“Foi o diabo quem mandou”, roughly translated this means something to the effect of “It was the devil who sent me.” It’s one of the only reported statements from Leonarda Ferreira Paixão, a 42 year old woman arrested on May 10th in relation to a puzzling series of crudely wrapped skulls found placed in various locations throughout Sao Paulo, Brazil since February.
Paixao was caught on camera pulling a skull out of a bag, and placing it near the Consulate of South Africa earlier in the week. Friday night she was caught by guards at the Cemitério da Vila Formosa, Zona Leste, attempting to take two more skulls from the premises. Law enforcement had some idea that the skulls were being taken from cemeteries even before catching her since advanced signs of decomposition made it clear these were not fresh specimens.
From limited reports in the Brazilian press it seems she’s claimed that during some sort of ritual work she was commanded to eat the offerings made during the working, then to proceed to a cemetery, dig up certain graves, and distribute skulls to specific locations throughout Sao Paulo. Even that small amount of narrative cohesion is speculating based on the slim information in the reports. Initial concern over intent was expressed due to the locations chosen for the skulls, which include a series of Morman churches, the Russian, Czech, and South African Consulate buildings, and a nearly full skeleton left in the parking lot of the Civil Police headquarters in downtown Sao Paulo. Looking at a map of where the skulls were place you get a sense of just how much territory she covered in his distribution pattern.
It is interesting to note that some of the early reports mentioned witchcraft as a suspected motive for the skulls. Since this story remains largely within the Brazilian news, we are able to see how charges of witchcraft express culturally specific concerns, in this case Afro-Brazilian spiritual traditions are exonerated of guilt, with the assurance that they do not use human remains. This contrasts media coverage when similar events occur in the U.S., where it’s often blamed on Santeria or Vodou practioners, traditions equated in the U.S. media with witchcraft. In Brazil, where Afro-Latin traditions are better integrated, the separation between witchcraft (bruxaria) and religious practice is easier to explain within the culture even if these concerns are still addressed on some level within the media.
We also get a good idea of what witchcraft means in cultures where subtle influences are still accepted to some degree, and there is a working, socially objective difference between lawful and unlawful contact with other levels of reality. In this instance depositing human remains throughout the city would seem to dance into that unlawful territory, and this is where it becomes witchcraft, or the path of transgression.
In the U.S. and U.K. discussions of Wicca have blurred some of the facts about what is being discussed in traditional situations of witchcraft. There are positive aspects of any necromantic, invocative or evocative work that can be talked up till you run out of breath, you can talk about Cunning Folk and all the rest, but that’s not what traditional societies mean when they use the term “witch.” As a propaganda tool for Orthodox powers it may be used to demonize opposition groups, one also can’t deny that it has been used as a tool to denigrate people based on their gender and class as well. All of this is with the core understanding, however, that on some level the ‘witch’ is a representative of not moral evil, but the literal amoral reversal of all life, law and lineage, the witch is the literal anti-thesis of creation. This is what adds such a damning flair to the word when it is used with meaning.
Here we hit on a cognitive blind, there are powers of destruction, decay, and death which are venerated in a very orthodox fashion, or in a heterodox fashion that doesn’t fall into this category of complete anti-thesis. Most of these powers act as a point in a continuum, Kali, for example, is utter blackness, but she is the Mother of such, a figure who represents the fullness of the void, and so has a creative aspect. Cunning folk work with poison, but they don’t cultivate a compulsive poison that seeks to negate creation itself. Similarly contemporary practitioners of the “Poison Path” are working with this concept of poison in a more ritualized and controlled way, and can’t really be compared to the figure of the ‘witch’ that strikes fear in traditional cultures.
In cultures where a witch is differentiated from lawful magic, the witch is a medium or channel for the motive force of anti-life. True anti-life, not rebellion, not heterodoxy, not decay, but complete negation such that you would have to be possessed or tricked to cultivate a full relationship with it, there is no possibility that you would choose to do so of your own volition. We’re not dealing with stories, this isn’t vote for Cthulhu, we’re dealing with real human culture performing a symbolic expression of existential potentials, and witchcraft represents the existential potential of absolute negation.
Barakah, a word used in Islam to describe spiritual potency, is considered an almost physical thing. It is a good example of the concept of a ‘spiritual force’ at work within traditional societies. This power, in the ‘corrupted’ form of witchcraft, acts with or without the witch’s consent. In the same way that a Saint might say that their actions are only available to them as the Divine acts through them, the medium or channel is passive to the active principle that is working through them. Even in something as simple as divinatory card reading, traditionally it was thought that some spirit or entity was at play in determining the outcome and providing the message that was imparted. In the case of a ‘witch’ this active principle is representative of a total negation of all existence.
Some foster this relationship through ritualizing the manifestation, which due to it’s aforementioned ‘poisonous’ nature is a difficult path to manage without being consumed. There are also examples of “justice society” models where this power is cultivated to negate or destroy malefic factors in the culture through covert action. Almost always, however, such actions, which do at times include ritual murder, are undertaken while masked or somehow transformed into a representation of the force so that the person acting is not afforded responsibility within the cultural narrative. Within the cultural narrative the mask also allows for the possessing spirit to be controlled in such a way that it doesn’t permanently inhabit the medium.
In certain cases the ‘witch’ is a victim and unwilling host. There are examples of reported dream attacks where the witch has no idea that when they sleep the ‘witch spirit’ they unwittingly host exits their body and wreaks havoc on the community. This is one of the tragedies of the witch panics in traditional societies, as often the accused has no recourse, because the narrative allows that the “witch” is inside them, as a possessory power, rather than something that is necessarily reflected in their will.
This is of course taking the narrative of the experience at face value, which is necessary if we are to see some of the confusion that comes in when scholars, journalists, and skeptics start dealing with this in a haphazard way. In order to understand how a category like ‘witch’ acts in the culture, we need to understand it as an active principle in the cultural narrative, and recognize the experiential signs that attend its use.
Orthodox and fundamentalist narratives confuse matters by conflating things outside of their bounds as demonic, while at the same time identifying certain experiential markers that are common to actual aberrant behavior. In the sense that these things are antithetical to the faith narrative we can see how they really are “witchcraft” for followers of that tradition. Yet in the broader cultural sense this needs to be carefully addressed to recognize the legitimacy of practices that fundamentalist and orthodox groups disapprove of, while still investigating the ways which actual experiences are being addressed and represent some sort of unhealthy prediliction.
What we see in the situation of Leonarda Ferreira Paixão is the underlying image that the media is trying to portray for the devotees of traditions which sanctify cultural taboos, such as the sanctification of death in the Santa Muerte tradition. In accusing them of witchcraft the idea is that Santa Muertistas are mentally ill, aggressive corpse fetishists (which I personally wouldn’t even say of Paixao) who can at any moment turn to blood rites and human sacrifice to feed their unholy devotions.
This is also in some ways the offense that those identifying as contemporary witches feel when they see the word witch used in contexts like these. Yet what is witchcraft in Paixao’s situation is not the skulls, it’s not whatever ritual work she was doing, nor any underlying mental illness, it’s the breakdown of social cohesion caused by a symbolically potent act which may have malevolent intent, all of it spurred by a strange, involuntary compulsion to act. Witchcraft as it is understood in these situations is not skulls and death worship, it’s a person unwillingly channeling an spirit of existential poison, and the resulting disintegration and sterilization of potential that spreads from their presence in society under that influence.
The malevolent influence, or aberrant compulsion, which Paixao reports as the devil, is what would traditionally be considered the witch spirit, this is what lead to committing the transgression of eating a ritual offering during a working, going to a cemetery opening a grave, taking the skull from disturbed graves and distributing them at culturally relevant sites. These acts in turn unsettled the city, caused confusion, and probably some fear. In her we see the influence has almost completely consumed her personality, leaving her functional enough to complete the tasks.
It is important to clarify that the morbid focus of her actions is not where we need to look to find the transgression. The latest episode of Ronni Thomas’ Midnite Archive provides a perfect opportunity to see why:
Here we begin to tread on shaky ground. What is this influence that lead Paixao to act? Is it simply mental illness focused through a potent cultural narrative and coincidentally significant pronoia? Or is there some discarnate intelligence at work? Are these even the right questions? Ryan Cohen expresses that he feels a compulsion as well, yet his compulsion has lead to a growth in understanding and cohesion, as well as a means for unique artistic expression. Again we see how there is a very tiny sliver here where the “witch” in its fully malevolent form emerges, and when it does the results are such that metaphysical questions become mute since the person inhabited by the compulsion crosses cultural boundaries that inevitably lead to prosecution.
While it would be interesting to know if there is a discarnate intelligence involved, this is one of the hardest questions to answer even with detailed experimentation. The Windbridge Institute in Arizona has been struggling with this question during their research into mediumship, where even if anomalous information transfer seems to be present, it’s difficult to assign agency to the means of transmission. Is it some inherent psychism in the medium? Is it the experimenter or the person getting the reading sending out information? Is it a complex interaction of information and cognitive processing among the parties involved which doesn’t require any anomalous transfer? Even with more detailed neuroanalytical studies, such as the fMRI studies on Brazilian mediums, the question of whether we are ever truly dealing with a discarnate intelligence is hard to tell. At what point are you sure what you are seeing is not being affected by a discarnate entity? This is one of the major points where some pull out Occam’s Razor to cut the question out of the mix all together.
In spontaneous cases such as Paixao’s, there is really no way to differentiate between mental illness and possession within the official channels she’ll now be processed through. She’ll be prosecuted by civil authorities under general laws, enter the mental health system which will treat her as best they can, and no investigation will be made into any potential anomalous influences in the affair. Nor can we really say it would be the place for any of these sectors, as they are organized at the moment, to proceed with such an investigation. This is where individual researchers, including those within the official channels, could step in, if they are tactful, to continue researching where the system itself can’t proceed outright. Yet what we often have today where these independent researchers should be are ghost hunting groups and fortean clubs that are basically playing an Alternate Reality Game, rather than doing any true investigation into the human condition.
There is no guaranteed pay off in researching this in light of possession. It could simply be nothing more than a tragic example of life’s often harsh realities. With no proof that possession even exists why bother chasing dragons to the world’s edge? Again Occam’s Razor asks if it’s worth it to pursue beyond the normal civic procedure and assumptions of mental illness.
But it’s the question of mental illness where we find a reason to continue. How do we heal Leonarda Ferreira Paixão? How do we heal others like her? Without knowing the real cause of her distress, we can only hope to treat the symptoms. Since we don’t know the true cause, we must continue searching every avenue that shows some promise of returns. Despite what might be comfortable to our cultural assumptions, treating certain cases such as Paixao’s at face value, as cases of possession, has been shown to hold potential as an avenue for therapy.
One might immediately jump to thoughts of Bob Larson’s hideous side show act, Benny Hinn’s absurd performances, or the rising popularity of Catholic exorcism, but there are a wide variety of ways to do dispossession that aren’t as dogmatically inclined. In 1924 Carl Wickland, a specialist in abnormal psychology at the time, published a book titled 30 Years Among the Dead, which recounts sessions he conducted with patients where he used a medium to channel ‘spirits’ that he felt were the cause of certain mental and nervous illnesses.
His reported success rate was significant, unfortunately, to my knowledge, there has been no clear research to corroborate or investigate what this truly entailed. Wickland’s work does show, however, that it’s possible to consider dispossession outside of fundamentalist and orthodox exorcism traditions. It also encourages, to some extent, the idea that there may be potential for using dispossession as a form of therapy. Dr. Edith Fiore, a clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist, began working with dispossession in the 1980’s and reports positive results as well, some of which she chronicles her in her book The Unquiet Dead.
Another example of potential benefits to taking possession at face value can be found in a provocative paper published by Wilson Van Dusen, former Chief Psychologist at Mendocino State Hospital in California, titled The Presence of Spirits in Madness. Van Dusen recounts his experiments with addressing patients hallucinations as if they were truly separate entities, and how he was able to see some therapeutic success in working with this methodology. Treating his patients under this concept he also reports gaining a better understanding for nuances in their experience.
Arthur Hastings’ work with psychomanteum chambers, and therapeutic mediumship, is another example to draw on when looking at this question, and The Windbridge Institute is currently working on a study to try and figure out exactly what gains, if any, are to be found in considering questions of mediumship during therapy. This is one of the goals with the rising interest in “clinical parapsychology.” Integrating anomalous experiential concerns with therapy raises the hope of bringing a more empirical focus to psychology. If an exorcism ritual turns out to be more clinically effective than drug therapy, why not use it? If it works better, we also need to figure out what exactly is going on.
Investigating some of the aforementioned examples you’ll see that this area is difficult to approach without prejudice. Wickland was able to operate as he did because he was under the influence of Theosophy, Fiore accepts past life regression as a therapeutic technique, and Van Dusen reports his experiences through models developed by Swedenborg. These references set off rationalist alarms immediately, yet we’re not looking at metaphysics, we’re looking at therapeutic value, and we have to address the empirical results rather than nitpick on the worldview that lead to them. This is what makes Arthur Hastings work, and the work at Windbridge so important, and within the intermingling hints of success that arise in all of these diverse areas we’re able to see that the question of possession is not necessary as mute as one might assume at the outset.
Brazil is one of the few places where this kind of research has started to become more institutionalized. In a recent blog post Ralph Metzner, Professor Emeritus at the California Institute of Integral Studies, discusses a book titled Spiritism and Mental Health, edited by Emma Bragdon, which includes contributions from a number of clinicians working to study the integration of Spiritist healing with contemporary medicine. Metzner mentions that there are ” more than 50 hospitals in Brazil where these principles are used to treat acute and chronic psychiatric conditions.” These hospitals integrate healing modalities developed under the influence of Kardecian Spiritism, and, as with the other investigations into this area, they are reporting significant success rates.
The world is a wide and wonderous place, and there are shadows and shaded regions that remain unexplored. Even the devil has yet to be truly disproven, and possession is a lurking possibility. Integrating experimental therapeutic modalities that address some of these areas, as they are shown to be effective, we open the opportunity for official avenues to better treat those like Leonarda Ferreira Paixao whose suffering seems beyond the reach of our current system of clinical care. In traditional cultures the devil as a spirit is not necessarily associated with witchcraft, but rather with change, disruption of static systems, and those challenges that help keep things moving. If it was the devil that sent her, perhaps Leonarda Ferreira Paixao’s real message is for us to wake up to the wider potentials of reality and begin exploring some of the surprising pathways that still lie before us.
David Metcalfe is an independent researcher, writer and multimedia artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is a contributing editor for Reality Sandwich, The Revealer, the online journal of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, and The Daily Grail. He writes regularly for Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, Modern Mythology, Disinfo.com, The Teeming Brain and his own blog The Eyeless Owl. His writing has been featured in The Immanence of Myth (Weaponized 2011), Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color & Music (Alarm Press, 2011) and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (North Atlantic/Evolver Editions 2012). Metcalfe is an Associate with Phoenix Rising Digital Academy, and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.
For more information on Santa Muerte, and the sanctification of death in the popular faith traditions of the Americas, check out http://skeletonsaint.com, a collaborative project hosted by Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, David Metcalfe and Liminal Analytics.