“It’s just another old story,” Nicolás Serrano insists to Melissa Travis in my first book Destiny at Dolphin Bay, as they debate the existence of a legendary Chilean ghost ship. His grandmother would beg to differ—her grandparents were caught up in the chilling drama of probably the world’s last (and completely nonfictional) witch trials in 1880.
“Some things should not be forgotten.” –Elven Queen Galadriel, The Fellowship of the Ring
One of the tins in my collection, a Hans Christian Andersen special edition, features a soldier and a witch beside a hollow tree, illustrating the fairy tale The Tinder Box. Last week we talked about the significance of witches in the Chiloé Islands and the development of a society of secret covens there.
Witch hunts once popped up regularly in the pages of history, from King Saul’s hypocritical hounding of soothsayers and sorcerers in ancient Israel to the tragic Salem trials under the Puritans’ covenant commonwealth (1692-93). But they had pretty much died out by the nineteenth century. Even the infamous Spanish Inquisition retracted its fangs by 1834.
So what set off Chile’s down-played trials in 1880?
Deserters and Devils
Politics, not religious persecution.
Pursuing wartime rebels, not promoting righteousness.
During the vicious South American conflict known as the War of the Pacific (1879-83), Chile fought for rich mining territory against a Peru-Bolivia alliance. Chile’s traditional rival, Argentina, took advantage of the neighboring government’s preoccupation in the northern desert to reassert old border claims in the south. Which led to the need for conscripting islanders—fierce homebodies who much preferred hoes to rifles and fishing boats to artillery carts.
Naturally, that policy produced a LOT of “draft”-dodgers and army deserters.
Under pressure, the Governor of Chiloé ordered a round-up of these indigenous deserters. As he tracked them down, he heard reports that those who harbored deserters also sheltered sorcerers in hidden caves. The members of this “Righteous Province” society of warlocks contended that they represented the legitimate native government.
The governor, a “enlightened” man of his times, hardly believed in witches. But he desired to root out seditious rebels and spies who claimed competition to the Republic of Chile. He would discover once and for all any truth behind the myths. So the witch trials originated in an attempt to get to the bottom of the Righteous Province Mayores’ claim to exercise power in the islands apart from the law of the land.
Agents of the central government rarely showed up outside Chiloé’s two main towns, Castro and Ancud. So villagers, small farmers, and fishermen made easy prey for the warlock “Elders” and their personal ambitions and vendettas. By this time, the original revival—or perhaps perpetuation—of pagan traditions had degenerated into a sort of rural mafia that bred fear into the people in order to extort regular protection money.
Murder and Mayhem
The first trials grew out of concerns over a rash of suspicious poisonings, blamed on curses. Many victims had been slain over at least the previous 30 years! One accusation and conviction led to another. As power struggles within the Righteous Province itself heated up and others took the opportunity for advantage or revenge, over 100 society members were arrested.
Although the trial transcripts of 1880-81 reveal supernatural allegations made by both sides of the proceedings, the court deemed at least a third of the cases to be harmless native “healers.” Today many people claim that the so-called witch trials were twisted into nothing more than “a massive crusade against the indigenous people” and their cultural heritage.
The merest whisper that an unpopular person might practice witchcraft offered sufficient cause to drag him off to the prisons of Ancud or Achao. (Echoes of Salem?) But other researchers see the Elders of the Righteous Province as racketeers and murderers who had held the Islands of Chiloé hostage in a reign of terror for over a century.
The provincial governor in Ancud gave no credence to witchcraft and magic spells. But he was convinced that the men of the Righteous Province were “thieves and murderers.” They had spawned misery, hardship, and death for entire families and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
For the record, the accused were NOT charged with witchcraft. That would have presented an embarrassment to the modern, albeit conservative, government of Chile. Instead, evidence of murders was cited. The often-self-styled warlocks were convicted of manslaughter and membership in an “unlawful society.”
Dungeons and Dragons
Nobody got burned at the stake. Nobody got hanged on the gallows (as in Salem). A few, like the “witch king” Mateo Coñuecar, served brief prison sentences. However, the majority of the sentences imposed were soon overturned on appeal.
We can’t take at face value any testimony at a witch trial. It’s often spit out under duress. The Salem tragedy once again illustrates the point, as some innocents “confessed” to save their lives.
On the other hand, most Chilotes at the time certainly viewed the members of the Righteous Province as not only valid witches, but as fearsome and powerful. While political ends sparked the trials more than any true piety, a strain of morbid fascination with the occult runs through the records.
Did witchcraft truly exist in Salem? Possibly, but I believe the real witches there were the lying, play-acting girls whose supposed attacks of demonic possession ignited the conflagration of persecution. Jealous vengeance, boredom, and fooling around with their kitchen maid’s voodoo practices more than likely provoked a lot of the performances.
Beyond the contemporary politics and beneath the threads of economic exploitation, racism, and intolerance on myriad levels, the old dragon certainly lurked in Chiloé’s dark corners and caverns back then, too. The governor may have thought he’d dispersed and defeated the Righteous Province for good—and conclusive evidence to the contrary is mysteriously lacking.
Nevertheless, I suspect most Chilotes still believe. In Angie De la Cruz’s time, 1968. In Melissa and Nicolás’s time, 1990. And to this day. Sometimes openly, enlisting in the ranks of a resuscitated society embracing traditional religion or the current brand of back-to-the-earth.
Sometimes secretly, while scurrying through the woods on a misty evening…
The Hope Behind the Hunt
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” –G.K. Chesterton
Can we triumph over the assaults of dragons and monsters?
While witch hunts have become little more than spine-tingling legends to most of us, a measure of imaginative fun exists in the tales retold tongue-in-cheek around a campfire, in a class on folklore, through folk songs such as “La Bruja Voladora” (“The Flying Witch”). Or in the local boats and ferries named in a nod to mythological figures…which reveal much about the dreams, desires, and dreads of a culture.
But it’s not entertainment when the occult masquerades as folk beliefs. Oh, I understand the vague longing behind the legends. Wouldn’t we all wish to live in a fairy-tale world of rags-to-riches, wishes-come-true, and love-conquers-all?
As much as we appreciate—even enjoy—the cultural heritage, we don’t embrace it without reservation. The devil shouldn’t be revered but recognized for the roaring lion—murderer, liar, and thief—that he is without disguise. His works instigate much of life’s unhappiness and unrighteousness. Whatever one’s opinion of witch trials, that much was glaringly obvious even in 1880.
The true hope lies in the Sovereign Lord who came to “render (the devil) powerless…and free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb. 2:14-15). May He give boldness to challenge the dragon’s lies with truth and lay the old terrors to rest.
Let’s proclaim different stories of…
- Good news for the poor
- Healing for the brokenhearted
- Freedom for the captives
- Grace for the oppressed
- Sight for the blind
- Release from darkness (Is. 61:1; Lk. 4:18-19),
- And the love of God which “casts out fear” (I Jn. 4:18).
…lies not in witch trials, but in winsome testimonies about the True Mayor—the Elder Brother, the Ancient of Days. He is greater than all. And His goodness we can trust.
So…did Nicolás’s grandmother’s grandmother once turn herself into a crow and carry messages for the Righteous Province? That’s a rumor I’m investigating in Hope Chest right now.