Mighty Mexican Mothers: Santa Muerte as Female Empowerment in Oaxaca

16 01 2019

On an old theme of this blog.

Most Holy Death

smkatecover1As the sole female folk saint of death in the Americas, Santa Muerte has a special appeal to women, especially disprivileged Mexican mothers . In the piece below anthropologist Dr. Kate Kingsbury* considers the contours of devotion among rural women in coastal Oaxaca.

-Rural Oaxaca, the outskirts of Pochutla, Mexico

When we got home one night two scorpions awaited us inside the house. One was in the knife holder, in the middle of 6 blades. The most lethal jackknife of all: a black, flailing malignant barb that looked eager to slash and envenom its victim. The handle of an umbrella was thwacked down on it by my other half, as I stood shocked, shaking, until its exoskeleton exploded, exuding a mephitic liquid that had ants frenzied as they supped on its guts.

The following day I saw sweet, unassuming sixty-seven year old Señora Angelica and invited her for a cup…

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Hino da Umbanda

3 11 2009




High John the Conqueror : African-American “folk saint”?

4 06 2009

juancon

From Bay Area botanica to Muddy Waters

The following is a translation of a prayer I found in a religious store in San Francisco:

In the name of God Almighty. Soul of John the Conqueror, who some call the Great John since you were a great lover and guardian of money, for this reason and because of the hours they are giving you, I ask that you put me in the heart of so-and-so and favored by my Guardian Angel, it be granted to me what I sincerely and of good faith ask you: that my fate and luck change and may the pains and torments of my life cease just as your punishment for your foolish actions and ambitions ceased in purgatory. To the Guardian Angel of so-and-so: do not give him/her tranquility until s/he is by my side.

At first glance, this is another prayer in the midst of many to “questionable” figures who may or may not have existed, such as Jesus Malverde, Maria Francia, or Juan Minero venerated in many places in Latin America. What is more interesting is that this man definitely falls into the category of an “anima sola“: a deceased person whose life was by no means virtuous but is miraculous nonetheless because of his suffering in Purgatory. It is one of the most interesting finds that I have encountered in my botanica hunts.

However, I have begun studying as well the religious traditions of African-Americans, and I have found a John the Conqueror there as well. Indeed, in “rootwork” or Hoodoo, John the Conqueror is a trickster figure who has great power. As it is explained on one website:

Who was John the Conqueror and what is the root named after him? Ethnographers, especially those influenced by Zora Neale Hurston, say that he was a black slave whose life — perhaps a real life that was embellished in the telling, perhaps a fictional life entirely imagined — was an inspiration to slaves who wanted to rebel against their masters but could not do so openly. John, said to be the son of an African king, was in captivity, but he never became subservient, and his cleverness at tricking his master supplied many a story with a pointed moral. If he was a real being, he soon acquired some of the characteristics of mythical trickster figures like the Native American Coyote, the African-American Bre’r Rabbit, and the West African deity known variously as Elegua, Legba, and Eshu. He gave — only to take away. He bet — and never lost. He played dumb — but he was never outsmarted. The reputation of High John is so great that, as recorded by the folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt in the 1930s, just reciting the words “John over John” and “John the Conqueror” is a powerful spell of magical protection against being hoodooed.

Like the Catholic binding prayer above, one of the uses of “John the Conqueror root” is for love spells. The blues musician Muddy Waters even wrote a song about it, an excerpt of which you can hear by clicking on this link.

How this tradition got to Mexico and ended up on a “prayer card” sold in a botanica is an interesting question, perhaps one we will never be able to answer. But if it is indeed an African tradition, it is interesting to see how it was incorporated into the Catholic ethos in Mexico and how it evolved in the Hoodoo tradition.





Tomasito Herrera

19 05 2009

tomasito

Spirit of an unknown child curandero. Image found on this site.





Gauchito Gil

3 05 2009

gauchito

A radio report from some years back on the popular Argentine bandit and folk saint, Gauchito Gil.

(Found on this page in case you are having difficulties downloading the report.)





Popular Sufism in South Asia

19 04 2009

shrine

From the December 18th, 2008 issue of The Economist, on popular Islam in Pakistan and India:

Pakistan’s southernmost state of Sindh, a vast desert bisected by the Indus river, is perhaps best known for its shrines. A few miles outside the city of Hyderabad, in sight of the Indus, a middle-aged dwarf called Subhan manages one of them. She found the shrine deserted a few years ago, and moved into it. It is a small shack, with a low doorway hung with cowbells, in the tradition of a Hindu temple. A dusty green shroud covers the grave. Incense burns at its foot. Subhan says it holds the dust of a medieval saint called Haji Pir Marad. Sometimes, she says, he wrestles with the Indus to prevent it from changing course. In fits of terrible rage, he has caused pileups on the road. She advises passing motorists to propitiate the saint with a modest gift of rupees. On a good day, she collects around 50 rupees (60 cents) from the travellers who stop to pray.

All the traffic, on that recent sunny day, was bound for the nearby town of Sehwan Sharif, where Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, one of Pakistan’s most prominent Sufi saints, is entombed. It was the 734th anniversary of his death, an event marked by an annual festival attended by several hundred thousand devotees. This event is known as Qalandar’s urs, or wedding-night, to signify his union with God. A three-day orgy of music, dancing and intoxication, literally and spiritually, the urs at Sehwan is one of the best parties in Pakistan, or anywhere.

Outside Qalandar’s shrine, a white marble monument, decorated with flashing neon, pilgrims work themselves into an all-night ecstasy. Tossing their long black hair, a dozen prostitutes from Karachi or Lahore have a place reserved by the shrine’s golden doorway, to dance a furious jig. It is the dhammal, a rhythmic skipping from foot to foot, for which Qalandar’s followers are well-known. Thousands are moshing to a heavy drumbeat. The air is hot and wet with their sweat. A scent of rose petals and hashish sweetens it. In a flash of gold, out in the crush, a troupe of bandsmen in braided Sergeant Pepper uniforms are blowing inaudibly into brass instruments, then lifting trumpets and trombones into the air as they dance the dhammal.

Fighting through the crowd, a stream of peasant pilgrims flows into the shrine. Many carry glittering shrouds, lovingly embroidered by a wife or mother, as an offering for the tomb. They will be bestowed with a poor man’s prayer, for a good harvest, debt relief, or a son. “Last year I told my master [Qalandar] that I would bring him a goat if he gave me a son. I have come to honour that promise,” said Muhammad Riaz Rahman, a shopkeeper from Multan, tugging a calm-looking billy, daubed with pink dye, through the crowd.

Read all of it here. Special thanks to a reader of this blog who provided the link.





More on the Cult of Maria Lionza

19 04 2009




Santa Librada

15 04 2009

santalib

Or St. Wilgefortis. Her origins are obscure, but the most common story is that she was a daughter of a pagan king in Portugal who prayed to be made ugly by God in order to prevent her marriage to another pagan king. She instantly grew a beard in response to her prayer. She is said to be the patroness of women stuck in bad marriages The Wikipedia article is very informative, and here is another image I found of her there, this time in Prague:

451px-wilgefortis_prague_1139v

Also, on another website, I found the following information about her:

In the Middle Ages Santa Librada was the patron saint of prostitutes and by extension became the patron saint of women in labour. Apparently pregnant women (would) go to Siguenza cathedral to recite the following:

Santa Librada,
Santa Librada,
que la salida
sea tan dulce
como la entrada!

… which means:

Santa Librada,
May the way out
Be as sweet
As the way in!

Felix Coluccio, in his book, Cultos y Canonizaciones Populares de Argentina, describes the cult to Santa Librada in the north of that country. She is generally invoked to find animals, and also to escape authorities after having committed a crime, using the following prayer:

Santa Librada, ayúdame en esta disparada (Saint Librada, help me in this mess)

..after which the criminal should run and hide.

As in the case with many saints of this region, a miracle granted is compensated with a feast thrown by the devotee, preceded by a novena. The dance is the most important part, and can be a rowdy occasion, often put to an end, according to the author, by someone firing a revolver in the air.





Finding Folk Orthodoxy

26 03 2009

evil-eye

A couple of years ago, I wrote a provocative piece on my experiences with Eastern Orthodoxy in this country. In it, I wrote that in my past encounters with Orthodoxy, what I usually found was a boutique religion for the white middle class, or alternatively, an ethnic church closed off from the rest of society, and not much else in between. In terms of the former, the most likely suspect to convert to Orthodoxy is a (usually white) religious maverick who wants to re-discover the “New Testament Church” as founded by Jesus Christ without the “popish” baggage that Roman Catholicism has to offer. Compared to the suburban white-washed suburban mega-parishes and the “supersitious” masses of the Latino barrio parish, Orthodoxy seems to have all of it i’s dotted and t’s crossed. There is, of course, the presence of the ethnic Orthodox, who often don’t come to Divine Liturgy on time or only grace the shadow of the church for a baptism or wedding, but they are a small price to pay for being in a church that doesn’t have “idolatrous” statues or the “Filioque” (that sum of all errors). The convert can thus enjoy his “true religion” detached from all of the cultural baggage of the “old country”. He may even seek refuge in an old, long fogotten past, being nostalgic for an “Orthodox Western Europe” that never was.

My own religious project since I wrote that polemical essay two years ago has changed substantially. It is very easy to find out what the Church says about itself. One only need look at such books as Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma or a similar book to find out what you should believe. That is the religious center of the Faith; the safe region, the core of what the clergy say is to believed by all. But what role, if any, does the periphery hold; what is the role of belief that grows spontaneously outside of the control of the “official Church”? And what relation, if any, does the official Church have with these beliefs? Living in the 21st century, and having passed through the paradigm shifts of early modernity, it is very easy to dismiss half of the things that our grandparents believed in as superstition or remnants of a pagan past. My nagging suspicion, however, is that without these things that were at the periphery ( or underground, unofficial, or quasi-forbidden), the center cannot hold. The death of the religious imagination of our forefathers is leading to the death of religion itself.
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The modern war against folk religion

26 02 2009

India Kashmir Festival

I see the stigmatization and destruction of traditions like the Last Wednesday as manifestations of a fundamental and (in my eyes) very sad shift in the history of Islam. This shift first of all came to be due to a process of defining Islam as a uniform, static and stagnant fixed (cultural-religious) “identity” which did not yet exist in the so called classical times and then, under political domination of exploiting powers, privileging the culture, traditions and interpretations of affluent Muslim social elites in close contact with colonial institutions over the culture, desires and perspectives of the “common people”… Stigmatizing Folk Islam, in my eyes, is not a natural outcome of our search for “the Truth”, be it Islamic or otherwise. It is not a natural outcome of a wish to establish better spiritual standards in the lives of human beings. It is… a voluntary and deliberate choice for a cultural/class based chauvinism and a step towards a methodology of pure destruction, and I deem both to be antithetical to any possible conception of better spiritual standards and a search for “the Truth”.

Leyla Jagiella

I have made this point at times on this blog, and from what I am told by Muslim acquaintances, it is the Salafi/Wahhabi trend in Islam (one of the tendencies that in its extreme form likes to declare jihad and blow up “infidels”) that pulled / is pulling a “Vatican II” in the Muslim world. These are the same people who tear down the shrines of the saints, condemn the use of talismans against the evil eye, and seek strict interpretations (which are in reality historically conditioned) of Islamic law in order to create a purer religion. It is driven by the paranoia of a reactionary ideology hemmed in by modernity which seeks to attack modernity with its own hermeneutic tools.
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