The Gendering of Catholic Folk Magic

26 07 2009


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.



17 responses

22 07 2011
Lisa Marie

Delightful blog. Yes, the Malleus Maleficarum makes a distinction between folk magic and black magic. It specifically states that those who understand the use of herbs and the effects of planetary movements on the human person are of benefit to the community

26 05 2010

Is the use of the egg with a child similar to effleurage [Fr.] stroking movement in massage. Or could this be construed as such?

29 07 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I still think you are talking about apples and oranges here. You seem to want to categorize all such practices as “superstition”, whereas I really think that distinctions have to be made. You can no more say that the “limpias” described in this post are dangerous than you can say that “philosophy” is dangerous because people misuse it. I can say, “philosophy is dangerous because it produces a Nietzsche or Heidegger”, but that would be rather ridiculous. At the same time, I can say, “my grandmother praying the Creed with an egg over a child to cure the evil eye leads to Voodoo”, but that would be like faulting Aquinas for Hegel: a bit of a non sequitur. I have not endorsed witchcraft, nor have I denied the existence of unnatural evil. Perhaps we cannot see that such things are a legitimate means of interacting with the world due to our own prejudices on the nature of “real knowledge” and our own rationalizing religious tendencies since the Reformation / Counter-Reformation. But if the authors of the Malleus Malificarum, the Hammer of Witches itself, say that there is a “legitimate Catholic conjuring”, I fail to see how such a thing does not exist, and the Church has never said that it doesn’t. Again, they are means, and means can be used to evil ends, just as other means of knowledge and practice have been used to evil ends. One must distinguish and discern.

28 07 2009

I don’t think my understanding of the situation today is a misreading. I think to some extent yours is a partial reading. It is true that today most of the young feel that religion has been disproved by science and that the insights of the past and Christian revelation are to be assigned to a period not worthy of our attention. There is the other side of the spectrum through. Many who have given up Christianity have turned to the new age. As Chesterton said and again I quote from memory “those who stop believing in the faith start to believe not in nothing but in anything. One need only go to the local book store to see the large section of new age or old age books, a section that often dwarfs the section of Christian books. The television is filled with shows like a haunting. Wiccan and witchcraft are also becoming popular and the shows about crossing over and talking to the dead are wildly popular. This I would say is the age of the irrational and the mystical. Theosophy and Swedenborg are making a come back. I believe that in many ways this is very dangerous. I read the other day a sermon by Henry Luke Orombi the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda who among other things warned about the rising practice of human sacrifice and the desire of people to gain demonic powers by this method. There where two articles recently in my local paper talking about the amount of animal sacrifices occurring at night In a local park coupled with grave desecration in a near by cemetery. In live one of the five boroughs of New York City and these are happening in rather cosmopolitan settings. I think the parameters that have been set by the Church have been set as a result of great wisdom even if at times they have been overdone. I was a policeman in New York for twenty years and was used to the Hispanic botanicas and the shrines in peoples homes found often near the door. Haitian Voodoo was also common in many of the neighborhoods I worked in and to some extent these things seem harmless (although I think now that I was wrong about those conclusions). What really began to surprise me was when I worked in the later part of my career in lower Manhattan. The young intellectuals and students from schools like NYU, you would expect to find among them atheism, instead there seemed to be steady and uncritical acceptance of the occult coupled with very troubled lives. The amount of gypsy fortune tellers in Manhattan is rivaled only by Korean delis. Their customers aren’t little old Hispanic women but rather businessmen and yuppies. I think you are taking in only half of the American scene and missing the other and more dubious if not demonic half.

28 07 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Let me pose to you a question: do you really think that to the non-believing “younger generation”, it makes any difference whether we reject the “Italian horn” if we accept the Virgin birth, the resurrection of the dead, and transubstantiation? Do you think it is going to make us any more acceptable to them if we say, “yeah, those grandmothers who used to pray over people with eggs were a bunch of superstitious hags… here, have some Lourdes water”? Such ideas betray more the obsession not to go against the perceived parameters of bourgeois respectability than a realistic treatment of the problem at hand.

Really, in my own life, I have seen the opposite to be the case: people reasoning their way out of the Faith due to the overwhelming rationalistic ethos of this society. No doubt people fall into the iniquity of witchcraft and all sorts of nasty things. But to think that the imminent danger in this society lies in “superstition” is a misreading of the situation.

28 07 2009

I understand what you are saying and do not disagree with your position. But I wonder out loud if there is perhaps a better way or at least a safer way. The desire to understand the faith in a way which is consistent with the view of an enchanted reality I guess is behind the works of people like George Mac Donald. The mystics also share this vision. The ritualist movement within the Anglican Church I would assume was also partially moved by this vision. The liturgical life of the Orthodox Church also attempts to bring one into the worship of the Angels. The kind of folk religion you write about and which I enjoy reading about to me seems fraught with dangers. I think this is because in my own experience I have seem to many people involved in this type of thing drawn less toward Christ and more toward evil. I have also seen it have a negative impact on the acceptance of Christianity. I have seen some of the younger generation of my family reject the Christian faith because in their minds it was associated with magic and superstition. They had no way to seperate the Italian Horn Hanging aroung their neck from the Crucifix which hung next to it. When they gave up the horn they gave up the cross.

28 07 2009

I would like to clear up one point. I don’t feel that I have expressed myself well as it pertains to the issue of pre-Christian religion which I referred under the blanket term paganism. The insights which many pre- Christian people formed are of course valid human insights regardless of time and place. Chesterton points this out in his work orthodoxy and I think in the Everlasting Man, as he says about the order of things “its magic.” One of the important elements of pre-Christian religion is the sense of the nearness of the other world which can break forth into our own by a movement or incantation or some sacred action. I think some of what is posted on this site is an attempt to rediscover these elements because they to some extent rightly belong to the Christian tradition and are missing from the worship of most Christian bodies. To this I do not object. With reference to Bible translation I don’t disagree with you at all I have absolutely no love for the NAB. I read only the King James and that is due to a fetish for the stylistic elements of the period.

28 07 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Some further clarifications are in order from my end: first of all, in Mexican curanderismo at least, there is a sharp distinction between “la enfermedad que viene de Dios” or “enfermedad natural”, that is, natural illness, and “el hechizo”, “el mal ojo”, “el susto”, etc. These things are not deemed to be from God, but rather have a supernatural/preternatural origin. The evil eye is not quite demonic possession, and not quite the common cold, but it is serious, and many attest that many, mostly small children, die from it. And in my family, they attest to the cures for it as well.

The legitimate curandero (the field is filled with quacks, but that is no surprise) will always say that the healing comes from God, not from himself. That is why prayer is always involved. And they would be the first to send you to a doctor if you were ill with a natural illness. For the most part, such people were “lay exorcists”, though to find a purely Catholic one, and not one who dabbles in Tarot cards and other such things, is getting harder and harder to do especially on this side of the border. Like all things, they too are “secularizing”. But originally, it wasn’t like that, just as originally, the priest was a dispenser of the sacraments and the Word of God, and not the slightly sacred social worker that he has become in many places.

The other note is that it has not been too long of a time ago that even the normal doctors were quacks and could do little for you if you were ill. Before the advent of the science of micro-organisms, the difference between the average doctor and the yerbera was not much, and don’t even get started on doctors assisting in birth; often a slightly witch-like midwife gave a woman better odds of surviving. If we speak of such comparisons, we are speaking of relatively recent things in human consciousness. I would be the first to bring my child to a modern doctor, but I wouldn’t say that there is not a whole other dimension of illness that we may be missing.

The bigger issue has to do with some very complex philosophical problems, ones that I believe are THE issues at the heart of modern humanity, and really are the only philosophical problems worth studying. The issue, in a nutshell, is whether there is anything to a method of a qualitative manipulation of reality. Modern science is of course based on quantity and measurements: x grams of such and such a medicine will cure a fever, x dose of y liquid will make the body go numb and allow an operation, etc.

These types of cold quantities very easily invade our entire epistomological paradigm: the only thing worth thinking about and concerning ourselves over is what can be measured. But once we start talking about Renaissance phantasmata, astrological influences, and women sweeping people with eggs to “draw out evil”, suddenly we are in the realm of “quackery” or “the Devil”. If we have any concept of qualitative interaction with reality, it has to be under very limited, legally determined circumstances (in the Catholic case, the sacramental system, in the Wahabi Muslim case, strict adherence to only Koranic law, and so forth). But it was not always so, people did not always think like this. If you take Ficino’s astrological cures that incorporated ancient systems of the Pythagorean music of the spheres, you will witness a system where the movements of the soul and the movements of the cosmos are fundamentally inter-related; the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. Indeed, this is what is behind Jungian analysis, and why Jung was so fascinated with alchemy, in spite of its failure as an “empirical science”. There is more to our reality than just numbers and graphs.

The thing that happens when religious man buys into the “dead cosmos based on numbers” approach to reality is that any religious sense, of the miraculous and the enchanted becomes a chore the likes of Kierkegaard’s tortured leap of faith or Pascal’s dread in the face of a “silent universe”. Yes, there are dangers to the qualitative vision; demons, quacks, and suburban women playing with enneagrams. But the dangers of the “reign of quantity”, as Guenon put it, sulking by the banks of the post-war Seine or in the Marxist gulag, are equally if not more threatening.

28 07 2009
Agostino Taumaturgo

Now I think we’re moving into territory where we can somewhat agree to agree. Obviously not about the NAB (as is the case with most modern translations, neither my eyes nor ears find it beautiful, and we won’t begin talking about the “dynamic fidelity” and higher-critical method used throughout), but that’s another conversation for another post at another time.

When it comes to a difference in intent between practices, I completely agree with you. There is nothing inherently Christian about these folk practices, just as there is nothing inherently pagan about them, either. In fact, in the post from SI that Arturo was originally quoting (which was originally written by me, btw), that was a part of what I was also saying: that these practices were fitted into the religion of the practitioner, and as religions changed, so too did the practices find themselves transported between religious contexts. The practices themselves have no inherent religious orientation at all.

I’d be careful, though, about the subject of pagan survivals found in any form of Catholicism, because English-language literature on the subject was intentionally polemical. From Middleton’s “Letter from Rome” in 1729, which intentionally twists the Fathers and admits the attempt to “prove” that Catholicism is really pagan — I suggest reading Bishop Challoner’s refutation in “The Catholic Christian Instructed” (1737) — to the increasingly vitriolic “Catholicism is Pagan” polemic published in reaction to the Catholic Emancipation and later the Anglo-Catholic movement, the very idea has permeated Northern European and American thought in the wake of the Devotional Revolution (in which the Irish hierarchy sought to eradicate all folk practices) and the subsequent dominance of Irish Catholicism in the English-speaking world. So it’s easy and tempting to look at a set of practices and say “That’s pagan,” but we really have to look at whether the intent is there, just like you said.

To me, the idea of intent is answered in the question of: “Is the practitioner attempting to usurp God’s power to herself?” More often than not — and I speak here of Benedicaria and Medicina Popolare — the principal prayers used are the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles’ Creed, and the final outcome is left up to the will of Almighty God. If we were to use the standards of the Malleus (since it’s already been mentioned here), such things would then pass the test of being lawful. Yet if the practices seem ignorant or superstitious to our eyes/ears, though, I would attribute that to the fact we are not dealing with the faith of an educated (or in many cases literate) class of people.

In the case of practices which do attempt to control the order of nature or usurp the power of God — i.e. stregoneria, brujeria, etc. — then I agree with you again, and these things are justly to be condemned and consigned to the flames.

Sorry about the long post, but as I said, I think we’re starting to move into territory where we can both agree to agree at least in terms of generalities, while we seem to have different methods of interpreting how we’re getting to the particulars.

27 07 2009

The Book of Tobit underscores the simple fact that angels walk among us in disguise and heal us with magical (or, if you prefer, ‘miraculous’) fish entrails — this should come as no surprise to anyone.

27 07 2009

My use of post Vatican II language is simply the result of Vatican II. That is to say that for the most part this is the language of the Catholic Church today. Whether I like it or not, that is just the way it is. The New American Bible is the one commonly used and not the Douay. Newman once said I am quoting from memory “”Our lord left the apostles as he found them he left them men.” The situation of medicine and science did not immediately change as a result of our Lords incarnation. The practices that existed in the pagan world before it was Christian remained without scientific improvement. They were Christianized but retained their pagan form. My point is that there is nothing inherently Christian about these things. They are holdovers from the pagan world. The story of Tobit can also be interpreted as an indication that within the material world lays curative elements that we can use. This may be a bit of a stretch from the original story but it is not untrue. The knowledge of medicine and the elements from which it is derived are a God given gift no different then the fruit of the earth that we eat. My point is that the line drawn between what is pagan and what is Catholic has to do with intent. Am I petitioning the Lord for his mercy or am I attempting to control events not fully in my power by a means which seems like idolatry. Sorry if I was a little defensive!

27 07 2009
Agostino Taumaturgo

Ecclesiasticus 38:1: “Honour the physician for the need thou hast of him: for the most High hath created him.” (DRV). The use of the title “Sirach” instead of “Ecclesiasticus” is another post-Vatican II word choice; this is not a “speculation,” as you put it, but a simple fact of the pre- vs. post- Vatican II vocabulary.

Yet since you’d mentioned this book, you would do well to remember that at the time Jesus Ben-Sirach’s grandson translated this book from Hebrew into Greek (the version we now have), the knowledge of the physicians at the time consisted largely of what you refer to as “witch-doctor” type practices, combined with a more detailed knowledge of human anatomy and physiology.

Also speaking of Holy Writ: how, then, would you consider the folk magic-type remedies prescribed by Raphael in Tobias 6:8-9?

Your response comes across as defensive, which is unfortunate because I meant neither insult nor attack (I apologize if my words sounded otherwise). However, I would also advise you to keep your speculations to yourself as well, because I do not particularly admire folk medicine (which is what this stuff is called on Italian-language websites – “Medicina Popolare”), rather I merely see it in the context that in some places, the use of olive oil and the Christmas Eve Prayer is the only medical help available, which includes the living conditions of most contadini in the 1930’s.

It all boils down to what Arturo said in his original post: “The real basis of Catholic folk magic is that, unlike today, mothers could not medicate their children’s illnesses away.” We should be grateful for the advances in medicine that we have the benefit of enjoying today (I think we can all agree there, even though a fair share of deaths can be attributed to it, too!), but it makes little or no sense to sit here and put down what to past generations was the only medical knowledge and/or help obtainable or (in some cases knowable) to our ancestors so recently as a generation or two ago.

27 07 2009

As to my orientation and my word choices, well, all I can say is keep your speculations to yourself because you are likely to be wrong. I don’t speak against pill popping American culture or western medicine because it keeps me alive! I have a heart condition and without my daily pills I could not function. I would also add that if I did not take my pills your use of eggs or dead chickens would not help me. My Bible says to revere the doctor! The Wisdom of Solomon or Sirach not sure which one if you like you can look it up I don’t’ have the time right now. My Father has an intresting picture of his two brothers who died in infancy in italy. They proped them up and took the photos so that the family had something to remember them by. They were taken I guess sometime in the 30s. As my father says the ignorant witch doctors killed them both with folk medicine. Next time one of your kids gets sick bring him to the witch doctor instead of the hospital. Its easy to sit in your comfortable living room with all its modern amenities and attack our “Culture” Try living in the conditions you so admire and then write me.

27 07 2009
Agostino Taumaturgo


“Holy Spirit” preferred to “Holy Ghost.” “Anointing of the Sick” preferred to “Extreme Unction.” These word-preferences tell me volumes about your orientation.

All that aside, though, I think you’ve asked one question that pretty much nails the issue, and one which Arturo has pretty much answered:

“Why should some folk ritual involving an egg or some such thing be preferred to the anointing of the sick? Why should we view these practices as equal to the effects of the prayer of faith?”

I think this is the crux of the matter, and I think it should be analogous to the reason people would rather take a Tylenol (Advil, etc.) instead of run to a priest when they get a headache: the method works; in the Folk mentality, these practices are the equivalent of taking medicine. In fact, in some cultures, these practices are the sum total of all their medical knowledge, and what’s the point of bothering the priest at 3 a.m. if you can take care of the problem yourself?

Therefore if, in the American and First-World paradigm, this practice (popping pills) is seen not as equal, but as superior to the effects of prayer and faith, then why is it that you do not speak against modern western medicine?

27 07 2009

I understand your comments on the use of sacramentals and the blessing of objects. I have no problem with these because they are rather an invocation of the Holy Spirit to bless his creation. This is of course Catholic. The problem I see with the rituals used in much of folk religion and where I would draw the line as you say, is where man attempts to harness the divine as if it were impersonal and at his command. This is where the problem begins. It can be seen in voodoo and the occult and can have catastrophic consequences. I used to see these kinds of practices as kind of quaint and silly and somewhat harmless. Recently though I have had a first hand view of how destructive this kind of thing can be. The tragedy involved Haitian voodoo/ Catholicism the practitioner of this synthesis is currently serving a life sentence for the heinous crime which was connected to this religious system and its negative effects on the person’s mental health and spiritual life. Have you studied the ill effects of folk religion? Why should some folk ritual involving an egg or some such thing be preferred to the anointing of the sick? Why should we view these practices as equal to the effects of the prayer of faith? And if not, then why validate them?

26 07 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I value them a great deal, precisely because in many ways, such “folk magic” is “simply Catholic”, if not Catholic par excellence. If you look in the Roman Ritual, you are going to find many “magical” practices that many of us would find quaint: the baptism of bells, the excommuncation of locusts, etc. Priests in Mexico used to cure the folk ailment called “susto” in a ceremony called “los evangelios”, where they would read the Gospels over the afflicted person, usually a child. And of course, to many outsiders, our uses of scapulars, blessed palms, Lourdes water, and so on would appear to be “magic”.

Even by the standards of the dubious and fanatical Malleus mentioned above, there was nothing particularly problematic with the egg ritual done in my family that I cited above. Now the cigar prayer, that is definitely evil. But where does one draw the line between what is “simply Catholic” and what is the “folk” element, that is something that only an American or other First World Catholic could ask. As I have pointed out before on this blog, even the Protestantism that is emerging in Africa and the rest of the developing world has such “dangerous” elements in them. In a place where you can’t numb your problems away with modern medicine, such things are probably all but necessary. Perhaps if our society were ever to decline to the point where we no longer had access to such medicines, we might be rubbing eggs on babies as well.

My main point is that perhaps our view of Catholicism is skewed to begin with, and a lot of this has to do with modern paradigms of belief and reality that I would contend are not necessarily in sync with the ethos of traditional Catholicism. Many would tend to take a meat cleaver and chop at these issues saying that we have to separate what is “essential” from what is “accidental”. I find such talk very foolish, and also very ignorant. It’s going to take a lot more discernment that that to figure it all out.

26 07 2009

I read your blog with a bit of amusement. I grew up in an Italian catholic home. My father had attended the minor seminary and later went on to college (the first in his family) as a result his religion was devoid of the folk elements or rather the mixture of Catholicism and paganism. My mother and many in my father’s family maintained I guess what you would call folk Catholicism. By this I don’t mean things like Mary on the half shell and home shrines, this I consider to be simply Catholic. What I mean by folk religion are things like magic, spells and the like. What I don’t completely understand about your site is the value you place on such practices which I believe are somewhat dangerous. They are interesting but I don’t see the virtue in them. Could you explain the importance of these practices or why you seem (I may be reading you wrong) to hold them in a high regard or at least feel they are valid and important.

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