Peruvian Witches

Date: 1615
Owner: Royal Library of Denmark, Copenhagen
Source Type: Images


This c. 1613 drawing by Felipe Guaman Poma shows Catholic Peruvian blacks, a man and a woman, praying to the Virgin Mary. Female worship, however, became highly controversial in seventeenth century Peru, where many women of all races, including the scandalous "veiled women" (or tapadas), hybridized diverse elements of Christian, Andean, and African religion into new and unique forms. Their practices were usually condemned as witchcraft by colonial officials and many of the most prominent women (usually non-whites) were tried and convicted. The most disturbing aspects of these practices for officials and Inquisitors was their "Indianness;" they invoked Andean gods directly (often combined with Christian relics and prayers) and called upon the disposed and deceased Incan king in many of their rites. Such nativism threatened the colonial order that the viceroyalty sought to enforce.

These purported "witches" were also specialized healers and herbalists who combined the traditions of America, Africa, and Europe. Much of the notoriety they received was related to what were perhaps their two most (in)famous substances: love potions and coca. Coca has long been a key element to Andean divining and healing rituals, yet its use by these notorious women changed its image into that of a diabolic narcotic, one that was decidedly Indian and thus dangerous. The fact that coca was often used in rituals meant to invoke the Inca king underscored how these deviant women unnerved colonial leaders. The association of coca and other indigenous herbs with witchcraft and "Indianness" proved to have a lasting legacy, one that encouraged the censure and denigration of Indian healing practices for centuries to come.

Reference: Silverblatt, Irene. Modern Inquisitions: Peru and the Colonial Origins of the Civilized World. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
CITATION: Drawing 275. Devout black Christians from the stock of unacculturated black slaves from Africa ("Guinea") say the rosary before an image of the Virgin Mary. In Guaman Poma, Felipe. Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno. 1615. Courtesy of the Royal Library of Denmark.