Patjala – Traditional healing in the Western Desert

Patjala is a Martu Aboriginal word which literally means ‘to bite.’ In a traditional medical context the term also denotes the deep sucking or cupping action of the shaman or mapantjara when he bites and sucks the affected part of a client’s body in order to remove the harmful affliction believed to be causing his or her sickness. Dark coloured blood is extracted from the treated area and is conspicuously spat out by the healer, into a container or rag which is then shown to the patient and interested bystanders as ‘proof’ of the removal of the harmful substance and diagnosed source of illness.

In traditional times sorcery was believed to be the common cause of bodily aches and pain and illness. However, in more recent times circulatory obstructions are often acknowledged as the primary cause of a range of painful conditions including rheumatic pains and severe headaches.

The patjala procedure is generally used on those areas of the body that are soft and pliable and easy to access, such as the neck, shoulders, lower back and knees. I have personally witnessed mapantjara in parts of the Western Desert use this technique to great effect. In all cases, the mapantjara focuses the client’s attention on the ritual extraction of an object, whether visible or invisible, that is accepted as the causative agent of disease.  Once the client is made aware that the source of his ailment has been removed, recovery is usually quick.  The traditional logic behind this is that once the culturally accepted cause of the ailment has been removed, the patient must necessarily recover.

The client has unwavering faith in the mapantjara’s powers to heal. This is further reinforced by the healer showing his client evidence that the maligned substance causing his disorder has been removed. Western medical science may call this the power of the placebo but for tens of thousands of years it has been a highly effective and fundamental component of traditional medicine.

Using his own hand the mapantjara demonstrates the biting/sucking technique used in patjala. Photo by Ken Macintyre.
The mapantjara sucks deeply with a cupping action over the affected area to draw out phlegmatic blood that is believed to be blocking the circulation. Photo by Ken Macintyre.