Las Doce Verdades del Mundo, Part I
Preparing for la limpia with copal, egg, and prayer.
While the Pater Noster, Credo, Ave Maria, and Gloria are commonly used in curanderismo, for the limpia one of the most beloved prayers is Las Doce Verdades del Mundo, or the ‘Twelve Truths of the World’.This prayer is common in the southwest and borderlands, heavily popular in New Mexico and Texas, but seems present almost universally in the Chicano diaspora and Mexican borderland curanderismo. It may well be as used in in Central and Southern Mexico, I have been told it is more common to find the more canonical Padre Nuestro, Ave Maria, and Credo, but do not know from personal experience.
The prayer is also found in Spain (often under the name Las doce palabras retorneadas - The Twelve Reversed Words), in slightly alternate versions. The striking thing about the Castillian versions is that it explains the truths in slightly more detail than the extant Mexican and Chicano versions. Most people involved in Mexican Folk Catholicism are familiar with this prayer, but not as many people are seemingly able to describe everything mentioned. One of my favorite parts of this prayer is that there are striking visualizations possible as you call the Holy Forces to the aid the healing of the client. Not to mention the various forms of its performance - some which hint at an old practice in curanderismo that is not done nearly as much anymore.
Espinosa, in ‘The Folklore of Spain in the American Southwest’, gives evidence of its place in a larger folk tradition of numerical religious formula spanning Eurasia, and gives exemplars of similar formulas, both vulgar and Christian. He cites formulas of Persian origin in the tale of Ghôst i Fryâno, from the Book of Arda Virai, which contains both a narrative story as well as the encoded doctrinal numerical series, and also quickly looks at the Green Grow the Rushes O for its easily drawn comparisons to Las Doce Verdades.
Green Grow the Rushes O is an English counting song, and brought increasing attention due to its mention by Robert Cochrane in his letters to Joe Wilson. Cochrane’s version is not outwardly Christian, but there exists a unique line of interpretation available to those whose dual-observance does not preclude paganism from Christianity or vice versa. There are however much more overtly Christian versions of the same song. This is beyond the scope of this post, but it (Green Grow) continues to interest me.
Espinosa’s proposal is that the formula changes merely to suit the culture and religion of the people who preserve it. Interestingly, he does allow for concurrent independent development of similar numerical formula in pagan Celtic and Scandinavian societies, so it should be noted that this notion of ‘larger folk tradition’ is not necessarily related to each other. To which I respond, sarcastically, “Because, you know, many cultures have numbers.” But it is still important to be said. Common occurence does not mean common origin. Necessarily.
Espinosa gives an example of a similar prayer, perhaps even source prayer, in medieval Latin:
Unus est Deus,
Duo sunt testaments,
Tres sunt Patriarchae,
Quinque libri Moysis,
Sex sunt hidriae positae in Cana Galilieae,
Novem angelorum chori,
Decem mandata Dei,
Undecim stellae a Josepho visae,
One is God
Two are the Testaments
Three are the Patriarchs
Four, the Evangelists
Five, the Books of Moses
Six are the wine jugs of the Marriage Feast at Cana
Seven, the sacraments
Eight, the beatitudes
Nine, the choirs of angels
Ten, the Commandments of God
The eleven stars seen by Joseph
Twelve, the Apostles
But of interest to me is this passage: “[it] is considered in Hispanic tradition as an elementary doctrinal guide, as a powerful prayer, and sometimes as an exorcism or superstitious prayer. Some have heard it and fear it as a witch prayer. In the sixteenth century a Portuguese woman accused of being a witch, Anna Martins, declared before a Christian tribunal that it was one of her favorite prayers.” (Espinosa, The Folklore of Spain in the American Southwest)
It is a prayer still associated mainly with curanderas and abuelas with eggs or lemons seeking to heal their clients and family. While it is not unknown for curanderas to be accused of brujeria, ultimately the expression of truth found in the prayer is in the heart of each person who recites it.
A common standard form given by Trotter & Chavira in ‘Curanderismo: Mexican Folk Healing’ is:
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme una, la santa casa de Jerusalén.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme dos, las dos tablas de Moisés.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme tres, la santa Trinidad.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme cuatro, los cuatro evangelios.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme cinco, las cinco llagas.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme seis, los seis candelabros.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme siete, las siete palabras.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme ocho, las ocho angustias.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme nueve, los nueve meses de Maria.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme diez, los diez mandamientos.
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme once, las once mil vírgenes,
De las doce verdades del mundo, decidme doce, las doce apóstoles que acompanaron a nuestro Señor en la cruz. Amén.
and in English:
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me one, the holy house of Jerusalem.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me two, the two tablets of Moses.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me three, the Holy Trinity.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me four, the four evangelists.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me five, the five wounds.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me six, the six candelabras.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me seven, the seven words.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me eight, the eight anguishes.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me nine, the nine months of Mary.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me ten, the Ten Commandments.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me eleven, the eleven thousand virgins.
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me twelve, the twelve apostles who accompanied our Lord on the cross. Amen.
Listing. A common variant from the version Trotter and Chavira give includes layering of responses, similar to English counting games such as ‘The House that Jack Built’, ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’, and ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. When the prayer is done this way, when you get to the end you have a long list of the twelve truths. At six, for example, you’d have:
Of the twelve truths of the world, tell me six, the six candelabras, the five wounds, the four evangelists, the Holy Trinity, the two tablets of Moses, the holy house of Jerusalem.
Reverse Order. As much as you find the growing list added on, you also find people who do the prayer in reverse order. Starting at twelve truths, and going down to one. I have never heard it done this way where the whole list wasn’t said each time. This makes sense as the reason for reversing makes sense more as an agglutinating list, as the huge list at the beginning gets shorter and shorter as you say the prayer, which has a very centering affect on both client and healer. This effect was called by one curandera I studied with, la construcción del templo de Jerusalén (building the Temple of Jerusalem). I particularly like this metaphor, as it has a truth in it relevant to Masons, and centers us in a single focus point.
The common peninsular name of Las doce palabras retorneadas may imply this order is preferred, but as older Latin exemplars list in ascending numerical order, I am not convinced either way. It seems to be a personal choice, either based on adherence to tradition or added metaphysical implication.
(Of the Twelve Truths of the World, Good Brother, I’d like you to tell me....)
Watching my mentor assume this role, she would then immediately recite a rosary after the client left, and she would cough up a dark liquid that she spat into Holy Water, and discarded. This she called la sombra de ihiyote, (the shadow of ihiyotl, the Liver Soul), and explained that she always found it easier to spit it up quickly after the cleaning rather than not. This cries out to me of profound mystery - and echoes in some way the sin-eating practice of the Britain.
Of the Twelve Truths of the World, tell me thirteen, the Thirteen Rays of the Sun that send witches and wizards to hell, so it shall be God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, forever and ever.