Exorcism and Sorcery as Health Benefits?!

Luis Fernando Verissimo, a Brazilian writer, once proposed “voodoopuncture”. Instead of going to the acupuncturist, you would be treated without leaving home. The voodoopuncturist would stick acupuncture needles in the voodoo dolls of you! I add that voodoopuncture could be outsourced to Haiti and/or China. It is a win-win-win situation!

– Leonardo Monasteri, Brazilian economist

As unbelievable as this might sound, “voodoopuncture” is no fiction at all.

The practice is called “Tong Ren healing,” and involves needling or hammering an acupuncture mannequin, as if it were a voodoo doll. The main Tong Ren “Master” in the US is an acupuncturist in the Boston area by the name of Tom Tam. He treats groups of terminally ill and debilitated patients in a deliverance ceremony that is noting but a revamped Taoist exorcism — only the clay or straw doll is replaced by a plastic mannequin:

Unfortunately, Tom Tam is not the only licensed healthcare provider who is treating patients with hocus pocus and crackpottery. There are over 30,000 other adepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in the US who practice medicine based on notions of health and disease that are rooted in paranormal and magical beliefs. Some of these practitioners take their delusions to the outer limits of absurdity: consider, for instance, “acutonics” and “colorpuncture” as described in these videos:

In anthropology of religion, the principles that underline the above practices are called “imitation” (e.g. using a doll to affect a person), and “correspondence” (e.g. using a sound to affect an object). They are the hallmarks of what is called “sympathetic magic,” meaning the belief that a person, or a thing, can be affected through something that represents it, or that has similar attributes.1 The principle of magical correspondence in TCM is called wu xing (五行) in Chinese, and is known as the Five Phases/Elements Theory in English. It can be summarized as follows:

1. Everything (including our organs) is ruled by one of 5 entities: Water (水), Wood (木), Fire (火), Earth (土), and Metal (金) — which are also the Chinese names for the planets Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, and Venus.2 For instance, the heart is ruled by Fire (Mars), the liver by Wood (Jupiter), etc.

2. There is a sympathetic connection (or resonance) between things that are ruled by the same entity (or planet). For example, the heart is connected with the color red, the direction south, the summer season, a bitter taste, and the feeling of joy — because all of these are ruled by Fire (Mars).

3. All 5 entities are interconnected and act on each other. Disease is understood as a result of either the over-, or under-influence of one entity on another. For example, digestive disruptions can be attributed to “Wood overacting on Earth.”3

The concept map (pictogram) of wu xing is often drawn by placing the 5 entities in a circle, and then connecting them according to the lines of influence. The connecting lines create a “pentacle,” or a pentagram within a circle (Image 1).

Image 1. The pictogram of wu xing. Image Source:

This pictogram, unbeknownst to most TCM practitioners, is nearly identical to a sigil (magical or religious symbol) found in the Old Religion of Northern Europe, also known as “Wicca” (from the Old English word wicca, meaning a male sorcerer). The only difference between the Chinese and the Wiccan pictograms is that Wicca uses Air instead of Wood, and Spirit instead of Metal. The assignment of attributes (color, sound, taste, etc.) to each entity also varies slightly (Image 2).

Image 2. The Five Elements of Wicca.

According to the historian Cornelia J. de Vogel, this sigil was commonly used by the druids in the context of spell casting, and protection against evil and malevolence.4 It was likewise used in ancient Greece among Pythagoreans in the context of the cult of Hygieia (Ὑγεία, Salus in Latin), the Greek patron of well-being, sanitation, and the prevention of disease (Image 3). Notably, their brotherhood (an esoteric cult based on numerology) also believed in resonance between numbers, tastes, colors, sounds, and the classical elements.5


Image 3. Pythagorean pentagram in Three Books of Occult Philosophy (Libri Tres de Occulta Philosophia) by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486 – 1535). The word Ὑγεία (Hygieia) is inscribed on the outer circle.

In Christian Europe, some of these pagan beliefs and symbols were culturally assimilated. For instance, the pentacle became the symbol of the five wounds of Jesus Christ.6 But with the advent of science and modernity, magical thinking, its symbolism, and all the rituals that accompanied it were discredited as superstition and ignorance.

Paganism and magic, however, weren’t so easily done away with — and they experienced a renaissance with the American Counterculture of the 1960s. Vietnam-era demonstrations with large hippie contingents famously mixed politics with occultism, magic, and witchcraft. For example, at the mammoth antiwar protest near Washington DC, in October 1967, demonstrators performed a mock-exorcism to levitate the Pentagon and cast out its demons.7

The magical notions of occult resonance and interconnectedness now find their zealots in the growing Neo-pagan and New Age movements. These revamped notions provide the conceptual basis for energy or vibrational medicine, which includes not only colorpuncture and acutonics, but also herbalism, reiki, reflexology, crystal therapy, magnet therapy, aromatherapy, acupuncture, and many other methods to channel putative “energy fields.”

A 2006 publication reported that in 2004, the annual spending on various channeling methods and alternative healthcare in the US was about $10 to $14 billion. It also estimated the number of Americans involved with New Age activities to be around 12 million.8

The popularity of these unscientific ideas and practices in the last decades has had a terrible impact on the public health policy in the US. One consequence is the licensing of non-physician acupuncturists in over 40 states. As George Ulett wrote in 2003, “is a travesty that in this time of scientific evidence-based medicine, acupuncture treatments are given to unsuspecting US patients by some 20,000 acupuncturists, posing as primary care doctors.”9 Be noted that their number has now increased to over 30,000.

Another consequence is the attempt to mainstream TCM and energy medicine by means of lobbying and political pressure. This leads to national and regional healthcare policies that are not based on science and evidence, but on consumerism and financial interest. As Steven Novella writes in Politics and Science at the HHS, this tends to “contaminate” science, and change the rules so that a popular modality can get a free pass. Novella adds that “modalities that require political pressure to force them into our health care system are those that are not backed by good science.”

An example of politically-motivated healthcare policy is the Federal Acupuncture Coverage Act of 2011 (H.R.1328), which is sponsored by House Representatives Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), Judy Chu (D-CA). It intends to “… provide for coverage of qualified acupuncturist services under part B of the Medicare Program, and to amend title 5, United States Code, to provide for coverage of such services under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.”

Yet another example is the current pressure put on the US Department of Health and Human Services by Judy Chu (a Representative for a district with a heavy concentration of acupuncturists and apothecaries) to make TCM and acupuncture part of the “Essential Health Benefits.” These benefits are a set of federally-mandated services under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

This comes at a time when California State Senator Leeland Yee is trying to expand the scope of acupuncturists’ practice in his state to include the performance of “Chinese traumatology” — whatever that means.

If Maurice Hinchey, Judy Chu, Leeland Yee, and the TCM syndicate get their way, then revamped exorcism and sorcery will further infest the American healthcare system.

And if they don’t, I can already imagine voodoopuncturists in their cubicals in China, just like Leonardo Monasteri predicted: “…tap, tap, tap, can you feel me now?”


1. Frazer JG (Author), Fraser R (Editor). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion: A New Abridgement from the Second and Third Editions. Oxford University Press, USA; Abridged edition. 1998.
2. Walters D. Chinese Astrology. Aquarian Press. 1987.
3. Maciocia G. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists. Churchill Livingstone. 1989.
4. de Vogel CJ. Pythagoras and Early Pythagoreanism. Assen: Van Gorcum; 1966.
5. Burkert W. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1972.
6. Ferguson G. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.
7. Paglia C. Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s, Arion, Winter 2003.
8. Pike SM. New Age and Neopagan Religions in America. Columbia University Press. 2006.
9. Ulett GA. Acupuncture: archaic or biologic? Am J Public Health. 2003;93(7):1037; author reply 1037-1038.

Posted in: Acupuncture, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

Leave a Comment (33) ↓

33 thoughts on “Exorcism and Sorcery as Health Benefits?!

  1. Wow, I’ve read about “acutonics” before and even had a brochure delivered to the clinic I work at, but that video was brutal. “The tuning forks are calibrated to the frequency of the planets”? Jeeeeeessus.

    Also, it takes a lot to make me shake my head anymore, but a room full of people tapping plastic dolls with a pointed hammer pretty much did it.


  2. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ BigHeathenMike

    The video is Indeed brutal. There are many other notions in TCM that are related to astrology. Some acupuncture points are directly named after planets or stars.

    The whole concept of TCM is based on magical thinking…

  3. Ed Whitney says:

    Dibs on past life astrology!

    Conventional astrology looks only at your chart from this life. That is fine as far as it goes; if you are a Leo with your moon in Virgo and Aquarius rising, you have a certain amount of stuff to deal with. But if you were a Capricorn in your past life with your moon in Scorpio and Gemini rising, well, that will have a lot to do with how your present life chart affects your issues.

    Through channeling, past life astrology integrates your present life chart with your charts in your past three lives, giving a much more complete and holistic approach to how the universe is affecting your present relationships. Maybe your partner is an Aries, and of course we all know how they are. But if he/she were a Libra in his/her past life, then that explains it, doesn’t it?

    Anyone want to invest some money?

  4. Harriet Hall says:

    I’d love to see South Park take on this subject.

  5. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ Harriet Hall

    Featuring voodoopuncture in South Park would certainly be funny. But here, we have a situation were reality is stranger than fiction. And when I see this type of absurdity, I often don’t know if I should laugh or cry!

  6. Henchminion says:

    My historian whiskers are twitching.

    This pictogram, unbeknownst to most TCM practitioners, is nearly identical to a sigil (magical or religious symbol) found in the Old Religion of Northern Europe, also known as “Wicca” (from the Old English word wicca, meaning a male sorcerer).

    This is hooey. There was no one single “Old Religion” in pre-Christian Northern Europe, and none of the sects were called Wicca. I know of no evidence that the pentagram was the main symbol of any of these sects.

    According to the historian Cornelia J. de Vogel, this sigil was commonly used by the druids in the context of spell casting, and protection against evil and malevolence.

    Without having seen de Vogel, I am deeply suspicious of this statement. On what evidence is it based? There is not one single surviving arefact that can be securely connected with the druids. They left no documents of their own. I’m not aware of any mention of pentagrams in the brief discussions of their practice found in classical Roman texts.

    History, like science, needs to be based on evidence, not just on citations from questionable secondary sources.

  7. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ Henchminion

    Sorry for the confusion. I did not say the religion of the Celts was called “Wicca.” Wicca simply means a male sorcerer. They now call it Wicca.

    In “Pythagoras and Early Pythagoreanism”(1966), de Vogel states that the druids used the pentagram as a talisman in the context of health, good fortune and the prevention of disease. It was also worn as an amulet for happy homecoming.

  8. Henchminion says:

    But what are her sources for that statement?

  9. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ Henchminion

    Here’s a site on the history of pentagram:

    I am not sure how much of it is based on solid evidence. Please take a look yourself.

  10. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ Henchminion

    I do not have access to de Vogel’s book right now, but I can look it up.

  11. SloFox says:

    I have a few friends who have thus far been unsuccessful at launching careers in science fiction or fantasy writing. I’m going to suggest they take a stab at alternative medicine. It’s probably way more lucrative and there seems to be a considerably lower threshold for successful entry into the field.

    I’m currently working on special text messages that reverse the cancer-causing radiation generated by mobile telephones. You simply text “Save Me” to a number and hold the phone near your head. Within minutes you’ll receive a specially encoded text message guaranteed to reduce your risk for brain cancer and you’ll be charged a therapeutic $4.99.

  12. Mark Crislip says:

    L. Ron Hubbard said there was no money in getting a penny a word for writing science fiction, to get rich you need to start your own religion. Same thing.

  13. Andriy says:

    Only when you think people can’t be more rediculis you get voodoopuncture. Can’t wait to see faith healing done on dolls/pseudoscience on pseudoscience.

  14. Damien says:

    I was sitting with some work clients recently, and I listened to them discussing how it was so incredible that their chiropractor fixed their gallbladder with a simple spine adjustment, and TCM and blah blah blah.

    So I made up own AltMed nonsense, kind of like you guys are doing. I basically said that the real reason their bodies responded to anything at all had to do with a recent physics discovery of quantum reality fluctuations influenced by enmeshed counterparticle matter, which no one was willing to say was the basis of all consciousness, but it almost certainly was. Then I told them that it explained all the placebo effects that we have ever observed, and thus was the One True Cause of not only all disease but all health.

    Depressingly (unbeLIEVABLY depressingly) they both bought it hook, line and sinker.

    Now I can’t take them seriously, and I also can’t tell them the truth.

  15. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ SloFox,

    As you point out, CAM thinking and science fiction have a lot in common.

    The irony is that the ideas underlying acutonics are not new ideas at all. They are actually the premisses of what is called “astromedicine:” the belief that planets have a beneficial or malefic effect on health. This is expressed in much of the medieval medical literature. Take a look at the woodcuts in my 2009 post called “Astrology with needles:”

  16. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ Damien

    What you express here is partially explained by Michael Shermer in “Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time.”

    The root of all belief in nonsense? Ignorance.

  17. SloFox says:

    @ Ben,

    I agreed with you until you called into question the effects of the planets on our health. Of course, planets affect our health. If Jupiter were hurtling toward us instead of patiently revolving around the Sun I guarantee it would have a negative impact on all our life expectancies. You’re clearly thinking about this the wrong way ;)

  18. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ SloFox,

    Well, in this case, you may want to try Tong Ren Therapy and hammer or pin a model of Jupiter…Actually, you should mix the procedure with Acutonic, and tap the model with a tuning fork!

  19. woo-fu says:

    The definitions and cultural information regarding both Celts and Wicca in this post need updating–something from this century, perhaps, or even the turn of the century would help. I suggest Margot Adler’s most recent edition of Drawing Down the Moon for a good overview and Richard Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon for a more specific and academic history of Wicca. One should take as much care with research and analysis regarding cultural issues as is demanded for medical ones, especially when using cultural assumptions to make points about medical practice.

    The points you are attempting to make with this post get overshadowed by the gross generalities you make regarding religion and culture. Instead you seem to be attempting a straw man of sorts by putting everyone who practices an alternative religion or health treatment into one basket, and then labeling them all as basket-cases. What do you want to achieve with your posts? If you’re just preaching to the choir, fine, but I thought the goal of SBM was to educate. Unfortunately, the tone you take serves more to alienate.

    Perhaps a good look at Dr. Hall’s Building Bridges post is in order.

  20. woo-fu says:

    Apologies–it seems you do have a few more recent sources than I noticed the first time I read your article. However, some are simply new editions of old research, so there is much to question in terms of accuracy.

    In any case, I do see the need to post on this topic. I just take issue with the OT cultural lambasting.

  21. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ woo-fu

    This article is not about Wicca. The word is mentioned twice and all I am saying is that there are basic Chinese health and safety beliefs that resemble those held by other ancient beliefs, inducing Europeans.

    Since you seem to be quite knowledgeable in this matter, can you kindly elaborate on Wicca and inform all of us?

    Or some people are offended when I mention that the word Wicca means a male sorcerer? I am sure you realize that the words Wicca, wicked, witch and witchcraft have the same etymology. How is this offensive?

    Anyhow, this is a medical blog and I write mostly about the merits of acupuncture and TCM. If there are inaccuracies about Wicca or other pre-scientific belief system, kindly forgive my ignorance; and instead of pointing out the extent of my unfamiliarity with facts, kindly just enlighten us — like many other readers do. That would be very generous.

    Finally, if you read my article about the link between acupuncture and astrology, you will see why there are similarities between the health and safety beliefs of China, and those held in ancient Europe.

  22. woo-fu says:

    This article is not about Wicca

    I agree, which is why I felt the original topic suffered when the post ventured in that direction.

    There is nothing offensive about the etymology, but it is incomplete, especially as the term is used by practitioners today. Some define the term as the ability to bend or shape, but that definition is considered questionable in terms of evidence. The most common modern definition simply means “wise one,” and even that term is often used tongue-in-cheek.

    Yes, many comparisons can be made between ancient eastern and western belief systems. You could, if you wanted, expand the comparison to a global one by focusing on other select symbols. However, that would be even more distracting.

    To me it appears you are connecting the practice being described with Taoism and then by extension Wicca in order to show how silly the practice seems. However, if I claimed all chemistry is silly because I think its roots in alchemy are silly, that would simply be foolish.

    What is bothersome is that these cultural comparisons are somewhat biased and distracting to your original point regarding a very specific alternative practice. By the tone of your writing it seems assumed that anyone who would practice Taoism, Wicca, or any other alternative religion would be anti-science, anti-medicine and anti-intellectual, when that just isn’t the case.

    instead of pointing out the extent of my unfamiliarity with facts, kindly just enlighten us — like many other readers do. That would be very generous.

    If everyone followed that directive, discourse on SBM would be far more amiable and productive. Perhaps I could have used more tact when making my comment. I’ll take that into consideration.

  23. Henchminion says:

    The Freemasonry site has lots of examples of five-pointed stars used in various times and places as a decorative motif, but it doesn’t explain how we know that ancient cultures associated them with anything related to health. Sometimes a star is just a star.

    I just don’t think this post has shown that there was any such thing as a Western healing pentagram before Wicca came along in the 1960s. By that time, Chinese and American cultures had been in contact for centuries. The Wiccans could very well have gotten their ideas from the Chinese. Either way, it doesn’t prove anything useful about Tong-Ren.

  24. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ Henchminion

    Again, this post is not about symbolism. It is about how ideas and practices that are based on exorcism and sorcery are making a come back due to New Age consumerism.

    The symbolism and its link to sympathetic magic is a side note, which a couple of readers have decorticated way too much.

    The important thing is not the symbolism. It is the fact that Maurice Hinchey, Judy Chu, Leeland Yee, and other TCM adepts are trying to make witchcraft part of the federally-mandated insurance plans.

    Please, let’s focus instead on what is really relevant: healthcare in the US.

  25. Henchminion says:

    *Shrug* History is what I do.

    My point is that if you’re going to criticize other people for being gullible about flakey science, it behooves you not to fall for flakey history in the very same post. Why should policy-makers listen to skeptics who get their information from Wikipedia and the Freemasons?

  26. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ Henchminion

    Which information are you referring to? If its is about acupuncture and TCM, I have a degree in it and a state license to practice it. I think I know enough about acupuncture to speak about it.

    If it is about Wicca, the reference is absolutely irrelevant. As I said, it is a just a side note.

  27. woo-fu says:

    Again, this post is not about symbolism. It is about how ideas and practices that are based on exorcism and sorcery are making a come back due to New Age consumerism.

    Yet, a significant part of this post does discuss symbolism. And the New Age consumer who wants medicare to cover magic and run doctors out of practice is just an elaborate, if somewhat convoluted, construct. It seems you are attempting to link all these movements and practices together into an organized anti-science, anti-medicine conspiracy.

    Please, let’s focus instead on what is really relevant: healthcare in the US.
    A significant step would be to address the consumer, even if they are, as you say, New Age, in a respectful manner in order to open up the possibility of communication and education.

    To get back on point. I must say this is one technique I haven’t heard of before; although, it does seem to be common practice for individuals who claim to practice energy medicine to say that it works just as well over the phone. Of course, that leaves a lot open to interpretation!

    However, I don’t think they’ll see much in the way of governmental insurance coverage, at least not any time soon. The government plans I’m aware of don’t even cover neuromuscular massage, when that has, I believe, a much better track record regarding physical therapy benefits.

  28. Anthro says:

    I used to joke to friends when I lived in a very New Age-y town, that I was going to open up a practice in Phrenology, or reading head bumps, and get my share of the “business” of fleecing the locals.

    It doesn’t seem like such a joke anymore. I could have been rich by now. After all, a friend from that town recently wrote to tell me about her new tuning forks–and, I thought she had taken up music. She is, in fact, adding this “therapy” (acutonics?) to her massage “practice”.

  29. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ Anthro

    Indeed, all these philosophical “zombies” are making a comeback! Acutonics, color therapy, Chakra balancing, visualization, etc. and all of them claim they have discovered the latest thing, when, in reality, some of these ideas literally come from the Bronze Age!

  30. woo-fu says:

    @Ben Kavoussi

    Do you really mean ALL, or is this generalization just a bit of hyperbole to make your point?

    Not all practitioners claim the techniques are new, some take pride in the fact that they are rooted in ancient tradition, not that they should. I’ve heard claims pitched both ways in marketing. Either way, claims made based on age are entirely irrelevant in determining efficacy. The marketing of medicine, Big Pharma or Big Nutra, is the scourge of healthcare and distracts people from the science behind the medicine.

    Some of the techniques you’ve mentioned, such as visualization, actually can be beneficial in terms of stress reduction. I don’t claim it is a cure, but when I use visualization techniques, I feel less pain and anxiety. Many of my medical problems, including asthma, get worse with stress. When I can use a technique to reduce that stress, it has a positive effect on my symptoms. Again, I don’t claim any cures here, but the practice does help me.

  31. woo-fu says:

    Either way, claims made based on age are entirely irrelevant in determining efficacy.

    Just wanted to clarify that I’m referring to techniques and philosophies with that comment, not products such as medicine.

  32. woo-fu says:

    There’s a conversation in the comments of the SOS-DD post relating directly to this one. In the process of debating the details, I realized that I could have worded my concerns with your post much better, and I fell into the same emotional trap I accused you of doing. For that you deserve my apology.

    The specific technique you discuss here is an interesting twist on old philosophies. (Although, it seems closer to Appalachian poppet magic than traditional Voudou.) One that promises lots of quick cash via phone consultations, is completely unregulated and by all rights should be thoroughly investigated.

    I get that you are trying to show how these modern variants are little more than varnished versions of ancient philosophies coated with layers of sciencey-sounding doublespeak. In my previous comments, I was really trying to point out that not everything based or inspired by ancient philosophy is automatically hokum; of course, neither does it make it golden.

    I have difficulty figuring out where you stand regarding individuals who may practice what you would call alternative techniques or religions, especially individuals who are science-lovers and, for the most part, logical rather than literal about their practice. Do you feel they, too, add to the tide of woo, or might they be the very people who could help ground others who prefer to take flights of fancy?

    I ask because I know Taoists, Pagans, Wiccans and even traditional Pentacostals who are scientists and doctors, who go to the physician when they are ill, and who accept the validity of vaccinations. These people prefer to debate using logic rather than emotional appeals or magical thinking. Their practice simply benefits them socially, emotionally and, depending on the practice, physically. However, they do not see it as the answer to life, the universe and everything.

    It is not my intention to simply insult you; I just want to understand your position. And I want to check to see if you realize that not every group you mention and certainly not every member of said groups is a cheerleader for SCAMs.

Comments are closed.