To say that I have always been an odd duck is a bit of an understatement. Perhaps some can attribute it to the fact that growing up, I was a bit of a “mama’s boy”. [Mexican families have a horrible double standard where the boys (sometimes literally) get away with murder, while girls are watched as if any minute they were going off to become street walkers if not properly guarded.] Thus, a boy with a religious disposition was deemed to be a bit of an oddity, though a necessary oddity. Who else was going to fill the ranks of the clergy? Besides, I have a devout grandfather and some devout great-uncles, and men on that side of the family are for the most part church-going. But religion, as in the vast majority of Catholic cultures, was primarily a female affair; the religious secrets of the family were passed down mother to daughter, and mother to son, but the son for the most part preserved them as a vague memory of home and hearth, as a place of safety away from the violence and poverty that often were the burdens of daily life.
As an odd duck, one of my favorite places to hang out on-line is on the Stregoneria Italiana forum, which is for the most part made up of people of Italian descent exiled here in North America who are remembering the religion of the “old country”. Some are still Catholics, others have passed on to a self-styled, syncretic religion that parodies ancient paganism. But they are always good for some stories. One participant on that forum recently posted his thoughts on how the roots of religion, and by extension, religious folk remedies, are in the home itself, and the mistress of that domain, of course, is the woman:
When I first began to develop this thesis, I did so in an effort to illustrate that while many people — no doubt under the influence of Northern European ideas of “fairy tale witches” and “reconstituted” (not to be confused with reconstructionist) ideas of matriarchical pre-Indo-European societies/priestesshoods — are looking for a notion of traditional folk practices that includes “hoo-boy” exotic notions of the supernatural and looks more or less like modern new age tripe, the reality is far more understated, being more closely associated with cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and other things stereotypically pegged as that “women’s work” so widely reviled by the “Second Wave” feminist mentality which has influenced a great deal of modern thought, and which in turn is also influenced by Northern European ideals.
Now this is not to be taken in a chauvinist light (though the average American certainly will do so!), for even though the gender-identity of certain roles and chores may be rooted in some or other form of chauvinism, every Benedetta [Italian folk healer] I’ve spoken to seems to derive a type of empowerment from doing her job and doing it well, and the “job” becomes spiritualized by a knowledge of the intent behind each action, while the action itself, usually looking mundane, is easy enough to hide from those who need not know what is being done.
Indeed, in my mind, I would go back a couple of generations to when a baby was crying in the Laguna region of northern Mexico where my family is from. Imagine a fussy baby who will not stop wailing through the night. The man may be a little concerned, but he is probably more concerned about getting back to sleep.
“Concha, go see why the nena won’t stop crying.”
It might just be colic, or a fever, or something else. She goes to see an old neighbor, and the old woman concludes, “Debe ser que alguien le puso un ojo” (Somebody probably cast the evil eye on the child.) They would take an egg, sweep it over the baby while saying the praying the Apostles’ Creed three times. They would then take the egg, break it, put it in a bowl, make a cross out of straw on the yoke, and put it under the bed. After a few minutes, the baby stops crying, and goes to sleep. In the morning, an eye will form on the yoke. The father will take the egg out back and bury it.
Not at all romantic, and not what you read about on Wicca websites. But that was pretty much what folk magic was. Hardly the veiled paganism of latter-day theorists. While the cosmology of the Mexican peasant was a bit different from our own, it wasn’t completely off in terms of the modern understanding. The real basis of Catholic folk magic is that, unlike today, mothers could not medicate their children’s illnesses away. They had to find another way, and that way was through prayer, faith, and ritual.
That of course is the “white side” of such magic. There was a dark side as well, and it is no surprise that it too was dominated in its practice and concerns by women. Of all the “Catholic spells” that I have found in books, on-line, and elsewhere from Spain and Latin America, I would say about three quarters of the more interesting ones have to do with getting a husband and keeping him faithful. The spell book pictured above, from Nicaragua, is partially translated as follows:
I conjure you, cigar, in the name of Satan, Luzbel, and Lucifer. Needle, needle, by the powers that you have and of your friend Diego, grant that (name) feels love and desperation for me without relief, not thinking, not sleeping, not eating with men or women…
You may now be tempted to give some credence to the chauvinistic rhetoric of the authors of the Malleus Malificarum after reading that. But in the end, we have to remember that we are talking about a world where a woman could be beaten to death by her father / husband if she did the wrong thing, notably in the sexual realm. While the law might punish him, society often would by no means austracize him for such a murder. To give a totally anecdotal example, there was a song on Mexican radio some years ago about a couple who were in this country illegally, but kept working because the wife was secretly sleeping with the foreman as a quid pro quo for not being reported to the authorities. When the husband found out, he killed his wife in spite of her pleas that she did not want to be unfaithful, but had to do it for the good of the family. When the husband gets out of prison, he is met by his son, a small child at the time when his father was thrown in prison, who said that he would have done the exact same thing as his father, and that his mother was “una cualquiera”.
In the face of a society where honor killings used to occur with some frequency, it was no wonder that women had to resort to “other means” to control their men, or to get the right man. While the “cigar prayer” is an extreme example, there are plenty of other examples of incantations to mainstream Catholic saints that basically ask the same things. Magic was merely one means by which the “good Catholic woman” was expected to create and maintain a good home.