Thursday, February 5, 2009


The conquistadors came to the New World to 'conquer, convert and exploit' the inhabitants. They brought priests with them on all their expeditions. They were certainly successful in converting the indigenous people. Every town in Ecuador has a Catholic church and much of the population is in church on Sunday. The priests were often well meaning and made efforts to support and protect the local people.

It is interesting to see how the native people have incorporated the Catholic religion into their original belief system. When we visited the shaman in Illumin near Otavalo, I paid attention to his 'altar', which was jampacked with items which were relevant to his beliefs. Amongst the statues and crystals and stones and ashtrays full of cigarette butts, were statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. His incantations were full of references to 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph', along with local spirits and 'huacas' which are physical manifestations or representations of spirits. The walls of the shaman's house had pictures of Jesus ( along with bigger pictures of the shaman in leather and aviator glasses, and still more calendars with naked ladies). I wonder how it was that this foreign religion had resonsance for them , that it was embraced as much as it was imposed on them. They appear to be dedicated in their Catholic beliefs as much as they refuse to let go of their ancient beliefs.

The mountains are gods and goddesses with personalities and feelings. Acknowledgement is made to the old gods over and over again, often as the essential part of any significant action or project. I have seen people make movements with their hands which appear to be equivalent to the signing of the cross, as a way to refer to the old gods who may be listening. I am reminded of the word 'synchretism', the merging of cultures and belief systems.

The church exploited the people. When initially conquering a tribe, the conquistadors were obliged to present the 'requirement', which informed the soon to be conquered that they must give up their beliefs and honour only the Catholic god, that they hand over their lands to the Spanish king....and of course if they did not agree to the 'requirement' they were killed. Initially it appears that the natives had no choice but to covert (or die!), but in time they have embraced this religion and made it their own.

The church has also been a force for good. Many priests were appalled at the treatment of the native people and wrote to King Philip of Spain, exhorting him to impose limits on the conquistadors and more respectful treatment of natives. They fought against slavery. The priests learned the local languages and wrote down Quichua. They set up schools and hospitals and universities.

So Ecuador is a very Catholic country and the church continues to exert its power to do good and otherwise.

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