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Mexicolore contributor Jeremy D. Coltman

Witchcraft and Sorcery in Ancient Mexico

We’re sincerely grateful to Jeremy D. Coltman for writing specially for Mexicolore this fascinating article on the importance of witchcraft and sorcery in ancient Mexico, practices ‘at once dangerous and destructive, benevolent and caring’. Born and raised Southern Californian, Jeremy is currently working on his doctorate in anthropology at University of California, Riverside. He teaches part time in the Department of Anthropology at California State University, Los Angeles and is currently editing a volume on sorcery in Mesoamerica with Dr. John M.D. Pohl.

Pic 1: Title page of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1669 edition
Pic 1: Title page of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1669 edition (Click on image to enlarge)

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.

Pic 2: Witchcraft at Salem Village. Engraving, 1876
Pic 2: Witchcraft at Salem Village. Engraving, 1876 (Click on image to enlarge)

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.

Pic 3: Recent international news clippings relating to executions for ‘witchcraft and sorcery’
Pic 3: Recent international news clippings relating to executions for ‘witchcraft and sorcery’ (Click on image to enlarge)

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.

Pic 4: Good luck... Common-or-garden Mexican charm or ‘amuleto’, made of garlic, a magnet, ribbons...
Pic 4: Good luck... Common-or-garden Mexican charm or ‘amuleto’, made of garlic, a magnet, ribbons... (Click on image to enlarge)

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?

Pic 5: ... Bad luck. Fateful image - detail from screen mural of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico by Roberto Cueva del Río
Pic 5: ... Bad luck. Fateful image - detail from screen mural of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico by Roberto Cueva del Río (Click on image to enlarge)

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.

Pic 6: Late Classic period Maya ceramic figure depicting the merging of human (arms and legs) with animal ‘spirit helper’ (owl’s face). The owl represents dark shamanic forces
Pic 6: Late Classic period Maya ceramic figure depicting the merging of human (arms and legs) with animal ‘spirit helper’ (owl’s face). The owl represents dark shamanic forces (Click on image to enlarge)

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.

Pic 7: “Frieze of the Dream Lords”, detail of façade, Tonina, Chipas. Schele Drawing Collection, FAMSI
Pic 7: “Frieze of the Dream Lords”, detail of façade, Tonina, Chipas. Schele Drawing Collection, FAMSI (Click on image to enlarge)

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.

Pic 8: Tezcatlipoca, ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’
Pic 8: Tezcatlipoca, ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’ (Click on image to enlarge)

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.

Pic 9: Paper cut deity figures from San Pablito Pahuatlan (top) and pages from a ‘History of the Curing of the Elderly’ belonging to Ricardo de la Loma, San Pablito P.
Pic 9: Paper cut deity figures from San Pablito Pahuatlan (top) and pages from a ‘History of the Curing of the Elderly’ belonging to Ricardo de la Loma, San Pablito P. (Click on image to enlarge)

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.

Pic 10: Praying to Tezcatlipoca, the Night Wind; Florentine Codex Book VI
Pic 10: Praying to Tezcatlipoca, the Night Wind; Florentine Codex Book VI (Click on image to enlarge)

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).

Pic 11: Good physician (top), bad physician (bottom); Florentine Codex Book X
Pic 11: Good physician (top), bad physician (bottom); Florentine Codex Book X (Click on image to enlarge)

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.

Pic 12: Ticitl casting maize under the guise of an image of the wind god. Codex Magliabechiano, Biblioteca Nationale Centrale, Florence
Pic 12: Ticitl casting maize under the guise of an image of the wind god. Codex Magliabechiano, Biblioteca Nationale Centrale, Florence (Click on image to enlarge)

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.

Pic 13: The Birth of the Macuiltonaleque and Cihuateteo. Codex Borgia, p. 47
Pic 13: The Birth of the Macuiltonaleque and Cihuateteo. Codex Borgia, p. 47 (Click on image to enlarge)

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).

Pic 14: ‘The possessed one’ (top), ‘One who turns himself into a dog, etc.’; Florentine Codex Book X
Pic 14: ‘The possessed one’ (top), ‘One who turns himself into a dog, etc.’; Florentine Codex Book X (Click on image to enlarge)

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).

Pic 15: The fateful sign 1-Rain; Florentine Codex Book IV
Pic 15: The fateful sign 1-Rain; Florentine Codex Book IV (Click on image to enlarge)

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).

Pic 16: Statue of a Cihuateotl (left), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City; ‘descending goddesses’, Florentine Codex Book IV, right
Pic 16: Statue of a Cihuateotl (left), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City; ‘descending goddesses’, Florentine Codex Book IV, right (Click on image to enlarge)

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.

Pic 17: The Temacpalitotique, Florentine Codex, Book 10.f.27r and Book 4 f.60v
Pic 17: The Temacpalitotique, Florentine Codex, Book 10.f.27r and Book 4 f.60v (Click on image to enlarge)

The day sign 1 Wind was considered as equally malevolent as 1 Rain. If born a nobleman, he breathed evil on people, put spells on them, and brought them harm. If born a commoner, he was possessed and became a destroyer of men. 1 Wind was also the day sign of the Temacpalitotique, a sect of sorcerer-thieves who sought the severed arm of a woman who died in childbirth (pic 17). The Temacpalitotique went about guided by an image of their idol, the wind god Quezalcoatl, and used the severed arm of these women to put people to sleep so they could be robbed and violated:-
’And when those who danced with the forearm would somewhere destroy or rob people, one person carried and bore the forearm of the woman who had died in childbirth, on his shoulder. It was the one on her left, her left forearm. When he came to reach one’s home, but had not yet entered the house, first of all he struck the mid-point of the courtyard with the forearm. Twice he struck. On reaching the entrence of the house, he struck the portal, the lintel, and then he passed by the square, wooden pillar. Then he once again struck there before the hearth.’ (Sahagún 1950-1982: 4: 103).

Pic 18: The horned owl as omen of death, Florentine Codex Book V
Pic 18: The horned owl as omen of death, Florentine Codex Book V (Click on image to enlarge)

There are several beings mentioned in descriptions of both day signs. The Tlacatecolotl (owl-man) was known as a possessed one who was a hater and destroyer of people, an implanter of sickness, a killer with potions, and the ability to transform into various animals. Much like the Nahualli, the Tlacatecolotl was an animal transformer. The difference may be that the Nahualli could invoke his animal counterpart to do either good or evil, while the Tlacatecolotl called upon more sinister creatures that were associated with the darker side of the cosmos. The word Tlacatecolotl would become synonymous with the Christian “demon” or “devil” during the sixteenth-century. In contemporary Nahua belief and ritual, Tlacatecolotl is still invoked and propitiated. He possesses both positive and negative qualities and may be a survival of ancient Mexico’s paramount sorcerer, Tezcatlipoca.

Pic 19: Chalchiuhtotallin (precious turkey), the theophanic form of Tezcatlipoca. Codex Borbonicus, p. 17
Pic 19: Chalchiuhtotallin (precious turkey), the theophanic form of Tezcatlipoca. Codex Borbonicus, p. 17 (Click on image to enlarge)

Also associated with both days was the mometzcopinque, a malevolent sect of female sorceresses who could remove their legs or enchant by taking apart or disarticulating the bones of their foot. This is a tradition still alive and well in modern day Tlaxcala, where a great deal of lore exists about tlahuelpuchis, women known to remove their lower legs for the extremities of a turkey. The sister of Huiztilopochtli, Malinalxochitl, was said to have been a tlahuipuchtli. The removal of the legs of course recalls the mometzcopinque and removing the leg or foot is reminiscent of the primary physical characteristic of Tezcatlipoca. There are a number of accounts describing Tezcatlipoca’s feet as being like that of a turkey or rooster. In fact, a common theophanic form of the deity was Chalchiuhtotallin (precious turkey) and he is illustrated as such on p. 17 of the Codex Borbonicus (pic 19).

Pic 20: Demonized cannon: detail from a screen mural on the Spanish Conquest of Mexico by Roberto Cueva del Río
Pic 20: Demonized cannon: detail from a screen mural on the Spanish Conquest of Mexico by Roberto Cueva del Río (Click on image to enlarge)

It should be remembered that ancient Mesoamericans were first and foremost human beings and there was both good and bad among them. The fact that there were those that practiced what can generally be considered witchcraft and sorcery does not make them any less human. In fact, if one takes into account belief and ritual practices from around the world then the fact that they had such notions only makes them more human. Witchcraft and sorcery was powerful business in ancient Mexico. It was feared, respected, and often sought after by everyone from kings to common folk. In many ways, one person’s sorcery was another’s cure. Such things operated at the state level of Aztec-Mexica society. One colonial account describes Moctezuma II sending his various sorcerers and magicians to unleash a barrage of magic and witchcraft upon the Spaniards at Cempoala. This was to be done in the form of terrifying dreams, dangerous insects, and illness, all common weapons in the modern day sorcerer’s arsenal. Ultimately these sorcerous tactics of Moctezuma II failed but many aspects of native religion, including a long line of practitioners of the magical arts would survive the Conquest.

Suggestions for Further Reading:-
• Burkhart, Louise M. 1989 The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press
• Helmke, Christophe, and Jesper Nielsen 2009 Hidden Identity and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica: Supernatural Alter Egos as Personified Diseases. Acta Americana, vol. 17(2):49-98
• Knab, Timothy J. 1995 A War of Witches: A Journey Into the Underworld of the Contemporary Aztecs. Harper Collins, San Francisco
• López Austin, Alfredo 1966 Los temacpalitotique. Brujos, profanadores, ladrones y violadores. Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl, v. VI, México, p. 97-117
• Madsen, William 1960 The Virgin’s Children: Life in an Aztec Village Today. University of Texas Press, Austin
• Nutini, Hugo and John Roberts 1993 Bloodsucking Witchcraft: An Epistemological Study of Anthropomorphic Supernaturalism. University of Arizona, Tucson
• Pohl, John M.D. 2007 Sorcerers of the Fifth Heaven: Nahua Art and Ritual of Ancient Southern Mexico. Cuadernos Princeton
• Ruiz de Alarcón, Hernando 1982 Aztec Sorcerers in Seventeenth Century Mexico: The Treatise on Superstitions by Ruiz de Alarcón. Edited by Michael D. Coe and Gordon Whittaker. Institute for Mesoamerican Studies. State University of New York at Albany. Publication No. 7
• Sahagún, Bernardino de 1950-1982 Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Translated from the Aztec into English by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Santa Fe: The School for American Research and the University of Utah.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Image from Wikipedia (Malleus Maleficarum)
• Pic 2: Image from Wikimedia Commons (Withcraft at Salem Village)
• Pic 3: Images from the internet
• Pix 4, 5, 6, 16(L) & 20: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 7: Image supplied by Jeremy Coltman, courtesy of FAMSI
• Pic 8: Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, scanned from our own copy of The Aztecs: People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1958
• Pic 9: Photos by Maricela González/Mexicolore archives
• Pix 10, 11, 14, 15, 16(R), 17, 18: Images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 12: Image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Maglabechiano, Graz, Austria, 1970
• Pic 13: Image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Borgia, Graz, Austria, 1976
• Pic 19: Image from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Dec 10th 2015

emoticon Q. What’s the difference between a witch and a sorcerer?
A. Shaman you for not knowing...

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