Critical Essays Witchery in the Southwest


Witchery in the Southwest has its roots in the Spanish and Native American cultures of the northern provinces of New Spain (which became the American Southwest). Spain's witch crazes differed from the witch crazes that occurred in Germany, France, England, Scotland, Switzerland, and other European countries during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In those countries, millions of persons accused of witchery were put to death. The burning of Joan of Arc in France in 1431 probably best symbolizes these crazes. In Spain, however, there was only a spate of trials and burnings during the Inquisition. Indeed, the Spanish Inquisition's attitude toward "witches" looms as a beacon of enlightened reason when compared to the hysterias that prevailed in the other European nations.

Nevertheless, the Spanish reflected the views of the European Middle Ages and divided the universe into opposing forces of good and evil. They believed in monsters, giants, wild men, and dragons, and tended to associate witchery with women. For the explorers of the sixteenth century, the Devil had an earthly domicile, and sightings were reported in many areas of the New World. Like the Spaniards, the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere held views of good and evil, but these forces were seen as part of life, found in every human and god. The Mayans believed in Ixchel, a death god equated by the Spaniards with the Devil, and the Aztecs held Tezcatlipoca as the lord of the night and the patron of the witches. In contrast to European views, witches among the Aztecs tended to be men. The Emperor Montezuma was himself a dabbler in witchery, and when he learned of the four-legged monsters with humans growing out of their backs (the Aztecs had never seen horses — nor men on horseback), he consulted his soothsayers.

Aztec witches were ordinarily held in high esteem because their black practices were believed to have been assigned by the gods. However, if they fell in disfavor or overplayed their role, they could be executed. To witches were attributed the powers to change themselves into animals, cause sickness and death, and fly through the air — sometimes in the form of a whirlwind. These superstitions were similar to those in Europe. Other commonalities included inducing illnesses. The methods differed, however, in that the Spanish used the evil eye (mal ojo) and jabbed dolls with pins while the Aztecs drew blood, introduced worms or pebbles into the body, or captured the soul. Other differences included the lack of organization and harmful qualities among those cultures in the New World. Spanish witchery was more organized and widely perceived as a general threat to social order. Witches were organized as bands of prostitutes, sexual deviants, and procurers. Old and New World forms of witchery melded together in New Spain and gave rise to a new body of supernatural lore.

Witchcraft (brujería), sorcery (hechicería), the evil eye (mal ojo), and other forms of occultism became part of the cultures of the Southwest. The use of potions, magic stones, dolls, the evil eye, black rituals, and other methods of witchery has been documented in the region for the past three hundred years. Spells of different sorts have been believed in by members of the populations in the region. A rain of stones has been part of this mythology. Medicine men and curers have been part of the folklore surrounding witchery, and their perceived involvements in dark magic have varied with the movements against, and executions of, "witches" that have arisen from widespread fears of bewitchment. The connection between them is herbalism, which is linked to both medicine and witchcraft.

Witches, it was believed, could be born or inducted, with practitioners conducting schools for those who wished to learn the power of dark magic. Others could become witches by entering into pacts with the Devil. These were known as Satan's witches, and their compacts with the Devil were attended by ceremonial gatherings. Villages believed to be infested with witches were often associated with sightings of bright flickering lights, balls of fire, and ceremonies involving goats and snakes. People believed that witches facilitated their travel by taking on the legs and eyes of coyotes, cats, and other animals. They also roamed the skies as balls of fire. Owls were seen as allies of witches and, often, as omens of bad luck. Should a family hear the hooting of an owl over its rooftop, the members would interpret it as a sign that evil was about to visit the home.

Among the Chicano/as of the Upper Río Grande, Catholic Christianity provided a bulwark and protection against the evil work of witches. The cross was seen as the most effective safeguard against supernatural attack, and devout churchgoers believed themselves to be protected against enchantment. Men named "Juan" were believed to have special powers to catch witches, and when a spell was perceived, a "Juan" would be sent out to catch the witch who cast it. It was believed that black magic could be turned against its spellbinder, and if it was done, the fate of the victim was reversed to the person who dispensed it. In such an instance, the witch's evil boomeranged.

Brujería is part of the folklore of New Mexico and the Southwest. It has remained as part of the cosmological views that inform the practices of Chicano/as in the region. For instance, the practice of storytelling among families has sent many a chill down the backs of children, enchanting them with scary tales about the mysteries of the universe.

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