From the Archive: Witchcraft and Healing in the Colonial Andes, 16th-17th Centuries

In our “From the Archive” series, we revisit articles published throughout the journal’s history, and explore the meaning of these publications for contemporary issues in medical anthropology, medical humanities, and social medicine. This week, we explore Irene Silverblatt’s December 1983 article “The evolution of witchcraft and the meaning of healing in colonial Andean society.”cropped-cropped-2009cover-copy1.jpg

Silverblatt writes that while the Spanish conquistadors were laying claim to land and peoples in South America in the 16th and 17th centuries, their countrymen in Spain were in the throes of the Spanish Inquisition. Traditional healers (most often women) were tortured and killed as agents of the devil. These healers were assumed to either mask deadly curses in the form of cures, or to have received their healing knowledge from a diabolical pact. Rather than leaving this battle against traditional healing at home in Europe, the Spanish conquistadors carried the legacy of the Inquisition with them across the world, imposing similar religious restrictions on traditional healers in the societies they conquered by holding Inquisition-style court hearings.

European cosmologies, based intensely on the dualistic struggle between good and evil, did not evenly graft onto the Andean worldview. In the Peruvian Andes, where Silverblatt focuses her paper, women were not considered morally inferior to men and more susceptible to evil; likewise, native Andean models of disease viewed illness as the result of an imbalance between the individual, society, and supernatural forces, rather than caused directly by evil spirits. Andean healers thus served as both priests (who placated the spirits to seek balance in the universe) and as healers (who treated the individual sufferer with herbs or medicines.) Their treatments relied on the connectedness between the community, spirits, and the healers themselves.

Yet throughout the 16th century, in the period of Spanish colonization, exposure to Christian mythology and cosmology led these healers to view their practice differently. By the 17th century, Andean healers tried by Spanish inquisitors confessed to dreams and visions wherein they received recipes for herbal medicines from the spirits. The devil in these accounts, though, took on particular forms: that of the Christian saint Santiago (the patron of Spain), as tiny angels (also Christian entities), men dressed in cloaks, or as snakes. The latter proved the closest form of Satan to appear in the Spanish religious canon, but these spirits were scarcely the hideous, bestial demons known to Spanish lore. Indeed, Silverblatt posits that the healers envisioned Saint Santiago as their spiritual contact because they fashioned him as another form of the Thunder God, a native figure representing conquest who could also ward off diseases caused by sorcery.

Throughout the primary legal documents that Silverblatt reviews, the healers also argued that the spirits– even when described as malignant– served them equally to help and to cause harm. The spirits were not agents of evil alone in their stories. These confessions suggest that the Andean relationship to spirits in the Christian narrative remained connected to their native ideology of cosmological balance and harmony, wherein the spirits could be responsible for imbalance or harmony. In this fashion, traditional healers on trial resisted traditional Spanish notions of devil-worship, while simultaneously asserting the validity of their own indigenous notions of spiritual and social balance within healing.

Silverblatt’s piece contains a valuable lesson for continued inquiry into colonialism and neocolonialism. She invites us to analyze colonization as a dialectical relationship between colonizers and the colonized, and consider the way that the tensions between these two populations’ ideologies come to create novel cosmologies, beliefs, and perspectives. Likewise, she suggests that the authority of a medical system is tightly woven into the social and political worlds in which it is practiced. Silverblatt similarly concludes that rather than reading colonial threats towards indigenous medicines as hegemonic, we discover much more by locating the resistance of native healers to newly-introduced ideas about healing, and by analyzing the ways that they integrate foreign beliefs into their outlook on medical practice.


To access the full article through Springer, click here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00052240

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One thought on “From the Archive: Witchcraft and Healing in the Colonial Andes, 16th-17th Centuries

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #06 | Whewell's Ghost

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