Religion in Bolivia is a funny thing. 94% of the population is either Catholic or Christian, but that’s an extremely misleading statistic. As we experienced firsthand at the celebrations for Aymara New Year in honor of Itki the Sun God, an ancient belief system is still strongly in place among the Andean majority of Bolivia. And, from time to time, the old gods require a tribute!
One of the more famous areas in La Paz is the Mercado de Hechecería, or The Witches’ Market, found on Calle Santa Cruz and Linares, near the Iglesia de San Francisco. Here, shops and street vendors sell totems, trinkets and talismans, meant to appease the gods of sun and earth. The sheer number of shops speaks to the stubborn persistence of a religion the Catholics weren’t able to uproot, despite their best, bloody efforts.
We stepped inside one of the stores to get a closer look. Note: this is serious, sacred business to the people who shop and work here, and irony-seeking tourists aren’t appreciated. But after we made a “contribution”, the elderly owner of the store, Dominga, agreed to answer our questions and let us take pictures of her wares.
Of course, we went straight to the dead baby llamas; their hollow eyes and ghastly, grimaced mouths seemed to beckon us. The rows and rows of llama corpses, in stages of development ranging from fetus to toddler, are by far the most disturbing image in the Witches’ Market. Dominga explained that burning these corpses is a powerful way to bless a home, or improve a sick person’s health. Sometimes, they’re buried underneath the lot of a new house.
The llamas are what most tourists stop to take pictures of, and Dominga seemed to disapprove of our morbid fascination with them. She directed our attention to other, more cheerful items. “This is a charm for money and health!” she declared, holding out a small rectangular block adorned with horse shoes, a crucifix and dollar bill signs. “Ah, okay, and what’s this carved stone for?” I asked.
“Ahh… it improves money and health! You carry it in your bag”. And the dried starfish? “You burn it for better health!” And the beads? “Yes! Always carry them with you, and you will become rich!” I was starting to get the picture; it seems the day-to-day worries of the Aymara people are a lot like ours. But I was also getting weary. “Say, Dominga, do you have anything that I could use to hurt someone?”
“Yes”, she answered without hesitation, and pointed out a section behind the door that had somehow escaped my notice. Black candles in the shapes of skulls and coffins. Now this was more like it! “What’s that for?” I asked, gesturing toward a large, black penis candle. “Revenge on your wife’s lover.”
I picked up one of the coffins, and immediately received a warning. “Only use this if someone has truly injured you, the coffin is not for light grievances”. Since I had started poking around in the black section, her demeanor had lost its patient good-humor, and I sensed we were beginning to overstay our welcome.
We said goodbye, but Dominga had lost interest in chatting, and waved us off unceremoniously. The next time I see her, it might be as a customer. Burning a llama fetus in a secret midnight ceremony seems an easier, and infinitely more fun way to riches than working longer hours. And I have my eye on that black coffin, which I’d love to dedicate to a certain someone. You know who you are!!!