Friday, July 24, 2009

Witchcraft in the Southwest

Witchcraft in the Southwest, Marc Simmons' 1976 work on "supernaturalism" among Native American populations along the Rio Grande isn't much of a read. As an academic work, even forgiving that it is now over a quarter century out of date, it lacks theme or focus (as well as an index). And as a work of popular non-fiction, the prose is unengaging and reads more like the author listing out a series of sketchy anecdotes.

The most striking aspect of Simmons' writing is his uncritical approach to the subject. He strongly connotes Native American paganism with European witchcraft (although he does nothing interesting to explore how that was transmitted or its cultural effects), and when he describes the condemnations of Catholic missionaries and local villages fetted upon "evil" witches, there is a distinct tone of sympathy with such attitudes. You can almost read the glee whenever he describes how some witch (usually an old, lonely woman) receives "just" punishment for her curses, which almost always results in getting flogged to death or suspended from a mission rafter by her elbows. That he doesn't question why the villagers have these attitudes, how the role of witches (whose herbalism seems to harken to practical medicinal purposes couched in occult trappings) might've been marginalized in the move from paganism to Christianity, or any other meaning than that these are witches and they deserve death is both frightening and ultimately boring.

The book is too small and Simmons' treatment too facile to really do the subject justice. There are a bunch of details that suggest the richness of the subject, both to the academician and those simply curious, but Simmons never provides anything other than a simple description. An example is the following:
One night Juan Perea, a notorious male witch who died in San Mateo in 1888, sallied forth on a nocturnal ramble after depositing his eyes in a saucer on the kitchen table and borrowing those of the cat. While he was away, his hungry dog upset the table and gobbled up his eyes, leaving Juan to spend the rest of his life wearing the green eyes of the cat.
That's deliciously crazy (even moreso as it's only one of three times in the book where a witch loses their eyes and ends up with those an animal), but that's also the entirety of Perea's story in the book. Simmons does this with every anecdote: write a few sentences describing the instance and then going on to the next one, with little comment or detail. Ultimately, this is a maddeningly underwritten work by an author with a dull, conservative perspective on what could have been a much-more promising subject.

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