Today’s episode is all about the traditional Hispanic-American healing system known as curanderismo. We speak with University of New Mexico Professor Eliseo “Cheo” Torres on the topic, hear about one of the folk saints form the tradition, and enjoy a bit of lore and music as well. NOTE: THIS EPISODE IS NOT INTENDED AS MEDICAL OR LEGAL ADVICE. Please consult a physician or medical professional if you have medical needs.
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Promos & Music
Title and closing music is “Pig Ankle Rag,” by The Joy Drops, and is used under a Creative Commons License (available at Soundcloud.com).
La Tab – “Fuego Fatal”
Sergei Cheriminsky – “Mother’s Hands”
Turtle – “Grow Grotesque”
Maria Pien – “Por me que lleva” and “Fruto prohibido”
The above songs can found at the Free Music Archive and Soundcloud and are used under a Creative Commons License. The song “Mariachi Dote” by Armando Palomas is from Archive.org, and used in the Public Domain.
In one of our recent holiday episodes, we discussed the way that toys, dolls in particular, seem to embody the uncanny. Dolls, doll babies, dollies, poppets—whatever you call them, figural toys seem to have the power to evoke fear in people and act as powerful proxies for magical work. I decided to cover the topic in part because several podcasts I frequently download (namely LORE and Stuff You Missed in History) have recently mentioned Robert the Doll in Key West, Florida. Robert’s story is full of creepy twists and turns, but nicely captures how dolls can be both innocent (as Robert is when he acts as a best friend to his young owner, Gene) and terrifying (as Robert is when he shows up on a subsequent owner’s bed, brandishing a kitchen knife). Still, most tales of dolls and magic in the New World are not as spectacular as Robert’s. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some very interesting uses for dolls in American folk magic. There most definitely are, and in this article, we’ll look at some of the ones that I find most interesting.
We can start in Salem, during the famous witchcraft trials of the early 1690s. A slave from Barbados named Candy was the focus of one early investigation (although her fate was not, as far as we know, the gallows). Candy confessed her use of folk magic, including the use of a handkerchief which she transformed into a doll:
“Candy stated that her knowledge of witchcraft came from her experience in Salem and not from her home in Barbados. The magical items possessed by Candy bear closer analysis and provide evidence for a possible connection to African or Afro- Caribbean beliefs. The knotted handkerchief was obviously a doll to stick with pins or to rend to inflict pain on others. The pieces of cloth were possibly shreds of clothing to be used to identify the dolls with a particular victim, as is common in the sympathetic magic which makes up part of voodoo belief” (McMillan 104-5)
Comments about “voodoo belief” aside (here I think McMillian is simply conflating “voodoo” with the folk magic of African Caribbeans), Candy’s use of the knotted handkerchief gets at some of the main reasons that doll magic seems to be popular and widespread. Firstly, it involves easily found or acquired resources—in this case cloth from the intended target, making the materials doubly enticing. Secondly, doll magic is sympathetic magic, and the connection is easy to see. If I make a piece of someone’s long johns look like a person, particularly the person whose backside the doll so recently covered, it seems likely that those two things will share a connection.
This point, that something that looks human but isn’t has uncanny powers, gets echoed in a lot of folklore as well, some of which connects to the folk magical systems of early Americans. Imported stories, such as tales about Anansi, refer to the use of dolls as agents of trickery. One account of Anansi tells how he tricked Tiger, and Tiger avenged himself on Anansi by putting a gumdoll in a field. Anansi gets angry when the doll won’t respond to him, and strikes it, becoming stuck to it. This tale is likely best known by American audiences as the tale of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, of course, which replaces Anansi with the wily trickster rabbit and uses tar in place of tree gum. An Apache tale recasts the narrative as Coyote fighting with a lump of pitch, placed in a field by a “white man” to catch the sneaky food thief. The story keeps reappearing across different cultural backdrops, with new characters but the same basic structure. In all cases, the doll in question does nothing—that is one of the reasons Brer Rabbit and his compatriots dislike the thing—but still manages to get the best of its target.
Dolls, much like the Tar Baby or gumdoll, don’t necessarily have to do anything to be effective in folk magic, either. Jason Miller recounts a story in his Protection & Reversal Magic in which a doll’s effect is clearly psychological, but nonetheless potent:
“A santera I know was having problems with her neighbor being loud and obnoxious at all hours of the night and leaving garbage on her lawn. She asked her madrina (her teacher) what she should do. The madrina told her to make a doll that looked like the neighbor, blindfold it, tie its arms and legs, and nail it to the tree in her yard facing her neighbor’s front door. My friend was a bit shocked and said, “Good Lord! I don’t want to hurt him! What will happen?”
“Nothing” replied her madrina, “but it will scare the living crap out of him!”” (Miller 30)
Miller’s account of the santera’s doll experience resembles other accounts in American folk history. Newbell Niles Puckett references a similar incident in his Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. In the cases Puckett describes, the dolls may or may not actually have a magical effect, or they might simply convey the sender’s sentiments about how they wish to see the recipeient suffer: “Very common also was the practice of putting small black caskets, often with skull and crossbones upon the cover, in front of a person’s door. Sometimes these would contain a small doll with pins run through the heart and with a burned-out candle at the head and another at the foot, doubtless a case of sympathetic magic, indicating a desire that the person be “laid out” according to the Catholic rites.” (Puckett 227-8).
Dolls that do nothing, however are not as much fun as dolls that do something. Fairy tales like “Vasalissa the Beautiful” from Russian lore offer dolls that seem to do little, but in fact act as powerful fetishes of protection to those that carry them. Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s doll, which carries a maternal blessing and performs tasks while the young girl and the old witch Baba Yaga are sleeping at night. Baba Yaga is always disappointed by Vasilissa’s completion of her tasks, which she knows must be done by magic but cannot figure out. Eventually the ancient cannibal witch decides not to eat the girl and instead sends her away with a magical gift when she learns that Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s blessing (although she never does puzzle out the secret of the doll).
Just as in fairy tales, dolls can have powerful magical agency, according to folklore. Several authors, including the aforementioned Jason Miller, suggest using dolls or poppets in spells, just as Candy was said to have done in Salem. Miller recommends a mirror box spell using a doll which will turn any harmful magic back on its sender or protect one from magical attack. Dorothy Morrison makes similar suggestions in her book on baneful magic, and even talks about using dollar store Barbie knockoffs stuffed with personal materials or herbs as a way of simplifying the doll-making process.
When it comes to making dolls, however, kids seem to have a knack for doing it with whatever’s at hand, which as I mentioned above, may be part of why dolls are both so ubiquitous and so powerful. Coming from materials which are already familiar to the doll-maker through use and contact, the relationship with the doll itself can be very deep once the figure has been created. Adults do sometimes craft dolls and other toys with what is around, but they are also likely to purchase materials:
“Folk toys are made of any convenient materials, including wood, clay, plants, paper, fabric, metal, sand, or snow. If made by children, they most often utilize recycled or “found” materials (as when rubberbands are saved to make a “Chinese jump rope”). Adults, especially those who make toys for sale, are more likely to purchase new materials as needed. Folk toys come in many varieties: Dolls are common (often made of natural materials such as nuts, apples, or corncobs dressed in scraps of fabric).” (Leeds-Hurwitz 1477)
The fabrication of toys and dolls, including ones used for ritual or magical purposes, is not limited to post-European contact in the New World, either. According to scholar Yvonne Milspaw, Native cultures would create paper-type dolls out of natural materials with magic in mind: ““Other reported uses of paper and bark cutting among Native Americans include carefully worded reports of sorcery and cut-paper dolls among some Mexican people like the Otomi” (MIlspaw 1134). Some of these traditions may have shaped latter-day practices like the creation of skeletal papier mache dolls for Day of the Dead/Dia de Muertos celebrations in Mexican and Mexican American culture.
So dolls can be made from lots of materials, and can be active or passive in the use of magic, as we’ve seen. They also frequently come with their own rules or taboos about how they can be used, deployed, or even simply treated. When it comes to folk magic, African American conjure traditions emphasized the choice of materials as a matter of import. Dolls are often crafted with local flora (and occasionally fauna) for a combination of practical and symbolic reasons. Spanish moss is frequently used to stuff or wrap doll babies in Delta-area conjure practices both because it grows ubiquitously on trees in the region and because as a plant it acts semi-parasitically (it doesn’t actually feed off of the oak trees it grows upon directly, but it can limit their growth), thereby sharing life with a host as a doll is supposed to. Even more potent than Spanish moss, however, are doll components that come directly from the intended target, such as pieces of their clothing, as illustrated by this example from African American folklore:
“My husband was very jealous of me, he was just insane jealous. He was always telling me he was going to put a spell on me. I was afraid of him. I went to a house where he didn’t want me to go, because a man was at that house he was jealous of. He was going away to get work…and told me not to go there. He went and took a piece of my bloomers and made a rag doll out of them, stuff it, worked black eyes like mine with silk thread; then put in the head — a needle, some of my hair, pins, rain water and a shingle nail, then sewed up the head. After that he took a small picture of me and put it on the left side of the rag doll, about where my heart is; then he filled the doll just full of pins and needles all over. He then put it in a pint jar and buried it under that house, where he didn’t want me to go — without anyone knowing it — and left town. I started to getting sick just as soon as he left, was sick all the time, could not find out what was wrong. I would start over to the house, but I could not make it. Something kept me from going. I went on this way for about a month, I was getting weaker and weaker, when one day some children playing around this house, digging, dug up this rag doll. They [the people at the house] knew right away it was to cast a spell over me, because they knew my picture was on the doll, and he was always saying he was going to make me suffer. We took the rag doll, jar and all, put it on the fire and burnt it all up; and I started to getting better right away and got well. And my husband got stab in about a month time; we threw the spell back on him by burning up everything, and he died and I am well.” (Hyatt 456)
A number of writers on conjure similarly describe the use of clothing from the intented target, including Yvonne Chireau, Starr Casas, Denise Alvarado, and Jefferey Anderson. While a doll sculpted from scratch certainly seems to be preferred in many magical practices, it is not the only way to operate. Much as Dorothy Morrison mentions using dollar-store plastic dolls to do work, Zora Neale Hurston records the repurposing of children’s toys for magical purposes in Southern African American hoodoo:
“To Keep a Person Down. Write name on paper with black ink. Rip open back of a doll and put the names in it. Sew it up with black thread. Put aloes, cayenne pepper in doll along with names. Tie the hands of the doll behind her and place her in a kneeling position in a corner, and keep her there where nobody will interrupt. They will be frustrated as long as she is not disturbed. Tie a black veil on her face and knot it in the back, so that the person will be blind and always do the things to keep himself from progressing” (Hurston 384).
In addition to the lore of creepy dolls and the lore about how to use dolls magically, there seem to be a few taboos about dolls which thread through different American cultural landscapes as well. For instance, many Amish communities have strict rules about children’s dolls, insisting that they cannot have faces on them for fear of violating the “graven images” commandment in the Bible (the rule also extends to things like snowmen and usually paintings as well). Hyatt notes that one superstition about dolls involves naming: “If a girl changes the name of her doll, the doll will break.” (Hyatt, p.268). He also records a much more sinister taboo about dolls which I cannot help but share here:
“A little girl died that was three years old, and her mother put a doll and a little horse in the coffin that she always played with. I said to the mother, ‘I would not do that, for there is an old saying, never bury anything with a corpse.’ And in a few weeks this little girl’s mother and sister died.” (Hyatt 374)
This last bit of folklore is fascinating to me simply because it seems to be a powerful impulse in human beings to bury toys with children when they are tragically lost. Many early human graves contain burial goods, and children’s burial goods often seem to be toys. Dolls, though, might have a special exemption from burial because of their close resemblance to a living person, although that does not seem to be a universal taboo.
Dolls today have a lot of the same stigmas attached to them: they are objects of fear and superstition as well as simple objects of play. Magically, they can be used for a number of purposes which resemble and also modify the traditional folk uses I’ve outlined here. One of our readers shared a story with us about a sloth doll she uses to overcome issues with chronic lethargy, letting the doll absorb any feelings of laziness from her (she also shared her very terrifying experiences with an American Girls doll, so that tradition is alive and well, too). The film Toy Story and its many sequels and similar movies all play upon the idea of toys having a “secret life,” which involves humans not being around, but being the prime object of the dolls’ attention. In theaters as of the date of this post, one can also see the film The Boy, about a very Robert the Doll-esque figure which seems to have a (sinister) life of its own.
All of which is to say, dolls are a big part of magical lore and practice, and don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. And they watch you while you sleep. So sweet dreams and all.
“If your nose is itching, someone wants to kiss you.”
“Your feet itch? You must be about to go somewhere.”
I remember my mother often sharing the little bits of proverbial wisdom throughout my childhood.
Usually they were delivered with a wink or a wry smile, and I don’t think she took them particularly seriously, but then she also wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that any one of these tokens had borne some fruit in the real world. If you think about it, assumptions about the intimate connection between a person’s body and the world around him or her are not anything new or unusual. Plenty of people have an uncle whose bunions predict snowstorms, or a grandmother whose arthritis tells of coming rain, or headaches that detect heatwaves moving in. There are plenty of other ways one’s body might help one prepare for a day outdoors, according to American lore:
Beyond those sorts of weather-related phenomena, however, bodies are reputed to be in touch with all sorts of esoteric information. Of course, obtaining pieces of a person’s body is a primary way of gaining magical control over him or her, but that, I fear, goes beyond the scope of this article. Instead, this brief examination will focus on the body as a giver or receiver of information, rather than a source of spell ingredients. For example, often the physical features of a person imply certain characteristics about their intellect or psychology, according to American lore:
A fat person is believed to have a good disposition and a friendly nature
A big head can be the sign of great intelligence, provided it’s not too big (which would mean a person of no wit whatsoever)
A person with a “long head” is thought to be someone of dubious morality and “unscrupulous” character
A person with a broad face is thought to be warm and friendly, while a narrow face indicates shrewdness and insensitivity
“Dimple on the chin,/ Devil within” – A dimpled chin indicates a troublemaking personality
Long arms indicate someone with a “grasping” nature, someone who will do whatever it takes to geth what he or she wants
Trimming a baby’s fingernails will turn it into a thief
And of course, cold hands mean a warm heart.
What do all of these sorts of lore have in common, then? They all seem to operate off of the ever-present Doctrine of Signatures, which we’ve seen before, and which fundamentally states that like affects like. By that logic, we can see how things like “broad face” and “big head” can be indicators of abundance with regard to particular character traits (I can only assume that the same sort of logic applies to the “fat person,” in that they have general abundance in their figure and thus must have some in their disposition towards others as well). More interesting are the less direct connections between things like trimming fingernails and later thievery in life. I would suggest that because a baby is supposed to undergo very little “reduction” during the first year or so of life (a period when their hair, body, and in some cases, teeth, are all growing more abundant), that trimming something off of the baby’s hand will make it always look for something to fill the void. That, in turn, might lead the baby to fill it with other people’s things, and thus the fear of thievery is attached to the belief. Makes sense? Coming with me on that one? (It’s fine if you don’t, of course, as these sorts of lore-bits often can have multiple meanings and origins).
Some of my favorite bodily predictors come in the form of love (and lust) lore, because they seem so appropriate to connect to how we experience our fleshly existence. I always heard that if your nose itched, someone wanted to kiss you, as I noted above (which may indicate either a lustful flag of interest if one subscribes to the nose/penis symbolism that some folklorists do, or a simple sense of “rooting out” such a person, as indicated in the paragraph on itching below). Another fairly common bit of folklore says that “a hair in your mouth means someone wants to kiss you.” Hair can have very sexual connotations (which is why it frequently gets associated with sexuality in Abrahamic religions), so its presence in the mouth would be a very reasonable indicator of lustful intent. Another bit of lore deals more with what to do if your paramour wanders off: “Throwing nail parings into a fire is a way to call a lover back to you” (okay, so this is more of a spell, but it does seem as though the nail trimmings are communicating with the other person, so I’m calling it a fit).
Itches or burning sensations on the body are of particular importance, and seem to offer very particular meaning depending on where they occur. Some examples from Kentucky lore:
If your ears burn some one is talking ill of you, while if your hand itches you will receive a present, or shake hands with a stranger.
If your right foot itches, you are to go on a journey; if the left, you are going where you are not wanted.
When your nose itches, some one is coming. If it is when you are away from home, you may know you are wanted at home.
If your right eye itches, you will cry; if the left, you will laugh.
Again, we see elements of the Doctrine of Signatures, in that ears receive the voice of others in most circumstances, so if they act in an uncharacteristic manner, they must indicate an unheard voice somewhere out in the world. Feet carry us on journies, of course, so the interesting element in that superstition is the association with particular feet and the type of journey. With the long-standing stigma against “sinister” (the original meaning of that word being “left-sided”) use of limbs, the connection between the left foot and an unpleasant journey makes some sense. The less obvious one is the nose, although we may make some guesses about why a nose would be a barometer for upcoming human contact. We might think of proverbial phrases like “sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong” or a “nosy person,” and understand that noses are believed to be the body part which roots for information, particularly about the lives of others, and so the nasal connection does have some precedent.
In Mexican-American folklore, bodily functions are often regulated by “hot” or “cold” natures (not dissimilar from Ayurvedic medicine). Because of those temperature associations, people can figure out important information about a person’s state of well-being based on whether small signs on the body indicate larger imbalances within the person. A great example would be hair, which is thought to be “hot” while it grows. A person whose “heat” dies away quickly, however, will likely begin to go gray, as though his or her vitality were turning to ash on his or her head. Having long hair can also help one lose weight in this estimation, because longer hair burns off more energy, thus depleting the body of its energetic fat stores.
Surprisingly few death omens connected to anything body related. This likely reflects an anxiety that bodily warnings are incredibly frequent and common, and that death should be a rare and unusual occurance, rather than anything commonplace. One of the few bits of bodily lore connected to death has to do with the loss of a limb and its disposal. Supposedly, if one loses a limb through combat or other misfortune, and fails to take off any shoes or other vestments on the detatched extension, the person will experience phantom pains so long as the problem is not corrected.
Vance Randolph collected some interesting lore which borders on a divinatory method using the appearance of spots on fingernails:
“White spots on fingernails are supposed to represent lies, and little boys often hide their hands to avoid betraying falsehoods. However, there is a fortunetelling rhyme children use when counting these white spots :
A gift, a ghost, a friend, a foe, A letter to come, a journey to go.
Some people say that a large white spot means a journey.”
These sorts of counting-out rhymes often figure in children’s play, sometimes as a means of selecting play partners and sometimes with more occult connotations, as in the spot-counting rhyme above. Why white spots should indicate lies remains open to interpretation, but if I had to guess I’d assume that the spots are thought to be the actual lies trapped beneath the glass-like surface of the nail, demonstrating that lies always come up for air, sooner or later.
I’ll close today with a little tidbit from a somewhat older book (originally published in England, but likely in circulation throughout the British colonies), which is devoted to divination via dreams and moles on the body. The entire second half of the pamphlet is about moles and their meanings, and often provides startlingly specific and inalienable interpretations of mole size, shape, and position. One such indicator: “If a Mole is on the crown of the head, it shews another on the nape of the neck, and the party witty, and to have good natural parts: but that he will die poor.” I would say that indicates that a pair of moles is a bit of a mixed bag, wouldn’t you? I think I’ll go back to being a bit heavyset and being perceived as friendly, then.
Let me begin by saying I have wanted to review this book for a long time. Primarily, that is because I have wanted to read this book for a long time, at least in something beyond excerpted form, which is the best I’d been able to do. The book itself seems to be out-of-print, and runs upwards of seventy-five dollars on the second-hand market, and I have always just told myself that when I find a copy for less than fifty, I’ll grab it then. Thankfully, my friend Atticus Hob did a sort of book exchange with me, and let me borrow his copy, and so I have finally been able to dive fully inot Gandee’s text and join him on his meandering journey through his mystically charged coming-of-age tale of sexual awakening, spirit contact, and magic.
I knew of this book for a long time before I read it, largely because one of the people whom I consider a teacher and friend, Jack Montgomery, studied with Gandee during the seventies. Jack included stories of his experiences in his own work, American Shamans, which has already been mentioned before (and we interviewed Montgomery in an earlier episode, too). What I knew the most about was Gandee as an adult, living a hexenmeister’s life and dispensing his perspective for an eager grad student. Strange Experience lives up to its title, showing that Gandee’s youth and development—both magically and personally—were extremely unusual, yet not at all unfamiliar to anyone who has struggled with identity at some point in his or her life.
The book is broken into nineteen chapters and an introduction, with titles such as “A Dead Man’s Treasure” and “The Strangest Prayers are Painted.” Each chapter is introduced with a hex sign—a Pennsylvania German art design frequently seen on barns in Lancaster and Berks Counties. Some of the signs are essentially reproductions of old barn signs, but a number of them are Gandee originals, and all have short explanations about their significance and attributed powers (such as “perpetual watchful protection and guidance” or “man’s power to create through mental and spiritual action”) (pp. 27, 115). He begins with his childhood, which launched on a turbulent evening and never seems to have settled down much. He regularly saw his mother in his tender years, but was largely raised by other relatives, mostly his grandmother. The book explains that Lee’s childhood was full of demons, ghosts, hauntings, and apparitions, but that most people he knew simply accepted those as part of the world in which they lived.
Gandee quickly shifts gears into a bit of a sweet if emotionally confounded romance with a boy named Stud, whom Gandee clearly regards as the love of his life, although he goes to great lengths to account for this love as something other than homosexual. The struggle for sexual identity dominates the book, at least as much as any aspect of magic or regional culture, and Gandee eventually recounts a past life in which he was a sort of sacred prostitute named Zaida, and Stud was a sailor with whom she fell in love. The romance was doomed by jealousy in the past, and in their reincarnated state the two boys don’t fare much better.
Much of the book recounts the simply mind-boggling spiritual world of Gandee, which ranges from the native hexenmeister-craft he practices (including the aforementioned chapter on painting prayers through hex signs) to working with Christian Science methods and encountering ferocious ghosts in Mexico (in the chapter “Ni; Uari! Go!; Die!”). Gandee runs a group of spiritual mediums in college, helps find lost things, manifest desires for his friends and neighbors through art, and studies the powers of animal magnetism and hypnosis along the way. He generally tries to rationalize what he experiences in a blithe, worldly tone, although in many spots he is clearly as swept away by circumstances and wonder as any reader might be.
The information on hexerei and Pennsylvania Dutch magic is incredibly interesting, and shows a tremendously syncretic, vibrant faith-based practice. A student of the pow-wow/braucherei culture would gain a great deal from a close study of the many charms and stories shared by the author, and a student of folk magic generally might see some of the potential inner workings of well-known spells in the book, too. When reading Strange Experience, however, any reader would do well to remember that the experiences are only those of Gandee, and do not speak for a larger culture generally. Gandee was certainly a distinct individual, and the things he writes about are connected to very old practices and traditions, but he quite openly acknowledges the changes he has made over time as well.
Because of the paucity of good, first-hand accounts of this sort of folk magic, Gandee’s book stands out in its field. It hardly reads as a dissection of Pennsylvania German religious or magical culture, and Gandee himself is hard to pin down at times (which is largely the point of his text). I feel that the questions about magical ethics, regional distinction, and social dynamics for sorcerors and their communities all make for good intellectual fodder, even if Lee’s conclusions about such things seem, well, strange. I do hope that others will read this book as well and that Gandee’s place in the pantheon of American magicians might receive a restoration of sorts. What he manages to accomplish in this book is far different than any magical how-to manual, because Strange Experience highlights the humanity of a man with feet in two worlds, belonging to none.
Tonight we have an interview with the magical Carolina Gonzalez, a curandera based in the Canary Islands. We’ll also have a brief overview of what curanderismo and brujeria are, and we announce a new contest!
Please send in contest entries to email@example.com! We are giving away a copy of 54 Devils (my book, in either digital or print form, whichever you prefer) and a digital copy of Carolina Gonzalez’s book on reading the Spanish cards as well. All you have to do is send us your weirdest or most unique piece of personal holiday lore, along with a name we can read on-air and a general location (‘Illinois’ or ‘the Midwest,’ for example).
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
It’s not quite officially summer yet, technically speaking, but the days are longer and the air is warmer, so I thought this would be a good time to revisit a subject which I explored last summer and add a new chapter to the book of New World Witchery. Today I’ll be looking again at Saints, but veering away from the orthodox and the official and into the realm of popular or “folk” saints.
The process of canonization frequently involves a great deal of waiting and confirming and bureaucracy on the part of the Catholic church, and sometimes folk saints are simply people who are on the way to becoming official saints but who still lack whatever final paperwork might be required to get their membership card into the elect order. In other cases, folk saints have little or nothing to do with the Catholic Church, and instead are simply incredibly popular figures who’ve developed devotional cults which make sacred pilgrimages or maintain shrines to a particular figure. Some of this was discussed on the Podcast Special on Magical Saints a while back, where I highlighted both official and unofficial saints, so some of the information below may be a bit repetitive, but it can’t hurt to have a little more information.
So what sets a folk saint apart from a revered ancestor, then? How is that “sainthood” bestowed, if not through the channels of a legitimizing body like the church? In general, the holiness of the saint empowers him or her—the saint is either directly in communion with the divine or is a transformed divinity him- or herself. Take for example, Teresa Urrea, whom we examine below in a bit more detail. She underwent a number of ecstatic ‘fits,’ during which she attended the court of God:
A mythology quickly grew up around each of the folk saints, attracting ever more adherents. The content of this cycle of stories is remarkably similar, although the parallels here are closer between Teresa and [folk saint Nino] Fidencio, than between these two and [San] Damian [of Sonora]. Teresa was thought to be in continual contact with supernatural beings during her ecstatic attacks. When these occurred, an immense multitude of people approached her, kneeling, praying, and weeping. When she returned to herself, she announced that she had been with God and his angels who gave her advice on morality (Macklin 94).
The divine actions of these saints frequently came at great personal expense. Some gave away worldly possessions, and others sacrificed their health and well-being for the aid of those who came to them:
These folk healers worked hard, sometimes seeing hundreds of people per day, and sometimes getting little sleep for long periods of time. Both El Nino and Teresita are conjectured to have died young partly as a result of exhaustion from years of labor. They also worked for little or no compensation. These old-time curanderos were regarded as folk saints while they were still alive—that is, they were recognized by la gente (the people) as holy beings, even while they were not officially canonized as such by the church (Torres 6).
Still, there are cases where a saint does not act particularly saintly and yet develops a strong following. Maximon, the Guatemalan folk saint who likely derives from a native deity very loosely wrapped in a Catholic guise—his name derives from the name San Simon, or St. Simon, but clearly even that name doesn’t stick—can be fickle and demanding, and generally provides assistance to people through wealth rather than health. Jesus Malverde works on behalf of the narcotraficantes and other outlaws. While Elvis certainly accomplished a lot in his lifetime, no one is making the case for his sainthood based on his receiving angelic lessons on morality during ecstatic trances.
The cult of folk saints is widely practiced and very popular among Hispanic populations, although it is not exclusively limited to them by any means. In some cases, the folk saint in question is a cultural hero of some kind (see Pancho Villa below), and the combination of exalted personality and the practice of Catholic ceremony merge to form the folk saint reverence tradition. In other situations, displaced native spirits have been overlaid with legitimate or semi-legitimate identities (see Maximon and La Guadalupe). However, any iconic figure can inspire intense devotion, and that devotion can eventually translate into folk sainthood.
The methods for revering folk saints can include anything from simply maintaining an image of that person to praying to them for intercession and making votive offerings to elaborate undertakings like pilgrimages. Most saints have likes and dislikes, preferences for particular appeasements, etc. Some are quite specific (Expedite requires a slice of Sara Lee pound cake for the performance of his brand of intercession, for example). Others seem happy with any heartfelt act of devotion.
The remainder of this article will be devoted to looking—very briefly—at half a dozen or so common folk saints based out of North America. This is hardly a complete list, nor are the entries here going into nearly enough detail on any of the saints mentioned, but hopefully it will provide a reasonable jumping-off point for learning more.
Teresita – “Teresita Urrea the curandera, who passed through New Mexico around the turn of last century and who left behind her the rumor of her great legend” (Torres 91). Apprenticed to a curandera named Huila, the woman born Teresa Urrea who became affectionately known as Teresita came from an aristocratic father and peasant mother. In addition to healing, she could heal and hypnotize. Photos of her performing healings can be found in the book Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing, by Eliseo ‘Cheo’Torres, and you can see one at this link as well. At a young age, she suffered a coma and near death after an attempted rape. Upon her recovery, she took up curanderismo and became famous for her tireless healings of the poor and marginalized communities in the Mexican-American borderlands. She was described as “[w]orking herself toward an early grave from the beginning” (Torres 97). Teresita befriended the Yaqui Indians, and was revered by many as a living saint within her lifetime. Known as the Saint of Cabora, she sought to heal anyone and right political wrongs done the native and mestizo peoples she worked with. She died in 1906 after working to the point of exhaustion. Cheo Torres acknowledges that “at least a couple of different versions of the story have circulated over the years” (Torres 101).
El Nino Fidencio – A deeply religious young man from Espinazo, Mexico, who performed a number of faith healings and miracles during his lifetime, Jose Fidencio Sintora Constantino showed promise in his calling from a very early age (which is why he was given the epithet “el nino,” or “the child”). His abilities were so great he was reputed to be able to perform miracles from miles away. He managed to do not just distance healing, but amputations and surgeries to remove illness. He had a variety of other unorthodox and alternative healing methods as well. He is said to have kept a garden with two hundred herbs which he processed into cures, and he frequently “prescribed herbal baths, nutritional therapy, and laughter. He rolled people in dirt. He sat the mentally ill on children’s swings and incorporated singing and dance into his cures” (Illes 285). The church where he is buried has “mementoes included such items as desiccated body parts in glass jars that El Nino had removed through amputation or excision, and the broken bottles that he had sometimes used to perform the surgeries” (Torres 21). El Nino Fidencio is sought in hopeless cases and has a highly active cult following. He died young, only about 40 years old. While he’s not officially recognized as a saint, his propensity for performing miraculous healings and his religious faith (he was a devout Catholic) make him resemble other canonized saints fairly closely. Some of his devotees keep “little boxes” through which his healing power is supposed to be channeled (“Nino Fidencio” Wikipedia).
Pancho Villa – This historical figure was seen as a military hero by some and a scandalous villain by others. He was a general who led the division del norte during the Mexican Revolution, and he had a very Robin Hood-esque reputation. While his guerilla tactics included train robbery and land confiscation, he frequently distributed his takings among his soldiers and the local poor, which made him—unsurprisingly—tremendously popular. He was born Jose Doroteo Villa (he and I share a birthday, which makes me like him even more), and he demonstrated a strong combination of political and military savvy very quickly in his career. In the United States, we know him best for his attacks in the Texas/New Mexico region, but his activity in Mexico was much wider, including governorship of the state of Chihuaha and serving a primary pro-democracy leader during the period of Mexican civil war. He was assassinated in his car in 1923, and was reportedly “found in the driver seat of the car, with one hand reaching for his gun” (“Pancho Villa” Wikipedia). “Give Pancho Villa cheap cigars, cigarettes, and tequila. The general despised the pretentious, overpriced, or refined. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t have good taste. If you can offer him something cheap and good, all the better!” (Illes 553-4). It is said that he likes to grope or pinch women who attract his attention.
Maximon –This Guatemalan folk saint bears a striking resemblance to the “Man in Black” found in other traditions like African Amercican hoodoo. He is seen as a saint syncretized to St. Simon Peter, but any adoption into the Catholic assembly of saints is superficial and tenuous. He likely derives from “a pre-Columbian Mayan god of the underworld formerly known as Maam (‘grandfather’)” (Lucky Mojo 1). He is offered rum and cigarettes (statues of the saint frequently smoke the cigarettes as part of the offering ritual) and is thought to provide aid to his votaries in matters of love, health, and money, but also in exacting vengeance on enemies. His cult is particularly strong in the town of Santiago Atitlan, where his attendants remain constantly with his effigy. Judika Illes recommends washing the clothing from the Maximon “doll” with citronella and lemongrass oil, then keeping the rinse water to use in magical work (Illes 506).
St. Expedite – This saint inhabits a tenuous space in the heavenly assembly—no one is quite sure if he existed, or if he might just be the result of a shipping mistake in which another saint’s statue was labeled for fast delivery—in a box labeled ‘EXPEDITE’, or sometimes the Italian ‘SPEDITO’—and the name stuck to the figure (or in some versions, the body of an unknown saint) and became a holy helper in its own right. The official Catholic story of Expeditus (as he is sometimes known) places him in the fourth century CE, a late Roman imperial soldier whose iconography shows him stepping on a crow which calls out ‘cras!,’ a sound similar to a caw but which also means “tomorrow” in Latin, hence his reputation for getting things done today (Catholic Online 1). “Saint Expedite is controversial. He has a reputation for unscrupulousness. He is rumored to assist sorcerors with curses and revenge spells; although some devotees vociferously deny that this is true, insisting that he will only fulfill benign petitions” (Illes 281). Offerings for Expedite include a slice of Sara Lee pound cake or red carnations. He’s become incredibly popular in folk Catholicism and some branches of hoodoo, and his devotional images and candles are usually readily available.
Elvis – Being a southerner, I can’t help but mention Elvis. The King of Rock and Roll serves as a sort of patron saint to his fans, who embody their fantaticism with all the hallmarks of religious devotion, including pilgrimages to his home at Graceland in Memphis and by setting up altars with his image on them. He also has a folk mythology surrounding him, including appearances from beyond the grave, miraculous healings, and even the persistent myth that he is still alive. His cult is part kitsch and part true devotion, and it’s very distinct. Some dress like Elvis as a way to honor him or perpetuate his memory, and some leave out offerings of peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches (a favorite food of the King, though he appreciated just about any rich southern dish). He can be petitioned for any number of needs, including healing, musical and artistic inspiration, wisdom and guidance, and overcoming addictions. I think of Elvis as a very special sort of folk saint—one in living memory for many of his devotees and deeply flawed in his personal life, but one who provided joy for millions of people both during and after his time as a mortal. I was an enormous Elvis fan for much of my childhood, despite not having been born at the time of his death. The King has found an especial home in the Latin American community, where he is frequently depicted in skeletal form in Day of the Dead (dia de muertos) celebrations and decorations (Illes 267). Another recommended offering for him? Teddy bears.
Jesus Malverde – In the realm of controversial and unofficial saints, Jesus Malverde is right at the top, alongside a similar roguish hero, Pancho Villa. Known as a “narco-Saint,” this figure guards and protects those involved in illegal activities, particularly those working in the drug trafficking trade. His depictions make him look less like a Catholic Christ figure and far more like a landowning Hispanic gentleman from the nineteenth or early twentieth century. This is fitting, as one legend describes him as “a Robin Hood figure of the early 1900’s that was hanged by the governor. He himself did not traffic drugs, but after his death his reputation for working miracles drew faith strongest among Sinaloa’s poor and highland residents, the classes from which narco-traffickers emerged. Malverde has become the patron saint for many drug smugglers, though the local diocese says the Malverde chapel is an embarrassment. The priests lament the glorification of a man who robbed and killed, though citizens of Sinaloa have found it harder to have faith in a political system that enforces a drug war responsible for the many deaths of their own people. Historians cannot seem to find documentation of his existence, but even still miracles such as the healing of the blind and crippled, the returning of lost cattle, and the saving of a drowning man have been attributed to him” (U. Texas Library 1). In some ways he resembles the folk outlaw figure Zorro, but with less of a penchant for clean living. Malverde’s shrine is used by those who deal with the drug trade, not only those who transport the drugs but families who pray for his protection over loved ones facing criminal charges.
As you can probably guess, the practice of folk-saint veneration is strongest in communities with a heavy Catholic background, and all of the saints above either come from Hispanic backgrounds or have been added into Hispanic folk practices (as in the case of Elvis). There are many folk saints who do not have the strong Hispanic connections mentioned here, of course, and hopefully one day I’ll get around to some of them as well. For now, I hope this has at least whetted your appetite to know more about the intriguing and enchanting pantheon of folk saints in the Americas.
Thanks for reading!
Summary: In this episode, I’ll be telling stories from American folklore about how people learn witchcraft. We’ll hear tales of initiation and apprenticeship, solitary witches, witch apprenticeships, and find out just what witches do.