A Witchcraft War over Coffee

A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of the Contemporary Aztec by Timothy J. Knab. HarperSan Francisco,1160 Battery St., San Francisco, California 94111, 1995; 224 pp., $22.
By Chas S. Clifton

Originally published in Gnosis 40 (Summer 1996) Copyright 1996 by the Lumen Foundation.

An American anthropologist in Mexico hooks up with several veteran Indian shamans and travels in the Otherworld--haven't we heard this before? Although that summary sounds superficially similar to the works of Carlos Castaneda and Florinda Donner, Timothy Knab's account of his experiences with Don Inocente, a "well-known practitioner of the traditional healing arts," and DoÒa Rubia, "a charming old sorceress," seem more down-to-earth and reliable. Unlike Castaneda's books, Knab's is based in time, place, and certain facts of the one-party-rule of Mexican politics. But like the "Carlos" of The Teachings of Don Juan and the rest, Knab must face some uncomfortable facts about the path of sorcery and ultimately he must choose between that path and conventional anthropology.

A War of Witches is set in and around a town disguised with the name San MartÌn, located southeast of Mexico City, where many inhabitants speak a dialect of Nahuatl, the Aztec language. Knab, an anthropologist who taught from 19761984 at the National University of Mexico, is mainly interested in healing methods, but he is also aware that "because of a number of killings in the 1920s and '30s, San MartÌn had a rather sinister reputation as a town full of witches." In 1974, as Knab is polishing his Nahuatl by collecting old stories from Don Inocente, he learns by chance that the elderly curer is still a practicing sorcerer who can kill as well as cure. Indeed, Knab remarks, "Here, on the fringe of the old [Aztec] empire, the ancient religion of the Aztecs was still alive. It had not been eradicated by the [Spanish] Conquest."

In 1976 Knab's chief teacher and informant, DoÒa Rubia, became sick with "bat disease," a mold-borne illness easily contracted from visiting certain caves, caves also used as ritual sites and symbolic entrances to Talocan, the Aztec Otherworld. Knab sought conventional medical treatment for her, but Rubia attributed her illness ultimately to magical attack by rival practitioners--and she insisted that Knab actively work for her protection. "I am weak and old," she said. "With all my prayers, they [the Otherworld inhabitants] will not find my nagual, they will not return my tonal to me. I need your yollo, your soul, your tonal. This is their nourishment. You're going to have go there to the cave for me. Find those witches if you can!"

Knab was stymied. "She had insisted several times before that I had to learn to cure, but I had demurred. It was something that required a system of beliefs I did not think I had. I was an anthropologist who studied things--I did not actually do them and believe in them. This was something that required a commitment to serve the world of the ancestors as well as its children, the present-day Sanmartinos. Could I make this commitment? I had no idea what was in store for me, but there was no choice but to go forward."

Spending a night praying and making offerings at a cave mouth, Knab sets out on his training. Rubia's condition improves even as Knab struggles with understanding his dreams as journeys in Talocan and participates in other curings. He is introduced to his nagual, his spirit in animal form, in his case an opossum.

As the story progresses, Knab's tale loops back into the past, into the actual "war of witches" that provides its title. In dreams he meets a man surnamed Cruz who becomes one of his regular Otherworld guides. Rubia's and Inocente's obvious curiosity about Cruz's identity leads Knab to investigate events that happened fifty years earlier: murders, intimidations, inter-family feuds, and finally the mob crucifixion of one suspected brujo in the village plaza, which led to intervention by the Mexican authorities. A local storekeeper shows him photos of many of the participants, including a younger Don Inocente, and, among them, the very man whom Knab has been encountering in his dreams.

The "war," he learns, was ultimately economic in its origins. A local big shot made some of the villagers an offer that they could not refuse: If they will switch from subsistence farming to growing coffee for him, he will extend them credit so that they can buy what they need. Many Sanmartinos accepted, but some holdouts refused to convert all their traditional family lands to coffee plantations. Chief among these holdouts was the Cruz family.

A campaign of intimidation and counter-intimidation than began, drawn up largely along family lines, with both pistoleros (gunmen) and brujos (sorcerers) involved. Killing followed killing, variously attributed to bullets, poison, and the evil eye. As Knab attempts to sort out different versions, he repeatedly encounters the same attitude: In each instance, relatives of the dead would turn to the Lord of the Earth, the ancient deities, in their search of "justice." And he learns that Don Inocente, his mild old informant, is regarded as a pistolero turned sorcerer. As one local man tells him, "Inocente did not even carry a gun anymore. He had better ways to get someone than with a gun that he learned from Uncle Raul."

As A War of Witches moves towards its conclusion, Knab gains an insight that parallels an attitude expressed in Castaneda's works: The sorcerer's path is not guided by conventional human morality. Faced with Don Inocente's chilling amorality, even though it is expressed in religious language, Knab must turn his back on him and return to academia--for the time being.

In his author's notes, Knab admits that in writing A War of Witches he followed more the dictates of storytelling than of ethnography. As needed, he reconstructed or telescoped incidents and conversations, and, together with ghostwriter Peter Shotwell, he produced a well-paced and readable account of modern shamanism.

Furthermore, this shaman story succeeds were much neoshamanic writing (Castaneda and his successors) fails by placing itself within a definite historical, social, and political context instead of some vague realm where no one ever spends money, looks for a job, or is threatened by pistoleros commanded by a local strong man of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional. When that contextual authenticity is combined with the author's personal authenticity, the result is worth reading.

Chas S. Clifton lives in the Wet Mountains of southern Colorado. He edits Llewellyn Publications' Witchcraft Today series, which includes The Modern Craft Movement (1992), Modern Rites of Passage (1993), Witchcraft & Shamanism (1994), and Living Between Two Worlds (1996).