THE WITCH TRIALS
An eighteen-year-old girl shook uncontrollably, followed by frightening and furious cries, then flailed her arms and legs, then howled. A twelve-year-old girl reported severe pains on her right side and suffered violent convulsions. In a worship service, an older woman fell to the floor, giving out howls and war chants, singing like owls, foxes, and pigs, contorting her arms and back, and made horrible expressions with her face.
Villagers were found with small effigies made from clay and sticks, into which thorns and needles were stuck. A few witnessed to hearing demons that spoke out loud and told them things that no one else could have known. Still others were suspected of being fully possessed by demons, and when the priest attempted to exorcise the spirits, it only increased their “great cackling and vulgarities”, and showed strengths that “would overcome four to six men.”
The Devil himself had come to dwell among the villagers.
But this wasn’t Salem in 1692, and it wasn’t the Puritans confronting the Devil. It was the Genizaro pueblo of Abiquiu, between 1756 and 1766, in the upper part of New Spain, later to be called New Mexico.
Father Juan Jose Toledo, the priest assigned to the Abiquiu pueblo in 1755, began writing reports to the Governor in Santa Fe stating that he had been bewitched. He had pains, would often choke and cough, felt a moveable ball growing in his belly, and had been beset with unimaginable pain that nearly killed him. He was sure that a man and his wife in the pueblo were trying to kill him using witchcraft.
Launching a pursuit of his tormentors did not slow his pain, but revealed many practices, rites, and ceremonies being performed by the residents of the pueblo, in addition to the common practices of the local curanderas [native folk healers who used local herbs to address illnesses] that often included the use of hallucinogens, prayers, and relics. In Father Toledo’s mind, everything was drenched in heresy and violations of God’s word. It was clearly the work of Satan.
Father Toledo’s situation soon deepened to include shapeshifting (someone taking on the form of an animal); the “shooting” of objects into other bodies (pebbles, pieces of cloth, rocks), which required someone sucking out the object to be cured; and several accusations that witches had caused others to die.
The lonely priest now saw himself as single-handedly leading a battle against the Devil, and continued to say so in long reports to the Governor, nearby priests, and other church representatives. The Governor, Tomas Velez Cachupin, imprisoned several prominent sorcerers, hoping that it would quiet the situation.
The next witchcraft episode involved not classic witchcraft, but demonic possession, causing Father Toledo to become a raging Soldier of the Cross, wielding the sword of exorcism without mercy. Unfortunately, the exorcisms seemed to inflame the outbreak instead of quenching it.
Governor Velez Cachupin had found the priest’s reports verbose, confusing, and self-indulgent. However, threatened with the seriousness of demon possession, he ordered a junta, a commission of priests and ecclesiastical scholars to examine the reports of Father Toledo and other witnesses, and to recommend how to deal with the situation. They met together in 1764, in Santa Fe and had long and heated discussions for two days. Afterwards, they had some minor recommendations, like continued destruction of profane sites and images, but the ultimate conclusion was that the matter should be submitted to the Office of the Inquisitor in Mexico City.
Fortunately for everyone concerned, Governor Tomas Velez Cachupin was an extraordinary manager and leader, and quite possibly one of the most competent men in 18th century New Mexico. A seasoned frontier Army commander and a man who desired peace, he had developed a mutual respect between himself and the Indian tribes of the Plains, as well as the local pueblo Indians, and had a great understanding of, and appreciation for, the conflicts that existed between the indigenous people, the Spanish government, and the Catholic Church in New Mexico.
He was particularly understanding of the Genizaros, the inhabitants of the Abiquiu pueblo, who were originally Plains Indians captured by other tribes and then sold to Spanish and Puebloan families. The lineage of subsequent families included Ute, Paiute, Kiowa, Pawnee, Apache, Comanche, and others, and, important to this moment, included the passing down of the various customs of each tribe. Unfortunately, the Genizaros were not considered fully Indian, nor fully Spanish, making them severely disadvantaged in a country with strong presences of both.
The Governor sent a report to the Viceroy in Mexico City that would then be given to the Inquisitor. It was read and summarized by an aide to the Viceroy, who agreed with the Governor’s assessment almost to the letter. In particular, the aide endorsed what Governor Velez Cachupin had identified as the primary source of all the witchcraft and sorcery at Abiquiu and the other pueblos: the failure of the missionaries to learn the language of the Indians.
The priests in New Mexico gave their sermons and religious instruction in Spanish and Latin, and relied on interpreters to explain their words. The interpreters could not give a word-for-word translation, as the indigenous languages rarely had the correct words needed. Instead, the interpreters couched the priests’ teachings in images, concepts, and beliefs that the indigenous audience would understand. Consequently, what was told might not be even close to what was said, especially with the Genizaros, who had an unusually complex mix of images, concepts, customs, rituals, and beliefs handed down from their ancestors.
When the priests emphasized sin and the need for conversion, for example, what was understood by the Genizaros was the requirement to give up their identities, which was, more or less, what Father Toledo was saying, but lacked the context of the overall picture of salvation. Surrendering their identity was, in the indigenous context, an argument for extinction, which didn’t sit well at all.
It was a conflict of worldviews.
Father Toledo’s worldview was built around separate, distinct, individual entities: God, Jesus, Man, Angels, Satan, Demons, as well as point-action realities, the big one being Sin, which separates Man from God, and was addressed by point-action responses, like confession and repentance. Augmented with a stress on the terribleness of Hell and Damnation, it was a system that revolved as much around threat as it did grace.
The Indians of the Plains, as well as the Navajo and Hopi, had a worldview with few words for sin and evil, and no word to describe being separated from God. God dwelt in everything, and his children, who lived among everything, defined life in terms of balance and imbalance, not connection and disconnection. Separation from God meant desertion on His part and would never happen. Those of you who have read Tony Hillerman’s books recognize the concept behind the Navajo word, hozro, and its meaning of order versus disorder.
If life balance is the problem, then Father Toledo expounding on point-action sins didn’t translate into anything recognizable to the Genizaros, and having a God who required point-action punishments didn’t address balance in any respect. Confession and repentance weren’t too bad, but the idea of conversion didn’t make any sense. Combined with other concepts, the expected relationships between teacher and students degenerated into deeply-felt resentment, rebellion, and defiance against the priests and their teachings. Insecurity, anger, and distrust fed directly into circumventing the teachings of the Church and using, instead, tribal lore, rituals, ceremonies, superstitions, suspicion, drama, betrayal, and spiritual intrigues that morphed into practices that, to the priests, looked like witchcraft.
Even the retrospectives involving the Salem witch trials describe the events as being the result of “mass hysteria” based on jealousy, fear, and the need to be recognized.
Governor Velez Cachupin understood the conflicts and could see how societal and spiritual misunderstandings would ramp up into social hysteria. However, he was a practical man and was not drawn into trying to straighten out everybody’s worldviews. He wanted action.
By the time the Office of the Inquisitor had responded to his report, the witchcraft outbreak at Abiquiu was nearly over. The marriage in Spain of the Prince of Asturias with his cousin, the Princess of Parma [whose celebrations included the general granting of amnesty for prisoners] accorded the Governor the opportunity to declare amnesty for the villagers he had imprisoned (some had died, so only a few were left). He did have a few conditions, requiring the freed prisoners to regularly attend church services, confess and receive communion, and to pray the rosary every night. There were a few stiffer penalties, but all were comparatively mild.
Three female witches did receive harsher sentences. Two were given strict don’t-do-that-ever-again type warnings and conditions, while the last, the one called La Come Gallinas, being recognized as having the worst behavior, was publicly stripped to the waist, covered with honey and feathers, and suffered four hours of shaming. Afterwards, she was assigned to serve in the house of a Spaniard for the rest of her life.
That was it. Cachupin had walked a fine line between the opposing cultures and their violent reactions to each other, but the witchcraft decade ended in peace. I doubt that any theological precepts or worldview conflicts were settled, but people learned to get along with radically divergent beliefs, while the Catholic missionaries were put to work learning the language.
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Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.