The ancient belief systems of nature worship still flourish in some parts of the world, to include South America. Practices we find bizarre or even utterly repellant, things strange enough to induce what some psychologists and sociologists call “culture shock,” are presented in John Wilcock’s “Occult Journeys Through South America” without judgment and also without any attempt to proselytize for the primitive rites of the indigenous peoples he writes about.
THE INTREPID DOMVILLE-FIFE
In an early chapter of “Occult Journeys Through South America,” Wilcock recounts the story of an explorer named Charles W. Domville-Fife, whose book “Among Wild Tribes of the Amazon” was published in 1925. Wilcock recounts how Domville-Fife “set off with camera, gun, trinkets and native bearers for the remotest regions he could reach. He visited the Apiaca, once the mortal enemies of the Mundurucu, whose fierce reputation was confirmed for him when he saw them drinking from cups made out of human skulls, the eye and nose sockets plugged by dirty red clay.”
The Apiacas believed that the spirits of the dead were reborn in the form of birds and animals and that the moon was an evil spirit whose satellites in the river would drag down to a murky depth any Indian who bathed under its pale light.
BE CAREFUL WHO YOU EAT
Domville-Fife was forced to learn to survive by eating monkeys, tortoises and lizards. He also suffered mosquitoes and was bitten by a vampire bat. He observed, but did not share, the habits of a tribe called the Itogapuks, who believed that by drinking a cupful of the blood of certain animals they could gain the strength, cunning or intelligence of their victim.
On a later visit to the Cashibo Indians, Domville-Fife was shocked to learn that “the aged are killed and eaten because it is considered better to be devoured by a friend than by birds or beasts of prey. It seems that these natives believed that having eaten the heart, brain, eyes, ears and hands they absorb the good qualities, cunning and spirit of the departed.” However, they do not kill and eat captives of other tribes because they look upon their neighbors as inferior in all respects to themselves and therefore “unworthy to be absorbed.”
In the l950s, religious fanaticism took a deadly form in the small town of Catule in Brazil. Four children accused of being possessed by the devil were sacrificed by the leaders of the community. One leader claimed to have seen the devil in the form of a cat issuing forth from the body of a small girl. The state police arrived, killing two of the leaders and arresting other adults in the community.
Wilcock also writes about something called the Pernambuco Affair, which happened in 1836. A tribal leader named Joao Santos announced that two 100-foot monoliths near the town of Pedra Bonita marked the exact location of an enchanted country in which were hidden enormous stores of treasure and which would eventually become the New Jerusalem.
Joao whipped the locals into a frenzy and was forced to leave the area. Two years later, another Joao, the brother-in-law of the former Joao, stirred up the locals even more by making incredible promises to those who would make the necessary sacrifices. Black people would become white, the aged would be made young and poor people would become millionaires, all-powerful and immortal.
There remained only a blood sacrifice to make the transformation happen, blood to be used to bathe local statues and irrigate the fields. On May 14, 1838, Joao announced that the time for sacrifice had arrived. A number of people offered themselves, including Joao’s father and an elderly man who carried his two children up on the monoliths and threw them into space. The frenzy went on unchecked for three days, resulting in the execution of 30 children, 12 men, 11 women and 14 dogs.
When the police finally arrived, the fanatics refused to surrender, choosing instead to rush into combat singing religious songs. Another 22 people were killed in the battle with the police.
“It was a frightening event,” Wilcock writes, “but perfectly in character with a fanaticism that not so long ago lurked below the surface of Brazilian rural life.”
NOT SO DIFFERENT AFTER ALL
The explorers who made contact with the Indians of South America discovered amazing analogies between Christianity and those of the supposedly “superstitious” natives. The religions of the indigenous populations also had their own counterparts to practices such as fasting, baptism, confession and penance, even if human and animal sacrifices to appease the anger of the gods continued.
FIGHTING THE DEMONS
In Argentina, common to most the tribes of an area called the Chaco was an evil spirit called “Avacua,” said to bring sickness and sometimes death. In native belief, the “Avacua” is also responsible for entering the moon and breaking it up at the time of the lunar eclipse.
The people try to drive the evil spirit away from human bodies and the moon by throwing stones, firing guns, throwing lighted torches into the air and basically creating as much pandemonium as possible. The custom is still in practice among many South American tribes, and is similar to the Hawaiian Kahuna practice of shouting curses and profanities at an offending spirit to frighten it into leaving.
MEET THE WITCH DOCTOR
At such times the people must rely on the community’s shaman or witch doctor, who regards all human ills to have been caused by witchcraft and must be fought by witchcraft as well.
The witch doctors would engage their spirits by shouting, grimacing, going into contortions like one possessed, and imitating the roaring of tigers and other terrifying animals.
The witch doctors were the arbiters of both good and evil, of life and death and of the power of the elements. They could cause storms, alter the seas, dry up rivers or flood the fields. They could so enchant a person that he was rendered unable to move, eat, drink or sleep unless the witch doctor commanded.
To receive their power to do magic, the witch doctor was required to fast and undergo corporal penitence. He lived naked and alone in cold, far away places, eating nothing but maize and hot peppers.
THE DEVIL THEY KNEW
Dragons and demons are also an important aspect of South American native mythology. Widespread among the fearsome entities was the “Culebra De Fuego,” or “Serpent of Fire,” said to stand guard over essentially imaginary treasures.
Demons, genii, and the winged serpents, along with these creatures of fire, all originated from the same place and for the same cause and represented the Mother of Gold, the force of the earth, the enchanted mountain that trembled, lighted up with thunder and lightning, and symbolized the living, conscious Earth to the Indians.
Another tribe in Argentina, called the Guarani, trained their sons from an early age to be avengers who would capture prisoners and ritually sacrifice them in return for past defeats the tribe may have suffered. They were clever warriors, among the few who used flaming arrows to set fire to their enemy’s village and force them out in the open. Once the battle was won, they made short work of their enemies in cannibalistic feasts after which Guarani women made necklaces out of the leftover teeth.
The modern Guaranis, distant descendants of the early people-eating tribe, still live in scattered groups in southern Brazil and in the foothills of the Andes.
WILCOCK THE SEASONED TRAVELER
This has been a brief overview of some of the occult beliefs and rituals of South America. Author John Wilcock also provides a great deal of travelogue material, written from the perspective of a seasoned modern day explorer. The reader can make an armchair journey through the major cities of Brazil and Argentina, as well as travel down the mighty Amazon River in search of tribes nearly untouched by the passing of time who continue to worship nature and fear its wrath.
Wilcock is an old hand at traversing the globe and sharing his insights with his readers. He has written guidebooks for Mexico, California, Texas, Rome, Florence and many others touristy locales. He has also authored a book called “A Guide to Occult Britain,” as well as serving as a researcher for Albert Goldman’s “The Lives of John Lennon,” a biography of Jim Morrison and a biography of Rupert Murdoch.
AN IMPRESSIVE RESUME
Wilcock also has impressive credentials as a columnist and editor. He was a cofounder in 1955 of the celebrated newspaper “The Village Voice,” for which he wrote a regular column called “The Village Square,” pun intended.
As an editor, Wilcock held the reins at the “The Witches Almanac,” “The East Village Other,” and “The Los Angeles Free Press.” In 2010, Wilcock’s book on Andy Warhol “The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol,” was published to no small acclaim.
Wilcock cut his teeth by working on the sometimes infamous tabloid newspapers of London’s Fleet Street before moving across the ocean to work as Assistant Editor of the New York Times Travel Section.
A TALENTED BOHEMIAN
In the preface to Wilcock’s own autobiography, called “Manhattan Memories,” Martin Gardner writes, “A good way to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school at age 16 to work on various newspapers in England and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City.”
When Wilcock became one of the five founders of the Village Voice, one of his partners in crime was the late Norman Mailer, who also wrote a weekly column for the fledgling publication, a newspaper that would come to epitomize journalistic hip in the Big Apple for the new Beat Generation and beyond.
Wilcock and Mailer “were not quite friends,” Gardner writes, “although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego.”
Wilcock would also go on to write for the Washington Post and TV Guide, his career spanning across numerous political and cultural bases here in America and elsewhere.
Wilcock currently makes his home in Southern California, where he continues to work as an editor, writer, researcher, columnist, travel specialist and independent cable
With this new reprint of Wilcock’s classic work that combines travelogue with spiritual anthropology and occult lore, Global Communications has made yet another important contribution to our collective understanding of how man has interacted with the living Earth and all of her natural forces from ancient times to the present. Thy myths and legends of the various tribes of indigenous South Americans are not simply the superstitions of a primitive people, but are instead a living, breathing, conscious communion with the spirits of the natural universe that sustain us all.
One must of course look beyond the savagery of human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism practices that one would hope have long since faded into the mists of antiquity. It isn’t always easy to see past our quite reasonable and natural repugnance for those distasteful rites and customs. But it can also be argued that even drinking the blood and eating the flesh of Jesus has cannibalistic overtones, though the wine and bread redefine the meal as being real only in symbolic terms, far removed from any literal cannibalism.
It is that use of symbolism that provides the civilizing distance between savagery and spiritual grace. However, as is often said, all things are relative. To a South American shaman consuming the flesh of an enemy after a victory in battle, we are the heathens. We are the unbeliever, the barbarian at the gates.
Which is something one should keep in mind while reading “An Occult Guide to South America,” allowing John Wilcock to open a window into a strange and mysterious – and often violent – world not often seen by even dedicated occultists.
[To read more by Sean Casteel, visit his website at www.seancasteel.com]
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