Saturday, 21 October 2017

Lessons From a Canary Island - Spells and Incantations

Cathedral of Santa Ana, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain
Sitting at the end of a rather plain but pleasantly peaceful, palm-tree-lined plaza, is the Catholic Cathedral of Santa Ana, the most important religious building in the Canary Islands. It is situated in the old town area, now the southern suburbs of Vagueta in the modern city of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain.

By the standards of most European Catholic cathedrals, the Cathedral of Santa Ana, is plain, even a little austere, although it is blessed with two campaniles.

The original cathedral was built between 1500 and 1570, commencing soon after the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands by the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella, flushed with their success at the conquest of the entire mainland Spain and the expulsion of the Moors from their last remaining stronghold in Grenada. The Canaries were inhabited by a people known as Guanaches who almost certainly originated in the Atlas Mountain area of Morocco and migrated there in pre-classical times.

Conquest had not been easy, being vigorously resited by the native Guanaches who had also resisted earlier attempts at colonisation by a Castilian force led by the Frenchman Jean de Béthencourt who was proclaimed King of the Canaries when he managed to capture Fuerteventura in 1405. A descendant of Jean de Béthencourt, Maciot de Béthencourt sold Lanzarote to Portugal in 1448. This upset both the Castilians and the Guanaches and despite Pope Nicholas V ruling that the Canaries were a Portuguese possession, the Portuguese were expelled by a popular revolt in 1479. Eventually, the Canaries were ceded to Spain by treaty with Portugal but the conquest was not completed until 1497.

Building the cathedral at Las Palmas and making it the seat of the Diocese of the Canaries was an essential part of the subjugation and conversion of the Guanaches. I'll be writing more about the Guanaches and what we know of their religion in a later blog-post.

The original cathedral was substantially rebuilt and refurbished in the 18th century when the surplus from the tithes extracted from the dirt-poor subsistence farmers became so large that something had to be done with it all.

The structure is a double-aisled nave with pseudo-transept; the high ceiling supported by tall, banded piers and an interesting variation on fan vaulting intended to represent palm trees. There is the usual ostentatious display of wealth and of course the obsession with death, associating in the minds of the people that giving as much of what little money you have, and unquestioning loyalty and obedience to the church will somehow help avoid the unspeakable horrors that await them after death.

A confessional in the Cathedral of Santa Ana
As though to emphasise this and the perceived importance of the priesthood in ensuring a happy afterlife are the ornate 'confessionals', suitably adorned with magical symbols. In many ways, the confessional is the heart of a Catholic church and the place where the important magic happens. Next to symbolically eating pieces of Jesus and drinking a sip of his blood (not making this up!), the most important thing a Catholic must do is confess his or her sins to a priest.

In the Catholic Church, ordinary people aren't good enough to 'confess' to God directly, so it takes a priest who has had a bishop's hands put on his head to be magically transformed into someone important enough for God to take notice of, hence the elaborate paraphernalia.

The priest wears his special priestly costume and both the priest and the penitent go into the confessional where they are separated by a grille. Both pretend not to know one another. The penitent then says some special words and admits to 'sinning', often something trivial like having an 'impure thought' or coveting something or someone, but it could be something more serious like theft, rape or child-molesting. The priest then makes some magic hand movements, says some magic words, gives the penitent a 'penance' (normally muttering some magic words a certain number of times, depending on the severity of the 'sin', and the sin counter is magically zeroed.

The penitent is absolved of sin and leaves the confessional with a clean conscious.

Gold and silver adorning a side chapel
When my partner was a devout Catholic school girl she used to make up 'sins' to confess to so she could please her mother and be a good Catholic. The 'impure thoughts' was a favourite although she didn't know what it meant, but so long as she was given some 'Hail Maries', a couple of 'Our Fathers' and a 'bless you my child', everyone was happy.

The problem is that nowhere in this process is the elephant in the room acknowledged. The person who needs to forgive the penitent is not the priest or God but the person wronged. If no-one was wronged then where was the 'sin' and what was there to confess?

Anyway, once you believe in magic, the power of magic hand signals and special words cast like protective magic spells, you can believe that magical sins can be magically waved aside if enough magic is cast by the right people wearing the right clothes, and especially in a special contraption with magical insignia on it.

Meanwhile, while the poor of Gran Canaria were dutifully going the the Cathedral to confess their 'sins' and pay their tithes they were being constantly reminded of the horrors that await them if they didn't, they were surrounded by a display of ostentatious wealth acquired by taking a share of their produce and spent on nothing more useful than providing a living for the priests and buying more treasures to put on display to demonstrate the power of the Catholic Church and the hold it had over the people.

I wonder when someone will take responsibility and atone for this sin with something a little more practical than magic hand movements and casting of protective spells.

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