In Bolivia, goods from the Witches Market appease the gods

March 15, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- A bachelor says he needs help finding a wife. Another man says his new refrigerator must be blessed. A third wants to bring his house good luck. A fourth is short of cash.

They all are shopping at La Paz's Mercado de Brujas, or Witches Market, where dreams come true the old-fashioned way -- through the spirits.

"The gods are powerful. If you give them something, they will give you something in return," said Marta Guarachi, 35, one of the market's dozen or so witches, whose curbside stall includes everything from incense, minerals and herbs to multicolored candies, statues of frogs and llama fetuses.

Set behind an exquisite 16th century Roman Catholic church, the Witches Market is a one-stop shopping center for Aymara Indians whose belief in otherworldly powers has provided comfort for centuries of living with drought and flood, famine and disease, and subjugation by conquistadors and their descendants.

The market is on a street indistinguishable from most others in La Paz: narrow, on a slight hill and crisscrossed by Aymara women wearing multilayered shirts, oversize shawls and black bowler hats tipped slightly off center.

There is not a broom in sight. No boiling caldrons, trapdoors or dungeons. But the witches have power, the supernatural kind. And the Aymaras, who live primarily in La Paz and the surrounding high plains known as the Altiplano, have a lot of gods to appease.

There is Pachamama, or Mother Earth, who is the Aymaras' most important deity and the giver and taker of life. There is Tio, who lives underground and guards the Earth's riches, which for the Aymaras mean gold, silver and other minerals that have sustained this impoverished nation since the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.

Ispalla, the potato spirit, must be appeased to ensure a bountiful harvest of the Indians' most important crop. And Illa, the god of reproduction, is important for ensuring overall prosperity. The sun, moon, stars and mountains also are revered by the Aymaras, who place Christ and several Christian saints among their pantheon of gods.

"To the Aymaras, everything is alive and has spirits," said Xavier Albo, a Catholic priest and expert in Aymara culture. "There is the world we live in, a world in the sky and a world below the Earth. You must give offerings to these spirits to keep the universe in balance and prosper."

Some of the gifts can be bought in the market for a dollar or less, such as the palm-sized stone amulets. One shows a man and a women hugging: Put that in your house if your marriage is on the rocks.

A person strapped for cash should carry around the amulet shaped like a hand clutching money.

A 2-inch statue of a turtle assures good health, and the same size statue of a condor guarantees safe travel. The statue of a man named Ekeko brings fertility to an infertile couple; the statue of a frog assures luck for the unlucky.

New houses are blessed in an elaborate ceremony led by a holy man, called a Yatiri, who chants prayers to Pachamama and burns and then buries a llama fetus along with herbs, alcohol, coca leaves and square candies that are said to sate the goddess' appetite. Some of the candies in Ms. Guarachi's stall have a car on them, while others are stamped with a dollar sign.

Llama fetuses, the Aymaras' most powerful offering, are stacked along Ms. Guarachi's stall and sell for $2 to $4, depending on size. The stall also has a box full of copal, a local resin, that is burned and inhaled on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays to protect a person against his enemies.

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