Witchcraft is powerful in Mexico. A spiritual cleansing can safeguard against bewitchment. A wife can put a spell on a husband to stop him philandering. A storekeeper can hire a witch to put rivals out of business.
Witchcraft has been working since before the Spanish arrived. In Aztec society, shamans were respected for their healing powers and spirituality. Naguales could shapeshift into dogs, jaguars or pumas.
The Spanish brought Satan to Mexico and the concept was grafted onto the local world view.
Witches in Spain were burned at the stake, their powers deemed diabolical. Yet while sorcery was condemned by the church, the Spanish conquest inspired a witchcraft boom in the region. Iberian spells and techniques were adopted by the natives. Hair and blood were combined with indigenous materials like plants, seeds, or bird feathers.
This hybrid culture of sorcery has reigned ever since.
As Jose Gil Olmos documents in his book, The Witches of Power, magical thinking has flourished among the nation’s powerful. Francisco Madero, the “father of the Mexican Revolution,” spoke to the dead, President Jose Lopez Portillo believed he was an incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, and Carlos Salinas sought counsel from a crack team of sorcerers.
What’s more, the rapid growth of the cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death) and the rising interest in folk saints like Niño Fidencio, Jesus Malverde and Juan Soldado show that the Vatican has been unable to impose limits on Mexico’s culture of devotion.
But what if you’re a skeptic of the paranormal? Is it right to dismiss witchcraft as having no place in society, as being of no interest or value simply because it’s unscientific?
The answer is no, for a number of reasons.
Historically, magical thinking has played a key role in regulating indigenous communities. Fear of bewitchment helps safeguard against selfish and threatening behavior. In addition, magic can help protect natural resources. In Miradas indigenas sobre una naturaleza entristecida, (Indigneous Gazes Upon a Saddened Nature) anthropologist Elena Lazos and ethnologist Luisa Pare demonstrate that environmental sustainability depends in large part on the collective social myths of the community. Using more resources than necessary or hunting pregnant animals are misdemeanors that can be swiftly punished by spells.
The animism of native Mexican religion promotes respect for the environment because it says that everything in nature, every tree and rock, is inhabited by a sacred essence which the shaman can access for guidance.
British writer and magician Alan Moore sees shamans as direct channels of the divine. The Spanish priests brought to replace them compare very unfavorably.
“When Christianity comes in, when monotheism comes in, then all of a sudden you’ve got a priest cast moving in between the worshipper and the object of worship,” Moore says. “You no longer have a direct relationship with the godhead. The priests don’t really necessarily have a relationship with the godhead. They have just got a book that tells you about some people who lived a long time ago who did have a direct relationship with the godhead.”
Of course, to a skeptic who rejects the concept of the divine, the idea that animism brings it closer is just another fiction. But this doesn’t mean that Latin American magical systems can’t teach contain valuable lessons.
Santeria practitioner Charles Guelperin points out that the orishas, or gods, in his religion have parallels in a variety of other cultures and have emerged independently in different times and places. Obatala, to take one example, is the greatest of gods. He dresses in white and is the ruler of the sky, exactly like Greek god Zeus.
“In Greece, Obatala is Zeus. Shango is Apollo. Oshun is Aprohidite,” he says. “In Egypt, Osiris, Horus, and so on and so forth. Even China has the same orishas that we have. In Japanese Shinto there are the same orishas.”
U.S. mythologist Joseph Campbell sought to find connections between the myths of different cultures.
His philosophy can be summarized by his statement that “every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.”
Campbell believed that the parallels between myths prove that the stories reflect timeless truths.
“You’ve got the same body, with the same organs and energies, that Cro-Magnon man had thirty thousand years ago. Living a human life in New York City or living a human life in the caves, you go through the same stages of childhood, coming to sexual maturity, transformation of the dependency of childhood into the responsibility of manhood or womanhood, marriage, then failure of the body, gradual loss of its powers, and death. You have the same body, the same bodily experiences, and so you respond to the same images.”
Campbell takes the Aztec legend of an eagle wrestling with a snake as an example. This myth, which chimes deeply with all humans, was found in Ancient Babylon and in Buddhism, Hinduism, and medieval Christianity.
“The serpent bound to the earth, the eagle in spiritual flight – isn’t that conflict something we all experience? And then, when the two amalgamate, we get a wonderful dragon, a serpent with wings. All over the earth people recognize these images. Whether I am reading Polynesian or Iroquois or Egyptian myths, the images are the same, and they are talking about the same problems.”
It is common to use scientific arguments to dismiss magic as nonsense. Personal and eyewitness testimony are the lowest form of evidence and fall short of the standards required by scientists. Randomized, controlled studies have debunked superstitious claims and enhanced our understanding of the world.
But science also shows that metaphor and imagery can have very real power. The healing practices of Latin American witches may rely on therapeutic suggestion, but that does not invalidate their effect.
In fact, the placebo effect is the most natural, least invasive medicine of all. Some studies show that placebos can improve health symptoms even when the patient knows they are taking a fake drug. In the same way, perhaps even skeptics can benefit from witchcraft.
To Joseph Campbell, magical and religious rituals are an essential part of a healthy community. “If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times,” he warns. The news of the day chronicles “destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society.” During puberty rites in certain societies, “there are teeth knocked out, there are scarifications, there are circumcisions, there are all kinds of things done.” In modern society, these rituals have been abandoned. For Campbell, young people lack the rituals they need to become well-adjusted members of the community. So where do they find their myths?
“They make them up themselves. This is why we have graffiti all over the city. These kids have their own gangs and their own initiations and their own morality, and they’re doing the best they can. But they’re dangerous because their own laws are not those of the city. They have not been initiated into our society.”
Mexico’s indigenous communities face rampant social problems: alcoholism, violence, and unemployment. As a nation, Mexico faces acute environmental challenges and a narco-culture that prevails in certain areas of the country. In this context, it is difficult to celebrate the move away from animistic spirituality. A healthy skepticism of the supernatural should not lead us to dismiss the value, metaphorical power and beauty of indigenous systems of ritual and myth.