Andrew Redden and Kyle Jackson
In this chapter we will be looking at primary sources that deal specifically with human interaction with non-human entities – in particular, gods and spirits. You might initially categorise this as religious history, or even the history of religion and, to a certain extent, you would be right. Nevertheless, aside from the problems inherent in defining the term ‘religion’, there is a significant difference between our approach and the standard academic consideration of religious systems and the place of people and entities within them. In the following chapter we will be challenging you to build on the most recent shifts in religious history scholarship and to engage with all the historical actors that appear in the primary sources – not just humans, but the gods and spirits that they venerate and which intervene in different ways in their daily lives.
Of course, such an approach presents significant problems. How can this be done, you might argue, when there is no historical evidence of the existence of gods and spirits? We would respond that there is in fact a wealth of evidence in the historical record that points to their existence as historical actors – often, no less evidence than points to the existence of their human counterparts. Just as it is for human actors, this evidence is recorded in written documents (including, but not exclusive to, chronicles, treatises, criminal trial testimonies, testimonials, and autobiographical accounts), textiles, ceramics, sculptures, paintings, ancient shrines, and other holy places and has formed a part of the historical record for its duration. To be clear, we are not saying that the spirits and gods in this material do exist. Rather, we advocate treating this historical evidence critically, fairly and with equity, approaching it with the critical tools of the historian rather than discounting it as mere fabrication from the start. The problem, in other words, is how we might interpret this evidence. It is a philosophical and methodological problem, rather than an evidential one, and it is one that often hinders the ability of those trained in modern historical scholarship to articulate and analyse interactions between humans and spirit or divine entities in their own terms. In order to discuss this in more detail and suggest some possible (albeit preliminary and experimental) solutions, this chapter will present a selection of primary sources from two mountain regions, the central-southern Andean highlands of South America and the highlands of Mizoram in India’s eastern Himalayan foothills. Because of our areas of research expertise, we focus on these upland spirits and gods in their interactions with indigenous peoples and regional Christian agents, but our methodological experiment is applicable to diverse contexts.
Let’s begin with a scenario:
Sid and Irv are business partners. They make a deal that whichever one dies first will contact the living one from the afterlife. So Irv dies. Sid does not hear from him for about a year, and figures there is no afterlife. Then one day he gets a call.
‘So there is an afterlife! What’s it like?’ Sid asks.
‘Well, I sleep very late. I get up, have a big breakfast. Then I have sex, lots of sex. Then I go back to sleep, but I get up for lunch, have a big lunch. Have some more sex. Take a nap. Huge dinner. More sex. Go to sleep, and wake up the next day’.
‘Oh, my gosh,’ says Sid. ‘So that’s what heaven is like?’
‘Oh no,’ says Irv. ‘I’m not in heaven. I’m a bear in Yellowstone Park’ (Blankenship, 2011, pp.22–23).
When you interpret something – whether a conversation with a dead business partner, or a piece of historical evidence – assumptions matter. In Sid’s case, this meant assuming a certain type of afterlife for Irv, one based an idea of an eternal destination, a heaven, rather than one based on transmigration or reincarnation. Historians of religion also make fundamental assumptions when listening to voices from the past. These assumptions about gods and spirits shape historians’ interpretations of historical evidence. Like Sid, who assumed a certain (Abrahamic or Christian) base model of heaven, historians of religion usually operate from what we call a ‘Euro-normative’ baseline. Indeed, even the category ‘religion’ has its roots firmly in the European experience: the term was first made necessary by western Christian missionaries, who used it to allow them to compare their target peoples’ ways of doing things to Christianity (Josephson, 2012). A much broader initiative of classification growing out of nineteenth-century Europe was what first gave the English language the terms ‘animism’ (1866), ‘Boudism’ (1801), ‘Hindooism’ (1829), and so on. Japanese people, Powhatans, Mizos, Sri Lankans (etc.) and a host of others had no equivalent term for ‘religion’; these peoples initially had to wrestle with the idea only when they encountered westerners (Asad, 1993; Dubuisson, 2003; Josephson, 2012). We believe that historians of religion need to be mindful of these kinds of Euro-normative constraints on our discipline.
What exactly are these constraints, and how did they come about? Historians’ long-running assumptions can be grouped into two main branches, both of which have grown and changed along their own trajectories, often following topical trends in historical research. This section will broadly survey these trends and flag up several works that exemplify them, but by no means can be exhaustive or cover all the complex nuances that exist. The first and earlier branch of historical interpretations, developing out of empirical and, subsequently, Marxist-oriented methodologies, has generally treated gods and spirits as a functional social tool, engineered by humans to meet the psychological or social needs of individuals, communities, or societies. A second, later branch, borrowing methodologies from anthropology, has tended to treat gods and spirits as symbols invented by humans. Both of these branches rely on a key philosophical premise that has developed out of the early establishment of history as an academic discipline: that primary historical agency is, or must have been, human. This is a premise that is being challenged in particular within environmental history (Pearson, 2015; 2016), but other historical sub-genres are somewhat lagging behind.
Let’s take the first branch, which travels first from historical empiricism through to Marxist methodologies, and treats religion primarily as a social tool. This historiographical limb is as old as the academic discipline of history itself: in the nineteenth century, the philosophical assumptions of the enlightenment had given rise to empiricism which was the methodological root of modern historical studies. This was the idea that historical knowledge demanded the critical analysis of source materials from the past. Given the problem that we are currently wrestling with, it is ironic that the German scholar credited with pioneering historical empiricism, Leopold von Ranke, developed this method out of theological source analysis (Donnelly and Norton, 2012, p.36. German empiricist methodology subsequently merged with Anglo-American philosophical empiricism that prioritised ‘realist (or representationalist) theories of knowledge’ giving rise to an important nuance in empiricism’s development: Ranke’s methodological phrase: ‘how things essentially happened’ was reinterpreted to mean ‘what actually happened’ (Donnelly and Norton, 2012, p.37). This had a profound impact on what could or could not be accepted as historical truth. Notwithstanding empiricism’s emphasis on primary source analysis, a strange dissonance arose between the evidence that was provided in the source materials (which often described or referred to interactions between humans and spiritual beings) and what was considered ‘scientifically (hence historically) possible’. As gods and spirits could not be scientifically proven to exist through empirical observation (for instance, in laboratory conditions), neither could they be accepted as historically true, even though they frequently appeared in the historical record.
Perhaps the most important reaction to empiricism in the early twentieth century was the historical methodology that incorporated Marxist analysis. Rather than accepting sources written by members or representatives of the elite as historical fact, an emphasis on interpretation rose to prominence in order to write the history of the working classes and to place what was understood as historical progression into a Marxist theoretical framework. This principally meant understanding history from the perspective of production (often exploitative), societal structures and the conflict between classes, all within the underlying ideological belief that human society was progressing towards the moment when the proletariat would seize power from their exploiters, the capitalist bourgeoisie. Marxism, whether defined narrowly as an economic system, or broadly as an ideological worldview, was nevertheless also a product of enlightenment philosophy and, while it reacted to and rejected important aspects of empiricism, it in fact exacerbated the denial of spiritual entities. According to this ideology, they did not exist; therefore, they could never have existed. This is not to say that the genre of religious history stopped developing; whether or not scholars subscribed to Marxist ideology – and many did not – the emphasis placed on structural analysis in the period between 1910 and 1960 produced a vast range of seminal works, often multivolume, on religious institutions and reinterpretations of key historical moments were produced (see, for example, Bainton, 1964; Latourette, 1955; Moore, 1914–20; Vargas Ugarte, 1953–62). The primary sources used most often by these scholars were vast in scope, and included foundational documents, royal and episcopal decrees, institutional accounts, letters and reports, chronicles, and judicial proceedings (both criminal and jurisdictional).
The parallel growth of social history as a sub-field enabled historians of religion to turn their attention away from institutions and the elite members of society who controlled them and towards ordinary people who nonetheless participated in, affected and were affected by them on a regular basis. This turn towards focusing on the lives of ordinary people (history written ‘from below’) was aided by a determination to revisit the range of primary sources used in preceding histories in order to ‘read between the lines’ and ‘against the grain’, and to construct a history representative of those who previously had no voice in official records – those who are (mis)represented by others who controlled the production and organisation of historical records (see, for example, Thompson, 1963).
Such a reassessment of the primary sources was both a goal and method of the Subaltern Studies Collective pioneered by certain historians of South Asia from the 1980s onwards (see for example: Guha, 1982; 1983) – a movement that rapidly caught on in other locales (for a forum engaging India, Africa and Latin America, see American Historical Review, 1994). Not surprisingly, these approaches were also of interest to scholars of religious themes, and primary sources that had previously been used to write institutional histories, such as inquisitorial trial records and missionary letters, were revisited to understand more about the marginalised peoples who appeared in but were often not responsible for what was written down. A prime example of this was the seminal micro-history, The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginsburg (1980). The archive could also be expanded beyond official and institutional sources: popular songs, rumours, oral histories, and folktales could be equally useful for the historian working from the ‘bottom up’.
Even as historians were turning towards these kinds of perspectives, the ‘religion as tool’ thesis was being amplified from outside the historical discipline. Anthropologist Robin Horton, drawing upon his fieldwork in Western Africa, positioned religion as an ‘instrument for explanation, prediction, and control’, one picked up by the individual or community faced with ‘the interpretative challenge of social change’ (Horton, 1971, pp.101–02). According to Horton, when groups of people once isolated from the ‘macrocosm of the wider world’ encounter modernity and are drawn into wider social worlds, they can retrofit (or in Horton’s phrasing, ‘rationally adapt’) their religious worldview to better make sense of their new situation (Horton, 1971, pp. 101–02; 1975, p.234). A generation of historians has since carried versions of Horton’s ‘Intellectualist Theory’ into the wider world and applied it to a dizzying array of primary sources: in 2011, historian Richard Fox Young counted over 100 references to Horton’s seminal essay on the Social Science Citation Index, in work ranging from the first-century Roman Empire (using Rabbinic, Biblical, and Gnostic written sources) to twenty-first century Vietnam (using missionary and government materials, as well as first-hand ethnographical accounts) (see, for instance, Eaton, 1984; Segal, 1990; Taylor, 2007; Young, 2012).
Other historians tend to treat religion as a social tool when they examine power-relations and social resistance (Fuchs, 1965; Guha, 1983). To take an important Andean example, Steve Stern’s work on a sixteenth-century religious movement called Taki Onqoy argues that indigenous Andeans adapted their own religious beliefs and practices and drew on elements of Spanish Christianity in order to reject the imposition of the Spanish colonial order. Deities whose material forms (statues or mummified ancestors) were destroyed by Spanish clergy returned in spirit form and possessed the leaders of the cult (Stern, 1991). While at first glance there is ambiguity here with regard to who might have been the historical agents in this scenario (gods, spirits, or people?), the framework of ‘adaptation’ and ‘acculturation’ is most commonly taken to suggest that this was a social phenomenon, created by humans, for humans. This interpretation of religion and deities as a social tool was even clearer in Geoffrey Conrad and Arthur Demarest’s seminal work Religion and Empire (1984). They reinterpret the foundation myths of two civilisations – the Inca and Aztec Empires (in which particular deities gave prominent individuals power and the means to create vast empires) – to demonstrate how specific individuals at key moments in the histories of these Empires proclaimed themselves the representatives of particular deities, reworked the history of the locality and then created an ideology that legitimated their rule, restructured society and necessitated imperial expansion. Wielded with human cunning, religion got things done.
However, for these and other historians in this branch of historiography, spirits and gods are not just a social tool useful for duping others – the arguments are more complex. Religion may also empower vulnerable groups or downtrodden individuals hoping to secure social power. Scholars have thus worked to show how beliefs in spirits and gods have functioned as a device for colonised or oppressed peoples to leverage political or social power (for example: Dowd, 1992; Lan, 1985; Lewis, 1971).
From a modern, western perspective that denies the agency of deities and spirits, all of this scholarship that we have just reviewed makes sense, at least at a fundamental ontological level. However, these works can also reduce religious belief, religious practice and interaction with the gods into either a top-down story of cynical manipulation (where masses are brought into line, or imperial domination is justified or sustained) or a bottom-up story of empowerment (where the vulnerable use religion to socially ‘punch upwards’ or to sabotage the powers that be).
If anthropological method has often informed such historical interpretations of religion as social tool, it has also opened up space for a second historiographical branch that has treated gods and spirits more as a symbol: from a Marxist perspective, a symbol of capitalist exploitation or resistance to it. In this regard, the work of Michael Taussig (1980) has been hugely influential, allowing subsequent scholars of religious phenomena to reinterpret entities such as vampires, for example, as metaphors and symbols that related to (or were produced by) processes of colonial violence, dispossession and exploitation (Weismantel, 2001; White, 2000). Luise White’s work on vampires in the African Copperbelt has helped pioneer the use of unconventional primary sources: vampire rumours, hearsay and gossip, and to integrate them alongside oral interviews, linguistic analysis of Ugandan terms and concepts and more standard colonial accounts. From a semiological perspective, meanwhile, gods and spirit entities are seen as a symbol of social catharsis or psychological reassurance (see for example, Devlin, 1987). From a cultural anthropological perspective, they usually appear as a group of symbols that emerge from, and both help explain and reify, the social order and experience of society (on this tendency in the study of spirit possession in South Asia, see Schoembucher, 1993).
Taken together, historians’ assumptions that gods and spirits are human tools or human symbols yield many rich insights into the history of religion and religious phenomena. These older approaches may serve you well in your own historical research. They do not solve our own problem, however. Along with an emerging generation of historians of religion, we want to propose a third way, one that asks a simple question: what might the past look like – what surprises might be in store – if historians approached religion a little less on our modern, Euro-normative and secular terms and a little more on our historical subjects’ terms?
Around the world, historians have only relatively recently begun to ask this provocative question and to experiment with possible answers. The global scholarship is too vast for us to be able to mention all the recent key works; what follows here is an exemplary selection. In North America, Laguna Pueblo scholar Paula Gunn Allen takes a fresh look at the oft-told story of seventeenth-century Chesapeake Algonquian Pocahontas, sidestepping customary accounts of a love-struck princess or an ambassador of modern multiculturalism to instead focus on Pocahontas’ many active roles set in historical context: medicine woman, spy, entrepreneur, and diplomat (Allen, 2003). In this scholarship, Allen boldly assumes the reality of the manito aki (the Algonquian spirit world), and employs both western and Algonquian rhetorical traditions in exploring its implications for her historical narrative. For South America, Kenneth Mills attempts to achieve what he calls an historical ‘near-immersion’ into the spiritual worlds of his Andean subjects. Not content merely to write about historical ‘beliefs’, Mills attempts to appreciate the power of how spirits and gods ‘moved’ people in highly personal ways (Mills, 2014). For Europe, Carlos Eire uses the sworn testimony of hundreds of eyewitnesses to assert that St Joseph of Cupertino truly might have levitated (Eire, 2009). Without any evidence to the contrary, our modern assumption that humans cannot levitate is, for Eire, not enough to write off the overwhelming evidence of eyewitnesses, or the possibility, that Cupertino could. For South Asia, historian William R. Pinch explores the world of Saiva ascetic and death-defying yogi Anupgiri Gosain, but declines to make the standard scholarly assumption that Anupgiri – born in the mid-1700s – is today dead (Pinch, 2006). Anupgiri’s quest for the deathless state of samadhi, combined with Pinch’s willingness to treat alternative viewpoints as admissible evidence and his methodological commitment to ‘temper [his] own theoretical and methodological dispositions with the thoughts and actions of the people in the past so as to arrive at an understanding across time’, ends up with Pinch giving Anupgiri the benefit of the doubt. The gesture of withholding Anupgiri’s ‘date of death’ may at first glance appear a small one, but for Pinch, it is an important step towards moving beyond the ‘wholly one-sided’ conversations that historians of religion usually have with their historical subjects.
What of the gods and spirits of upland Peru and Northeast India? What kind of historical evidence might we select in our endeavour to assess their impact as historical agents? In turning to the Andean context, we will examine excerpts from a chronicle, a missionary letter, and a trial transcript. For the Northeast Indian context, we will examine vernacular newspapers in the Mizo language, a historical photograph, and a Christian missionary’s report (as well as the conditions of his subsequent death). We will attempt to approach these Andean and Mizo gods and spirits not as figments of the human imagination, as mere tools or symbols, but as Andean and Indian gods and spirits. Doing so requires caution. What interpretive strategies might we carefully employ to help us think outside of the ways we have grown accustomed to? What interpretive experiments might we devise to get closer to the viewpoints of our historical subjects? How might we articulate a coherent historical narrative that is faithful to the historical evidence (which includes gods and spirits) for a primarily modern, academic audience that is profoundly sceptical of their existence?
Selecting and interpreting sources
This section focuses on the six types of source mentioned above, first for the Andean context and then for the Mizo.
In the case of the Andes during the period of Spanish colonisation (from the early sixteenth through to the late eighteenth centuries), colonial bureaucracies and representatives (including those of the Catholic Church) assiduously recorded information in numerous ways. Much of that archival information has been destroyed (due to conflicts, natural disasters, or simply neglect), but a great deal has also managed to survive. In turn, Spanish extirpators of idolatry also destroyed religious artefacts, effigies, and holy places used by Andean peoples in campaigns to stamp out worship of indigenous deities and to impose a normative version of Christianity on the region’s inhabitants; yet, they could not destroy everything. Added to which, they also documented these religious practices prior to their destruction and recorded these campaigns and what was being destroyed. As such, there is a great deal of material that we can look at and attempt to ‘read against the grain’ in order to understand more about Andean peoples’, and even European peoples’ interactions with gods and spirits in the South American Highlands.
Chronicles written by erudite clergy who wished to aggrandise their own religious orders (or communities), or subjects of the Spanish Crown (whether Hispanic, Andean, or mixed race) who were writing for specific purposes such as to denounce injustice and bad government, or to ask favours from the king (or both). These were, more often than not, written from well-defined European perspectives, potentially obscuring the indigenous Andean reality; much less frequently, however, a mixed European–Andean perspective comes through, allowing a clearer view of the Andean cosmovision. A further challenge to modern-day historians is that these chronicles often use theological (rather than teleological, or in other words linear) narrative frameworks that make it hard for historians to pinpoint precise events or dates. Notwithstanding these interpretative challenges, often the devil (quite literally) is in the detail. Once these details have been spotted, the equivalent of white spirit might be gently applied to remove the European gloss that covers up the actions of indigenous deities, a process that we will offer practical advice on below. Many of these chronicles have been digitised and are free to download in their original languages (primarily Spanish, but also Quechua and Aymara) from repositories such as Google Books, Internet Archive and the Guaman Poma Website. Source [A] is an excerpt from one such chronicle written and published in the seventeenth century by an Augustinian friar named Antonio de la Calancha. All the caveats mentioned above apply to this source and we shall see below how it might be interpreted.
Letters and reports
Letters and reports written by missionaries (in particular, Jesuits), sent to Rome annually, and which include regular mention and significant detail of their destruction of shrines and battles with demons (read indigenous deities here). Scholars often refer these to as ‘edifying’ letters (i.e. letters that are written to provide information, but also to boost the morale of members of the organisation). Upon reaching Rome, the letters were copied and circulated among missionary centres and seminaries. Notwithstanding their often formulaic nature, the details that flesh out the Eurocentric and theological (Christian) frameworks can often lead to remarkable insights into indigenous worlds and the missionaries’ penetration of these worlds. Conversely, insights can also be gained as to missionaries’ beliefs and subsequent practices and indigenous peoples’ appropriation and adaptation of, or resistance to them. In amongst all these human interactions, of course, are numerous interactions between these Andeans, Europeans, and spirit entities. These letters are not widely available in English (as they were written primarily in the European language of origin, or Latin), yet a growing body of critical editions in translation is being published. Source [B] is taken from one of these letters, sent to Rome in 1617, and is currently archived in the Jesuit Archive (Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu-ARSI).
Surviving trial manuscripts of the institution known as the extirpation of idolatry are also replete with detailed interactions between indigenous Andeans and their deities. This institution was both punitive and pedagogical and, while falling under the jurisdiction of the bishop, it functioned during the seventeenth century using a combination of inquisitorial and missionary methods. There is no question that this was a repressive institution that aimed to stamp out indigenous religious beliefs and practices and replace them with others that were then deemed by Spanish colonial authorities (both religious and secular) to be orthodox Christian (Catholic). It was an institution that divided communities along religious lines, and which provoked physical and psychological trauma with the methods that it used. The meticulous documentation of the trials of indigenous religious practitioners that formed a part of these campaigns nevertheless had an unexpected effect; it has allowed scholars to tentatively piece together fragments of the world that these colonial authorities so deliberately tried to smash. As with the other sources mentioned above, these trials are documented by Europeans (or acculturated locally born actors) and they follow strict (European) procedures. It is often clear that defendants are, for the most part, under extreme pressure and, over time, the testimonies that are being given conform to formulaic patterns acceptable to the tribunals. Nevertheless, those details that do not conform to stereotype, or even those that do, can be more closely examined. The result is that demons (which abound in these documents) might be stripped of their European disguises to reveal more indigenous aspects. As with the missionary letters, these are not widely available in translation and scholars often have to travel to local archdiocesan archives to access them. Nevertheless, there is a growing body of critical editions and increasing numbers of translations are being published. Source [C] is a trial manuscript from the extirpation of idolatry section of the Archdiocesan Archive of Trujillo, Peru. An important caveat is that we were unable to access the original document due to its fragile state, but were given access to a twentieth-century transcription kept in the same archive. As such, our translation is subject to the possible errors of yet another intermediary. Inquisition manuscripts provide similar information (and similar interpretative problems) for non-indigenous groups. Some of these inquisitorial archives can now be found in various national archives in Latin America (Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile), but the vast majority can be located in the national archive of Spain (the Archivo Histórico Nacional, AHN, Madrid) which, along with other archives in Spain, is currently engaged in digitising its materials.
Turning to the Mizo context requires us to shift space (from the Andean world to Northeast India’s Himalayan foothills) and to fast-forward time (from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the early twentieth). Not everything is unfamiliar: reoriented, we remain roughly at the same mountainous altitude, and here, too, colonial bureaucracies and agents recorded information as they arrived to occupy indigenous lands. In the late nineteenth century, local assemblages of diverse Mizo hill peoples knew and controlled this part of the world as zo ram (‘the highlands’). India’s British Raj saw it rather as a stateless abode of ‘savage’, head-hunting hill tribes. Colonial aggression in the region – and upland resistance to it – created an explosion of new historical materials at the turn of the twentieth century. This was particularly true of the English and Welsh Christian missionaries, who, following on the heels of occupying imperial armies, introduced practices of writing and photography. It was also true of the Mizos, who actively wielded these new technologies to shape their society. Today, climatologists know this region as a zone of extraordinary precipitation: a close geographical neighbour is Cherrapunji, sometimes called the wettest place on the planet. The rain, as well as summer heat, insects, rodents, human neglect, and (in the case of a 1960s military insurgency) even bombs have made the preservation of those historical sources that have survived all the more urgent. The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), which digitally rescues some of the world’s most endangered historical material, has recently digitised primary sources in the region. You may wish to explore other EAP collections that concern spirits, gods and humans, from these Tai Ahom tree-bark manuscripts explaining how humans might communicate with Assam’s khon spirits, to these Cham paper manuscripts from Vietnam offering instructions on how to conjure the dead.
In the Mizo case, as in the Andean, not all material has been lost with the passage of time, and spirits and gods have left their traces here too. We will be looking at three types of source, in three ‘languages’ (Mizo, visual, and English):
A series of Mizo-language newspaper articles. In the early 1900s, the first cohort of newly literate Mizo men and women set about filling the initial issues of the region’s vernacular newspaper, Mizo leh Vai Chanchin Bu (‘Mizo and Indian News’), with Mizo-language reports on the movements, histories and predations of ramhuai – what Christian missionaries in the region would call ‘evil spirits’. In the eyes of foreign administrators or missionaries, Mizo anxieties about these forest ‘demons’ were concerns typical of ‘primitive tribes’ – genuine beliefs, perhaps, but not otherwise noteworthy. Missionary teachers derided the articles as not ‘useful information’. However, the fact remains that Mizos first recognised newly imported technologies like writing and mass-produced text as ways to keep other Mizos informed and forewarned about what were, in their eyes, dynamic forest predators. In modern times, the ramhuai have typically flown beneath the radar of English-language sources in the region, those historians who rely on these sources exclusively and those who operate from a modern perspective that writes off ramhuai as fabrications, tools or symbols. Two other characteristics also set these early newspaper reports apart. First, they are unique for their Mizo authorship, produced within a decade of the introduction of literacy. Second, they are written from a perspective in which the world is fundamentally ‘more than human’ – in other words, from within a world where complex and dynamic beings like ramhuai were key players in everyday life. They thus provide important counterweight to missionary perspectives. Original copies of the articles can be found at the Aizawl Theological College Archive or the Synod Church Archive, both in the city of Aizawl. Volumes of Mizo leh Vai are now digitally available via the EAP and the Digital Library of India. Several ramhuai reports are collated, translated and presented all for the first time as Source [D].
The newness and novelty of the photographic medium was not lost on the missionaries who climbed the hills of zo ram. In their eyes, the technology was one element in a broader ‘civilising’ process of which they were self-styled torchbearers. Missionaries took photographs for their missionary societies, funders, families, and prospective converts. In the Mizo case, many of these surviving images come in sets of two, meant to be placed inside a ‘stereoscope’ that created the illusion of a three-dimensional image for the viewer – essentially nineteenth-century virtual reality. Mizos called the stereoscope ‘the thing which enables one to see the missionaries’ village’ – a definition capturing both the device’s newness (in its eluding a single noun), and its function as a technology of seeing and of collapsing distance. Photographs were not easily produced in zo ram: missionaries were frustrated by mechanical errors (‘the film unfortunately got stuck, so they might not come out’), by environmental factors (‘I’ve over-exposed them as the sun is so bright’), and by the then limits of technology (‘I wish I could have photographed the colours!’). Historians today thus only have access to historical photographs that have passed through a double sieve: one that strained out photos even as they were created, and another that filtered them out as they corroded with time. As they reach us, mission photography collections are often visually repetitive, treading the beaten tracks of Christianity in the region (the school, the church, the hospital, the village preaching tour, and so on). However, as with the Andean sources mentioned above, the minor detail is often what matters most. William Henry Fox Talbot, British pioneer of the calotype process, once wrote, ‘the [camera] operator himself discovers on examination, perhaps long afterwards, that he has depicted many things he had no notion of at the time’ (quoted in Stanczack, 2007, p.8). Historians, too, can pull more information out of recurring photographic tropes by looking for these incidental details, and by viewing photos with creativity, for example by attempting to ‘read’ the image from a more indigenous angle, as we will do below for ramhuai. Historians of Mizoram are making fresh efforts to locate and publish historical photographs from private collections in the region (see Pachuau and van Schendel, 2015), as well as accessing them in online collections, such as the International Missionary Society Photography Archive (IMPA). Source [E] is a missionary photograph of a Mizo wedding in 1936.
These were reports sent back from global locales to the hub of the mission organisation’s headquarters. They served many purposes: for example, to inform donors of progress in faraway lands and to drum up more financial support, to edify readers who took heart in the advance of Christ’s kingdom and to ask for prayer in the face of adversity. Historians who use such reports and letters need to be mindful of the missionaries’ mindfulness: missionaries knew that these reports were most likely destined for wider publication and thus self-censured. Reports may thus de-emphasise, for example, interpersonal conflicts on the mission field, which the historian is more likely to find in personal diaries or personal letters. Local gods and spirits do appear in these reports, but primarily in caricature, as two-dimensional ‘evil spirits’ or ‘devils’ that, for European readers, served to invoke distinctively Christian connotations rather than convey their complex indigenous meanings. Here, we would advocate cautious reading, systematic contextualisation and the intensive probing of authorial voice, audience, and intentionality. The biases inherent in such missionary sources may in fact be among the easier of predispositions for historians to anticipate. As with the trial manuscripts and Jesuit letters in the Andean case, these missionary biases against indigenous religions did not always preclude thorough descriptions of those religions. They offer another way to reconstruct, however tentatively and blurrily, the histories of how certain indigenous peoples interacted with gods and spirits, or to appreciate fragments of what such agents said or did in important historical moments. Such reports were often compiled and published monthly or annually. Today, they can be found in missionary society repositories (for instance, Oxford’s Angus Library and Archive for the Baptist Missionary Society) or in edited anthologies. Source [F] is one such report, written in 1891 by the Welsh missionary William Williams.
This section is organised around two mountain geographies, each of which offers a particularly rich vista on key themes in the histories of upland spirits, gods, and the people they have lived with. The case studies draw on sources from the six source categories discussed above and offer practical advice on how students can use these types of source to develop research questions and support arguments. For all of these sources we will be referring back to the key question mentioned above: ‘what might the past look like – what surprises might be in store – if historians approached religion a little less on our modern, Euro-normative and secular terms and a little more on our historical subjects’ terms?’
Source [A] is taken from the Corónica moralizada, written and published in 1638 by the Augustinian friar, Antonio de la Calancha. In this excerpt he is describing the missionary feats of a predecessor of his, friar Juan Ramírez, who worked as a missionary in the central to northern Andean highlands during the mid-sixteenth century. This particular episode refers to a dispute that arose between the friar and some of his parishioners as he set about finding and destroying indigenous deities and shrines that were hidden in remote places, close to summits of mountains, and which were still in use. There are a number of ways of interpreting this document; perhaps the most obvious is in terms of the social and religious conflict between the friar and these Andean parishioners generated by his campaign to eliminate indigenous (non-Catholic) religious worship. Thus at its most basic level, it is a story of religious colonialism, imposition, and resistance. There are two worldviews in conflict: the European Christian and the Andean. On the face of it, there are also two groups of historical actors in conflict: the Spanish friar and the Andean worshippers (for the purposes of the following discussion we do not need to include the Spanish travellers who saved the friar from certain death). This can be our starting point, so how might we develop our interpretation in terms of our key methodological question?
We would suggest that for this particular source the above starting point is largely correct, although it does develop a modern, secular understanding of the (violent) exchange taking place (colonialism, imposition, resistance). We are, however, not much closer to understanding how the historical actors themselves understood the dispute, whether from the perspective of the Andeans who fought to take back and protect their deity, or from the perspective of the friar (and his colleague, the narrator) who fought (and lost) to keep it from them. Added to which, we would add an important corrective: there are not two groups of historical actors involved in the dispute, but four. Who are they? Of course, we can count the immediately obvious (and visible) Andeans versus Ramírez, but the tendency is to dismiss the two deities in the midst of the fray. The Andean deity is merely an object, or ‘idol’ that was fought over by humans, yet, as the Andeans were trying to take it back from the friar, we read:
He [Juan Ramírez] defended it with God’s zeal and they seized it from him with bestial rage. He abhorred their diabolical fury and they the law of Christ, and they soon took it from his arms. And, as if the Idol could hear them, they spoke soothingly to it and asked it to punish the blessed priest. (Source [A], p.2.)
With respect to this passage, it is still ambiguous, metaphorically worded. It uses the phrase: ‘as if’, indicating that the narrator, at least, did not believe that the deity could hear the Andeans. Nevertheless, it is also clear that the Andeans themselves were sure that their deity could hear them. Why else would they try to calm it down through words? At the same time this section also hints to the respective hidden agency of the two deities: ‘God’s zeal’ enabled the friar to defend his own position, while ‘diabolical fury’ (from the perspective of the friar and the narrator – we might re-write this with ‘fury of the indigenous deity’ to invert the perspective) was acting within the Andeans. Perhaps these might be metaphorical descriptions used by the narrator to provide emphasis, but with that we lose an essential part of what all the human actors believed to be happening – in other words, the reality that was being documented.
The following sentences in the passage make the position of the actors even clearer:
The zeal of Elijah was kindled within him, and with vile curses he insulted the Idol and anathemised the idolaters, hounding their liberty and contending their brazenness – effects [in them] of [their] ultimate perdition, and, in him, of courageous charity. The devil, who wanted to bet infernal zeal against divine zeal, entered them and with some picking up sticks and others stones, they thrashed and broke him. (Source [A], p.2.)
This section refers to the biblical passage in which Elijah confronts King Ahab and the prophets of Baal. In a direct contest of worship, holy fire rained down from heaven proving Elijah the victor (1 Kings 18). The contest had fatal consequences for the losers, who were put to death. The chapter ends with Elijah being filled with ‘the power of the Lord’ so that he could run alongside Ahab’s chariot back to the city of Jezrahel (1 Kings 18:46). The narrator, Calancha, is now openly stating that this same power was at work within Juan Ramírez as he cursed the Andean deity and its worshippers. The agent responsible for the Andeans’ response, meanwhile, was not the Andeans themselves, rather it was ‘the devil’ (read indigenous deity) – that same deity that they had tried to protect and had spoken soothingly to once they had wrested it from him – who entered them and gave them the strength and will to beat the priest to a bloody pulp. Essentially, human actors are no longer the primary actors in the conflict but have become vessels for the real agents, the Andean deity and the Christian god. If we take this as our second step, we begin the journey towards a very different understanding than that of simply colonial imposition and resistance.
Source [B], dating from 1617, arguably makes for more difficult reading than Source [A]. In this excerpt the structures and effects of colonialism are laid bare as the narrator, a Jesuit, outlines the clerical and secular authorities that support the implementation of the campaigns of extirpation of idolatry. He also outlines the way the extirpation works: the visitor, or ecclesiastical judge, acts punitively and takes a hard-line approach to rooting out what is perceived to be idolatry, while the Jesuits who supported the campaigns at this point in time, and accompanied the visitors, used pedagogy (preaching, confession, and liturgical penance) as their ‘softer’ method. The following lines speak volumes:
The mission began in the town of Guacha, which is 22 leagues from Lima, but filled with such ignorant people that there seemed to be more than a thousand, none of whom knew how to make the sign of the cross, had no idea of the existence of God, or didn’t know the Catechism (which was most usual) or if they knew it they were like parrots for it never having been explained. No-one dared to come near the Fathers and all seemed to be in agreement in covering up their idolatries, such that even using torture they could not find trace of the great evil that had been covered up: nothing but a confused mention of certain huacas. (Source [B], p.2.)
Supposed ‘ignorance’, according to this Jesuit, was no protection from the extirpation. What they were ‘ignorant’ of was the fundaments of the Catholic faith and this lack of knowledge, he openly admitted, was due to it ‘never having been explained’. The subsequent violence of the extirpatory mission is highlighted by the admission that ‘no-one dared to come near the [priests]’ and, worse, that ‘even using torture they could not find trace of the great evil [indigenous religious practices] that had been covered up’. This, without doubt, is a story of colonial religious oppression and resistance to that oppression, yet readers should not stop there. Once again, with our key question in mind we might ask, for example, what was it that drove Spanish priests to such extremes in their missionary activities? It would be highly misleading to assume in the majority of cases (although it is possible in some particular occasions) that the base, secular, and even psychotic motivation of power and its assertion over vulnerable opponents was at its root; nor is it enough to assume that mere structures (as part of this assertion of power) were the cause. Instead, behind all these actions is a fallen angel. The fact that the Jesuit narrator cannot see Andean deities as anything but demonic generates such an extreme reaction as he (and others on the campaign) see themselves as soldiers in the near-eternal struggle between the forces of Satan and those of heaven. No matter how mistaken and decontextualised their understanding of Andean religious practices, for the Spanish, Satan’s presence as a counterpoint to God’s, was the baseline from which all action and reaction was predicated. This can be our interpretative baseline too as we can examine the mechanisms of the extirpation even while highlighting its oppressive nature by asking questions about the Spanish understanding of what they were doing, what effects they saw, what effects this violent aspect of the Catholic worldview had on that of the Andean peoples who suffered it. And this is but one side of the story.
For the Andean peoples themselves, we have another narrative to construct. What can we make of the phrase: ‘No-one dared to come near the Fathers’, followed by ‘all seemed to be in agreement in covering up their idolatries’? In the first part, the fact that the Andeans were afraid is patently obvious and, based on what the Jesuit goes on to say about the use of torture – which, unfortunately, was a standard judicial procedure in Europe and the Americas at the time to extract ‘truthful’ information – such fear is completely reasonable. We would suggest, however, that if we consider the Andeans’ relationship with their patron deities, their fear goes even deeper than the immediate harm that might be done to their own individual bodies and the pain that would result. Andean ancestral deities were kinship communities’ sources of life, and this link was not just contained in the distant past, but also dependent on their on-going relationship. The Spanish extirpation made no bones about their intention to destroy the community’s ‘idols’, yet these deities were responsible for the fertility of the crops, the livestock and the people, and for the fragile climactic and ecological balance, with which an inundation, a rockslide, an earthquake, or even a simple frost, made the difference between survival and death. The violent Spanish destruction of their deities amounted to a violent destruction of themselves, their children and their children’s children; what they feared was not just temporary torture – no matter how horrendous – it was the severing of the intimate reciprocal link between themselves and their deities that ultimately could (and would most likely) bring about their extinction. It is hardly surprising, in this context, that ‘all were in agreement in covering up their idolatries’.
The second detail worth commenting on is the fact that even with torture the Spanish extirpators obtained very little information, ‘just a confused mention of certain huacas’ (regional deities). What we see here is not outright obstinacy and resistance, but rather utter perplexity at what the Spanish were doing and what they were asking for. The missionary interpreted Andean reticence to provide information as malicious, and certainly the fear of destruction was reason enough to keep silent; yet the missionary also indicates a lack of comprehension on the part of the Andeans of what the Spaniards wanted to know and why they would have such destructive intent. The reciprocal link between themselves and their deities was the way reality was constructed, the reason for their continued existence. Why would anyone want to sever it? It made no sense.
For source [C] we move forward in time just over 150 years and travel north to the highlands which were part of the province and diocese of the coastal city of Trujillo. There we witness the trial for idolatrous witchcraft of the indigenous woman named Maria Francisca in 1771, and the subsequent flurry of memos between ecclesiastical judges, parish priests and Francisco Javier de Luna Victoria y Castro, bishop of Trujillo (appointed 1758, died 1777). The testimonies give detailed insight into the structural process of these trials which followed inquisitorial procedures of denunciation (evidence gathering), arrest and successive hearings in which the defendant would be interrogated and would give her (or his) own testimonies leading to (the authorities hoped) a confession, before sentencing. Notwithstanding the detail contained within this particular source, some of the evidence is missing, and other parts are slightly confused. This may be down to any of a number of factors: the pressure that the defendant herself was under; the mediation of languages (Quechua or Yunga to Spanish); the difficulty faced by the notary to transcribe everything at speed; the ravages of time on the archival material; and finally, that what was available was an imperfect twentieth-century transcription of the case. We also learn that Maria Francisca escaped or was released before the trial’s conclusion and could not be relocated when the authorities took up the case again in 1774. From certain details in the final memos it also appears that her prosecution may have been obstructed by particular ecclesiastical rivalries in the region (source [C], p.22).
A surface reading of the source leaves us with the impression that this is a classic case of witchcraft-hunting that was so common in northern Europe and the North American colonies during the preceding century. Here is a vulnerable old woman, a widow, an outsider to the community, accused by a man of carrying out maleficent enchantments on his daughter, somewhat incredibly (given the traditional European, and later, disneyesque connotations) through the gift of a poisoned apple (among other things). When the woman is arrested, she is imprisoned for months, and over the course of that time in numerous hearings, begins to confess in increasing detail and to name accomplices in her witchcraft. ‘Why did she flee?’ her accusers asked, implying that this was indicative of her guilt; because she was terrified of the rumours of persecution, she reasonably replied (p.5). As a caveat, we might note that there does not appear to be any torture used as part of the judicial proceedings and it is important to bear in mind that this was legally permissible and would have been documented were it ordered. Nevertheless, this does not undermine the argument that the defendant was extremely vulnerable during her captivity and would have been highly afraid once she heard the rumours of her arrest warrant. So of course the accusations and confessions are a fabrication, we might say – the former due to local hatreds, and the latter, a fantastical result of the psychological and physical pressure she was under and her fervent desire to please her captors.
Yet once again, this does not come close to telling the whole story. In her defence to the initial accusations by Joseph Acero Jaico, Maria Francisca demonstrates that while she is vulnerable, she is far from helpless. Early on in her testimony, without actually admitting to using magic herself she turns the accusation back on her accuser, saying that he was the one who had taught her magical herb-lore during the time he was her lover (p.5). He could cure his daughter himself if she so wished. It is worth noting that while at this stage in the process Maria Francisca denies having enchanted Acero Jaico’s daughter, La China, at no point does she argue that such things are not possible. Instead, the details she reveals, even at this early point, are indicative of a magical world in which Andeans moved, loved, and fought bitterly.
What were these details? Maria Francisca recounts, for example, the knowledge that an elegant female, most likely the guardian of a local spring and thus either the priestess of the huaca or an apparition of the huaca itself, relayed to La China that she had been attacked through malefice by Maria Francisca (p.4). To this day in the coastal and highland regions of Peru, such occult knowledge is relayed by huacas to patients through shamanic healers. She accused Acero Jaico, her ex-lover, of having purged her ‘on the mountain of Aguiñuay’, indicating that he was an adept who both used the hallucinogenic cactus San Pedro (Echinopsis pachanoi) as the purge and, through its use in that place, was intimately linked to the huaca of the mountain and its power. Already we have diverged significantly from the secular narrative of baseless European witch-hunts and are located in an Andean world where magic and the spirits from whom magical power came were real and dangerous. According to the 1774 memo summarising the case, when empirical evidence of the enchantment was found, the normally sceptical Spanish authorities handed her the bundle to disenchant. This she did and the victim recovered (p.17).
Magical danger becomes even more evident as Maria Francisca’s testimony progresses and she begins to admit to more acts of witchcraft together with female colleagues under the tutelage of one Hilaria Murga. As the interrogations continue, she confesses to the magical murder and attempted murder of numerous members of the community, some even as contractual killings as a result of jealousy. While we cannot discount the possibility that these were fantastical confessions as a result of the extreme pressure of captivity and interrogation, we would also put a second possibility to the reader, bearing in mind our key aim, to try to approach the testimony on our historical actors’ terms. Consider that Maria Francisca has been implicated in harmful magic practices, that she in turn has implicated her accuser in similar Andean magical practices, and her victim who obtained knowledge of her sickness by consulting a huaca. Given that the first three principal protagonists mentioned in the trial had intimate knowledge of magic and spirits, and that there is no reason to presume that these people are extraordinary in the community, is it not likely, then, that the vast majority of the villagers in that community also had access to occult knowledge, whether through consultation of others, or through direct practice? We would suggest that it was.
The final detail we will highlight here is perhaps the one that is most difficult for modern readers (including ourselves) to engage with: María Francisca’s declaration that she was visited in gaol by two of her colleagues, one named Tomasa de Agueda (alias Tomasa Caipo) in the form of a condor, the other, the ring-leader, Hilaria Murga in the form of a cat (pp.13, 18). Once again, we might reasonably interpret this as fantastical inventions either caused by the pressure of captivity, or designed to prey on the credulity of her captors to corroborate her evidence. Once again, however, we would ask the reader to consider other nuances. The ability to take on other forms (in particular that of birds) has been long documented in the Andean world (see in particular, Brosseder, 2014, pp.82–92). Of course, we cannot say for certain whether these women did take on animal forms in order to approach the gaol and would not attempt to do so here (interestingly, the Spanish authorities also appear to have reserved judgement on the matter), but we might pay closer attention to a few of the details surrounding this nocturnal visit. According to her testimony (and the subsequent memo), the women approached Maria Francisca’s cell for one of two reasons, either to break her out of gaol so that she did not incriminate them further, or to frighten her into silence. While the gaol break did not work, Maria Francisca’s fear was palpable. This was not so much fear of her captors by this point; rather, it was a plea to her captors for protection from those women she had betrayed: women who had the power to change shape; women who had the power to kill.
Transitioning to the Northeast Indian context, we turn now to source [D]. To live in zo ram at the turn of the twentieth century was to live with forest spirits. This source [D] collects a series of important articles published in the Mizo language between 1904 and 1906 that report on the movements and predations of ramhuai. What surprises might be in store if we try to approach the ramhuai less on modern historians’ terms (as ‘religion’ or ‘belief’, and thus as symbol, tool or deception) and more like a historical Mizo would? To do so first requires treating ramhuai less as part of a Mizo ‘worldview’ and more as part of the regional environment. It also requires humility: acknowledging that historical Mizos knew their forest environment far better than modern historians ever will. Mizo lives were intimately entwined with the forest’s ecologies, its produce, inhabitants, and seasonal cycles. Without alternative evidence, we have no inherent reason to doubt the sincerity and truth of Mizo reports about forest spirits, which across the entire gamut of historical evidence hold that ramhuai were intensely real and physical forest predators.
Ramhuai lived and moved in groups, hunted humans, making them sick or possessing them, experienced hunger, and had their own individual and collective histories, in addition to knowable patterns of behaviour and predation. Mizos made attempts to communicate across species divides with these dangerous jungle-dwellers, feeding the ramhuai (through complex practices that missionaries generally reduced to the word ‘sacrifices’), attempting to negotiate with them (through what missionaries called ‘witch-doctors’), and defending against their predations (by building physical fences around villages suffering epidemics and by using secure construction techniques).
The collection of articles offers a rich glimpse into this crowded world. The reports are striking in their exactitude. They depict far more than an anonymous religious force. Most of the authors (Thangluaia, Bawia, and Dorikhuma, for instance) describe how ramhuai acted on precise dates. Thangi and Thangluia’s articles show ramhuai demanded specific meats and items. Bawiah and Dorikhuma’s articles note how ramhuai lived only in specific areas, with specific population distributions. Thangi, from the village of Lungmawi, reports on ramhuai activity in a neighbouring village called Khuanghlum, explaining that ramhuai were everywhere in that area. Ramhuai hunting tactics also emerge: three articles (Thangluia, Dokhama, and Chhinga’s) report the seizure of lone wood-collectors attacked in the jungle.. The account of Bawia and Dokhama reveals that ramhuai had distinct physiologies or genera, as well as histories independent of their interaction with humans – pasts besides those made meaningful to humans by human involvement. Locations of ramhuai attacks evidenced violent, physical encounter, as in the October 1904 article where ramhuai victim Chalthiangi’s ‘bag, pipe and em [bamboo basket]’ were found strewn about in the forest (Source [D], Chhinga, p.14).
This case of Chalthiangi is an especially revealing one. In 1898, she had been collecting wood near Lalbuta’s village when she was possessed by ramhuai. The article notes specific locations, as well as villagers’ experiments to determine Chalthiangi’s fate. Eventually, the ramhuai who possessed Chalthiangi told the people of Lalbuta’s village that it had visited the old village site of Khawnglung. This was revealed to be an allusion to an infamous inter-village feud and attendant massacres that happened at that site between 1856 and 1859. The ramhuai then reported a bombshell:
[A]ll the people who had died in Khawnglung village had not gone to pialral [the historical Mizo afterworld], but rather they were all still with the ramhuai near the village cliff and there were many of them. There were people in Lalbuta’s village who had migrated from Khawnglung and they asked the ramhuai to tell them the names of those who had died, and he was able to name each and everyone of them and they were amazed by it. They exclaimed ‘This woman Chalthiangi had never been to our village and yet she is able to name all the deceased’. (Source [D], Chhinga, p.106.)
For a people whose living relationships were not severed by death, these revelations – words that entangled human histories with ramhuai ones, and that spanned generations and migrations – must have been horrifying to the Mizos who may have heard them first-hand in 1898. Now in 1904, Chhinga, the Mizo author of the article and an associate of the Welsh mission, amplified the horrors across the land using the unprecedented broadcast tool of print media. Instead of a departed soul journeying to ‘Rih lake and […] a beautiful place’ (p.16), wrote Chhinga, there was now empirical evidence that the souls of those killed in the most notorious mass killing in Mizo collective memory had in fact been imprisoned by a specific group of ramhuai. ‘The people of Khawnglung probably think that their loved ones have gone to be with their forefathers’, writes Chhinga. ‘But the ramhuai clearly stated where they are’ (p.16). Chhinga ends his article by offering a Mizo take on the European missionary message, urging his readers to ‘quit [their] loyalty to the ramhuai, and to believe in the one who can protect your house and give you life’ (p.16). His article is remarkable not for its weaving together of human histories with ramhuai pasts, but for introducing the intervening power of the new Kristian dan (‘Christian ways’) being offered at the mission compound.
It would be easy to offer a functionalist interpretation here: Chhinga’s status as a mission school student makes him far from an impartial observer of ramhuai, and mission students would naturally claim the power of Christ, perhaps even as a tool to curry favour with their missionary teachers who controlled many local government appointments with the new colonial regime. A careful reader might even notice that the possessed Chalthiangi seems to have evidenced her power in a way similar to the biblical example of Jesus Christ with the Samaritan woman (John 4:39): Chalthiangi could recount the village’s deceased though visiting for the first time (thus impressing the Mizo villagers), while Jesus could recount details from the Samaritan woman’s personal life though visiting for the first time (thus impressing the Samaritan villagers); both accounts alluded to details impossible to know without the intervention of a real, other-than-human power. Meanwhile, an interpretation emphasising symbolism might suggest that the grand profusion of ramhuai reports was itself symptomatic of the trauma of colonial invasion: ramhuai were metaphors for turbulent and dangerous times.
Perhaps. However, observations on the new Christian ways subsequently started to fill the newspaper, from diverse and often independent sources. In 1905, one Tamliana of Khuanglum village reported on a villager called Khuangtuahi’s seizure by ramhuai. An expert had been called to negotiate with the predator, who refused to offer up his demands (again providing a clue that ramhuai were individuals to be approached on a case-by-case basis). Food was eventually called for: a boiled egg and some chicken soup. Villagers then began ascertaining hierarchies: ‘[W]hen they talked about God, the ramhuai decided to leave’ (source [D], Tamliana, p.19). They offered the ramhuai chicken meat as he departed, a strong clue that these were not Christian villagers, but rather villagers experimenting with a new spirit power. The article’s summary demonstrates several mid-process power struggles that would have deeply concerned readers and listeners, and suggested that humans ally with the demonstrably more powerful of two non-human forces:
From the behaviour of this ramhuai, it is very clear that the ramhuai are afraid of [the Christian god] Pathian. These days in zo ram the word of God [Pathian thu] is in abundance. Since we are afraid of the ramhuai, and the ramhuai in turn are afraid of Pathian, it is very good that we believe in him. The ramhuai are about to give up: if we all believe in God it is a very good thing. There are many ramhuai in this world and we never hear of them defeating Pathian. We used to give things to the ramhuai and this is a bad thing. My friends and brothers let us all believe in Pathian and the ramhuai will be defeated. (Source [D], Tamliana, p.19.)
Far from the two-dimensional concerns of ‘savages’, these are indigenous experimenters testing out the power credentials of the missionaries’ God, who Mizos could bring on board to bolster an already wide arsenal of ways to deal with ramhuai. Although European missionaries saw Mizo concerns with ramhuai as superstitious and these early articles on ramhuai behaviours as useless, the more open-minded perspective we are advocating here suggests that it was precisely because the forest beings were living and moving, and human relationships with them dynamic, that people initially became interested in the power of the missionary message. As in the Andean case, such a perspective here allows historians to widen our historical lenses to appreciate meaningful interactions now between four sides (missionaries, Mizos, ramhuai, Pathian) rather than two, and two kinds of mountain dwellers (ramhuai and human) rather than one.
Source [E] is a photograph of a Mizo wedding. How might we build upon our insight into a teeming world of ramhuai? Can it help us think about other types of sources in fresh ways? A photograph like this (which shows a wedding held at the region’s flagship church in 1936) is useful for a wide range of research questions. The digitised image is of high enough resolution to allow the historian to zoom in and to examine clothing styles; to ask questions about collective memory by examining the large memorial to the right of the image (erected in memory of the ‘first Mizo Christian’); or to think about social hierarchies (European missionaries are centred in the group). At first glance, the photo has nothing to do with spirits.
However, if we shift our perspective to attempt to see with Mizo logics, the photograph starts to take on a different appearance. Throughout the early 1900s, the typical Mizo structure was windowless – a widespread and pragmatic security precaution that sealed off ramhuai from human dwellings. Assumptions about health and security dictated architectural design across zo ram. When in 1901 a superintendent asked the great chief Khamliana why the literate and notoriously progressive chief did not renovate his house to add an office and window, Khamliana replied that he would like to, but had been sternly warned by his advisors (upa) against it. Not even the most modern chief in the land would risk a window.
The photograph holds hints for us about specifically Mizo experiences by revealing how far missionary and colonial styles of architecture jarred with Mizo norms. At least 12 windows are visible here in this church, which was constructed in its photographed form in 1913. Missionaries faced profound difficulty in getting Mizos to associate with them in those earlier years (it took the first two missionaries nearly five years to baptise their first two Mizo converts, including the one whose memorial is in the photograph). This difficulty is most often interpreted as a series of conceptual problems: missionary and Mizo intellectual concepts were too divergent, language hindered communication, and so on. The perspective we are experimenting with here suggests an alternative approach: by ‘rereading’ the photograph attuned to a teeming Mizo world, we can see how dangerously designed missionary buildings were. Going inside them was risky in this particular environment. This photograph also allows us to see that Mizos increasingly learned to trust the new architecture, or (if we think back to the articles in the last section) the personal defence and security that the new power of Pathian offered them.
Source [F] is a missionary report. The 1891 death of William Williams, the first Welsh missionary to arrive in zo ram, has so far been reported only in modern epidemiological terms: a fatal bout of enteric (typhoid) fever – case closed. The open-minded perspective we advocate, however, offers reason to reopen this investigation: to the tens of thousands of other people then living in the region, such a sickness also represented an attack of ramhuai. Here we will push our essay’s central question to the limit – indeed beyond even that which we are comfortable with – as an exercise in radical interpretation. While the Euro-normative mode of history writing has so far held sway, there is perhaps as much surviving historical evidence to tilt the balance of probabilities towards the opposite direction. Was William’s death caused by ramhuai rather than by Salmonella typhi?
First, when Williams arrived into zo ram on the banks of the Tlawng, it is clear from his report that he made a racket. He sang hymns (later missionaries recorded that many Mizos thought these attracted ramhuai) and cheerfully encouraged gathering Mizo children to take part: ‘We sang several times to them, and they listened with wide-open mouths’ (p.160). If the children’s gaping mouths suggested fascination to Williams, from a Mizo perspective it is perhaps as likely that they suggested concern or astonishment at William’s brashness. All initially refused William’s exhortations to join in (‘we completely failed to get them to imitate our songs’ [p.160]). In the hills, the sensory world was inherently and inseparably linked with human health: the audible realm in particular was a matter of life and death, for ramhuai listened to and seized those humans careless enough to utter the names of humans, certain animals or ramhuai aloud, or who made strange sounds carelessly. The evidence is tenuous, but the ramhuai had reason to take notice.
Second, as per his culture’s conventional conventions, it is likely that Williams would have introduced himself, unaware of the danger of personal pronouns in this region. Spending a ‘couple of hours’ on the shore, Williams ‘made the best’ of the simple Mizo language he could muster (p.160). In the hills, however, to avoid attracting attention, personal names were only very seldom uttered in conversation; instead, nicknames functioned as a technology of health, one part diversionary tactic and one part prophylactic, against the ever-listening ramhuai. Williams had no such knowledge that in this particular forest environment, names were to be jealously guarded because they encapsulated the thlarau (or dual souls) of the self. The Mizos that Williams met on that shore would only have introduced themselves via a cautious triangulation of nouns, as the son of a father, or as the friend of a friend. Williams was oblivious.
Third, we must consider pure bad luck. William’s particular name – indeed, what were the repeated sounds – William Williams – was unfortunate. Mizo onomatopoeia was signalled by repeated, otherwise meaningless words: awngek awngek (the cry of an infant), ri ri (the grunts of pigs), ak ak (a crow’s call), and so forth. Transported into a hill context, William Williams was not only a name, but also a particularly dangerous sound. In the grave sonic world of zo ram, sounds and onomatopoeia carelessly used could endanger human health by drawing the attention of the ever-listening ramhuai. In his case, Williams’ introductions would have been doubly dangerous. And fourth: Williams travelled the river through known ramhuai territory without the protection of a kelmei – a shock of goats’ hair that was known by locals to repel the forest predators just as fire repels tigers.
We actually have very little evidence that Williams died of typhoid fever (a single report stating the same in this missionary journal), although we have no reason to doubt what we do have. The hypothetical case for Williams’ death by ramhuai has been made here for the first time. We withhold a verdict, but this alternative story does force us to ask a provocative question: why is only one ‘possibility’ a possibility in history writing? Why do historians discount certain knowledge from the start? The young William Williams made all the wrong moves and sounds in a hazardous environment. In the end, his death may have surprised his Liverpool mission board (who could only cite the ‘inscrutable ways of Providence’) much more than it would have surprised those Mizos who met him on that riverside one cold February Sunday in 1891.
Our central question challenges you to ask of your primary sources not what gods and spirits symbolised, but what gods and spirits did and how people interacted with them. There remains much utility in structural, social, or symbolic approaches to religious beliefs and practices. However, no matter how nuanced the social argument, by describing interaction with deities and spirits solely in terms of social function or human power relations a significant gap emerges between the understanding of scholars and readers today, and the understanding of historical actors about whom they are writing and reading. To attempt to narrow that gap, we challenged you to ask: what might the past look like – what surprises might be in store – if you were to approach religion a little less on modern, Euro-normative and secular terms and a little more on our historical subjects’ terms?
In our own preliminary attempt to suggest some practical ideas of how this might be done, we highlighted and analysed details in six different source types from different temporal periods (the sixteenth through to eighteenth and then the mid-nineteenth through to early twentieth centuries) and two mountain regions from opposite sides of the globe (the Peruvian Andes and the Indian sub-continent’s Northeast). In these sources we have endeavoured to take seriously the testimonies that describe interactions with gods and spirits. Doing so allowed us to turn inside out the usual interpretations that deny, reinterpret as something else, or simply ignore these interactions. We now pass the challenge over to you. How might you endeavour to better enter the worlds of your historical actors and to more fully immerse your readers into those worlds?
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