Chiloé Island, in the Los Lagos region of southern Chile, is home to a fiercely independent seafaring people who have thrived culturally in defiance of the Chilean government. The islanders have developed a distinctive mythology made up of powerful shamans who wear waistcoats made from the flesh of dead virgins, hidden caves that are inhabited by deformed, goat-like mutes and even a phosphorescent ghost-ship that many islanders still believe haunts their coast and harvests the souls of drowned sailors. Author Mike Dash explores the sparsely documented history of Chiloé witchcraft and sheds light on the dark, secretive society.

There is a place in South America that was once considered the end of the Earth. It lies close to the 35th parallel, where the Maule River empties into the Pacific Ocean, and in the first years of the 16th century it marked the spot at which the Empire of the Incas ended and a strange and unknown world began.

South of the Maule, the Incas thought, lay a land of mystery and darkness. It was a place where the Pacific’s waters chilled and turned from blue to black, and where indigenous peoples struggled to claw the basest of livings from a hostile environment. It was also where the witches lived and evil came from. The Incas called this land “the Place of Seagulls.”

Today, the Place of Seagulls begins at a point that is 700 miles due south of the Chilean capital of Santiago, and stretches for another 1,200 miles all the way to Tierra del Fuego (the “land of fire”) so accurately described by Lucas Bridges as “the uttermost part of the Earth.” Even now, the region remains sparsely inhabited, and at its lonely heart lies the island of Chiloé: rain-soaked and rainbow-strewn, matted with untamed virgin forest and possessed of a distinct and interesting history. First visited by Europeans in 1567, Chiloé was long known for piracy and privateering. In the 19th century, when Latin America revolted against imperial rule, the island remained loyal to Spain. And in 1880, a little more than half a century after it was finally incorporated into Chile, it was also the scene of a remarkable trial — the last significant witch trial, probably, anywhere in the world.

Who were they, these sorcerers who were hauled before a court for casting spells in an industrial age? According to the traveler, Bruce Chatwin, who stumbled over traces of their story in the 1970s, they belonged to a “sect of male witches” that existed “for the purpose of hurting people.” According to their own statements, made during the trial of 1880, they ran protection rackets on the island, disposed of their enemies by poisoning or, worse, by sajaduras: magically-inflicted “profound slashes.” But since the same men also claimed to belong to a group called La Recta Provincia — a phrase that may be loosely translated as “The Righteous Province” — and styled themselves members of the Mayoria (the “Majority”), an alternative interpretation may also be advanced. Perhaps these witches were actually representatives of a strange sort of alternative government, an indigenous society that offered justice of a perverted kind to indians who were living under the rule of a white elite. Perhaps they were more shamans than sorcerers.

The most important of the warlocks who was brought to court in 1880 was a Chilote farmer by the name of Mateo Coñuecar. At the time, he was 70 years old, and by his own admission had been a member of the Righteous Province for more than two decades. According to Coñuecar’s testimony, the society was an important power on the island, with numerous members, an elaborate hierarchy of “kings” and “viceroys”, and a headquarters that was located in a vast cavern of forty or more yards long, in which the secret entrance had been cleverly concealed in the side of a ravine. This cave (which Chilote tradition asserts was lit by torches that burned human fat) was hidden somewhere outside the little coastal village of Quicavi, and was — Coñuecar and other witnesses swore — home to a pair of monsters who guarded the society’s most treasured possessions: an ancient leather book of magic and a bowl that, filled with water, allowed secrets to be seen.

Coñuecar’s testimony, which may be found lodged among the papers of the Chilean historian, Benjamín Vicuña McKenna, includes this remarkable recollection of his first visit to the cave:

Twenty years ago, when José Mariman was king, he was ordered to go to the cave with meat for some animals that lived inside. He complied with the order, and took them the meat of a kid he had slaughtered. Mariman went with him, and when they reached the cave, he started dancing about like a sorcerer, and quickly opened the entryway. This was covered over with a layer of earth (and grass to keep it hidden), and under this there was a piece of metal; the ‘alchemy key.’ He used this to open the entryway, and was then faced with two completely disfigured beings which burst out of the gloom and rushed toward him. One looked like a goat, for it dragged itself along on four legs, and the other was a naked man, with a completely white beard and hair down to his waist.

It is possible, from other records of the Righteous Province, to learn more about the hideous creatures that Coñuecar swore he had encountered in 1860. The goat-like monster was the chivato: a deformed mute who was covered in piggish bristles. The other — and by far the more dangerous of the cave’s twin denizens — was the invunche or imbunche. Like the chivato, it had once been a human baby who had been kidnapped in infancy. Chatwin describes what happened to the baby next:

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 degrees, 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 an ewe. When it has healed, theinvunche is complete.

Naked, fed principally on human flesh, and confined below ground, neither the chivato nor the invunche received any sort of education; indeed it was said that neither ever acquired human speech in all the years they served what Chatwin calls the “Committee of the Cave.” Nevertheless, he concludes, “over the years develops a working knowledge of the Committee’s procedure and can instruct novices with harsh and gutteral cries.”

It would be unwise, of course, to accept at face value the testimony given at any witch trial — not least evidence that concerns the existence of a hidden cave that a week-long search, conducted in the spring of 1880, failed utterly to uncover, and that was extracted under who knows what sort of duress. Yet it is as well to concede that, whatever the Righteous Province actually was, the society does seem to have existed in some form; and that many Chilotes regarded its members as fearsome enemies possessed of genuinely supernatural powers.

Accounts dating to the 19th century tell of the regular collection of protection money on Chiloé — what Ovidio Lagos describes as “an annual tribute” demanded of “practically all villagers, to ensure they would have no accidents during the night.” These make it clear that islanders who resisted these demands for payment could expect to have their crops destroyed and their sheep killed by sorcery, it was believed, for the men of the Mayoria were believed to possess a pair of magical stones that gave them the power to curse their enemies. The records of the trial of 1880-1881 make it clear that the proceedings had their origins in a rash of suspicious poisonings that had claimed numerous victims over the years.

Whether one takes literally the many supernatural claims that litter the trial transcripts, though, is a very different matter. The members of the Righteous Province claimed, for example, to possess the ability to fly, using a special word, “arrealhue,” as they leaped into the air, wearing a magical waistcoat (known as the macuñ) that gave them the power to defy gravity. Each novice, when he joined the sect, was expected to fashion his own waistcoat; Chatwin reports that this was done by digging up and flaying a recently interred Christian corpse, though other sources say the waistcoat was made from the skin of a virgin girl or a dead sorcerer. Once dried and cured, the skin was sewn into a loose garment, and Chatwin adds the detail that “the human grease remaining in the skin gives off a soft phosphorescence, which lights the member’s nocturnal expeditions.”

The chivato and the invunche were not the only supernatural beings thought to be under the control of the Righteous Province. The prisoners who testified in 1880 admitted that, on joining the society, each warlock was given a small, live lizard, which he wore strapped to his head with a bandana so that it was next to the skin. It was a magical creature from which the novice might imbibe all sorts of forbidden knowledge — not least how to transform himself into an animal and how to open locked doors. Among the islanders, initiates were also believed to use seahorses to convey them to a magical vessel owned by the society and known as theCaleuche — a word that means “shapeshifter” in the local language. TheCaleuche was a brightly-lit ghost ship that could travel underwater and would surface in remote bays to unload contraband cargoes that were being carried for the island’s merchants — a trade that was one of the chief sources of the warlocks’ wealth. This tradition has outlived the warlocks of the Righteous Province, and even today, many Chilotes firmly believe that the Caleuche still haunts their coast, harvesting the souls of drowned sailors.

When the witches needed spies and messengers, they drew on still other resources. The society was widely believed to use adolescent girls, who were stripped naked and forcibly fed a drink made of wolf oil and the juice of the natri (a fruit found only on Chiloé). This potion was, supposedly, so noxious that it made them vomit up their own intestines. Thus lightened, the girls turned into large, long-legged birds that resembling rooks, whose caws, Lagos says, “are the most unpleasant sounds ever to fall on a human ear.” When their mission was completed, the birds returned at daybreak to the spot where the potion had been drunk in rodder to re-ingest their entrails, after which point they became human again.

The power to perform such spells was never conferred lightly, and the testimonies collected in 1880-1881 suggest that the society developed elaborate initiation ceremonies to test would-be witches. Initiates were first required to wash away all traces of their baptism by bathing in freezing waters of the Traiguén River on fifteen consecutive nights. They might then have been ordered to murder a close relative or friend to prove that they had cleansed themselves of human sentiment (these murders, for some unstated reason, were to take place on Tuesdays) before running three times around the island naked, calling to the Devil. Chatwin, eccentric as ever, adds two further details that do not appear in the surviving trial transcripts: that the novice was required to catch, without fumbling, a skull that was thrown to him from the crown of a tricorn hat, and that while standing naked in the freezing river, prospective members were “allowed a little toast.”

It was only when these tests had been completed that the initiate would be admitted to the cave at Quicavi, shown the secret book of magic, and allowed to meet the elders who ran the Righteous Province. (Lagos suggests that the word Mayoria refers to these elders, mayores, rather than to the proportion of Chiloé’s Indian population.) There he received instruction in the strict code that governed members, including prohibitions on theft, rape and eating salt. It was claimed that these ceremonies concluded with a great feast in which the chief dish was the roasted flesh of human babies.

Thus far, perhaps, the details uncovered in 1880 are of value chiefly to folklorists. The organization of the Righteous Province, though, is of interest to historians and anthropologists, for it consisted of an elaborate hierarchy whose titles seem to have been deliberately chosen to ape the established government. Chiloé was, for example, divided into two kingdoms, each with its own native ruler — the King of Payos, who held the higher rank, and the King of Quicavi. Below them came a number of queens, viceroys and finally reparadores (“repairmen”), who were healers and concocters of herbal medicines. Each ruler had his own territory, which the society gave a name associated with the old Spanish empire — Lima, Buenos Aires, Santiago. Perhaps, Lagos suggests, the society did this in the belief that “this change would not only encourage secrecy, but also magically recreate a geography.”

The fine detail of the trial transcripts suggests that an intriguing marriage had taken place between local traditions and Christian belief. Chiloé was, and is, inhabited largely by the Mapuche, an indigenous people, noted for their machis (“shamans”), who had long resisted the rule of Spain. Flores, with his background in anthropology, suggests that the Righteous Province “succeeded in establishing deep ties to rural communities, providing solutions to the needs the Chilean State could not satisfy.” This same model, of course, has driven the emergence of secret societies such as the Mafia in many different jurisdictions. It helps to explain why theMayoria had an official known as the “Judge Fixer,” and why — laced though they were with magical trappings — the most important of its activities revolved around its attempts to compel obedience from poor local farmers.

Several of the warlocks who testified in 1880 expressed regret at the way in which their society had changed in recent years, becoming ever more prey to personal vendettas. Both Mateo Coñuecar and José Aro (a Mapuche carpenter who was Coñuecar’s co-defendant) shed interesting light on these attempts to exercise power. According to Aro, he was ordered to kill a couple, Francesco and Maria Cardenas, who had fallen out with Coñuecar. He invited the pair for a drink and slipped a preparation of arsenic into their cups when he served them. When the couple failed to notice anything, he attributed his success to the fact that his potion had been prepared according to a magical recipe. According to Coñuecar, when an islander named Juana Carimonei came to him to complain that her husband had been seduced by another woman, he arranged the murder of her rival in exchange for a payment of four yards of calico.

The idea that the Mapuche still aspired to govern themselves years after the Spanish conquest is not especially far-fetched; Spanish rule was only lightly felt in Chiloé, and representatives of the central government were rarely encountered outside the island’s two main towns, Castro and Ancud. This vacuum in authority no doubt helps to explain why much of the evidence collected in 1880 related to struggles for power within the Righteous Province itself. These had apparently been going on for decades. Writing in June 1880, a columnist for a newspaper published in Ancud recalled the details of a murder inquiry that had taken place in 1849 when one Domingo Nahuelquin — who as King of Payos was, in theory, the supreme leader of the sect — had disappeared without a trace. Nahuelquin’s wife alleged that he had been killed on the orders of the King of Quicavi, the same José Mariman who a few years later took Mateo Coñuecar to meet the invunche, and that Mariman had thereby seized control of their society. The mystery of Nahuelquin’s disappearance was never formally resolved, since Mariman, it seems, had his rival and several of his supporters dropped into the sea with large rocks chained around their necks.

It may be asked why — if the existence of the Righteous Province had been known to the Chilean authorities for more than thirty years — the government chose 1880 to clamp down on the Mapuche and their murderous sect of witches. The answer, so far as can now be ascertained, has to do with shifting circumstances, for in 1880 Chile was in crisis, fighting Peru and Bolivia in a brutal four-year conflict known as the War of the Pacific. As a result, the great bulk of the country’s armed forces were committed far to the north — a situation that Chile’s old rival, Argentina, was quick to take advantage of. The Argentines chose 1880 to revive a number of claims they had to land along their border, and this threat was keenly felt on the western side of the Andes until it was defused by the 1881 Tratado de Límites — a treaty that continues to determine the boundary between the countries. Chiloé’s witch trial is probably best understood as a product of these tensions; certainly the first published references to the Righteous Province appear in decrees ordering the roundup of army deserters that were issued by the island’s governor, Louis Rodriguez Martiniano.

If this interpretation is correct, the persecution of the Righteous Province grew out of official concerns that the native Chilotes who were sheltering indigenous deserters from the Chilean army might also be sheltering Mapuche sorcerers. The pursuit of the deserters seems to have turned up evidence against the Mayoria. Flores points out that Rodriguez proclaimed only one month later that “sorcerers and healers have for many years formed a partnership that has produced misery and death for whole families.”

The governor did not believe in magical powers, and found it easy to convince himself that the men of the Righteous Province were nothing more than “thieves and murderers.” One hundred or so members of the society were rounded up, and if the interrogation revealed that at least a third of them were harmless native “healers,” the interrogation also produced evidence of a number of murders and — perhaps still more damagingly — proof that other members of the group believed themselves to represent a legitimate native government.

It is not, perhaps, surprising in the circumstances that the Chilean authorities went to considerable lengths to destroy the power of Chiloé’s sorcerers. Two members of the Righteous Province were sentenced to serve fifteen-year terms for manslaughter, and ten more were convicted of membership in an “unlawful society.” The old warlock, Mateo Coñuecar, was sent to prison for three years, and his brother, Domingo, for a year and a half. Not, it should be noted, on charges of witchcraft — Chile, in 1880, had long ceased to believe in such a thing — but rather, they were charged as racketeers and murderers who had subjected their island to a reign of terror for the best part of a century.

The governor’s triumph was short-lived; the dubious testimony of the prisoners aside, it proved all but impossible to uncover credible evidence that the Righteous Province had wielded real influence in Chiloé, much less that its members killed by means of magic or were able to fly. The majority of the sentences imposed in 1881 were overturned on appeal. But on Chiloé the imprisonment of many of its leaders was widely believed to have finished the Righteous Province off for good, and no conclusive trace of any such organization has been found on the island since.

Still, several mysteries remained when the verdicts were handed down. Had every member of the Mayoria really been accounted for? Had the society actually been headquartered in a hidden cave? If so, what happened to its ancient leather book of spells? And what became of theinvunche?

“Into The Caves of Chile’s Witches” first appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in February 2013. Copyright 2013 Smithsonian Institution. Reprinted with permission from Smithsonian Enterprises. All rights reserved. Reproduction in any medium is strictly prohibited without permission from Smithsonian Institution.