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Thursday, September 11, 2014

El Mano de Dios

I've already written directly about Gauchito Gil and San La Muerte, two of the more popular Argentine folk saints.  Both have widespread and fervent cults, with thousands of devotees, roadside shrines ranging in size from small altars to sculpture gardens and even centers of pilgrimage:  holy cities, so to speak; despite all this, despite the many attestations of miracles, the Catholic Church does not recognize these saints.

San La Muerte and Caspar, the dead baby.
This may be understandable, at least in the case of San La Muerte, aka Saint Death or Holy Death.  An imposing figure, a skeleton, often robed and wielding a scythe, sometimes leaning forward in his throne, he is basically a sainted Grim Reaper.  Although some pray to him as one would with any other saint, for matters of love (red), money (gold) or other worldly powers and concerns, he is suspected to be the patron of more sinister worshipers, and nefarious deeds have been discovered and ascribed to his influence.  His cult is strongest in northeast Argentina, especially in Corrientes.  Some speculate the cult is a product of the encounter between Guaraní ancestor worship, which included the veneration of bones, and the influence of Jesuit missionaries in the 1760's; but fact is, nobody know exactly when or how it started.

A similar figure is, unsurprisingly, also worshiped in Mexico.  I say unsurprisingly because death, skulls and skeletons are a common Mexican artistic motif and Todos Santos (All Saint's Day), or the Day of the Dead, is one of Mexico's most rambunctious and widely-celebrated religious traditions.  Death is mourned and celebrated with drink, fireworks and feasting at the local cemetery.   The image of the mother is also an important motif in Mexican culture and the national patroness is La Virgen de Guadalupe, an image ubiquitous in Mexico and wherever Mexicans live.  She is the heart and soul of Catholic Mexico.  Not surprising that death is, unlike in Argentina, a woman:  La Santisima Muerte.  This would be an interesting area of study; the respective gender of "Saint Death" in Mexico and Argentina and why such a similar figure appeared in both countries.  I wonder if it could be something as secular as the fact that both countries are the largest producers of cultural products in Latin America:  music, television, literature and especially cinema.  Not sure why this would be, but for some reason the possibility came to mind.

Anyway, pictured above is my red San La Muerte.  I had actually first purchased a flashier gold statuette, but my mother-in-law knocked it off a table while tidying up, and it broke into pieces.  She's a psychoanalyst and my wife is as well; my wife is always trying to tell me that many of my accidents are not that at all, but unconscious reflections of inner desires or aversions.  So it's ironic that her mother, who disapproves of these things, "accidentally" broke it.  The iconoclastic mother-in-law.

In writing this I learned that Guatemala also has a skeletal death saint, El Rey San Pascual, who seems to be pretty much the same as Argentina's San La Muerte.  The three death saints I've discussed are believed to have their origins in pre-Colombian religion; indeed, the syncretism between non-Christian religious beliefs and Catholicism is a Latin American-wide phenomenon.  African traditions have blended with Christianity to produce Candomblé (Brazil), Voudon (Haiti) and Santería (Cuba) to name but a few.  In countries with a fewer African Americans, such as Guatemala and Mexico, this process took place with Native American beliefs.  The Catholic Church has always been tolerant of the syncretism, up to a point.  Indeed, allowing the use of "pagan" traditions was first applied to European Christianization and even has a name:  Interpretatio Christiana.  This has become a point of contention in countries once dominated by Catholicism but now rife with various Protestant and Evangelical sects, which seek to eliminate pagan traditions from Christian belief and practice.  In Guatemala, this has led to riots on several occasions; one notorious brawl took place of the steps of the cathedral in Chichicastengo.  

"Chichi" has a very strong syncretic religious culture.  I witnessed a ritual in nearby Utatlán, at the end of a long, incense-filled, tunnel-like cave under a Mayan temple complex.  I also saw what was clearly a fertility ritual before a stone idol called Pascual Abaj; this sits atop a hill closer to Chichi than Utatlán.  I photographed this ritual at the friendly urging of the man performing it, and made extensive notes on the precise actions he performed.  One day I'll dig up this notebook and photos to share here on LoS.  I was also personally blessed by a curandero in Nebaj, a bit farther north, at a shrine hidden in a cornfield.  It involved lots of prayers and the burning of various materials we picked up at the local market.  What bound all three of these rituals was the free intermingling of the names of recognizable Catholic saints with Mayan gods.  Syncretism in action.  There was also a Day of the Dead in the Guatemalan town of Todos Santos; this was an emotional experience for me, having not long prior lost my father, and I danced and drank all night with a family who must have sensed my grief, as I was welcomed into the kitchen periodically throughout the night to warm up, rest and drink bowls of a delicious gruel that kept me going and helped absorb the copious amounts of alcohol I imbibed -- which in this town, is a big part of the ritual observance.  I feel privileged to have witnessed and participated in these rituals so I am eager to meet some practitioners of Afro-Catholic religions.  My only concern is to avoid becoming a gawking tourist; I need to participate, but I do not want to contribute to the "touristification" of these rituals.

I used to say that my only further use of psychedelics would be to try ayahuasca with a shaman to guide me, but ritual ingestion of ayahuasca, aka yagé, has unfortunately become a kind of drug tourism, the Quechua and Aymara-speaking regions treated like some kind of New Age Amsterdam, a New World Kathmandu.  William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg wrote an excellent book on their search for the drug, entitled The Yagé Letters.  A detailed and often hilarious account, it doesn't get into folk saints, but it does  describe a serious series of psychic and spiritual investigations.  It has also undoubtedly helped spawn the kind of zonked-out pilgrimage to the hinterlands I used to undertake without understanding the potential deleterious effects this can have on a spiritually rich but financially impoverished people.  Some will end up selling their religion to the highest bidder and others will become hucksters, with either no real knowledge of the shamanic role or just jiving the gullible and saving the real traditions for themselves.  This is, not in the specific context of spiritual tourism but tourism in general, why I turned a bit cold towards traveling in parts of Mexico and Guatemala, not for lack of "authentic" experience, but for contributing to the kind of human interactions that reduces everything to an exchange of goods and services for cash.  I realize tourism can be an important economic boost for a country, and if anyone needs a boost it's Mexico and Guatemala, but I'm kind of leery of the whole "Gringo Trail" these days.  I'd still like to experience the Afro-Latin-American traditions though.


But back to my collection of figurines, next pictured is Gauchito Gil.  I've discussed his story before, but it's worth repeating that before his murder, he'd enlisted in the war against Paraguay to escape the wrath of a local police chief, jealous of his affair with a wealthy widow.  After his return, he refused to fight in the Argentine Civil War and fled from the authorities into the pampa, more or less forced into the role of a bandit.  Gil was eventually captured and killed by the police, but not before he informed the gendarme who was about to cut his throat that his dying son would recover; he did, and the grateful policeman spread Gauchito's cult as thanks and penance.  Gil's roadside shrines are painted red and red banners hang from them or fly overhead.  His cult, like that of San La Muerte, is strongest in the north, in Corrientes, but it has spread throughout Argentina and into neighboring Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile.  He even has a Facebook page.  But who doesn't?  Even San La Muerte is social media savvy.

Before Gil's throat was cut, he was hung upside down on a tree typical of the pampa.  This recollects Old World sources such as the crucifixion of Jesus (not to mention Mithras and Osiris) and also the self-sacrifice of Odin, who hung upside down on the Norse axis mundi named Yggdrasil, an ash tree to Gil's algarrobos.  Argentina has strong connection to Italy, so it's more likely that the upside down Gil was inspired by Italian pitture infamanti, portraits of criminals hung by their heels upon a tree, a way to humiliate condemned men, especially those deemed traitorous.  When the Roman populace rose up against them, Mussolini and mistress Clara Petacci were dragged from their home, hung by their heels by an angry mob and beaten to death.  The hanging by the heels part always intrigued me; perhaps I jump too quickly to conclusions in seeing a connection.  But this practice was almost surely based on the Roman predilection for crucifying the condemned upside down if an extra dose of humiliation was required.  The pitture infimati in turn became the model for the The Hanged Man, the 12th card of the Tarot's Major Arcana.  In the Tarot, the hanged man is usually hung from either a tree, or a leafy tree-like Tau, the man's body cross-like, his face serene, seemingly out of place in a less than serene predicament.  He also has a nimbus around his head, like a saint or a martyr.  This may be because the crucifixion is a prelude to illumination, as in Odin's case, or resurrection, as in the case of Jesus.  For that matter, in Gil's case as well, for while the man died on the tree, his cult was also born; the man became the saint, his power to intercede on behalf of the powerless announced.  Tarot-designer A.E. Waite doesn't see The Hanged Man as a martyr and it's not generally interpreted in this light, but the cardcould easily have formed the basis of Gil's iconography.  A position usually reserved for reviled criminals but who was, in Gil's case, a saint.

I mention the bit about Gil refusing to fight and the story about being drafted because this element also plays into the story of La Difunta Correa.  Legend is that circa 1840 a woman named Correa set off to rejoin her husband, who'd been drafted to fight in the Argentine Civil War.  (Other versions of the tale have her fleeing into the pampa because she had her child out of wedlock, while others yet have her fleeing the sexual advances of corrupt officials -- a common element in the "virgin martyr" category of saint; there are dozens of examples in the "official" canon).  She died of thirst on the way and, when some gauchos came across the body four days later, her baby was still able to suckle at her breast.  The gauchos buried her and saved the baby.  So both Saints' tales involve the gaucho, still a powerful symbol of freedom, men who live beyond the confines, and law, of the city, in the wide and wild pampa, with their own code of justice, symbolized by the gaucho's knife.  The tango, another symbol of Argentine society and a powerful erotic dance, is said to have been born in the brothels, evolving from the milongas which were first danced by pairs of men, imitating the movements and gestures of a knife fight.  Both stories also attest to the heavy weight these Civil Wars put on people's hearts, as brother fought brother and tore the people apart.  Some versions of Correa's story also involve unjust officials whose actions set in motion the Saint's martrydom.  So we have two massively popular cults, very death-centered, plus the worship of death itself, all three of which seem to have grown most rapidly in the years following the Falklands/Malvinas War.  This war is a big part of contemporary Argentine consciousness, the outline of the islands instantly recognizable on signs in countless cities reading "Las Malvinas son Argentinas!"  The Malvinas are Argentinian!  This war also brought down a brutaldictatorship and with its exit came countless revelations of a long reign of terror effectuated by the police and the military:  kidnappings, murder, horrifying detention centers, theft of children, the stuff of nightmares.  It's a scar on every family, and my own is no exception.

Below is the latest addition to my collection.  La Difunta Correa's cult is centered in Vallecito and was first spread by cattle drivers -- gauchos -- and now more by truckers.  Roadside shrines are apparent because devotees leave bottles of water to represent her "eternal" thirst.

There is a Catholic antecedent to this story, by the way.  There is a story in Jacobus da Vorigine's Golden Legend about a barren couple, a Roman Governor and his wife, who had their prayer for a child granted to them by Christ, via Mary Magdalene's intercession.  The governor and pregnant wife then set sail for Rome to meet St. Peter, but the wife died en route, during childbirth.  Making land, the governor found he could not bury the body, so he covered it with his cloak and left the doomed baby by her breast.  He returned two years later, shocked to find his child still alive, having suckled at his mother's breast the whole time, her body incorrupt.  Mary Magdalene, who'd accompanied him, then resurrected the wife!

La Difunta Correa
I don't have a figurine for this last saint, but my mother-in-law, the iconoclast, told me about him when she gave me La Difunta Correa:  Miguel Ángel Gaitán.  Miguel was a baby who died in 1967.  In 1973 a violent storm unearthed his coffin and his corpse was found to be incorrupt.  This is a pretty common first step towards sainthood.  A saint specific to the Toulouse region, Germaine of Pibrac, is such a saint.  And of course the incorrupt body of the Roman Governor's wife precedes the story of Gaitán and La Difunta Correa. The locals made four attempts to shelter the coffin but each time a tomb was erected, it was later found demolished.  This is actually quite a common motif in legends surrounding miraculous images of the Virgin.  It was then decided simply to place the coffin in a chapel, but even then, the lid was found to have been removed; after this went on for a while the boy's mother decided to put a glass lid on the coffin and today, the little mummy receives thousands of visitors yearly and answers prayers.  This too is not unheard of in "official" Catholic saints.  I've seen plenty of saints in glass coffins; in Cortona, Italy, where I stayed for 3 months back in 1990, the dried cadaver of an obscure local saint, Saint Margaret of Cortona, was placed upon the parish church's altar.

A bit out of place, but it just occurred to me that the story of Correa is also a strong symbol of a mother's love for her child, which recalls what I said about the role of the mother in Mexico, but also the role of the Virgin.  The incorruptibility of the body is an indication of spiritual purity, itself linked to sexual purity.  For the Virgin is free from original sin, an innocent not corrupted by the carnal pleasures responsible for the Fall and thus, the aging and infirmity-prone corporal bodies from which Adam and Eve were originally free.  Makes the Christian Science concept of sin as a kind of disease seem a bit less innovative; the incorrupt bodies of the pure are the other side of the doctrine that sin causes corporeal corruption....

So none of these miracles or stories, and even their specific details, are out of place among the enormous roster of Catholic saints, many so local that most people haven't even heard of them, even Catholics from the same country.  St. Fris, anyone?

People are hungry for religion, especially receptive to the idea that prayer and offerings can result in miracles; where poverty is endemic, sickness, education, money and success are concerns with more hopelessness attached to them than in much richer countries.  And in the last few decades, Argentina has slipped deeper and deeper into poverty and all its accompanying woes.  It is a country dominated by a profound sense of insecurity, for the future, for the hope of economic recovery and an end to corruption, the explosive growth of shanty towns and above all, crime.  This in a country already wounded by a recent war and a brutal dictatorship, many of whose criminal perpetrators are still alive.  I would only expect these cults and others like them to grow.  Everybody's looking for a miracle, to be touched by the Hand of God.  Or at least one of his deputies.

With folk saints, all the familiar elements of official Catholic saints are recycled and put into a more contemporary and familiar context -- not, for example, Roman Gaul, but contemporary Argentina.  And this will continue to happen, whether officially recognized or not.  In France, the current most popular "official" saints date largely from the 19th century; long enough ago that the historicity of the accounts is not an issue, but close enough in time and within familiar enough events to reassure the devoted that their saint knows exactly what they might going through.  As the times continue to change, we can expect periodic updates to the legends of existing folk saints, as well as the development of entirely new ones.  The age of miracles isn't over.  Evangelicals will speak in tongues and be slain in the Spirit like the apostles, the logical conclusion of the Protestant devaluation of the role of the priest as an intermediary, the belief that each man and woman can read the Bible for themselves and develop a special relationship with the Christ.  Catholics, still valuing the role of the priest, will continue to look towards even holier intermediaries, and if the old ones are found lacking -- because inevitably, poor people will remain poor, sick people will not recover and the sterile will remain childless -- new ones are just waiting to be found.

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