How does a tiny Spanish village of just 62 souls come to be excommunicated in its entirety and cursed with a spell so strong that only the Pope can lift it?
To find out more about this bizarre story of witchcraft, superstition, revenge, envy and power, I headed to the village of Trasmoz, nested in the foothills of the snow-covered Moncayo mountain range in Aragon. Trasmoz has centuries of witchcraft history, and I’d arranged to meet Lola Ruiz Diaz, a local modern-day witch, to learn the truth. As I waited for her in the freezing-cold hall of the half-ruined 12th-century Trasmoz Castle, perched on a hilltop above the village, I shivered in anticipation.
Ruiz, custodian of the castle, greeted me with a broad smile. She had grey hair, green eyes, chic clothes and a laptop under her arm – a far cry from the crystal balls, black candles and Tarot cards I’d been envisaging. The only things that seemed remotely witch-like about her outfit were her earrings – dangling small gold owls with little feathers attached – and the gold amulets around her neck.
“The whole saga of witchcraft in Trasmoz starts here, at this castle,” she explained. “During the 13th Century, the castle occupants dedicated their time to forging fake coins. And to keep the people of Trasmoz from investigating all that scraping and hammering, they spread a rumour that witches and sorcerers were rattling chains and forging cauldrons to boil magic potions at night. It worked, and Trasmoz was forever associated with witchcraft.”
Ruiz explained that at this time Trasmoz was a thriving community and powerful fiefdom, full of iron and silver mines and vast wood and water reserves. It was also lay territory, which meant it didn’t belong to the surrounding Catholic dominion of the Church, and by royal decree didn’t have to pay dues or taxes to the nearby monastery of Veruela – a fact that angered the Church. So when rumours of Trasmoz as a haven for witchcraft started to spread beyond the village boundaries, the abbot of Veruela seized his opportunity to punish the population, requesting that the archbishop of Tarazona, the biggest nearby town, excommunicate the entire village. This meant that they weren’t allowed to go to confession or take the holy sacraments at the Catholic church.
The wealthy community of Trasmoz, a mix of Jews, Christians and Arabs, didn’t repent – which would have been the only way to remove the excommunication. The disputes with Veruela continued for many years, finally coming to a head when the monastery started diverting water from the village instead of paying for it. In response, Pedro Manuel Ximenez de Urrea, the Lord of Trasmoz, took up arms against the monastery. But before an outright war could erupt, the matter was taken up by King Ferdinand II, who decided that Trasmoz’s actions were justified.
The Church never forgave the defeat, and – with the explicit permission of Pope Julius II – cast a curse over the village in 1511 by chanting psalm 108 of the Book of Psalms – the most powerful tool the Church possesses to pronounce a curse. They alleged that Pedro Manuel and the people of Trasmoz had been blinded by witchcraft, and since the curse was sanctioned by the Pope, only a Pope has the power to lift it. None have done so to this day.
The years that followed were not easy for Trasmoz. The castle burned to the ground in 1520 and remained in ruins for centuries. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in the 15th Century, Trasmoz fell into decline, from about 10,000 inhabitants to a population of just 62, only half of which live here permanently. The village today has no shops, no school and only one bar. Many houses are in disrepair and the streets are mostly empty.
Back in the castle, Ruiz led me down the steep steps of the tower, which has been restored to house a tiny witchcraft museum and a collection of black magic paraphernalia such as brooms, black crucifixes and cauldrons. Crossing the courtyard, we came to a platform dominated by a wrought-iron sculpture of a woman. “This is La Tia Casca, the last witch to be killed in Trasmoz, in 1860,” Ruiz said. “A deadly epidemic had broken out and neither cure nor explanation was found. So they blamed La Tia Casca, as she was thought to be strange and secretive. They rounded her up and threw her into a deep well, on top of which we are actually standing.”
La Tia Casca may have been the last witch to be killed in Trasmoz, but the tradition of witchcraft seems to be alive and well in the Spanish village. Every June, during the Feria de Brujeria festival, a market sells lotions and potions made from the healing and hallucinogenic herbs and plants that grow in the surrounding Moncayo mountains. Actors re-enact historical scenes, such as the rounding up and torture of presumed witches. And one lucky person gets named as the Witch of the Year. Ruiz, who lives permanently in Trasmoz, is the latest.
“What do you have to do to qualify as Witch of the Year?” I asked.
“Obviously, you have to have a knowledge of herbal medicine,” Ruiz replied, “but, most importantly, you have to be involved in the history and promotion of all things connected with Trasmoz. To be a witch today is a badge of honour.“
“Can you cast a spell?” I finally blurted out .
For the first time, Ruiz’s easy smile disappeared. Seconds later, it was back. “Casting a spell? No, but I make a special liquid from sage and rosemary that you splash around you. People tell me it lifts depression, and that their streak of misfortune comes to an end as soon as they started using the liquid. Of course,“ she added, ”you have to believe in it, otherwise it won’t work.”
It was getting late, and the sun had begun to set, casting the ragged ruins and restored tower of Trasmoz into relief as the light disappeared behind the peaks of the Moncayo mountains. With that view – and a tiny bottle of Diaz’s herbal concoction in my hand – it was easy to fall under the village’s magical spell. Perhaps there really was witchcraft here.
I‘d brought with me a few grains of rice and a little sachet of salt – both time-honoured remedies to ward off evil spirits . As I turned my back on the village, I threw them over my shoulder. Just in case.