Into the Cave of Chile’s Witches

The Island of Chiloé in southern Chile has always been a remote and isolated place of legend. In 1880, it was the site of the last significant witchcraft trials.

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 defendants readily admitted to witchcraft and sorcery, as well as kidnapping, murder, and all sorts of outlandish activities. Sorting through their motivations is difficult, as the political struggles of the people of Chiloé intertwined with the existence of the magical society of shamans who ruled by terror. And the cave where many of these deeds were supposedly performed was never found. Read the entire story at Past Imperfect. Link


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