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