Illustration for article titled In certain South American cultures, epileptics are the undead, trapped between life and death

An interesting paper on the cultural dimensions of epilepsy among the Guaraní people of South America has recently come to our attention.


Rather than be condemned as the victims of demonic possession — which can be the case in other cultures — epileptics among the Guaraní have been historically regarded as those perpetually cycling between life and death:

Among the Guaraní, epilepsy is called mano-mano, which literally means "die-die" and refers to the concept of death with a notion of frequency (die several times) and also of being in a constant passage between life and death. In other terms, this word means always being on the border between life and death, reflecting the fact that mano-mano produces a constant interruption of life or a "partial death." [...]

In fact, the expression mano-mano is meaningful. It refers to the idea of a round trip between life and death. This concept addresses the loss of consciousness and shows that epilepsy is recognized mostly in terms of generalized seizures. The uncertain state between life and death is seen as a kind of "third possible condition" for a human being, a state that generates hesitation over what attitude to hold. PWE [people with epilepsy] are omano-mano-vae, the "undeads," different from the other members of the community and considered both as victims of this life–death relationship and as enablers of the meeting of these two worlds [...]

The representation of epilepsy as a state of human being and the perception of this in a vision that involves the entire community allow an interpretation of Guaraní attitudes toward PWE [people with epilepsy]. Guaraní PWE are rarely condemned, misjudged, or isolated as in other cultures. Apparently, PWE do not represent a threat to the Guaraní, who seem to hold the attitude of helping and protecting PWE. As noted, the restrictions and prohibitions cited by the Guaraní appear to derive from the need to take care of PWE, as heavy work, traveling alone, and being involved in problems are believed to worsen the condition or trigger seizures in PWE.


You can read more at the October 2011 paper "Sociocultural dimension of epilepsy: An anthropological study among Guaraní communities in Bolivia" (but unfortunately the article's paywalled).

Via Mind Hacks. Image: Tetrakyts/Wikimedia.

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