On the margins of theology – 2.5

1 10 2009

lodestone

The lodestone cultus in Mexico

The men in Mexico still carry lodestones to give them success and great virility. They regard the stone as a living being, every Friday placing it in water, then in the Sun, and giving it iron filings to “eat”. However, they also believe that this stone has a devil inside and will not enter a church with it. Another belief is that if a lodestone is rubbed on a knife blade, anyone wounded by that blade will die of the poison left there.

-found here

Some may discount the above as coming from a disreputable source, or think that it is the result of some bizarre “New Age” thinking influencing the minds of Mexican men. The only problem with such a supposition is that the cult to the lodestone is an established “tradition” in many parts of Mexico, and I have even translated a prayer to it here.

Isabel Kelly, in her book, Folk Practices in North Mexico, has a significant section on the lodestone cultus. Although she speculates that it is a “recent cult” (keep in mind that the field work for this book was done in 1953), she nevertheless goes into quite a bit of detail regarding how it manifested itself in daily life. The “theology” behind it is stricly oral (of course), and oddly based on dubious Christological origins, as was explained to the anthropologist by an herbalist in Torreon:

The [lodestone] is where Christ is kneeling. Have you not seen the picture? A “light” woman [presumably Mary Magdalene. The Libro de San Cipriano twice mentions “the Samaritan woman” in connection with the lodestone] cut a piece of the stone for luck…

One would presume that this is rock on which Christ knelt at Gethsemani. A lodestone must be bought “with sacrifice” or it is no good. It must also be “prepared” and “baptized”. Among the things that are put into it to “cure” it are three small Erythrina seeds, representing the three Marys who accompany Christ, and three large seeds that represent the Three Kings. Then it is taken to Mass, sprinkled with perfume and salt, and then “christened” with these words: In the name of the Holy Trinity, I name you [lodestone] within the walls of the church. Even the salt is used knowingly evoking the traditional baptismal ceremony.

The purpose of the lodestone talisman is primarily for love magic, though Kelly fails to mention the gender specific conditions to this property. The prayer to / accompanying the stone has already been translated on this site, and in Kelly’s work at least, it is used for more than just virility in the male. As specified above, it is cared for and given metal filings to eat at specified times. Sort of a religious variation on the “pet rock”.

Curiously enough, the true heir to these rituals in Mexico now is the cult to the Santa Muerte, since statues of the questionable “saint” are “prepared” in much the same way. This also reminded me of the totally unrelated cult to San La Muerte in northern Argentina where the statue is usually made out of wood or bone and taken to seven different churches to be furtively blessed at each Mass. Whether one considers this a quaintly superstitious imitation of Catholic ceremonial or a diabolical parody of legitimate rites, all the same one cannot dispute that such phenomena have been in existence for a very long time. It seems that there are recipes in medieval grimoires that are the predecessors to these ceremonies. Supposedly, according to one source, the lodestone was used as a talisman by the Crusaders themselves, and one would not have to guess the role of the stone in medieval alchemy.

The legendary hagiography of the lodestone is also not unique as I have already written about a similar legend behind the use of a head of garlic as a talisman. Similar stories are told of the rose of Jericho, rue, and the aloe vera plant. It is strange how some can read these stories as literature when told in the context of hundreds of years ago (such as many of the stories around the Grail legend), yet dismiss them as “superstition” when told by the people who normally wash our dishes and mow our lawns. The transformation of the religious consciousness between modernity and the past, between the educated elites and the common people, will be expounded upon in future essays in this series.

The ambiguous nature of the power that these objects have is, as I have also pointed out in the past, a sign that the current cosmology that dominates Christianity has not always been as hegemonic as it is now, even if it was always considered the “mainstream”. Inanimate objects were seen as being invested with numinous power, as in the case of the household spirits on the Orthodox isle of Chios the duende of Spain, or the “holy wells” of Ireland. Either these are merely pagan leftovers, indications that fallen man is “naturally idolatrous”, or they are a popular manifestation of Origen’s dictum: “All things are filled with angels”. The fact that the faithful had to at the very least do some post facto theologizing to justify the cultus within a Christian context shows the depth of loyalty to the “official” Catholic Faith. Other than that, I leave to the reader, formed in both reason and the Catholic faith, to determine the merit of such practices.


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2 responses

1 10 2009
Visibilium

I don’t see why people who say that they believe in the Incarnation have a problem with active spiritual presences in our lives. Even those folks who don’t believe in anything other than the Bible can see Gospel stories about angels and demons and ghosts.

Perhaps it’s a will to disbelieve. The mechanism by which spiritual beings operate isn’t well understood and is probably therefore more fearful than the laws of thermodynamics.

1 10 2009
MCH

This sounds so much like the anting-anting in Filipino popular culture. The anting-anting is an amulet that could be anything from a silver medallion that falls from the ‘heart’ of a banana at exactly 3pm of Good Friday, or in some morbid cases, a fetus preserved in alcohol. The anting-anting is ‘fed’ with ‘gracia’ in order to make its ‘bisa’ or ‘virtud’ all the more potent; this ‘feeding’ is done through acts of penance and mortification. Ironically, black magic also figures into the mix at times; Good Friday is naturally THE prescribed time for doing this, since God is dead and cannot see the evil being done. Anting-antings, if properly ‘fed’, can bestow upon its owner immortality, invincibility, and the power to cure people of their ailments.

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