Here and There in Yucatan/Evocation of Spirits


In Belen del Gran Pará, among the most ignorant of the natives, there are medicine men and women who frequently make very successful cures by mysterious means, saving patients that have been pronounced incurable by licensed physicians; such cases become widely known.

These medicine men say they work by order of spirits of the fire and spirits from the bottom of the deep: those who claim the help of the fire spirits are said to cure best. Each of these peculiar doctors is supposed to be influenced by a tribe of unseen beings subordinate to a superior, who takes charge of the most difficult cases, and whose opinion is highly respected. The invisible healers are said to be ghosts of people who belonged to the most ignorant classes of humanity,—black slaves, white roughs, savage Indians, cruel pirates, etc., each answering to some particular name.

Besides his fixed number of assistant spectres, in whom the medicine man has unbounded confidence, others attend when permitted by the chief ghost—that the medicine-man pretends to hear, see, and touch when alone, and without whose permission he dares not hold intercourse with inferior spirits. The men say that they themselves know nothing of disease or medicine, but that after a while they are unable to free themselves from the authority of the invisible beings who impose upon them the mission of always curing, at least with only intervals of a few days; if they do not comply, the master punishes them, even corporally. On the other hand, when they work faithfully and well the master is complaisant, taking particular care to cure those dear to the medicine man. The more moral the doctor, the more certain the cure, they say; those who have acquired bad habits are influenced by evil spirits that, far from benefiting, harm the patient. Upon such, all look with horror and condemn them as wizards.

The police of Pará pursue these medicine men and women relentlessly; while the lower classes of society tacitly protect them, and will never point out the places where they hold their meetings.

The medicine man appoints a certain day for patients who desire to consult him, with their families, and any friend who has obtained permission to be present; they go at night-fall—one or two at a time, not to attract attention—to some house in an unfrequented spot, not to be surprised by the police or annoyed by outsiders.

About nine o'clock the visitors, never less than fifteen or twenty, must be at the place indicated. They are recommended to be very circumspect, to have much faith in all they see and hear, and to sing with each spirit certain verses that correspond to them. The doors are well closed, and no one can leave till the meeting adjourns, except with the master's permission. Sometimes they are closeted till early dawn.

The medicine man first occupies himself for about an hour in slowly making ten or twelve cigars, very thick, and nine inches long, mixing with the tobacco a small quantity of pulverized incense, and wrapping it in very thin bark. There are two bottles of fire-water on hand for the libations of "the spirits." They also have a small hollow globe made of wood, perforated with many holes; inside there are pebbles to rattle. This primitive kind of sistrum is secured to a handle, and the medicine man uses it to call the master of the spirits; they say that he gave it to them for that purpose, as well as another instrument made of buzzard feathers.

After various preparations the doctor diminishes the light as much as possible without extinguishing it; and concentrates his thoughts, slowly smoking one of the cigars. From time to time he introduces the lighted end in his mouth, absorbing a quantity of smoke; he also takes one of the instruments mentioned, and sounds it rapidly close to his ears. With his mouth he fumigates his arms and hands, in the form of a cross, until, compelled by the repetition of these operations, he closes his eyes and seems to be in a somnambulistic state.

Half tottering, he rises and passes his hands several times over his forehead; then, with uplifted arms, goes to the nearest wall, strikes it hard with the palms of his hands, and recedes a few steps, always unsteady, repeating the operation two or three times. At last, able to stand firm, he turns toward the company, and says, "Good-evening." His movements are free; his features, language, way of walking, all his actions, polite or rude, take the character of the individual supposed to possess him.

Those present never address the doctor by his name, but that of the one said to control him, who, by his manners and language, is known to some among them. They answer his greeting with courtesy, and try to please him by all means in their power, offering him rum or some good thing they have prepared for him; beg him to sing: if he does, join in with him, and respond to the toasts he deigns to drink to those present. Afterward, by invitation or voluntarily, he attentively examines the patients, gently touching the affected parts, and asking questions concerning the malady. He fumigates the seat of the disease, makes passes over the individual with one of the small musical instruments, and lastly prescribes. When he has finished attending to patients he takes more fire-water and says good-by. Then goes to the wall as before, strikes it with his open palms, and seems greatly exhausted.

After a few minutes' rest he again approaches the wall, as already described, and soon is said to be under control of some one else, who with very little difference repeats what the first did; one thus succeeds another throughout the night. Some only minister to two or three patients, others to many; the master always attending to the most serious cases. They sometimes approve the prescriptions of those who have preceded them, but may prescribe other remedies; then the master decides which shall be used. The medicaments ordered are herbs, barks, roots, and in a few cases purgatives from the drugstore, to be used exactly as directed. When bleeding—in the arms or feet—is ordered, the doctor undertakes to bleed them at once, or at the next meeting, or in the home of the patient, using for the operation a piece of glass tied to a small stick.

When at work the medicine men and women are naked above the waist. Some make their preparations in complete darkness, requesting those present to light up the room as soon as they are influenced by the first spirit. Others keep the room in obscurity only during the first part of the night. In the dark, after the preparatory ceremonies, a very loud voice seems to proceed from some empty utensil. It salutes those present by roaring out "Good-evening," takes information about the patients, speaks of incidents connected with their illness, and enters into conversation with those who are present simply from curiosity, answering almost any question they ask, even concerning the future; then, after the people sing with the voice, it gives thanks, and is heard no more. Soon another manifests, and another, until midnight, when the doctor puts a stop to it, to continue with light the other part of the performance above described; then the voices are no longer heard except through the mouth of the medicine man.

The individuals who undertake to make the voices audible are very few, and as the darkness is complete, one cannot know whence they proceed. It is, however, a fact that those who attend such meetings always distinguish the supposed spirits by some particular way of speaking or some favorite expressions, no two voices being alike; and they address those present by their right name before it is revealed.

It is a remarkable fact that in Yucatan, also, the Indians hide themselves at night, to perform ceremonies similar to those that take place in Brazil. Instead of rum they use a drink called balché, which they say is the beverage of the gods. It is made by soaking the bark of a tree called balché in honey and water that is allowed to ferment. This same liquor is used in equatorial Africa, and when long kept becomes very intoxicating.

  1. Published in "Harpers' Bazar."