/You Can Meet the Devil in Potosí, Bolivia

You Can Meet the Devil in Potosí, Bolivia

Since the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent discovery of the immense mineral wealth in Bolivia, mining has been a staple for economic development in the country. However, with the Spanish also came Catholicism, and a new world view that was completely remote from the indigenous beliefs held during this time. One major issue that came with the indigenous people being forced underground to exploit minerals such as tin and silver was, simply, that they had been taught about the Devil and his domain underground.

Spanish evangelism taught that God was omnipotent in the heavens above, and that the Devil plotted chaos and destruction from the depths of the Earth.

This, of course, brought about serious problems when the Spanish forced natives underground in search of minerals; primarily silver. Native miners –rightfully so – ultimately came to believe that their entering the underground would upset the Devil, who in turn would enact vengeance upon the trespassers.

In an attempt to appease both the Devil and the Spanish alike, the natives infused their traditional, spiritual beliefs with the newly acquired religious ‘enlightenment’ delivered by the Spanish. Within the heart of all Bolivian mines stand many shrines of the Devil; taking more than one form.

Rituals are conducted at each totem that miners may pass while undertaking this hazardous occupation, offering coca leaves, alcohol and tobacco to the dreaded entity in a gracious attempt to satisfy the spirit for their infringement on his realm. Cigarettes are lit and placed in to the totem’s mouth, while coca leaves are placed in his clenched fists, and on his shoulders, knees and head. Alcohol is also poured on the effigy’s head, shoulders and knees, as well as on the ground (an offering to more indigenous Sacred Spirit, Pachamama, or Mother Earth), followed by a sip from the one giving the offering.

Thanks is given to the Devil in a ceremonial fashion for allowing the miners to enter his province, along with thanks to Pachamama – the all-important, most revered Spirit in Andean religious practices. The involvement of the Devil in a miner’s everyday life is an extremely important aspect of their lives, and one that has fused with more traditional, older practices that have been part of native life for centuries. Though the Devil is certainly fear and thus justly appreciated when entering the dark tunneling depths of Bolivian mines, the Omni-present Pachamama is never forgotten and certainly always given the correct thanks.

This blend of native Andean religion and adapted practices of Catholicism has led to a very interesting, and important practice for the miners risking their lives in the cavernous voids. In fact, one of the biggest and most celebrated carnivals in all of Bolivia is a three-day tribute to the Devil held in the large mining town of Oruro, meant to keep the miners safe from harm when entering the Devil’s world. Many mines in Potosi offer guided tours, allowing visitors to experience what Bolivian miners do for a living. Of course, the ritual offerings given to the Devil are also experienced by visitors as they give thanks to the Devil for permitting a safe passage.