A scene of tranquility on Oct. 24, the Pedernal overlooking Abiquiú Lake may have long ago held a view of witches and sorcerers.

“In the year 1764 some women possessed by the devil broke loose in this kingdom.”

These shocking words, written by Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez in 1777, refer to an outbreak of witchcraft and sorcery in New Mexico in the 1760s.

Brujería y hechizería. Witchcraft and sorcery. These ideas are as old as time itself and can be found in cultures around the world. New Mexico is no exception. Belief in witches is as New Mexican as tamales and posole at Christmastime.

But with darker, scarier undertones.

Fray Juan José Toledo, a Franciscan priest from Mexico City, had much experience as a missionary ministering to Native people in Mexico and New Mexico. But nothing could have prepared him for what awaited him at Abiquiú.

Toledo had with him a manual, instructing him what to look for concerning witches and sorcery. In Abiquiú, he found plenty to occupy himself.

The village was a pueblo of Genízaro Indians, a mix of various nations, non–Puebloan, and ready for a fight. This would be Toledo’s battle for religious and political authority in the northern town.

Miguel Ontiveros, called “El Cojo” for his limp, was known to be a powerful sorcerer. He and Agustin Tagle had Abiquiú in a spiritual death grip, at least according to Toledo. The devil was roaming free, devouring the souls of New Mexicans, and Toledo saw himself as the finger of God, sent to cast out that roaring lion. So he investigated the illness and other strange happenings in his jurisdiction.

And there was real illness, according to the locals. The bewitching caused great fear and anxiety. The afflicted had a fever, they suffered great thirst, their teeth blackened, and in the end, they perished. Sometimes their stomach burst open, letting loose insects of all sorts. No one was immune from the evil, not even the priest.

Toledo came under the spell of one of the Abiquiú witches, suffering physical pains and dark apparitions. At one point during his torment, he claimed one of the witches appeared in his room, in the form of a half-human, half-animal abomination.

Toledo also claimed the witch accosted him in bed and physically beat him. He ultimately sought a cure from an Indian curandera, or folk healer, though he had a local magistrate with him to ensure she did not bewitch him a second time.

In fact, two of the most powerful sorcerers at Abiquiú were Genízara women named Atole Caliente and Petrona la Come Gallinas. In one event, they posed as curanderas to help some people afflicted by the sorcery, only to have those individuals get worse after the women “healed” them.

As word and concern spread about the spiritual and temporal battle being waged at Abiquiú between the priest and the Genízaros, Gov. Tomas Vélez Cachupin became so alarmed he had the main group of Abiquiú witches arrested.

He also sent the case for review by the Inquisition in Mexico City to see if the Holy Office needed to intervene.

That was a long shot, since the Inquisition stopped prosecuting Native Americans in the 1530s.

The response from the Inquisition was sobering. The lawyer for that institution said this was not witchcraft or sorcery, rather it was superstition borne of lax catechizing by the priest.

In fact, the documents stated the priests needed to learn the local Native languages to better Christianize them and wean them of their pagan religious practices, which were no doubt seen as demonic by some in New Mexico.

So there were no burnings at the stake in New Mexico. The imprisoned Genízaros were sentenced to work in the homes of local Spanish families or in obrajes, workshops. Some died in their servitude, while others disappeared into the mists of history.

Still, belief in witches, brujas, lingers in New Mexico to this day.

New Mexico State Historian Rob Martinez writes a monthly column for The New Mexican.

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