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  • Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico
  • Joan Bristol
Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico. By Laura A. Lewis ( Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. xiv plus 262 pp. $79.95 cloth/ $22.95 paper).

This thought-provoking book reveals the links between discourses of caste and witchcraft in colonial Mexico, focusing on the seventeenth century. Lewis, a cultural anthropologist, argues that the colonial world was divided into two related domains: the sanctioned domain of the colonial caste system, dominated by Spaniards, and the unsanctioned domain of witchcraft, dominated by Indians. Colonial people from every caste were involved in both arenas. Indians operated in the sanctioned domain as subjects of the Spanish king, and Spaniards entered the unsanctioned domain when they consulted Indians for cures and magical help. Blacks, mulattos, and mestizos occupied intermediary spaces. Spaniards used them to oversee and discipline Indians in the sanctioned [End Page 793] domain and to procure witchcraft from Indians in the unsanctioned domain. Intermediaries also used Indian witchcraft against Spaniards. These activities put intermediaries in the dangerous role of proxies for Spaniards and Indians in court cases. Blacks, mulattos, and mestizos were accused of using witchcraft at the Inquisition in place of the Indians who controlled the witchcraft, since the latter did not fall under the tribunal's jurisdiction, and they were prosecuted in criminal trials for the violence against Indians that they committed at the behest of Spaniards.

The hierarchy of caste in the sanctioned domain, in which power emanated from Spaniards, was reversed in the unsanctioned domain, where Indians held the power. Both of these domains were products of the caste ideology which assigned particular qualities to members of different social groups. Lewis describes caste as "an integrated system of relations and dispositions rather than a series of distinct stations," making colonial society a "fluid pyramid" of values within which individuals could move to some degree.(33) For example, Spanishness was connected to the Spaniards at the top of the pyramid, but members of other groups could claim to be associated with Spaniards or to have Spanish qualities in order to prove their legitimacy in the sanctioned domain. People could ally themselves with Indians in order to gain unsanctioned authority through the use of witchcraft but they could also be accused of having Indian qualities by others hoping to discredit them in the sanctioned domain. The same qualities were assigned to particular groups in the two domains although the values that were attached to these qualities differed. For instance, the idea that Indians were weak and vulnerable to diabolic influence was widespread. While the association with the devil justified Spanish rule over Indians, it also gave credence to the idea that Indians had access to powerful witchcraft that could be used to control Spaniards. Indian magic in the unsanctioned realm was mirrored by Spanish magic in the sanctioned realm, however. Lewis portrays the Spanish judiciary as a magical system in which people who treated Indians violently were punished. Ultimately, unsanctioned and sanctioned activities both operated within the Spanish system of meaning. Non-Spaniards emphasized their connections to Spaniards in the sanctioned domain, and used witchcraft in the unsanctioned domain, in order to get the freedom and rights that Spanish men had automatically—what Lewis calls "physical mobilities symbolically enmeshed with status ones." (169) Although witchcraft gave non-Spaniards power, in the end the courts upheld Spanish authority and punished people who challenged it.

This book contributes to literature on witchcraft, caste, and gender in colonial Spanish America. First, Lewis adds a new level of analysis to the study of Spanish American witchcraft, often characterized as the realm of non-Spaniards generally, by delineating the different roles played by Indians, blacks, mulattos, and mestizos and by specifying Indians as the primary suppliers of witchcraft. Second, she contributes to the discussion of caste identities, arguing against the common idea that the mother's caste was more influential than the father's in determining a person's lineage. People capitalized on any claim to Spanishness that they could, and it mattered more that a person could claim parentage of a higher caste than which parent supplied...


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