Magicology (V): the colonialism of the European vision


In the last part of this series (Magicology IV: the magical mentality), we discussed, among other issues, how magic could be perceived from the believing side and from the mere spectator side, as well as the skeptical visions or the generalist visions where "intuits or understands" its effectiveness or characteristics. Up to this point we have been speaking, above all, from a perspective that delves into the studies of magiology in the medieval and early modern world. But the Modern Age will take a political step towards colonization that will cause an added vision, which is foreign, foreign magic and religion, and civilizations considered "inferior" for Western man. In this way, magic, which at the end of the 18th century has made the journey from absolute medieval belief towards curiosity and skepticism, except in esoteric nuclei, in the Contemporary Age finds cultures that are unknown to it, and that He tries to analyze from his enlightened perspective, being amazed and scared in equal measure at what, until recently, were rituals very similar to his own.

Firstly, we will find that, given the doubts that cultural clashes and different polytheisms may generate, moral balances will be sought to justify both acceptance and rejection. For example, the distinctions between religion and witchcraft, even without knowing the cultural bases, will be made, at first glance, evaluating as witchcraft what is considered archaic, harmful or morally bad (see, rituals that require animal or human sacrifices, figures and voodoo dolls, sexual issues), while prayers, bloodless offerings or dances will be considered religious and positive, which can be redirected to European religion.

Secondly, Westerners will be pleased to encounter a cultural simile: the persecution of witchcraft. On all continents, witchcraft, feared, is persecuted and punished, along with the defenselessness and perversion of the figure of women. However, not everywhere every practitioner of magic was persecuted, and the clearest example is the shaman, whose main function was the well-being of his community, being a medicine man and spiritual guide, the last bastion when priests, members of formal religion, they fail to identify the origin of evil; Well, normally, religion attributes evils to poor communication with the gods, to their anger... but when after fixing ritual or personal errors, the evil continues, then it is considered that there is another external force causing damage, that is say, witchcraft. Against witchcraft, pre-Hispanic priests did not have as many weapons as the shaman could have, nor did Christian priests have them.

The figure of the medical shaman was not evaluated as negatively as that of the shaman who knew how to undo spells, even if the spells were cast by others, truly malicious. While native knowledge of herbology was always widely valued, anti-spells or remedies were viewed with suspicion by Europeans, because if one knows how to undo them, it is because one knows their praxis in the first instance. However, a characteristic of the shaman is that he never acts to attack, harm or kill, if not in defense of his community. Furthermore, the shamanic figure overlapped in power and popular belief with the state religion, whether pre-Hispanic or Christianity, and that could lead to uprisings. The shaman, who lives in isolation, who consumes hallucinogens and performs extravagant rites for outsiders, and who also knows magical matters, ends up finding his simile in the European mind with the sorcerer. And therefore, their acts are criminalized, work with spirits and natural forces is demonized, to discredit them, and therefore, to lose their influence on people (López Pereda, 2014).

As for the witches, the association was much simpler. Not only because it was much easier to find the weaknesses "of sin" in women, but because in the shamanic world, with some exceptions, women also had a place, whether as doctors, as spiritual guides or through mediumship. Furthermore, the pattern of the single, marginal or widowed woman who sold her knowledge of herbs in exchange for social position and some profit was repeated. On the other hand, the woman who knows about magic but was not a shaman could only be a witch, and the fact that they were consulted above all for questions related to love affairs or revenge only added points to the comparison with the western witch While the shaman does not harm without reason, the witch does it without remorse and also charges for it.

There are several substantial changes that take place through contact with Europeans, and that we can generally evaluate in America, Africa and Asia: for example, associating the acts of witches with demonic relationships, trials and confessions (and extortions) with suspects, and in other places, the expansion of the market for amulets and talismans against it. In the end, it is still about adaptations to the government of the Europeans. Other issues were much more visual: ritual cannibalism was automatically condemned and eliminated.

Let's start with Spanish America. The arrival of Christianity represents a complete alteration of the indigenous worldview. But traditions carry a lot of weight and, at a certain point, even the Inquisition begins to make distinctions about who can be considered guilty of the crime of witchcraft and who cannot. (We accompany the original text in Spanish with its translation in English)

<< Se os advierte que, por virtud de nuestros poderes, no habéis de proceder contra los indios del dicho vuestro distrito, porque por ahora, hasta que otra cosa se ordene, es nuestra voluntad que sólo uséis de ellos contra los cristianos viejos y sus descendientes...>>

Historia de la Inquisición en España y América, 1984 (vol. I, p. 727)

<< You are warned that, by virtue of our powers, you are not to proceed against the Indians of the said your district, because for now, until something else is ordered, it is our will that you only use them against the old Christians and their descendants...>>

It was considered, therefore, that the heretical acts of the American Indians were a product of ignorance of the "true" religion, or even that the devil led them into error out of ignorance, and therefore, they could not be punished, as they were not "sinners." conscious". This was a double-edged sword because, by not being punished, we have not received many of their testimonies or descriptions of their magical acts, losing a large part of the indigenous magical culture. Luckily we preserve a minimum that helps us establish a general thought of the time, and that is currently becoming a ladder to bring to light the pre-Hispanic culture buried under Christianity. To cite an example, it is common to believe that the shaman, sorcerer or witch had the capacity for metamorphosis (the best-known example being the Mexican nahual), as well as bilocation. We also know the use of peyote as an exceptional magical herb for all uses, from healing to divination. And speaking of divination, even today in some environments beans or corn fulfill this function.

With the passage of time, traditions intermingle and the Spanish vision prevails, creating a curious mixture: the cursing figures, spread throughout the world, in America were made mostly with corn, but in a rapid period Over time, due to Spanish influence, corn was abandoned and they were made of wax, clay or metal, that is, of materials that "melt" instead of simply burning: it is a change of mentality that destroys a person. Another is the case of the salamancas. As could be seen in the article in La Cueva de Salamanca, in America the use of the word salamanca spread as a cave where magic is practiced or where the devil lives. The caves, which have always been places of witchcraft, in that they are difficult to access, isolated and allow the secret meeting of practitioners, although they are also places of smuggling and clandestine parties. Thus, the group of people who gathered in a cave to celebrate, eat, drink and/or have sex around a light source (obviously necessary in a cave), was easily identified as a coven. We have testimonies, especially from accused women, who confessed to "passing tests" to enter the caves, having to undress, walk in the dark, and perform the osculum obscenum with the demon, or failing that, a goat that would become their demon. familiar. Of course, in many rural areas, goats were such popular sustenance and animals that the search for a demonic simile is even laughable. The important point of this analysis lies in the need to relate a clandestine and socially illicit act with the demonic presence in order to be able to label it witchcraft.

To finish with Spanish America, it should be noted that European witchcraft certainly caught on easily among the natives, perhaps due to the similarities in the use of herbs or because they presented similar patterns. On the other hand, Christian prayers become the new magical songs: (english below)

<< Aquí te ato y aquí te encanto, en nombre de la Virgen y del Espíritu Santo>>

<< Here I bind you and here I enchant you, in the name of the Virgin and the Holy Spirit >>

It is just an example of the multiple rubrics that were performed after spells with much more native elements, such as the use of "dream bones", dissecting or using parts of hummingbirds and vultures, herbs soaked in body fluids wrapped in braided colored threads to wear on the belt, carrying lodestone as an amulet, or controlled use of the famous yagé or ayahuasca.

Regarding North America, the virtual absence of miscegenation and the rapid extermination have not left much more than the memory of those who ended up on reservations. Even though in Canada the situation of the natives is currently much more hopeful, this is not the case for all the traditions that were lost along the way. We barely preserve spiritual and shamanism issues, but to what extent something was magic or religion, spirits or bad desires, for these people, we can only deduce from the oral tradition versions and current comparative ones. We can find many spells and incantations that claim to originate from Native Americans, but the truth is that from their praxis we can deduce that they are only good-willed transpositions of modern Western witchcraft.

Something similar happened in Australia. First being a destination for "prisoners", when valuable resources began to be found, it became a destination for people looking for new beginnings, leading to very rapid British advance. Repeating the pattern of the Native Americans, after wars and resource scarcity, the aborigines ended up on reservations, in small groups and losing much of their cultural identity. Of their "witchcraft" we exclusively preserve testimonies from anthropologists and those preserved in collective memory. We know the bunjil (sorcerers) and their various spells, good and bad, as well as their totemic spirituality. But there were not many vestiges of the fears or interpretations of the beliefs of one side or the other. We have evidence that in the first colonial houses hexafolios (six-petal flowers), crosses and other "witch marks" were engraved on doors and stone to defend against them, in addition to small animals and sandwiched clothing. As far as the aborigines were concerned, fears of the British were more about invasion, war and limitations on food and hunting areas than about beliefs, which were mostly Christian and precisely anti-witchcraft. Finally, what survived the most was shamanic medicine and spiritual purifications and initiations as identity marks.

In sub-Saharan Africa the colonial situation was quite different, since, to begin with, there was no intention of evangelization or miscegenation. The Europeans (French, English, Belgian, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German...) dedicated themselves more to the exploitation, sale of slaves and trade in general than to the creation of a society "in the white way", except in which referred to their own rooms. This did not prevent the images of African religiosity and its witchcraft from also colliding brutally. In Africa, unlike in America, there was no sense of "moral defenselessness" among Africans in the face of the "true religion," for two main reasons: first, that they largely shared an Islamic vision, since in the north Africa was the predominant religion and in turn, Arab popular traditions shared much with African and Asian religions (see, for example, the belief in jinn or djinn); Furthermore, monotheism was not unreasonable in polytheistic religions in which there was in itself a multiple and all-powerful divinity that lived in the heavens; The second reason, because the notion of witchcraft previously existed in Africa, in terms of the belief that people with bad intentions could cause harm to the people, the animals, the crops, the climate... There are also the concepts of evú and ekong, among others, which define "the evil" that enters a person, and that inclines him to perform witchcraft against his family, neighbors or acquaintances.

Unlike what happened in the Hispanic world, in sub-Saharan Africa a racial regime was automatically imposed, which religion made no effort to equalize. Included within the racial regime were the ideas of the "primitive" and the "superior", pseudoscientific and racist visions that perpetuated the vulgarization of every act carried out by Africans, including, of course, their religions and their systems of witchcraft, which they saw themselves as "spiritually and intellectually inferior"; However, in the general imagination fear and the effectiveness of African arts still prevailed, so that they were avoided through comparison with European witchcraft, and through the application of coercive measures, such as trials, punishments, fines... especially against potions and inhalations, considered drugs and poisons, as well as against those rites that included meetings (preventing uprisings) or matters of blood.

There were witch hunters among both the military and missionaries, and many African customs and traditions came to be considered witchcraft. Ethnography works have compiled the measures adopted by the Africans themselves, for example, the extension of surveillance in cemeteries, due to the popularity of magic with bones, not only in rituals, but in divination: the bones used to be animals in traditional magic, but for more powerful and mostly evil rituals, human bones are (as in most cultures) of great value. Protective and revitalizing concoctions were very popular, along with amulets, and their use was often combined when it was understood that the discomfort was due to an act of witchcraft, but the recipes had to change and the concoctions became exclusively medicine. , without being accompanied by any magical prescription, at least, publicly. Horns or fangs, which had always been a positive, protective ornament and amulet, came to be considered suspicious and later their simple possession could be proof of witchcraft. In this regard, methods of identifying witches spread, through the use of mirrors that captured spirits in a different way, or special drinks (mucapi or mwafi, depending on the region) that made it possible to detect who the witchcraft practitioner was, usually by provoking a negative reaction in those who consumed it. There were beliefs about physical characteristics typical of witches, such as the Azande mangu, a variable physical peculiarity that was found in the stomach of people who inherited it. Ironically, mungoma, fortune tellers, were used to detect whether a situation was the product of witchcraft or not, and the nganga, medicine men, were used to acquire amulets or ritual expiations.

In India, witchcraft was also previously persecuted, as part of the thinking of rural people who suffered from different plagues and problems that compromised their survival. Killing the witch that affected the fields - be it a girl, young woman, married woman or old woman - was something that unfortunately continues to this day in rural areas. In the testimonies we have received it can be seen that the trials of the British were assisted by a bhopa or local witch hunter. The way of extracting confessions did not differ in cruelty from what already existed: the most common, tying the witch to a tree, sometimes upside down, and beating her or burning her with fire or boiling oil, until she confessed. Also to prevent spells, chilli pepper was applied to the eyes of the supposed witch. The British were not surprised by something that they found parallel to Western witchcraft because it was considered "evil", and since these were specific cases in the most rural areas, they never intervened, and this in part led to attacks on witches in the countryside were considered part of the "witchcraft cleansing" that the British would establish. In other environments, witchcraft related to health or love potions had other risks but also many more advantages, among them, being more coveted and respected, and also developing in more urban or considered sacred environments. In any case, as has already been said, anti-witchcraft controls were carried out, not only for religious or moral reasons, but also political ones. Colonialism was not as flawless as it tries to present itself. Apart from various revolutions, especially peasant revolutions - since the caste system, in some way, left the foreigner out, but equated them with the upper castes - the astonishment of the British was curious when they verified that music, jewelry, colors , the dances... that all of this could be a symbol with a deep message that was understood at both ends.

Carrier (1992) records the use of telsindur, a mixture of vermilion and oil that went from being used to request divine blessings to being a mark of the insurgents, and therefore, a persecuted material. Among the previous practices we find divination, astrology, rituals and amulets. There were exorcisms and medical practices. It can be concluded that in the world of esotericism, yoga, meditation and especially magic as sleight of hand (snake charmers, rope climbers, fakirs...) attracted much more attention, and the vision of traditional magic and witchcraft They were not altered.

In Oceania and Southeast Asia, indigenous witchcraft and magic were already mixed with Islamic and Hindu culture. The persecutions of these religions towards acts of witchcraft meant that the arrival of Europeans with Christianity, or the Japanese, especially with Buddhism, did not cause a substantial change. On the other hand, even today what seems most feared and widespread is black magic or ilmu hitam, as they call it in Indonesia. Belief in the supernatural has always been present, and was maintained through oral tradition and the dukun, shamans who are primarily responsible for dealing with such forces through the creation of amulets, medicinal care, prophetic visions or divinations. , as well as offerings to divinities and various spells or enchantments. Encouraged by colonial ideas, the persecution of the dukun as possible black magic sorcerers had several waves with disastrous consequences; however, many of these occurred as a result of fraud or economic or sexual abuse by false dukun who took advantage of the people. rural or excessively superstitious. Curiously, these types of crimes were always linked to male dukun. The female dukun were in charge of acts related to women, such as menstrual pain or problems, fertility, or working as midwives, that is, in taboo situations in which it was preferred not to intervene.

Witchcraft affectations in Indonesia, on the other hand, were (and are based) mostly on the idea of ​​contagion and "sending of spirits", evil eye, etc., even unintentionally, so the stipulations of magic ritual in the Western way did not combine much with existing thought; On the contrary, black magic did require a more conventional ritual that made comparison and therefore rejection, persecution and punishment, as well as acceptance by the invaders, easier. Capital punishment for witchcraft was even more acceptable if it was someone in the category of slave or lower class, something that was "obvious" for the indigenous people, since they were the ones who used magical tricks to harm their masters. and the upper classes. Unfortunately, while some areas, such as Java or Madura, maintained, in some way, their own traditional laws (adat), in other areas such as New Guinea, all magical acts that involved death (animal or human), or some kind of defamation or attempted defamation, ended up being tried under colonial laws for these reasons, and not as witchcraft, so in both cases we have lost a lot of information about specific rituals, penalties imposed or accusations.
Something that was not taken into account then, and that is still little talked about, is how these transformations were experienced from within. The invaders were also seen as witches by the different indigenous people.

Guha (1994) also says that during the Sepoy Revolt, somewhat later (1875), the rumor spread that the British were contaminating the Indians by grinding bones into oil, flour and salt that were then sold. controlledly in the bazaars. Prophets and fortune tellers who predicted the fall of the invaders also spread, so they became persona non grata to be persecuted, and whom the Indians themselves could also distrust.
In Hagen (Papua New Guinea) there previously existed the legend of the kôm, stone-bird beings that get into people's bodies by entering through their mouths while they sleep, nest in them and produce innumerable desires, while feeding on the vital energy. These stones could be domesticated and bewitched to conjure individuals whom one wished evil, and were born from bewitched corpses thrown into rivers. Women in particular were very skilled in how to provide these stones with enough energy to reach their new-target home and feed on their victim, while radically changing their attitude, allowing themselves to be carried away by banal desires such as hunger, sex or craving. Well, with the arrival of the foreigners, its mystical origin became the body of the foreigners, who were loaded with gluttony, lust, and greed. A great metaphor for the exploitation of land and people. Christian cemeteries, so far from traditional family burials, also caused fear, as it was thought that this helped witches obtain corpses. Christianity also merged with indigenous prophecies about the end of times, and fear of destruction, violence and witchcraft were "clear signs of their proximity."

Even in the most recent history, we find examples that can make us smile, despite causing real fear among its people. White (2000) carried out a very interesting analysis about the vampire vision of Europeans by Africans. Considering that they sought to rob them of their vitality, rumors arose that the doctors and fire trucks, in which treatments involving blood were normally carried out, were actually owned by white subordinates, who sold African blood to Europeans. This practice was called mumiani, which in Swahili means "mummy", that is, a dry body. The natives did not trust colonial public services, and just as European witchcraft considered the use of human blood terrible, blood had that same connotation for them as well. They were also called vampires, because they saw syringes as an elegant way to extract blood.
Something similar also happened in Papua New Guinea, where white people were called "spirits" for a time, and where firefighters and police dressed in red and drove red vehicles, which in emergencies functioned as ambulances. They became even darker when they made nightly patrols. Here the police were called pren-kros, "angry friends" (friend or plain crossed), that is, they pretended to be friendly to convince you and take you to a hospital, after all, run by whites and from which you didn't know if you would get out. Let's also analyze that the use of straps on stretchers was much more common than time, and to detect certain diseases, blood tests were carried out no matter what, as it was the quickest and most foolproof.

In Australia and America, the acculturation of the continent by Europeans was too early for fears of preconceived witchcraft to manifest openly. And it can be said that, despite Christianity, magical traditions and superstitions survive and are combined without major fears, with the exception of radical groups, such as those that in 2019, for example, carried out a wave of burning Australian religious objects because they were considered "satanic", even though some of the participants were Aboriginal converts. It can also be seen that witchcraft has sometimes been the excuse presented to defend the image of the superior Westerner against "illogical fears." Not many years ago, in Brazil (Scheper-Hughes, 1996), something similar to the examples presented about doctors avoided hospitalization for fear of organ theft, without witchcraft connotations involved. But in Haiti, however, rumors emerged that the earthquake in the summer of 2021 was a consequence of the "excess" of witchcraft and voodoo on the island.

Pietro V. Carracedo Ahumada -


-Bowen, J.R., Sorcery and Law in Indonesia. - Watson, C. W.; Ellen, R. F. Understanding Witchcraft and Sorcery in Southeast Asia. University of Hawaii Press, 1993.
-Farberman, J. Las salamancas mestizas: de las religiones indígenas a la hechicería colonial. Santiago del Estero, siglo XVIII. Memoria Americana, 2005 
-Stewart, P.J., Strathern, A; Brujería, hechicería, rumores y habladurías. Ediciones AKAL, 2008

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> Australian shamans
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