Saturday, July 31, 2010

Filan and Krasskova on Reverence and Respect

I've heard you complain about Heathens who feel it is beneath them to kneel before their Gods.

Galina: It really is amazing how so many contemporary Heathens interpret the humility out of the lore. There is more than one surviving example of pre-Christian Heathens prostrating themselves in sacred spaces, i.e. before the Gods. So many contemporary Heathens, who are intensely literal in their interpretations of lore in other respects (from clothing to food, to ritual style), will inevitably protest the devotion shown by these actions and inevitably one finds every possible explanation given for why this particular aspect of praxis should not be copied. Copy their clothes by all means but let’s not copy their attitudes of respect.

I think we have forgotten how to be humble before the Gods. All too often contemporary Heathens incorrectly dismiss such respect and humility as Christian and devotional work of any sort as Wiccan, when in truth neither of these things is the purview of any one faith. This goes back to the very Protestant Weltanschauung that dominates the contemporary Northern Traditions: an overwhelming percentage of the community converted from Protestant religions and what we’re seeing is, I believe, a direct descendant of the Protestant Reformation and its discomfort with the more ecstatic and messy aspects of religious expression. Certainly you see this in contemporary Heathen rituals, which are structured as carefully as possible to avoid any experience of the numinous. There is discomfort there because when it comes down to it, the Gods or any Holy Power, are an unknown quantity, and They are far beyond our control and above all else, we as 21st century human beings like to be in control.

Part of it is about knowing one’s place. That’s not popular terminology today. Little value in our world is ascribed to knowing your place: knowing who is below you so you know who you have an obligation to protect and mentor; knowing who is above you so you know who to go to for help, who is deserving of respect as an elder. We’ve lost this. We’ve lost even the sense that it is something to be valued.

I've railed against those who treat Gods like interchangeable symbols and the spirit world as a place which exists solely to enlighten you. Why do you suppose there is so much resistance to the idea that the divine is Bigger Than We Are and that we might do well to recognize that fact?

Well, there’s no one easy answer to that question. Speaking just on contemporary Heathenry, part of the issue lies with the way that Heathenry developed in the US, and with its focus on late Viking age history. There’s an elevation of independence and self-reliance, (which are not necessarily negative) and of pride and braggadocio (which often can be) to a degree that casts the gentler more introspective virtues into shadow. Furthermore, the religion’s origins were as much social and political as religious and I often think that the spirituality came later in its development.

It’s been my observation that the majority of Heathens don’t want direct contact with the Gods. Many were drawn to the religion out of an interest in their ancestry, or ancestral cultures, and the Gods are nice ideas but when those nebulous ideas suddenly become a very concrete reality it shakes us out of the neat boundaries we like to place around ourselves and our world. It shakes up our sense of control, and it changes everything.

Speaking just in general, I think we’re an arrogant society. We’re used to the spiritual equivalent of ‘fast food,’ of being told we can have anything we want with a modicum of effort. The idea of some sort of Divine hierarchy doesn’t sit well with us moderns. Those of us raised with the watch-words of egalitarianism and equality, of independence and personal freedom, those who find the concept of hierarchy or power dangerous or suspicious in the human world, often find the idea of Gods being more powerful than we are daunting. Add to that, the focus of many Paganisms on self-help, personal healing, and feeling good (none of which is bad, mind you, but there’s a time and a place for everything) and the idea of doing something (i.e. making an offering, saying a prayer, bending a knee, being respectful) because it is right and proper even when it might cause inconvenience becomes very foreign.

We’re used to our spirituality being about us. It’s a huge mental shift to realize that it’s not about what we can receive (though the Gods do bless us in a thousand thousand ways) but what we should be doing, and what it is right and proper to give.

Kenaz Filan interview tonight on Isis Paranormal Radio

I will be appearing tonight on Isis Paranormal Radio. Hosts Dayna Winters and Patricia Gardner will be discussing trance possession and other questions from 8:00pm to 9:00pm Eastern time.  I'm looking forward to speaking with Dayna and Patricia: hope that some of you can catch the show!

The City of Hyenas

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting article on its site about the Ethiopian city of Harar and its relationship with the local hyena population. In most of Africa these giant carnivores are loathed as dangerous, man-eating pests.  (This reputation is not entirely unearned, given their bone-crushing jaws and sophisticated techniques of pack hunting). In Harar they have become a tourist attraction,  with people paying money to watch Youseff Mume Saleh feed the beasts he calls "family."

There is also a spiritual component to this. One town elder says that the hyenas can transmit messages between the worlds, "like the CNN or the BBC." Legends have grown up around the annual ritual of feeding the hyenas porridge. It supposedly was begun by local "Muslim saints" and has become a means of divination.  (If the hyenas spurn the porridge, danger is afoot: if they clean their plates and leave nothing behind, a drought is coming). And it appears to have practical applications as well: there are far less hyena attacks in Harar than in neighboring areas where the hyenas are met with hostility.

After the recent discussions in our corner of the blogosphere, I also noted the ways in which Islam and local beliefs co-exist peacefully within Harar.  The people identify as Muslims, go to mosques and practice Salaat.  But they also preserve folk beliefs about the spirit world and the nature of certain animals. While many seek to turn Christianity into an oppressive monolith of "Fundamentalist" belief, far more wish to do the same with Islam.  We might do well to remember African Islamic traditions like Zaar and Gnawa,  powerful syntheses of monotheism and local animistic/spiritist practices. Just as the Christian world has engaged with and been engaged by folk magic and mysticism, so too has the Islamic empire.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Filan and Krasskova on Christianity and Celibacy

Many Heathens and Pagans have a knee-jerk reaction to "Christianity" and anything which might be remotely Christian. (They still buy into many Christian preconceptions like dualism, the primacy of written texts, etc. but that's another story). How do you engage with Christianity in your practices?

Galina: Heathenry is still primarily a religion of converts and that carries with it certain baggage. I think it can take years to really sort through the ways in which our birth religions, or even the dominant religion of our culture (which in America, is Protestant Christianity) have patterned us to think about the Gods, ritual, ethics, even the place of religion in one’s life. It’s an ongoing process and given the way that Heathenry evolved in the US, spirituality gets somewhat short shrift and so that process of internal exploration often simply doesn’t occur. What we see instead are very fundamentalist Christian paradigms being transposed wholesale onto Norse culture and religion.

For instance, you mention dualism. Yes, there is a certain dualism in the Norse creation story, but it is not good vs. evil, God vs. Satan, but rather push vs. pull, expansion vs. contraction, yin vs. yang, if you will. It’s a dance, a balance of opposites with no moral judgment attached to that dance. I think you can see the influence of Christianity most especially in the way that contemporary Heathenry privileges “the lore” (certain medieval texts written well after conversion that are used to give insight into the culture in which pre-Christian Heathenry flourished).

These texts were never meant to be taken as religious guides and were in fact usually composed by Christians, yet modern Heathens, coming as they do from ‘religions of the book,’ have taken these texts and assigned them a normative authority that no written text would ever have had amongst the pre-Christian Norse and Germanic tribes (which were predominantly oral cultures). Then the questionable authority of these sources is used to challenge or block authentic experience. It would be an understatement to say that the state of Heathenry today is at best a work in progress.

None of this answers your question though. How do I engage with Christianity? Well, I draw an immense amount of personal inspiration from the writings of medieval mystics like Mechthild of Magdeburg, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross and more contemporary mystics like C.S. Lewis and Therese of Lisieux. I find that their experiences in some ways provide a map to help me through my own experiences with Odin, Loki, and the other Gods. There is a commonality in the mystical experience of a Deity that I believe transcends religious borders.

I think there is much in Christianity, particularly Catholicism that can be beneficial: they took the idea of prayer and ran with it, in a way that the contemporary Northern Tradition should envy. There is also the ongoing idea that service to God is beneficial, natural, and good and that humility before the Gods is something to be cultivated, and in these things too I find a positive role model. As to the Jesus, Mary, and the Saints I respect Them. They are not my Gods, but I respect Them. Furthermore, as a shaman, I occasionally have clients who are Christian and have had to go to this or that Saint, or sometimes Jesus to intercede for them. That is what a shaman does sometimes.

Because honoring the ancestors is also a huge part of my spiritual practice, I am occasionally pushed to honor specific Saints, or to light a candle for the Virgin Mary because I have ancestors who had specific devotions to these beings. Sometimes I get the strong feeling that a specific ancestor wants a candle lit in his or her name to a particular saint. I’m ok with that. For what it’s worth, I also have an ancestor with a strong devotion to Ganesh, and so there’s a Ganesh on my ancestral altar who gets His share of cookies and sweets regularly. I made my peace with Christianity long ago and I am content to share space in my life as need be with those Gods.

My problem lies more with some Christians than Christianity. I find the arrogance all too often inherent in monotheism objectionable and offensive. I am a hard polytheist. I believe that the Gods are individual and powerful. I will respect yours. I expect the same in return. (Oddly enough, there is nothing in the Bible that precludes polytheism….if one actually reads the original text).

The idea of celibacy in service of the Divine is another hugely controversial one. (Abstinence is the last unforgivable perversion in some quarters...). As a Wife of Odin, what role do you think these practices can and should play in the community?

Celibacy can be personally very powerful but I do not think that it should ever be forced on someone by any human agency. If the Gods want one of Their servants or Godspouses to be celibate, that person will know it! Barring that Divine interference, I think it should be a personal choice. Odin no longer requires me to remain celibate, but I have found immense freedom in being unattached.

Celibacy teaches that nothing should come between a person and his or her Gods. Nothing is permitted to interfere with one’s spiritual growth and service. It is far easier to live a life centered around service to the Gods and ancestors when one is not wasting energy negotiating space and independence with a human partner. It allows one to live without compromise in an area where compromise is not something to condone.

Still, it’s a hard and lonely path. There are always sacrifices: the celibate may be able to focus more time and energy in service but lacks the very human comfort of a spouse and/or children. The person with a spouse and kids may lack the time and independence to serve fully. There are always trade offs. I think with celibacy, the skin hunger is the worst. We’re human, we’re corporeal, and we’re meant to share the gift of touch.

I think that some people would wither and die spiritually if they were forced to be celibate, or worse, might end up corrupt and lonely. For others, they would do well and thrive if they were able to learn to set a very physical boundary with themselves and others. Like ordeal, celibacy is a powerful tool of spiritual expression, an immensely powerful one. However, no one practice is right for everyone. No one way is right for everyone. I say honor the ancestors, honor the Gods, honor the land spirits and let that devotion guide your heart. You’ll be led to the practice that is right for you.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Blood of Jesus Washes Over This Blog

Over two centuries ago Shelley offended Keats by commenting on "that detestable religion, the Christian." Today Christianity remains a hot topic in the blogosphere, with several recent posts debating the Really Olde Religion.  I hope to touch on this subject a bit more in an upcoming interview with Galina Krasskova. But since the topic is currently hot I thought I'd comment on a couple of interesting observations.

Jason Miller pointed out:
The big problem for Episcopalians as well as other Christians who are not fundamentalist nut jobs that think the world is only 6000 years old, is that they mostly mind their own business and do their own thing. Because of this their religion, and mine, is being usurped by hateful, anti-science, neo-conservative wind bags who actually know nothing of the Bible or Theology.
I would add that the Christian = Frothing Fundamentalist identification also does Neopaganism and occultism a disservice. It allows privileged folks the luxury of feeling persecuted ("She gave me a dirty look when she saw my hubcap-sized pentagram necklace! She's persecuting me! Burning times! Burning times!"). But it also prevents them from considering the ways in which Christianity - the dominant religion of our English-speaking culture - has shaped their philosophical and religious views.

We have Reconstructionists who treat "Lore" as Holy Writ and criticize anyone who might deviate from its tenets. While they may no longer qualify as "people of the book," they have retained their reverence for holy texts from the Golden Age: they have replaced the New Testament with Homer and Snorri Sturlson.  We have many more Pagans who wish to replay the Manichean battle of Good and Evil. Sometimes they simply change sides, turning "the Christians" into a diabolical force seeking world conquest and domination and the suppression of the all-loving benevolence of the Goddess and Her followers. In other cases they recast Pagan myths as tales of good and evil, bowdlerizing their favored gods while blackening their tricksters or their death gods. (And let's not even get into the idea that "no real witch would ever cast a curse" or similar comments which reek of the Christian moral code against "sorcery" or low magic).

Historically witches and sorcerers have drawn from the dominant religion, then reshaped it to suit their needs. The influence of Christianity on Haitian Vodou and Hoodoo is well-documented: it is not a "perversion" of African beliefs but a syncretization  by practitioners which uses the imagery and philosophy in a uniquely Haitian and African-American way. I submit that many American occultists have the process backwards: they try to distance themselves from the dominant religion's symbols but incorporate most of its preconceptions into their worldview.

Balthazar describes "hard evangelizing" thusly:
It is part protest, part performative devotion. They know they are pissing off people and making fools of themselves and that is the whole point. It is the very ordeal and the shaming in the eyes of the hegemony that becomes the quintessential expression of faith and commitment to their conception of the divine. It could quite plausibly be compared to a mystical ordeal rite of some sort.
This raises an important question: what benefits accrue to the missionary besides promises of celestial real estate? What is the appeal of calling the world out on its shortcomings? Why would someone willingly become a member of a group which expected them to knock on doors, sell flowers in airports, or donate large chunks of their income? These are not idle questions. Consider the explosive growth of Evangelical Christianity in South America, or of Wahhabbism throughout the Islamic world: consider the decline of  mainstream Protestantism and other faiths that sought to create an inclusive, tolerant and easy path to the Divine.

I wonder if we might not learn something from their example. We might do better not by being more lenient but by being more strict and less welcoming. Spiritual seekers may need the experience of being a people set apart.  We don't have to condemn outsiders as damned to hell or advocate violence against abortion clinics. But if we treated our beliefs as life-changing - and if we had the guts to believe that they were worth sharing with others - I wonder what our next generation would look like.

I've seen fear of "Fundamentalism" used as an excuse for lazy thinking.  We respond with non-committal politeness to any comment or assertion, no matter how hare-brained it might be.  Having a strong opinion becomes a sign of dogmatic rigidity. To believe passionately in the Gods is to be a Christian in disguise (as if Christians were the first or only people who ever loved the Divine!) G.K. Chesterton, the great English Catholic writer, was onto something when he said
It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. This was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and impractical than burning a man for his philosophy. That is saying that his philosophy does not matter...
[The old Liberal view] was that cosmic truth was so important that every one ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what anyone says. The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men throw back into the sea a fish unfit for eating.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Wrapping Up this Round of the Eternal "Validating Initiations" Discussion

Several people have raised interesting points concerning this discussion.  In a comment on the second post  Gypsy Lantern said:
I don't think it's necessarily as black and white as that. I get along quite happily in my relationships with the Lwa without having received initiation. I came to it as a sorcerer, and I am very much a sorcerer, but I also embrace the religion and that is the foundation of everything else that I do.
In my experience, most of the people who work with the lwa do not need an initiation into Vodou. Unless they are called to work as clergy (and Gypsy Lantern states that she has not to date received that call), there is no reason for them to make Kanzo. There is no shame in honoring the spirits and receiving their blessings for your efforts: there is no reason to take on responsibilities you do not want and for which you are not prepared. 

Nutty Professor responded with:
Gypsy, since many, if not most Haitians (in Haiti) serve lwa without priestly initiations, I don't see that this is a problem, unless I am not understanding you correctly. What is not clear to me is why there is so much anxiety in America around these questions: now that is an article Kenaz should explore!
That one is easy to answer. In America we worry so much about these issues because we have to. We (meaning the non-Haitian readers of this blog) come to these traditions as outsiders. We have no way of knowing whether we are receiving a "valid initiation" or getting the Tourist Special. Since we are not (at least initially) a part of the community, we have no way of knowing our initiatior's standing within said community. 

The obvious answer to this is: become a part of Vodou laity before signing up to become clergy. Get to know your prospective initiators: attend ceremonies at their house and at other houses. See if you wish to follow this path and if you want these people to guide you to Gineh. This takes more work than sending in a Paypal payment and purchasing an airline ticket, but it is necessary if you actually wish to work as a member of the community rather than as a title collector.  ("Last year I became a Peruvian medicine man, this year I'm becoming an Houngan Asogwe in Haiti and next year I'm going to Siberia to become a Tungus shaman! Or am I going to Mongolia this year and Cuba the next: let me check my calendar when I get home...").

Commenting on the third post, Brother Christopher asked:
On the other hand, this whole discussion on validating initiations, As I have been reading I wonder to myself, what purpose does this argument serve?
I think it can serve several purposes. It brings up issues of cultural appropriation: when we become clergy of a living tradition, what responsibilities do we incur to its indigenous practitioners? It brings up issues of truth in advertising. It would be easy to write off everyone who ever exaggerated their initiatory status, but some have produced otherwise worthwhile material: Carlos Castenada and G.I. Gurdjieff come to mind immediately. And it reminds us that Scott Adams was onto something when he said "On the Internet, no one knows you are a dog." A fancy website says nothing about one's initiatory status - and initiatory status says nothing about one's morality and trustworthiness. Some of the most brutal members of the Tonton Macoutes were validly initiated Houngans and Mambos. All these things are worth considering.

And speaking of Gurdjieff, on Visionary Shamanism Stephen Kennedy offered this quote from the master of awakening and mustache wax:
Initiation is customarily regarded as some act whereby one man "The Knower" transfers to another man "The non-knower" knowledge and powers hitherto not peculiar to him and without any trouble on his part; assigning it as thing which becomes his inalienable possession. But from all that has been said by me today, you will already be able to understand, that there is no such transfer and cannot be. There is only self-initiation, which is got by constant and stubborn work, by constant efforts. No one conceals the knowledge of truth. It simply cannot be transferred, just as the finest mathematical ideas cannot be transferred to a man unacquainted with mathematics.
Gurdjieff has a point: an initiation ceremony is useless to one who is not ready to receive it. According to one hadith, Muhammed (PBUH) said "Many people who fast get nothing from their fast except hunger and thirst, and many people who pray at night get nothing from it except wakefulness." A proper initiation works on both the interior and exterior individual. It marks one's status in a community and provides an office, but it also leaves a mark upon the individual's personality and alters hir way of looking at the world.  Unless the acolyte puts in the work toward those changes, they simply won't happen.

That being said, Gurdjieff was well aware of the importance of a teacher and a lineage. Consider this Gurdjieff quote, taken down by P.D. Ouspensky on pp. 142-3 of  In Search of the Miraculous.
How many times have I been asked here whether wars can be stopped? Certainly they can. For this it is only necessary that people should awaken. It seems a small thing. It is, however, the most difficult thing there can be because this sleep is induced and maintained by the whole of surrounding life, by all surrounding conditions.
"How can one awaken? How can one escape this sleep? These questions are the most important, the most vital that can ever confront a man. But before this it is necessary to be convinced of the very fact of sleep. But it is possible to be convinced of this only by trying to awaken. When a man understands that he does not remember himself and that to remember himself means to awaken to some extent, and when at the same time he sees by experience how difficult it is to remember himself, he will understand that he cannot awaken simply by having the desire to do so. It can be said still more precisely that a man cannot awaken by himself. But if, let us say, twenty people make an agreement that whoever of them awakens first shall wake the rest, they already have some chance. Even this, however, is insufficient because all the twenty can go to sleep at the same time and dream that they are waking up. Therefore more still is necessary. They must be looked after by a man who is not asleep or who does not fall asleep as easily as they do, or who goes to sleep consciously when this is possible, when it will do no harm either to himself or to others. They must find such a man and hire him to wake them and not allow them to fall asleep again. Without this it is impossible to awaken. This is what must be understood.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

And Still MORE on Validating Initiations

Another reader from Spiritual Occultist offered his thoughts (such as they are) on the question of validating initiations.  My response follows:

greetings. you have no idea on what you arte saying for validating is....for of what one person is doing..they are doing what is right and is all the validating is needed. so back off and to understand is what is real to them. and this all for all peoples....blessed be....bob

Well, I have very little idea what YOU are saying. Is English your first language? If not, you might consider using Yahoo Babelfish or Google Translate to put your thoughts in a more understandable form. I find them very helpful when I am working in French: I hope they prove useful to you.

There is a process by which becomes a Lakota medicine man: this process has been preserved for centuries and is an important part of Lakota culture. If you did not go through this process you are not a Lakota medicine man. It doesn't matter if you feel very strongly that you should be a medicine man, that you just know the spirits want you to be a medicine man, or that you have seen Dances With Wolves several dozen times. If you go around calling yourself a Lakota medicine man without those ceremonies you are engaging in lying, fraud, and/or cultural appropriation.

To be a Houngan or Mambo in the asson lineage of Haitian Vodou requires undergoing the kanzo ceremony. If you did not undergo this ceremony you are not a Houngan or Mambo. This is also the case in many African Diaspora traditions. You may not like this: you may think they are all being meanie fascist poopy-heads who don't want to recognize you because they are reverse racists or what have you. But that is the way these religions work. And since you signed off with "BB" -- you DO understand that Wicca began as an initiatory tradition which one could learn only from a teacher with the proper lineage and ordination, right?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Still More on Validating Initiations

On the Yahoo group Spiritual Occultist, one person commented on my earlier post on validating initiations. Since she raised several interestingt issues, I thought I would turn my response into another blog post.

Before I go any further, I should add that I believe Wedosi has spent a great deal of time in Africa and that she is initiated in Vodun.  She appears knowledgeable of Beninois culture and has provided photographic evidence of her attendance at various ceremonies. While we have had our disagreements in the past, I am not casting aspersions on her training or her sincerity. I am simply trying to point out the difficulties in validating the initiatory status of strangers posting on Ye Internets.

I think that in your haste you left out an important point that Wedosi made: that the lineage is validated through divination.

"And after my tour guide checked us in at the Pachamama Bed and Breakfast, the head shaman threw some bones and nuts on the ground.  He examined them carefully, then smiled and said the gods had accepted all of us for shamanic training.  Then he took several thousand dollars from each of us for the initiation ceremony."

There's a long if not necessarily honorable tradition of fortune tellers "discovering" that the querent suffers from a dark curse which can only be lifted by expensive ceremonies.  I am not so naive as to assume that diviners in other countries never interpret their auguries in a way which proves most financially favorable to them.  Initiations and other ceremonies can be a major money-making opportunity in countries where such opportunities are scarce.  An American priest/ess who regularly brings over acolytes and pumps funds into the local economy might be reassured that the village diviners have determined that s/he is Chosen by the Spirits and respected just as much as any other elder - at least while s/he is visiting and s/he continues to bring in business.

I'd also raise the question of "who does the divination and how do they do it?" If someone shows up on one of my mailing lists claiming to be a Tata in Palo Mayombe or a Peruvian Shaman, can I verify his claims using Tarot? What about casting the Runes or theI Ching?  In the case of Wedosi's priesthood, I presume it is validated using Ifa. Alas, I am not qualified to sit at the Table of Ifa - and those Babalaos I know focus on Yoruba, not Beninois religion.  Would they be able to comment definitively on Wedosi's initiatory status, or would they want to?

It doesn't matter who's mamma's who and how many hundred years it has been since they've been to thier homeland and I would imagine, whether or not they identify with being African since all humans were thought to have originated out of Africa anyway. They could be Austrians or Eskimos, Irish or Chinese.

Most forms of African Traditional Religion are local, not world, religions. They do not seek (and frequently do not allow) converts. Their criteria for membership are not based on the relatively modern conception of race but on the much narrower criteria of ancestry. If your parents and grandparents didn't serve Spirit  X, then you don't serve Spirit X and you don't get initiated into the mysteries of Spirit X.  The cult of Spirit X does not exist to bring enlightenment to the world: rather, it focuses on maintaining the social cohesiveness of the tribe, village or ethnic group. (Those who were raised as Christians or Muslims may have difficulty grasping this concept: those raised as Orthodox Jews will likely get it immediately). The fact that your progenitors came from Africa several hundred thousand years ago is not important to these spirits. They are only interested in those who are part of their immediate family, not the extended family of humanity.

The line between these a world religion and a local religion can become indistinct, especially now in this age of global communication. The asson lineage of Haitian Vodou arose as the local forms of sevis lwa were threatened by urbanization and social changes. It began as a means by which Haitians who had been torn away from their villages and their family shrines could serve the spirits and recognize other servants. Today some houses have begun offering these initiations to those outside the Haitian community. I have no doubt that some African houses are also reaching out in a similar fashion. But I would also point out that this is a contemporary development, and not one which is universally accepted within those communities.  There are still many Haitian houses which will only initiate natif natal Haitians, and many tribal leaders in Africa, the Amazon and elsewhere will not reveal the secrets of their culture to those who do not have them as a birthright.

As for confirmation about divination, someone said something about having to have 3 diviners and what not, and that may be necessary for a localized practice or denomination for a lack of a better word but honestly, and objectively, if I can project to the Vodun plane and they accept me, I'm in, no matter what anyone else says.

You are looking at Vodou from the point of view of a sorcerer: one who seeks power from the tradition, rather than one who sees it as a religion.  In that case you don't really need initiation. You are not interested in functioning in a priestly capacity: ceremonies to make you clergy would be, for you, a waste of time and money. There's nothing wrong with this: there are plenty of people, Haitian and otherwise, who work with the lwa on a quid pro quo basis and give them offerings in exchange for services rendered. But it is not the only way to deal with them, nor is it in my opinion the most fruitful and rewarding.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Myths of Africa

Many legends speak of a "Golden Age," a time and place where things were better than they are now.  These lands of truth, justice and prosperity were laid low by some form of catastrophe or error, leaving those descended from the survivors to make their way as best they can with scraps of the old knowledge and memories of a glorious past.  In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve walked with God until that whole apple misunderstanding; in the pre-Christian Europe of Pagan lore wise women made vegetarian offerings to the Triple Goddess until the evil Patriarchy ushered in the Burning Times; Edgar Cayce spoke of how conflict between the good Sons of the Law of One and evil Sons of Belial led to the sinking of Atlantis.

According to one popular version of the Golden Age legend, Africans created civilization, only to see it wrested from their grasp by conquerers. Since that time, Africa has been held down by racist forces, who feared the power of their culture and their magic. In place of the peaceful spiritually advanced kingdoms of ancient Africa, we now have a bloody reign of looters (white and black) seeking to exploit the continent's vast resources. Only by recapturing the wisdom of the past can we hope to break this cycle of destruction and heartbreak. It is a convincing narrative, given the horrors wrought by the Triangular Trade and the many abuses of colonialism in Africa. It provides a useful counterbalance to the prevailing myths of black savagery and inherent African inferiority. But, like all myths, it can lead us into dangerous territory if we mistake it for factual truth.

One of the issues with this worldview is its promotion of an overarching "African" culture. Africa is an enormous and enormously diverse continent. There are currently 521 different languages catalogued within Nigeria alone: the label "African Traditional Religion" encompasses an even more varied selection of beliefs.  French anthropologist and scholar René Basset noted in 1910 that even among the linguistically homogenous Berbers there was a considerable variation in religious and spiritual practices.  The Dogon of Mali,  the Akan of Ghana, the Masai of Kenya - their lives, cultures and practices vary widely. While Victorians (from Blavatsky to Crowley and beyond) sought to find the One True Religion which underpinned all spiritual practices, we may do better to recognize and treasure the differences in our faiths.

Still another problem is the way many of these tales privilege urban and militaristic cultures. Egypt, Yorubaland and Daome all helmed far-flung empires and fielded impressive armies. But they were also guilty of expansionism, imperialism, slave raids and many of the sins we decry among the Western colonial powers. In trying to find an antidote for colonialism, we concentrate overmuch on those cultures which engaged in its excesses. This blinds us to the wisdom which may be found among the less "civilized" peoples of Africa. We might learn a great deal about low-impact living in harsh environmental conditions from the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert or the Afar nomads of Ethiopia.  Are their achievements less impressive because they do not involve great feats of construction and conquest?

One of my favorite aspects of African Diaspora religions is how human the gods and spirits are. They are a mirror of our world, with all its tragedies and triumphs, all its beauty and flaws. To reduce that cosmology and history to a bland utopianism is to lose that glorious reflection. To envision Africa as a lost paradise is to misunderstand it as badly as those who see it as a bestial pit of savagery.  To paraphrase Harold Golden's famous quote on the Jews: Africans are like everyone else, only more so.  Like the people living on the other continents, they have scaled the heights and plumbed the depths of experience. Their lives reflect our own in their sweet successes and their glorious dysfunctions: instead of seeing them as an Other to be alternately emulated or scorned, we might do better to view them as fellow sufferers from the human condition.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Validating Initiations

This old chestnut (by now it may be a coprolite!) has arisen again, this time on that social networking dinosaur Tribe. Kathy Latzoni (my wife, who is also a Mambo Si Pwen and the moderator of the Vodou tribe) has been engaged in a discussion with Wedosi, an African-American woman who practices West African Vodun and who spent several years in Benin.  Wedosi insists that:
I am sorry moderator..that is INCORRECT! In Tradtional African Vodun ALL person's lineage CAN be verified! Accountability is paramount in ORIGINAL vodun; however, in the diaspora there appears to be problems in that the ORIGINAL hiearchy of vodun IS NOT in place.
While I am not an expert in "Traditional African Vodun," I would assume that said faith would "traditionally" be practiced by local Africans.  A person who comes to "Traditional African Vodun" as an outsider is by definition not  a member of the "traditional" congregation.  These practices were by villagers and for villagers. They were never viewed as part of a world religion by their followers but rather as a series of practices which ensured spiritual and social cohesion within the group.

(As an aside, the "asson lineage" which many people identify as "orthodox Haitian Vodou" actually was developed in the 1920s in response to deforestation and the development of an urban culture in Port-au-Prince. As hungry peasants came to the cities in search of work, they lost touch with their local religion and their local spirits. The asson became a way by which servants of the lwa could recognize each other and gain access to the spirits of a particular house. And because it was designed to accommodate outsiders, this lineage was also open to anthropologists and other curious foreigners -- hence, it became the tradition which was most frequently studied and ultimately became the default setting for "Haitian Vodou").

This is what leads to much of the confusion about "validating initiations." In a small village in Haiti, Togo, or Cuba, people know each other.  There's no question about who initiated whom, or who is practicing the "authentic faith."  These social safeguards are not in place for those who travel to a foreign country to engage in rituals with and among strangers.  They may get a valid ceremony or they may get the infamous "airport initiation" designed to entertain bored and wealthy tourists. 

Unless you are a part of that specific culture, it is going to be impossible for an outsider to tell the difference.  Based on my years of experience among Haitian-Americans and my initiation in Haitian Vodou, I might be able to offer some tentative thoughts on the status of someone who was claiming to be an initiate in Haitian Vodou. I couldn't begin to address the question of whether or not someone claiming to be a babalao, or a tata in Las Reglas de Congo, was or was not the real thing.  While some people would like to turn all these traditions into one big happy blend of Afrocentric mush, the cultures of Africa and the African Diaspora are a diverse and sometimes conflicting lot.  The brutal wars between Hutus and Tutsis and the Sudanese peoples put the lie to the claim that any kind of overarching "African culture" exists outside utopian fantasies.

So how do you determine whether or not someone is "validly initiated"? Basically, you have to take their word for it. If they appear generally trustworthy and sane when describing their daily lives and interests, they are probably telling the truth when they say they were initiated in some foreign country.  If they recognize the benefits of their initation and its limits (in other words, if they don't try presenting themselves as the Grand High Poobah of African Religion, Pope of Santeria or Sole Arbiter of Real Vodou etc.), they are probably not creating these titles to bolster their fragile egos or to sell services.

If you know other people within the community in question, you can also ask them.  Does this Florida "Santero" have any Cuban-American friends in Miami? Does this Massachusetts "Mambo" ever attend services given by Haitian-Americans in Mattapan or Dorchester - or do they ever show up at her events? This means you will have to become at least somewhat plugged into the community yourself - but if you want to be a "valid" practitioner, you're going to have to do that sooner or later anyway.

And of course we get back to the ultimate test: know your initiator.  I am always amazed to see people who will write checks and travel to foreign lands with someone they barely know, simply so they can get  an initiation ceremony and a fancy title.  If you show as much caution in choosing an initiator as you would in choosing a new car, you'll likely avoid the worst rip-offs. This means investing some time and effort, not just money - but there really is no substitute for doing your homework.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Interview with Ócha'ni Lele (Part III)

Q: What role can books (even excellent books like yours!) play in the religion? At what point do you have to stop reading and start looking for a community?

I think we need to think about books and the written word in conjunction with what the odu teaches us; and might I note that there are plenty of proverbs in the odu that speak of books and the written word. The most obvious one that comes to mind right now is the odu Osá Irosun, 9 mouths followed by 4 mouths in the diloggún. There are a couple of proverbs speaking of just this:

What is written you cannot erase.
What is written is not forgotten.
You can look ahead and you can look behind, but what is written is not forgotten.
Quite a few years ago I read some of John Mason’s collective works. One of the theories he espoused as both a priest and a scholar is that each of our elders in this religion is a folkloric library. Every head living has a unique collection of experiences: anecdotes, stories, and personal experiences. Likewise, each head living has a collective body of knowledge gleaned by years of experience in the religion. Thankfully and sadly not each head holds the same knowledge. I say thankfully, because it proves that our spirituality is too diverse for one person to know everything – there have to be specialties of knowledge among our ranks. And I say sadly, because when death takes an elder his or her unique collection of knowledge and experience is wiped from this earth.

If that elder has passed on his knowledge, it remains in his descendants. Unfortunately, knowledge and experience aren’t passed on equally and loss in our oral system is almost guaranteed.

My opinion is that the written word can and should be our salvation. Elders and minors alike should document the things they go through, their various experiences which will, one day, become a vital part of history. Books must be written, and those books must be published. Secrets not belonging in the general public, for example the uninitiated aleyos and aborishas, should be reserved for the priesthood only but nonetheless they should be committed to paper for inheritance after an elder’s death. We are growing geometrically, and a single elder might have dozens if not hundreds of initiated godchildren. With our present system no one can adequately train all those heads; however, if things are committed to paper they can be saved and passed on. People will argue this, of course, but it’s true.

There is another patakís that appeared in the original manuscript of Teachings of the Santería Gods that, unfortunately, did not make my final cut for the manuscript. It is from the oral corpus of Eji Oko, two mouths. It explains how the markings for the oracle of Ifá came to be; and by extension, when writing and the written word were introduced to the Lucumí slaves in the New World, the patakís came to embody the inclusion of the written word in our religion. It went through some changes, as the oral lore often does. I’d like to share that here. It is still rough, so, please, forgive me for that. I never finished a final draft:
The Birth of Ink and Writing:
After many centuries of work, Olófin was tired and wished to retire. To Obatalá he turned over the task of educating humans. “Go out into the world, Obatalá, and find a way to make our texts and truths eternal. For soon, we will all withdraw into heaven, and while we are far away, the humans will still need our teachings to evolve.”
Obatalá went out into the world and taught the humans one-on-one. He gathered the priests and priestesses and instructed them in the mysteries of heaven and earth, and everything that lay between them. Odu, proverbs, patakís, history, and ebó: He taught all this, and more, to the first generation of initiates himself, and watched as they, in turn, began to instruct others.
Yet word of mouth changed the teachings from generation to generation, and Obatalá found he still had to instruct mortals one-on-one, especially when a great elder passed, taking many things untaught to his or her grave.
“Never again will I see heaven,” Obatalá thought. “For I will always be here, doing exactly this.”
The old man set out to find a way to record his teachings, permanently, so nothing would be lost. First, he wandered in the desert, and with his staff he drew symbols in the sand, recording everything that the humans needed to know to continue the spirituality of the orishas on earth. When he was done, he stood back, and looked at his writing.
A great wind blew; the sands shifted, and everything was lost.
“The sands shift, and nothing is left. This is no different than the death of an elder – an entire library is lost. This will not survive the ages. There must be another way,” he thought.
Obatalá continued to wander and think until he came to the land of Abeokuta. There were great stone slabs throughout the city, and he had another great idea. Using efun, he wrote out all the sacred patakís and lore of the faith on these great rocks, and when he was done, humans came and lauded his work.
But it was the rainy season, and when the rains came, they washed the stones clean.
“This will not do,” said Obatalá to himself. “Our teachings must be eternal. Again, time has erased them.”
Once more, Obatalá wandered the world, thinking about how to best preserve the knowledge of their religion. He wandered into Oyó, and came to Shangó’s palace. The orisha was there, and when he saw Obatalá, he was happy.
“Father!” he embraced the old man. “What has brought you to my kingdom?”
Together, the two walked through the courtyard while Obatalá unburdened himself on Shangó. “Olófin says that soon, we will all return to heaven. He gave me the task of immortalizing our teachings so everyone remembers them through the generations. I tried instructing the elder priests one-on-one, but the elders die, and things go untaught and are lost. That is not eternal; it is not what Olófin asked me to do. So I created writing, and wrote all our teachings in the sand. But the winds blew that away. It is not eternal, and is not what Olófin wanted. So I wrote all our teachings on stone, with efun, and the rains washed that away. It is not eternal. It is not what Olófin wanted me to do.”
“You, father, need something that can stand up to the elements. And you need something that can be stored safely.” Shangó called his men to cut down a great palm tree, and from its wood, they cut thin boards. Shangó mixed efun with the powdered shavings of the palm, and then sacrificed a white dove over that. It became a thick, black ink. He whittled a thin branch until it had a point, and dipped it in the ink. This, he gave to Obatalá.
“Now, Father, write what you will. When it dries, the wind cannot erase it, nor can the rain wash it away; and it will be light enough for us to store in our houses and study.”
Obatalá embraced the orisha, and thanked him. He then locked himself up in Shangó’s palace, and wrote out all the knowledge he had in his head.
And so it is through today. Whenever we want to immortalize our words, we write then down with ink on paper, and store them safely in our houses. Memories fade, but the writing lasts forever, and nothing is truly lost as long as those writings are saved.
I think those who study this patakís can understand the importance of the written word to our faith.

Q: What advice do you have for those looking to enter the religion? How can they find a good ilé and avoid fraudulent or unethical practitioners?

This is a subject that Oba Ernesto Pichardo has written on extensively. For the answer to that question I can do no better than direct readers here.

Q: After Teachings of the Santería Gods, what is coming next? What new books can we be looking for in the coming years?

I think, as a writer, this is the busiest time of my life! While promoting Teachings of the Santería Gods I’m working on a new manuscript that is under contract with Destiny Books, an imprint of Inner Traditions International. The working title for that volume is How the Moon Fooled the Sun: A Collection of Lucumí Folklore from the Diloggún. It is another collection of short stories, retellings of our most ancient patakís. Some are very rare and few except the eldest of our heads will know them. Some are quite popular but I’ve given them new life by focusing on the characterizations and moral dilemmas that each story embraces. All of them are paired with the composite odu in which they are found, and I think that is a major plus of the manuscript because even with our most well-known and well-loved patakís, few initiates know the odu in which they are told. More importantly: the book focuses on the natural world. These are the stories of the moon, the sun, the earth, the sky, the rain, the wind, the oceans, the rivers, and the animals.

Did you know we have hundreds of patakís dealing with the animals? It’s something overlooked by both adherents and researchers alike. When I was a child I grew up on some of the African American folktales and yarns. My grandmother would tell me the tall tales of Aunt Nancy and the plantation stories of Uncle Remus. There were dozens of animal tales among those. Well, a lot of those animal tales, now that I’ve really buckled down and studied our own patakís, have roots in our mythology and folklore. It’s amazing. I had no idea. There are stories about the cat, the dog, the elephant, the leopard, the ferret, the jutía, the pig, the monkey . . . the list seems inexhaustible. And it’s through these stories that morals are most evident. Teachings of the Santería Gods has a small handful of animal stories in it, but this volume I’m writing now will focus on the natural world.

It’s due on my publisher’s desk December 31, 2010, and I’m hoping it will come out by December 2011.

After that book, I have a series of books planned about the orishas and their avatars, or roads. I’m exploring their natures through patakís and narrative, not pompous dialogue. I want to illustrate their natures through their own stories, not discuss my own feelings and opinions about them. I also have two novels (more like novellas right now) planned: The Golden Chain and The Rape of Yembo. The first book, The Golden Chain, is a novelized version of our creation myths. In it I will be exploring the natures and dynamics between Odua, Obatalá, and Eshu. The Rape of Yembo will be an emotional book to write: it examines the issue of rape (as evidenced by the title), and the mess the world was thrown into when Ogún raped his own mother. Both works exist as rough drafts; and they will need a lot of work to bring them to publishable form. But I think, after writing hundreds of short stories, I’m up to the challenge.

Of course there’s more planned, but those works are too far into the future to discuss now. It should suffice to say that I have a lifetime of work ahead of me, and if the orishas grant me the time on this earth I need to complete them, one day I will leave quite a prolific body of work behind for posterity.