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Psychology, anthropology, and the Romanian folk magic.


Applying psychoanalysis methods and ideas in studying magic practices started with Sigmund Freud's consideration in chapter three of Totem and tabu where the famous Austrian scholar emphasized the importance of magic in revealing deep movements of the human unconsciousness. Due to a lasting skepticism expressed by anthropologists towards psychological explanation of cultural facts, they were not persuaded by Freud's results in explaining magic phenomena, with the exception of Claude Levi-Strauss' insight that I will discuss further on. Interested to extract the rationality of primitive ways of thinking, structural anthropologists especially could not agree with psychoanalytical theorists who were diagnosing magic as a form of schizophrenia.

Some scholars of magic explained the relationship between magic and psychoanalysis in an inverse sense than did professionals of psychological sciences. Researching the lasting influence of the great Renaissance thinkers in the understanding of magic, Ioan P. Couliano believed magic and the art of great prophets and magicians did not disappear with the contemporary advent of science, but that they have survived camouflaged in other various professions, such as that of the psychoanalyst. Therefore it is not psychoanalysis which could help us to trace magical behavior, but psychoanalysis is a modern and demystified form of magic (Couliano 1987: 104).

Freudian scholars have tried to defend the use of psychoanalysis methods in examining essential features and elements of magic, such as: the relationship witch-client, the repression of negative emotions in black magic, verbal therapy, etc. Freud imposed the study of magic for psychology as a field of analyzing the great effects of subjective desires and the power of human actions. Probably the most important continuator of Freud in this respect was the French psychoanalyst Geza Roheim, who made the effort to verify on the anthropological fieldwork the solidity of Freud's psychoanalytical vision of magic. Roheim's empirical undertaking in Australia and New Guinea was meant to fill the empty space left by his mentor and which was a topic much criticized by anthropologists. Freud's commentators tried to show the fact the father of psychoanalysis compared his results on researching individual psychic and isolated cases with behaviour patterns specific to organized simple societies like the exotic ones studied by anthropologists. Though using first-hand data, Roheim stayed close to Freud's insistence on the connection between sexual desires and magic, and overemphasized the primitive man's life of continual anxiety (Roheim 1988: 75).

In Freud's time, psychoanalysts' interest in studying primitive magic was made obvious by a special number of "Revue franfaise de psychanalyse" (published under Freud's patronage) in 1934, dedicated to publishing seven conferences on "Magic thinking" given at Sorbonne in the first semester of 1933, organized by Groupe d'Etudes Philosophique et Scientifique pour I'examen des Tendences Nouvelles. It is noteworthy that Marie Bonaparte, the author of the first conference (entitled La pensee magique chez les primitives) starts by extensively quoting J.G. Frazer's definitions and examples of magic in the Golden Bough (Bonaparte 1934: 3-10), and continues by presenting Freud's theory of magic. Though heavily inspired by the famous Cambridge anthropologist, Bonaparte remarks that Freud displayed a different understanding of magic than Frazer's. While the author of Golden Bough explained magic as a first step of man towards scientific speculations, according to Freud and his disciples, magic is a mere practical way created by man to help him control the natural and social forces of the world around him. The other texts in this special issue of the French publication deal with magic thinking in religion, at neurosis patients, in everyday life, in art, in dreaming, and in relationship with children. It is fairly known that Freud became interested in magic after reading the very popular books of Frazer. The first proof of his new interest appears in 1909, in his early text Rat Man: a case of "obsessional neurosis". Freud's theory of magic has at its core the power of the primitive man's desires, self-eroticism and narcissism; he also showed the importance of his method in clarifying the hidden mechanisms of magic, compared with the limited possibilities that descriptive anthropology had in this respect. Contemporary historians of magic theories evaluate Freud's as being purely opportunistic and think the father of psychoanalysis did not intend to generate a better understanding of magic thinking, but just to place magic under the jurisdiction of his newly created discipline (Sanchez 2007: 119).

If adepts of evolutionist anthropology used primitive facts to explain features of contemporary industrial societies, Freud did the opposite: he was decided to prove that clinical cases of neurosis could provide an explanation of magical thinking to which before him anthropologists had struggled to give an appropriate explanation (Augras 1996: 144). Recently, a Romanian historian of witchcraft also considered Freud's notes on magic as inappropriate and limited in scope for a comprehensive study of the topic (Pop-Curseu 2013: 19).

Anthropologists' rejection of Freud and his followers' treatment of magic beliefs started actually not with Freud, but with the father of modern anthropology and of psychological evolutionism, E.B. Tylor. The autor of Primitive Civilization was rejected altogether by the functionalist school and the Durkheimian sociology of religion and minutely criticized by social scientists. Instead of seeing in magic irrational beliefs and desires, sociologists of religion pointed out the rationality of magic and the high level of organization displayed by the system of beliefs and myths of the primitive man. The most interesting counter-offensive of anthropologists on the adequacy of using psychoanalytical ideas in researching magic practices, and revealing the similarities between magician and psychoanalyst belongs to Claude Levi-Strauss, and was published thirty years after Totem and Taboo.

Discussion on the similarities between magical or shamanistic practices and scientific psychoanalysis were especially encouraged by Levi-Strauss' discussion of the biography of Quesalid. The character was a Kwiakiutl who became a shaman after he was a skeptic. His trust in his own powers was strengthened by his community's pressure and belief system. Understanding magic as "a consensual phenomena" (1963: 167), Levi-Strauss takes on Quesalid's story in order to illustrate the importance of the collective will in the ritual agent's identification with his role.

Scholars of magic practices discussed the importance of real and simulated psychopathological symptoms of the shaman's ecstatic trance, such as the drug-induced temporary psychosis (the most studied being ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms), or autohypnosis, or recognizing a witch according to visible psychological disturbances.

An important contribution of Levi-Strauss in the field of introducing psychoanalytical methods in anthropology was developed around the practice of abreaction--a technique for which, thinks the French anthropologist, psychoanalysis deserves a lot of credit (1963: 182). It was pointed out by critiques of Levi-Strauss that the abreaction performed by the sorcerer for the silent patient does not respect the actual psychoanalytical method which normally implies a very pro-active attitude of the patient himself, while the analyst should restrict himself to carefully conduct the patient to this goal (Neu 1977: 120). Coined by Freud and Breuer (1893-1895) to explain the treatment of Anna O., "abreaction" comes from the German verb reagieren in its transitive use and the prefix ab, and it was defined as the technique of separation, diminishment and suppression of past events from the patient's traumatic memories (Laplanche & Pontalis 2006: 2).

Other critiques of Levi-Strauss underlined that the "consensual" feature of magic that the French anthropologist emphasized in the story of Quesalid (1963: 169) could definitely not cure a broken bone, and that the authority of the sorcerer could not be enough to produce clear physical effects on the patient's serious illness (Neu 1977: 114-115). Jerome Neu thinks Levi-Strauss has mistaken in generalizing one of Freud's statements about the connection between psychological treatments and physical processes, though Freud was referring just to neuro-physiological consequences (Ibidem 119). Contrary to his critiques, the French anthropologist tried to explain the real help that the folk healer offers to a patient suffering from somatic disorders by presenting him a logic of the complicated processes taking place in his body, enabling him to fit his painful experience into an intelligible order (1963: 182, 195-97).

Levi-Strauss insistence on the psychological support given to a generalized illness by magical abreaction was an argument that seems more suitable to be applied when describing a psycho-social affliction such as bewitchment. Levi-Strauss concentrates himself also on the psychological damage and the subsequent physical collapse suffered by a voodoo victim, trying to explain the strange cases of sudden death by magical means documented by anthropologists in exotic societies. It was shown that the community's treatment of a presupposed victim of sorcery had the power to induce a whole range of psychological and even physiological symptoms to the bewitched individual. Isolation of that tribe member was generally the first and the most striking measure taken by a community in its relationship with the victim. Levi-Strauss saw in this dissolution of the social personality the first and main cause of the subsequent damage of physical integrity (1963: 168). The symptoms both psychological and physical--described by researchers grow in intensity during the imposed withdrawal from the tribe: intense activity of the sympathetic nervous system, rejection of food and drink, intense anxiety, decrease in blood pressure, and end in sudden death without any clear evidences of serious affliction found at the autopsy (1963: 168).


The study of Romanian magic within a professional medical paradigm or as ethno-medicine (also used in Romanian with the term of Greek origin etnoiatria) was inaugurated in the first decades of the 20th century. V. L. Bologa believes that ethno-medicine or folk therapy comes close, in its empirical branch, to a naive understanding of biology, and in its mysti cal and spiritual one to psychology (Bologa 1970: 14).

It was the subjective language of the folk lyrical poems that attracted the attention of medical specialists who became interested by the poetical description of somatic disturbances generated by extreme passion or loss (Gomoiu & Gomoiu 1938). Sharing suggestive images with lyrical texts, charms were also considered to describe intense limit-situations according to the first students of folk magic in Romanian folkloristics (Densusianu 1968: 215). It is noteworthy that in their various classifications of folk texts, domestic folklorists placed charms or disenchantments in a distinct category called "medical poetry" (Vrabie 1990: 89) or "medical folklore" (Ciubotaru 2005). One of the earliest monographs of charms written in 1894 in Romanian was authored by Mihail Canianu who carried out his research under the general title "Din psichologia poporana" ("From popular psychology").

Studying diverse classifications of Romanian folk magic, it becomes evident that most scholars preferred to separate charms addressed to physical afflictions from charms dealing with love issues (Rautu 1998). This separation is however relative because in practice many charmers utilize rhetoric patterns, symbols and images to create texts directed to both categories of human problems.

For the purpose of this paper, I should mention that an analysis of the Romanian magical corpus reveals the broader use of psychologically-driven terms in the compartment of love charms. The reasons of this preference could be the subjective nature of romantic feelings and the social or interpersonal features involved by love and family relationships. It was Sanda Golopentia who has proven the importance of love charms within the Romanian magic tradition. The author of Desire Machines points out the similarities of this type of verbal magic with professional psychotherapeutical practices: "They are marginalized forms of psychological energizing and healing that can still be encountered locally in rural Europe. To the postmodern Western intellectual, whose insight is not blurred by exclusive cultural taxonomies, they might appear to be recessive counterpart of currently dominant psychotherapeutical practices" (Golopentia 1998: 10). Golopentia thinks love charms could offer the possibility of a better understanding of the other magic category --the one dealing with physical illnesses because love charms "represent the prototype for any symbolic healing, inasmuch as in the archaic dogmatism subtending them it is affirmed that people become sick, ugly and despised, are hated, or may even die because of incompetent (at times evil) existential or magic answers given to the basic questions of love and magic" (ibidem: 15).

The lack of love or just the delay of finding a proper spouse for young people belonging to a traditional society with strict social rules about the right age for getting married is explained as the result of a harmful magical attack instrumented by malevolent spirits. The supernatural beings accused of provoking illness or erotic unhappiness are many times considered to have been manipulated by human enemies. Within this context, the source of people's problems comes from the social sphere around them, and implies a sudden break in the solidarity system of a close knit community. Annihilating the origin of this kind of psycho-social affliction implies using long incantations that are constructed with "the design of a whole treatise of psychoanalysis" (Ursache 2001: 42).

We can distinguish in the Romanian corpus of magic texts dealing with love problems two types of attitudes or methods of acquiring satisfaction to the beneficiary. One category includes the so-called self-charms and seem to be an expression of will-magic or what Freud called "omnipotence of thoughts"--the need of the invocator to control the world around him/her. In Totem and Taboo, the father of psychoanalysis interprets this over-evaluation of mental processes within the context of the animistic beliefs of primitive men (Freud 2001: 99-100). Called by the Romanian folklorist Ovidiu Barlea "autodescantece" ("self-charms") (Barlea 1983: 15), they are based on the fact the magic performance is controlled by the person who is also the beneficiary: the charmee is identical with the charmer. From a rhetorical point of view, the text becomes therefore an invocation or a monologue with a dialogical dimension from which we hear just the voice of the first person singular. Self-charms meant to bring about a marriageable partner to the charmer display a diverse range of strong commands addressed to helping spirits.

The Romanian philosopher Ioan P. Couliano has shown how Renaissance thinkers were amazed by the somatical effects provoked by manifestations of Eros; they talked about the "vocation of suffering" or "the process of phantasmatic infection caused by the feminine image" (Couliano 1987: 22), and medieval writers trans formed the famous "love-sickness" into a main topic of their courtly literature. Love was inspected as a mental illness already according to the principles of Hippocratic medicine. The Romanian literature and folklore also register the combination of torment and delight created by these sentiments that affect both the body and the soul of the victim. A popular supernatural protagonist of Romanian folk mythology has been considered responsible of tormenting young women; the "Zburator" is believed to be an evil spirit, dragon-like which comes down the chimney during the night in the shape of a snake or a flame, and behaves like an evil version of Cupid as described in the famous novel of Apuleius.

Sharing the great significance of the first person singular with manifestations of what was called "black magic" or bewitchment, this type of magic could also be characterized as a form of "Will-Magic" in Leuba's terms (1912). Relying exclusively on the charmer's capacity to influence superhuman powers, self-charming received a demonic connotation within the critique of magic undertaken in ecclesiastical circles. It is indeed noteworthy how "Will-Magic" though so present in primitive or traditional societies seems rather absent in Western documents of the sort. Specialists explained this situation through the reality of a gradual interposition of Christian images and attitudes into magical texts. For example, a charm for fever and pain from 1879 suggests that the absolute authority for healing is not the charmer's power, but God: "When Jesus Christ came upon the Cross for the redemption of mankind, He shook, and his Rood trembled. The Cheaf Priest said unto him, Art thou afraid, or as thou an ague? He said unto them, and I am not afraid, neither have I an ague, and whosoever Believeth in these words shall not be troubled with anney Feaver or ague. So be it unto you." (Davies 1996: 23).

Another category of Romanian love magic texts is built upon the distinction between one active agent--the magic specialist or the charmer--and a passive observer--the beneficiary or the charmee. This category is the most common because it encompasses both love and healing magic. From the point of view of employing psychotherapeutical techniques, this group of texts has as a main and mandatory episode of its healing scenario the performance of un-doing (Rom. desfacutul) of previous maleficent magic attacks carried out by human or supernatural agents against the patient.

The significant psycho-social character of this type of magic is proven by the amount of social images and symbols combined in the text's structure. On one hand, the charmer depicts in vivid images the miserable state of the victim prior to finding cure; the charmee is socially isolated by the community, unwanted, unloved, ugly, and undesirable: "They hobbled his feet/ tied his hands/ muted his mouth/ cropped his nose/ blinded his eyes/ deafened his ears/ dressed him in a frog shirt/ pushed him in a frog shirt/ pushed him into a thorn pit" (charm published 1934, apud Golopentia 2001: 124). After the expert performs his/ her magic, the patient is presented as displaying the opposite characteristics; the restored social relationship are especially underlined in the texts: "I'll dress you in a smock of love/ I'll gird you with a belt of passion (...)/ May you be kissed by all villagers./ by all townspeople/ by all countryfolk" (charm published in 1934, apud Golopentia 2001: 137).

The patient's trajectory outside the social hell with the expert's help is enabled through procedures similar to the ones described by Levi-Strauss in his analysis of the shaman's role: "means of objectivising subjective states, of formulating inexpressible feelings, and of integrating unarticulated experiences into a system" (Levi-Strauss 1963: 172). The subsequent annihilation and recovery of the victim's social personality expose a generalized frame with which, according to the magic's laws, all different individual beneficiaries should identify themselves. The only changeable and particular aspect employed by the charmer according to the specific situation in which he performs the charm is the use of the patient's name. This lack of individual reference in folk psychotherapy and the fact the shaman takes upon him the process of abreaction leaving his patient in a completely passive state was one of the main critiques addressed to Levi-Strauss's theory of magic by psychoanalytical theorists. They asked how could abreaction have a real effect on the patient if the verbalized experiences are definitely not his/her own "flash back experience" or artificial "traumatic memories" in psychoanalytical terms (Erwin 2001: 4).

Similarities between self-charms and third-person-singular charms underline the fact both categories share the same source of conservative patterns of the folk imaginary. Self-charms emphasize self-understanding and self-discovery: "I saw myself with an ugly muzzle/ with back all bent/ with feet hobbled/ with mouth tied/ with nose cropped/ with ears deafened/ with eyes bulging/ with hair tangled ..." (charm published in 1875, apud Golopentia 1998: 47). Texts at the third person singular follow the same scenario and describe traumatic experiences of the charmee described in both physical and psychological terms: "He frightened him, frighten him he did/ he scared him, scare him he did/ he stuck him with an arrow, stick him he did" (charm published in 1934, apud Golopentia 2001: 126).

This resemblance proves the abstract nature of the "I" within the charming tradition. Even though self-charms give the impression of a consciously assumed state of mind, taking into account the interpersonal category of charms in which another person directs the patient's psychological state clarifies the consensual aspect of the both categories. This reality surpasses the narrow problem of magic and goes back to the basic functioning of a traditional society such as the Romanian rural one, within which its members are expected to conform to certain patterns of behaviour as well as of opinion and feeling. Scholars of primitive societies explained that this uniformity corresponds to the late development of the person as a category.

A reknown student of primitive religion and magic, the French sociologist Marcel Mauss approaches in a study published in 1938 the history of the category of the human mind and the notion of personal and of the self. Mauss concludes that the concept of "person" and the "cult of the self" are modern notions, as well as it is the awareness of the body or the spiritual and physical individuality. Other anthropologists more open to identify illuminating connections between their discipline and psychology admitted the difficulty to speak of "affective habits" from an anthropological point of view. The traditional societies are considered an environment in which individual experiences are culturally patterned according to trans-individual norms. It is like in close-knit communities there is not privacy for their members, a situation that has challenged anthropologists to study how selves and affects are constructed in a particular cultural environment (Rosaldo 1980).

Romanian folk magic discloses the kind of attitude traditional people generally show when facing daily social risks or personal liability: the tendency to externalize the origin of their problems. The cause of the most subjective types of disorders such as specific physical or psychological afflictions was located outside the individual. Researching the natives' point of view in a small Javanese society, the great American anthropologist Clifford Geertz discovered the total lack of the indigenes' perception of the soul vs. body divide; he noticed that the locals perceived their own person just a set of contrasts between "inside" and "outside" (Geertz 1983: 60). The "introspective turn"--as social historians called the movement of individuals becoming aware of their mental and emotional landscape and of the need to internalize mental control--was the result of a long process of cultural and social modernization of the European societies. Prior to that unprecedented development, "illness came primarily from some external alien essence intruding into the body" (Stark 2009: 13).

In conclusion, we could explain the paradox of Romanian love charms' tendency to find the origin of harm or individual un happiness in the social world or the supernatural realm to be the consequence of a particular worldview. Either directed from the inside--in the case of self-charms or will-magic, or from the outside--in the case of a specialized charmer, undertaking transformative action for the psychological well-being of the sufferer comes from the external order of life and the balance of social forces. In the absence of professional ecstatic healers fieldwork researches in Romanian rural areas revealed that the most important quality of peasant charmers was their capacity to psychologically calm their clients, and also their knowledge to listen to them: "The healer transmits especially the belief that he will be cured, and also the will to be cured things that today medicine and psychology acknowledge as being very important conditions of curing" (Ionescu-Milcu 1973: 459).

Abreacting in the victim's place, as Levi-Strauss' shaman did should not be a practice critically examined through the paradigm of modern psychotherapy, but understood within the life view of a certain type of society for which monitoring internal orderliness had still to be performed from the outside.


The authors state that they are no declared conflicts of interest regarding this paper


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Ioana REPCIUC--Scientifically Researcher, Ph. D., Romanian Academy--Iasi Branch, Romania



Department of Ethnology "A. Philippide" Institute of Romanian Philology Romanian Academy--Iasi Branch, Iasi, Romania


Submission: September, 5th, 2016

Acceptance: October, 9th, 2016
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Title Annotation:Multidisciplinary contributions
Author:Repciuc, Ioana
Publication:Bulletin of Integrative Psychiatry
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Dec 1, 2016
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