Into the Cave of Chile’s Witches

July 22, 2018

There is a place in South America that was once the end of the earth. It lies close to the 35th parallel, where the Maule River empties into the Pacific Ocean, and in the first years of the 16th century it marked the spot at which the Empire of the Incas ended and a strange and unknown world began.

South of the Maule, the Incas thought, lay a land of mystery and darkness. It was a place where the Pacific’s waters chilled and turned from blue to black, and where indigenous peoples struggled to claw the basest of livings from a hostile environment. It was also where the witches lived and evil came from. The Incas called this land “the Place of Seagulls.”

Today, the Place of Seagulls begins at a spot 700 miles due south of the Chilean capital, Santiago, and stretches for another 1,200 miles all the way to Tierra del Fuego, the “land of fire” so accurately described by Lucas Bridges as “the uttermost part of the earth.” Even now, the region remains sparsely inhabited—and at its lonely heart lies the island of Chiloé: rain-soaked and rainbow-strewn, matted with untamed virgin forest and possessed of a distinct and interesting history.

First visited by Europeans in 1567, Chiloé was long known for piracy and privateering. In the 19th century, when Latin America revolted against imperial rule, the island remained loyal to Spain. And in 1880, a little more than half a century after it was finally incorporated into Chile, it was also the scene of a remarkable trial—the last significant witch trial, probably, anywhere in the world.

Who were they, these sorcerers hauled before a court for casting spells in an industrial age? According to the traveler Bruce Chatwin, who stumbled over traces of their story in the 1970s, they belonged to a “sect of male witches” that existed “for the purpose of hurting people.” According to their own statements, made during the trial of 1880, they ran protection rackets on the island, disposing of their enemies by poisoning or, worse, by sajaduras: magically inflicted “profound slashes.” But since the same men also claimed to belong to a group called La Recta Provincia—a phrase that may be loosely translated as “The Righteous Province”—and styled themselves members of the Mayoria, the “Majority,” an alternative interpretation may also be advanced. Perhaps these witches were actually representatives of a strange sort of alternative government, an indigenous society that offered justice of a perverted kind to indians living under the rule of a white elite. Perhaps they were more shamans than sorcerers.

The most important of the warlocks brought to court in 1880 was a Chilote farmer by the name of Mateo Coñuecar. He was then 70 years old, and by his own admission had been a member of the Righteous Province for more than two decades. According to Coñuecar’s testimony, the society was an important power on the island, with numerous members, an elaborate hierarchy of “kings” and “viceroys”—and a headquarters located in a vast cavern, 40 or more yards long, whose secret entrance had been cleverly concealed in the side of a ravine.

This cave (which Chilote tradition asserts was lit by torches burning human fat) was hidden somewhere outside the little coastal village of Quicavi, and was—Coñuecar and other witnesses swore—home to a pair of monsters that guarded the society’s most treasured possessions: an ancient leather book of magic and a bowl that, filled with water, allowed secrets to be seen.

Coñuecar’s testimony, which may be found lodged among the papers of the Chilean historian Benjamín Vicuña McKenna, includes this remarkable recollection of his first visit to the cave:

Twenty years ago, when José Mariman was king, he was ordered to go to the cave with meat for some animals that lived inside. He complied with the order, and took them the meat of a kid he had slaughtered. Mariman went with him, and when they reached the cave, he started dancing about like a sorcerer, and quickly opened the entryway.

This was covered over with a layer of earth (and grass to keep it hidden), and under this there was a piece of metal the ‘alchemy key.’ He used this to open the entryway, and was then faced with two completely disfigured beings which burst out of the gloom and rushed towards him. One looked like a goat, for it dragged itself along on four legs, and the other was a naked man, with a completely white beard and hair down to his waist.

It is possible, from other records of the Righteous Province, to learn more about the hideous creatures that Coñuecar swore he had encountered in 1860. The goat-like monster was the chivato, a deformed mute covered in piggish bristles. The other—and by far the more dangerous—of the cave’s twin denizens was the invunche or imbunche. Like the chivato, it had once been a human baby, and had been kidnapped in infancy.

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