excerpt from The SECRET
HISTORY of the WITCHES
© 2000 Max Dashu
In 1400 Spain remained subject to the witch-hunting laws
set down in 11th and 12th century fueros. Trial by ordeal was still in
use. Feudal lords banished, fined, branded and burned witches. It was not
a question of fading customs. In 1414 a royal decree was read every month
in Spanish marketplaces, ordering royal and local judges to execute all
sorcerers, on pain of losing their offices and one third of their goods.
[Lea, History of the Inquisition in Spain, 182]
The papal Inquisition of Aragón had begun to prosecute
cases of witchcraft and "superstition" in the early 1330s. [Llorente,
300] In the wake of the sorcery-obsessed Grand Inquisitor Nicholas Eymeric,
the Aragón tribunal prosecuted paganism as sorcery and heresy for
another century. Pope Boniface's 1401 bull appointing Vicente de Lisboa
as Inquisitor of Spain echoed Eymeric's equation of pagan worship with
heresy. He named only one heresy: the pagan veneration of plants, trees,
stones and altars, which he called "idolatrous worship." [Lea,
History of the Inquisition, II, 185]
The papal Inquisition was active in Spain up to the 1460s.
Particularly in the northeast, these inquisitors sniffed out brujas,
prosecuting them for making love charms and performing abortions with herbs
and making amulets and other magical objects. [Lower, 1975; "hechizos"]
Spanish culture remained rich in "ritual celebrations
of the origins of life" and reverence for natural powers. [Garcia-Villoslada,
Historia de la Iglesia en Espana, 327] Peasant men customarily placed a tree called el mayo in the town
plaza, while the young women dressed up as las mayas. The Spanish danced around
Midsummer bonfires. Leaping over the fire gave year-long blessings; older
people passed very young children over the flames. They held waters to be
sacred and conception-causing at Midsummer, as were "fertility stones"
and certain foods. Literature shows that "love filtres" were in
popular use. [Garcia-Villoslada, 320]
Stories about witch gatherings circulated in ethnic districts
with strong pagan traditions, such as Amboto in the Basque country and the
Aneu region of Cataluña. Galicians said that witches anointed themselves
with flying ointment kept under their hearth-stones, and met by a spring called
Arenas Gordas to venerate Santa Comba or a three-horned he-goat. The Spanish
often said that the goddess of the witches was Diana. By 1487 inquisitor Tomás
de Torquemada equated such pagan traditions with satanism: "Diana is
the devil." [Russell, 235]
Diabolism spread from Inquisition-ridden Languedoc across
the Pyrenees to Cataluña, Aragón and Navarra. These regions
shared a transmontaine culture, including the witch name broxa or brouche or bruxa. [Lison, 25ff] It was in these regions of
Spain that town magistrates stepped up witch-hunting in the late 1300s.
The 1396 Ordinances of Barbastro in upper Aragon decreed that town judges
arrest anyone they suspected of being a witch. To be thorough, they listed
five different kinds of witches.
Catalan officials were preoccupied with witch assemblies
as early as 1337. The 1408 laws of Aneu valley ordered penalties for people
who went to pay homage to the boch de Biterna, during which ceremonies
they became sorcerers and witches. [Baroja, 1967, I, 192; Lison, 26] The
leading men of Aneu held cabals in 1419 and 1424 to organize suppression
of witches. Their 1424 decree shows that diabolist trials (of which no
other record exists) had already taken place:
And as in the said valley enormous crimes have been committed...
due to the fact that the witches go by night to the boche de Biterne, whom
they take as their lords, make homage to him, renounce the name of god,
go at night, taking children from their mothers' sides, kill them, poison
them in various ways, as all these crimes appear from trials and their own
confession... [Lisón, 26]
Rumors of the boch de Biterne apparently originated
on the French flank of the Pyrenees (as the name would indicate) and were
soon absorbed into inquisitorial doctrine. [Lison, 28] Around 1458 Inquisitor
Alfonsus de Spina deplored the "perverse women in Dauphiné and
Gascogne who come together by night in some deserted plain to adore a goat
commonly called the boch de Biterne, with lighted candles." [Fortalitium
fidei, in Grimm, 1057] He added that he had seen with his own eyes paintings
depicted the burned women adoring the boch, in the chambers in the
Toulouse Inquisition. [Lea, 291]
Baroja writes that all through the Pyrenees, boch served as a replacement or substitute for the goddess Diana, though the
term translates as "he-goat." [1967, I, 192] More specifically,
the Basque folklorist Barandiarán informs us that the goddess Mari
sometimes assumed the form of a male black goat, Akerbeltz. Like Mari,
he lives underneath the Earth, is chief over many spirits, creates storms,
protects herds and flocks. This deity is quite old, attested in Roman-era
inscriptions as A H ERBELSTE.
The black goat god was greatly emphasized by the witch-hunters,
who picked him out of the many manifestations of Euskadi pagan religion as
equivalent to the christian devil. It was said in the trials that Akerbeltz
presided over the witches' gatherings, which happened every Monday, Wednesday
and Friday. These gatherings came to be called akelarre, the "goat
meadow." [Barandiaran, 123-5. Western Basques called witches' meetings eperrlanda, "place of the partridge." [Baroja, 237]
Like the Celtic Faerie Queene, the queen of the akelarre was supreme over the Otherworld hosts. The king carried her cauldron,
as the old Frankish wizards were said to have done for the strias. [Henningsen,
c 80-91] Magical dances were celebrated at these gatherings, as a modern
Basque saying still recalls: "In the field of Akelarre the witches
dance the sword dance. [E Yak, 80]
Akelarre also referred more broadly to the cavalcade of xorguiñas flying to their pagan celebrations. These genuine
ethnic traditions were becoming intertwined with the diabolical imagery
of the Toulouse Inquisition mural, described around 1430 by witch-hunting
Inquisitor Alonso de Spina, showing the devil as a goat worshipped by damned
souls bearing votive candles. This new mythology was very different from
folkloric traditions, corresponding to the ancient Basque religion, that
witches brought offerings of eggs, bread, and coins to the Akelarre. [Barandiaran,
Places sacred to Mari were pointed out as meeting-places
of the witches. Her sanctuary at Zugarramurdi had a level meadow leading
up to a cavern, one of the most famous of the "goat-meadows."
Inside, near the cave floor was an opening in the rock that looked into
another stone chamber, said to be where the witches met. Another entrance
leads into a different "cave of the witches."
Priestly writers of the 1400s and 1500s still referred to the
Basques as the "gentiles," or pagans. Spanish ideas on witchcraft
were strongly influenced by living pagan customs of the Basques. Inquisitor
Ciruelo of Zaragoza even used the Basque name for witchcraft when inveighing
against "xorguinería of the accursed witches." The
mountains of Navarre had become as renowned a witch country in Spain as Benevento
was in Italy. [Baroja, IbC]
The Basque sorguiñes had fallen on evil
times. Lower Navarre was patrolled by a witch-hunting commission staffed
by sixteen deputies. A 1450 torture-trial at Mixe shows the influx of diabolist
ideology. Johanette de Sala de Juxue was forced to confess to devil-ass-kissing
and harming children, including her own. She had to name Condeix de Eyherabide
as her initiator, and to say that they rubbed their feet with powder in
order to go to the akelarre. She may not have been the only one
burned in this hunt. [Ugalde, 159-60]
In 1466, claiming that witches had done much damage in
the Basque province of Guipuzcoa, Castilian witch-hunt fanatics wrote an
appeal to king Henry IV to stamp out the witches. The petitioners thought
that their town mayors were insufficiently concerned about witchcraft and
dealt too leniently with accused witches. [Baroja 143]
Gracia la Valle was the first known "witch"
to be burned by the Spanish Inquisition -- at Zaragoza in 1498. The following
year it was Maria Bielsa, and in 1500, Marieta, Nanavina and Estefabrita
went to the stake in Zaragoza. [Lison, 41] Meanwhile, bishop Alonso de
Burgos disparaged religious movements in Durango for being pagan and idolatrous.
Witch hunts there in 1500 focused on Mari of Amboto, the great goddess
of the Basques. [Baroja, 144. He aptly compares Mari to Frau Holle and
"Bona Sozia," witch goddesses of northern Germany and the western
Worse hunts struck the Basque country in the years 1507-1539.
In 1507 the Inquisition burned over thirty women as witches at Calahorra.
[Llorente, Lison, 41] Around 1510 inquisitors were travelling through Lerida
and up the mountain to Urgel, searching for witches. In 1516 the judges
of Bergouey condemned a woman named Peyronne to death. In Uhart-Mixe, the
servant Ispuluya de Harispuru was accused by her daughter-in-law, her 11-year-old
daughter, and various neighbors, of harming her mistress and some sheep.
[Ugalde, 164] In 1517 the Barcelona Inquisition carried out another hunt
in Urgel. The Zaragoza Inquisition resumed its persecutions in 1521-22,
and again in 1527. [Henningsen, 447; Lison, 42]
The 1527 hunt began when two little Navarrese girls said
that they belonged to a sect of witches called jurginas (that is, sorguiñes). They claimed that by looking at people's left
eyes, they could recognize the witches by the sign of a frog's foot above
the pupil. An official took the girls from town to town to point out witches.
One hundred fifty people were imprisoned as sorcerers on their testimony.
The biggest Basque hunt of the century took place in 1528.
[Baroja] The preacher Avellaneda and fray Juan de Zumárraga, a native
of Durango fluent in Basque, were appointed as inquisitors in Vizcaya. Avellaneda
became convinced the devil was trying to kill him. He also warned the constable
of Castilla that wherever the wheat crop had been ruined by a blight that
made the grain look like pepper and crumbled to the touch, then he would know
that witches had done it, especially if drowned animals or toads were found
nearby. [Baroja, 148] These persecutions were carried out during a time when
the Basques were resisting Charles I's annexation of Navarre to Spanish domains.
According to Baroja, "the accused may well have been supporters of the
ancient kings of Navarre, that is, agramonteses." (Zumárraga
moved on from persecuting witches in Basque country to repressing Aztec religion
and culture in Mexico, where he was appointed bishop a few years later.)
The antifeminist thrust of the hunts is underlined by
contemporary writings attacking Basque women's independent ways. Martín
de Arles, a canon of Pamplona, wrote that witches were common in Navarra
in his 1517 treatise on superstition. Other writers agreed; Villalón's
fictional El Crotalón tells how Navarrese witches captured
a vicious soldier:
If a man pleases them they have the power to enjoy him
at will... they have such power by reason of their arts that they have only
to command and men must obey or lose their lives. For they like to move
freely by day and night along roads and valleys and over mountains about
their business, which is to cast spells, gather herbs and stones and make
pacts and agreements. [all Baroja, 145-9, quote
Like other European writers, these authors seem obsessed
with women's power over men. Fray Martin de Castañega followed the
standard Inquisitorial line that "there are more women than men amongst
the Devil's ministers." One reason for this was that women "are
more curious to know and search out hidden things." [Tratado,
in Lison, 56] The knowledge of witchcraft was handed down "from their
mother or grandmother or any other person who is a witch" [Baroja]
Mostly, wrote Castañega, the witches are "old women... poor
and in need." [Lison, 56]
Castañega's book, published at Logroño in
1529, still takes pains to condemn the notion "that these women go
with Diana." With suffocating repetitiveness, he damns the heritage
handed down by peasant women, describing the witches as doing everything
opposite to catholics: practicing "execrements" instead of sacraments.
[Baroja, 149-51] Such rhetoric is of little use in constructing a picture
of popular Basque witch tradition.
Ancestor veneration and a sense of Aideko -- the supernatural
world -- remained deeply embedded in Basque culture. The folklore collected
by Barandiaran and Baroja illuminates these themes of the old Euskaldun
religion. The caves of Azcondo and Zugarramurdi, sacred to the goddess
Mari, were considered to be witches' gathering places, as were dolmens,
springs and cliffs. Many animist sanctuaries had place-names as witches'
springs, fields, bridges and glens. [Baroja, 239]
Basque folklorists point out that sorguin, "witch,"
is related to Sorguiñ, an old name for a cave dwelling spirit in
Mari's retinue. Sorguiñ comes out at night to collect reparations
from those who try to hide their wealth by lying or fraud. [Barandiaran,
86] Proverbially, the sorgiñes have their ways of recognizing
Everyone knew that witches gathered on Ostiral (Friday),
the day of Mari, also sacred to the moon. Tradition surrounded this day
with religious taboos against undertaking important new projects, getting
married, making new hires, taking flocks to the mountains, collecting honey
from beehives, cutting fingernails, or going to mass. People often reported
seeing lights, music, dancing at crossroads during storms, when Mari was
abroad. [Baroja 231-3] Some towns had the custom of going out to eat gruel
by the light of the moon. [Barandiaran, 133-4]
Practices of pagan origin, now outlawed, were increasingly
seen as dangerous. Those who walked three times around a building or shrine,
who spun thread or gathered water from a holy spring in the moonlight,
or who answered the call of spirits, risked being carried off by mysterious
beings. These were the Sorguiñes (witches or faeries); or "the
pagans"; or the spirits of the dead; or Gaueko, "he of the night,"
who was the devil as far as the authorities were concerned. In their view,
people who performed these pagan rituals were carried off by the devil,
plain and simple.
Traditions recorded in modern times illustrate how all these
elements were mixed up during the hunts. A woman of the Jaulei household was
turned into a witch after walking around a church three times. In Oñate
they say that anyone who does this is carried off by the devil. But others
say that the dead appear to such a person. Three turns around a cemetery is
an equally charged act. Walking thrice around houses, on the other hand, is
only forbidden at noon or at night, and even then tradition allows it if a
protective laurel grows nearby. In Ataún they say it can be done carrying
a laurel branch. [Bar, notes, 56-8]
An entire genre of tales is based on a young woman asserting
her intention to perform a magical act charged with pagan significance.
Usually she belongs to a group of spinners. One story says that the spinners
met every night at a caserío near the Erremedio springs. One of
them, Kataliñ, declared her intention to walk three turns around
the house. She made it around twice, but disappeared on the third round.
After awhile the other spinners heard a cry from the direction of a bridge:
"Kataliñ has been carried off by the devil!" She was never
heard from again. [Barandiarán, note, 58]
Spinners used to meet every night in the Lauzpeltz caserío.
One young woman told her friends that she was going to bring water from the
fountain of Joxintxiota, nearby on the mountainside. She set off in the moonlight
while the others watched from the doorway. Every so often they called out
to her, "Where are you?" and she would answer, "Here."
Each time she responded, her voice sounded farther away. Finally she no longer
answered. The spinners were afraid that something had happened to her. Just
then a gust of wind blew into the doorway, and a voice was heard to say, "Night
for Gaueko, and day for those of the day." The maiden never returned.
[Bar, note, 74-5]
Many of these tales explain how places came to be named
after a witch named Kataliñ. One makes the pre-christian connection
quite explicit. Kataliñ liked to spin by moonlight near a chasm
where, "long ago, the pagans lived." One night as she worked
near her window, the pagans came and took her, crying "Night for he
of the night, and day for he of the day; Kataliñ of Elaunde for
us." [Bar, note, 75]
A girl of the Inzunza Etxe often went to spin at another
caserío by night. She always passed by a cave. The witches warned
her not to come back but she did not heed them. The next night they carried
her off. [De Azkue, 50] A young woman of Oyarzun House announced her intention
to draw water from the fountain at night, after the angelus bell had sounded.
She went with her bucket, but did not return. Her family became worried.
When her empty bucket and a few drops of blood fell down the chimney they
realized they had seen the last of her. [Bar, note, 75]
These spooky stories correspond to early traditions of
maidens taken by Mari and the subterranean channels between her sanctuaries
and old Basque houses. Women's night spinning circles, especially in locations
near springs or in the moonlight, clearly have pagan antecedents. So does
the ritual act of gathering water under the light of the full moon. Other
tales retain the motif of a "pagan maiden" who descends from
the mountain to spin with the village women. So it was told at Aya, and
at Otazu, where the maiden's high sanctuary has been renamed after St Quirico.
[E Yak, 68]
In another story the young spinner is swept away by the sorgines, or "witches". A maiden was on her way home when
she heard a wild cry, Irrintzi! She responded with the same call. Again
she heard, Irrintzi! and replied. When she answered the third call, the sorgines carried her off. Nothing remained of her but a few hairs
and pieces of her clothing. [Bar, 87, note] Other stories have a group
of spinners returning home at night, hearing the cry of Irrintzi and answering,
until they are pursued by a fireball (symbol of the goddess Mari). Terrified,
they run into a nearby house. They hear a thump on the door, where the
marks of five claws remained. [E Yak, 81]
All these tales stand as collected in the 19th and early 20th
centuries. We don't know what form they took before the witch hunts injected
diabolism. Even in these late, catholicized traditions, myths tied to Mari
and the old religion stand out in strong relief. Basque proverbs continued
to insist on the merits of the old worldview, asserting that "all things
that have names exist," and "To every name belongs a being."
[Barandiaran, 11, 25]
Folklore even comments on the splitting of Basque consciousness
under pressure from the official religion. A new proverb about the old deities
came into being, "You shouldn't believe they exist; you don't have to
say they don't exist. [Barandiaran, 47. No se debe creer que existen; no
hay que decir que no existen.] This equivocation was repeated in many
variants, acknowledging the church's opposition while stubbornly maintaining
a line of transmission within the culture.
Another example of this enduring pagan sensibility can be found
in Ireland. Writing of a Dublin university index of Old Irish manuscripts,
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill marvels that an entire drawer is devoted to "Unalive
beings and things that don't exist." She remarks, "But if they don't
exist why does the card index about them stretch the length of my arm?"
Ní Dhomhnaill goes on to explain that these beings are from an saol
eile (the otherworld), the Irish counterpart to the Basque Aideko. [Ní
Dhomhnaill, "The Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back," NYT Book Review,
Jan 8 '95, 28]
Political concerns restrained the growth of witch-hunting
in Spain. The "Catholic Monarchs" were preoccupied with their
goal of imposing christianity on the entire Iberian peninsula. [Bethancourt,
M&S 189, notes that the Spanish Inquisition's selective prosecution
of witchcraft was not motivated by "goodness" or "rationality"
but a "repressive strategy" based on the socio-political goal
of excising the Jewish/Muslim presence.]
In the 1500s, as witch hunts swept the rest of western
Europe, the Spanish Inquisition kept the lid down. It continued to try
and to torture witches, but sentenced a much smaller number to death. The
worst witch hunts took place in Cataluña and the Basque country,
both colonized provinces. More often, inquisitors ordered convicted witches
to be publicly flogged, imprisoned, banished and fined. An unofficial death
penalty scythed off accused witches who succumbed to torture and harsh
conditions in the dungeons.
Punishments dealt out to convicted witches varied from religious
penances (masses, fasts, praying the rosary on knees for weeks, and public
humiliation) to fines, confiscation of goods, thirty to a hundred lashes,
exile, or prison sentences. Sometimes these were combined: La Lorenza, for
example, got 100 lashes, six months in prison and had to pay a 10 ducat fine.
The Cuenca tribunal made a number of women ride on an ass throught the streets,
naked to the waist, with their hands tied to a yoke around their throats;
then they were tied to ladders and exposed in the plaza for several hours
of public abuse. [Cirac Estopañan, 227-32, 240-42]
Nevertheless, Spanish women continued to nurture a secret culture
of resistance to the powers-that-be. Its priestesses were witches, the "diligent
and astute Castilian Celestinas," and their loyal followers were "poor
women passed over or mistreated or abandoned by their husbands; unhappy, lonely
widows; betrayed maidens and unmarried women dishonored and fallen into prostitution."
[Cirac Estopañán, 106] Such women came to the brujas to regain
control over their lives.
Records of witch trials by the Inquisition at Toledo and Cuenca
show witches teaching women conjurations of the stars, often to bring lovers.
La Boquineta taught a woman to recite a star spell at midnight, standing naked
with her hair loose. In 1499 la Beata ("the blessed one") de Huete
taught her clients to invoke the "Maiden star, the highest and most beautiful,"
while La Sevillana's charm (1613) called three times on the "star Diana."
Catalina Gomez (1535) performed a star spell so that her husband would stop
beating and mistreating her. [Cirac Estopañan, 107-8, 210]
One ritual for attracting lovers called for women to conjure
their own shadows, naked, after extinguishing a candle against the wall. Another
charm called for the witch to put three nails in her mouth while calling spirits;
this was repeated nine times to bring men to her will. Brooms figured in many
love spells, sometimes being dressed up as a woman and saluted with the words
"What a pretty girl!" (Stories were told of brujas making these
brooms dance around the room.) Women swept from the street door toward the
bed, then stamped on the floor, crying to their lovers, "You will come
to me as humbly as what I have under my feet!" [Cirac Estopañan,
La Boquineta recommended the salt spell for an abandoned
woman, who collected salt and vinegar from three women who were married
or in good relationships. For nine nights in a row, the witch stood in
the kitchen, pouring salt from one hand to the other, invoking saints or
spirits, then mixed it with the woman's urine and passed it over her body,
saying, "Come, goat... my cunt is worth more than your beard."
Spanish folk spells invoked spirits and saints, the "devil
of the oven," even a "Saracen queen." The faery religion was
still widespread in Spanish culture, so pervasive that Jewish converts participated
in it. In 1511 an inquisitorial trial of conversos at Cuenca reported:
When someone was born, the relatives used to gather at
the house on the seventh night to celebrate... and laid a table with a saucer
of honey... because at night the good faeries (hadas) came to destine the
infant's fate. [Cirac Estopañan, 184]
The Spanish Inquisition still used torture in its witch trials
(especially at Cuenca) and consequently the "confessions" reflect
diabolist mythology: the devil Belcebú, child-killing, unguents, dancing
with 108 devils in a meadow. Old women were special targets. Several men denounced
old Juana Ruiz, who had been tried as a witch before, saying that they had
seen her naked doing magic, or hanging around graveyards. Elvira Lopez, a curandera in her seventies, was tried for witchcraft at Toledo. [Cirac
Estopañan, 197, c 185, 211]
La Rueda was felled during the big hunt of 1519, when
30 women were arrested. She had been seen standing naked in her doorway,
her hair loose and arms raised in the stance of invocation. She explained
to the inquisitors that she had gotten up from bed without her slip on
to throw stones at raiding pigs.
Other women fell under suspicion for possession of dark-colored
ointments. One protested that she used the dark green mixture on her hands.
A servant woman who had gone mad after being deserted by her husband was accused
of dealing with the devil because "she was bad-humored, and trembled,
and was so beside herself that she seemed like a rabid dog." (Cirac Estopañan,
With the Renaissance boom in vernacular writing, Spain evolved
an extensive witch literature, especially in drama. [See Lison, 225ff] One
of the greatest Spanish books, La Celestina, has a witch as its main
character. This play (1491) is free of demons and pacts with the devil. Its
author was Fernando de Rojas, a Jewish converso from near Toledo. He
lampooned the hypocrisy of courtly love romances, portraying the lovers in
his play as self-centered, empty-headed gentry who are manipulated by their
servitors. Rojas was more interested in Celestina and the servants and prostitutes
that are her friends.
The heroine of La Celestina is a common witch, sexual
politician, entrepreneur and public figure. She lives in a poor neighborhood
near the riverside tanneries. She takes in orphans, provides young women
with work, fences stolen goods for serving-maids, and "repairs"
hymens no longer virgin. Celestina has many names and guises. She is introduced
as an alcahueta, a Spanish name of Arabic origin for a go-between
or procuress. This word originally carried the meaning of a person who
acts for another, who serves to cover up what one wants hidden.
She has six occupations, you ought to know: needleworker,
maker of perfumes, teacher of making cosmetics and of making virigins [restoring
hymens], procuress and somewhat of a witch. The first occupation was a cover
for all the rest, and under its colors many young servant women came to
her house to sew and make shirts and collars and many other things. No one
came without bringing bacon, wheat, flour, jars of wine and other provisions
they were able to purloin from their mistresses. And even other pilferings
of greater value were hidden there. [70; translated
by M. Dashu]
The description comes from a character in the play, the young
servant Parmeno. He calls Celestina "a bad and astute woman," declaring
that all creation calls her "old whore." In fact, she makes part
of her living working as a bawd. Celestina's friends and adopted daughter
are part-time harlots. Elicia and Areusa are also outspoken, independent and
humorous women. They hold no illusions about male-female relations, knowing
exactly where they stand in life and how to anticipate problems. Elicia is
quick-witted and sarcastic in self-defense. She is the "mala muger"
of the Spanish law codes, the woman considered to be without honor, who men
can strike and kill with legal impunity.
[Graphic: Selling skeins to housebound women provided Celestina with
an entrée to act as a go-between in the realm of sexual politics.]
Celestina's house was a lovers' rendezvous. She set up
assignations for even "the most secluded women," under pretense
of religious processions, stations and midnight Masses. Many veiled women
came to her house, followed by men dressed as penitents, "to lament
their sins" and "say their aleluyas" (a double entendre
for orgasm). Celestina frequented cloisters to arrange secret meetings
for nuns and friars with their lovers.
She made herself a children's physician, took wool from
some houses, gave it to be spun in others, as a pretext to enter all of
them. Some: "Here, mother!"; others: "Mother, over there!";
"Look out for the old woman! Here comes the mistress!": well known
by all. [71-2]
The public figure of la Celestina had long-standing precedents
in Spanish society. The alcahueta first appears in 1335 in El Libro
de Buen Amor, a satire of courtly love written by a renegade priest. Lord
Love counsels the Archpriest of la Hita to seek out delicate, conventionally
beautiful women, describing love as a misogynist chase after sex-objects.
Noblemen pursue women like hunters, and so "scolding old women"
guard girls in their care protectively: "She who has once escaped a trap
will recognize a snare." [Daly, 173]
But old women also helped women in seclusion to arrange their
amorous assignations through the trotaconventos. Convent-trotters--"those
crones who frequent churches and know the back alleys"--were active all
over town, setting up secret trysts under the pretense of selling goods or
acting as midwives:
They're tireless gadabouts and they deserve their sturdy shoes.These
convent-trotters manage many deeds in secret done.There's always merriment
among old women such as these.Few women are dissatisfied with the services
that they give.So they won't lie to you [men], learn how you may cajole
and please;They cast such mighty spells that they can blind you with great
ease. [Daly, 131]
The trotaconventos made it possible even for nuns
locked up in convents -- many of them unwilling prisoners of chastity and
obedience -- to have love affairs. In fact, clergy of all descriptions
were regular clients of hers, Gregorian reforms notwithstanding.
The alcahuetas were expert in herbs and midwifery and
provided advice on contraception and abortions. Rojas threw some light on
the devices these women used to overreach the constraints of patriarchy, and
even to turn them to their own purposes. Two servingmen discuss the tricks
As for hymens, she made some of bladders and fixed others by sewing.
She had some slender leatherwork needles and silk threads in a little painted
box on a table, and hung over there, roots of hojaplasma [and other herbs]...
She did marvels with this stuff: when the French ambassador came here, she
sold as a virgin three times a servant she had.
--And she could have a hundred!
--Yes, by God! ... And in another compartment she had remedies for
affairs of the heart and to bring love. [79-80]
Celestina's hymen-fixing, while described here for the purpose
of prostitution, was a life-and-death matter to other clients, unmarried women
whose virginity was a matter of honor to their male kinsmen and who could
be legally killed if found to have lost their maidenheads. Here
the witch undermined the enforcement of patriarchal double standards, as she
did with contraception, wife-battering, and spells for love or impotence.
At the same time, Celestina adapted to a male-dominated society. She tricked
the johns, but sold them what they wanted. The double standard allowed men
to buy women's bodies but tried to enforce chastity on unmarried women by
secluding them from public life. The alcahueta enabled teens, nuns
and wives to slip through their filigree-shuttered seclusion for a joyride,
and helped them avoid getting caught at it.
Both men and women came to Celestina to recover lost loves.
She worked charms with bread they had taken bites of, or clothing and hair
they brought to her. She painted their palms with figures in saffron or
vermilion, painted signs on the ground, speaking words of power, or made
images for them in wax and clay. [85-6]
And la Celestina ran the professional risks of the bruja and herbolera; she prepared tinctures, ointments, perfumes,
resins, powders, oils, and many kinds of herbs. The play catalogs her use
of camomile, rosemary, marshmallow, alder flowers, mustard, lavender, white
laurel, flowers of all kinds, minerals, animal fats, and the fern seed
gathered in pagan midsummer rituals. She hung herbs and roots from her
ceiling to dry. She compounded her mixtures in "a room filled with
stills, retorts, and little containers".
So la Celestina--the witch, go-between, surgeon, fence,
peddler of perfumes and cosmetics and yarn--kept her hand in all the goings-on
around town. She had power, no small accomplishment for a masterless old
woman making her own living in the city. She was a crone-pícara (trickster-adventurer) subverting the parameters imposed by her gender,
class and age. Nor would she accept scorn or reproach for her work:
Was I supposed to support myself on air? Did I inherit
any other legacy? Do I have any other house or vinyard? Do you know of another
livelihood besides this profession? What will I eat and drink? Will I have
clothes and shoes? I was born in this city,
raised in it, keeping honorable, as everyone knows--am I not known? Whoever
does not know my name and my house, you can be sure they are from somewhere
The Portuguese dramatist Gil Vicente provided another
window on the world of Iberian witches in the early 1500s. Like his model
Rojas, he wrote at a time of less severe persecution, and his alcoveteiras answer to the Spanish alcahuetas. They are single women, without
family, who build a profession on their knowledge of charms and powers
of persuasion. [Palla, 318, 325-6]
In The Auto of Hell's Ferry (1517), the dead alcoveteira Brízida Vaz stands among a crowd of souls waiting to find out which
boat will come for them: that of the blessed, or the damned. Brízida
is a woman of the crossroads, who has done abortions and procedures restoring
women's virginity and arranged mistresses for priests. She complains of the
state of her shoes from the constant walking required by her profession (as
was said of the trotaconventos). When the boat comes for Brízida,
the playwright indicates, it is the boat of the damned. [Palla, 325]
The shoes of Branca Gil in Velho da Horta are also shabby
from use. She is another alcoveteira who has chronic brushes with the
law. Branca inveigles money from an old man infatuated with young women. She
ruins him while acquiring fancy clothing, jewels, and new shoes. She ends
up being mitred, whipped and possibly burned. [Palla, 325-6]
The heroine of the Farsa de las Fadas is the witch Genebra
Pereira. Forty and single, "without husband and without nobility,"
she helps people suffering from love. She is wise in the use of healing herbs
and drugs. Her repertoire includes toad venom, a hallucinogen often listed
in demonologists' recipes for witches' flying ointments. In fact, the play
is salted with diabolist themes: invocation of demons, magical use of cadavers.
Genebra is shown flying naked on a goat and wearing a star-of-David inside
a black cat's heart around her neck as a charm against the evil eye. [Palla,
323-27. The association of Jewish symbols with sorcery took place, it must
be remembered, of severe anti-Semitic persecution by the Portuguese Inquisition.]
At times Vicente provides more authentic glimpses of the folk-culture
of ordinary witches. In Comedia de Rubena, a parteira-bendicedera (blessing
midwife) runs into trouble with a woman in labor. She calls in a witch who
invokes four "devils," lights candles and prepares a magical mix
in a clay pot. This witch becomes godmother to Cesmina and helps her attain
her destiny by calling on three faeries. (Here again, in spite of the diabolist
elements, witches are linked to the faery faith.) The playwright tells us
that this witch had been flogged for witchcraft. [Palla, 324]
This punishment was used in Spain as well as Portugal.
A Spanish law in the Libro de los Fueros ordered alcahuetas to be whipped through town. [Nieto Soria, 83] The Portuguese Filippine
Ordinance forbade people to bless animals, on penalty of being whipped
and fined and exiled. In 1499, king Manuel commanded that witches and benzedores (animal-blessers) would be branded with an F on both cheeks. [Mello, 184:
The apparent diminution of official Spanish witch-burnings
in the second half of the 15th century did not assure safety for the bruja.
She still ran the risk of fatal violence suffered by old women in other
parts of Europe, as the ending of Rojas' play shows: a group of men sets
upon Celestina, shouting abusive names, and beats her to death.
Though La Celestina is a work of fiction, its heroine stands
for the nameless women attacked in unrecorded persecutions. The playwright
did not need to explain why she was attacked, or how such a thing could happen.
His audience was all too familiar with the vulnerability of an old woman of
reknown and low social rank.
© 2000 Max Dashu. All rights reserved.
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