Friday, December 10, 2010

Response to a Blog Post on Patheos

In response to Nate Adams' recent article on Patheos, "Don't Let the Grinch Steal Christmas," I was inspired to pen (OK, type) the following. I originally posted this to my Facebook page but realized that it was a bit long for that brief quote-loving medium. And so I have placed it here: I've also taken the opportunity to do a bit of editing for style and grammar.
Nate: well written, even if I don't entirely agree with you.  I am 100% behind your idea that we should celebrate Christmas with numerous religious displays. I would be thrilled to see Jewish, Islamic and Hindu holidays receive recognition at the public square, along with Pagan celebrations of Yuletide and Zoroastrian tributes to Nawruz. And I'd even be happy to see a shrine to Free Thought, Secularism and Atheism alongside all these.

The problem is that in many American towns and cities Christianity is the de facto standard. People in these communities see America as a Christian nation and look askance at those who do not share their beliefs. Christmas celebrations become yet another way of ostracizing those who don't follow the majority beliefs. (Ask some of your Jewish colleagues, particularly those who grew up in a town where they were among the only Jews in the area, about their Christmas memories). I don't have any objection to a Creche if others have no objection to my Vodou-inspired shrine to St. Nicholas or my friend's shrine to Odin. The problem is that many people do.

Many places have found it easier to avoid the numerous problems altogether by limiting or banning religious imagery in the name of keeping Church and State separate. Litigation is expensive and most municipalities would rather avoid it if possible.  (This, of course, does not necessarily apply to showboating politicians or attention-seekers on either side of the argument). I agree that there is an issue of tolerance here and that the public square should be open to any displays of public religious feeling (within reason, of course) rather than to none. But as we all know, law and politics are both arts of the possible. What we have right now may be the best we can get in our current polarized and hot-tempered climate.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Donald Lewis Filan 1931-2010

My parents divorced when I was nine: I barely saw my father after 1974.  He married his second wife soon after his divorce from my mother became final, and they have been together since that time.  I carried my grief and my anger about their separation for a very long time.  Sometimes I blamed my mother, sometimes I blamed my father: more often I blamed both.

By the time I finally came to some sort of terms with my loss my mother was dead and my father long established in a new family.  We had gone from estranged to strangers: while we made a few halting and painful efforts at re-establishing some sort of relationship, they never amounted to anything. When love and grief become too painful, you learn to lock them up and keep them safe.  One grows accustomed to absence: it is so much more reliable and predictable than presence.  And so both of us continued on with the families we had chosen, doing the best we could with what we had.

We touched upon that a bit in our last conversation, a little over a year ago.  We knew by then that the distance between us was insurmountable. But we no longer blamed each other for the rift.  The anger was gone and the hurt had long since faded to a dull ache.

Rest in peace, Dad.  I am glad we made it to absolution even if we could never find our way back to love.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Death of Grandfather Maridjan

In 1930 some 1,300 people died when Gojung Merapi (Mount Merapi), Java's most active volcano, erupted.  Late in the morning of November 22, 1994 Merapi sent out what the locals call fearfully a wedus gembel (curly-haired sheep). This wedus gembel, a searing hot cloud of gas and ash, touched down in a small village near the mountain's southwestern slope and incinerated 66 people.  In 2006 Merapi exploded once more: while the ensuing eruption was sizeable only two died. Although reeling from an earthquake that had left over half a million people homeless, the Indonesian government was able to organize an evacuation that saved many lives.

In October 2010 Merapi began rumbling again: as seismologists warned this was going to be a major event, Indonesia began another round of evacuations.  Many of the farmers who lived near the volcano's fertile plains departed in haste.  Others chose to ride out the impending danger, afraid they might lose their few possessions to looters or confident that the spirits of the volcano would not harm those who paid their proper respects.

Among those staying behind was 85-year old Ki Surakso Hargo, better known as Mbah Maridjan, or Grandfather Maridjan. Thirty-five years earlier Maridjan had inherited his role as Mount Merapi's juru kunci, (spiritual guardian) from his retiring father.  In that role, he acted as mediator with the mountain, propitiating its spirits with a mixture of Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and indigenous prayers, offerings and propitiations.  He answered to Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, hereditary ruler of the province (and current elected governor), presiding with him over ceremonies to ensure the region remained fruitful and at peace.  As Maridjan explained it, “My job is to stop lava from flowing down. Let the volcano breathe, but not cough.”

During the 2006 eruption Maridjan led a procession of 100 villagers on a 54 kilometer (33 mile) march around local villages and left the local spirits offerings of apem (rice flour cakes) and other gifts to appease their anger. While local officials tried to take credit for the evacuations, many of the people believed that it was Maridjan's prayers that saved the day.  The brave juru kunci who refused to leave his post became famous throughout Indonesia, especially after he appeared in commercials promoting Kuku Bima Ener-G, a popular energy drink.

As the scope of Merapi's latest outburst became apparent, many of Maridjan's community left, including most of his family.  Once again Maridjan stayed behind. He knew how dangerous Merapi could be: he was badly burned during the 2006 eruption, spending five months in the hospital and leaving with permanent scars.  Yet he stayed at his post. To some he explained himself with an
old Javanese expression, "Nek aku mudhun, mengko diguyu pitik" or "the chickens would laugh at me if I run away from this place."  He was more serious with a close friend, saying "My time to die in this place has almost come, I can’t leave."

On the afternoon of Tuesday, October 28, the mountain erupted.  Maridjan was kneeling in a position of prayer when the 1,000°C (1,800°F) wind hit him.  His batik shirt and sarong were fused to his skin by the heat: white ashes covered his charred corpse. According to Broto Seno, commander of Yogyakarta’s search and rescue team, "There were no signs of pain. His body was prostrated rigidly, not like he suffered from the fire."

Indonesian public opinion on Maridjan's death is divided.  The Sultan denied that it was Mr. Maridjan’s job to face down an eruption, stating "His duty wasn’t to guard Merapi, but to carry out his obligation to the palace and conduct ceremonies."  Ahmad Susanto, a cleric from pan-Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, said that Mr. Maridjan’s death was a call from God for the Javanese to abandon superstition and join the steadily rising tide of Indonesians who are adopting a more orthodox form of Islam. Surono, Indonesia's chief seismologist, complained about Maridjan's hubris and recommended that people trust in science rather than superstition when dealing with volcanoes.  Others wondered how many villagers died because they followed Maridjan's example... including 13 people who were in Maridjan's home begging him to evacuate.

But even those who think Maridjan's sacrifice silly are impressed by his bravery. His earlier commercials have been refilmed as a tribute to his life and his death.  Speaking on behalf of the Yogyakarta Palace, Gusti Prabukusumo (the Sultan's brother) said "We had known long before it happened that Mbah Maridjan would be taken by Merapi. Now that he's gone, we have to choose a new gatekeeper soon." Although the current eruption has claimed over 250 lives (with more bodies sure to be found as the site cools) and although Merapi is certain to erupt again, this is unlikely to drive people away from the region.  As one Indonesian website notes:
But Merapi does not act always as "a bad guy", most of the time "it is a good guy", handsomely gives tremendous fertility to the land, stands strongly guarding the nature.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Courage and Structure: more from the Blogosphere

After my post on the Rev. Jim Swilley's recent "coming out", Robert posted an entry in response asking "what is courage?" A few days prior, Ian Corrigan commented on my post concerning the language of  orthodoxy.  In the spirit of efficient blogging, I felt I might be able to answer both my commentators in one entry.

Ian shares my feelings on the dangers of DIY spiritual systems, hearkening to his personal experience and noting:
A big risk in a self-constructed, ad-hoc approach to spiritual work is that you will only manage to affirm the self you already were when you began, with little growth except perhaps in size. You might become a bigger, shinier, more powerful person of the sort you have always been, but you can also miss the opportunity to balance your natural tendencies against their complementary things. Worse, I’ve seen folks exaggerate and empower characteristics that might reasonably be discarded, if their goal was a productive and happy life. (If for some reason – artistic soulfulness or some crap – you don’t seek a productive happy life then I haven’t much to say to you…) This exaggeration of tendencies is, I’ll repeat, a real trap of the ‘do-what-feels-right’ approach to spiritual self-training.
While Robert provides two different examples of how a gay minister might engage with homosexuality.

Fictional Minister Number 1 is a good man in every respect. He is gay. He preaches from the pulpit that homosexuality is wrong while secretly having gay lovers. Is it courageous to preach what he feels is the truth even when he can't practice according to his words no matter how hard he tries? Is it courageous after years of failing to change his own behavior to change his mind and support another point of view? Would it be more courageous to simply admit he is an abomination as he has taught homosexuals are and walk away from the church? I could easily argue all three points. 
Ficitonal Minister Number 2 is a good man in every respect and preaches against gays as being ungodly. He says they should be cast out of the church. His son admits he is gay. Is it courageous to hold onto his son and love his son despite the words Number 2 spews from the pulpit? Or, is it courageous to disown his son, no matter how much he loves him, so that the son cannot 'infect' other members of the congregation? I could argue both ways.
Rev. Swilley is obviously devoted to his religion, Evangelical Christianity.  He is so committed, in fact, that he was willing to follow this path despite his sexual orientation.   It would have been easy enough for him to walk away from the pulpit and the church altogether, especially in the early days when he was preaching to small congregations and struggling to get by.  Yet Swilley persisted in his ministry, painfully aware of his homosexuality yet passionately in love with his faith and his community.

Failing that, he could also have taken the route of "do as I say, not as I do."  Pastors like Eddie Long and Ted Haggard condemned gay rights and the "homosexual agenda" while engaging in trysts on the side.  While Swilley has been quiet about his own sexual history (indeed, it's really none of our business), he never engaged in the kind of gay-bashing and intolerance which is so popular among many Evangelical leaders.  Excerpts from his 2003 book show him wrestling with Scriptural issues and with his community:
Many years ago I worked with my father in his midtown Atlanta church where we experienced what we thought was a great 'revival' among many of the gay and lesbian people of the inner city. Over the years I counseled with these people, took them through what we believed to be deliverance and inner healing, cast demons out of them (or so we thought), and pressured them into heterosexual relationships, including marriage, so that they could live normal lives... During that period I saw everything from grown men vomiting into trash cans, trying to exorcise the demons of homosexuality, to men who had been gay from their earliest memory trying to maintain a sham marriage so that they could fit the definition of being a Christian.

To my knowledge, all these years later, every one of these men and women have gone back to living openly gay lives, and all the ones who were married to the opposite sex are all divorced... I honestly don't know the right way to look at this situation anymore. I know everything that the Bible says about it, but in my heart I really don't believe that people have any control over their sexual and romantic orientation, and that makes me feel hypocritical about some of the positions that I have to take as a minister... when you tell [homosexuals] that if they come to Jesus they will become a new creation, and they expect to change to the point of having their sexual and romantic orientation altered, they are devastated when they discover (only too soon) that it isn't going to happen.
For now Swilley may have found a temporary solution to his quandry.  According to one purported member of the Church of the Now, Swilley is
willing to remain celebate and alone for the rest of his life in order to keep from any sin or jepordizing the church any further…so the problem here is not really a homoSEXuality issue (in the video he even said it wasn’t about sex or relationship), it’s simply about orientation…just because a person is gay doesn’t mean they act on sinful impulse…
We might not agree with Swilley's alleged decision, or with the idea that homosexual sex is sinful.  But we can certainly admire his willingness to take his path seriously, even the parts which he does not understand and which involve the deepest part of his being.  He has accepted the structure and tenets of his faith and struggled to put them into practice at great cost to himself: he has recognized the importance of its tenets concerning sexual behavior as well as its commandments concerning love, tolerance and personal honesty.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rev. Jim Swilley and Christian Courage

Apologies for the delayed pace of new postings.  I've been hard at work on a number of projects.  (Among them are Opiated Shamanism, my latest entry into the Blogosphere and my first promotional effort for the upcoming Power of the Poppy). But while I may not have been writing as much here, I have been reading as time permits: I also have several more responses that I hope to post here in the not-too-distant future.

When I saw Jason Miller's recent post on Jesus and Christian Magic, I thought I should give credit to someone who embodies Christianity's best efforts. It's fashionable to complain about the horrible Evil Fundamentalists who are just a few votes and some lighter fluid away from launching the latest remake of Ye Burninge Times. And there have certainly been some lousy things done in the name of Christ, from the murder of Hypatia to the pedophile priest coverup. But if we are going to hold a world religion at fault for its failures, it is only fair that we give credit for its successes: let us present Christianity's best along with its worst.

Some 25 years ago, Rev. Jim Swilley's congregants prayed in strip malls amidst rented space. Today their Church in the Now campus in Conyers houses one of the largest megachurches in the metropolitan Atlanta area. Swilley founded Church in the Now

... on a concept taken from Psalm 2:8 in the KJV, which says: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” More recent and better translations say, “Ask of Me and I will give you the nations…,” but CITN embraced the more archaic term “heathen” for the simple reason that this house was/is to be a place of human recovery for those who have not been reached by the conventional church…those who have been overlooked…those who have slipped through the cracks. Jesus gave an illustration about the king who told his stewards to go into the streets and compel the unwanted ones to come to his banquet after the original invitees had declined his invitation, and CITN has answered the call to become those stewards carrying out that mission.
By 2010 he had every reason to congratulate himself on his success. Yet his second marriage had crumbled at the beginning of the year, his wife announcing she was tired "of living a lie."  The comment stung: when he read about the surge in anti-gay bullying and teen suicides, he decided to take action. Before his congregation, without a scandal lurking in the wings and his entire career at stake, Swilley announced,
There are two things in my life that are an absolute. I did not ask for either one of them. Both of them were imposed on me. I had no control over them.  One was the call of God on my life ... the other thing was my sexual orientation...
When I heard that the fifth teenager in the last few weeks committed suicide. It really makes me want to say to people who have no idea what people go through, 'You probably don't need to say anything about it.' Because, I've got to tell you something; a 14 or 15-year-old doesn't just say one day. 'Hey, I think I'm going to make up this story that I'm gay so I can jump off the George Washington Bridge.
The responses to his confession were predictable. Even before this confession, some Evangelicals were accusing Swilley and his wife of practicing an "apostate new age theology" with possible ties to Roman Catholicism. He has resigned as a bishop in the International Communion of Charismatic Churches after its Archbishop David Huskins said "if [Swilley] is yielding to a lifestyle that is contradictory to the Word of God, and then no, he would not be qualified to lead in the Church of God."   While he thanks his many well-wishers for "an outpouring of love and support," he admits that he may not be able to continue leading Church in the Now should members desert en masse. But despite all this, he has no regrets: as he says in his blog,
More than anything else, though, I have loved hearing from so many young people, including teens who are dealing with some serious issues, along with parents of teens who have been touched by some things that I’ve said. If you’ve been helped at all, it’s been worth any negative reactions or bad publicity that I’ve received.
To those few of you who have severed ties with me, I want you to know that I understand, and that I love you, and I also want you to know that I hope our division is not permanent. If my transparency has offended anyone, I apologize.

I pray that all of you will be blessed, and again, I can’t thank you enough for your support…

Monday, October 25, 2010

Shamanism, Apollonian and Dionysian

Much modern Shamanism celebrates the primitive. By taking on the titles and ceremonial rites of hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers, we hope to rid ourselves of civilization's blinders and break through our conditioning. We free ourselves of logic through entheogens and free ourselves of inhibition through revelry. Our approach toward the shamanic experience evokes Friedrich Nietzsche's description of the Dionysian influence:
[H]e has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the verge of flying up into the air as he dances. The enchantment speaks out in his gestures. Just as the animals now speak and the earth gives milk and honey, so something supernatural also echoes out of him: he feels himself a god; he himself now moves in as lofty and ecstatic a way as he saw the gods move in his dream. The man is no longer an artist; he has become a work of art: the artistic power of all of nature, to the highest rhapsodic satisfaction of the primordial unity, reveals itself here in the transports of intoxication. 
Putting aside issues of exoticism and cultural appropriation, this is also a misleading view of the role traditional shamans play in their community. One undertakes the spirit journey not for intoxication but for clarity. The shaman's world is not a free and unbounded one. On the contrary,  it is one which is constrained on all sides by restrictions and taboos. His practices are not a "return to nature." Rather, they attempt to make sense of nature, to intercede with the shadowy and often hostile forces which threaten him and his community.  Far from escaping order and rule, they help to establish it: they escape their society only so they can work for it as intercessors and arbitrators between the various realms.

Eliade was on to something when he called shamans "technicians" of the sacred.  Today our world is described by the priests of Science.  Shamans fill a similar role in their societies: they provide a framework by which their fellows can understand the various phenomena which shape their lives.  Their stories preserve ancestral knowledge and help ensure the survival of the next generation: they serve as boundary-markers between the village and the wild places, between the tribe and the outlanders, between the living and the dead.  While they may seem charming and primitive to us more civilized types, we might do well to consider another observation by ol' Friedrich:
Wherever we encounter the “naive” in art, we have to recognize the highest effect of Apollonian culture, which always first has to overthrow the kingdom of the Titans and to kill monsters and, through powerfully deluding images and joyful illusions, has to emerge victorious over the horrific depth of what we observe in the world and the most sensitive capacity for suffering.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

New Czech Review of Haitian Vodou Handbook

I just discovered a Czech review of The Haitian Vodou Handbook, or as they say in Prague, Haitské Voodoo: Magie duchů a kouzel. Alas, I am utterly lacking in knowledge of Czech, and so I must rely on the rather rough Google translation. But if  is to be believed, Mika found that:
Je velmi čtivě napsaná a věřím ,že mi jakožto nezasvěcenému čtenáři poskytla poměrně slušnou základní představu o tom ,co to vlastně woodoo je a představila mi některé nejznámější Lwa.
(In Googlespeak "It is written very readable and I believe that I, as the uninitiated reader gave a rather good basic idea of what it actually is a voodoo and introduced me to some of the most famous Lwa.")
I was especially fascinated to discover the similarities between the Kongo and pre-Christian Slavic view of the crossroads and graveyards as holy places: the description of possession among Slavic magicians in 1071 were very interesting as well.  Hearty thanks are in order to Mika, and to Knihkupectví Fontána for giving me voice in another tongue. 

Monday, October 18, 2010


A recent review of Ocha'ni Lele's excellent Teachings of the Santeria Gods got me thinking about the usage of story, parable and metaphor in dealing with the Divine.  Ocha'ni has done a fantastic job of bringing the patakis to a wider audience.  He's also done a great service to diviners by providing an inside look at the cowries.  I'm wondering if he (and others) might want to comment on my theories on their linguistical and cultural value within Lukumi culture. (The usual caveats included:  while I have a nodding acquaintance with Lukumi and decades of experience as a diviner, I'm not an initiate in any Orisha tradition).

To me, the patakis are stories which hint at the meanings behind each of the odus. They provide structure to the divinatory system by providing direct examples of the odu's influence in any given situation. Yet at the same time they are flexible enough to apply to a variety of situations and possible outcomes. Querents can play multiple roles within these stories: their part can be tied to the hero, the villain or the intercessors. Other elements within the client's life - potential lovers, business partners, allies and obstacles - can be called into service within this drama.

Problems and solutions will be found within different patakis. The story which tells the querent's weakness may be met by a story which gives him a role of power, or at least a potential escape.  Proscriptions and warnings may be given literally or metaphorically, as the situation demands.  One may find relief or may learn that a doom has been foreordained, one which cannot be avoided but can only be endured.  In any case, the querent's life is tied to eternal patterns and to unending stories: they simultaneously interpret and become the myth.

Patakis allow for considerable leeway in individual interpretation: a pataki's details may vary between practitioners and houses. But the stories as they are heard are preserved with great care: one learns them from elders and protects them from outsiders.  Their details are preserved along with the numerous intricate rituals that determine whether an odu falls for good or ill and what offerings one should make to propitiate the corresponding spirit.  These constraints may force the diviner and querent to face hard truths. There is less room to whitewash a bad omen, less space to avoid discussing the failings which led up to the current situation.   Its rigidity leaves less room for weasel words and equivocation.

(I'm reminded of the similarly-complex horary astrology which played such an important role in Renaissance magic. They had equally rigid rules and gave very detailed, if frequently harsh, predictions. Today this sort of reading has fallen out of favor: it's considered best to accentuate the positive aspects of a reading and downplay that which is fated to happen.  While I can appreciate the value of encouraging querents to keep a positive attitude, I also wonder if we haven't sacrificed something in the way of accuracy and honesty).

The cowries show the future for good and for ill. Querents may learn that they must undergo expensive and arduous initiation ceremonies: they may be hit with taboos and restrictions, chided on their bad behavior and told that misfortune and even death lie ahead for them.   The patakis offer ways in which victory and defeat may be met with grace and dignity.  The meaning may or may not provide querents with some way of escaping suffering: it will certainly provide some sense of meaning to their pain.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Yep, You Guessed It... More Shamanic Linguistics

On Mystic Wicks, a couple of people responded to my earlier post about the linguistic uses of "Shamanism."  (You can follow that discussion here).  Since they both raised great points for discussion, I thought I'd share my response on my blog.


There's definitely a tendency to lump indigenous religious practices together under the Shamanism banner. "Shamanism" can become a justification for all sorts of cultural mixing and matching. Holy symbols become consumer artifacts or aesthetic trappings, to be blended based on color schemes rather than religious significance. It's like our culture's version of the pwen achete, the "bought points" or purchased spirits of Haitian Vodou.

By declaring a culture "shamanic," we provide ourselves with a set of expectations. We focus on the things we consider shamanic - use of plants (especially if they are entheogenic or hallucinogenic), drumming, trance journeying or possession, spirit work, etc. - and ignore the finer points of their culture. For an example of what I'm talking about, look at the way indigenous American cultures from Algonquin to Zuma have become "Indian spirituality."

You both mention "bullshit detectors." I agree that a healthy sense of skepticism is invaluable when studying an unfamiliar spiritual path. But I think we also have to be careful not to overestimate their accuracy. Keep in mind that skilled con artists will look nothing like the stereotypical greasy used car salesman. They're going to be sweet and reassuring: they will meet all your suspicions with perfectly reasonable answers and play up to all your expectations. They will be the wise spiritual leader or the humble peasant as best suits their needs.

By contrast, genuinely spiritual people may appear awkward, alternating between overbearing forcefulness and meek confusion. They may have the common human flaws of arrogance and thin-skinned defensiveness. They may make statements that shock your sense of political correctness or display behaviors that make you uncomfortable. And your common sense might, with justifiable reason, tell you to go with the person who met your culturally and linguistically-determined preconceptions.

Now let's add to the mix the people who are simultaneously lauded as great spiritual leaders and scorned as dangerous cult-leading frauds. And keep in mind that spirituality can be a business like anything else. When working with indigenous cultures you are dealing with a tremendous disparity in economic power between students and prospective teachers. More often than not, you're also dealing with a culture wherein paying for services and religious instruction is an accepted practice.

And as Satori43 said, it's important that the shaman be trusted "within the group." Figuring out who is and is not trusted can be challenging for people coming to a culture as complete outsiders. Taking your time and getting to know your prospective teachers, and their students, is always useful. So is learning something about their peers and the community in which they operate as spiritual leaders. It requires more effort than buying an airplane ticket and writing a check, but the time spent will more than pay for itself in the short and long term.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Language of Orthodoxy

Many feel that organized religion is a barrier to spiritual attainment, not a way to heaven. The old slurs against "Popish tyranny" are now thrown at all creeds: grasping superstitious bureaucracies that impede freedom, innovation and one's personal relationship with the Higher Power.  Hating on orthodoxies has become a favorite new orthodoxy: heresy for heresy's sake is preferred to rigid and exclusive proclamations.

There are good reasons for these concerns. Any organization is liable to fall prey to groupthink and CYA behaviors. Rote memorization can replace passionate devotion: political jockeying and corporate in-fighting may serve its leaders better than piety. But  I wonder if we aren't missing the role organized religion can play in grounding and effectuating the spiritual experience. Its rigidity and conservatism can provide a powerful structure within which Ecstasy can be transmuted into the Word and from there into the Deed.

Every language must have an underlying grammar, a structure upon which sounds, characters and gestures are combined in certain constrained and predictable ways. Mystics may experience the Divine in a lightning flash which transcends all language - but in its aftermath of their vision they must try to incorporate the vision into their daily life. To describe it to themselves - and later to others - they will use the words and symbols of their culture.  Of course, this incorporates a chance for error. It also offers a way of communicating, however imperfectly, the vision of the ineffable.

Since Freud and Jung we have concentrated on personal interpretations of dreams: we focus on what the symbols mean to the dreamer. A similar focus prevails in many spiritual and theological circles. Faced with the immanence of the Gods, we ask what impact Their presence has on the seer.   Pantheons are recast as images and reflections of some nebulous undifferentiated Divine Force, or as psychodramas playing out inside the shaman's skull. Their role as protectors and progenitors of the clan, the city or the people is subjugated to their new role as therapist:  They become a resource to be tapped for self-improvement, something to be exploited rather than worshipped.

A living tradition provides us a different lens for viewing our experience and a different language for communicating it. It gives us access to the teachings of others who have been touched by the Gods, to their techniques and their coping mechanisms: it provides information which is vetted by centuries of profitable use. It also gives us goals and guideposts against which we may measure our visions.  This can help us to separate the spiritual experience from wish-fulfillment. The line between enlightenment and self-delusion can be a fine one: having history to draw upon can provide useful checks and balances. 

Orthodoxy forces us to deal with uncomfortable issues in its taboos, restrictions and moral requirements. We may approach its strictures as reformers or as reactionaries: we may follow its rules with varying degrees of adherence.  But we must engage with and be shaped by them nonetheless: we must allow its worldview to color our own.  We must address problems we would rather avoid and account for transgressions we might prefer to bury.  In a self-led spiritual quest, we may never find our way outside our comfort zones and may never account for difficult questions.

Eliade referred to shamans as "technicians of the sacred." A similar label might be applied to those who serve in a priestly rather than a mystical capacity. They apply the principles of their religion to their faith-community and serve as earthly representatives of their God/s.  Their technology is their vocabulary, their mythology, their philosophy, their skills in dealing with their congregation - the tools with which they bring together the divine and the sacred. If their approach is less direct and spectacular than the shamanic one, it is no less effectual. By preserving the language of their faith, they help to ensure its continuation.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Kenaz Filan Guest Appearance in Gangleri's Grove

In honor of this month's Goddess, I've contributed a few paragraphs on Hela to Galina Krasskova's blog.  I am not a devotee of the Lady of Decay, but I've recently done readings for a few of Her children.  Dealing with Hela is an eye-opening experience, especially when you are working as a diviner. When you want to talk about happy possibilities and upcoming triumphs, Hela speaks of What Must Be and What Cannot be Avoided.

Modern readers don't like to mention these things: we like to concentrate on free will, on pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, on escaping destiny and creating our own reality.  But historically kings and generals didn't go to the diviners for affirmations. They went to learn the truth, painful though it might be: they accepted that the bones or the entrails might augur failure as well as success.  Divination brings messages from the Gods to our realm: we can hardly expect that all those messages will be good.

Recognizing this can take our divination into a whole new realm.  It brings home the weight of our sacred duty and makes our readings things of consequence, not just exercises in possibility.  When we know that a divination may tell of death or suffering, it becomes something more than a parlor game. And when we understand Hela, we understand something of inevitability and of inescapable fate.  It is one of her most painful yet most enduring lessons: take nothing for granted, for that which is whole shall one day be broken and that which blooms must wither.

Monday, September 27, 2010

For Andrew: Still More Intellectualizing About Shamanism

My earlier post on the linguistic uses of Shamanism inspired some questioning on Visionary Shamanism from Andrew, an enlightened being from Great Britain. I thought I'd share my response to his words of wisdom here. 

This is all an attempt to intellectualize!

If we are going to use words, perhaps we should first have some idea of what we mean by those words, n'est-ce pas? This is especially true when dealing with words that have multiple meanings.  And why would intellectualism be a bad thing? Anything worth doing should be worth examining.


a) It is not really a faith!

For some people, shamanic practices are an integral part of their spiritual life. Others see them as something which can be separated from religion and culture. But I'd argue even those non-theistic/atheistic shamans engaged in personal exploration are practicing it as a spiritual discipline. (Belief in God need not be an integral part of religion, as any Buddhist might tell you).  If you're seeking and finding mystical experiences, then you're a mystic. And any mystical experience worthy of the name involves jumping out past the comfortable realms of logic and coming face to face with That Which Transcends.  When reason is no longer of use, one can only rely on faith.  (A Danish guy named Søren Kierkegaard wrote about this at some length: you may find his work enlightening). 

b) Who says practioners should be subjected to tough questioning?

Hopefully the practitioners. If you have no beliefs worth defending, then you have no beliefs. If you never subject your beliefs to any challenges, then what distinguishes you from the wild-eyed fundamentalists who Know with unquestioning certainty and are ready to die and kill for their Knowing?

c) Where do 'prophets' and 'ego crutches' come into it?

If you believe shamans are born, not made, then you have a Priestly Caste, a Chosen People.  That can be an enormous ego-crutch. Saying "I'm an Ascended Master who has come to dispense wisdom to the masses" is much more soothing than admitting "I'm an ill-educated chav who lives in my mum's council flat."  This is an issue which advocates of the "born shamans" theory must address: how do you distinguish the born shamans from those who are seeking a badge of Enlightenment.

d) WE do not choose who is chosen by the gods-there are no gods, only man-made assumptions!

Says you and a few other people. This is not a belief which has a long history, nor is it a majority belief today.  I'm trying to find a definition of "shamanism" which encompasses both "the Gods are real" and "there are no Gods."

c) Escape from reality? Which particular one of the many are you referring to?

I don't want to see "shamanic reality" become an escape from the reality where said "shaman" is just a dysfunctional dumbshit with delusions of grandeur. I prefer an approach which seeks to better one's lot in life to one which says "you don't need to worry about your problems, just tune them out and accept a Higher Truth."  That way of strikes me as more akin to addiction than self-improvement or spiritual development.

Friday, September 24, 2010

What's in a Word? Still More Shamanic Linguistics

Lately I've seen a lot of conversations about the various meanings of the word "shamanism." (My earlier post didn't spark this so much as capture a zeitgeist). I've tried to distill down some of the salient points which have arisen in these discussions, in no particular order of importance. I am sure I will be returning to the topic in future posts: it definitely is worth of further research.

I do not want to get into a discussion of who does or does not have the right to use the word "shaman."  I don't have that kind of power over the language, nor do I hold a trademark on "shamanism." (What's more, I'd be very concerned about anyone who was able to get control over its usage! If you don't like Harner shamans, how would you feel about MPAA-authorized shamans?) There is little I - or anyone else - can do to stop anyone who wishes to claim a shamanic identity. What I would like to do instead is to study some of the ways in which this word is used.

Foul Bachelor Frog courtesy of Meme Generator

For many practitioners, "shamanic" evokes the primitive. It offers a Dionysian way out of the rigid confines of our society and our material existence. By stripping away cultural conditioning, these devotees hope to escape the mundane and experience ecstasy.  But traditional shamanism served as an adjunct to rather than an escape from society, and historical shamans lived in a rigidly structured world delineated by numerous taboos. At worst, this identification can also lead to exotification, objectification and the kind of misbehavior which has been mocked as "plastic shamanism."

I've also noticed several different axes upon which we could divide the different flavors of contemporary shamanism. One is between voluntary and involuntary. Some believe shamanism is an acquired skill, while others believe it can only be practiced by those who are marked by the spirits.  They believe there is a qualitative difference between one who is chosen and one who has learned a few of the consciousness-altering techniques.   

The former approach has often led us to issues of cultural appropriation:  do we have the right to co-opt elements of someone else's coming-of-age rituals or funeral ceremonies to our own ends? On a practical note, some of these techniques may not work as expected when taken out of their original context.  We may ape the motions, chemicals and rhythms used but miss the cultural safeguards and protections.  (James Arthur Ray's reinvention of the sweat lodge as an endurance test is probably the most notorious example of this). 

While the latter view seems to be most common historically, it also comes with some troubling baggage.  Being chosen as a prophet can be a great ego-crutch. Your sufferings can be transformed into martyrdoms while your triumphs become proof of your Mission.   Being the Voice of the Divine can provide an assumption of infallibility the Pope might envy.  And then we get to the age old question of who gets to decide who is Chosen by the Gods?

This post may appear long on questions and short on answers. That is because I think the most important thing here is that we ask those questions.  As a spiritual movement, contemporary shamanism is of very recent vintage. The Way of the Shaman first appeared in 1980, while The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge only arrived in 1968.  There are many sincere people working under this rubric, people who believe it adds something of value to their lives and the lives of others.  They should receive the same respect as any other believer. But they should also be subject to the same sincere but tough questioning - and even tougher self-questioning - that goes with holding any faith.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

From *Power of the Poppy* - Neolithic Papaver somniferum

Here is an excerpt from my upcoming Power of the Poppy - a look at some of the earliest evidence of opiate usage among our distant ancestors. Hope you enjoy! - k


Approximately 7,500 years ago agricultural communities began to develop along the basin of the Danube River. Within less than two hundred years they had spread to what would become Belgium and northern France in the west and Ukraine in the east. Where their ancestors had foraged and hunted for a living, these people (called linearbandkeramik, or LBK, for their distinctive pottery) worked the land for their food. They took cues—and seeds—from the Near East, where farming had been taking place for millennia. Among the charred remains of their fires, archaeologists have found traces of emmer and einkorn wheat, linseed (flax), lentils, and peas, crops that originated in modern-day Turkey, Syria, Israel, and Iran.1 But amid all those eastern seeds was one other nonnative plant that came not from the east but from the southwest—Papaver somniferum, otherwise known as the opium poppy.

Today most botanists believe P. somniferum descends from Papaver setigerum, a wild poppy growing in the western Mediterranean. P. setigerum is found in Italy, northern Africa, eastern Spain, the Mediterranean coast of France, and the Canary Islands. P. setigerum is slightly smaller than P. somniferum; its leaves are thinner, with long, jagged teeth tipped with a bristle that is not found on P. somniferum leaves. They also lack P. somniferum’s waxy coating. Like its domesticated cousin, P. setigerum contains morphine alkaloids; indeed, the two poppies are so similar that some botanists believe them to be the same species.2

It has been suggested that poppies were introduced to LBK agriculture through trade with the La Hoguette culture, a group known primarily by its distinctive bone-tempered pottery. The La Hoguette culture is believed to have originated in southern and southwestern France. They descended from an earlier impressed ware culture that resided on the shores of the Mediterranean. La Hoguette and LBK pottery has been found together at many sites east and west of the Rhine, suggesting that contact and trade took place between the two cultures.

From there, poppies continued on their journey northward. A dig at Raunds, a site in rural Northamptonshire, England, uncovered eight opium poppy seeds dated from the early Neolithic period (5,800–5,600 years ago). While opium poppies can grow as weeds, the lack of other weeds in the ditch and the absence of cereal remains suggest this plant may have been a crop in its own right.3 While Neolithic civilization has traditionally been envisioned as scattered collections of hunter-gatherers who supplemented their foraging with primitive agriculture, the Raunds poppy seeds reveal trade routes between Britain and the Continent. They also suggest that the people of Raunds held poppies in high regard—high enough, at least, to carry seeds across the English Channel, then haul them into the East Midlands and plant them.

Excavations at Egolzwil, an archaeological site located in Switzerland’s Lucerne canton, have revealed signs of poppy cultivation dating back over six thousand years, including poppy seed cakes and poppy heads. These may have been used to feed their cattle in emergencies (cattle generally dislike foraging on bitter-tasting poppies and will eat them only if no better food is available), but these farmers would certainly have known that poppies can produce intoxication and even death in cattle if too many are given. Yet evidence suggests that poppies were the most common crop at Egolzwil, more common than club wheat, barley, or flax.4

Even earlier evidence of opium poppy use comes from recent underwater archaeological work at La Marmotta, a site in Lake Bracciano, Italy (northwest of Rome). La Marmotta was occupied by a Neolithic farming community for about five hundred years before it was abandoned, then submerged by water some 7,700 years ago. Based on the sophisticated artifacts found at the La Marmotta site—and the paucity of evidence for any other contemporaneous cities or villages in the area—archaeologists believe this was a colony from another civilization in Greece or the Near East. And given the model boats (along with a well-preserved longboat found buried in the mud), it seems likely that there was considerable water traffic between the La Marmotta colony and traders from other civilizations.

“This was not an ordinary village,” says Maria Antonietta Fugazzola Delpino, director of the La Marmotta expedition. “The people were in touch with other communities in the Mediterranean. We picture it as a kind of highway—there were many ships coming and going.”5 Organic remains preserved beneath three meters of limestone included poppy seeds, presumably cultivated for food, oil, medicine, and possibly for religious use. It may be here that poppies and their seeds were first brought eastward from Europe. Two thousand years later, they would be seen again in the kingdom of Sumeria.


1Leendert P. Louwe Kooijmans, “The Mesolithic/Neolithic Transformation in the Lower Rhine Basin,” in Case Studies in European Prehistory, ed. Peter I. Bogucki (Boca Raton, La.: CRC Press, 1993), 130.

2C. C. Bakels, “Abstract: Papaver somniferum Culture in Prehistory and Early History” (Symposium: Plants in Health and Culture, Leiden, February 16–17, 2004), (accessed January 13, 2009).

3Gill Campbell and Mark Robinson (with Polydora Baker, Simon Davis, and Sebastian Payne), “Environment and Land Use in the Valley Bottom,” English Heritage, (accessed January 14, 2009).

4Graeme Baker, Prehistoric Farming in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 123.

5 Robert Kunzig, “La Marmotta,” Discover, November 1, 2002, (accessed January 13, 2009).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kenaz Filan Guest Post on Ochani Lele's Blog

I recently contributed a guest post to Ocha'ni Lele's blog on Divination and the Yoruba Presence in Haiti and Cuba.  I was proud to be a part of Ocha'ni's blog: he is one of our most interesting writers on topics of Lukumi and Divination.  I was also happy to get a chance to talk about the Yoruba influence on Haitian Vodou and some of the reasons the Yoruba traditions had less impact (or a different impact) on Haitian folk religion than on Cuban practices.  I enjoyed writing this and hope you enjoy reading it too!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remembering 9/11: The Day the Mountains Stumbled

This piece appeared in the October 2001 issue of Hybrid Magazine.  It was written on and about September 11, 2001. 


Both our phones are dead. They should be working: the payphone at Nostrand Avenue had a dial tone, even if I couldn’t get through to Manhattan. I press Redial despite the silence. Ron Kuby announces an unconfirmed report of a car bomb outside the Capitol Building. Five minutes ago Curtis Sliwa confirmed what I heard in the subway; the towers have collapsed. My girlfriend Kathy works three blocks from the World Trade Center. I last spoke to her at 7:45 a.m., right before she left for work. “I love you,” she said. “I’ll see you tonight.” I have not spoken to her since.

On the fifth try I get a dialtone, then ringing. Voicemail picks up. Kathy is not at her desk. Of course she’s not, I realize. They’ve probably evacuated her building by now. I leave a message anyway. 

“Kathy, it’s Kevin. I heard about the World Trade Center on my way home. I wanted to come back and get you but they’ve shut down all the subways into Manhattan. If you get this message call home. I love you.”

If you are finished recording press 1 or hang up now, the cheery robot lady says, otherwise press pound for more options.

I hang up.

Once we were proud of owning no television. That was before I tried viewing CNN footage via MediaPlayer at 56k. Someday these screams and herky-jerky fireballs will be cliches, something to put beside your Princess Diana Memorial Porcelain Figurine and your black velvet Elvis. Today they’re still real. I remember a line from Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu: “A mountain walked or stumbled.”
Today the stars were right, I think to myself, today the mountains stumbled.

“Kathy? It’s Kevin again. You’re probably somewhere safe by now, but I’m not sure you can get out of the city. If you’re checking your voicemail, call home when you can. I love you.”

The infrastructure survived remarkably well, I think as I return to our computer and check my work emails. I shouldn’t be surprised: the Internet was designed to survive a nuclear war, never mind a few fanatics armed with jetliners. The network routes around damage, slowing things up a bit but keeping the lines of communication open. I start writing an email to my friends.

I made it out of Manhattan: I’m fine. I type. I haven’t spoken to Kathy yet. I sit there for a few minutes, unable to complete the paragraph.

“Kathy? It’s Kevin. Please call home when you get this message. I love you.”

“We need to wake up, we need to realize that Islam causes this kind of behavior, and we’ve got to stop letting these Moslem terrorists into our country to take our money and our jobs, then turn around and spit in our faces like this.”

I change the station, cringing. Already the nuts are calling in, I think to myself. The phone rings. I flinch, then run to the next room to get it.

“Baby, thank God you’re there!”

“Where are you?” I ask, not worried about anything else right now.

“I’m in Brooklyn. I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge when the second tower fell. Everybody screamed…” Kathy’s voice begins to break. “The woman next to me fainted. I felt the bridge rumbling and I thought another plane was coming for us…”

“It’s all right, honey. Where are you? I’ll come and get you.”

“No, stay where you are!” She’s insistent, almost hysterical. “ think they’ve declared martial law. I don’t know what streets are closed and what streets are open. I don’t want to lose you in the crowd.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Her voice is ready to break again. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“I’ll be right here.”

“There are a lot of people waiting to use the phone, I love you, I’ll see you soon” and she hangs up before I can reply.

I made it out of Manhattan. I’m fine. I just spoke with Kathy and she’s OK and on her way home arrives in my mailbox a moment after I send it to a few mailing lists. The Internet is running like nothing ever happened: even the company’s BlackBerry gateway is up as I scan my work mail and see pager responses. Airplane just flew into World Trade Center. Pentagon hit. Second tower down. Thousands dead.

“They hijacked planes out of Boston,” the stony-faced construction worker told me this morning as we pulled into Borough Hall and the trembling, weeping people got off at the first stop in Brooklyn. 

“Planes full of passengers. The radio said there’s sixteen flights unaccounted for.”

As I finally get to load, I see they’ve downgraded that to four now, and saying there was no car bombing in Washington after all. On NYCGoth-L somebody is saying Whitney Houston just died of a drug overdose. I check CNN and Yahoo, but there’s nothing on there but “America Under Attack.” I spin through the radio stations until finally I come to Z100.

“I’m telling you,” the caller says, “My mother’s friend works for the Department of Records, and she told her they just filled out a death certificate for Whitney Houston.”

“We’ve had a couple of calls about this. We were finally able to get through to Whitney Houston’s publicist in Los Angeles, and she informed us that Whitney Houston is not dead.” The front door creaks open. I jump at the noise, then run to the hallway. “It’s an urban legend,” the DJ says. I grab Kathy and hold her tight and we’re both crying as the caller replies you don’t understand, this was my mother’s friend, man, my mother’s friend.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Call for Submissions: New Orleans Photos

I just received word that Inner Traditions has accepted my latest manuscript, The New Orleans Voodoo HandbookGiven the subject matter, I'd like to include as many illustrations as possible: the Big Easy is one of America's most photogenic cities and New Orleans Voodoo is one of our most photogenic traditions.

Anyone who would like to donate photos of New Orleans or of their N.O. Voodoo altars is invited to send photos to  If your images are included in the final manuscript you will receive a free copy of the final book and appropriate credit. (Even if they are not you will receive my undying gratitude!)

I am looking forward to seeing this book in print: it was great fun to research and I hope it will be equally enjoyable to read.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Response to a Response to a Review of Vodou Money Magic

In response to my August 31 blog entry, AdeLokun wrote to Tristatevodou:
I haven't posted on this forum in many years, but this thread hits on an issue that I have been struggling with these past few months. I find this thread very troubling. I am not a vodou practioner but an Santero, but as a sister tradition we also make ebo sacrifice in the hopes of having health, strength and stability in our lives. And I have seen Orisha, and vodu and nkisi, create miracles again and again. However, if we are honest with ourselves and others we know that prayers are not always answered. For some illnesses there is no remedy except death. People have different destinies and the spirits bring tremendous wealth to some, while I have known many great initiates who have lived simple lives within very simple means.  
It is definitely important to note that Vodou is not a cure-all and that, as AdeLokun wisely points out, prayers are not always answered. Any practitioner who claims a 100% success rate in money magic (or any other kind!) is lying to you. We also should remember that the spirits generally give a hand up rather than a handout. Any magical stuff we do or purchased should be accompanied by material efforts to resolve our situation.

AdeLokun's comment about great initiates leading simple lives points to yet another great truth:  success is about comfort, not about some arbitrary set of numbers.  You are not a success if you are making $1 million a year, but spending $1.5 million in a vain attempt to fill some void in your life.  You are not a failure if you are paying your bills and living comfortably on a modest income earned doing something you love.  The lwa will help you to meet your obligations and possibly even help you with a few luxuries. But sevis lwa does not guarantee one a McMansion and a Mercedes.

The first step in doing money magic is determining how much money one truly requires. Lwa like Ezili Danto and Ogou can help you in making a realistic assessment of what you need, and in prioritizing what you want. They can help you to overcome counterproductive behavior. In this process, you may well develop a sincere, rewarding relationship with that spirit. I've known many people who came to the lwa in search of love spells or money spells. Their work proved very rewarding and spiritually fruitful whether their desired outcome failed to materialize.
I have a godson now who is struggling financially and we have made numerous offerinsg baths etc to help but at some level this may just be a trial he has to go through at this time. And my own life as an initiate has not been a bed of roses. I am deeply grateful but I face an army of challenges of all kinds every day. I mean to say that if working the spirit--vodu, orisha or nkisi meant that you could magically get anything you want none of our anscestrors in these traditions would have been dragged to the Americas in the first place. So there must be something deeper to our faith and tradition than simly reciprical relationships where everyone gets what they want. I always thought that African traditions have a deep sense of life's inherent tragedy. Which I find missing from this account. I mean this as discussion and not as an admonishment.
There certainly can be something much deeper than a simple "you give me X and I give you Y in return." But I also think there is and has always been a place in the tradition for those who simply want to call on the spirits for magical aid. This may lead to a closer relationship with the lwa or the orishas, or it may not.  This is not a path for everyone: someone who receives aid from our spirits may well provide a thank-you offering and then go elsewhere to fulfill their deeper spiritual needs.

I should also add that there is a degree of risk with this approach. Raven uses the term "lawful prey" to describe those who, by birth or through their actions, can be claimed by a spirit.  If you keep going to the lwa or orishas with your problems, they may decide you need to become one of their clergy. And they are not likely to be too concerned with getting your consent to this expensive and arduous process! I've heard plenty of stories from African Diaspora traditions about people whose lives were turned upside down until they did what the spirits demanded of them.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Possession and Invocation

While cleaning out my mailbox, I found a 2006 e-mail to Lupa on the distinction between possession and invocation.  (This was written during the period when Raven Kaldera and I were soliciting information for Drawing Down the Spirits). I thought it might prove useful for those interested in the topic: you may also want to read Raven's essay on possession, "The Path of the Horse."


In an invocation, the magician calls upon and then draws into hirself the energy of a particular spirit being. This energy can have some pretty powerful psychoactive and spiritual effects. It can result in short-term and even long-term changes in behavior, have positive and negative consequences for your health, be used to effect real-world real-time changes, etc. But the deity doesn't take control of the situation. The user's psyche may be altered by the rush of spirit-energy but it's not kicked to the curb. S/he remains in control of hir body and mind.

Invocation is a necessary precursor to any possession ritual. (I might say it's an integral part of any successful magical operation). Any invocation worthy of the name draws the attention of the spirit world. Many of the techniques used to raise the energy -- meditation, drumming, dancing and prayer -- can also be used to encourage a possession. But in most instances invocation does not culminate in possession but in a general feeling of post-orgasmic bliss and good will. Please note that I'm not minimizing invocation's importance. Most conventional religions work almost exclusively with invocation. By and large invocation is safe, and if done well can have powerful beneficial effects. Invocation can heal disease, improve luck and weave powerful magic. But in and of itself invocation is not trance possession.

Invocation's cousin evocation works in a similar fashion, only in evocation the energy is directed to a particular area and constrained therein. Indeed, when using evocation, the magician takes pains to make sure that the entity's energy does NOT mix with hir own. If possession has a polar opposite, evocation is it. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from it. Like possession, evocation has a reputation of being extremely powerful and exceptionally dangerous. Many of the safeguards used in Goetic evocation can be applied to any possession ritual to ensure things go as smoothly as possible.

A few traditions use what has come to be known as "aspecting" or "shadowing." They become a vessel for the Divine or the spirit and move with the spirit. The Divine moves through them, but they never completely "step out of the way" and let the Divine take over. There's always an option to stop and regain complete control, whether or not the aspecting/shadowing magician wishes or chooses to use it.

Among most of the Religions of the Book, even attempting this would be a major sin. Stating that you were speaking as Allah, YHVH, Jesus, etc. would be the height of hubris. Consider the revealing of the Q'uran: Muhammed claimed that he was receiving Allah's Word through Jiv'reel or Gabriel and then reciting it, not that Allah was speaking directly through him. (Eliade might describe the Prophet's recitations as so many "spirit journeys," a technique he contrasted favorably with possession). But it appears to have been quite common in many pre-Christian cultures. Many of the public Greek and Egyptian rituals appear to have involved aspecting, for example: while I don't know enough to say with any kind of authority, I suspect the same is also true of many of the Mesoamerican religions as well.

Done right, aspecting may be all you need to speak with Deity and have a completely effective ritual. A good priest/ess who is able to subsume hir ego and who is able to listen to Deity can function as a channel without losing complete control. As Raven & Co. put it, they get to remain in the driver's seat while the Deity gives directions. By treating aspecting as a sacred encounter, not as playacting or rote recitation, a group can incorporate some lighter aspects of possession into their Work with relative safety and with great benefit.

Now we get into one of the great Possession Debates: where does "aspecting" end and "channeling" begin. At what point does it cease to be the Priest/ess speaking for Deity and Deity speaking through Priest/ess? When is it no longer you but the spirit moving the body and speaking the words? This is a hotly-contested issue, and one for which there are no easy answers. I've seen many borderline cases, and I've seen situations which started out as aspecting and became full-on possessions.

(I also would note that full-on possessions generally end pretty definitively, with little or no shading into aspecting or invocation-level energy, at least in my experience. Once the spirit gives up possession S/He usually goes away, with a palpable decrease in energy).

A common rule of thumb among Afro-Caribbean traditions is that a possession is only valid if the horse loses all consciousness. In my personal experience, I've found this misleading but not entirely untrue. When I've been hit by a lwa I've generally felt like I was watching the possession from a distance. I was somewhat aware of what was going on, although there were greater or lesser memory gaps afterward, but I certainly wasn't in control of things. I believe Raven & Co. call this "back seat, watching behind the safety glass" level of possession.

However, a couple of times I have lost consciousness altogether for the duration of the ride. These typically happen with Danto, who's known to be a rather hot and fierce spirit. These full-on "locked in the trunk" possessions are pretty intense but don't typically last more than a few minutes. (Although honestly I wonder if anyone could physically sustain any level of Danto possession for much longer without shorting things out). I will also note that I've found most possessions involve some level of memory loss, typically around messages the lwa gave to someone else. I've also had fugues where I attributed things to other people: thinking "somebody just got Ogou" when I heard myself shrieking, for example.

To add yet another layer of complexity, I've heard people who work with totem or animal spirits describe a variant form of possession. Instead of letting the animal spirit get inside their heads and bodies, they get their heads and bodies inside the spirit. They wear the spirit like a hat; while they give it some control over their bodies, their intelligence and ego remains more or less intact. Based on some cursory research, I suspect this was the case for many of the pre-Christian warriors and shamans who inspired Europe's "werewolf" legends.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Towards A Neo-Animist Manifesto

Like anything else, words can be worn down with time and overuse. "Shaman" is certainly showing its age. Once used to describe the priest/spirit-workers of an obscure Siberian tribe, "shaman" now describes African witch doctors, Lakota medicine men, Mexican curanderas and Silicon Valley software engineers on a weekend retreat. The word has been stretched far beyond its original capacity: scholars and practitioners alike have noted dangerous structural flaws in its edifice. The shaman's communal role as a priest and intercessor is minimized while the individual spirit-journey is emphasized. The methods by which the shaman alters consciousness - drugs, drumming, ordeals and the like - receive a lion's share of attention: the spiritual and physical perils of that voyage are often ignored altogether.

As Mircea Eliade noted, and many after him have confirmed, shamanic techniques work well for entering altered states. Today many people experiment with various substances and plant allies, with varying degrees of reverence and seriousness. Ordeal workers have incorporated safety and efficiency tips from BDSM in their own versions of Sun Dances and vision quests. Self-help gurus have turned firewalking into an affirmation of self-worth. At worst, "shaman" evokes Edward Said's Orientalism on an equal opportunity plan, with widely variant cultural and religious groups pureed into a spicy exotic mush.

Learning a few rhythms or swallowing a psychoactive tea is not the same thing as becoming a member of a culture. Many - arguably all - so-called "Shamanic" traditions are based on cultural morés and upon an individual's place in that culture. This poses a conundrum for one who sincerely seeks to engage with said traditions. Many have tried to approach these cultures with an attitude of respect and reverence: many others have seen them as an opportunity for spiritual tourism or as unclaimed magical power objects ripe for exploitation. (Like most foreign devotees, I have played both roles in my spiritual search: I've also spent a fair deal of time in grey and uncertain ethical territory. This is a complex issue. If it weren't people wouldn't have written so many damn books on the subject).
Many who experiment with chemical and plant allies have taken to calling themselves "psychonauts." This label might well be applied to most modern-day "shamans." Psychonauts are concerned primarily with their own psyches. They do not take ayahusaca to divine their clan's future or drum to ensure good hunting for their tribe: rather, they hope to gain personal power and wisdom through consciousness expansion. This is not intended as a condemnation or a moral judgment: self-improvement is certainly a worthwhile use of one's time. But let us call it what it is rather than using a term best reserved for a specific tribal office.

But what of those modern "shamans" who believe that the spirit world exists outside their heads and who consider themselves in service to a community? I wonder if we aren't guilty of false advertising when we use the "shaman" label. My practices could easily be placed under the rubric of "shamanism." I have used drums and dancing to induce altered states and even full-on possessions; I have worked with plant and chemical allies; I have helped clients with problems by calling on the intercession of my spiritual companions; I have had the unpleasant meltdown which has come to be called "Shaman sickness." My primary path, Haitian Vodou, incorporates many techniques which are today called shamanic. But how does my role relate to a Tungus shaman -- or, for that matter, a healer/spirit-worker in any other indigenous culture? My interactions within my community, my cultural and financial capital, the prides and prejudices gained in my childhood and sustained throughout my adult life - these are all very different.

Perhaps the label "animist" carries less baggage than "shaman." Animists believe the spirit world is immanent within the material: they believe that trees, animals and even "inanimate" objects can hold the sparks of sentience and even of divinity. (Some of us might go so far as to follow the Neoplatonists - or the Chaotes - and say that concepts and mental constructions can take on lives of their own).  Animism is a blanket term, and one which few Animist cultures would use to describe their own practices. We step on no toes by calling ourselves Animists.  We also avoid many of the misunderstandings associated with "Shamanism." Animism is not about practices but about belief. It is a way of seeing and understanding the world, one which has inspired many ways of engaging with said world. 

I certainly cannot stop people from applying the word "Shamanism" to their practices. I'm not arrogant enough to believe I can stop linguistic drift. But I can say what I mean and mean what I say.  And while I may do things which have become identified with Shamanism, I am at heart and deed an Animist. I am not a Siberian healer, but I am a living and thinking entity in a universe full of living and thinking entities. How I communicate with them is less important, to me, than the fact that we can and do communicate.