Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Kenaz Filan Interview in Mystic Wicks Magazine

An interview with yours truly by Ben Gruagach is currently available at Mystic Wicks Magazine. This online 'zine is connected with Mystic Wicks, one of the most intelligent Pagan/Occult forums on the web. Admittedly the bar on this one is rather low, but Mystic Wicks actually has a reasonable signal-to-noise ratio and a number of articulate and thoughtful posters who engage in real, substantial discussions.

Ben was an excellent interviewer and I really enjoyed our discussion. I hope you enjoy it too!

Friday, December 18, 2009

From The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook: Red Fast Luck Oil

New Orleans is generally known as a place where things move at a leisurely pace. But sometimes you need to get things moving and moving fast. When folks in the Crescent City need to get their situation turned around, they use liberal doses of Red Fast Luck Oil. While some oils are meant to improve your financial situation and others are used to make you irresistible to potential lovers, Red Fast Luck Oil is an all-purpose ointment which is intended to bring you good fortune in both love and money – and quickly!

Red Fast Luck Oil begins with cinnamon oil. Cinnamon has long been used in magical and spiritual operations. The ancient Hebrews used cinnamon as one of the ingredients of their holy anointing oil, and the Egyptians used it in mummification. Its uses as an antibiotic and a culinary supplement made it a particularly treasured spice in medieval and Renaissance Europe: demand for cinnamon was one of the major factors behind the explorations that led to the Colonial era. In hoodoo cinnamon is believed to heat up magical operations and is said to draw wealth and inspire lust.

Wintergreen oil is also an important component of Red Fast Luck Oil. This must be added in very small quantities, as its active ingredient (methyl salicitate) is a powerful dermal and mucous membrane irritant. But only a little bit of this sweet sharp balsamic-smelling oil is required. Wintergreen is said to be a powerful money-drawing oil, and is also said to “heat up one’s nature” and improve both desire and performance in the bedroom arts. (That being said, do NOT put Red Fast Luck Oil on or near your genitals: the ensuing redness will happen fast, but you won’t feel at all lucky about it!)

And these two hot oils are counterbalanced by a third ingredient, oil of vanilla. Vanilla acts as a cooling and mellowing agent: a drop or two of vanilla can tame the bite of an overly spicy chili or an overly acidic tomato sauce. It is also believed to be an aphrodisiac: in 1762 German physician Bezaar Zimmerman wrote that “No fewer than 342 impotent men, by drinking vanilla decoctions, had changed into astonishing lovers of at least as many women,” while Dr. Alan Hirsch of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago found the scent of vanilla was highly effective in increasing penile blood flow.

The red coloring is often created by synthetic dyes, but according to Catherine Yronwode the traditional coloring agent was alkanet root. Alkanet root is also known as “Dyer’s Bugloss” and is used to redden textiles, makeup and food. (It was once used to darken the color of inferior wines and to give wine corks an aged appearance). It also has magical uses for drawing luck and protecting money, so, as Yronwode says “it is a better colourant for Fast Luck than any synthetic dye could ever be.” But it is also a tricky dying agent: too little and you get Pink Fast Luck, while too much will turn your oil a muddy crimson-brown. If you are going to make your own, you are advised to add a few flecks of alkanet root per every half-ounce of oil and let it steep for a day or so until you get the desired shade of red. While it may bring you Fast Luck, its creation requires patience.

It also requires caution: both wintergreen and cinnamon oils can be corrosive on sensitive skin, so make sure you use enough carrier oil and test with a tiny amount to see if you find it irritating before putting on more. You will probably be better advised to use your Red Fast Luck Oil for anointing a mojo bag or using it in a floorwash to bring in a quick run of success to your business or your bedroom.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Thoughts on the "Burning Times"

This was posted to my forum Tristatevodou in response to a question about exactly how many witches were murdered during the "Burning Times." Since I had earlier made a disparaging comment about the "100 million Witches burned for worshiping the Goddess," I thought I should clarify my position. My intent was not to deny that people were killed for being Witches but to question the idea that there was an organized witch-cult which was targeted by Evil Christians. And so I produced this rather wordy commentary:


First: we don't know exactly how many people were executed for witchcraft during the medieval and Renaissance era in Europe. We can only rely on surviving records, which are fragmentary at best and sometimes non-existent.

The "Burning Times" legend conflates two separate campaigns, the wars against witchcraft/sorcery and the much larger and bloodier war against heresy. The Albignensians, Bogomils, Hussites, etc. were not witches, but Christian sects whose beliefs deviated from the norm and who posed a political threat to the established order. There were definitely major atrocities and genocidal campaigns committed against nonstandard variants of Christianity -- and later, during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Catholics and Protestants merrily
killed each other across Europe for decades. But these people never identified as "witches," "pagans," "sorcerers" or anything other that Christians -- more precisely, as orthodox Christians who were practicing the true Faith as opposed to the heretical and corrupt version practiced by the other guys.

The wars against "witchcraft," by contrast, generally were aimed at poor and marginalized individuals. There were tens of thousands of people, mostly women, burned as witches. But there were many, many more people murdered for heresy. The best comparison I can think of is today's "Satanic panic," which has ensnared quite a few innocent schoolteachers and daycare center workers vs. our feelings about Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. This is not to diminish the horror of what happened during the European witch panics. Any unnecessary death caused by stupidity and mob fear is a tragedy. But let us call the tragedy what it is, rather than co-opting it for our own political ends.

As a practitioner of a faith that venerates the ancestors, I feel obligated to give respect to those heretics who died for what they believe. They did not die in the name of a Mother Goddess or in support of a pre-Christian nature religion (which was long gone by the time most of them went to the stake, and which never resembled Wicca or modern neo-Druidism anyway). They died for their Christian (or, in many cases in Spain and elsewhere, their Jewish) faith. To redefine their suffering is to take away the meaning of that sacrifice. It's as repellent, to me, as trying to claim that 100 million witches were stolen from Africa and sold into slavery during the Middle Passage, or that 6 million witches were killed by the Nazis and went to the gas chambers chanting passages from Starhawk.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook: Nsambi, Simbi, and Li Grand Zombi

Thanks to Dr. Eoghan Ballard for his very useful comments when I was first drafting this chapter, and apologies for the gross oversimplification of Kongo cosmology. (Giving it due attention would have required a book of its own, never mind a paragraph!)


According to Kongo legend, Nsambi created the heavens, the earth and the animals. Then, after creating man and woman, he taught them how to survive in his world and how to harness the magical power of his creation. By using those teachings they could break the blazing droughts and bring down the summer rain: they could heal sickness and ensure fertile crops. They could also communicate with the mpungas, deceased ancestors and nature spirits who assisted Nsambi in maintaining his creation. Today Nzambi is still honored in Cuba by practitioners of Las Reglas de Congo (also known as Palo Mayombe), who say “Nsambi primero” or “Nsambi is first.”

Kongo cosmology envisioned the cosmos as two worlds – nza yayi (this world) and the nsi a bafwa (the land of spirits). Between these two worlds lay the kalunga, a vast ocean which also served as threshold between the living and the dead. Because snakes were frequently seen climbing trees, burrowing beneath the ground and resting in or near rivers or bodies of water, they were considered travelers between the realms. Since Kongo religious practices were concerned largely with commerce between the various worlds, it is not surprising that snakes play a major role in Kongo religions.

In Haiti Vodouisants honor the Simbi family of lwa. Like the basimbi, snake spirits living in the rivers and streams of southern Africa, they were known to be shy but powerful magicians. Those who approach them with due patience and respect and gain their trust find they are powerful allies who can act as intermediaries between the worlds of flesh and spirit and life and death. Milo Rigaud said of them:
The voodoo Mercury has the name of Simbi, a loa of many forms. He is the conductor of souls, who leads the souls of the dead in all directions bordered by the four magical orients of the cross. He is the Messiah of Legba, the messenger of the sun. Simbi corresponds to the hermetic Mercury of the cabalistic alchemy of the ritual sacrifice.
The lwa Simbi Makaya is one of the great sorcerers of Haitian Vodou. As patron of the secret Sanpwel society, he teaches his chosen followers powerful wangas that can be used for healing or destruction. Those who are not members regularly accuse the Sanpwel of human sacrifice, corpse desecration, and all sorts of related misdeeds. Within New Orleans Li Grand Zombi had a similarly mixed reputation. Believers and practitioners considered the great serpent a benevolent protector and wise teacher. Those who were not so affiliated generally associated Grand Zombi with orgies and devil worship. As with Simbi Makaya, one’s attitude toward Grand Zombi marked your status within the group.

In New Orleans the snake served simultaneously to advertise to one’s clientele and to set them apart as outsiders. This is similar to Simbi’s liminal position in Haiti. As a traveler between worlds, Simbi is tough to pin down. One of the most popular Simbis, Simbi Andezo, literally resides “in two waters” (an de zo), occupying the space where fresh water meets the salty ocean. Li Grand Zombi is similarly placed between public Voodoo rituals for tourists and private devotions, between religion and entertainment, between African root and American money-making spectacles. In this, he is a fitting patron for the city of New Orleans and its religion.

The best way to honor Li Grand Zombi is with a live snake. This is not a commitment to be undertaken lightly. Taking responsibility for a pet is no small matter, especially when that pet is also a spirit animal! While snakes are relatively low-maintenance companions, they have
certain needs which must be met. If not provided with appropriate temperatures and humidity, they are likely to become ill and die. A suitably large cage must be procured, along with a supply of the proper food.

A snake which is going to be handled in public ritual also needs to have a suitably tractable disposition – and when stressed even the most docile snake may respond by biting, musking or defecating on the nearest available target. That large python you are dancing with may be less impressive when you are soaked with runny snake dung or nursing a bloody open wound. The care of your personal Grand Zombi is beyond the scope of this book: as with any other pet, do your research before making your purchase and make sure you are able to live up to your commitment.

Should you be unable to do so at this time, there is no shame in admitting this. Snake sheds can also be used as offerings for Grand Zombi, as well as snake statues or imagery. I do not recommend using snakeskins, since they are harvested by killing the animals. (You want to honor the great serpent, not present him with the corpse of one of his siblings!) These can be placed on an altar along with offerings of eggs, candles or, if you are rhythmically talented, drumming. All these will show your devotion and help you to establish a link with Li Grand Zombi.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Recession Special on Readings

In response to the continuing economic crisis, we here at Kenaz Filan LLC are announcing our Recession Busting Readings Special. Instead of paying $75, you can now get a reading done for $60 - a 20% special! But hurry: this offer is only good until December 31.

(Sorry: I don't have any Shamwows or Ginsu Steak Knives to give away...)

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Sedona Sweat Lodge Deaths

This was originally inspired by a discussion on R.J. Stewart's mailing list. If you aren't familiar with R.J., you definitely need to pick up his books. His work on the Faery tradition is invaluable for anyone who wants to work with the Good Folk, or anyone who wants to sink their teeth into some serious and scholarly Pagan material. We were discussing the Sedona sweat lodge deaths. A lot of people seemed quite upset with the high cost of James Arthur Ray's retreat. Since I come from a tradition where it's considered acceptable to charge money for services, I thought I'd chime in with a slightly different viewpoint.

Spiritual services, like anything else, are worth what the market will bear. If James Arthur Ray was able to sell his "Spiritual Warrior" conferences for $9,000, then that is what they were worth. Presumably some people felt they were getting a good value for their money, since they signed up for this conference after attending other Ray events. You may disagree with their financial decisions, much as you might think it silly to pay $9,000 for a designer handbag (or $16.95 for a book by Kenaz Filan ;) ). But, in the end, it's their money to do with as they see fit. Ultimately we all get the initiations we deserve ... and who's to say that a spiritual breakthrough or a life-changing experience isn't worth $9,000? I paid several thousand dollars for my initiation into Vodou and don't regret a dime of it. Presumably at least some of Ray's students felt their money was well spent.

Many Pagans don't like the idea of charging money for spiritual services. Gardner wanted to avoid running afoul of the then-current Witchcraft Laws when he forbade charging for services. The cunning-folk and hedge-witches who made their living by their trade never followed his lead. I've had people chide me for taking money for readings -- and I'm betting that R.J. has heard some snide comments about the (very reasonable) fees he charges for his workshops. Apparently we're supposed to be full-time unpaid servants of the Goddess and whoever demands our time and attention. And I've seen firsthand what this attitude does to the Pagan community: we wind up with a revolving door of starry-eyed newcomers who quickly burn out in the face of incessant demands from their congregation. When idealism meets entitlement, wanna guess which one typically winds up splattered on the pavement?

There is no sin in charging money for your work. But when you accept money for your services, you also accept responsibility for giving your customer their money's worth. When someone pays me for a reading, they are trusting me to give an honest account of what I see in the cards. In taking their money, I agree to do so. And I've found the readings I charge money for -- even when I've only charged a few dollars -- are taken FAR more seriously than the ones I have done for free. When I do it for free it's a parlor game and a lark: when I get paid I'm suddenly a counselor whose word means something. There is more to the old Rom tradition of "crossing the palm with silver" than one may think. That which you have purchased is cherished more than that which you receive for free.

My complaint with James Arthur Ray has nothing to do with the cost of his retreat. It has to do with how he structured the retreat. If you're going to take money for spiritual work, you need to ensure that they are done correctly. I can assure you that most Houngans and Mambos are lucky to break even once they have finished paying for drummers, workers and the various accoutrements required for the kanzo (initiation ceremony). The reports suggest there were over 50 people in Ray's "sweat lodge:" at $9k each, that's at least $450,000. Ray could certainly have hired medical professionals to make sure that people were challenging themselves without putting themselves at undue risk. At the very least, he could have hired someone who knew how to put the damned thing on properly. Ray's $9,000 sweat was a shoddier affair than sweats I've seen held at Free Spirit Gathering. (Total cost of attending around $300 plus meals and whatever you spend on Merchant's Row -- and that price includes drum circles, classes and a swimming pool). I don't fault him for getting paid for his services. I don't even fault him for getting paid a lot for his services. I fault him for not living up to his end of the bargain.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Notes from an Angelic Working: 3

The sixth hour of Sunday is devoted to Jupiter: In consideration of the difficulties in bringing up Asmiel, Lykathea did the Invoking Hexagram of Jupiter after the LBRP. (She also did the banishing pentagrams for each element, hoping to bring up a more purely Jupiterian field).

This worked very well: as soon as Arnebiel's name was first mentioned, we felt his presence. I got a sense of pale blue-violet light, the feeling of an oncoming storm, and the sound of laughter. I repeated the invocation three times, although I really didn't need to: I wanted to make sure the spirit was fully in the circle.

Our petitions on this ritual were for general prosperity: I specifically asked for help in selling my Poppy manuscript and for the continued sales of my other books. Arnebial seemed well-disposed toward granting our petitions and so we gave him license to depart: afterwards Lykathea banished the Jupiter hexagrams which were glowing around us.

The big take-away from this ritual is that it definitely helps to do the invoking hexagrams before calling on the angels. (I suspect the reason the first ritual was so successful was because we were doing it at sunrise on a Sunday -- there was so much solar energy going on that it would have been difficult for the ritual to fail). These spirits are powerful and far less dangerous than Goetic demons: I would definitely recommend that anyone who wishes to work with the Goetia first spend some time doing angelic and theurgic magic. (I certainly wish that I had done so first: I would have a few less psychic scars and horror stories to share at cons if I had...).

Overall, I think these workings were quite successful and look forward to doing more Pauline magic.

Notes From an Angelic Working: 2

The third hour of Sunday is devoted to Mercury: our conjuration began with a calling of Venaquiel, the angel who rules the third hour, followed by the invocation of Asmiel, Mercurial duke. Getting Asmiel to appearance was more challenging: we needed eight recitations of the invocation (eight being a Mercurial number). When he arrived he flickered in and out, in varying pale translucent colors which danced like the colors on an oil slick, or like light playing on a mercury glass ball.

(Lykathea points out that we ate not long before doing this conjuration, so we might be "heavier" and more grounded, hence the difficulty in getting him to appear. I suspect it also has something to do with Asmiel's mercurial nature: being brought to solid and tangible appearance is antithetical to his element).

I asked him for assistance in writing my book in progress (The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook) and in getting my poppy manuscript (Papaver somniferum: the Most Dangerous Ally). Lykathea asked him for assistance in her educational goals. After we made our requests we gave the License to Depart: he vanished quickly. A few minutes later Lykathea noticed that the sunlight filtering into the room was flickering and shimmering rather like Asmiel, so he appears to have stayed around for a bit.

Notes from an Angelic Working: 1

Record of an Evocation using the Lemegeton: Ars Paulina
October 11, 2009: 7:05 a.m.

We open with Lykathea doing the LBRP. Afterwards we begin the Invocation to Samael, ruler of the first hour of the day under the Legemeton. This is followed with the Conjuration of Ameniel, the Solar duke who rules over this day: the conjuration is repeated three times until his presence is clearly felt.

Both of us get an impression of a large golden winged figure. Ameniel appears to me as a golden man with intensely bright eyes, as if the sun is glowing from them. He is moving very quickly around the circle: Lykathea, who is skrying in the mirror and gets a very similar impression. We make our requests, which are within the solar sphere: greater self-confidence, prosperity, that our paths be lit and our enemies dispersed as day disperses night, & c. Both of us get an overwhelming impression at the same time that our petitions have been heard and answered. Lykathea recites the License to Depart.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Interactions Between Different African Diaspora Faiths: Mixing, Matching, and Mingling

Recently I have done a number of readings for people who are already made in Ifa, Sanse or other traditions. The question of "mixing and matching" traditions frequently rises in ATR circles. Generally it's frowned upon, with good reason. Most of the Voodoo Celtic Shaman Buddhist Santeros out there have little or none of the training which should come with the titles they claim. (Not to mention the folly of assuming that "African religions" are all substantially identical or that there is such a thing as an "African culture." Nobody assumes that there is some overarching "European religion" which stretches from Scandinavia to Sicily).

That being said, there are a number of reasons why somebody who is initiated in one African tradition may be drawn to another. One Mambo in our house is also a Palera: since her father was Haitian, her ancestral spirits insisted that she kanzo. And there are many practitioners of Ifa and Las Reglas de Ocha who are also scratched in Palo (Las Relgas de Kongo) -- although quite a few Paleros bristle at the cavalier treatment accorded their tradition by people who are primarily interested in the Yoruba tradition.

You don't have to become an initiate to learn from another tradition. Most Vodou ceremonies are open to the public. Our house has regularly welcomed Babalaos, Espiritistos and other practitioners to our events. Discussing the similarities and differences in our practices has been mutually beneficial and educational. We haven't tried to convert each other, nor have we tried to play the "my tradition is better than yours" game. Conversely, we haven't tried to "pull rank" and claim that we were experts in Ifa etc. because we are Houngans and Mambos, or vice versa.

One thing I've noticed about initiates (and serious spirit-workers in general): they are reluctant to take on new commitments. Newcomers enthusiastically plan to become high-ranking members of a dozen different traditions. Those who have actually achieved some degree of attainment know that mastering one path requires enormous effort. Being told "you are called to be a priest/ess" means you are called to spend a lot of money and time on training, then undergo arduous ceremonies and take on new taboos and responsibilities after your initiation. It's not just a matter of getting more hit points and access to higher-level spells: it's a lifelong commitment. The initiates I've read for have generally expressed relief that they weren't being called to kanzo. They have quite enough on their plate as it is.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

More on the Lucille Hamilton case

The toxicology reports have come back in the case of Lucille Hamilton, the 21-year old woman who died suddenly at a ceremony held by Houngan Hector Salva and the Gade Nou Leve Société. According to this article in the September 18, 2009 Philadelphia Inquirer, toxicology reports have come back negative for drugs, alcohol or any other harmful substances. Terry Ray, chair of the Religion department at Temple University, said the report was "exactly what I expected," and added:
The fact that it happened in the context of a voodoo ritual is unfortunate for the voodoo community. But the fact that [toxicology tests] came back negative should help combat any misperceptions.
We can hope that Lucille's family finds peace and healing from their grief. We can also hope that this will help to dispel any lingering malicious gossip about Houngan Hector's actions on the night of her demise. So far, the evidence suggests that Hector and fellow attendees at the ceremony did everything they could for Lucille, including a call to 911 when efforts to revive her failed. Those who will use this case for their own ends are likely to continue picking at Lucille's corpse. Hopefully right-thinking people will examine the evidence at hand and see the vultures for what they are.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Shana T'vah to All

Here is hoping that you have a joyous Rosh Hashanah and that 5770 finds you well and prosperous. And here's a ritual from Judaism 101 which may prove rewarding for Jew and Gentile alike:
Another popular practice of the holiday is Tashlikh ("casting off"). We walk to flowing water, such as a creek or river, on the afternoon of the first day and empty our pockets into the river, symbolically casting off our sins. Small pieces of bread are commonly put in the pocket to cast off. This practice is not discussed in the Bible, but is a long-standing custom. Tashlikh is normally observed on the afternoon of the first day, before afternoon services. When the first day occurs on Shabbat, many synagogues observe Tashlikh on Sunday afternoon, to avoid carrying (the bread) on Shabbat.
This is an excellent time to make a clean break with the past. If you've been thinking about giving up an unrewarding habit, why not do it on this holy day?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

From The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook: Yon Sue

Yon Sue, mighty warrior and king, hear my plea. Always you have been the champion of your people: you raise up the weak and bring low the mighty. King Agassou, panther who stalks in the night, strike down those who would do evil against me. As you led your people to their promised land, guide me through the darkness and protect me from the schemes of those who would hold me back.

Since the days of Marie Laveau, many in New Orleans have petitioned St. Anthony of Padua by another name. When addressed as “Yon Sue,” the benevolent old monk could become a powerful guardian. Indeed, some said that he was the special protector of those who followed the old African traditions. A few of his wealthy Creole followers claimed he was actually a mighty king: they wore red neckerchiefs in honor of their royal patron, whom they addressed as “Monsieur Agassou.”

A bit of research will soon verify M. Agassou’s regal bona fides. According to an African legend, a young princess named Aligbonon of Tado met a leopard in the jungle and fell in love with it: their union produced a son named Agassou. When the king of Tado died, Agassou tried to ascend the throne. Alas, his claim was denied: while his mother’s royal lineage was not in question, no one could determine whether his feline father was of the right social set.

Undeterred, Agassou and his followers left the kingdom and moved into the Abomey plateau (in modern-day Benin). There he proved his leadership credentials by setting up and ruling a small colony. The chief of one small nearby village, Da, complained that these new migrants were taking up so much room that they would soon be building a palace on his belly. Agassou responded by taking up arms against Da’s village. After killing him, they threw him into a pit and proceeded to place their new palace atop his body: its name, “Dahomey,” can be translated as “On the Belly of Da.” To honor his divine ancestor, the new king chose the leopard as the heraldic symbol of his dynasty.

While skeptics may question tales of Agassou’s divine parentage, none can dispute the success of his kingdom. Dahomey became famous for the discipline of its armies, including thousands of female soldiers who were known to European observers as the “Amazons of Dahomey.” This military might allowed them to expand throughout the Abomey plateau and on toward the coast. In 1645 King Houegbadja declared that each Dahomean king should leave his successor more land than he inherited. His successors took his suggestion to heart: by 1724 Dahomey had conquered the important port of Allada and become an important slave-trading kingdom.

The slave trade brought great wealth to Dahomey’s monarchy, and to the artisans and weavers who worked to decorate its palaces and temples. But although Dahomey was flush with gold, it lacked in basic human freedoms. Each citizen of Dahomey owed absolute allegiance to the king, who was honored as Dada (father of the whole community), Dokounnon (holder and distributor of wealth), Sèmèdo (master of the world) and Aïnon (master of the earth), among other titles. The slightest disobedience could be punished by death: a court official who fell into royal disfavor, or a relative who might pose a challenge to the throne, could be sold into slavery.

But even in the New World those slaves who carried Agassou’s blood continued to pay tribute to their half-divine ancestor. In New Orleans Yon Sue was known as the guardian of the old ways, the one who kept trouble away from the Voodoo queens and ensured they could continue their devotions to the African spirits. When the chips were down and legal or social pressures threatened the community, Yon Sue would make sure that his people survived to perform the traditional rituals. Police, crusading evangelists and muckraking journalists regularly launched crusades against Voodoo and its believers: Yon Sue saw to it that all their efforts came to naught.

To serve Yon Sue, you can get a small statue of St. Anthony of Padua or a leopard or spotted panther figurine. Tie a red ribbon about the statue: as you do, welcome Yon Sue into his new home and offer him your respects. You can serve him with red candles, rare steak and high-proof alcohol. Yon Sue is not one to be petitioned lightly: you don’t trouble the king for trivial matters. But if you approach him with the appropriate reverence and respect he will help you to triumph and prosper in the face of adversity.

If you are being harassed for your interest in Voodoo, you can ask Yon Sue for his aid – but make sure you are prepared for his response! Your tormentors may very well wind up dead or horribly injured. As a Dahomean king, Yon Sue has little patience for blasphemy and disrespect: he also knows the value of fear in maintaining order and discouraging wrongdoers. You may do better to call on him for advice in leading your group, or ask him to bless your rituals so that the spirits look upon them with favor.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Community Then and Now: African Diaspora Religions and the Internet

During the course of a conversation yesterday, an Iyalocha and I got to talking about community and what it means in the African Diaspora traditions.  In the past these communities were defined by blood and geography. You served the spirits because your family and your village served the spirits.  Your participation marked you as a member of the tribe: it created a border which separated and protected you from hostile outsiders.  This aspect became particularly important during the days of the Middle Passage and slavery. 

Today entry into these religions is considerably easier.  A growing number of foreigners have become interested in Vodou, Ifa, Lukumi and other traditionally Afro-Caribbean faiths.  The Internet provides access to a number of blogs, discussion forums and mailing lists.  These online communities serve to distribute information (and no small amount of misinformation) about the traditions and cultures.  For many they serve as an entryway into offline participation: for others they remain the sole link to fellow servants of the Orisha and Lwa.

There are obviously enormous advantages to membership in an active house.  While personal devotions to the spirits are wonderful, they are no substitute for the experience of a group ritual. Honoring the lwa in your home is one thing: talking to the spirits up close and personal is something else altogether. But that's not to say that those online communities and online relationships are without value. There are many sincere practitioners who are not part of a meatspace community thanks to accidents of geography. They may not be practicing within the framework of an organized house but their devotion is real - and so are the rewards they reap from their service. 

African Traditional Religions have never been static: they have always redefined themselves in the face of new opportunities, resources and persecutions.  They have incorporated Christianity, Islam, Freemasonry and a whole host of other traditions and cultures. Undoubtedly they will find a place for the Internet. I would be interested in exploring what that place might be now and in the future.  

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Looking for Digital Photos of Your Altars

We're making final preparations for the release of Vodou Money Magic, and need some color photos of shrines and altars which people have created for their lwa.  Inner Traditions is particularly interested in shrines or altars dedicated to Agwe, St. Philomena, and Zaka. But we'd be happy to see any shrines you may have to any of the lwa covered in the book, to wit:

  • Legba
  • Damballah
  • Agwe
  • St. Philomena
  • Zaka
  • Ogou
  • Danto
  • Ghede
  • The Ancestors

We will give full credit (and a free copy of VoMoMa) to anyone whose contributions appear in the final book. 

Thanks for all your support! You can send any photos to kenazfilan -at-  

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

New Reviews of Vodou Love Magic

Natalie Maxwell at Feminist Review offers these thoughts:

Filan not only provides an in-depth definition of these issues; they are dissected and analyzed with the eye of an amateur psychologist with lots of “practical” advice on how to deal with them. So, what’s the first thing you should do if you realize you’re being stalked by a jilted lover, stranger, or an ex who just can’t accept it’s over? “Cut off all contact with your stalker now”, Filan recommends. Also: “Record every stalking incident” and “Take steps to ensure your safety.” If that isn’t practical advice, I don’t know what is.

Yet in this chapter, as in the rest of the book, the spells Filan suggests we consider trying in order to help us work through our problems will keep you interested. Having a hard time battling your sexual demons? Go to a crossroads with a tiny pouch filled with a corncob pipe, tobacco, a bottle of rum, and some loose change to consult Papa Legba (guardian of the gateway between the two worlds) for guidance. Feeling intense sadness and depression after a breakup? Performing Damballah’s (the most ancient and powerful of all the Iwa) Transmutation of Love Spell may help.

Ms. Maxwell comments that this book seemed a bit heavier on the psychology and self-help and a little light on the Vodou. I can definitely see that: I was aiming here at people who were seeking help through love spells.  After spending some time on various forums hearing things like "can you make my ex-boyfriend leave his babymama, remove the restraining order against me, and move back in once he gets released from prison?" I felt it was best to deal with safety and emotional health issues. Giving someone a spell when they really need a shoulder to cry on and a few sessions with a counselor does no good for anyone. 

Meanwhile, La Bianca waxed rhapsodic about the book at Latino Sexuality.

I've reviewed a fabulous book for one of my editors called Vodou Love Magic: A Practical Guide to Love, Sex, and Relationships by Kenaz Filan, which is a book for practitioners and those interested in this belief and value system.
It's always great to see that people are enjoying your work and finding it useful. Thanks,  Natalie and La Bianca, for your kind words!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Kenaz Filan and Raven Kaldera to appear on "Dawn of Shades"

On August 18, 2009 (Tuesday) Gia Scott will be discussing Drawing Down the Spirits on Dawn of Shades, her paranormal talk radio program.  While Raven Kaldera and I have given a number of presentations at Free Spirit Gathering and other places, this will be the first time we have been interviewed together about our book.

Ms. Scott and I share a number of interests, including animal welfare, New Orleans and gourmet cookery. I'm looking forward to appearing on her show and to chatting with Raven once again. We will be speaking with Gia from 8-10pm Eastern time:  if you miss it, the podcast will be available for download later.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On the Death of Lucille Hamilton, "Voodoo Victim"

On July 11, 2009 a 21 year-old college student named Lucille Hamilton died. This is a tragedy. Lucille died at a Vodou ceremony. This also meant that her death was news.

As is often the case, and that the coverage would often focus on the lurid and controversial aspects of the case. "Dead chickens" were frequently mentioned, an allusion to the animal sacrifice practiced in Vodou and many other religious traditions. So too were chanting in foreign languages and frequent use of incense and other scented products. (Still more proof that Vodou and Roman Catholicism are joined at the hip!)

Because Hector Salva, the presiding Houngan, charged money for the services, figures were tossed out ranging from "upward of $1500 each" to $621. (The latter would be a very reasonable figure for a resource-intensive ceremony, and quite in keeping with what other Houngans and Mambos in the area would charge). And because Lucille was a male-to-female transgendered person, there was an added air of Jerry Springer nastiness to much of the coverage.

In all this, one important point was downplayed. In the words of Jason Laughlin of the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, “At this time we’re not calling this a suspicious death, but rather a sudden death.” At present the cause of Lucille Hamilton's death is unknown and will remain so at least until after toxicology results come back.  That didn't stop some journalists from declaring her a "Voodoo Victim" for whom "Voodoo Became a Fatal Obsession" and who was "killed in a bizarre voodoo ritual." 

It appears that after Lucille became unresponsive somebody called 911: paramedics, and later doctors, were also unable to revive Ms. Hamilton. It is unclear what else Salva, or anyone else at the ritual could have done for her, or that her death was due to malice or incompetence on the part of Gade Nou Leve Society. 

I should also add that I know Houngan Hector Salva. He is a validly initiated priest who has spent a good deal of time in Haiti (both Jacmel and Leogane): he is also a practitioner of Sanse, Vodu Dominicano and other Hispaniola traditions practiced on the other side of the Haiti/DR border.  He and his initiators are generally well-regarded within the community. 

On several mailing lists, I've heard priests and practitioners speculate that Lucille needed a headwashing before she died. The Mysteries will often pressure you to get your spiritual affairs in order when time is pressing. It could be that Houngan Hector did Lucille a great service: he cleansed her soul so that she could go on to Grace. 

We do not know whether Lucille Hamilton's death was an accident, an unavoidable tragedy or a miracle.  Until the medical examiner's report is released - if then - the cause of Lucille Hamilton's death remains a mystery. For Lucille the greatest of mysteries has been revealed. Lucille is beyond suffering now, beyond whatever truth or slander the future may bring. She has walked out of the darkness into the light: she has come to the lwa with wonder and respect and the lwa have accepted her as their own. Blessed are those who die in the Presence of the Lord.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Thank you, Papa Legba

Right after I got to New Jersey, I went to a nearby crossroads and left an offering for Papa Legba, asking for his assistance in settling my father-in-law's estate and transitioning my mother-in-law to assisted living.

So far things have gone unbelievably well. We've yet to encounter an impolite or hostile customer service representative, all the paperwork we've needed has arrived on time, and we're moving along at a blistering clip.  With Legba on the job, we're well on our way to getting things settled and fast.

If you're getting ready to undertake a major project - or you have one thrown in your lap - be sure to drop off an offering of change, sweets or rum at the local crossroads. You'll find that Legba is happy to grease the rails for you if you pay him his tribute.  With his help, you can get the swamp drained before the alligators even realize you're there. 

Monday, July 13, 2009

Meet the new Batboy

Nancy Sanz at Inner Traditions just sent a June 2009 article on Drawing Down the Spirits that appeared in American supermarket tabloid The Sun. (These are the same people who put out the late and lamented Weekly World News, home of Batboy, the Alien/President meetings, and all the Nostradamus you can handle). 

The article is actually quite well-written: the reviewer obviously read the book and presented readers with a few of our tips on how to stop a possession, as well as symptoms of involuntary possession. I'm quite pleased to have made my mark on American journalism. I've always had a great fondness for supermarket tabloids, and it's great to see that they're fond of me too. :) 

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Great Bad Review of Drawing Down the Spirits

When indulging my vanity and searching for my name in Google's Blogsearch, I discovered an  excellent (although highly critical) review of Drawing Down the Spirits.  Miadhachain (and several of the people who commented on his review) obviously took the time to read the book and raised several valid points.  I felt it was only fair to address those here. Hopefully I can be as thoughtful and respectful as those who disagree with me.

To begin with , the overall "tone" of the book was a bit confusing to me and was a little ambiguous. In one chapter, the authors would write of possession or some other activity as being incredibly useful or no more dangerous than riding in a car. However, in another passage further along they may say that the same activity should be avoided by almost everyone and could have harmful side effects. In one section of the book the authors may promote activities which could lead to creating problems, yet later talk about how these problems should always be avoided. These contradictions in tone of opinion, not necessarily fact, were a little confusing and I found that I often had a hard time determining the points of various arguments.

Raven and I wrote Drawing Down the Spirits as a collaborative effort. There are areas in which we differ: for example, I am less convinced than he that all horses are born, not made.  (I do believe that some people have more of a knack for horsing than others). When it comes to possession as a spiritual practice, there are no authorities: there are only those who are trying to map out uncharted territory. It's up to our readers to draw their own conclusions based on their own experiences.  You'll do best to treat Drawing Down the Spirits like an AA meeting: take what you need and leave the rest behind.  

One thing we both agreed on is this: possession is an advanced and potentially dangerous technique. It is not something to be performed casually or without proper preparation. I used the analogy of driving a car because careless driving can be fatal. You don't get a pass for good intentions if you turn left in front of an oncoming semi or miss a stop sign. 

It is my personal belief that deity possession, as it is known in the Afro-Diasporic faiths, is essentially not attested to in Indo-European sources (I will focus on Indo-European mythology almost exclusively as I am not familiar with various Middle Eastern, Egyptian, East Asian and other such sources). While I believe that many of the mythologies of various Indo-European cultures may have events that may "look" like deity possession, I have come to believe that these events are really something quite different - more akin to what I would call "ecstatic trance" or "inspired trance". This would be a situation where the vehicle is being inspired by a deity to say or do things, but is not necessarily possessed by the deity

We certainly did engage in a bit of back-formation: it could well be that many of the examples we gave of "possession" might be classified as "ecstatic trance," "shadowing" or something else altogether.  As we stated in the book, there are definitely varying degrees of possession, and it's not always clear where play-acting shades into shadowing shades into aspecting etc. This is certainly a place where reasonable gentlepersons can disagree.

First of all, I do not like using the terms "horse", "riding" and etc to describe the phenomena of possession outside of Afro-Diasporic religions. I am very uncomfortable with this practice as these are words which are very "culturally linked" to specific religions and practices. I think that other words could be coined to describe the phenomena in neo-pagan circles. I like the term "seated" as opposed to "ridden" and "throne" or "chair" as opposed to "horse". They possess similar qualities and could mean the same thing semantically, but do not really "borrow" from Afro-Diasporic traditions

We used "horse" and "horsing" because they were terms that are already recognized in the community. Like many Reconstructionists and Neopagans who are working with possession, our ideas are informed by training (in Raven's case) and initiation (in my case) in an Afro-Caribbean tradition.  I understand the concerns about cultural appropriation and misleading use of words: the God-possessions I've seen differ in several respects from Vodou law-possessions. But there are enough similarities that I/we felt it useful to use that term to describe both rather than create different terminology to create what appeared to us to be different manifestations of the same phenomenon.

2 - I also found myself disagreeing with the attitude in the book that being a "horse" was a calling or vocation of some sort. I simply do not agree with this. The authors of this book, along with many of the individuals interviewed for the book, talked of being a "horse" as if it was some sort of position or calling - basically some people are "horses" and others are not and that people who are horses can "horse" almost any deity at any time - for example at one time they may "horse" Odin for one group and then Baphomet for another and yet Artemis for another. 

Actually, we've found that the spirits can be quite choosy about their horses.  There are a few lwa who will possess me at the drop of a hat (Damballah and Ezili Danto). There are others who will do so if no one more suitable is around (Ogou) and there are still others who wouldn't touch me with a ten-foot poteau-mitan.  I'm sorry if we didn't make that entirely clear in the book: I thought we discussed that at some length but I don't have a copy of the book with me at present since I'm still away from home. 

As far as "calling" goes: so far as I can tell horsing is something like musical talent. Some people are naturals at it and frequently get possessed by various spirits, just like some people are born with perfect pitch and the ability to write symphonies before puberty. Others will get chosen by one or more spirits as a medium/horse/whatever you wish to call it.  And still others will never get possessed no matter how much they wish to do so. 

Overall, I do not think someone could (or should) go out and research a Deity with the intent of becoming possessed by him/her when requested by some group when the "horse" had no previous relationship to that Deity three weeks earlier. I think that this is something that should be allowed to occur naturally and not choreographed. If a Deity wants to come he/she will and he/she will take the person who is most devoted to her - who may not be the person who thinks of him/herself as a "horse" - who is a member of the group (if that group is supposed to be working with this phenomena). In other words, I believe that a deity would most likely choose someone from the group who is honoring him/her rather than some outsider to the group who was metaphorically "hiring themselves out" as a "horse" for the group.

I agree with Miadhachain 1,000% and share hir concerns about the "Horsing for Hire." I have seen rituals where this approach worked swimmingly: I've also seen situations where it caused problems.  However, I've also found that the gods will often choose someone who has a natural knack for horsing over someone who is devoted but lacks that ability.  I can think of a couple of reasons for this. One is that it's easier for them: the second is that forcing a possession can do real damage to someone who lacks horsing aptitude. The gods might not ride the most devoted follower in the room not because they don't love hir but because they do and are concerned for hir well-being.

However, again, I often find when it is sought out (especially without any established protocols as those that exist in the Afro-Diasporic religions) it attracts a lot of lesser entities who are MORE than willing to possess a person and claim to be a deity even if those people believe themselves to be a "professional horse".

Raven and I discussed this at some length: there's a real danger of getting a real possession from a phony spirit. This is why divination, discernment and common sense are so important when you start incorporating possession into your spiritual practices. This is an advanced technique which can do real psychic and physical harm to the careless or irreverent. 

Perhaps my most serious concern was when the authors began to speak of "sexual offerings". Basically, the premise was that some Deities will possess a person and expect or want to have sex with other individuals. This raised a lot of concerns for me. First of all, one can obviously see how this could become abusive - intimidating someone into having sex with another person because that person believes an individual is possessed by a God and is afraid to go against the "will" of the God. Such a held belief could easily be used by some (I am not saying that the authors of the book or those interviewed are guilty if this - as I have never met them nor observed one of their possessions so I make no judgment on them, but speak in the general)unscrupulous individuals who might fake possession in order to engage in sexual activities. Quite frankly, this never seemed to cross anyone's mind when reading the interviews and discussion in the chapter. 

It certainly crossed OUR minds: that's why we tried to offer some pointers on how to distinguish between genuine and phony possessions.  There's a very real danger of some horny fuckwit play-acting trying to score some nookie by pretending to be "possessed" by Odin, Ghede, Zeus or some other notoriously libidinous entity.  On the other hand, there's also a very real danger of said horny fuckwit becoming a "Pagan" so he can watch naked chicks performing skyclad rituals.  Are we going to protect ourselves by sanitizing our religious practices of anything that might attract H.F. and his monkey-spanking minions? Or are we going to acknowledge that adult activities should only be performed by and in the presence of responsible adults? 

Perhaps instead of trying to force "possession" into an Irish or Celtic Construct, it may be more worthwhile to investigate Imbas Forosnai protocols. Similarly for Norse/Heathen cultures - perhaps it would be more useful to explore practices associated with Spae or Seidhr - which seem to be attested to in the historical record - rather than attempting to use techniques of deity/spirit possession and protocols from an Afro-Diasporic religion.

When we're reconstructing pre-Christian religions, we're working with scraps and fragments. We know a little bit about Egyptian funeral rites and how the wealthy people in Athens honored the gods. We have some Norse and Germanic folk tales preserved by devout Christians writing centuries after the worship of the gods came to an end. And we have a few references to the Druids by the enemies who engaged in a campaign of genocide against them.  Any attempt at rebuilding is going to involve a whole lot of substituting, speculating, and making stuff up as we go along.  

The African Diaspora possession traditions are reasonably well-documented: the protocols which they use to avoid some of the bigger pitfalls are sound and effective. If we want to incorporate possession into our spiritual practices - or if the Gods have started incorporating it for us - we could do worse than look to a viable and living tradition for pointers. Religion has never happened in a vacuum: beliefs and practices have always been informed by neighboring tribes and wandering visionaries.  The Gods are not museum pieces to be dusted off and displayed: They are living beings honored by a living congregation with living practices. That implies continuous change and development, based on interaction with the environment and with available resources. We (and They) are working with what we have, based on our present circumstances. 

Again, I would like to thank Miadhachain for his lengthy analysis. Critics are a dime a dozen: critics who take the time to explain their position and offer intelligent commentary are far more rare and valuable.  

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Apologies for the delayed updates

My father-in-law passed suddenly this weekend. I am presently in New Jersey working to settle his estate and my Internet access is limited. I hope to be updating more regularly again in the very near future, but for now please be patient. Thanks!

- k

Thursday, June 25, 2009

GLBT Vodou

Since I'm heading to New York for the Pride Parade this weekend, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on queer participation in Haitian Vodou.

Haitian culture is generally pretty tolerant of male and female homosexuality. While you may hear occasional jokes about masisis (gay men) or madivines (lesbians), you rarely see the kind of hatred and mob violence which is found in Jamaica or some other Caribbean islands. And there are no specific taboos within Vodou against same-sex relationships or love affairs. Indeed, gay men (particularly clean, well-dressed, polite gay men) are frequently placed under the patronage of Erzulie Freda -- I've heard it told that she likes them so much she makes them gay so that they won't be interested in any other woman. And Danto is well known to be partial to lesbians: indeed, there's at least one song that refers to "Danto Madivine" or Danto the Lesbian.

Transgender spirituality in Haiti is quite different than in the West: there's little or no access to hormones or sexual reassignment surgery, and most transgendered people will identify as "gay" or "lesbian." But I've seen pictures of at least one house comprised of transgendered Haitian women who lived and served the spirits as women. And there are many houses comprised largely or exclusively of gay men or lesbians.

Keep in mind that "each houngan and each mambo is king of the house" - there's considerable diversity between different houses. Those who don't get a warm welcome in one société may find another more suitable to their needs. In general, though, Vodou is a very gay-friendly tradition - so much so that it's been said that a disproportionate number of practitioners in Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora are gay.

Monday, June 22, 2009

New Orleans Voodoo: the Haitian Influence

It's one of the great Creation Myths of New Orleans Voodoo: plantation owners fleeing the Haitian Revolution brought their slaves to the Louisiana Territory, thereby establishing Vodou in and around New Orleans. Like most myths, it has attracted a number of skeptics who point out that there is no evidence of a survival of Haitian customs in the New World before the Duvalier-era diaspora.

It's true that we don't see assons, dwapo lwa, or some of the other items we've come to associate with Haitian Vodou in traditional New Orleans practices. (They are part of the "New Wave" of NO Voodoo, which began in the 1970s and persists to this day). However, that's not necessarily evidence against an NO/Haiti connection. What we call "Haitian Vodou" or "Orthodox Vodou" became popular during the early part of the 20th century, as growing urbanization drew many Haitian farmers off their land and away from their ancestral and village practices.

More damning are the numerous laws against importing slaves from the French Antilles into North America. At this time the slaveholding states were in terrified that the Saint-Domingue revolution would spread throughout the Americas. As early as 1782 there were laws against bringing in slaves from the French Antilles: they had a reputation for being surly and seditious. (Given the conditions on Saint-Domingue and other sugar-producing colonies, who could blame them?!) By 1791 there were searches at most ports to ensure that no one imported Saint-Domingue slaves -- and the Saint-Domingue uprising.

There may have been a few Domingan slaves brought to New Orleans, since it was pretty well-known even then as a smuggling hub. But they were few and far between: as in the rest of the United States, the majority of slaves were from the Kongo regions of central and southern Africa. Kongo practices form the major African influence on both Hoodoo and New Orleans Voodoo. The veneration of the dead, mojo hands, and homage to "La Grande Zombi" (the great Nsambi, or spirit) among others, can all be traced to the Kongo. And of course we have the clearing in the Tremé neighborhood where slaves and free blacks would gather on Sundays to sell their wares and dance, the famous "Congo Square."

But if the Domingans did not bring Haitian Vodou with them, they helped create the conditions in which New Orleans Voodoo was born. They provided a French-speaking and Catholic bulwark against the flood of Anglophone Protestants. This helped to ensure that many folk practices in the city would have a Catholic flavor, as opposed to the Protestant-inspired Hoodoo found in most of the south. They also brought with them a three-caste system of whites, blacks, and mixed-race "people of color." Many Domingan refugees were wealthy, educated gens du coleur who helped establish New Orleans Creole culture: others were free blacks who established themselves as tradesmen and skilled artisans. And they brought with them a culture where interaction between the races was far more common than in the more rigidly segregated Anglophone regions.

All this was instrumental in forming the culture which gave us the folk customs of New Orleans. So while there may not be a direct lineage between the mamalois and papalois of the bayou and the practitioners in Port-au-Prince, there's no question that New Orleans culture owes an immense debt to the Haitian Revolution.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Men Who Made New Orleans: John Law

I've recently begun research on The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook, a guide to the magic of New Orleans. So far I'm only up to the early 18th century, and already I'm finding plenty of entertaining rogues and rapscallions. My favorite so far is John Law, the Scotsman who was responsible for bankrupting thousands of Frenchmen and selling swampland in a way that would put Florida realtors to shame.

Law was a drunkard, a carouser, a rake, and an inveterate gambler: he was also a mathematical genius. After being run out of Britain for his part in a duel over the affections of a young lady, he made his way to the Netherlands and ultimately to France. There he proposed a radical idea. In exchange for the charter to the Louisiana (a stretch of land which encompassed the Mississippi Valley), a "Mississippi Company" would take over the French Crown's debt. To finance this, Law proposed selling shares in the company to the French public, in exchange for dividends on the Mississippi Company's profits.

At first Law's scheme was wildly successful. He preached of the fortunes to be made in Louisiana's gold mines and fertile land. Speculators across France invested their life savings in the Mississippi Company hoping to become wealthy.

Unfortunately there was no gold to be found in Louisiana -- and while was certainly plenty of fertile land, there was a serious labor shortage. Efforts to attract farmers to the colony were undone by (accurate) reports of the heat, humidity, mosquitoes and disease. To counter this, the Company tried settling "volunteers" from jails and debtors prisons, along with convicted "ladies of ill repute." Alas, this only served to saddle New Orleans with a reputation for lawlessness and prostitution which persists to this day.

By 1720, when the promised dividends had failed to materialize, the "Mississippi Bubble" burst. Thousands of Frenchmen were ruined and the French currency was destabilized: a cry arose for Mr. Law's head on a post. Dismissed from his post, Law returned to London (having previously secured a pardon for his conviction) after his gambling efforts in Rome, Venice and Copenhagen failed to restore his lost wealth. In 1729 he died a pauper in Venice: despite his genius, he had somehow failed to invent the "Golden Parachute."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Selling Your Soul, in Haiti and Elsewhere

A question recently arose on Tristatevodou about selling your soul to the lwa.

Of course, the original soul-marketer was Ol' Splitfoot himself, who has been buying souls for centuries. According to one common version, as seen in Goethe's Faust and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, one can acquire great wisdom and forbidden knowledge in exchange for eternal damnation. (All I have to say is that had best be some pretty impressive wisdom and knowledge!) For Faust/Faustus, this wisdom is an end in itself: he becomes heroic by virtue of sacrificing everything in his quest for knowledge. Later on this archetype would become a staple of modern science fiction and horror, as the "Mad Scientist" who wants to learn the Secrets of the Universe and won't let little things like law and morality stand in his way.

This vision really has no parallel in Vodou. Haitian Vodou is an eminently practical faith: knowledge is useful only insofar as it puts a roof over your head and food on your table. The idea of giving up everything to gain wisdom isn't all that appealing to people who have nothing: in Maslow's hierarchy of needs food, clothing and shelter come well before self-actualization.

Another famous version of the story suggests that Satan can fulfill all your carnal needs in exchange for your soul. He can make you unimaginably wealthy and provide you with a sex life that Hugh Hefner would envy - but when the party is over it's REALLY over.

Haitian culture has several myths which fit this pattern. It's not uncommon for people to gossip that a very lucky or very powerful person "works with the left hand" or has made a pact with a bokor or a malevolent spirit. And it's not uncommon for people to purchase pwens chaud (hot points) in an effort to better their lot. These "left hand" spirits are more demanding and quicker to anger than the cooler "Gineh spirits" but they are also known to work faster and harder on behalf off those who will meet their needs.

Those needs, alas, don't generally include souls. They will more typically involve fets and sacrifices of rum and blood. If those sacrifices are neglected, the pwen or djab may decide to feed itself on its owner's family: a baby or old person may die, or the owner may be horribly injured or lose everything s/he gained with the pwen.

The spirits aren't concerned with gaining control of their followers after death: they are focused on service in the here and now. Writing your name in blood on a piece of parchment is easy: spending decades caring for a djab that might kill your children or parents if you screw up is a bit more challenging.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The New York Times on 'Driving While Black'

Today's New York Times has an interesting editorial on "post-racial America" and just how far we have to go before reaching that ideal. As Brent Staples points out
The experience of being mistaken for a criminal is almost a rite of passage for African-American men. Security guards shadow us in stores. Troopers pull us over for the crime of “driving while black.” Nighttime pedestrians cower by us on the streets.

And black men who work as undercover cops are occasionally shot to death by white colleagues, as happened to a young officer named Omar Edwards last month in New York City.
Black Americans are at an enormous disadvantage when it comes to finding work. As Princeton sociologist Devah Prager puts it: "Being black in America today is just about the same as having a felony conviction in terms of one’s chances of finding a job." (Things are even tougher for those black men who have been caught up in the criminal justice system - and let's take a look at incarceration percentages in the United States as of 2006, courtesy of
  • Whites: 409 per 100,000
  • Latinos: 1,038 per 100,000
  • Blacks: 2,468 per 100,000
A desire to escape our racist past is understandable, even laudable. But until we recognize the disparities and prejudices which persist in our culture, we have no chance of healing history's wounds. As Brent Staples wisely says
We may yet reach that goal. But we won’t do it by pretending that centuries-old biases were magically swept away in a single election. We can do it only by exorcising poisonous preconceptions that go to the very heart of who we are.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

From "Vodou Money Magic:" Ogou Wanga for the Ladies

I recently received a request for an Ogou wanga that could help the querent's friend find work. This comes from my forthcoming book, Vodou Money Magic - it's a ritual designed for female Vodouisants who want to catch Ogou's attention.

Ogou Wanga for the Ladies

The Ogous are known for their passion – and for the passion they inspire in their female followers. Fr. Kwellikant, a Breton priest, explained to Donald Cosentino why he locked the Church of St. Jacques on his feast day instead of allowing the pilgrims inside.

There were constant incidents, perpetual sacrifices. I saw a woman lift up her skirt in front of the saint on his white horse and say "Here I am, St. Jacques! It's all for you!" Another woman offered St. Jacques a piece of soap to wash her crotch (forgive me!) I heard a woman in the dark part of the church say "St. Jacques, you are a big powerful man. The man I live with is too old. His zozo (penis) doesn't work. Help me to find another one." I heard these sorts of things and decided to shut the church during pilgrimage.[i]

Many female Vodouisants marry Ogou in a costly ceremony which requires the services of several initiated clergymembers, a team of drummers, and numerous assistants. Expensive jewelry is required, as are elaborate tables and decorations befitting a wedding. A maryaj involves lifelong chastity on particular days (typically the first Wednesday of the month but possibly more) and may require other commitments. Like any other marriage, it is not something which should be undertaken lightly.

While you may not be ready for wedding bells, a woman who wants to gain Ogou’s special favor can definitely use her feminine wiles to gain his attention. “Sex magic” in the classical Western or neo-Tantric sex of the word – rituals involving masturbation or intercourse with another partner or partners – are not part of any African or African Diaspora tradition. However, it is not uncommon for devotees of both sexes to have erotic dreams involving lwa; neither is it uncommon for devotees to seek guidance from the lwa in their dreams.

For this ritual you will need two red cloths, an enamelware or ceramic basin or other fireproof dish which can hold water, the Ogou image of your choosing and a red candle. (If your Ogou favors a different color for your candle, use that instead). You will also need a sexy negligee, preferably a bright red one. Get a lttle bit of rum and, if you can find it, some Florida Water. Finally, you will need some clean sheets and a chance to spend Wednesday night sleeping alone and undisturbed.

Take a shower or bath; when you are finished, make yourself presentable using your favorite makeup and perfume and put on your nightie. Don’t feel self-conscious if you don’t measure up to some arbitrary standard of acceptable body types: Ogou sees beauty in all women and is sure to find you attractive if you expend a little effort for him. Prepare your sleeping space beforehand by cleaning it and making it presentable. Imagine that you’re getting ready for an overnight date with a charming, handsome and thoroughly desirable fellow – because that’s exactly what you are doing! Feel free to make your place sexy according to your feminine wiles.

Place the first red cloth in the center of the room. Place your Ogou image or vévé and the fireproof dish. Place the candle in the dish, then fill it approximately ¾ full of water to which you have added a bit of rum (no more than a teaspoon or so) and one or two drops of Florida water. As you do, smell Ogou’s rough, masculine cologne as he comes closer to you. Sprinkle the water on the ground, asking Legba to open the way so that your suitor can come and visit you.

Now light the candle: as you do see the light of the flame reflected in Ogou’s polished and razor-sharp machete. You can see his silhouette as he enters: he is tall and sturdy, with thick muscles and broad shoulders. He walks toward you with the tense flowing grace of a caged tiger: you can hear his desire in his quick breaths and feel it in his burning stare. Wrap the red cloth around your head and tie it. As you do, feel Ogou’s strong and sinewy arms pulling you close to him.

Now turn in for the night and go to sleep. Let yourself be lulled into slumber by the candle’s flickering flame. Do not masturbate or otherwise touch yourself, no matter how much you may want to. (When Ogou is present, you may find yourself incredibly aroused!) You may have erotic dreams involving Ogou; you may also find that he only wishes to talk, or even that you have no dreams at all which you can remember. As you do this more often, you will find yourself developing a protective and romantic relationship with this powerful lwa. Be sure to record any dreams or waking visions you may have, and whatever else you do, take any messages you receive from Ogou very seriously.

You may be wondering why a gay man could not have a similar relationship with his Ogou. In my experience, every Ogou I have met has been loudly and definitively heterosexual. Other Houngans and Mambos concur: Houngan Aboudja, a gay man and longtime servant of the lwa, says that while he serves Ogou Feraille and has a deep, caring relationship with him, “he doesn’t want to know about or have to deal with my personal life in that area.”[ii] The Ogous of my acquaintance would not respond favorably to a man who approached them in this manner: they would be uninterested at best and offended at worst.

That being said, there are many Ogous and many sociétés: some houses believe Ogou Feraille and Ogou St.-Jacques are not brothers but lovers.[iii] Vodou is not a monolithic faith: no one can speak ex cathedra of what the spirits do or do not believe. You may do with this spell what you will: your lwa will respond as they will.

[i] Donald J. Cosentino. “Repossession: Ogun in Folklore and Literature” (1997) in Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New. (Sandra T. Barnes, Editor). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. 299-300..

[ii] Quoted in Randy P. Conner, David Sparks, David Hatfield Sparks. Queering Creole Social Traditions: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. Participation in African-inspired Traditions in the Americas. Philadelphia: Haworth Press, 2004. 61.

[iii] Ibid, 62.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Vodou in your Backyard

The religious and folk magical practices which make up Sevis Gineh unquestionably have their roots in Haiti: many of the lwa came to the New World from Africa. But you needn't travel to Port-au-Prince or Benin to serve the spirits. They can be found in your hometown if you only know where to look.

Do you live near a crossroads? If so, you can leave offerings there for Legba. Pour some cane syrup out on the ground and ask him to "sweeten" your life and your luck. The Baron and Brigitte can be found in any cemetery: look for the largest cross in the place and place your offering of flowers, rum and/or tobacco beside it. If you have an armory or a military base near you, that's a great place to pour out some rum for Papa Ogou: if not, go to your nearest train tracks. The Simbis often make their home near streams, while Erzulie Freda has been spotted in many flower gardens... and if you live near the ocean, why not go to the beach for a chat with Met Agwe and La Sirene?

While scholars have generally focused on the more popular lwa, much Vodou magic involves djabs - wild spirits which are often tied to a particular place and which can be powerful allies and protectors. When you're out for a walk in your neighborhood, is there a gnarled old tree which catches your attention? Is there a big rock which looks like a face when seen from a certain angle? Is there a patch of land which makes the hair on the back of your neck rise every time you walk through it? You may be in the presence of a djab: why not try to make it your friend and ask for its aid the next time you want to do some wanga?

Vodou has become inextricably linked with Roman Catholicism and its practice of saint-veneration. Those who want to honor Danto can spend some time at a church dedicated to Our Lady of Czestochowa or Our Lady of Perpetual Help... and of course St. Philomena or St. Clare are always glad to talk to those who come to their shrines and pay them honor. (Not to mention that Catholicism is a wonderful source of magical and mystical wisdom in itself: like the best perverts, the best Houngans and Mambos generally identify as Catholic).

When you start looking for the lwa and the mysteries around you, you'll learn a new way of seeing. You'll discover that the Divine can be found not just at holy sites and sacred places, but in the day-to-day workings of your life. That is one of the most important lessons which Vodou has to offer, and it's one which is open to anyone regardless of their initiatory status.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Race and Afro-Caribbean Religions, Pt. 1: It's Not All About You...

When talking about race and Vodou (or other Afro-Caribbean religions), I frequently hear some variation on "but what about my suffering?" Discussions about the role of race in western culture get transformed into arguments about whether or not plus-sized people, Goths, punk rockers, etc. can be victims of prejudice. This is generally accompanied with observations like "I'm not a racist, I never even think about race, some of my best friends are black." The goal appears to be twofold: the posters wish to claim the moral superiority of victimhood while distancing themselves from the benefits which racism provides to members of the dominant culture.

Like many other primates, the human animal is hard-wired to distinguish between "our pack" and "the other guys." Race is just one of the more convenient dividing lines: religion, language and physical appearance (among other things) can also be used as justifications for bad behavior. Racism certainly isn't the only form of oppression. Roman Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians are all "white," but do a perfectly fine job of hating each other.

Yet discussions of race and racial prejudice frequently get sidetracked into discussions about other forms of oppression. I can't imagine someone going to a forum dedicated to cancer patients and claiming that their chronic migraines hurt too ... then arguing that pain is pain and there's no reason why cancer survivors deserve any special sympathy. Americans can't stop talking about race - but often those discussions involve ways to minimize the role racism plays in our culture. And so we get the sad spectacle of white people telling black people that racism doesn't exist anymore, or assuring them that being black in America is no more challenging than being obese, having a Mohawk, or wearing a pentagram necklace.

There is definitely a time and a place to talk about oppression and prejudice as things in themselves. But there are also good reasons why we should examine specific manifestations of these instincts. And there are also reasons why we shouldn't try to turn discussions about the suffering of others into explorations of our own pain. Standing up for one's rights is one thing: whiny self-absorption is another.