FROM THE LOGBOOK: FOLK MAGIC AND GRAIL LORE IN VALENCIA
Over the weekend, I flew to Valencia for a brief holiday. Thankfully, its palm tree-lined beaches and tapas bars lacked the Spring Break crowds, making it easier for me to transition into “beach Bacchus” mode and head to the coast for fresh Sangria and flamenco guitar.
For my visit, there were two things on my agenda (three if you count the drinking bit): trying the paella, and seeing the Holy Grail. Finding a restaurant that served paella was easy, after all, the rice dish is the city’s culinary specialty. Seeing the Grail however, was more of challenge. My attempts to catch a glimpse of the legendary relic in the medieval Cathedral of Valencia were thwarted each day by the congregating pilgrims and parishioners who had apparently arrived for the festival of Saint Vincent Ferrer.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Is the church chalice the one and only cup of Christ?” The answer is yes—according to custom. Then again, according to custom, there are at least two hundred other official candidates. I for one, am of the same opinion of Henry Jones senior (played by Sean Connery) in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: “The quest for the grail is not about archaeology.” So, after deciding to postpone my search for the Sangreal, I hit the books to see what else I could find about Valencia’s cultural history.
Before long, I came across a few stories about the city’s seventeenth-century professional love magicians. According to scholar María Helena Sanchez Ortega, Valencian love magic was similar to that which was practised in other Spanish regions (such as Andalusia and the Canary Islands) and originated sometime in the Early Middle ages. Its adherents were business-savy but marginalised women, such as divorcees, widows, and prostitutes. Caught in an oppressive male-dominated society and knowledgable of oral folk traditions, they sought independence and autonomy through the kind of magic that dealt with the strongest bonds between people. Male magicians also attempted to change their fortunes, but mostly put their energies into treasure-hunting fantasies, often enlisting the help of moriscos (Spaniards with Moorish or half-Moorish ancestry).
In her essay Sorcery and Eroticism in Love Magic, Sanchez Ortega writes that the Valencian sorceresses provided services that were both divinatory (including spells to “uncover the intentions” of a potential lover) and coercive (involving ceremonial procedures to force someone to fall in love). They made use of ordinary household objects such as beans an saucepans, but resorted to bodily fluids and pubic hair for stronger, more erotic operations. Ortega states:
“Women’s menstrual blood also contained magical powers that could be channelled to the same ends as semen. In this case, the sorceresses generally did not utilize this ingredient alone, but would add the brains of an ass and pubic hairs. Once the dish containing the impotency spell had been prepared, the man would have to eat it for the desired effect. Laura Garrigues, for example, added a little pepper; dona Juana de la Cruz simply dried the blood and mixed it with wine; other women spread it on a meat dish.”
The poetic cants (vocal spells) employed by other women could also involve dramatic appeals to planetary bodies and spirits–even the devil himself. These are particularly impressive, and speak to the practitioners’ theological world views. For example, the Castilian woman Juana Dientes admitted that she undressed and undid her hair before conjuring Beelzebub and Satan.
Despite the obvious heretical content of some cants, the worst fates that awaited prosecuted magicians were exile and whipping. With the exception of the Barcelona witch hunt of 1549 and the Zugurramurdi hunt of 1609, the Valencians, like the real and semi-legendary scholastic magicians of Toledo, Salamanca, and Seville, were curiously spared from the more severe witchcraft persecutions happening throughout Europe.
As I prepared to leave Valencia, I realised that it would be nice to see a magic museum or exhibition spring up in town, something like the Zugarramurdi Witch Museum in Navarre. The grail-questing and beach-bum cavorting was fun–I’ll be back for that. But, as proven by Sanchez Ortega, the city was once home to a rich culture of homegrown, amatory sorcery. It’s a fact that makes Valencia’s religious culture even more interesting, and certainly worthy of further investigation.