Any discussion of witchcraft and sorcery in Mesoamerica had better start off on a cautionary note. Perhaps this note in question should briefly mention an incident or two in the long history of belief in and persecution of accused witches in Medieval Europe and Colonial America. One such incident involved Pope Innocent VIII issuing a papal bull on December 5th, 1484, thus giving support to Heinrich Kramer to begin investigations into witchcraft and sorcery in the German countryside. This resulted in the despicable 1487 publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches), a virtual guide to identify, accuse, and condemn suspected witches.
Two hundred years later during the winter of 1692-1693 in colonial Massachusetts, the Court of Oyer and Terminer oversaw what would become the most famous witch trial of them all in the town of Salem. This led to the execution of over 20 people, mostly women, and an additional four who would die in prison. One would like to assume we live in a world today that looks back on such events as archaic remnants of the past.
Sadly, this is not the case. The world continues to be plagued by witch hunts that are no less abhorrent than they were in the middle ages. For instance, a special unit of the religious police in Saudi Arabia is dedicated to seeking out “sorcerers”, the penalty often resulting in long prison sentences and execution. In Nigeria, children are accused of bringing misfortune through witchcraft and are tortured, killed, and left homeless. In parts of Africa, the AIDS epidemic and recent Ebola outbreak are thought to be caused by witchcraft.
As can be seen from the above paragraph, the topic of witchcraft and sorcery, or brujeria (as it is known in Latin America) is frequently approached with well deserving trepidation, especially in modern ethnographic practice. Asking about such questions can earn an anthropologist the fastest ticket out of town. Indeed, one must take extra care to not over sensationalize a topic that can have potentially serious consequences for living people. As anthropologists, we must remember that the words “witchcraft” and “sorcery” are Western constructions, loaded terms with historical baggage that carry a slew of negative connotations. So if we continue to use these largely negative terms, what exactly is our justification for doing so and what do we exactly mean by witchcraft and sorcery?
Many anthropologists have drawn a distinction between “witch” and “sorcerer”. This difference was popularly noted by anthropologist E. Evans Pritchard in his classic work on witchcraft among the Azande of Africa. A similar distinction has been made in rural Tlaxcala and elsewhere in Mexico. The words continue to be used interchangeably and we are still far from a consensus as to what the differences are. Much of this varies from region to region. It is a complicated subject and falls under much scrutiny along with other words that have proven problematic such as the word “shaman”. For the sake of clarity, these terms will be used to refer to maleficent magic that is used to harm others. However, it must be remembered that witchcraft and sorcery equal power and like all power, it could be manipulated in positive or negative ways. In fact, there is a fine line between acts of sorcery and witchcraft and those of curing in that those that have the power to kill and harm also possess the power to cure and heal.
Notions of witchcraft and sorcery are considerably ancient in Mesoamerica, probably extending back to the Formative Olmec and most likely even earlier. Such notions, however, are more identifiable among the Classic Maya and in Late Postclassic Central Mexico where both regions have an extensive amount of information to draw from. One poorly understood group of supernatural beings best fit the category of Classic Maya conceptions of witchcraft and sorcery. They are often depicted on Late Classic vessels in the animal form of a bat, monkey, canine, jaguar, toad or rodent holding plates of severed hands, feet, and other body parts. Known as Wahy, these beings were long thought to represent companion spirits or ‘co-essences’. This may still very well be an accurate description, however, more recent interpretations have seen these bestial creatures as more representative of sorcery and personified diseases.
Decapitation may be an act associated with sorcery in ancient Mesoamerica, just as it is in other parts of the world. A stucco façade from Tonina, Chiapas, depicts the so-called “frieze of the dream lords” which clearly shows frightening Wahy beings amidst a leafy bower or Classic Maya version of the Aztec skull rack known as a tzompantli (pic 7). One macabre skeletal Wahy named “Turtle Foot Death” clutches a decapitated head in his hand. Two other disembodied heads hang upside down from the leafy bower. Other examples of skeletal Wahy appear clutching human heads on a number of Late Classic vessels. In many cultures, including the Maya, heads are thought to embody personhood. In Costa Rica, trophy heads may have been both perpetrators and objects involved with sorcery while among the Jivaro of Ecuador, heads were taken as a direct response to witchcraft and sorcery.
Most of our information comes from Late Postclassic Central Mexico where there is an abundance of written texts recorded by the priests who desperately tried to eradicate native religion. If there is one particular deity for all of Late Postclassic Mesoamerica that can be described as the archsorcerer, then it is a distinction that clearly belongs to Tezcatlipoca, ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’ (pic 8). He was never without this main divinatory accoutrement, from which his name derived. Even though Tezcatlipoca was a sorcerer and known to bring disease, famine, and plague upon his people, he was also prayed to in order to avoid these calamities. He is a perfect example of how Nahua world view works. He is all at once dangerous and destructive, benevolent and caring. In ancient and contemporary Mesoamerica, the daily struggle is not based on the Judeo-Christian concept of good and evil but instead is based on one of order and chaos. Life is about maintaining balance, order, and equilibrium. There are forces that threaten this balance and order.
One such manifestation of this chaos appears as malevolent polluting winds known as ejecame (s. ejecat) that can disrupt rituals and cause disease. These are among many colonial and contemporary Nahua and Maya references to wind related ailments and afflictions. In many cases, they are said to be caused specifically by witchcraft and sorcery. In modern day Sierra de Puebla and other remote areas of Mexico, paper cut figures (pic 9) represent these spirits. In the Nahua village of Tecospa, Mexico, illness is caused by “evil winds” who are also water spirits. Offerings are made to them so that they do not interrupt the ritual taking place. These are particularly malevolent and indicative of disease, sorcery, misfortune and antisocial feelings such as envy, jealousy, and greed. Generally known by the Spanish malos aires (bad winds), it seems plausible that at least some of these negative functions of aires or winds have a pre-Hispanic origin.
Tezcatlipoca, as tutelary deity of sorcerers was also equated with the ephemeral night and wind (pic 10): “The night, the wind, the sorcerer, our lord. This saying was said of the demon Tezcatlipoca” (Sahagun 1950-82: 6: 254). Huitzilopochtli was also described as as a sorcerer: “...just a man, a sorcerer, an omen of evil; a madman, a deceiver, a creator of war, a war-lord, and instigator of war” (1950-1982: 1: 1), and was further identified with the yohualli, ehecatl, or night, wind: “Can perchance Tezcatlipoca, can Huitzilopochtli as personages speak to you? For they take a form only like that of the wind and the night” (Sahagun 1950-82: 6: 254)
Our most detailed resource on this subject comes from Fray Bernardino de Sahagún’s encyclopedic Florentine Codex, and his Primeros Memoriales. Among various magicians discussed by Sahagún were illusionists who could dismember themselves and perform sleight of hand magic. In Nahuatl, the word for an illusionist was teixcuepani “who transforms someone’s eyes” A motetequi can dismember oneself by placing his hands and feet in various places, while a tecalatia cuecaltica burns someone’s house with flames. His informants also identified different types of practitioners. Physicians were known as Ticitl. Whereas (pic 11) the good physician was a diagnostician who restored people’s health, set bones, stitched them up, and revived them, the bad physician was a fraud who killed with his medicines, worsened sickness, and was known to be a sorcerer and soothsayer.
The soothsayer was known as Tonalpouhqui. The good soothsayer read the day signs, examined, and remembered while the bad soothsayer deceived, mocked, and was a diabolical hypocrite. There was a degree of overlap between the Ticitl and Tonalpouhqui in that both could divine. These were done with different methods. The Ticitl would divine by casting lots with maize kernels while the Tonalpouhqui would read day signs with their sacred books known as codices. The Codex Magliabechiano depicts female physicians diagnosing illness by casting maize and beans onto a blanket (pic 12). An image of the wind god, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl sits before them.
Another common method of curing involved the use of the forearm and hand in which the curers used the left forearm from the elbow to the fingertip. The curer or diviner would often prepare by rubbing his two palms together with a mixture of tobacco with lime. He then begins his invocation by addressing his hands: “Please come forth, My men, Those of the Five Signs, Those of one courtyard, the pearly-headed Tzitzimime” (Ruiz de Alarcon 1982: 202-203).
In this particular invocation, “Those of the Five Signs” is translated as Macuiltonaleque, five spirit beings who represented the South and who formed the male counterparts to the Cihuateteo. The two calendrically oriented groups are frequently depicted together, often with physical deformities indicating their ability to inflict and cure illness. For instance, p. 47 of the Codex Borgia depicts the probable birth of these blind and crippled spirit forces from bowls and basins amid various noxious insects such as snakes, centipedes, and spiders (pic 13).
One of the most common forms of witchcraft and sorcery in Mesoamerica is the ability to transform into various animals (pic 14). For the Aztec-Mexica, this shape shifting sorcerer was known as Naoalli (Nahualli):-
’...a wise man, a counselor, a person of trust - serious, respected, revered, dignified, unreviled, not subject to insults. The good sorcerer [is] a caretaker, a man of discretion, a guardian. Astute, he is keen, careful, helpful; he never harms anyone. The bad sorcerer [is] a doer [of evil], an enchanter. He bewitches women; he deranges, deludes people; he casts spells over them; he charms them; he enchants them; he causes them to be possessed. He deceives people; he confounds them’ (Sahagún 1953–1982, bk. 4:31).
The 260-day calendar was especially important regarding individual day signs and whether or not being born on certain days was considered a good or bad omen. Some signs were considered good or bad and this impacted the fate or destiny of nobles, commoners and of men and women. Such destiny explained the varied positions in society, differences in societal behavior, and why one was lucky or unlucky. Destiny was clearly affected when an individual was born on the days 1 Rain (Ce Quiahuitl) and 1 Wind (Ce Ehecatl), two signs associated with a cast of anti-social characters who are often classified as witches and sorcerers. The day sign 1 Rain (pic 15) states that if one was born a nobleman on this day, he became a sorcerer and could change himself into a wild beast; if born a commoner, he could transform into a turkey, dog, or weasel. Also associated with the day sign 1 Rain (Ce Quiahuitl), were those known as Cihuateteo (sing. Cihuateotl), Cihuapipiltin (sing. Cihuapilli), and Mocihuaquetzque (sing. Mocihuaquetzqui).
In stone sculpture they were typically depicted with features such as a fleshless face, clawed extremeties, and disheveled hair (pic 16, left). These women were associated with the five western trecenas, 1 Eagle, 1 Deer (Ce Mazatl), 1 Monkey (Ce Ozomatli), 1 House (Ce Calli) and 1 Rain (Ce Quiahuitl). They were greatly feared by the ancient Mexica as they could descend on certain days (pic 16, right) to harm women and children with a number of illnesses including paralyses and epilepsy. A particularly dangerous place to encounter these ferocious women was at crossroads where such statues of them were placed. These women were propitiated by midwives and curers in particular. Europeans often referred to midwives and physicians, most of whom were trying to provide a worthy service despite the superstitious ways in which they proceeded, as “sorcerers” and “witches”. However, the Cihuateteo exemplified the standard Mesoamerican axiom. The same forces that were propitiated to heal the sick and protect children were also the ones that caused illness and disease and brought harm to children. They posed a constant threat but through ritual and propitiation, these darker forces were appeased less the dreaded Cihuateteo descend to earth to wreak havoc upon mankind.