The Magical World of Healers and Witches: A Study on Indigenous Mayan Women's Spiritual Rituals, Practices, and Beliefs from Mesoamerica to Today
This paper is a research-based study on the history of Mesoamerican Mayan women healers in the Guatemalan region before colonization till today. It presents facts about these Mesoamerican women healers' ancient traditions. These women hold an important part on their ancient communities' well being yet they were demonized by the Spaniard conquistadores. This ultimately changed how curanderas are seen today, including stigmatizing their craft. This paper will also examine why it is so important to help these curanderas maintain their traditional medicine knowledge as they are the primary care takers of any type of medicine in most of the rural areas of Guatemala. It is important to understand not only how these women healers operate, but also understand their traditions and primary roles in the ecosystem of their culture.
The Magical World of Healers and Witches: A Study on Indigenous Guatemala Mayan Women's Spiritual Rituals, Practices, and Beliefs from Mesoamerica to Today
By Carla Menacho Moreno
The highland mountain valleys of Guatemala hide the heartland of the pre-Columbian Mayan city known as the Q'umarkaj, which was one of the most important and powerful regions of this civilization at the time. Ancient Mayas were one of the most literate people in the Americas. They preserved their history and culture with a sophisticated hieroglyphic scripture that illustrated their beliefs and practices. The Spanish conquest in the early sixteenth century was a devastating blow to this civilization, as a great number of their texts were burned in an attempt to eradicate and discredit indigenous religious and healing practices. As a result, this civilization suffered a devastating loss of their agency and autonomy. This study will focus on the Mesoamerican women healers in the nearby regions of the highlands of Guatemala. It will illustrate what were some of the most important roles of curanderas, uncovering some of their main contributions to their civilization, while detailing how these Mayan indigenous women healers became known as sorceresses. The main point of this study is to demonstrate how these indigenous women hold the key to their community, and why it is so important to keep their tradition alive and thriving. Because of the horrible inhuman struggles these women endured, not only with the conquistadors demonizing their beliefs and bodies, but also with the effect of a devastating prolonged civil war. The Mayan indigenous healer women and their practices became a political and cultural target that faces feminicide and complete elimination today.
Central America in the Pre-Columbian Era
There is very little information about indigenous Central America in the Pre-Columbian era, especially about women in those early societies. The information that does exist is heavily skewed toward the elite Iberian women that were transported into the settlements to transform native women of this land into "proper women." The Mayan area was divided into three basic geographic zones: the Pacific coastal plain in the south, the highlands in the center, and the lowlands in the north, occupying southern Mexico and upper Central America. All indigenous societies recognized the bodily contribution of the meaning of life that was gifted through the woman. This is illustrated in the female deities that are associated with fertility, especially the Moon Goddess. Women had a valuable identity in their tribes, and they were self-sufficient and healthy. Yet, gender and social status both played powerful roles in determining the position of women in all pre-Columbian cultures. Sexual division of labor was a hallmark of all Mesoamerican societies. Parallel and complementary roles were the two ideologies that were utilized for gender roles in these civilizations.
As Martha Few describes in her book, Women Who Live Evil Lives: Gender, religion, and the politics of power in colonial Guatemala, healing women are "Mujeres de Male" or female sorcerers, magical healers, midwives and clandestine religious leaders, they based their authority on their knowledge of the body" (2002). Some women used their bodies as instruments and expression of ritual power, a connection that would thread the healer to nature. Traditional natural medicine was a meaningful description of their reality, as these women healers used natural medicine to take care of the physical and spiritual illnesses. Herbal medicine, which was easily the most available kind of medicine, was and still is, accessible, affordable and widely distributed. Today, as in the past, holistic practices, magic, and prayers are traditions and practices that are passed down by ancestral curanderas/os or through apprenticeships. As Dow (2001) explained, the work of healers is to calm people's anger and to heal psychic distress.
Curanderas and midwives played an important role in the pre-Columbian communities. They were perceived as having the ability to both cure and cause illnesses, which contributed to their power in local community relations. The arrival of the Spaniards in the early sixteenth century resulted in the abrupt disruption of Quiché-Maya rules and their communities. Hernån Cortés, conqueror of the Aztec empire in Mexico, heard reports of rich lands to be had southward in Guatemala. Pedro de Alvarado was dispatched to this region to subdue any resistance, claim, and conquer the area for the Spanish Crown. The Riche capital, Qumarkaj, fell to Alvarado in 1524. The Spaniard "entras" or campaigns were commissioned by the royal crown in order to establish new territories, and search for material goods/wealth. During the early Spanish Colonial period, the population of Guatemala declined by as much as 85% as a result of war, forced labor, and disease (Sharer, 1994). Christianity was formally established in Guatemala in 1534 under Bishop Francisco Marroquin, who sent out priests with portable altars to the various Indian towns and villages to baptize the Maya and destroy any remnants of “idolatry" and "paganism," which might have survived the conquest.
The Demonization of Curanderas
Maya civilization was belittled and almost destroyed. Their pagan rituals were held up as horrors to justify the conquest and colonization. The Mezoamerican healer women, which had valuable identity in their communities, became demonized. The term "witch" was introduced and utilized to categorize these women and their ancient system of healing. The conquistadors' ideals and their residents turned the notion of these healing practices from something positive to negative. Colonizers viewed sickness and illness equal with sins, a way of divine punishment. Because healers acted as liaisons between the natural and supernatural worlds, indigenous religious traditions held the potential of symbolic and cultural contest action of colonial rulers and the Church. As explained by Opitz (2009), the commonalities or at least similarities between witches and saints was of empirical to what happens next. Curanderas used this authority and power to overtly challenge gender, racial and colonial hierarchies, and intervene in everyday problems. History and inquisition records illustrate evidence regarding social relations of power within communities (Few, 2002). As a result, these women who brought so much value to their community became politically and culturally discriminated against, and faced complete elimination. They were rendered powerless and invisible.
In practices of love magic, the human body, in particular the female body and physical manifestations of female sexuality, became a ritual weapon in women's conflicts with men.
Demonizing these women healers and translating their beliefs as witchcraft, hurt their practices and their art, but not their knowledge of healing powers. Europeans firmly believed that their society represented a higher sophisticated civilization beyond others. In order to be successful, women's power within local cultures of healing depended on a good reputation, which suffered after the introduction of religious institutions and the spread of gossip. Much of the population in Spanish America did not have access to hospitals or licensed doctors and relied instead on local healers to cure illnesses, making the policies and practices of the conqueror far from uniform and fair to the communities they enslaved. The result of these acts of contestation targeted women healers. The curanderas became prosecuted for what the church labeled as curses, spells and other magical-religious crimes. Such practices were labeled as pacts with the devil, miraculous healing and religious visions (Few, 2002). The human body became a central component of the symbolic and physical expression of power. Spanish authorities controlled the bodies of colonized people through slavery, religious conversion, forced labor, and the resettlement of subject population into more easily policed nucleated towns. Curanderas had the power to intervene in the community, yet Spanish colonizers had the power to oppress and dominate.
Through the threat and use of magical violence, sorcerers refashioned the body into a site of power in conflict and confrontations in daily life. European traditions characterized these women as ideal satanic accomplices, susceptible to possession by the devil. Few (2005) illustrates that in accounts of women who acted "disorderly," colonial authorities often included descriptions of women's illicit sexual activity and practices of sexual witchcraft, where women took advantage of their roles in food preparation to assert power over the men in their lives. In practices of love magic, the human body, in particular the female body and physical manifestations of female sexuality, became a ritual weapon in women's conflicts with men. Since official religious practices highlighted the power of religious relics, it is not surprising that women turned to the use of body parts in ritual claims of power over men.
The new regime transformed social, demographic and economic aspects of the natives’ lives, which molded their future forever. The conquistadors were not prepared to address racial, social and gender ideologies with the natives, instead they tried to erase their ethnic and cultural pride and suppress their bodies. Soon Spaniards realized that the most enduring elements of the Maya culture were their spoken languages and beliefs, elements that lie at the heart of their society. Protecting their traditions, maintaining both oral and written histories, dance, rituals, and healing practices continued throughout time.
Women Admired in the Pre-Columbian Era Were Now Opressed
The traditional family unit was often destroyed when the conquerors demanded women to be part of the labor force, and exercised their power to take their bodies. Changing the matrix of the native women frequently meant that they were treated as property. Women with high values that were admired in Pre-Colombian times evolved into oppression, slavery, and mass killing. Native women had no rights and were being rented out based on their looks. The most desirable looked more like a Spaniard woman, and indigenous women were seen as less desirable. Women were forced into labor, dehumanizing the standard of human beings. Neglect of the indigenous family, especially children, was the inevitable consequence of broken homes.
Reproduction between the different ethnic classes created a new ranking of races: Latino/a, Mestizo, and Afro-Latino. The forced reproduction between conquerors and native women translated into normality, and the children that were born out of their union became known as bastards. A growing population of multi-ethnic urban races were produced. Slowly, the native people and healers were removed from their land and placed strategically in areas that were easier to control. These geographical changes were purposely constructed to show the different racial and social classes structured by the colonizers. These changes were important to the fabric of the curandera role in the community because they created a bigger necessity for healers to supplement the needs of these communities. Yet, the reputations that proceed the "curandera" were taboo.
Now, nearly 500 years have passed since the catastrophic conquest took place in Central America. Even though Guatemala became its own country on September 15, 1821, the population is still segregated and rural and indigenous parts of the country have limited access to government health services. The geographical isolation especially affects the rural areas, hospitals, health post and centers are hard to reach. Huber (2001) argues that in some villages over 95% of the population consult curanderos/as in case of illness or midwives in case of childcare. Currently, Guatemalan midwives must have a license to practice legally, yet most midwives that enrolled in the municipal program were already practicing. One of the reasons why the government got involved in assisting this program stems from the pressure that a midwife would get subjected to in case a mishap. In the case of charges of gossip and witchcraft are submitted to the healers/midwifes, illustrating the wrong that were put among these women by the Spanish colonizers.
The ancient Maya civilization was a thriving community that was conquered by the Spaniards. They ruptured their society and violated their culture and beliefs. Curanderas and women in general became political and cultural targets. Conquistadors also created gender division and social separation, especially by fracturing families. There are many reasons as to why is it important to maintain the healers and their practices, but the most tangible one is that these practices hold an ancient understanding of nature that has not been properly studied, accepted, or understood in modern day society. Today midwives are one of the most important types of healers and specialists in rural areas of Central America., but there is still a long road to rebuilding the agency and autonomy of their practices.
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