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Culture : Bewitched in Portugal : Exorcists, hypnotists and, yes, witches assembled in a rural village for a special congress.

September 21, 1993|TONY SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VILAR DE PERDIZES, Portugal — It may be a new Europe, but a lot of the old ways live on in remote villages like this one, the site earlier this month of the seventh Congress of Women of Virtue and Healers. Witches to you.

There were no broomsticks, no pointed hats nor any black cats in sight, and the only caldron spotted was being used to heat up a potent local brew of moonshine. But the hundreds of participants and spectators were not disappointed.

A colorful list of celebrants included the Exorcist of Barcelos, famed for his power to drive the devil from people, places and even computers; Jose Borges, who says he can cure cancer with scorpion stings, and Iara the Brazilian, who performs pathology with the help of semi-precious stones and the sun's rays.

Among the witches, exorcists, hypnotists and mediums converging on this village--a traditional stopover on an ancient Christian pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain--came scores of serious scholars anxious to learn the secrets of alternative medicine that, peppered with pagan rites, is still widely used here in one of Europe's poorest and most backward corners.

The congress, organized by Villar de Perdizes' parish priest Father Antonio Fontes, began in 1980 as a backwater meeting of oddball anthropologists and local herbalists. It has since gained so much stature that this year, the European Community contributed $40,000 to help organize the gathering and publish its findings.

The congress is now officially dubbed the Congress of Popular Medicine, but locals still give it the more colorful name, or just call it "The Witches' Meet."

Papers delivered this year ranged from "Healing by the Power of the Holy Spirit" by Father Antonio Raposo, a Roman Catholic priest, through "Witches, Wizards and Wisemen" by Lisbon University lecturer Helena Neves, to "Linen in Popular Medicine" by Manuel Gens, one of many locals who swears by alternative cures.

"In the middle of this modern Europe, there is a very ancient world," Fontes said. "So this region has been for centuries, and still is today. But not for much longer.

"The European Community is turning everything upside down here," he explained. "And I feel like I must climb to the top of the trees and shout: 'Come and see a world that is coming to an end"

The region is called Tras-os-Montes, meaning "behind the mountains." Sandwiched against Portugal's mistrusted neighbor, Spain, it is a place of two seasons--scorching summer and freezing winter--where farmers have eked out a hardscrabble existence for centuries while young folk have emigrated to seek prosperity abroad.

Europe is still dotted with such regions, from Tras-os-Montes in the West to Transylvania in the East--regions seemingly bypassed by progress, where superstition rivals that found in the Third World and a belief in the occult goes hand in hand with faith in God.

Old traditions abound here: Cows still graze on common pasture land and the milk is shared among villagers; bread is baked in communal village ovens. Houses are built of huge granite blocks hewn from the surrounding hills. Upstairs are the living quarters, downstairs the stables where the body warmth from cattle and donkeys provide rudimentary central heating for their owners above. Most dwellings have a cross at the entrance to ward off the devil.

Since Portugal joined the European Community in 1986, millions of dollars of EC funds have flown into Tras-os-Montes, sponsoring new roads and better communications that now mean the area is not nearly so isolated as before.

But the region still has fewer telephones and televisions per inhabitant than other EC region and only one doctor for every 1,000 people, compared to the national average of one per 300 Portuguese.

The 800 villagers of Villar de Perdizes, whose average age is well over 50, are treated by a visiting doctor once a week.

"Most people come to me anyway," said Ana Pita, a wizened 76-year-old known as Pitinha , who is the village's resident herbalist. "My herbs are better than anything classical medicine has to offer. If I could read and write, I'd be rich."

Although illiterate, her vast knowledge of traditional cures drew admiration from learned professional herbalists at the congress. Pitinha began learning herbal lore as a child when she began to ask neighbors for traditional remedies to cure her sick parents.

Although many locals consider her a bruxa (BROO-shah), or witch, she denies links to magic of any kind.

"I go to church every Sunday."

But that, for many, is no guarantee she is not a witch.

Father Fontes, whose 18th-Century residence is packed with devil-like sculptures and books such as "The Dictionary of the Devil" and "The Book of Sects and the Occult," says the dividing line between religion and traditional rituals and superstitions in Tras-os-Montes is hazy.

"Separating the sacred from the profane means the death of God in the people's soul," he said.

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