A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of the Contemporary Aztecs. By Timothy J. Knab. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Pp. 224. ISBN 0-06-251264-1.
All ethnographies are stories we tell about the people we engage in the field. As such, they are also stories about our experience. Timothy Knab has offered us a complex and rewarding book, compellingly written in narrative form about his fieldwork, what these experiences meant to him, and how he came to understand Sierra Nahuat cosmology. With A War of Witches, Knab makes his first contribution to narrative anthropology (p. 224). Yet, this book is rather like the perennial elephant encountered by blind men on the road: some readers feel the trunk and some feel the tail but each believes that she or he has comprehended the entire beast. For this reader, an anthropologist and practicing psychoanalyst who has spent over twenty years doing research in the same region, the tale recounted by Knab is carefully crafted around a particular set of evocative experiences. These experiences center upon Knab's relationship with three main characters from a small community near Cuetzalan in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, disguised by the name "San Martín."
The two main protagonists are locally famous curanderos, healers who are also witches. The third is the tonal (soul) of a victim of witchcraft whose interactions with Knab occur in Knab's dreams. The curanderos, whom he calls Doña Rubia and Don Inocente, served as Knab's primary informants as they had for anthropologists preceding him. Knab's command of Nahuat facilitated his shrewd and willing instructors' task of teaching him to become a curandero and follow the "path of the ancestors." Doña Rubia and Don Inocente represented to Knab repositories of mysterious knowledge that seemed at times out of the reach of understanding even for the anthropologist-apprentice. At once an anthropological tale, a murder mystery, and a personal narrative, Knab has succeeded in writing an ethnographic novel that should be read by Nahuat specialists and will certainly entice anyone interested in witchcraft, fieldwork memoirs, or those curious about ancient and present-day Aztec peoples, especially those believing in the persistence of pre-Hispanic cosmology in the lives of Nahuat-speakers today. But this book is far more complex than that.
Seemingly an easy read, one must sift carefully through involuted layers of experience and hinted-at meanings as the reader is guided through images so vivid that one familiar with the Sierra Norte and its people is transported through the mist, back into the very mountains in which Knab's narrative unfolds. Although the story told is located in time during the 1970s and, as Knab informs us, involves fictionalized events aimed at enhancing the power of the narrative, the richness of ethnographic detail rests squarely upon Knab's twenty years of fieldwork in the Sierra. This account (written we only learn at the end of the book with Peter Shotwell, a professional writer and editor) narrates Knab's journey of discovery through which the reader can glimpse Knab's struggle with his own ethnocentrism. Knab chronicles his encounter with the "Ethnographic Other" by combining dialogue, narrating private musings and outright frightening experiences, and by recounting captivating dream sequences in which that encounter is epitomized. In Knab's choice of the narrative voice, his own vision of his existence falls neatly into perspective with his recounting of his story so that the reader, in turn, becomes immersed in the lived experience of the story being told.
Knab acts as our guide on dream journeys to Talocan, the underworld of the ancient Aztecs and a place very much alive for the people of San Martín. Through these dreams, Knab is challenged to question his assumptions about the nature of things. In dreaming of Talocan, the truths of Knab, Doña Rubia, and Don Inocente converge until Knab is inescapably confronted, in spite of himself, with questioning the absolute conviction of his own beliefs and the "validity" of the beliefs of others. Thus, implicit in the narrative is the juxtaposition of what one could call an empiricist reality (Thomas Jefferson's "true facts"), and subjective truth, that is, what is true in the reality (read experience) of the believer. In this way Knab's book is a portrait of the struggle facing all fieldworkers to reach beyond themselves and grasp the lives of those encountered.
Told in the first person and without introduction of any sort, we are immediately transported to the Sierra and find ourselves with Knab under the eaves of Don Inocente's house in the middle of a plot to murder a woman's son-in-law with candles dipped in herbs that will paralyze the young man's lungs. Don Inocente's agreement to perform this service reveals to Knab his identity as a witch, a secret kept from Knab during some seven years while Knab studied storytelling in San Martín. Almost immediately, Sanmartino cosmology comes alive to the reader.
A premise of justice is central in the organization of the Sanmartino world view and justifies to Sanmartinos, the place and efficacy of witchcraft in their lives. Justice is maintained through a form of reciprocal vengeance that ties the Lords of Talocan and those living on the Earth to each other: "When nobody likes someone, and there is much envy, the Lords can be tricked. They might help a man who seeks something that is not just.... He asks the Lords to take his victim's tonal. So if we help the Lords with something 'a bit evil,' something savage, the Lords do not object. If something a bit evil should befall someone who is unjust, or who is not living well, it just brings them more food there in the earth . . . . But if the witch has fooled the Lords, the one who was witched will later seek his own justice" (p. 155).
Doña Rubia has chosen to teach Knab to be a curer for reasons we discover as the plot unfolds. In his apprenticeship, Knab learns that his dreams can have significance. Dreaming is used in curing to enter and navigate the underworld in search of souls. He discovers that every witch is a curer but not every curer is a witch. He learns there are witches that are evil and seek personal gain, and witches who serve the collective good by following "the path" (respecting the cultural ideal) by aiding the Lords of Talocan in maintaining justice even through murder. Vengeance and justice are clearly inseparable ideological elements in the beliefs of Sanmartinos and recall the key cosmological premises of respect, reciprocity, balance, and harmony that intertwine to organize the beliefs and ritual practices I describe for Chignautla, a community not far away (Slade 1992).
When Doña Rubia suddenly falls gravely ill, Knab is summoned to the Sierra from Mexico City where he is teaching. Although Knab immediately searches for the "real" cause of her physical condition, which he suspects is bat disease, Rubia implores Knab to help search for the cause of her illness in the underworld. And because Rubia needs Knab to travel to Talocan she confronts him with his resistance to becoming a true believer, that is, with his interest in their beliefs rather than the fact of his believing: "You know only my words! You say them just the way I say the prayers, but you do not really pray; there is no reason that you pray" (p. 27). Sadly, he shies away from the difficulty of being even-handed in juggling multiple realities or truths, if you will. In curing a young girl who is believed to be suffering from soul loss, Knab initially attempts to and succeeds in identifying a physical explanation for her symptoms. In the narrative it is clear that soul loss is relegated to a secondary position in his mind. The curing rituals that Knab performs benefit only the Sanmartinos since their beliefs do not reflect reality for him. It appears that whenever an element of the story cannot be grounded empirically, the author begs the question of the story's believability. Knab offers us his position and then gives us his doubts: "These cloudy connections between the 'real' and the 'unreal' confused and amazed me. For the second time in the Sierra, but for different reasons, I was finding it hard to use 'metaphor' in my usual anthropological way" (p. 31).
Thus, a reluctant Knab is emotionally blackmailed into making sacrifices in a cave and running for his life from witches who chase him, even though for Knab, they exist only in his mind, while he tries to serve both Rubia, himself and the Lords of the underworld: "I wondered about the dark places in peoples' psyches where witches worked" (p. 107). Knab's immersion in healing practices and his desperate quest to save Rubia enhances his appreciation of the power of the specialized knowledge that witches control. He ponders how he has arrived at dreaming in the culturally stipulated manner for a curandero since he does not "believe in" such things: "It is strange to be told you would see certain things in a dream state and then see them. I had always thought of dreaming as a will-less state if I had thought about it at all" (p. 85).
Knab's investigations ultimately lead him to discover a more complete picture of witchcraft practices in spite of the reluctance of Sanmartinos to speak of such matters. Knab is horrified to discover that witches comprise a large segment of the population. He stumbles upon tales of multiple murders involving witchcraft, a war between factions of witches that spanned the 1920s into the 1930s and culminated with the crucifixion of a witch in front of the village church. Knab is driven to uncover the historical facts of these strange events. All the while, he is propelled by his struggle to provide a believable explanation for his experiences which he himself barely comprehends since he remains a nonbeliever in the very events that enticed and engulfed him. We learn that warring witches were an integral part of Sanmartino social life. In effect, witches always served to balance the tensions occurring between the haves and have-nots in Sanmartino society.
Knab neither directly interprets nor analyzes these happenings for the reader. His narrative does not wander far from the safety of the classic views of Evans-Pritchard (1937), and Kluckhohn (1944). After all that is said and done, witchcraft for Knab invariably boils down to something empirically knowable, which includes psychological states and sociological consequences. Knab skillfully portrays the disruptive force of witchcraft that allows individuals to manipulate each other to gain power. Armed with this academic truth about the nature of these practices and his knowledge of botany, Knab questions whether or not supernatural acts can indeed produce natural outcomes but never shares his thoughts on the matter with the reader. Instead, in his attempt to persuade, he falls back on literary devices such as "quizzical interrogatives," repeated declarations of intellectual innocence and deliberately naive questions that lend greater believability to his tale. We are left with a sense that these complex phenomena will be abandoned to Knab's greater existential quandary as to the nature of truth and believability.
Apparently, Knab's dilemma does not escape his informants either, as we can see from the statement of Don Inocente on the last page of the book: "A witch is only a witch for one who does not understand the way of the Most Holy Earth" (p. 204). How Knab places believers and nonbelievers in opposition to each other within the narrative is most provocative.
In the last chapter, Knab supplies a history of San Martín set against a backdrop of Mexican history that provides a context for the narrative and adds credibility to his tale. Knab unravels the political and social forces that shaped life in the community. With the arrival of a powerful cacique complete with small army, San Martín was swept into the revolution and suffered the fate of many indigenous communities of the Sierra. The cacique established himself at a large coffee plantation near Cuetzalan and began a process of intimidation that would lead the villagers into poverty and a war of witches after an initial period of affluence. Sanmartinos fell prey to a typical form of profiteering. Purchase of goods from a "company store" resulted in debts that were to be repaid by indentured labor or transfer of land titles to the cacique. In this manner, corn production was replaced by the cash cropping of coffee, which necessitated the purchase of corn. Knab captures the corruption of local-level politics and the way individual Sanmartinos formed alliances and struggled to improve their lot. The events portrayed and characters drawn are recognizable. Knab portrays justice, communal harmony, and witchcraft as inextricably tied together in practice as they are in Sanmartino cosmology. Thus, the tale within a tale within a tale that weaves throughout the narrative provides either enjoyment or frustration for the reader as layers of meaning are obscured or unfold for those who allow themselves to be transported by the story.
If one asks of A War of Witches "Is it true?", then it is likely that Knab's contribution will be lost in a sea of rhetoric
concerning the nature of scientific truth and the validity of subjectivity in generating knowledge. Part of the power of Knab's book rests on what it does
not say, in the questions it generates in the reader but refuses to consider. Knab teases us by raising a cluster of issues he does not address. Has he
or hasn't he gone native? Does he really believe that he has become a curandero whose powers exist beyond the context of the Sierra Nahuat of San
Martín? Was Knab on a personal quest or was he "doing anthropology" and how was such a text created? What did his relationships to Sanmartinos mean
to him and particularly his relationship with Doña Rubia? What premises remain latent in his vision of the world that intruded upon how he experienced the
Ethnographic Other, and does this become more problematic because the author is both spectator and actor in a personal narrative? I suspect that Knab's
choice not to make explicit his operating assumptions will create doubt in some readers and, as a consequence, the credibility (i.e., authority) of the
narrative will be taken less seriously than it should. Knab offers few opinions and readers may be encouraged to conclude that his ethnocentrism is more
unconscious than it perhaps may be. In effect, we are left to wonder what exactly does Knab believe he is believing, which crystallizes his dilemma with
authorship and authority, that is, his concern with the narrative presented and the credibility of the data used to construct the narrative.
It is not the ontological nature of belief that Knab grapples with but rather the experience of believing. Reading A War of Witches brings to mind continuing dialogues that fill anthropological journals these days - far too many to mention here. Knab's issue with believing carries us into debates over the nature of cultural constructions, the construction of "truth" and "reality" and the intersubjective contexts in which these constructs matter most and, simply put, the role of beliefs in experience. We become trapped in Knab's dilemma of causality. Taking the liberty of putting words in his mouth, I believe it would go something like this: "I never thought Sanmartinos were really doing things to each other, only that they thought they were doing things to each other, only to discover that they were really doing things to each other and could even do them to me, or have me do them to others." I agree with Ewing when she writes: "To rule out the possibility of belief in another's reality is to encapsulate that reality and, thus, to impose implicitly the hegemony of one's own view of the world" (1994:572). In anthropology, the struggle to articulate the nature of the field encounter continues. What I have learned from reading A War of Witches is that in order to not use our beliefs to keep our distance, and thereby truncate our understanding, we must grant that cultural relativism is a justification for not taking seriously the beliefs of those we intend to understand. Knab never fully transcends his preoccupation with "how you know what you know" in other than empirical terms, and he relies heavily upon the credibility naturally granted any eyewitness account in our society.
"Being there," as Geertz (1988) puts it, creates a certain authority in the text that is directly dependent upon the believability of the author's personal experience. As the eyewitness, Knab seems compelled to depict the events of the narrative as either objective facts or cultural constructions thereby placing himself equivocally in between. This may be a ploy to enhance tension in the story or to intensify the alien nature of the events portrayed, but in the end, Knab has written a book dedicated to the meaning of his experiences in the field and we close the book without truly grasping what these experiences actually meant to him. Thus, A War of Witches at times seems too precious a document. It is an unself-conscious text in which the reader remains uncertain as to whose truths are revealed, whose truths are challenged, and whose truths are believable.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1937. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Ewing, Katherine P. 1994. "Dreams from a Saint: Anthropological Atheism and the Temptation to Believe." American Anthropologist 96:571-83.
Geertz, Clifford. 1988. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Kluckholn, Clyde. 1944. Navaho Witchcraft. Cambridge: Peabody Museum Papers, No.22.
Slade, Doren L. 1992. Making the World Safe for Existence: Celebration of the Saints Among the Sierra Nahuat of Chignautla, Mexico. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Doren L. Slade
New York City
Not like Castaneda -- this is real shamanism & anthropology
For anyone who wants an idea of what Carlos Castaneda's work might have been like if he had written real ethnographical accounts of sorcery and "dreaming" as practiced by followers of ancient Mexican traditions, I strongly recommend this book. It's also a colorful and intriguing story of revenge, murder and the impact of cultural upheavals spanning a period of over sixty years.
Knab was an anthropology professor in the early 70s at the National University of Mexico doing fieldwork in a small village in the Sierra de Puebla when he encountered authentic brujas and brujos who followed ancient traditions of sorcery and dreaming dating back to at least the Aztecs.
Unlike Castaneda, Prof. Knab is fluent in Nahuatl, and records the actual ancient terms used for various practices, and for regions of the dreaming world--Talocan or Tlalocan--that witches need to visit to help cure their patients, or to inflict harm on their opponents and other witches. He also faithfully records and translates his Nahuatl conversations with his two primary informants, an elderly man and woman of the village--Innocente and Rubia--who had both practiced curing and witchcraft for over 50 years. Unlike the supposed metaphysical and philosophical discourses of don Juan (especially in Castaneda's later books), these conversations are what one would expect of someone coming from this kind of cultural milieu.
Probably the most fascinating aspect of the book for Castaneda readers is the detailed descriptions of dream journeys that Prof. Knab is instructed in by his two informants. These sections of the book describe a realm that has a geography and consistent features that have supposedly been experienced by generations of Aztec-descended brujos.
Knab's instruction and interaction with his informants described in the books takes place over a three-year period, from the fall of 1974 to the fall of 1977, but it also eventually leads him to unravel a dark tale of witchcraft and intrigue in the same region in the 1920s that ultimately led to dozens of deaths attributed to witchcraft. These killings, which occurred over a period of about a decade, were ultimately brought to an end only when the townspeople literally crucified one of the alleged witches.
We greet you in the light of the day
This book contains invaluable information about crucial elements of Aztec ritual life, including those of the tonalli, nahualli, the animal guardians, and the great flower of darkness, the Talocan ; there are many wonderful descriptions of the syncretic blend of the pre-Colombian and the Catholic and quite specific descriptions of the ancient technique of Dreaming, used to navigate in the harsh and often unforgiving underworld. The story is told by a master raconteur who introduces us to two wily and remarkable teachers of the old ways, Inocente and Rubia. In a masterful sweep of the history of a small town in the Sierra de Puebla we get to see their roles in the havoc caused by the tension between the indigenous peasants and the mestizo rulers in which the former's only defense were the ancient techniques of "snuffing the candles of the unjust". K's prose allows the reader to revel in the evocative beauty of Nahuatl and it evokes one's respect and affection for the people he is writing about (in short, this is anthropology at its best). I recommend the book to people interested in exploring the thin line between the real and the imaginary, reality and dreams, and to those who like to witness how the new world and the old world can meet in the spirit of respect, strength and mutual enrichment.
When Timothy Knab visits the small village of Sierra de Puebla he encounters ancient Aztec traditions and beliefs that are still being practiced today. Despite the fact that many of the villagers claim that "all the witches died years ago", he finds that quite a few of the villagers participate in what many would call witchcraft. And many of the people depend on these practicioners for healing and for justice.
Knab's journey takes him to the Aztec underworld, a mirror-like world beneath our own, where he finds his nagual, or animal counterpart, gains support from lost souls, and confronts the afterlife. Here, one gets the sense of how the Mesoamerican cultures relate to the afterlife and the supernatural--the line that separates the two worlds are blurred and thin.
As Knab's story is told, a dark history of the village unfolds that involves the War of Witches--an incident in which many of the townspeople are reluctant to talk about.
(…) don't know much about Freudian psychotherapy, unfortunately. But I offer the following generalization, based on my reading of myths and legends from
both the Old World and the New: the idea that mirrors or other reflective surfaces are passive or neutral is distinctly modern. Mirrors - like crystals - are
widely considered to have divinatory and normative and/or transformative qualities. With the help of mirrors, bowls of water, and so forth, the diviner can
extend the power of his or her vision, perceiving events at temporal and geographic distances. Since in many cultures the whole purpose of divination is to
help the client decide on a course of action, it's important to realize that the "reflections" viewed in the mirror are never inevitable.
Diviners are, first and foremost, therapists - when they aren't practicing negative magic (sorcery), such as Tezcatlipoca performed on Quetzalcoatl.
The mirror in that story was two-sided - literally ambiguous. Its subtly convex surface showed the aging king a very unflattering portrait, which through the power of suggestion ("this is your body") he accepted as an accurate depiction of his tonal, the aspect of the soul "equated with the spark of life, fate, or luck of an individual"(glossary in Timothy J. Knab, A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of the Contemporary Aztecs, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) - our self-image, the part of the consciousness that travels in dreams. By accepting this distorted tonal as his own, the aged king condemned his life force (yollo), equated with heart and blood, to inexorable decline.
In the cyclic worldview of the pre-Columbian Mexica, individuals, like the world itself, were considered always to be either ascendant or descendant. At noon, the sun itself was captured in a celestial mirror - the sun's dark doppelganger - and it is this mirror we see in the afternoon, while the real sun retraces its path of the morning, unseen. The dark mirror had both lunar and telluric aspects; its descent into the underworld reflected both mythic and personal dimensions. In a foundational myth, the Lord of the Smoking Mirror united with the goddess of the volcano Popocatepetl, symbolic of the entire earth (including land and water, aboveground and below). In so doing, Tezcatlipoca lost his foot and gained his sorcerer's mirror, becoming with its aid the master of fates, an Eshu or Loki possessing the classic trickster personality that has led most Christian commentators to equate him with Satan. At one time, Nahua peoples viewed the surface of the earth itself as a form of the sorcerer's mirror.
The sun's mirror double also suggests the nahual (nagual in modern Nahuat): the alter ego acquired by each individual at birth. This is similar to the Northern European concept of the fetch, except that it is visualized as an animal inhabiting the underworld (which is where our tonal travels in dreams). When it dies, its human counterpart also dies.
One of Knab's informants, an elderly healer named Rubia, outlines the modern Nahua conception of the self:
The yollo is the heart that is returned to the earth when life is finished. The heart is the seed, the core of life. From it, life sprouts forth. In the heat and light of the sun, the tonal sprouts and grows. The tonal gives us our life when we are born, our luck and our fate. The tonal is the part of us that goes everywhere. It lives in Talocan [the underworld]; it lives in the earth, in Taltipac. It lives in the sky in Ilhuiac, but it is only well on earth or in the sky with the sun. The tonal is the spark of life that is in us. It is what makes you you and me me. The nagual is the other self. It is the other me, or the other you, and you share your life, and your tonal, with it. It is the nagual that you must know, and the tonal that you need to find, because it is your tonal that moves about in dreams. You must know what the heart, the tonal, sees to find the nagual, the animal.
And only with this power can one successfully ward off attacks from a nagualli, "a witch or transforming shaman with multiple naguals capable of both good and evil," according to Knab, who learns from his informants how to interpret his own dreams according to the unique topography of Talocan until he, too, becomes a terrifyingly lucid dreamer and nagualli.
As always, the distinction between witch or sorcerer and shaman remains largely subjective, depending on one's judgement about the intent and effect of the practitioner's acts. Another interesting example of the use of trickery and a distorting mirror to change another person comes from the traditional oral history of the Iroquois, as contained in the Deganawidah Epic. Deganawidah was a prophet - that is, a shaman and diviner of immense social significance - who apparently flourished sometime between the mid-15th and early 16th centuries. At that time, the tribes that were to become the Iroquois Confederacy had been embroiled in internecine conflict for centuries. Deganawidah, like Gandhi after him, decided to use his own religious charisma to try and create social harmony and a new sense of national identity. Key to this effort was a change in funerary customs, so that feelings of compassion and fraternity could be ritually substituted for the debilitating and devisive emotions of grief and rage. That's a subject for another post, however. Today, I want to close with the story of Deganawidah's first convert, Hiawatha (not to be confused with the protagonist of the poem by Longfellow, who for some reason used Iroquois names in an otherwise Algonquian story cycle).
A War Of Witches
Review by Flo Ariessohn
A Journey into the Underworld of the Contemporary Aztecs
On a recent trip to Cuetazlan to visit their annual Feria (Festival),
which features the voladores (flying dancers), I also happened to meet an
anthropologist, Dr. Timothy Knab, author of A War of Witches: A Journey
into the Underworld of the Contemorary Aztecs.
The book is an incredibly readable account of how Knab started out to do a
scientific sociological study of the political/social struggles of the
curanderos (medicine men/women) of the area and ended up becoming the
pupil of acurandero . As he slowly wins the trust of the locals, Knab is
drawn into a generations-long feud among the "witches" of the area
involving alleged poisonings and spells which have terrorized the
In order to demonstrate that he is ready to become a curandero himself,
Knab takes hallucinogenic drugs and spends a night alone in a sacred cave.
During this ordeal he has a vision in which he learns the identity of the
"witch" who started the whole thing. As the story unfolds, it becomes
clear that the feud among the curanderos arises out of a broader political
struggle over land and power which reflects tensions that exist throughout
the region. It reads more like a novel than nonfiction.
Professor Knab told me that the book was actually written about the
Cuetzalan area, but it had to be disguised so that he didn't get in too
much trouble with the locals!
This is an outstanding book that I've used in teaching culture classes. It
is now out in paperback.
©1972-2000 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens