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.