Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A War of Witches

Timothy J. Knab A War of Witches (1993)

A slight shift in emphasis here, A War of Witches being anthropology written as autobiography rather than fiction as such. Back in 2006 when Mad Norwegian Press dropped the Faction Paradox imprint, I recall suggesting on some forum or other that Knab's book might be deemed to inhabit some of the same territory and might thus be of interest to those missing their not particularly regular dose of Factiony goodness; which I still stand by, particularly as A War of Witches had a considerable influence on my own more recent contribution to the mythos with Against Nature.

Timothy J. Knab is, as I understand it, a reasonably big name in the vague field falling somewhere between the anthropology and ethnography of Mesoamerica, and during the 1970s he spent time living amongst the indigenous people of rural Puebla, some miles east of the Valley of Mexico. To be specific, as he relates the tale he does a great deal more than just have a bit of a holiday in someone else's lack of facilities, making close friends with numerous Nahua families and himself becoming a curandero - which seems like pretty good going for a white guy living in a place with limited access to electricity and where it isn't even a given that your neighbour will speak Spanish.

As D.H. Lawrence observed in Apocalypse, written in 1931: In the lowest stratum of society religion remains pretty much the same, throughout the ages, and so it is in Knab's Sierra de Puebla where the pre-Hispanic religion remains pretty much unchanged despite the garnish of a few obscure saints - so obscure as to be unknown outside the region. In other words, whilst the cathedrals of indigenous Mexican faith may have been bulldozed five hundred years ago, there are still places where they never got the memo.

What makes this account potentially so fascinating to those who may not be familiar with the culture for which it gives vivid account, is that it approaches the supernatural Nahua world on its own terms - getting right in there without the lab coat or attendant rationale which would reduce the subject to a sterile itinerary of quaint rural customs; and happily, neither does Knab adopt any approach in common with the new-age types who might mistakenly imagine themselves somehow attuned to the Nahua way of life. Rather, he lets the people and their beliefs speak for themselves, and in terms which no-one should find impenetrable or unfamiliar.

In learning the curandero's art and uncovering the genuinely terrifying history of witchcraft in the Sierra de Puebla, Knab recovers such detail of obscure potions, rites performed in certain caves, methods of killing foes without detection, and dream interpretation as to force the conclusion that calling this stuff mumbo jumbo is missing the point, because it's absolutely real for those involved. There are plenty of great books full of names and dates with regard to indigenous Mexican history, but this one attempts to tell you what it actually felt like as Knab spends afternoons idly sipping coffee or cane alcohol with scary old people who make veiled references to witchcraft murders, what the things under the ground want, and a recent crucifixion that no-one likes to talk about for obvious reasons.

Whilst I have a lot of time for Dicky Dawkins, and tend to agree with his attitude to that which is lazily termed spirituality, A War of Witches highlights the flaw in his somewhat reductionist view of religion. It would be easy to dismiss that which Knab encountered as a combination of suggestion and sleight of hand, except such dismissal presupposes certain conditions which aren't entirely applicable and that there is nothing to be learnt here - which is far from the case. Of all the books I've absorbed on this subject, A War of Witches is one of the most illuminating and makes for genuinely gripping reading.

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