Posted tagged ‘milagros’

Blog Post 137 – Curandero Spells, part I

September 30, 2011

Howdy everyone! In the next couple of posts I’m just going to toss a few spells, charms, herbs, and other tools and techniques gleaned from Hispanic folk magical practices out there for you to peruse. As always, let me state clearly that these ideas ARE NOT MEANT TO REPLACE MEDICAL OR LEGAL ADVICE, but are merely provided as folkloric examples of a vibrant cultural practice. With that out of the way, let’s look at the magic!

Illnesses and Maladies
Curanderos treate a variety of different ailments of both physical and spiritual natures. Some of the best known and most commonly treated are:

  • Empacho – a digestive disease caused by a perceived blockage in the intestines
  • Susto – a type of soul-shaking fright that causes a person’s spirit to leave their body, which becomes weak and vulnerable
  • Desasombro – an intensive form of susto which leaves its victim debilitated after severe trauma
  • Mal de ojo – the famous ‘evil eye,’ which can have a number of symptoms, such as bad luck, ill health, or anxiety and depression
  • Mal puesto/brujeria – essentially a curse or malignant witchcraft, which is ‘put on’ a person and must be taken off with spiritual tools and prayer
  • Nervios – nervous diseases that cause emotional distress and suffering
  • Bilis – a type of anger sickness caused by a perceived backup of ‘bile’ in a person’s system, and which is usually treated with a laxative of some kind
  • Muina – a more intensive anger sickness which results in an outward rage of some kind. treated with tranquilizing herbal remedies (like orange blossoms, also called flor de azahar)
  • Latido – a sort of eating disorder which is primarily seen in young women which results in anorexia and bodily weakness, treated  with repeated herbal and physical healing practices
  • Impotence/Infertility – sometimes linked to a psychic cause, sometimes a physical one, sometimes both; usually treated herbally or with techniques like massage combined with prayer
  • Menstrual/Gynecological disorders – irregular menstruation, prolapsed uteruses, and other problems related to the female reproductive system which are almost always treated without requiring the patient to disrobe (a major reason why some people turn to curanderos instead of conventional doctors)

There are plenty of diseases I’m not listing here, of spiritual and medical natures. Accounts of these disorders and their treatment by curanderos can be found in a number of resources, such as Curandero by Eliseo “Cheo” Torres, “Mexican-American Folk Diseases,” by Keith A. Neighbors, and this article from the Western Journal of Medicine in 1983. Folk practitioners generally deal with these maladies on a case-by-case basis, and attempt a holistic cure which integrates body, mind, and spirit in the healing process.

 

Tools
The tools of curanderos are generally easy to find, household items. Combined with the power of prayer and focused intent, their magical or miraculous qualities emerge and they can be used to to treat the illnesses listed above. Some tools are a little more difficult to acquire than simply going to your local grocery store, but almost any of them are available cheaply and easiliy either online or through mail-order.

  • Yerbas (Herbs) – These are probably some of the most common and important components of curanderismo practice.  A number of different herbs are used, often in a variety of forms. They can be bundled and used like a broom or small scourge (see “Rubbing” in the Techniques section), turned into a tea, burned, or even taken in pill form. Some curanderos grow their own, and others purchase herbs at a yerberia, which is similar to a natural health food store or Chinese apothecary. Since there are so many herbs available, I am only going to select a small handful to mention here in the interest of saving space:
    • Ruda (Rue) – primarily used (as it is in other cultures) as an anti-evil charm and a general spiritual curative, it can also bring prosperity and wealth
    • Cenzino/Salvia (Sage) – in most cases the white sage (Salvia apiana) found in the American Southwest, though in some cases culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) may be substituted; protects, cleanses, reverses evil witchcraft and susto, and provides long life and wisdom
    • Anis (Aniseed) – a licorice-flavored seed used in cooking and liqueur-making, which also aids all sorts of digestive problems when chewed or administered as a tea; also used after susto treatments to help the patient’s spirit settle back into his or her body
    • Calendula (Marigold) – used for a number of psychic phenomenon, from prophetic dreaming to helping one to have visions or find stolen property
    • Cascara sagrada – a tree bark which helps with legal issues and court cases, as well as providing general good luck
  • Amuletos (Amulets) – A variety of amulets, from the very simple to the very complex, are used to create magical conditions for clients and/or patients. Most are carried in pockets or purses, though some can also be worn, usually around the neck. Some of the most famous amuletos are the Milagros which are little tin, lead, or otherwise metallic charms in a variety of shapes such as heads, hearts, hands, pigs, Blessed Virgins, and even ears of corn. These are frequently left at the shrine of a saint with especial patronage of a particular type of healing or miracle, but can also be incorporated into other charms. Horseshoes are sometimes found as amulets, either in milagro form or actual horsehoes. One of the most interesting charms I’ve found is the piedra iman, or lodestone charm, which is made in the following way (from Torres’ Curandero):

“I discovered that the piedra iman [lodestone] is the basis for what is called piedra iman curada (a cured lodestone), in the form of an amulet (amuleto) which is a specially prepared plastic bag containing a number of items or trinkets, including a small piedra iman rock. Each item in the bag is significant and represents the following:
-A gold colored bead signifies the need for wealth or money (oro para mi uena );
-A silver colored bead, or silver taken from old jewelry, is for harmony in one’s home (plata para mi casa y hogar);
-A copper coin such as a penny is for the poor and needy (cobre para el pobre);
-A red bead or red bean signifies coral, to rid you of envy and all that’s bad (coral para que se me quite la envidia y el mal);
-A horseshoe or wire bent in the shape of  ahorseshoe to prosper in business or in personal work (la heradura para un buen negocio o trabajo); and
-A piece of lodestone for good luck and fortune (la piedra iman para la uena suerte y fortuna).

People carry the plastic bag with all these items in their pockets or cars, or hang the bag in their homes or businesses” (p. 54)

  • Eggs, Limes, & Lemons – These are used to perform limpias, or spiritual cleansings. In most cases, the food item is rubbed over the body of the patient, then either destroyed in a ritual manner or “read” for information on the person’s condition. Egg limpias are especially common and reading an egg’s contents after a cleansing is done by dropping the cracked egg into a glass of water and interpreting things like bubbles, strands, and coloration of the egg itself. Blood on the egg is a very bad sign, as is a foul odor emanating from the egg. In these cases, multiple limpias may be performed to rid the patient of his or her magical affliction. You can read an excellent description of both the egg cleansing and how to interpret the signs of the egg over at Concha’s Curious Curandera website.
  • Candles – These probably don’t need a whole lot of elaboration, but it should be pointed out that a number of different candles are used within curanderismo. Saint candles are common, of course, but so are the candles frequently found in other traditions, like hoodoo. For instance, one might see a St. Michael candle burning alongside a Fiery Wall of Protection candle or a Sacred Heart of Jesus candle burning with a Reversing candle. Votive candles and tapers are also used for various types of work, from cleansing to simple prayers.
  • Prayer – Probably the most important and powerful tool in a curandero’s bag is his or her selection of prayers. Usually these are liturgical prayers, such as the Apostles Creed, certain Psalms, or the Lord’s Prayer, but occasionally one can find a folk prayer or one that has simply grown up out of the curandero’s personal tradition. Usually prayers are said multiple times, often over extended periods of time, and as often as possible the patient is asked to pray with the worker.

That will just about cover us for today. Next time we’ll have a look at the techniques used by curanderos, as well as a couple of other interesting spells.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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Blog Post 134 – Brujeria and Curanderismo: A (Very Brief) Overview

August 24, 2011

I’ve been combing back through a number of different posts lately, and seeing what areas we’ve covered in some detail (hoodoo, rootwork, and Pow-wow, mostly), which ones we’ve done some basic delving into (mountain magic and general witchcraft), and which ones we’ve only just barely touched upon (pretty much everything else). I was very surprised that I’d not covered today’s topic more, as it’s one of the topics with which I have a good bit of practical experience. But for some reason, I’ve only mentioned curanderismo and its ‘darker’ sister brujeria a few times.

And so today, I thought it might be good to remedy that deficiency somewhat. We’ll be giving these traditions only the most basic of examinations, as a deeper exploration of either could easily fill several dozen books and websites. Yet there are relatively few texts or webpages which look at these practices. Partly this may be a linguistic barrier (my Spanish is intermediate-level at best), but honestly I think this may just be an area where research is thin on the ground. I’d love to be proven wrong in that, though, so if you know of some good research on these traditions, please leave a comment and/or link.

To begin, let’s look a bit at curanderismo. This is a system of magical healing, blessing, and cleansing largely centered around Catholic prayers and rituals, with a heavy infusion of folk religion and magic and a bit of herb lore in some cases. A male practitioner is a curandero, while a female practitioner is a curandera. Many of the rituals within this tradition have to do with detecting and undoing evil witchcraft (which is called brujeria by curanderos, which gets a bit confusing…more on that later). In Mexico, where this practice is centered—though there are ever-increasing numbers of practitioners in other Central and North American locations, a person might call upon a curandero if a family member seems to be plagued with some uncommon illness, or if their house seems to be exhibiting symptoms of a haunting, or if they are feeling as though a general run of bad luck has settled onto them. One of the best resources on curanderismo on the internet is Dona Concha of the Curious Curandera website. In the introductory material for one of her many excellent courses, she includes this summary of the practice:

Curanderismo is not only a form of folk healing, it also includes the practice white magic, ritual, cleansings, energy work, spirit contact, divination, and a vast amount of prayer just to name a few. While some practitioners prefer to engage only in one area, others work in all areas.
Curanderismo is a very spiritual practice with strong religious faith. Practitioners use a variety of objects including herbs, spices, eggs, lemons, limes, Holy Water, Saints, Crucifixes, prayer, candles, incense, oils and divination tools. Most include spirit assistance. Not all practitioners work in the same way. For example, one person may perform a spiritual cleansing with a raw unbroken egg while another may employ a bundle of herbs for the cleansing tool.

While a curandera might perform rituals that help remove bad luck or might contact specific spirits (usually angelic or “holy” ones), they tend to shy away from any ‘dark’ magics.

Brujeria, on the other hand, means literally “witchcraft,” and is frequently perceived in a negative light. This system, however, is not entirely dissimilar from hoodoo, with a focus on practical, earthier types of magic: love, money, sex, etc. What gives brujeria its bad reputation is its association with “magia negra” or “black magic.” While both curanderismo and brujeria can work with “magia blanca” (“white magic”) to provide cures, healing, and good luck, only brujeria works with things like spirit summoning and necromancy to achieve its aims. Brujo Negro, who runs a fantastic site on brujeria (and whose name means “black witch”), explains magia negra as an extension of the grimoire magic imported by the Spaniards during the 16th century. He also points out that the native peoples of Mexico—the Nahua, the Xolotl, etc.—did not particularly have concepts of “good” and “evil,” and so the concept of a branch of magic entirely in the service of evil would have been alien to them. Instead, the “healer physician” figure (anthropologically referred to as a “shaman” in many circles) would use his or her knowledge of natural materials and forces—herbs, roots, stones, and animal parts—to craft specialized remedies for community members struck with strange illnesses. The Spaniards did not always understand what the natives were doing, and viewed them and their practices warily.

The use of grimoire magic, talismans, spirit invocations, and other spells which did not explicitly call upon Christian paradigms to accomplish their goals led to opposition between the brujos and the curanderos. This is not all that different than the supposed wars between the benandanti and the witches of Italy, which Carlo Ginzburg has catalogued incredibly well in his book The Night Battles. In truth, both groups were likely working—in general—for the good of their communities, though the brujos might occasionally use more aggressive magic to do their work and likely were a little saltier about the spiritual side of their practice. Another group of magical practitioners (which may be the equivalent of fairy-tale witches or malevolent wizards or folklore) may well have engaged in exclusively cursing practices and malevolent magic, in which case either a brujo or curandero might be called in to do battle with the wicked sorcerer, again demonstrating that the line between the two camps is a fuzzy one at best.

The historical presence of folk magic among Hispanic communities goes back centuries, and while it shares certain commonalities with the European colonial experience along the Atlantic, it also strongly resembles the African experience in America. Contact between native peoples and the new arrivals was relatively high, and cultural exchange was fluid, if not officially indulged:

New Mexico witchcraft cases reveal a variety of features of colonial life in New Mexico that did not exist in other colonized areas of North America. For example, they show the physical proximity in which the Indians and Europeans lived and the increasingly intertwined beliefs they shared—about power, about magic, about healing, and about witches. These characteristics of New Mexico society were especially pronounced after the Spanish returned to the colony in 1706. Witchcraft was so much a part of New Mexico in the eighteenth century that Ramon A. Gutierrez has suggested that it was one of the three main issues that affected life there…Nothing comparable exists among the surviving records in British or French North America, at least as far as indigenous people are concerned” (Games 34-5).

This is not to say that relations were necessarily sunny between the natives and the conquering Spaniards, but the level of integration between Old World and New World beliefs seemed to flow both ways, with people like the Xolotl eventually adapting to the Catholic pantheon of saints and the rituals of the church, while the Spaniards sought out community healers for their ethereal gifts. Witch trials can and did erupt, but seldom with the vigor found in New England (or even old England). The veneer of Catholicism covered a variety of magical practices and set them in an ‘appropriate’ religious context, though in practice healings were still being done through the agency of plants, spirits, and other magical tools.

So just what does a curandero or bruja do nowadays? Much of what brujos and curanderas do resembles another magical practice heavily rooted in Catholicism, that of stregheria (or, more specifically, the cousin tradition of streghoneria), which come from Italy. I hope to dig into this question a bit more in other posts, but it might be good to look at some earmark practices common to one or both traditions, so that you can recognize it when you see it. In both, you are likely to find:

  • Divinatory practices – Sometimes by cards, but just as often by very specific items like eggs broken into a glass of water or the ashes left by a smoldering cigar.
  • Saint magic – Calling upon the intercessory power of saints to accomplish specific tasks. This is usually accompanied by rituals such as candle-burning and prayer.
  • Statuary or charms – This goes hand-in-hand with saint magic for the most part, though other types of charms like milagros (little pewter, silver, or gold charms shaped like hearts, body parts, animals, etc. and used as devotional offerings) are also frequently used.
  • Ritual cleansing – Especially using holy water or natural elements, like eggs, limes, lemons, etc. This can be done on a person or on a specific place.
  • Liturgical prayers – These are used outside of the orthodox liturgy, and are usually repeated several times to gain their benefit in magical settings. Examples include the “Our Father,” or “Ave Maria” prayers.
  • Novena candles – These are easily found in places with large Hispanic populations, and usually have a pillar candle encased by glass with a picture of a saint, angel, or other holy being on them. On the back they typically have short prayers (often in Spanish and English) which are recited while burning the candle.

In the individual practices, the magic may lean more heavily towards one or another of these categories. Certain folk saints are deeply revered by one group and not the other, or sometimes revered by both groups in different ways. A great example of this different-but-the-same relationship is Santa Muerte (“Holy Death”), a powerful spirit both loved and feared throughout Mexico. She’s a big enough topic for her own post at some point, so I’ll just leave that mention as a tease for the moment. As I mentioned earlier, brujeria resembles hoodoo fairly strongly, so there are lots of roots, bones, and rusty nails found in it, while herbal preparations for healing and cleansing tend to be more heavily emphasized in curanderismo.

All of this is simply the lightest scratch across the surface of a very deep subject. I hope to provide more and more information through other posts at other times, and even then I’ll only really be getting at a fairly superficial understanding of this incredible set of traditions and practices. For now, though, I hope this has been a useful magical appetizer.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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