Myscofski (2020 Congress)

Carole A. Myscofski
Illinois Wesleyan University)

“Divining the Future in Sixteenth-Century Brazil:
Texts and Pretexts”

Abstract of Paper
Intended To be presented at the 55th International Congress on Medieval Studies [CANCELLED]
(Kalamazoo, 2020)

Rescheduled for the 56th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2021)

Session II of II on
“Revealing the Unknown”
Part II:  “Sortilège, Bibliomancy, and Divination”

Co-Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and the Societas Magica
Organized by Phillip A. Bernhardt–House

2020 Congress Program

2021 Congress Program Planning

[Published on 10 March 2020, with an Update on 17 March 2020 reporting the Cancellation of the Congress as a whole,
and with an Update on 19 November 2020 reporting the Rescheduling for the 2021 Congress



In my session paper, I propose to discuss the use of books and related magical materials in colonial Brazil to glimpse the future and the unknown. In the late 1500s, Portuguese immigrants and residents of mixed ethnicities responded to the uncertainties of the colonial life by turning first to well-rehearsed Catholic prayers and then to well-established divination techniques preserved from their European and African pasts. Women sought information on missing fathers and husbands, the whereabouts of stolen objects, and their own individual fates.  Men, by contrast, sought out missing slaves and possibilities for personal advantage. In this same period, the Portuguese Inquisition promulgated lists of religious crimes to be denounced and confessed to its Tribunal; these included the practices of divination, spells, magical cures, and curses, but with no details specified. In the reports from the Visitations of the Inquisition to Brazil in the late 1500s and early 1600s, both women and men were associated with divination and, as they denounced others or confessed themselves, they revealed details of their lives, wishes, and ritual preferences to the visiting Inquisitors. The means and purposes for divination indicate other gendered differences in seeking the unknown: only men were literate and so might consult books or use sortilège in conjunction with books, while women used a wider means of divining the unknown with commonly-available brooms, boots, and the occasional demon. And while women offered excuses to the Inquisitors for their magic, men simply reported on the power and successes of divination in their lives.