Devil Worship and Catholicism in Bolivia
By “Awake!” correspondent in Bolivia
EL TIO, the Spanish-speaking miners call him. “Uncle” in English. But in either language the one meant is the Devil.
The most notable thing related to this one called El Tío by the people in and around the lofty mining city of Oruro, Bolivia, is the way he is rendered worship by persons professing the Catholic religion. There is even a “Devil Carnival” celebrated here each year on the weekend before the Lenten season.
How did it all get started? And how did this Devil worship get adopted into the regional Catholicism of these Bolivians?
Ancient Indian Legend
The city of Oruro draws its name from the Urus, an Indian tribe living in that area when the Spanish conquistadores entered South America. Besides the sun, moon, stars and earth, the Urus worshiped a god called Huari (also known as Supay to Quechua-speaking Bolivians), the god of the underworld and of the mineral wealth found in his subterranean domain.
One Uru legend tells of Huari’s determination to punish them for having abandoned the bad way of life this underworld god symbolized. A mighty serpent, an enormous lizard, a monstrous frog, and a horde of ants were marshaled by Huari and converged on the peaceful Indian tribe from different directions. Then, at the critical moment, the legend says, a beautiful Ñusta (young virgin) appeared to save the Urus, defeating Huari’s motley forces and driving him underground.
Amalgamation with Catholicism
Where, then, does Catholicism enter the picture? It came in with the invading Spaniards and the forced conversion of the Indians to the Catholic faith. But the old legends and worship continued. Ñusta became known as the “Virgin of Socavón,” the patroness of all miners. She supposedly protected them when they went below ground to mine tin and other metals, thereby coming within the reach of the underworld god Huari. For added protection, however, the miners make regular offerings to Huari (now called El Tío), especially on the first Friday of every month.
Showing the merging of Devil worship with Catholicism, an article in La Patria (February 8, 1970) says: “In America the peninsular clergy [those coming from Spain], faced with the impossibility of rooting out the original religion, ended up by permitting the Urus to continue worshiping Supay [or Huari] in the interior of the mines . . . and ‘cover the Indian beliefs with a Catholic varnish’ in the words of Ambrossetti.”
Dr. Augusto Beltrán H., an authority on carnival customs of Oruro, compares them with those of pagan Roman feasts to such gods as Saturn and says that “the god of the Roman Carnival has been replaced here by Lucifer, the Huari of the Urus or the Supay of the Quechua Indian.”
But, at Oruro, Lucifer (the Devil) is brought into collaboration with the Virgin in that the offerings made to Huari (El Tío) become offerings made to her. As the article in La Patria goes on to say: “. . . the ‘offerings’ . . . of gold and silver extracted from the domain of the underworld [are carried by] the Devils [men in devil costumes] to the Plaza of Socavón where the temple named for the Virgin is raised. Silverware and gold and silver jewels are put on hundreds of arches . . . under which processions, led by priests and followed by devils with Lucifer as guide, will pass.”
Miners’ Search for Security
Life is not easy for Oruro’s miners. Rising at five in the morning, many have only bread and coffee before heading for their hard labor in the mines. Some chew coca leaves (containing the drug cocaine) so as to deaden their hunger pangs and keep them from feeling the chill. Their strenuous work goes on for eight to twelve hours, with time out at noon for a simple but hot meal sent to the mines by their wives. Lest life become any more difficult, many feel bound to follow the superstitious customs their ancestors have passed on to them, including devotion to El Tío.
Besides the special Carnival offerings, the Catholic miners periodically take along to the mines offerings for El Tío—perhaps some alcohol, narcotic coca leaves or cigarettes. If a bad accident occurs in the mines, they may try to placate El Tío by sacrificing a llama or two inside the mine and sprinkling the blood around.
How strange many of these practices would seem to Catholics in New York, Paris or Munich! Yet they are typical of the practice of accommodating Catholicism to pagan practices to make it easier to draw the native population under the yoke of the Church. Very different indeed from the principle emphatically set out by the apostle Paul, who said: “What sharing does light have with darkness? Further, what harmony is there between Christ and Belial [the Devil]?”—2 Cor. 6:14, 15.
Despite their devotion to the Virgin of Socavón, along with that rendered El Tío, religion has small influence on the daily lives of most of the miners. The influence of the Church is steadily waning as more and more of the miners, finding no genuine comfort or hope, turn away to political groups and to Communism, vainly searching for something better.
Happily, many are hearing the good news of something truly better, as they receive information about the pure worship of the true God taught in the Bible. Through free Bible studies conducted in their homes by Jehovah’s witnesses many are learning ‘the truth that makes one free’ (John 8:31, 32), becoming liberated from enslaving customs and superstitious fears. Rather than trusting in political promises, they are placing wholehearted trust in God’s kingdom as the one government sure to bring better conditions.