Nicaragua:  Of Witches, Werewolves, Evil Elves, Magic Potions, and Such

By Pat Werner

April 10, 2015

Some time ago I identified the languages of many of the villages located in western Nicaragua   at the onset of the conquest in 1522.  There appeared to be four major languages spoken, Oto-Mangue, spoken by the Chorotegas,  the largest ethnic group with perhaps 300,000 persons at the onset of the conquest;  Maribios, concentrated between the Pacific and Chinandega, with about 130,000 persons; the Nahuas, who spoke Nahuas, a sort of rustic Nahuatl, with about 60,000 persons; and the Chondals, located north of today´s Leon and concentrated in the mountains around today´s San Francisco and Somotillo, at perhaps 30,000. What language the Chondals spoke is not clear; I think they spoke either Lenca or Potón Maya.  Further research brought to light a sort of bible on these languages.  Printed in Berlin in 1920, they are found in Walter Lehmann´s opus magnum, surely not hocus pocus, Zentralamerika.  Lehmann was an anthropologist who trained under the great German Latin Americanist Eduard Seler, and visited Central America in 1908.  His work product summarized all that was known, and still is known, about Central American indigenous languages.

One of the lingering questions is how long these languages survived,  An American by the name of Brinton found in about 1880, probably in Masaya, a play called El Gueguense, a majestic lampoon of the Spaniards by a crafty Indian, that was written in both Spanish and parts in Nahua.  It has been inartfully dated to the late 17th century, and clearly shows Nahua usage, which is curious since Masaya and Monimbo were clearly bastions of Chorotegas, not Nahuas.  Some of their Indigenous surnames linger to the present day.  I am still not sure what this means, if anything.

So I decided one day to see if I could find any Oto-Mangue speakers in Masaya and  nearby towns.  One characteristic of the Chorotegas is that more of their villages remained relatively intact and survived than any other Indigenous group. Most of the villages in the Meseta south of Managua, such as Diriamba, Jinotepe, Masatepe, San Juan de Oriente, Catarina, as well as Masaya, Niquenohomo, Monimbo, and Nindirí were Chorotegan villages that survived, as did Jalteva, located in today´s Granada, which was not a preexisting villages but a Spanish villa founded by Francisco Hernandez (or Fernandez) who was from  Córdoba, Spain, in 1524.

I decided to go to some of these old villages, try to find some old people, and recite a few   phrases in Oto Mangue, and see what reaction I got back.  I decided to go to Diriomo. I studied up on Lehmann and found some choice phrases guaranteed to insure a response if understood.  Perhaps the most memorable choice phrase I used was, Coy pinda la Juana? It means, politely, Is Juana really well pregnant?

I made many visits to both old folks and some professed curanderos, better called brujos, or witches, usually men.  Unfortunately, no smirks when I asked about Juana.  But I got to talking to some of those brujos, and began asking them questions about beliefs, and how they worked their magic.  And that proved to be the most interesting of all.

Next time I went back to Diriomo I took with me some pictures of several plants and mushrooms, to see if the brujos could identify them.  Unfortunately, I could learn little from the brujos about their black craft as they seemed to know the latest movie about santería, and traditions with a chicken, that seemed to me foreign baloney, but precious little about native substances that clearly were, and are, hallucinogenic.  What I did find out was that so called black magic usually had to do with unrequited love, and ways to convince someone to return affection.  Once in a while there could be an attempt to put a hex on someone, some called the evil eye, or mal de ojo, but I do not think that was taken very seriously.  In all I did not come up with much but a bunch of second rate santería and Brazilian movies (though any Brazilian movie with Sonia Braga is worth watching).

I did find, though, that there was a tradition of hallucinogenic plants, and clearly non-Christian beliefs, that had been recorded in the past. Perhaps the brujos of Diriomo should do a little reading.

Beliefs and Werewolves:

Clearly the Chorotega and Nahua Indians had complete belief systems and the statues to represent them.  The old curmudgeon, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdés came to Nicaragua in 1528, knew all the conquistadores, and was enemy-friend to Pedrarias Davila.  He got a village as encomienda at Momotombo, located close by Leon Viejo. He recorded breaking up 200 statues of native gods. He also reported, with information that may have come from Mateare, that the Chorotegas and Nahuas had similar gods, but different beliefs, and he named a few of the gods, to boot.  He and  others, like Francisco de Castañeda, reported cannibalism as a general trait, among the four major ethnic groups. Oviedo was even so kind as to record the recipe for cooking human meat, which is very close to modern day baho. Royal accountant Andres de Cerecedo reported a few of the butchering techniques to get the cuts right for the chiefs.

More importantly, Oviedo recorded the first genuine example of witchcraft in his visit to the Maribios town of Pozoltega, in February 1528. He reported, in two separate passages, the report that two native priests had changed into wolves and killed a 10 year old boy.  This report is clearly within the Mesoamerican tradition of sorcery.  It is the only contemporary 16th century report regarding witches.  A more disturbing report hints that cannibalism was exercised not just for gustatory delight, but with a possible intent to preserve old ways and beliefs.  Cannibalism was a fact in early Nicaragua.  Early in the conquest, somewhere near  Leon Viejo, Spaniards  reported coming upon a place  where victims were fattened up and then killed.  And in an act of retribution reported by Oviedo, 18 caciques were killed in the town square of Leon Viejo as a reprisal for natives in the area of Olocotón, located just north of modern day Malpaisillo, killing and eating seven Spaniards and their horses in a big barbeque. The caciques were killed one by one by setting the Spaniard´s killer dogs on them in a kind of macabre village sport.  Pedrarias was so mad at the killing of his men that he decreed that the dismembered bodies should remain in the town square to rot.  This was in April, 1528, and it was probably very hot, as it is today in April.  After four days the smell must not have been good, and the Spanish citizens asked Pedrarias to remove the bodies and parts. He reluctantly agreed.  Oviedo reported that the bodies were removed and that some choice pieces of meat where cut up and used for food.

As time went on, reports of cannibalism ceased.  In 1697, a particularly active and able priest came to Nicaragua, Padre Margíl de Jesus.  He founded the Guadalupe church in Granada, wandered the northern regions, and ended up in San Antonio De Bejar, in what is now Texas. He reported one case of cannibalism somewhere near the present town of La Trinidad. The lost cave of la Mokuana, maybe located in the steep slopes by the town, may have been the place where he found remnants of a sort of symbolic cannibalism, perhaps involving children, and perhaps a manifestation of old beliefs being maintained in secret by native priests. I have always suspected this was the case.

Evil Elves:

The word in Spanish is duendes, and there are over a dozen caves located throughout western Nicaragua, called the cave of the duende.  This is not an ancient belief, but one held by many Nicaraguans today.  Many working class women do believe in duendes.  The understanding is that they are little people, a couple of feet tall, who speak in squeaks and live inside trees.  They steal young children and may eat them.  They are used as bogey men and young children are told to behave or they may see a duende or a duende may get them.  Expats can laugh, but many domestic workers believe in them fervently, and they are not to be slighted because of their beliefs. I have my doubts, but one high ranking director of an international organization told me in confidence that he heard and saw them once. Who knows?

Magic Potions:

Unknown to most foreigners, Nicaragua has many psychotropic substances, both plant and animal, and usually within easy access.  The tropical toad, the ubiquitous sapo, Bufo marinus, has two poison glands on its back that usually kill any dogs that attack and bite them.  The glands exude a milky substance that is poisonous and is classified as a class one controlled substance in Australia because of its hallucinogenic qualities .  Some folks make a sort of witch´s brew by taking cheap rum, throwing in a dead sapo, letting it soak for a month, and then drinking the brew.  I have never tried it but seen folks under its influence, and they surely were on a different wave length.

Probably the most common hallucinogen is floripón, a bushlike tree that was  noticed by the first Spaniards  in their conquests from northern Mexico to southern South America.   Botanists recognize two genera, Datura and Brugsmania.  In English they are known as angel trumpets.  They have probably been used by Man for thousands of years as they do not reproduce easily except by taking a cutting and planting it in wet soil. Nicaragua has at least two species of Brugmansia, one with a pink and white flower, and another with a pure white flower.  They generate a sweet aroma at night, and contain scopalomine and atropine in heavy concentration.  They are concentrated belladonna.  They are not a controlled substance, and usually one experiment is sufficient to forestall a repeat performance.  A fatal dose is somewhere around two times the usual dose.

Another source of psychedelic promise is a plant that was  used by the Zapotecs in southern Mexico.  It contains a LSD like combination of substances and has been used by shaman in a heady mix of ground seeds. I hesitate to state its scientific name or indigenous name, as it is well known. Its flowers are equally easily recognized, and it grows abundantly in western Nicaragua.

One of the mysteries of Mexican human sacrifice is that its victims would calmly stand in line waiting to get their hearts ripped out.  A few Spaniards reported seeing the victims being given a drink of something while waiting in line to be sacrificed. One theory is that they may have been given a drink containing both Brugmansia and the Zapotec ground seeds.    That would have made a heady brew and powerful magic potion.

In Nicaragua there were human sacrifices but not on the scale of the Aztecs, but one wonders why the person to be sacrificed did not high tail it away when they had a chance.  There was no mystery as to what would happen as it was a recognized religious rite. At least we know that humans were sacrificed, and eaten, and both Brugmansia and the Zapotec seeds are in abundance in western Nicaragua.  More of my wanderings in 16th century archives may provide an answer.

The reader will note that there is little here that incorporates what one may call the English-Irish tradition of sorcery, common to  most English speakers. Nor do these traditions speak much of what are probably Spanish cultural traditions known in Central America, such as la llorona, la carreta fantasma, or the headless priest.  In terms of symbols, pre-Colombian pottery has two recurrent synbols, Tlaloc, the rain god, and Echehuatl, the wind god.  But no witches, per se.  And those two symbols appear beginning perhaps in the 10th century, and continue until the conquest and the end of production of precolombian ceramics.  Oviedo´s werewolves do not appear on pottery, nor in any petroglyph known to me.

Perhaps some mention should be made of the word, brujo, itself.  Brujo is usually translated as witch. But in its Nicaraguan context in has a more complex meaning. It also incorporates the ideas of a wise man, or wizard, with perhaps the ability to see slightly into the future, and intelligence.  Being a brujo is not necessarily a completely bad thing.

Lastly, there is one legend, perhaps of the devil, perhaps Hispanic, perhaps indigenous, that I have heard in several contexts.  A man, dressed in black, would be seen sitting in one infamous bar called Aqui Polanco, located by the Mercado Mayoreo in Managua.  It was the bar with the most number of gunfights.  Some went there just to watch the festivities. When a man, dressed in black sat at a back table and drank by himself, someone died. A more colorful version of this legend comes from the village of Niquenohomo, one of three Chorotegan towns known for their sorcery and brujos, the others being Diria and Diriomo.   Some elders note that late at night, when it is hot before the rains start, a man, dressed in black, can be seen riding a black horse with red eyes, never saying a word.  The man   makes no noise riding down the street.  Elders notice that his horse throws sparks as its hooves strike the ground.  And when he appears, someone dies.

Bio – Pat Werner has lived here for 30 years, much of that in Diriamba. He is a retired college professor and administrator and has wandered all over Nicaragua studying the local history, orchids and ceramics. He has a web page at:
Pat Werner   [email protected]