12 March 2008

Maladies & Treatments:
The Budas of Abyssinia

By Karen Mercury

The Christian highlands of 19th c. Abyssinia were a hotbed of ills of the flesh, and an abundance of myths and superstitions cropped up to explain or alleviate them. The 8,000 foot craggy mountain ranges were afflicted with drastic temperature drops at night, and terrible humidity during the heavy rain seasons that lend the royal massifs their characteristic dramatic splendor were all responsible for a wide array of bronchitis, pleurisy, and influenza. Ordinary head colds, known as tej metall, they believed were brought on by drinking liquor outdoors in the sun, or the glancing of the sun off the waters of Lake Tzana, and the cures were highly imaginative.

The great Scottish traveler James Bruce, visiting Abyssinia in 1770, spoke of some "medicine a saint from Waldubba had given him which consisted in characters written with common ink upon a tin plate, which characters were washed off by a medicinal liquor and then given him to drink." Bruce wrote:
I opened all the doors and windows, fumigating the apartments with incense and myrrh, in abundance, washed them with warm water & vinegar.... The common & fatal regimen in this country has been to keep their patient from feeling the smallest breath of air, hot drink, a fire, and doors are shut so close as even to keep the room in darkness, whilst heat is further augmented by the constant burning of candles.
Dr. Henry Blanc, one of the Europeans imprisoned in the 1860s by Emperor Tewodros in his mountaintop fortress at Magdala, wrote that, "Charms are here the great remedy. Almost every individual--nay, cattle & mules & horses--are covered with amulets of all shapes and sizes." Constantly followed by crowds chanting "abiet, abiet, medanite, medanite" (Lord Master, medicine, medicine"), Blanc was trailed night and day by syphilitics, lepers, epileptics, or those afflicted with elephantiasis or mutilated at the hands of their enemies, the Galla--all in the hopes the great hakim would open his medicine chest.

The Falasha Jews of the highlands around Gondar were designated lower-class weavers, potters, and most of all, dreaded blacksmiths. Hereditary blacksmiths had malevolent reputations and were often accused of being budas who transformed themselves into hyenas capable of riding horses or sometimes wearing earrings, the majority of budas being women who have turned down sex with another buda.

In The Four Quarters of the World, I wrote:
"I have heard you are treating sick people again! Do you not know that is bad for your health?"

Delphine exhaled. "These people are needful. If I can give them some succor from my medicine chest, why shouldn't I?"

Anatole grasped Delphine about the forearms. "But you mustn't! Don't you see they will begin to prey on you, like—"

"Buda!" A piercing shriek came from the vicinity of the front door, and both Anatole and Delphine craned their necks to see. "He's a buda!"

There were six or so waiting patients Delphine had allowed into the courtyard, sitting on another alga, and at the sight of Kaspar they had all fled until they were pressed up against a wall, making themselves as flat as possible, like rats.

Kaspar screwed up his face and waved a disgusted hand at them. "Ach, buda. . . Is that all they can think about? Their depraved hearts and benighted minds know nothing of God or Heaven!" He walked toward the stairs, pausing to regale the multitude. "Do you not believe in the Prophets, and in Christ, of whom all the inspired writers unitedly testify?" He didn't seem to expect an answer, for he continued up the stairs.

Delphine admonished the huddled group, "Just because he's a blacksmith, it doesn't mean he's a buda. Why do they not think you a buda, Anatole? You're a blacksmith as well."
Few people bothered blacksmiths for these reasons. No one reveals their birth names, because a buda cannot act upon anyone whose real name he doesn't know. Should the buda get the true name of a victim, he gets a kind of straw and mutters something over it, bends it into a circle and places it under a stone. The person thus doomed is taken ill at that moment. Should the straw snap, the patient will die. White men are protected from buda attacks by the color of their skin.

Here, my hero has just told an Abyssinian princess he cannot marry her, and coincidentally she becomes "possessed" on the spot:
The maiden burst into the most horripilating round of laughter. Or was it laughter? Eyes closed, mouth open in a great wail of chortling as though possessed, she kept it up minute after minute until Ravi was compelled to grab her and give her a few swift shakes.

"Woizero Bell, please! Stop that right now!"

But she continued pealing gale after gale of the hyena-like laugh, until women who had been hiding behind the wall rushed forward, crying, "It's a buda! She's possessed by a buda!

Ravinger, knowing budas to be the worst sort of bilgewater imaginable, released the stricken woman and turned her over to the care of her sisters. Abruptly the laughter stopped, and Louisa became stone serious, her eyes staring ahead of her, plainly unseeing. The yammering women around her hushed, and she said in a dead monotone, "I'm perfectly fine. I only want to be bled." She set to howling and flinging her arms above her head, as all the women grabbed at her and concurred, "A buda!

"The buda is tricking us! If we bleed her, he will just attack her even more strongly!"

Some women looked to Ravi for confirmation, so he nodded dully. "Yes, yes, obviously a buda. I'll go see if I can find some charcoal and, er, other various filth." For people so possessed had a great craving for those items, and would sup at a bowl of shit like a faro

"Who are you?" two women demanded of Louisa. "Who are you inside of our friend?"

When Louisa commenced to "replying" in a shrieking gibberish, Ravi backed off slowly. "Take hold of her thumbs!" a woman cried. It was the first sign that the devil was leaving if he allowed her thumbs to be held.
The British Consul Walter Plowden wrote about the medicinal value of hot springs, where both sexes were allowed to enter "promiscuously," but ominously warned that "anyone impure entering the bath will have a snake issue from the spot."

One also had to constantly beware "the evil eye," a belief held in common to many Mediterranean countries. Against that terror, Plowden counseled that people used:
...roots and plants of many kinds--some heirlooms, and others picked up from favored friends, or revealed occasionally in dreams, with shells, bits of amber or ambergris, leg-bones of hawks...the circle of preservatives worn round the neck, these latter are more a precaution against "the evil eye" or "hyena sorcerer."
Plowden may have said much more had he not been murdered by an enemy of Emperor Tewodros near Gondar in 1860.