Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: From Mexico to Denmark, Witches and Their Rituals

Host Lale Arikoglu chats with Mexico City-based author Brenda Lozano about her new novel ‘Witches. 
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The nights in the northern hemisphere are drawing in, which means whispering stories of witches and spirits are top of mind for many of us. Lale chats with Mexico City-based author Brenda Lozano, whose new novel Witches looks at the lives of Mexican women who inherit gifts, and draws inspiration from the true story of a Mazatec Indigenous healer, or curandera, in Oaxaca who worked with psilocybin mushrooms in the 1950s and 60s. Plus, we revisit a recent conversation with author Dorthe Nors to learn more about the burnings of witch effigies along the rugged Danish coast.


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Lale Arikoglu: Hello. I'm Lale Arikoglu and welcome to Women Who Travel, a podcast for anyone who is curious about the world and excited to explore places both near and far from home.

This week as the nights in the northern hemisphere draw in and we think of firesides and candles and lights and bonfires, it's a time when you can't help but indulge in whispering stories about ghosts and witches.

A few weeks ago, I chatted with author Dorthe Nors about her decision to up sticks and move to the isolated and rugged Danish coast. We chatted about her respect for the ocean, solitude, cold weather surfing, and witches.

Dorthe Nors: It's—it's a crazy tradition. It's a- w- I mean, we have this bonfire, uh, and, uh, on the 23rd of June, uh, because of the, uh, the solstice, the shortest, uh, night of the year. And that's beautiful. We've had that since forever. Since, I mean, maybe for thousands of years we've done that. But then I think in the 1920s somebody came up with this ridiculous, stupid idea that we should put a witch on it because- and then burn the witch because that would be like burning all evil and darkness and stuff like that. And for some stupid reason, that caught on like, like, you know, lighting a Christmas tree, you know? [laughs] But that's it... At least that's positive.

I mean... And when I was a- a- a child, it was either witches or trolls. It could also be a male, uh, witch, a troll. Um, it's the- the idea was to- to burn evil. And- and it's very suspicion and heart breaking that we thought that that must be a woman. And every year, there are riots because of this. And there are big articles in newspaper about, stop burning women on the stake. Come on, and- and- and still you'll find, uh, witches on stakes. Uh, and bonfires all over the Silver Country.

I think the trend will disappear. That's my personal... I think the awareness, uh, of today and- and also younger generations of women speaking out about how ridiculous that is will just... it will fade out. But it's still there, and it's, uh, it's nutty. [laughs] It really is.

LA: I'll get more into that later. But the conversation has stayed with me. And more broadly, the idea of witchcraft in relation to a woman's choice to live outside of traditional or conventional systems. The word witchcraft is still often used as a derogatory term, but it's fascinating to me. It can be a celebration of secret ceremonies, spiritual insights, and intuitional power. Like so many of us, my imagination was captured by these sorts of women by a young age.

It's probably why I ended up being a bit of a gothy teenager, obsessing over '90s and 2000s icons like Winona Ryder, Stevie Nicks, Karen O, and Garbage's Shirley Manson. And stomping around London's Camden Lock, which, while a little past its prime these days, is famous for its legendary grimy music venues, street food, and vintage stories. I'd spend every weekend there in search of heavy eyeliner and studded belts.

Women like Shirley Manson, who once described herself as a Scottish witch, seemed so cool to me, so powerful, because they appeared to be living a life of their own making. It's women like this that populate Brenda Lozano's Witches, a new novel that looks at the lives of Mexican women who inherit gifts.

Brenda Lozano: All the things that we can think around being a- a witch or a [foreign language 00:04:19] have to do with not the rational, but the intuition. Not the medicine, as we know it in hospitals, and, like, from the medical tradition, but with traditional medicine from pre-Hispanic cultures.

[foreign language 00:04:39].

LA: The book was written in Spanish, and it's translated into English by Heather Clearly.

BL: [foreign language 00:05:12].

Heather Cleary: After I healed my own hip, people would bring me their sick. A relative would ask me to heal their sick ones, and I would heal them with herbs, and with seven candles of pure beeswax that my daughter made. I healed with prayers and herbs and also with my hands. With my hands and my prayers, I saw where the people's ills were, and I healed people according to their ills with herbs I had blessed from the hillside.

Paloma spread the word. She brought me an elder with fog over his eyes. At first, people brought me elders. Paloma would drink liquor and tell me, "Feliciana, love, God gave herbs and mushrooms to the poor to cure their ills, and those are so much more powerful than what they have in those city hospitals that only want to take people's coins." Paloma taught me how to talk with the herbs on the hillside. She went with me and with her smile and her humor, she taught me how the herbs were like men, and how the different kinds of mushrooms were like nights with men. It was Paloma who taught me to bless the herbs and the mushrooms.

LA: The story moves between Brenda's hometown of Mexico City and Oaxaca, weaving between the past and the present. It's inspired, in part, by the true story of a Mazatec Indigenous healer, or [foreign language 00:06:32], in Oaxaca, who worked with psilocybin mushrooms in the 1950s and '60s and because so famous that people would travel from far and wide to see her.

BL: There was a Mexican bruja back in the '50s that actually... Well, you're in New York. I'm Mexico. And there was a relationship between a bruja in Mexico and a super, like, high profile banker. Actually, one of the founders of the Chase JP Morgan Bank. So he was into mushrooms, and all, like, the world around mushrooms, and there was this- in this very small town in Oaxaca, there was this bruja called Maria Sabina. And he was fascinated about around what she could do with mushrooms.

So he wrote a piece for Time magazine back in the '50s, and it's an amazing piece. Of course, well, of course, it's an amazing character. The- the end of the '50s and beginning of the '60s and all the psychedelia and rock music. People started, like, being very interested about this Maria Sabina and what she was doing. And of course, so [inaudible 00:07:42]-

LA: Like Mick Jagger and-

BL: Yeah.

LA: ... like, Keith Richards go to her?

BL: Absolutely. And it- it is said-

LA: [laughs].

BL ... that the Beatles came here to- to see Maria Sabina. And Disney did Fantasia after, like, a mushroom trip. And actually, Aldous Huxley came to Mexico to see Maria Sabina. He wrote The Doors of Perception after that. So- so yeah, I think it is a very interesting, like, backstory, you know? Like, imagine a bruja in Oaxaca, in the '50s, a very small woman, with this super high profile banker from, you know, founding one of the biggest banks in the United States. So I found the contrast super interesting. And that's where the story, like, started making the first sparks.

LA: There is a quote that I have jotted down from you, where you say, "All women are born with a bit of bruja in-"

BL: Mm-hmm. [laughs]

LA: ... or, "bruja in them for protection." Which translates to witch or some-

BL: Mm-hmm.

LA: ... variation of the word witch.

BL: Mm-hmm.

LA: What do you mean by that?

BL: My mother... [laughs] Hello to my mother. I'm sure she will be... [laughs] Super proud and super happy to- to- to know that I'm here with you, Lale. My mother always says that all the things that we can think around being a- a witch or- or a bruja have to do with not the rationale, but the intuition. So it is a lot about the margins. But intuition is more length, let's say, to the female. And I really, really, really, really [laughs] like that also, like, and giving importance, for example, to emotions.

I think it's also... Not like saying... "I feel this," instead of, "I think this." I think it's amazing. Like, being able to- to write also, like, in a very, of course, male literary tradition, even though, I mean, the word tradition in terms of literature sounds horrible. But I mean, if historically, like, storytelling has been White, male, European, and whatever, thinking stories from narrators that say... that talk about intuition and that talk about feelings and talk about other things. I think that's very important.

LA: After the break, the rituals of dressing up in costume. And remember, to stay up to date on all things Women Who Travel, make sure you're subscribed to the Women Who Travel newsletter via the link in our show notes. And that you're following Women Who Travel on Instagram.

That's MariaChingona, a Mexican American band based in Los Angeles, fronted by singer and musician Rachel R. The song is called Sacude.

MariaChingona: [singing]

BL: [laughs]

LA: Yeah, let's talk a little bit about costumes and dressing up, because that is a huge cultural thing in America, and obviously, Halloween does exist in the UK, where I grew up, but it's not quite on the same scale as here.

BL: We have here the Day of Dead, or [foreign language 00:12:07], which is beautiful. Beautiful, beautiful. I've been to very small towns in, for example, in Michoacán and Oaxaca, and it's really, like, something you have to see at least once in your lifetime. It's really, really amazing. And it- it has nothing to do with Halloween, I have to say. And it doesn't really have to do with dressing up. But it's more about visiting cemeteries and your beloved dead people and spending a nice night there, like, remembering them. And yeah, I- I guess I love thinking about Halloween and the Day of the Dead as- as two festivities that can communicate also.

LA: Yeah, it's about connecting with our past or our ghosts.

BL: Yeah.

LA: Um-

BL: Yeah. [laughs]

LA: In some way.

BL: Yeah, like, the dead are always, like, people who we loved and died.

LA: But moving away from dressing up and parties, accusations of witchcraft and violence are both a historical and a contemporary issue in many countries. Brenda's novel opens with the murder of an Indigenous [foreign language 00:13:11].

BL: [foreign language 00:13:13], it's a beautiful word that comes, like, centuries before queerness or queer. So she's a trans woman. And she gets killed because she's a trans woman in this very small town. So I also wanted to focus on that. And to write a story from that point of view also.

We live in patriarchal societies, right? So especially the one in Mexico is very violent again woman. So I was thinking, like, all the different, like, levels and layers that violence have against woman. I also work at a newspaper called El Pais, and I have written several pieces about gender.

But I was also... I really wanted to explore it from fiction. So I really wanted to bring these questions, like, in many different layers. And think about them from a fiction perspective. So of course, the worst of all, 11 women are daily killed in Mexico just because they're women.

LA: And now, over to a very different landscape. Denmark, Jutland, the North Sea. A wild coastline. During my chat with Dorthe Nors in a previous episode, I asked her to read from her essay about the burning of witch effigies up and down the coast.

DN: It's time of year where we burn a female doll. It's a tradition, an annual thing in Denmark, an act that has clicked into place. We dames are more or less in agreement. All of this is a game we play. Burning the evil has its roots in ancient rituals and 17 century witches at the stake. We can agree on that too.

But it's only in the past century that the ritual has come into fashion and whether it's a cozy costume or a problem is something to be discussed over strawberries picked for the celebration. She will be burned tonight, as legend tells. She will fly to Brocken and Hekla, this patch like sparks above a bonfire. She and her sister witches will celebrate their sabbath on the mountains there.

It's a midsummer's eve party. A celebration of cleansing and the solstice. The light is here, but the darkness is as well. And now the great wheel turns. We walk to the holy springs and wash our wounds, herbs in the woods, and wet meadows have drunk from the energies of the universe and drawn rich growth from all existence.

We pick the herbs at night, on our guard against the glowworm's bite. We read omens. We tuck flowers under our pillows. Our brown calves are wet with cuckoo spit while the bonfires burn down. It is the longest day, the magic's night. Everything has opened and yielded a rattling door unto the darkness. We burn a female doll in that opening, and I've never felt much like taking part.

When I was a child, a man caught fire at a midsummer's celebration my family was attending. It was the host. He'd built the witch himself the day before, out of a couple of brooms tied crosswise. He had doused the bonfire liberally with petrol that afternoon, but before the burning, he thought it could do with one more drop. I saw the thing myself, him running around in his nylon shirt with a jerry can, sloshing petrol onto the fire. We saw too the lighter, the spark, the catching, and how someone flung themselves on top of him to extinguish the flames. They rolled him around on the ground and crouched beside him on their haunches as the bonfire burned.

It was such a silent mild night. We could follow the sound of the ambulance all the way from the hospital in the city to far out in the countryside where we stood and where the party was over. The sun is sinking stoically now towards the Norway boat. The ferry on its way into the harbor, and his [inaudible 00:17:54] is balanced heavily on the horizon. They'll be on the deck watching the coast, the visitors, the home comers. It's the bonfires they can see. The flames and the lighthouse.

There are columns of smoke above the whole country, as though the Danes were busy sending signals communicating from hilltops, sport fields, and allotments. And if anyone aboard a ship in the Strait of Skagerrak, between Denmark and Norway, leans over the gunwale and listens hard, they'll hear folks singing. Yes, in this country, we sing in the dusk about peace, [foreign language 00:18:31].

I'm on high ground, listening to the voices rising from the beach. They've lit the bonfire and the sun has gone nuts too. I hum my own scraps of melody, as the bonfire burns out below. Now, the Norway boat has sighted the beacon and we light bonfires as we wait for the dark, [foreign language 00:18:55], sings the country.

Tonight we burn those whose instincts don't conform. But we're civilized now, and set fire only to symbols. Cover your child's eyes, for now the flames have called, and the passengers out on the ferry rest their arms on the railing, looking forward to the holiday or to seeing people back home. They watch the sparks fly, the lighthouse flash. This is the shortest night and amid the heavy, fertile crops, witches and beach marms creep around in the vegetation. They're gathering herbs for the winter. They're casting runes and searching for signs and counsel in the setting sun.

I draw the sun's rays down with me. To travel is to remember. Then the elder flowers light up, then the fox screams, then the wheel turns.

LA: I simply had to find out what happened to that man who got burned.

DN: The man who caught fire at my childhood bonfire, uh, came to the hospital. He had a third degree burn on his arm, I remember. And he recovered well, but, um, quite sure he didn't, uh, put that much, uh, petrol on- on the bonfire next year.

I was, of course, scared of seeing a man injured like that. But it also made me think, uh, that, um, the tradition of the witch is cruel because real people really get burned by these fires. I think it- it put into perspective the cruelty of- of the tradition.

LA: Novels and books give us the ability to travel to- and be tourists in other people's lives and cultures. What are the benefits of that, and then also what are the downsides?

BL: As travelers, or as tourists, I would say you don't only want to go to the monuments, and you don't only want to go to the touristy places.

LA: You said something really lovely about how traveling isn't just about the monuments. It's about, you know, it's eating something. It's an interaction with another human being. Just expand on that a little bit more why do you think it's so important and specifically in Mexico, why is it so- so important?

BL: So when you try food, Mexican food abroad, okay, you can get a sense, no? But eating Mexican food in Mexico is just an amazing experience and also there's such a wide spectrum of- of what Mexican food is, no? It's not- it's not only the hard shelled taco in Taco Bell, of course, no? And I- I'm saying just that. Just on a- as an- as a very small example of how wide you can travel if you're open to know new space.

And I think literature is also the same. Like, it's not only a question of taking pictures and big monuments as Proust, you know, or as, I- I mean, I love Proust, nothing against him. But it's also a question of knowing the present and what a young poet is doing. And it's not only nice things or happiness. That idea of happiness of, and pleasure. Like, pleasure can actually be a very wide thing and a very elastic term, also, no?

And I think it's nice and interesting, and not nice but super interesting to explore how spaces are, and- and exploring stories as- as well as food and people and experiences.

LA: This episode has taken us to two very different places, across a range of time periods. The fate of women leading unconventional lives both past and present.

Thank you for listening. I am Lale Arikoglu. And you can find me, as always, on Instagram, @lalehannah. And follow along with Women Who Travel on Instagram @womenwhotravel. You can also join the conversation in our Facebook group. Allison Leyton-Brown is our composer. Jennifer Nulsern is our engineer. Jude Kampfner, from Corporation for Independent Media, is our producer. Next week, support for the oppression of Iranian women and the ongoing uprising. And a celebration of Iranian food. For more stories from Women Who Travel, visit cntraveler.com.