Threefold Stories, Threefold Charm: Becquer's Poetic Ethnography of Witchcraft

Pp. 137-154

  • Maria Tausiet
Keywords: Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, poetic ethnography, Spain, Spanish literature, witchcraft


Some striking examples of magic charms are to be found in three of the tales included by the Spanish writer G. A. Bécquer in his Cartas desde mi celda (Letters from my cell, 1864). Taking a supposed real-life contemporary event as his starting-point – the brutal death at the hands of the villagers of Trasmoz (Aragon) of an old woman accused of witchcraft – he weaves three separate but interconnected stories. Straddling the fields of literature and anthropology, history and fable, the poet is revealed as an astute ethnographer as he examines the basis of the powers attributed to witches in two medieval legends. The central character in the first, which unfolds in Islamic Spain, is a necromancer who obtains the power he longs for by studying books of magic. The second, set in the period after the Christian Reconquest, tells the story of a pretty young woman, a “Cinderella in reverse”, who gets the husband of her dreams thanks to the help not of a fairy godmother but of a cunning sorceress. The spells at the heart of these tales represent three classic reasons for invoking magic: to protect oneself from enemies, to gain power and wealth, and to win love, or at least to subjugate another’s will. The mutual influence of historical charms, which we know about primarily through judicial documents, and literary spells is further proof of the permeability between popular and learned culture. Bécquer, an ardent admirer of Shakespeare, was greatly influenced by Macbeth, and for both poets, despite the enormous power of words, witchcraft was first and foremost, “a deed without a name”.