease was to examine the entrails of an animal.

Disease was treated by chanting, howling, laying on of hands, breathing on the patient, and many other techniques. In later times the resort to temple sleep, during which healing supposedly took place, became widespread. The medicine men eventually essayed actual surgery in connection with temple slumber; among the first operations was that of trephining the skull to allow a headache spirit to escape. The shamans learned to treat fractures and dislocations, to open boils and abscesses; the shamanesses became adept at midwifery.

It was a common method of treatment to rub something magical on an infected or blemished spot on the body, throw the charm away, and supposedly experience a cure. If anyone should chance to pick up the discarded charm, it was believed he would immediately acquire the infection or blemish. It was a long time before herbs and other real medicines were introduced. Massage was developed in connection with incantation, rubbing the spirit out of the body, and was preceded by efforts to rub medicine in, even as moderns attempt to rub liniments in. Cupping and sucking the affected parts, together with bloodletting, were thought to be of value in getting rid of a disease-producing spirit.

Since water was a potent fetish, it was utilized in the treatment of many ailments. For long it was believed that the spirit causing the sickness could be eliminated by sweating. Vapor baths were highly regarded; natural hot springs soon blossomed as primitive health resorts. Early man discovered that heat would relieve pain; he used sunlight, fresh animal organs, hot clay, and hot stones, and many of these methods are still employed. Rhythm was practiced in an effort to influence the spirits; the tom-toms were universal.

Among some people disease was thought to be caused by a wicked conspiracy between spirits and animals. This gave rise to the belief that there existed a beneficent plant remedy for every animal-caused disease. The red men were especially devoted to the plant theory of universal remedies; they always put a drop of blood in the root hole left when the plant was pulled up.

Fasting, dieting, and counterirritants were often used as remedial measures. Human secretions, being definitely magical, were highly regarded; blood and urine were thus among the earliest medicines and were soon augmented by roots and various salts. The shamans believed that disease spirits could be driven out of the body by foul-smelling and bad-tasting medicines. Purging very early became a routine treatment, and the values of raw cocoa and quinine were among the earliest pharmaceutical discoveries.

The Greeks were the first to evolve truly rational methods of treating the sick. Both the Greeks and the Egyptians received their medical knowledge from the Euphrates valley. Oil and wine was a very early medicine for treating wounds; castor oil and opium were used by the Sumerians. Many of these ancient and effective secret remedies lost their power when they became known; secrecy has always been essential to the successful practice of fraud and superstition. Only facts and truth court the full light of comprehension and rejoice in the illumination and enlightenment of scientific research.


Urantia Book. (1955). Medicine under the Shamans. Chicago, IL: Urantia Foundation.

All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).

Agere Sequitur Esse