Okay, it's not my best-ever paper by any stretch of the imagination. But the source material is fascinating, and the end product I've come up with is probably worse for how much I actually enjoyed reading the essays cited here. The book itself, Sexuality & Marriage in Colonial Latin America, edited by Asunción Lavrin, is not all about witchcraft -- in fact only one of the essays therein actually deals directly with the phenomenon of female magic. But the theory that absolute male power begat X-Filesque feminine occultism is a truly interesting one.
Apologies both to my instructor and to the authors of the (much better) essays in Lavrin's tome.
Viva las brujas, a poorly constructed paper, by Jason Kurylo
Throughout history, very few cultures have offered women social power. In fact, where and when it has existed, female power has been largely mistrusted (Behar, 181). The same held true throughout colonial Latin America; with very few exceptions, men ruled the roost. All of Christian society was built upon a male-dominated model that spun fractally downward from the king looking after the people to the husband looking after the household (Boyer, 252-253). Even in private domains such as the bedroom, a woman was expected to fulfill a sexual debt to her husband; whereas a man could withdraw from the marital bed for months at a time or engage freely in extramarital relations, a reluctant wife could expect physical punishment or even church interference (Lavrin, 78).
Women, like servants, were far removed from decision-making; men ruled financial, political, and religious arenas, and held distinct advantages in social situations as well. Ecclesiastical decrees, royal proclamations, civil laws and family inheritance were all conceived, proclaimed and enforced by men. In fact, being female sometimes exceeded enslavement for lack of power. King Charles III’s Real Pragmática excluded dark-skinned subjects from the throne’s stringent rules (Socolow, 210), and was placed more strictly upon white Hispanic females. In church doctrine, even the Holy Mother was a virgin, placing an unreasonable yoke of moral responsibility upon women’s shoulders. The expectation of absolute abstinence meant women were either judged to be ‘in control’ or ‘out of control’, with no shades of grey in between (Twinam, 123-124).
This presented numerous instances of confusing public policy. Women of all colours were often ill-treated, even by those within the church, and yet were accused of being the main reason for their own hardship. Women, due to their fragile will and weak honour, were easily hoodwinked by sweet talkers (Lavrin, 59). They were expected, however, to deny the advances of men, who were afforded the luxury of misconduct – to carry out affairs, father illegitimate offspring and mete out physical abuse to women and children (ibid., 64-65). Indian women, however, were assumed to have loose morals and thus to be beyond expectation of honour (ibid., 67).
Bishop Mariano Martí acknowledged that, in the pursuit of sexual seduction and conquest, women were often unfairly pitted against male power, rank and abuse of church doctrine. Women were also lured into disrepute by the promise of impending or eventual material gain (Waldron, 158). Rather than placing blame for these transgressions upon male suitors and promise breakers, he called women moral polluters whom he “blamed... for much of the sexual misconduct in his dioceses”. Martí’s reasons for these epithets, however, only listed worldly manners of enchantment, for example, flirtation, revealing clothing, and inappropriate consort (ibid., 170-171).
In public complaints and marriage disensos, women were nearly always called to question over their sexual conduct, whereas men were accused more often of less ‘dirty’ vices, such as joblessness, gambling and deceit (Socolow, 220). Direct offences against their wives and consorts were actionable in some cases – but even leaving the home needed permission from church authorities (Nizza Da Silva, 314). As official recourse was limited when men exhibited excessive carelessness, philandering or violence, women were left to use “whatever tactics and resources were at hand to defend themselves and try to modify their circumstances” (Boyer, 280). Sometimes this meant turning to a less traditional source of softening the brutality of their mate: namely, witchcraft (Behar, 197).
Each side of this story used different words to describe their struggle for control. Just as the church aimed to ‘educate’ and ‘civilise’ heathen natives through subjugation and oppression, men related tales of magic used por asimplar, amansar y ligar — to ‘stupefy’, ‘tame’ and ‘tie’. For their part, women searched for ‘remedies’ to combat their husbands’ philandering, carelessness and violence (Behar, 179).
From the male point of view, this dark magic presented an out should he not live up to cultural standards. Undue feminine sway over a man was in such opposition to established power structures that she was automatically assumed to be a bruja. If she displayed unusual fortitude or manly behaviour, such as brazenly cuckolding her husband, the man had few options at his disposal. Having already suffered from immeasurable dishonour, the man was compelled to take control of the situation by punishing his disobedient wife. If he could not, an admission of weakness was not an option (Nizza Da Silva, 318): his only possible explanation was witchcraft (Behar, 178-179).
On the other hand, witchcraft offered hope to women across racial and social spectra of ‘remedies’ for their husbands’ unfaithful or violent ways (ibid., 179), and allowed them to use their sole arena of control — the kitchen, or more specifically, food preparation — to their advantage (Behar, 197-199).
Where in northern Europe, and later in a young United States, witch hunts were borne and whipped into social frenzies out of political and religious paranoia, Hispanic powers that be mainly dismissed as harmless the whispering networks which sprang up between women of all colours and castes. Spanish, Italian and New World complaints of witchcraft tended to involve activities of a more intimate nature — fabled methods of rendering a cheating husband impotent, love potions and sex magic. The Inquisition found these stories unworthy of attention, as magical practices tended to give the user only individual, fear-based power (ibid., 183-184).
Hispanic women were not strangers to witchcraft, as evidenced by similar female spell casting reported on the Iberian peninsula. In colonial Latin America, however, the upper classes most often had a distant relationship with magic. Money helped some to create status, and even pass between some racial boundaries (Twinam, 126-127). It also allowed some rich women to seek out a dark-skinned practitioner — who added local or foreign flavour to Hispanic legend — and trade a combination of food, shelter and money for folkloric assistance. Due to their otherness, these mulattas, mestizas and Indians represented multiple sources of power: the ‘inherent’ female magic and the traditional powers of their racial groups (Behar, 192-193).
Behar, Ruth. “Sexual Witchcraft, Colonialism, and Women’s Powers: Views from the Mexican Inquisition.” Lavrin, S&M 178-208.
Boyer, Richard. “Women, La Mala Vida, and the Politics of Marriage.” Lavrin, S&M 252-286.
Calvo, Thomas. “The Warmth of the Hearth: Seventeenth-Century Guadalajara Families.” Lavrin, S&M 287-312.
Gruzinski, Serge. “Individualization and Acculturation: Confession among the Nahuas of Mexico from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century.” Lavrin, S&M 96-117.
Lavrin, Asunción, ed. Sexuality & Marriage in Colonial Latin America. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1992.
Lavrin, Asunción. Introduction. Lavrin, S&M 1-43.
Lavrin, Asunción. “Sexuality in Colonial Mexico: A Church Dilemma.” Lavrin, S&M 47-95.
Nizza Da Silva, Maria Beatriz. “Divorce in Colonial Brazil: The Case of São Paulo.” Lavrin, S&M 313-340.
Socolow, Susan M. “Acceptable Partners: Marriage Choice in Colonial Argentina, 1778-1810.” Lavrin, S&M 209-251.
Twinam, Ann. “Honor, Sexuality, and Illegitimacy in Colonial Spanish America.” Lavrin, S&M 118-155.
Waldron, Kathy. “The Sinners and the Bishop in Colonial Venezuela: The Visita of Bishop Mariano Martí, 1774-1784.” Lavrin, S&M 156-177.