Idolatry

Andrew Redden. Diabolism in Colonial Peru, 1560-1750. London: Pickering an Chatto, 2008.

cute-guinea-pigs-wallpaper-4A lot of guinea pigs were killed in the making of this book. People living in the Andes in the seventeenth century killed them to make the indigenous gods, known as huacas, happy. I’ve never really understood the purpose of guinea pigs, but when people started sacrificing them to idols it is no wonder that the Spanish priests started to think that maybe the huacas were demons in disguise. Andrew Redden’s book is a fascinating study of the time when Satan came to the Andes. If you are going to tell people about Jesus you also need to mention the Devil. And if Christianity is the one true religion, then indigenous religious practices must have been demonic. Redden points out that the name of the Andean deity Pachacamac Pachayachiachic meant “master and creator of the world, teacher of men and invisible God.” So when the Andeans worshiped him, it was because they wanted to worship the true God whose real name they didn’t know. But regardless of their good intentions, they were still worshiping idols. The Spanish writer Calancha wrote that “the enemy had so much power among those infidels that he made himself a god by entering into all that which the Indians venerated as sacred, spoke in their oracles and temples and the corners of their houses and other parts, saying that he was Pachacamac and that he was all those other things to which Indians attributed divinity.” Even when they tried to worship God, the Andeans ended up worshiping Satan.

plate37Some people kept worshiping Andean gods even after they had become Christians. One woman from Cuzco used to go into the forest to sacrifice to the huacas on her way to church but was caught, with the blood of her guinea pigs still on her hands, and escorted to church by the fiscal. The Jesuit who recounted this story said that that night Jesus appeared to her in a dream and “made known to her the great punishments and torments that have been set aside for wicked Christians who worship stones instead of their God.” She woke up holding a golden crucifix that she venerated in gratitude to God for forgiving her. Often it was young Spanish ladies who sent their servants into the forest to make offerings to huacas on their behalf so that they could curse their enemies or force men to fall in love with them. At other times people deliberately blasphemed, such as Pedro Palomino, a schoolboy who renounced God when he was about to be whipped by his Jesuit schoolmaster. This sometimes worked for slaves because whereas masters punished secular offences, blasphemy was a religious offense and meant that you were taken before the inquisition, which might take quite some time to reach a decision. It didn’t work in Pedro’s case – his teacher just whipped him harder. A Creole servant named don Pedro Espinosa de los Monteros tried a different approach. He went into the countryside where he shouted, “Demon, devil, help me. Give me money and I will give you my soul.” It didn’t work, and Pedro blamed Jesus and Mary for not letting him sell his soul. “On arriving home,” Redden writes, “he vented his anger by beating and spitting on a crucifix and crushing a medallion of the Virgin between two stones.” These people apparently thought that they could force the Devil into giving them things they wanted, but Satan is a tricky character and they almost always came out worse for wear.

Saintfrancisborgia_exorcismThe book revolves around several detailed studies of demon possession. One of the most fascinating took place in Lima in 1571, when Catalina Cermeño took her twenty-one year old daughter, María Pizarro, to some Jesuit priests so that she could be exorcised. Cermeño had given up on successfully marrying her daughter off and wanted her to become a nun “because it seemed to her that she would never be a woman who could run a household and serve a husband.” They carried Pizarro to the church “screaming and writhing” and then started trying to exorcise her, a process that took a long time and the exorcist, Luis López, even had to sleep on a mattress in Pizarro’s room so that he could fight the demons while she slept. It wasn’t long before Pizarro became pregnant. It isn’t clear who the father was, but both López and a young man named Diego Martínez who Pizarro had been seeing in secret trysts were suspected. Pizarro miscarried but kept having visions in which she confused both López and Martínez with each other and with the devil. The Jesuits gave up and the family called in the Dominicans, who were equally unsuccessful when it came to casting out Pizarro’s demons. The Dominicans blamed Pizarro for their failure, saying that she obviously wasn’t repenting sincerely enough. But then Pizarro started having visions of an angel who had come to protect her. The angelic visions intermingled with demonic episodes, leaving the exorcists thoroughly confused and not a little terrified. Eventually several of the exorcists were condemned by the inquisition for dealing with the devil (who they thought was an angel), and Pizarro died six months later in great pain.

Redden uses stories like María Pizarro’s to unpack the theological world of colonial Peru. “This was the reality in which people lived,” he writes, “a reality in which God, the devil, demons, angels and spirits – and, from an Andean perspective, deities and other supernatural beings – were firmly believed to exist.” Redden takes their claims about religious experiences seriously, and by doing so he shows us why people behaved as they did. Social crises or personal problems required both secular and liturgical responses. Like the woman who went to church after killing her guinea pigs, people turned to both Christian and Andean rituals in order to make sense of problems that ranged from not having enough money to dealing with the Spanish invasion of the Andes. The great value of this book is that Redden actually listens to his informants rather than simply assuming that they were wrong, and by doing so he opens up new and profoundly foreign ways of looking at the world.

 

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