“Torture enables the torturer to capture the soul of the victim”
Mexican drug minion Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo conducted an odd mix of magical rituals, a mish-mash of ceremonies that combined his mother’s Cuban magic with ancient Mayan and Aztec practices. He also used a dose of nagualism (a form of black magic that solicits magical powers from animals).
In the 1980s, he convinced the northern Mexico drug lords, the Hernandez family, that his magic could help them keep their market against drug lords from southern Mexico and help them against the United States’ stepped-up narcotic efforts. Constanzo and his cult of sub-minions became an integral part of the Hernandez drug trade. His magical abilities were considered a key component of his success.
Part of his magic entailed human sacrifices, which were often particularly cruel (including one sacrifice where the victim was slowly skinned alive) and, in keeping with Aztec tradition, involved tearing the victims’ hearts out. The sacrifices were designed to give Constanzo spiritual power in the form of slaves in the nether world. It’s a common belief in Mexican brugeria (black magic) that torture enables the torturer to capture the soul of the victim, who, through the ordeal, comes to fear the torturer completely, eternally. An added plus: The energy from the pain and fear of the victim is appropriated sacramentally by the torturer, and this energy gives him increased magical strength. After a human sacrifice, the Constanzo cult boiled the body parts in an iron kettle with animal blood, which they drank, believing that the blood made them unstoppable in battle.
Things started to unravel for Constanzo after his ultimate human sacrifice: The offer of a blonde, blue-eyed American, a University of Texas student named Mark Kilroy. In 1989, during spring break at Brownsville, Texas, Kilroy and a friend walked back toward the bridge leading to Brownsville after drinking late into the night at a bar in Matamoras, Mexico. The friend stopped to urinate behind some trees. When he came back, Kilroy had disappeared.
Initial investigations turned up nothing, but authorities were eventually alerted to weird rituals that had supposedly been taking place at a local ranch. The Mexican police investigated and found candles, chicken bones, and other remains associated with the pagan rituals that still breathe beneath Mexico’s Catholic surface. Superstitious themselves, the Mexican police were apprehensive about investigating, so they turned the matter over to U.S. officials, who unraveled the bizarre torture and murder of sacrificial victim Mark Kilroy, whose heart, genitals and spine had been used to make a magical stew.
Up to this point, Constanzo’s cult had primarily sacrificed other drug dealers, so no one really cared. But now the Mexican authorities were under pressure to capture Constanzo. They tracked him to his Mexico City apartment. Brief gunfire was exchanged, then Constanzo ordered a follower to shoot him. The police found Constanzo and his boyfriend embraced in a closet, both dead from machine gun wounds.
“Sooner or later a man deliberately sets himself to do the most disgusting thing he can think of”
Constanzo seems to have been born into a constant sense of existential anxiety. His mother suffered through the Castro revolution and had to immigrate to the U.S., where she gave birth to Adolfo in 1962 when she was 15. She had three children by three different men. She raised him Catholic but also taught him Voodoo and his stepfather was involved in the occult. His mom was also a petty criminal and involved the teenage Constanzo in her activities. On top of all that, Constanzo came of age in the “Cocaine Cowboy” Miami of the early 1980s.
A young man with that kind of upbringing is going to be unsettled, to say the least. He’s going to turn to something for strength. What better than the dark powers?
There is, after all, a primordial belief that ugliness and darkness bring power. Constanzo’s “rationale was the same as that of primitive headhunters,” says Professor Carl Raschke, “who have always believed that violence and gore have a supernatural nimbus around them. In order to harness those supernatural forces, one must kill, torture, and maim.” Painted Black.
G.K. Chesterton discussed the same phenomenon in his chapter “The Demons and the Philosophers” in The Everlasting Man:
[S]ome impulse, perhaps a sort of desperate impulse, drove men to the darker powers when dealing with practical problems. There was a sort of secret and perverse feeling that the darker powers would really do things; that they had no nonsense about them. . . But with the appeal to lower spirits comes the horrible notion that the gesture must [be] . . . very low; that it must be a monkey trick of an utterly ugly and unworthy sort. Sooner or later a man deliberately sets himself to do the most disgusting thing he can think of. It is felt that the extreme of evil will extort a sort of attention or answer from the evil powers under the surface of the world.
When a man is “up against it,” he’s going to look for help: allies, weapons, forces . . . anything to get him through the ordeal.
“The upheaval of the 1300s impelled many people to turn to the black arts”
And when an entire society is up against it, you’re going to find a lot of people looking for help, and a lot of those people will allow their desperation to drive them to the darker powers.
Europe was up against it in the 14th and 15th centuries. As catalogued last week, this was the era of the Black Death, a discredited Catholic Church, the Hundred Years’ War, constant Muslim pressure, the fall of Constantinople, and many other problems (including famine, floods, and earthquakes).
It was also the era of the rise of witchcraft and black magic.
Modern historians continue to debate how much actual witchcraft and black magic were occurring, but something was going on. In 1486, Heinrich Kramer published Malleus maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches). The misogynistic book displayed hatred of minorities and an irrational terror of secret plots, but it was popular: from 1486 through the first decades of the 1500s, more copies of it were printed than of any other book except the Bible.
Kramer’s book was sensationalistic and often untrustworthy, but clearly a lot of people thought something evil was afoot and it wasn’t just a craze (exaggerated perhaps, but not just a craze). These centuries, for instance, witnessed the rise of the Luciferans — folks in Bohemia and Austria who openly worshipped the Devil, engaged in ritualistic sexual orgies, and believed they flew long distances at night magically (a foretaste of the witch’s broomstick).
The rise of black magic was enough of a concern to prompt a series of ecclesiastical condemnations. The synod of Benevento in 1378 forbade all magic. Cardinal Louis of Bourbon forbade sorcery and belief in its efficacy at the synod of Langres in 1404. In 1409, Pope Alexander V ordered the Inquisitor of Avignon to take charge of sorcerors and invokers of demons, an order reiterated by Pope Martin V on February 3, 1418 (Martin V’s election to the Papacy marked the end of the Great Western Schism; he no doubt had a lot of pressing matters to address, but he took the time to address sorcery and demon worship during the first few months of his Papacy). Finally, Pope Innocent VIII issued a decree, Summis desiderantes affectibus, in 1484, condemning witchcraft as heresy.
Popes and bishops have their faults but wasting time on things that don’t exist isn’t one of them.
There is, in short, no doubt that the upheaval of the 1300s impelled many people to turn to the black arts. In the words of historian Jeffrey Burton Russell:
The records indicate that there were women who (were?) thought they were witches, like Catherine Delort, who made a startling confession (under torture) in 1335 about her exploits in France.
Ten years previously, Delort said she had an affair with a shepherd who persuaded her to make a pact with Satan. They stole human remains from a local cemetery and put them in a fire. She cut her left arm and let a few drops of blood fall into the fire, while muttering strange words. A demon named Berit appeared in the form of a purplish flame. He bestowed witchcraft powers on her. Every Saturday she’d fall into a deep sleep and be transported to a witches’ assembly, where she’d submit sexually to a goat, participate in orgies, eat children, and drink nasty potions.
At the time of Delort’s dark activity, western Europe, and especially France, was in great turmoil due to economic depression, land shortages, and the Great Famine of 1315–1317 (and its lesser versions in 1304, 1305, 1310, 1330–1334, 1349–1351, 1358–1360, 1371, 1374–1375, and 1390).
Existential challenge provokes essential change
Individuals and societies redefine themselves in response to upheaval.
The black magic craze of the 1300s and 1400s is just one example. There are many others. I’d be willing to bet that, if you look at any era of societal upheaval, you will always find in its wake a lot of unusual practices that would’ve been either marginal or non-existent immediately prior to the upheaval. In the words of Norman Cohn in the conclusion of his classic, The Pursuit of the Millennium:
Again and again, one finds that a particular outbreak of revolutionary millenarianism took place against a background of disaster: the plagues that precluded the First Crusade and the flagellant movements of 1260, 1348–9, 1391 and 1400; the famines that precluded the First and Second Crusade and the popular crusading movements of 1309–20, the flagellant movement of 1296, the movements around Eon and the pseudo-Baldwin; the spectacular rise in prices that precluded the revolution at Munster. The greatest wave of millenarian excitement, one which swept through the whole of society, was precipitated by the most universal natural disaster of the Middle Ages, the Black Death . . .
I am focused on the Middle Ages because I’m trying to make an overarching point: The Thomas Aquinas synthesis didn’t wither away because it was disproven or Aquinas himself discredited. It withered away because western civilization, quite frankly, freaked out in the face of disasters and looked for something different. It was an unfortunate turn for western culture and, indeed, the whole world.
But lest anyone think this phenomenon — essential changes in response to existential challenges — is unique to the Middle Ages, it isn’t. There are tons of examples.
The practice of magic and the occult, for example, increased dramatically in Europe following World War I, an era of intense disappointment in earthly affairs. After the exuberant optimism that infused the opening years of the 20th century, things fell apart — horribly, murderously — in the Great War. The culture was shocked, crushed. People responded in various ways, including by turning to the occult. In the words of the historian of the modern occult, James Webb, in the post-WWI era, “material reality represented for many people hardship, injustice, and lack of hope. They turned naturally to immaterial realities in all fields of human action.” James Webb, The Occult Establishment (Open Court, 1991), p. 35.
I’ll continue to explore this phenomenon in future essays.