Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives

In the cave of the witches

When the Sect needs a new Invunche, the Council of the Cave
orders a Member to steal a boy child from six months to a year old. The
Deformer, a permanent resident of the Cave, starts work at once. He
disjoints the arms and legs and the hands and feet. Then begins the
delicate task of altering the position of the head. Day after day, and
for hours at a stretch, he twists the head with a tourniquet until it
has rotated through an angle of 180, that is until the child can look
straight down the line of its own vertebrae.

There remains one last operation, for which another specialist is
needed. At full moon, the child is laid on a work-bench, lashed down
with its head covered in a bag. The specialist cuts a deep incision
under the right shoulder blade. Into the hole he inserts the right arm
and sews up the wound with thread taken from the neck of a ewe. When it
has healed the Invunche is complete.

The world’s last great witch trial took place as recently as 1880. It
was held on the remote Chilean island of Chiloé, and featured
remarkable allegations of mass murder, child mutilation and sorcery, all
committed in the name of a strange sort of alternative government known
as La Provincia Recta – ‘The Righteous Province’ – a sect of
warlocks, based in a hidden cave and given to flying about the island
wearing magical waistcoats stitched from the flayed skin of the recently

The native Chilotes believed these warlocks had real powers. Bruce Chatwin, in In Patagonia,
wrote a memorable description of their rites and rituals. (And fans of
Swamp Thing era Alan Moore will spot the source of one of his more
disturbing plots.) But – truly unusual though the story is, was it ever
rooted in reality? This week’s Smithsonian essay explores the evidence. But it’s not for the faint-hearted.

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