Shamans and Sorcery

The Lives of the Desert Shamans

by Nicholas Clapp - Author, Old Magic

Shaman... or Sorcerer?

What to make of these shamans? Haughty and scowling. Eyes lidded, yet burning. As an early report had it, “Their snuffy, artful faces are lighted by beady eyes.” Are they men of good or evil intent? The question plagued desert tribes.

Desert Shaman

Tribes roaming the deserts of the far West heeded their shamans; their old magic could conjure rains, bring luck to a hunt, doctor illnesses. They were honored and respected – all but a secretive few.


They cursed rather than cured. They cared only for themselves.

Among the Palm Springs Cahuilla, the tale was told of Met (“Gopher”):

Met was a great shaman who claimed to be God. He could catch bullets in his hands, and see the child in the sun. He bewitched many people and killed them, so his daughter asked the people to kill him. A bear shaman was elected to kill him. It was in summer and the watermelons were ripe; as Met was sitting down eating one of these, he came up behind him and hit him over the head with a digging stick, but he could not kill him. All the other people then piled rocks over Met and finally he died.

Sorcerers died hard. And there was one who never did. From generation to generation, one was a figure of fright to wide-eyed children and their elders. His name: Tahquitz.

Evil Tahquitz

It was said that when the earth was newly formed and populated, the Cahuilla’s creator-god Mukat granted a select few of his people special powers. They would be shamans. The first was Tahquitz, and he was to endure as the most powerful. As related by Francisco Patencio, a latter-day chief:

He was very wise and knew many things. He said, “You watch me now, because there is no danger.” He then took an arrow, pushed it down his throat, then thrust it in his side, then through his head at the temples, then stabbed himself through the lungs. He said, “You can see it is nothing. I am not dead. It is only play.”

He was a man of great power. But he did not do any good. He never tried to cure anybody, or do any good for anyone. So he did not have any friends among his people, and he knew that he did not deserve any.

He became a very bad spirit… He speaks through the lightning and thunder, and is seen everywhere. He kills the people, and the spirits of the people.

Tahquitz, Chief Patencio continued, roamed a rocky canyon in the San Jacinto Mountains.

Tahquitz roamed a rocky canyon in the San Jacinto Mountains
One of many caves in boulder-strewn Tahquitz Canyon.

One of many caves in boulder-strewn Tahquitz Canyon.

There, he dwelt in a cave under a large rock. There, he learned to fly and assume all manner of clever disguises, which allowed him to inveigle men and women – especially young women – up his canyon. While on their way, the sky would darken and lightning would flash – and Tahquitz would loom, revealed as the monster he truly was. A giant, a demon! He’d kill with a terrible sweep of his hand. Pulling an arm free of its socket, he’d gnaw its still warm flesh. Bones crunched between his teeth; blood oozed from his jaw, ran down his arms, soaked his gnarled hands.

Tahquitz would march on up his canyon – each stomp of his huge feet an echoing peal of thunder – to finish his dinner in his lair.

The Cahuilla believed that the infernal shaman lived on in his haunted canyon. Only the foolhardy would venture up there, to quickly flee at the sound of strange noises reverberating in the mountain – the groans of victims, the roar of the cannibal-demon. For sorcerers to come, he would be a demonic role model in their pursuit of wicked ways.

Witching, the ways

Sorcerer shamans, as one might expect, were secretive. Even so, from good shamans anxious to expose them, glimpses survive of their craft. Accordingly, it is possible to venture a sampling of their maleficence.

In his dreams
A sorcerer could concentrate his dark thoughts by day, and by night dream the image of his victim, and in that dream, grasp a sharp stick and impale the victim’s heart.

Close contact
A sorcerer could work his magic upon touching a person, handing him food, or, in feigned friendship, offering him a pipe packed with tobacco. When no one was looking, he might sprinkle powdered elephant tree bark on a victim’s food, and bitterness would soon rack his body. All the while, there would not be the slightest hint of what the sorcerer was up to.

Anything personal could be used to witch someone – hair from a comb, nail parings, clothing, spittle, or blood. Their whole lives through, Cahuillas would keep these to themselves, or take extraordinary care in their disposal.

Still, a wily sorcerer could scoop sand from a person’s footprint, and witch his feet and legs with searing pain.

Magical airshots
Playing an eagle bone whistle, a sorcerer would seek out his desert’s “poison places,” and there, in a basketry tray, sweep up supernatural airshot. Exactly what this was is hard to say, for it was invisible. Nevertheless, it was capable – as an arrow – of propelling a disease object into an intended victim’s body. The skin wouldn’t be broken, but the evil little object would be there – festering and death-dealing – unless and until a benevolent shaman sucked it out, spat it into a hole, and quickly buried it.

Frog sorcery
This was the worst. The excrement of a victim would be obtained, stuffed into a frog’s mouth, and the poor creature’s mouth pinned shut with thorns. The sorcerer would order: “Go on… eat it!”

Innocent frog

“That person would die for sure,” Cahuilla shaman Ruby Modesto was to lament, “Nothing can be done to counteract frog sorcery.”

From wishing ill to tormenting frogs, a sorcerer-shaman’s courting of evil was a cautionary tale. Innocently enough, he might mix and peddle – for a price – a potion that in the eyes of a sought-after lover, could make the ugliest of men and women be handsome and beautiful, radiantly so. Next, on behalf of an offended or enraged friend or acquaintance, he might be engaged – for a good price – to even the score with whoever had set the man off. The shaman would answer the call of the desert flicker: “Pee-um, pee-um” – “Witch him, witch him!”

He would savor the results, and soon be tangled in a spider web of his own spinning. According to (good) shaman Joe Green, “After a shaman poisons one person, he cannot stop. Then he always wants to make people sick and kill them.” Cahuilla medicine woman Ruby Modesto was to add, “Some shamans were just plain evil. They would poison people just to get rid of them, even in their own family.”

Desert mask of death

A desert mask of death.

Sorcerers at the peak of the power, it was believed, would revel in evil beyond measure. Witching up drought or torrential rain, they could wipe out crops. They could whip up an epidemic.

In the end, what of the supremely demonic Tahquitz?

In legend, despite many attempts, he couldn’t be killed. He lived – and lives on.

In December of 1899, he was credited with a destructive San Jacinto earthquake. As Cheif Francisco Patencio would have it, he “causes the wrecks of trains and automobiles, and delights in everything that makes people trouble.”

Ever a master of disguises, he was said to have in broad daylight strolled the hamlet of Palm Springs. Gray-gloved and sporting a fancy cane, he appeared “all some swell white man.”

If a meteor flashed low across the night sky, the Cahuilla – especially young women – shuddered and looked away, for that was Tahquitz, ever on the hunt for wandering souls.


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