Harper's Magazine has a piece on "Culture-Bound Syndromes" which sounds really boring, but they've picked the most exciting one to chase down and use as an illustration: it focuses on Penis Thieves. I remember reading about penis thieves in Private Eye's Funny Old World column (or whatever it was called then) in the 1970s. The newspaper clipping described Africans running around with their privates held in their hands, believing they were shrinking and eventually disappearing,whereupon they would die.
The Harper's article, A mind dismembered: In search of the magical penis thieves, is written by a man who went to Nigeria in the midst of the current penis-stealing epidemic and asked a few people there how the witches do it, and what it felt like.
The article also discusses latah, a sort of zombie-hood in which the sufferer is unable to resist orders from others, and amok, episodes of senseless violence, among others. The name "culture bound syndromes" was given to them by a psychiatrist called Pow Meng Yap in Hong Kong in the 1950s.
It's a difficult subject to confront in an article, because it's funny if you don't believe in it, but it's literally deadly serious if you do. Many of the accused "witches" have been torn apart by mobs and the lives of the snatchees permanently affected. The fear suffered by someone who thinks his penis has been stolen is very real, and the panic that follows is real and spreads fast (the true meaning of 'panic').
It made me wonder about our culture and what Culture-Bound Syndromes we have. More or less by definition, we wouldn't know we had them, because they are part of our culture. ("We" here is generic Anglo-American.) We know white Europeans did have them; there's a bit in the article about the Malleus Maleficarum, which apparently has several chapters on European witches and their membrum virile-stealing ways. Then there's the case of nostalgia. For most of us today, nostalgia is a sort of wistfulness that comes over us when we think about something from our childhood and is about as serious as a desire for another latte. But when the word nostalgia was first coined, it was a serious condition that afflicted Swiss soldiers – in many cases the homesickness was so severe that the soldier died. Another, more recent, panic is McCarthyism, the belief that your neighbor may have looked as American as Betty Rubble but she was secretly working for Uncle Joe, helping him overthrow the United States.
But today, what widespread penis-thievery-level panics are there? What completely irrational fears, deeply believed by small sections of the non-mentally-ill population? My entry for bizarre modern white culture-bound syndrome is the "Satanic Ritual Abuse". Most people have heard of it; enormous numbers of people believe it is happening, and a fair number of people claim it's happened to them.
"Witchcraft" can still happen.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
By Charles Mackay
Ponzi Schemes, Invaders from Mars & More Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
By Joseph Bulgatz
(Update of Mackay. Even more interesting but no preview on the web.)