In every mine, usually in an alcove just beyond the point from which the last ray of sunlight can be seen, you’ll find a statue of a sinister horned and bearded figure complete with erect phallus and leering smile. Known as El Tío (the Uncle) this demonic character is considered to be the king of the underworld, to whom sacrifices must be made and homage paid if miners are to stay safe and find rich deposits. El Tío is given regular libations of alcohol and offerings of coca and lit cigarettes, particularly on Fridays. At certain times of the year, blood sacrifices are also made to El Tío, with llamas being slaughtered outside the mine entrance to assuage a thirst for blood that might otherwise be satisfied only by the death of a miner. Though El Tío is clearly related to pre-Columbian mountain deities and is never referred to as the Devil by name, there’s little doubt that he owes much to Christian belief. When the first mitayos heard Spanish priests describe heaven and hell, they can only have concluded that the mines were hell itself. If that was so, then they were working in the Devil’s domain, and it was to him that they had to look for succour. To this day most miners are Christians when above ground, taking part in fiestas and worshipping Christ and the Virgin. But once inside the mines, it is to the owner of the minerals and the king of the underworld that they pray.

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