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.