The Symbology of Plants in Traditional Healing Techniques in Timor-Leste and its Desacralization on Social Media

Authors: Afonso de Almeida, Karin N.R. Indart (National University Timor Lorosa)
Speaker: Afonso de Almeida, Karin N.R. Indart
Strand: Semiotics and Semiology
Session Type: General Session


“This communication addresses traditional and ancestral healing techniques in Timor-Leste and their symbology. First, we present data from a study carried out in the municipality of Covalima. This study relates plants and their parts to the cure of certain diseases. We then compared the plants cited in the study to the use of medicinal plants in other parts of Southeast Asia. Next, we describe the requirements of the ritual to extract and handle the plants for treatment. The ritual demonstrates no healing powers of the plant without spiritual and ancestral powers (Lulik) invocation. Thus, the plant has symbolic healing power in the worldview of healers.
Finally, we present the analysis of a YouTube video with the performance of a healer who uses “bua malus” to treat a patient.
The video caption explains that the healer uses “bua malus” to reveal the cause (disease) and the causer (person who cursed) of the disease.
In this way, the power of “bua malus” is symbolic, as it is not the properties of the plant that heal. Instead, the ritual manipulation of the plant serves as an object of divination and diagnosis.
Revealing ancestral techniques was taboo until very recently. We conclude that as an object of knowledge dissemination in social media, the technique and its symbols undergo a process of desacralization.


Eliade, Mircea. (1963). The Sacred and The Profane.

Silva, Kelly (2020). Performing Modernities: Padagogies and technologies in the making of contemporary Timor-Leste.”

Keywords: Traditional Healing Techniques – Social Media – Process of Desacralization