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.