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Buffoons and Sorcerers: The Merging of Witchcraft and Entertainment in Colonial Sources on Pre-Hispanic Nahuas

Agnieszka Brylak, University of Warsaw, Summer Fellow 2017–2018

I studied fray Bernardino de Sahagún’s descriptions of pre-Hispanic Nahua (Aztec) performers, whom this Franciscan friar identified as indigenous witches and sorcerers. These performers’ roles in Nahua culture confused the Spaniards. They seemed to be harmless artists contracted to entertain audiences, but their associations with witchcraft were not completely rejected. A key to understanding Sahagún’s classification of Nahua performers is the philological analysis of the Nahuatl term tlahueliloc, used by Spanish friars as a generic category for evil men. Research on the cultural background of Spanish religious authors and on the influence of the Malleus Maleficarum and its Spanish “cognates” (e.g., the works of Martín de Castañega and Pedro Ciruelo) provides insights into these colonial writings. I reviewed the literature on witchcraft, sorcery, ritual, and theatrical practices in pre-Hispanic Mexico, New Spain, and early modern Europe. I also consulted the ICFA, specifically the archives of Thelma Sullivan, an American scholar who researched and translated Sahagún’s writings.