Tuesday, August 31, 2010

New Review of Vodou Money Magic

Gesigewigu's, a regular contributor at Spiral Nature, recently posted a review of Vodou Money Magic. While the review was generally quite complimentary, G. had one criticism:
This book seemed like it was advocating a personal devotional religion for financial aid. It just seemed to be going the wrong direction, imagine “Join the Church, learn how Jesus can get you money” as a parallel, and that’s what felt off with the book. The religion is one of dedication and personal relationships, and I think undertaking such a relationship only for financial gain is the wrong path.
I think G. may be overemphasizing the dichotomy between a religion of dedication and one for financial gain. Many Vodouisants love their lwa: they praise them effusively, build enormous and elaborate shrines for them, hold ceremonies in their honor and show their respect in a number of direct and tangible ways. But as they provide for their lwa, so they expect that their lwa will provide for them.  Nor is this attitude unique to Vodou, as we can see in this excerpt from J.G. Frazer's classic The Golden Bough:
In April 1888 the mandarins of Canton prayed to the god Lung-wong to stop the incessant downpour of rain; and when he turned a deaf ear to their petitions they put him in a lock-up for five days. This had a salutary effect. The rain ceased and the god was restored to liberty. Some years before, in time of drought, the same deity had been chained and exposed to the sun for days in the courtyard of his temple in order that he might feel for himself the urgent need of rain. So when the Siamese need rain, they set out their idols in the blazing sun; but if they want dry weather, they unroof the temples and let the rain pour down on the idols. They think that the inconvenience to which the gods are thus subjected will induce them to grant the wishes of their worshippers.

The reader may smile at the meteorology of the Far East; but precisely similar modes of procuring rain have been resorted to in Christian Europe within our own lifetime. By the end of April 1893 there was great distress in Sicily for lack of water. The drought had lasted six months. Every day the sun rose and set in a sky of cloudless blue. The gardens of the Conca d’Oro, which surround Palermo with a magnificent belt of verdure, were withering. Food was becoming scarce. The people were in great alarm. All the most approved methods of procuring rain had been tried without effect. Processions had traversed the streets and the fields. Men, women, and children, telling their beads, had lain whole nights before the holy images. Consecrated candles had burned day and night in the churches. Palm branches, blessed on Palm Sunday, had been hung on the trees. At Solaparuta, in accordance with a very old custom, the dust swept from the churches on Palm Sunday had been spread on the fields. In ordinary years these holy sweepings preserve the crops; but that year, if you will believe me, they had no effect whatever. At Nicosia the inhabitants, bare-headed and bare-foot, carried the crucifixes through all the wards of the town and scourged each other with iron whips. It was all in vain. Even the great St. Francis of Paolo himself, who annually performs the miracle of rain and is carried every spring through the market-gardens, either could not or would not help. Masses, vespers, concerts, illuminations, fire-works—nothing could move him.

At last the peasants began to lose patience. Most of the saints were banished. At Palermo they dumped St. Joseph in a garden to see the state of things for himself, and they swore to leave him there in the sun till rain fell. Other saints were turned, like naughty children, with their faces to the wall. Others again, stripped of their beautiful robes, were exiled far from their parishes, threatened, grossly insulted, ducked in horse-ponds. At Caltanisetta the golden wings of St. Michael the Archangel were torn from his shoulders and replaced with wings of pasteboard; his purple mantle was taken away and a clout wrapt about him instead. At Licata the patron saint, St. Angelo, fared even worse, for he was left without any garments at all; he was reviled, he was put in irons, he was threatened with drowning or hanging. “Rain or the rope!” roared the angry people at him, as they shook their fists in his face.
There are many people for whom a love spell or a money spell serves as an introduction to the religion of Haitian Vodou. There are many others who keep a strictly business relationship with the lwa, making offerings in exchange for their assistance in material matters. Neither approach is wrong. What is wrong is treating the lwa (or other spirits) as what Raven Kaldera has called "the Big Barbie who gives you stuff." The relationship between serviteurs and their spirits is a reciprocal one. The lwa do not offer unconditional love and unlimited abundance. They bless those who bless them and expect payment for services rendered. If one is unwilling to pay for those services - and the tab can be steep! -  then it is best to avoid the lwa altogether.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Kenaz Filan appearance in Princeton, New Jersey (October 2, 2010)

I will be speaking on Vodou Money Magic at Crucible on Saturday, October 2, 2010. Crucible is a gathering of magical practitioners from various traditions and backgrounds, Its organizer, Arthur Moyer, is a friend of mine and the founder of Omnimancy, an interesting school of energy manipulation and non-ritual magic. I look forward to meeting some of my online correspondents there and hope at least some of you can make it!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Response on "Spiritual Occultist" re Voodoo Dolls

This is a response I recently posted to the Yahoo group Spiritual Occultist concerning the use of "voodoo dolls" in New Orleans Voodoo. (The original essay, which was reposted to Yahoo, can be found at Haunted American Tours).
Popular among slaves, some speculate that making voodoo dolls and sticking them with pins was one method by which the slave could exert some control over the master: from the very start white plantation owners, mostly of European descent, feared this and its obvious connection to the more familiar poppet magic of their cultures. More often than not, however, the voodoo doll was employed as a weapon against other believers in voodoo, or vodusi, who did not hesitate to use it and immediately recognized its consequences. Primitive dolls, often bound with twine or cat-gut and stuck through with everything from pins to fish bones, have been unearthed on several plantations in South Louisiana, evidence that the concept of vicarious punishment through use of an image doll was firmly in place among the African slave populations of 18th and 19th century Louisiana.
1) Sticking pins in poppets to curse someone is almost exclusively a European practice. There are definitely some hair-raising African and African-American curses, but they are typically transmitted through the feet i.e. by sprinkling powder in your opponent's path or on his doorstep, or by getting some dust from her footprints and mixing it with various noxious substances.
2) There WAS a Kongo tradition of sticking nails and pins into a power object (nkisi) but it was not intended for curses: rather, it was meant to wake up the spirit indwelling in the object. Sme pictures of nkisi nail fetishes can be found here.

But the idea of using voodoo dolls and other forms of hexes such as gris-gris and mojo,
Gris-gris and mojo bags are generally built not to hex but to bring good luck to their owners.
The lore of 19th century voodoo is filled with the tales of victims of this vengeful magic who awoke after a fitful night’s sleep to find bones, graveyard dust and the inevitable voodoo doll laying on their porch steps — placed there in the darkness by Marie Laveaux herself. The tales would otherwise be a footnote in New Orleans history were it not for the fact that, according to reliable sources, nearly all the voodoo Marie Laveau performed actually worked.
So far as I know, there is only one fairly reliable tale connecting Marie Laveau to a doll - the records of a court trial wherein Mme. Laveau and another Voodoo Queen had a dispute over the ownership of an "ugly fetish" which was almost certainly a Kongo nkisi. See Carolyn Morrow Long's excellent book A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau for more information on that.
Some proponents of Voodoo as a religion attempt to distance themselves from the voodoo doll cursing tradition and there are many examples of dolls created for more positive purposes such as healing and spiritual enlightenment. These practitioners claim that use of voodoo dolls for vengeance and punishment is a form of Bokor (Black) Voodoo that has contributed to the bad reputation the religion has had to bear over the centuries.
The word "Bokor" only appears in Haitian Vodou and in later-period (post 1970s) New Orleans Voodoo. It describes a particular type of sorcerer and has nothing to do with blackness (which would be "neg" in Kreyol and "noir" in French). And there is a long tradition of using dolls for benevolent purposes, or as homes for benevolent/protective spirits, in African Diaspora traditions.
But it remains a fact that most, if not all, people who seek out a Voodoo practitioner for the creation and manipulation of a Voodoo doll is usually bent on vengeance, at a minimum, or often genuine, irreversible harm. There is something viscerally satisfying about pricking and puncturing an effigy of your worst enemy; the natural expansion of this concept lends itself easily to the act of greater harm and the consequent feeling of control one can obtain from this.
Among people seeking a modern day New Orleans Voodoo practitioner, this may be true. In Haitian Vodou someone seeking a doll is more likely trying to provide a home for a spirit.
More than just consecrating the doll as the image of a certain person, a lot of the “magic” of making voodoo dolls, especially “black” voodoo dolls, comes from the person creating it. Traditionally, the maker is instructed to concentrate all her thought and effort into the making of the doll, envisioning during the construction all the evil that can possibly be heaped on the victim. Some practitioners will spend days in the creation and “charging” of their doll, keeping it in sight and venting their anger and frustration at the doll until, when the time comes, the doll is finally given the name of the intended victim and the ritual abuse of the voodoo doll can begin. This process, according to experts in the field, rarely fails, unless the will of the creator falters at some point. The resulting humiliation or punishment of the victim may then be less potent than otherwise intended.
This is a common way of charging a poppet in European witchcraft. While it can be quite effective, it once again owes more to European folk customs than African ones.
A form of positive (though still manipulative) magic for which the voodoo doll is excellently suited is the traditional magic “binding.” In this instance, the practitioner ritually binds the voodoo doll, charged and named for the individual in question, from doing harm or evil toward others. Thus bound, the ill-intentioned efforts of that person will come to nothing; the person whom the practitioner has protected will experience no harm at the hands of a person thus bound. Conversely, a person can be bound with evil intent and although this is often used in Bokor Voodoo the tradition is an ancient one.
This is an interesting issue. In many Kongo traditions one "binds" a spirit by tying it with thread or string. The idea is not that you are capturing or enslaving the spirit. Rather, you are helping the spirit to stay comfortably in its new house, much as you tie your shoes so you can walk in them.
“Just don’t name it unless you really intend to use it.” This is the warning given by most reputable mambos or priestesses who provide such items to the public. Obviously, how a voodoo doll is used depends on the person who owns it, but there have been instances where even the most garish-looking tourist trinket voodoo doll has ultimately caused harm — however minor — after arriving at its destination. The lesson here should be obvious.
I am inclined to agree with this. Someone with the right degree of anger and will can use just about anything as a focus, and it's not all that difficult to catch the attention of the spirit world. When you put out a bright shiny "voodoo doll" beacon, you may well find something that wants to inhabit it - and said "something" may not be benevolent or easily controlled.
Other dolls available are rendered in synch with devotion to a particular Lwa but are designed to invoke the power of the Lwa in the owner’s life. These devotional dolls are created more for actual use than for display, and since most are one of a kind, created from an intimate consultation with a practicing mambo or priest, the dolls are highly prized and extremely personal. These dolls are also kept very secure because any ill-intentioned person possessing such a creation can produce no end of aggravation and harm to the devotee it represents.
This is actually the most common way that dolls are used in Haitian Vodou and other Afro-Caribbean traditions.
Another use of dolls in authentic Vodou practice is the incorporation of plastic doll babies in altars and objects used to represent or honor the spirits, or in pwen, which recalls the aforementioned use of bocio and nkisi figures in Africa.
The bottom of this page features some excellent examples of Haitian doll sculpture from the master of the craft, the late Pierrot Barra.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Neopagan Voodoo (for Houngan Aboudja)

Houngan Aboudja, a longtime acquaintance, recently posted a link to my Patheos article on the future of Vodou.  Aboudja and I differ on some issues and have occasionally butted heads. He is much more a stickler for tradition and reglamen than I am: he is also considerably more knowledgeable about many traditional details and secrets. I respect his opinion even if I don't always share it, and have frequently taken advantage of his wisdom. 

From Aboudja to another poster:
to the comments in your last post ref: "people wanting options", there seem to be a number of people (read White folks) who would, ummm... like to take the Black out of this thing, the reason for which I take SERIOUS issue with
I have certainly met people who were fascinated by Vodou but reluctant to go into "bad" neighborhoods and spend time with dark-skinned Haitian-Americans.  (Public Enemy was onto something when they talked about Fear of a Black Planet!) While we are seeing more Neopagans of color, the religion remains overwhelmingly white. And though racism is generally seen as taboo among modern Neopagans, their version of "multiculturalism" can sometimes be problematic. Often it involves using the trappings and traditions of other people without actually going through the effort of meeting said peoples. I would encourage non-Haitians who are interested in Vodou to learn about Haitian culture and to make some Haitian friends and acquaintances. It is impossible to understand the lwa and their service without knowing something of the country and the people from whence that service began.

That being said, I would note that "learning about Haitian culture" may involve more than spending a couple of weeks in a resort which caters to Vodou tourists. I'd rather see a circle of well-meaning Pagans invoking La Sirene for a Healing the Gulf of Mexico circle than see overprivileged Newagers presenting themselves as Vodou clergy when they've only been to one Vodou ceremony - the one where they received their asson. The former may not be doing Vodou, but at least they're not treating their vacations as spiritual experiences or pretending to be authorities on a tradition they barely know.

Later in the thread, Aboudja replied:

how are the mysteries reacting? On the one hand, I cannot say what is in someone's heart! That is between them and GOD. So how can I judge that? On the other hand, as spiritual people we all know there are "other spirits" more tha...n happy to "play along" with someone who doesn't otherwise know what they are doing. When the High Schmoo of such-n-such coven tells me she is a "Priests of Ursula Freeda" and I look and find this so-called "Freeda" served smoking cigarettes and eating pineapple... I call BULLSHIT!

Now, you bring up several points... is it my job to point out that at best these people are fooling themselves or at worse they have some random spirit (prob from the cemetery) playing "Ursula Freeeda dress-up" and making them feel important while it gets fed by them for its own agenda? No, it is not.
One of the advantages of working within a tradition and learning from an elder is the ability to determine whether or not one is doing things correctly. As Houngan Aboudja correctly states, there are spirits who will take advantage of the naive. If you don't know the lwa - meaning you haven't seen them manifest in possession and interact with the congregation - it's hard to tell the difference between a phony and a real lwa. And without a guide one's road to Gineh may be a very convoluted one: a lot of the available public information on the lwa is misleading or flat-out wrong.

Here's a concrete example: I regularly see people going to Erzulie Freda for love spells, because she is the "love goddess of Vodou."  For one thing, Freda is more connected to luxury and beauty than to love: I would compare her to Lakshmi, Hindu goddess of wealth and fortune, rather than Aphrodite. For another, going to Freda for love is likely to get you a tumultuous, drama-filled affair with a gorgeous diva than a solid relationship with a life partner. And to top everything off, Freda can be one of the most difficult and dangerous lwa to work with. She is easily offended and demands the best offerings you can give her. But by her nature she is impossible to satisfy: our reality can never measure up to her ideals.

Still another example: in Haitian Vodou practitioners have certain lwa who "walk with them." Some lwa follow the Vodouisant since birth: others may have been introduced to the Vodouisant by a Houngan or may have followed the Vodouisant home from a sacred place. One who does not "have" Agwe or Azaka by birth or introduction may call on them until the manatees come home and get no response - or get snookered by a trickster spirit. To discover one's lwa, one typically attends fets or consults a Houngan or Mambo. Serving any lwa that strikes your fancy may work by process of hitting and missing - but it's an awfully inefficient way of going about things.

I also run into many people who say things like "I am totally a fighter and a ladies' man, so of course I've got Ogou on my head" or "I'm a big ol' flaming queen, so you know Erzulie Freda owns me."  And it very well could be that by serving those spirits these well-meaning people are unbalancing themselves. It could well be that scrappy Ogou-lover would do better to serve Damballah and other spirits that would cool his head, while our flamboyant fashion designer might need the grounding and common-sense approach of Mama Danto. What we want and what we need may be two different things.

I expect to see continuing interest in African and African Diaspora practices among Neopagans. This is not necessarily a bad thing. One need not be clergy to serve the lwa. In fact, for most people, a kanzo would be an expensive and arduous process that would bring them more obligations than rewards.  And I expect to see continuing tensions between traditionalists and more free-form practitioners.  I also hope to see greater dialogue and respect between the two factions: there are many different roads by which a sincere and dedicated servitor can find the way to Gineh.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Even More Not All Fun and Games: Danger, Death and Assassination

My earlier post on Gods and their demands has inspired a lot of intelligent commentary and a fair bit of controversy - just what one wants in a blog post. I wanted to follow up on some of the issues raised and see if we can keep this discussion going a big longer.

Jack Faust made this point about my interview with Galina Krasskova: while I can't speak for Galina, I can provide my thoughts:
You've discussed taboos, Godslavery, and ordeals. I'm re-reading these entries now as I watch this...

... I've yet to see you discuss a majorly positive influence that's come out of your godslavery, or your ordeals. You've discussed it all technically, and discussed why people object to it, and I've felt plenty of "modernist" disgust in your words. So, if it's made you better and stronger... why isn't this the last thing you cover every single time you discuss one of the things that will trigger people?
There are many websites which will promise you prosperity, good health, love and all-around bliss if only you buy their spells or sign on to their metaphysical agenda. (The latter is often far more expensive than the former!)  There is far less emphasis on the costs and hazards of spirituality and mysticism. Enlightenment often comes at a very steep price: if you let the Gods into your life, they may well renovate it to suit Their designs. And I think it is important to let aspiring mages and mystics know that up front. If we seem at times to accentuate the negative, it's only because we want to provide a counterweight.

I have known many serious and competent magicians and mystics. Most have felt the knowledge and skills they attained through training were worth all the effort. Those who have actually attained the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel or set foot in Nirvana find that the experience is an ample reward for all their hard work and sacrifice.  But there has always been a price for this knowledge, frequently a heavy one. Tiresias becomes a great diviner and prophet after being blinded: Agave gains ecstatic knowledge of Dionysus - and then rips her son Pentheus to shreds: Aleister Crowley spent his inheritance and died in a shabby boarding house.  Let us not cheapen their, and our, victory by minimizing its costs.

Frater R.O., meanwhile, said:
Hermetic doctrine teaches that we're supposed to get in harmony with our fates and work with the gods to create the world, to manifest the things that begin in the Mind of God (Nous) as Ideas within our spheres of influence.

If the Idea is our death, the Gods are to administer that "fate" and make it happen, and our personal opinions on the matter don't... matter.

But the magician accomplishing the Great Work would be in harmony with the Idea naturally, and would agree with their death, in theory.

They would also see it from the perspective of eternity, a perspective we can share with our god brothers and god sisters. It wouldn't seem like a capricious act by an arrogant slave owner treating us like useless property to be broken and thrown away at whim.
Many people have willingly gone to their deaths for a Cause. The urge to be swallowed up in Something Greater is hard-wired into us: we're descended from a long line of pack animals.  And contemplation of Eternity helps us to avoid thoughts of our own mortality, not to mention that instinct which says "Wait a minute. I could get KILLED doing that..." By passing down our blood or aiding our herd, we hope to cheat the reaper and continue on after the demise of our flesh. This has given the desperate and dying much comfort in their final hours: it has also been used by clever leaders to inspire mighty armies.  

A magician who has accomplished the Great Work, like a magician who has not, will one day confront the mystery of bodily Death.  Both will need to find some sort of meaning to their impending end, and both will learn that which we do not and cannot know.  Presumably both will also seek to give their lives, and the way in which they end their lives, as much meaning as possible. But whether they go gentle or raging into that good night, the dusk will fall on them nonetheless.

And Arxacies noted: 

I think that's the rub. You are assuming that what the Gods are asking you to do is "right". In light of the lore that we have I think that assumption is very much open to question.
What if someone is a devotee of Ares and he wants his devotee to kill a group of anti-war protesters? It could very well really be Ares that is asking for that(he has done far worse, as have almost all of the Gods we know of), but is it right? From what you have said in past posts it could be argued that he is a God and can force the devotee to comply. Would his might make the devotee killing the protesters right?
This brings us to an interesting point. Søren Kierkegaard wrote an excellent book on the ramifications of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac and the "Bog People" found throughout northern Europe suggest a long history of Gods demanding human sacrifice.  And there are plenty of historical and legendary examples of individual and even collective murder for violations of the social and religious order. So what do we do if our Gods decide that some idiot, or some group of idiots, needs to die - and we need to be the agent of their divine will?

While "Thou Shalt Not Kill" is frequently presented as an absolute, in practice it has a footnote saying "This does not apply in the case of military personnel or law enforcement operating in the line of duty.  Nor does it apply in case of executions performed according to laws of the subject jurisdiction.  There is varying case law on questions of abortion and euthanasia: consult your spiritual professional before proceeding further."  And though assassinations and terrorist attacks are distasteful, they can certainly be effective - and may arguably save lives in the long run. (Remember the old saw about "what if you could go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler as a baby?") 

We are in deep waters here. I do not wish to advocate violence. Nor do I minimize the danger of misinterpreting or misrepresenting the will of the Gods.  But still I can't help but wonder: if our Gods might ask us to die for a worthy cause, might they not also ask us to kill for one?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Myths of America II: American Mythology in Theory and Practice

In response to my earlier post about Myths of AmericaNutty Professor asked:
It could be that American myths are only as important as the ways that they are enacted. They may be internalized, true, but how are they "played out" in the cycle of eternal return where myth inhabits the social/lived realm?
Discussing all the ways in which American myths and preconceptions shape our spirituality would require several thick and carefully referenced volumes. But there are a few recurring themes I've noted on various forums: as a partial answer to the Professor's question, I might offer a few talking points on some of them.

Many American Pagans have jettisoned the coven structure altogether, choosing to act as their own High Priests and Priestesses. Their spiritual development comes not through membership in a faith-based community but through their own individual efforts. Sometimes they radically reinterpret their lives to incorporate their new spiritual paths: more often they reinterpret various spiritual paths to suit their lives. This plays into our Protestant distaste for clerical hierarchies, our frontier/colonial emphasis on self-reliance and our immigrant love of self-reinvention.  One's relationship to the Divine is preeminent, not one's relationship with our fellow worshippers or loyalty to a spiritual teacher.

Contrast this with the views cherished in many other traditions. In Hinduism one is expected to learn at the foot of a guru with an appropriate lineage. That guru is afforded a veneration which might make many Westerners very uncomfortable. A HPs or trance channeler who expected students to kiss hir feet and burn candles before hir picture would be scorned as a demagogue and wannabe cult leader. We give the Dalai Lama all sorts of humanitarian awards, but tap-dance around his claim of being the latest incarnation of Avalokitesvara. And while we have innumerable guidebooks for solitary practitioners, a Yoruba proverb reminds us that "a knife cannot carve its own handle."

The New Age and neo-Shamanic movements have created industries dedicated to repackaging indigenous movements for Americans. To be fair, this didn't necessarily start on our side of the Big Pond. H.P. Blavatsky adapted Hinduism to suit Victorian tastes. But then much of the American New Age is the bastard child of a coke-fueled gang bang between Madame Helena and various New Thought figures. (A long-suppressed film reputedly shows a double penetration scene featuring Norman Vincent Peale and Napoleon Hill... ). Given our status as a former colony, it's not surprising that we have internalized many colonialist ideas. It is not surprising that we may see other cultures primarily in terms of their usefulness, or that we wish to export our ideals (be they "Christianity" or "Democracy") to the world.

This is not to say that America's myths are entirely misguided or completely wrong. (Few myths are!) We have committed many sins in fulfilling our manifest destiny, and we have often failed to live up to our own standards. But the same fervent moralism that inspired the Puritans has driven many of our most ardent reformers. The culture which gave the world Jerry Falwell  and Carrie Nation also produced Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony and Eugene V. Debs: it inspired both Glenn Beck and Noam Chomsky.  While we should be aware of our shortcomings, let us not minimize our triumphs.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Face Jugs": Kongo pottery in the New World

Last night the PBS program History Detectives had a very interesting program about a "face jug" found in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. While detectives Gwendolyn Wright and Tufuku Zuberi were not able to ascertain precisely how this jug made it to the City of Brotherly Love, they were able to trace it to one of the last American shipments of African slaves.

On the evening of November 28, 1858 the Wanderer docked at Jekyl Island, Georgia. Its cargo hold contained 409 men, women and children - the survivors of the 487 slaves purchased in Benguela, a river port in modern-day Angola. A number of these slaves wound up laboring in the pottery industry in Edgefield, South Carolina. There they became famous for their alkaline-glazed stoneware and for their grimacing, wide-eyed face jugs.

Among the people Dr. Zuberi interviewed was Jim McDowell, an African-American potter who makes contemporary face jugs (also known as "ugly jugs," since they, like medieval gargoyles, are supposed to be ugly enough to scare the devil).  Dr. Mark Newell of the Georgia Archaeological Institute pointed out the similarities between these jugs and Kongolese minkisi, power objects which provided homes for spirits.

It is especially noteworthy that the Georgetown jug was discovered while the present owner's grandfather was digging a ditch. These jugs were frequently buried at the threshold of a home to protect the family against evil. Compare this to the baka of Haitian Vodou, a guardian spirit created by a process which involves burying sacred objects and animals. Mr. McDowell also noted that these jugs were used to mark burial sites. Those who have read Robert Farris Thompson will recognize similar Kongo-inspired burial decorations found on African-American gravesites. And while Edgefield is particularly famous for their face jugs, the cover of John Burrison's Brothers in Clay: the Story of Georgia Folk Pottery suggests that this art form could be found throughout the slaveholding United States.

Brothers in Clay: The Story of Georgia Folk Pottery

This was one of the most interesting installments yet on a consistently interesting program, and is well worth a viewing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Not All Fun and Games

The always-interesting Frater Rufus Opus has offered his take on the question of spiritual and financial trials. He offers a slightly different take on the subject.
Is your God regularly kicking your ass? That's an abuser, baby. What kind of example are you setting for your kids? You want them to grow up thinking it's ok if God hits mommy when he's drunk, cause he pays the rent on the trailer lot almost every month?


Knock that aluminum can of budweiser out of his hand, turn off the game, and kick him out. You need cops or a big brother to back you up? Call on Michael the Archangel, or better yet, the LOGOS. He don't put up with no shit out of any spirit that wants to play god and beat on women. I guarantee
I would certainly agree that it is as possible to have a bad or a dysfunctional relationship with a spirit as with a corporeal person. If you are working with spirits and are getting nothing for your troubles but troubles, you may want to ask yourself "what is this doing for me?" You may be hosting a parasite or some other kind of ethereal nasty. If so, you need to take steps to rid yourself of your unwanted guest. And you certainly have the right to negotiate with and even argue with your Gods. (There's a long tradition of doing this in Vodou and other African and African Diaspora religions, not to mention most forms of folk Christianity. In resource-poor impoverished areas, those who will not work will not eat).

That being said, Galina and I wanted to provide some counterbalance to the idea that the Divine will never ask us for anything inconvenient or offer us anything but encouragement and positive reinforcement. If we are going to encourage people to engage with the Divine, we need to be clear on the risks as well as the rewards. Growth rarely comes without pain. When we put our lives in the hands of the Gods, They may strip away those things which hold us back from Them. This can be an extremely painful process, and can last for months or even years.

So how do we distinguish this from abuse? Those of us who have survived this process generally feel we gained more than we lost. We find that the suffering was necessary to our emotional and spiritual development. We may grumble but we prefer our chaotic, challenging lives with the Gods to a orderly and placid life without Them.

I admit this is not an entirely satisfactory answer. Many abused spouses feel their relationship is worth an occasional black eye, which they deserved anyway. And I can certainly see an abusive religious leader convincing victims to stick around because all the bullshit is "part of the Divine growing process" or similar rot. But ultimately we may have to trust Godslaves and mystics to set appropriate boundaries and pursue mutually beneficial relationships with their patrons.

Filan and Krasskova on Loki and Sacrifice

While you are well-known for your devotion to Odin, you are infamous for your devotion to Loki and the Giants. (Some have even called you a "Heathen Satanist"). What roles do Loki and His kin play in your spiritual life?

Galina: Every blessing in my life has in some way passed through Loki’s hands, including my relationship with Odin. It was Loki specifically who prepared me for that. He’s been a good friend to me and I love Him dearly. He is my touchstone, and continues to help me in times of spiritual difficulties. He is a teacher and friend as well as being a God that I adore. He brought me stability, an adopted mother, made me ready and useful for Odin, helped me through my shamanic ordeal cycle, and led me to deeper understanding of devotion and humility. Through introducing me to Sigyn, I learned the value of graciousness and piety, in the oldest sense of the word. There is nothing good in my life that does not in some way bear His touch.

Certainly I’m aware of the controversy in some denominations of Heathenry over whether or not to honor Loki and His kin. I think the argument is intensely misguided. Firstly, I find attempting to judge any of the Gods to be immense hubris on our part. Our “job” if you will, is to honor Them. If one is told specifically through direct interaction with a Deity not to take part in honoring Deity X that is fine. That is a taboo placed on that individual person. That is a far cry from a group looking at references in medieval texts, texts that were A) written well after conversion and B) were never intended to be utilized as any type of scripture and taking their position from that, rather than from direct experience, prayer, meditation, and discernment. Spiritual relationships are intensely personal things. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach -- not that works anyway.

I also think that vilification of Loki is a misreading of the extant lore, for what it’s worth. It’s an example yet again of a religion of converts not yet having shaken off the shackles of the dominant faith from which many of its people have come, in this case Christianity. Because we have an overwhelming majority of people having converted from various denominations, often fundamentalist, of Protestant Christianity, we have a majority used to drawing their religious rules from the normative authority of written texts. Add to this, the overwhelming emphasis on eschatology within some of these denominations and it is easy to see where we get the current obsession for vilifying Loki and His kin. I think, hope, and pray that as our religion grows and matures, that this type of reactive nonsense falls by the wayside or evolves instead into respect if not active devotion. Not everyone is going to feel a pull to honor every single Deity. We’re not always going to have a close relationship with each and every One. That however, does not preclude respect.

Loki’s kin, various Jotnar from Angurboda, to Kari, to Surt, to Farbauti have protected me, humbled me, and most of all have taught me. As a shaman I have learned so much from the Jotnar and I have done this with Odin’s blessing. I have grown spiritually and grown both stronger and wiser under Their tutelage. I admit these Deities can be terrifying but so can any God or Goddess. Instead of looking at Ragnarok tales, we should perhaps be focusing more on the fact that both the Aesir and Vanir often interacted (both positively and negatively) with the Giants ( Jotnar). Of course this again goes back to my belief that we should stay well out of the Gods’ politics and Their alliances. Our place is to give respect, courtesy, and honor to the Holy Powers…ALL of the Holy Powers. The Jotnar are a family of Gods, perhaps a difficult family of Gods for the modern mind to truly grasp, but no less worthy of honor.

There is a great deal of controversy in various communities about animal sacrifice (and the concept of sacrifice in general). Historically the Gods of most cultures have asked for and received blood offerings. How do we engage with that aspect of Their service in our modern world?

First of all, I think we need to dispense with our modern sentimentalities. We really need to get over ourselves. It is right and proper to give offerings to the Gods, including animal sacrifice. This is an immensely powerful and sacred act. We live in a culture that has done its best to alienate us from mess. Few of us butcher and prepare our own food anymore. The immediacy with which food is available in our world has led, I believe, to a certain cluelessness and lack of respect not only where offerings and sacrifice might be concerned but also with the food cycle itself. I’ve heard horror stories of middle school children who, when being presented with celery, or potatoes, or carrots couldn’t identify what these vegetables were! I’ll bet all of them could identify McDonalds though. We’re removed from the power of the land and the sustenance that it provides. There’s been a break in that cycle.

Sacrifice is one means of restoring that balance. The animals given are accorded immense respect and are killed in a way that is a thousand times more humane that what occurs in the local slaughter houses. I think the most important thing, we as moderns need to realize when dealing with the practice of sacrifice is that it has its roots in respect for all concerned. It is a way of maintaining firth, or right order, right relationship. There is nothing more solemn and sacred then the gift of an animal to the Gods. Therefore, it behooves those contemplating this offering to learn to do it properly. Years ago, there was quite a stir in certain Theodish Heathen quarters over the proper way to slaughter an animal. Some favored shooting the animal first and then cutting its throat. Others insisted that the throat alone must be cut for the sacrifice to be valid. My position: it depends.

What makes a sacrifice valid is the respect with which it is offered and part of that respect means making sure that animal does not suffer. (That, by the way, includes making sure the animal isn’t terrified. Traditionally animals set aside for sacrifice were pampered, well fed, and feted). If one wishes to use traditional methods eschewing the use of a firearm (and I am fine with this, I tend to do so myself), then it is imperative that such a person learn to do the actual killing quickly, cleanly, and well. Apprentice with a farmer or a butcher, perhaps you may be fortunate to find a sacrificial priest of another faith who is willing to teach you the craft. Above all else: learn the mechanics, the pure technical side of things first and thoroughly. That is the epitome of respect because giving a sacrifice is not something to be done for shits and giggles. It is an enormous responsibility.

I also think the question of sacrifice is complicated by certain unspoken taboos. I really think that blood is perhaps our most fearsome taboo. In the ancient world it demarcated the line between sacred and profane. For us, it speaks of the taboo is death and illness, infection and disease as opposed to health, which in our world is indicated by sterility and lack of mess. There’s a certain psychological barrier to be overcome where sacrifice is concerned, because it does involve the shedding of blood. There’s also a certain unconscious prejudice, a little voice of white-middle class privilege that all too often says: “killing animals for the Gods…that’s something those primitive people over there do, not us, not in our neat, modern, and oh so white-bread homes. Oh no. our religion is neat and clean and tidy. We’ve evolved past the need for such barbarism.”

Personally I would also add a third conundrum into the mix in that killing an animal in offering to the Gods brings home the fact that those Gods are real in a way that we’re usually not forced to consider. It implies commitment on a level our culture, in things religious, tends to avoid. Sacrifices takes religion from the realm of the theoretical deep into the realm of the experiential and that can be a very frightening thing.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ocha'ni Lele begins a new series on Divination

Ócha'ni Lele, who has written some excellent books on Cuban Santeria and who was recently interviewed on this blog, has begun a new and very worthwhile series of posts on cowrie divination. Those who are interested in divination or in Afro-Caribbean adn African spirituality are strongly encouraged to check out his blog. It is an invaluable look at the process of casting lots in a Yoruba-influenced Caribbean faith, by an acknowledged master of the process.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Galina Krasskova on Odin

Here is one question that should be good for some text: you have written several books on the subject. What does a novice need to know about Odin?

Galina: Odin is a God of hunger, raw, unmitigated hunger. He is fierce and rarely accepts half-measures. Odin demands not only commitment but that we keep learning, keep growing, keep pushing forward, gaining more knowledge, more power, more alliances, more skill, more…of everything we treasure that might make us more useful to Him. He is about that hungry acquisition of knowledge and that is something with which He often infects His folk as well. He is also ecstasy, terror, ordeal, inspiration, and a thousand other things and these are the gifts that He brings in His wake.

I think that above all else, I would want the novice to know that his or her relationship with Odin, the manner in which he services, what Odin might ask of her could be, and very likely will be, completely different from what He asks of me, or any other Odin’s person. For all that Odin is an extremely utilitarian God, He values each of His people as individual resources and there is a uniqueness in each individual relationship that cannot be duplicated by another. If one can allow Him to guide the relationship, trust Him to do so in a way that is mutually beneficial then great things can happen. It’s so important, not just with Odin but with every Deity, not to try to twist the relationship into a mirror image of someone else’s.

That can be so hard too! It’s painfully easy in spiritual work to become envious of another person’s gifts, of their relationship with the Gods. When we do this, we’re ignoring our own gifts, and letting our own relationship with the Gods flounder. In serving Odin for close to twenty years, in watching others in relationships with Him, I have seen how He strips a person down, oh so close to breaking, and then slowly builds them back up again, remaking them, molding them, teaching them. It’s a terrifying and beautiful thing. It’s not assembly line work: He’s not making multiple copies. Each person He invests time in, develops in a way that is unique to that person. I think it’s important to really trust that process. You can’t, in the end, ride someone else’s spiritual coat-tails.

As to what else a novice should know, with Odin and with any of the Gods: the Gods are real, independent, individual Forces. They are not human. They are not manifestations of our unconscious. They are not solely occupied with making us feel good. They are not solely occupied with us. They are immense, ancient, incredibly powerful Beings. We share a connection and in some cases kinship with Them and that is a blessed thing, but even so: be respectful. One can never err with respect and courtesy. Understand that the way Odin, or any other Deity may come to you can be unique. It does not invalidate the way He might choose to come to someone else, and vice versa. Most of all, lore as we know it is a map, it’s not the territory. It’s really useful to know the difference.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Filan and Krasskova on Spiritual and Financial Trials

I just read a heartbreaking blog post from Laura Pastoris about how her relationship with the Gods has caused her serious family problems. It's a powerful reminder of how spirituality and the Divine can put us in some painful places. This has not always been addressed in the Pagan and Heathen communities, although it is recognized in most other religious traditions. Sometimes the Gods don't just bless us, they turn our lives upside down and take away everything we hold dear.

Yes, my heart went out to Laura P. when I read that article and I salute her courage at having written about it so openly. I think it’s important that people who are being challenged and tested by their Gods understand that they are not alone, no matter how isolating it might feel: they’re not alone.

Going back to what I said about contemporary Paganism having evolved in a climate that stresses self-help and personal enlightenment over service, I think that the idea the Gods might test us, to strengthen us, to gauge our usefulness, to gauge how we may best we of serve, and yes, to enable us to grow spiritually is a very difficult and alienating thought. It would be nice to think that we could control the process and never be pushed so dramatically out of our comfort zones, but it doesn’t work like that. When you put your feet on a path of committed spirituality, you are giving the Gods and ancestors the lawful right to engage in such processes and They do and whether we realize it or not, it’s to our benefit (which does not make it any easier to undergo).

In Laura’s case, it’s obvious from her writing that she is tremendously committed to her Gods and to her dead and I think that she is a wonderful example for the Heathens and Pagans and Wiccans out there today who are finding that in choosing to love and devote themselves to the Holy Powers, they have upset the balance of power in their homes, and have alienated those who should be their greatest supports: their families. In being willing to share such intimately wrenching experiences, she is engaging in immensely sacred service to the Gods: she may well be providing a lifeline to the next person out there who finds that their spirituality and spiritual commitments so offend their loved ones. That is holy work.

I have to say personally, that in this, I am fortunate. Sekhmet and then Odin broke me in long ago. I had no romantic attachments and I was already fairly estranged from my birth family when the Gods first snapped me up. As strange as it may sound, this was actually an advantage. I had very few excuses, very few reasons why I could not do what was asked of me. As it was, my profession, apartment, all of my friends, and the group I was working with were taken away. They were no longer spiritually healthy for me.

Now it is the way of things in my life: if someone or something gets in the way of my spiritual work or commitment to the Gods in any way, that person or thing does not long last in my life. I am, admittedly, rather cold-blooded about it. I’m ok with that though: I am fairly intense about all my commitments. At any rate, it was the first and most painful lesson I learned: nothing should come between a person and their commitment to their Gods.

I won’t deny that this is hard. It goes against almost everything that we have been raised with, especially women, who culturally are still all too often raised to be conciliatory care-takers of everyone and everything. I have often found that as one begins to grow in faith, in devotion, in their commitment to their Gods, the Gods will start pushing one to become stronger spiritually, to face fears, to reevaluate priorities, and most of all, to learn to establish good and healthy emotional boundaries. It’s a very special kind of therapy. I say that because just as a person seriously committed to reaping the benefits of the therapeutic process may find that those in his or her life begin to object to the changes that process causes (even when they are healthy changes) so too does the same thing often occur with spiritual work.

As we become rooted in our power, as we become more fully ourselves, as we strip away the facades and platitudes that keep us from authenticity of experience or emotion and certainly keep us from true commitment, and as we connect to that which is far greater than ourselves, we change and grow in ways that can dramatically upset the balance of power in a household. Emotional blackmail, guilt trips, and the like no longer work quite so well because one’s emotional center has changed. That can be very threatening to those involved. It is however necessary. Particularly for those specifically owned by a Deity, there can be no room for bullshit. Every ounce of energy that we expend catering to someone else at the expense of our spiritual lives, care-taking, hiding who we truly are, and/or worse yet, hiding our spirituality is energy and time that we are outright stealing from our Gods and ancestors.

It is for this reason that I have often said that being the spouse of someone God-owned or God-called is a vocation in and of itself. It’s an incredibly humbling and difficult thing to realize that you are not first in that person’s life. If you’re involved with a spiritworker, mystic, or shaman rather than just a regular devotee, you may not be second, third, or fourth either. It takes a very confident, balanced, devout person to cope with that well and most people in our society just aren’t up for it. Even for those who aren’t called as any type of “spiritual technician,” Paganism, Heathenry, Wicca aren’t religions that one practices for an hour a week and that’s all. They are ways of being, ways of living every single day (as every religion ideally should be). They change the lens through which we interact with the world at large and they can dramatically change our sensibilities in ways that may seem strange to those not involved.

I’m not even going to address the ways in which our monotheistic culture so often leads to polytheistic religions being met with contempt, or viewed as a dirty little secret within a family, or as an amusing “phase.” In this, I suppose I am a fundamentalist. Consider it a necessary balance for all the people out there who consider saying “Hail, Thor” an inconvenience. I admit that there is a learning curve. We spent a life time developing certain behavioral patterns, learning to value certain things in certain ways and that doesn’t change overnight. Sometimes, it’s all we can do to hold fast to our faith in the secret chambers of our hearts. Courage and strength and commitment is not something we’re born with. These are virtues we develop by meeting challenges every day of our lives. They are the spiritual virtues that come from picking oneself up after grievous hurt or grievous failure and recommitting to one’s commitments. I think the Gods realize that and if we but meet Them as much as we can, They will help us the rest of the way.

Before I get too far off on a tangent, I shall bring this conversation back to your original point: when we commit to the Gods, They commit to us and that can have dramatic and far reaching consequences and even when it’s a good and rightful thing, it can still be wrenching to go through. That is simply the way of things and anyone familiar with religious literature across traditions, from Heathenry to Christianity, from Hinduism, to Buddhism will recognize that this is an almost universal pattern.

In Vodou Money Magic I talked a bit about our difficult relationship with money. In the Pagan community we have what you've called the "doggedly downward mobile aesthetic." Among New Agers you have a "Law of Abundance" which states that you can get rich by thinking positive thoughts. I know you have some strong thoughts on this, especially given your relationship to a spirit we both honor, Andvari.

Andvari is a God Whose lessons are very much concerned with knowing what is yours by right, with managing your luck through the very practical means of honoring your commitments, keeping a budget, and maintaining right relationship with those around you. He is a God of money and wealth, of resources, and most of all of exchange and responsibility. I learned about Andvari from my adopted mother and when she died, I inherited many of her taboos and obligations. So yes, I have some very strong thoughts on the proper way to treat and interact with money.

First of all: money is sacred. Whether you have money or don’t have money, this does not change its essential nature. I wrote about this in an upcoming column in “Witches and Pagans” magazine because I think it’s something that our communities desperately need to hear. The first step to developing a relationship with money is to stop thinking of it as something dirty. Money is sacred. It is alive. It has its own unique spirits. It’s about the sacred reciprocity and flow of exchange. Honored rightly, it is the nature of money to transform itself into those things used to nourish us. Money provides food, shelter, clothing, enjoyment: all those things that keep us warm and happy. Money is what allows you to give other people pleasure, to provide for their dreams. Money is the bread you eat and the bread you share. Money is the warm clothes you buy for your baby.

As I note in my upcoming article, up to a point, if you don’t have it, money is all important. When you’re hungry, homeless, cold, starving, frightened of being out on the street, wondering where the next meal is coming from, wondering if you can pay your rent this month, money really is everything and only the most sanctimonious bastard would deny that; it’s only beyond a certain point that one can afford to think that money is not everything, can afford to relegate it to secondary or tertiary importance in the game and dance of life’s survival. Still, regardless of its place in one’s personal priorities, the ways to interact with it ought to remain the same.

The way to honor money is to learn to interact responsibly with it. Learn live within your means. Address any shame or fears you have about financial matters. Learn how to budget effectively. If you respect money, it will respect you. The inverse of that is also true. I am consistently appalled by the shoddy money-ethos that permeates so much of contemporary Paganisms stemming, I believe, (at least in part) from this body of religions’ coming of age in the 60’s when money represented the establishment and “the Man.” These shoddy attitudes come out in many different ways, from that downwardly mobile aesthetic, to an unwillingness to charge or pay for services, to financial ignorance, to an inability to keep deadlines, to general business disorganization, and even to the whole concept of Pagan Standard Time.

These things are all connected: they represent disrespect for the grace-notes of Midgard, for the underlying foundation of very practical virtues that enable us to live well. Living well need not mean being rich, but it should involve living in a way that does not involve reeling from crisis to crisis, neglected deadline to neglected deadline, and how one is going to pay for the doctor, the dentist, or one’s rent all the time. It means, even when times are tough and finances painfully tight, that one looks carefully toward the future and takes the necessary steps to meet careful goals. This isn’t rocket science. Tending to the practicalities of life is the first step toward living a spiritually sound life. For those interested in magic, it’s also the first and oh so necessary step to becoming a competent occultist: get it together. Magic isn’t an excuse for poor lifestyle management.

I’ve been poor and I’ve been comfortable and I’ve passed through several stages in between. That being said, I think that the worst thing we can do is to hang our sense of personal worth on how much money lack or how much money we have. Honoring money isn’t about that, rather it’s about loving the power of exchange, and the minutiae of resource management, it’s about loving money for all it is and all it can be, even when we have to count every penny. It starts there and in the little things like commitment and responsibility. Money has two runes: fehu, the wealth that sustains, and laguz, flow. Learning to honor money means committing to learning to dance in that flow rightly, honorably and well. The practicalities of Midgard, of the human world aren’t something divorced from and lower than our spirituality. They are part and parcel of it. That means that the way we deal with money, the way we deal with our commitments, the way we struggle for balance is all part of the work: it’s all spiritual practice.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Filan and Krasskova on Ordeals and God-Slavery

Your use of Ordeal rituals raises a lot of hackles. What would you say to your detractors? (That we could publish in a family-friendly blog!)

Galina: Other than “grow up” and “own your own baggage?” Good question. I would say that when you harass and slander a god-servant for doing the work that the Gods have requested of him (or her), you are essentially spitting in the face of those Gods. Odin endured ordeal. He sought it out for very specific reasons. He is not the only God or Goddess to have done so in the sacred tales. Obviously it has some merit.

I would also say that not all of us are called to serve or honor the Gods in the same way and that is something that should be respected. Not everyone is or should be an ordeal worker; but some people are and it can be a powerfully transformative and sacred path into Divine service.

I think ordeal is frightening and triggering to many people and thus people tend to fixate on it. Ordeal is a very small part of what I do for the Gods compared to say counseling, teaching, writing or divination, yet in all the slander that has been spread about me (some of it quite creative, I might add), most of it focuses on ordeal. With this body of practices, we’ve hit upon a nexus of taboos: pain, blood, physicality, sex, mess, loss of control. (I include sex because some practices are also used in the BDSM community and there are ordeal workers who are also part of that community).

Ordeal teaches a person to transcend one’s boundaries and when we do that, we illustrate in ways that cannot be denied that everyone has those boundaries. Ordeal reminds people that we live in safe little boxes and that the Gods, sometimes non-consensually, can rip those boxes away and demand that we enter into the place of our deepest fear and sometimes, we may have little choice but to comply.

I’d also add that we’re a very lookist culture and ordeal challenges that too: to an ordeal worker beauty is found in blood, scars, burns, hooks, the lash: marks of submission to our Gods, of ecstatic transformation, of the joy of peeling away our internal blockages until we can let our Gods in. It is the joy of pure service, of challenge well met, of offering well given. There is an integrity in ordeal that the ordeal dancer comes to crave. There is a truth there.

I think that for many people the body and by extension physicality is still something taboo. There’s still an unconscious divide between the physical and spiritual. Ordeal shatters that divide. It shatters the safe delineation between sacred and profane. It crosses a taboo boundary. Most people that I have met are not comfortable in their own skin, let alone with using that skin as a vehicle to blast oneself open spiritually. Let me explain what I mean a little further:

As a teen-ager and into my early twenties, I worked as a ballet dancer. I learned to use my body as the primary vehicle of physical and emotional expression with a very high level of skill. I’m at home in my body. I know how far I can push myself. I know the muscles, tendons and ligaments, how they work, how they feel, how pain affects them in ways that people who have not ever studied a physical art may not. I understand that pain is neutral. It can be good or bad depending on what causes it.

This is a novel idea for many people, that there is good pain and bad pain. The pain of a torn ligament is bad. The pain of muscles that have been well warmed up and pushed to their limits in order to gain strength and flexibility is good. Pain is a nuanced thing. Those who study grueling physical arts like ballet or sports or martial arts learn to engage with this thing called pain in ways dramatically different from the average person – and yes, I do think my training first as a dancer and then a martial artist prepared me for ordeal. Ordeal uses the body: its strengths and weaknesses, it uses one’s own psychology to bring about a desired result. There’s nowhere to hide. It’s raw, an intense vulnerability. That can be terrifying even to witness.

It’s all too easy for someone who is NOT an ordeal worker to focus overmuch on the pain. It’s not about the pain. Some ordeals aren’t painful physically at all, but they are challenging. Pain is just one of many tools that one can use to get where the Gods need us to go and yes, the whole process can be messy. It usually is, even if ordeal isn’t part of it!

We as a society don’t much like messy. Spirituality isn’t “supposed” to be messy, right? Well it is whether we do ordeal or not, deeply committed spirituality is a powerfully transformative thing and change is always difficult. It always brings mess, which can be off-putting to the unprepared. There is nothing found in contemporary ordeal work that wasn’t found in cultures and religions the world over for thousands of years. These are ancient practices and they have survived the passage of history because they work.

The thing for non-ordeal workers to realize is that not everyone can or should do ordeal. If you’re called to it, you’ll know and thanks to the courage of many of my colleagues who persist in sharing their experiences even in the face of harassment, those newly called will know where they can go, who they can contact to get safe and sane advice. I have some articles here on my website for those interested in reading more.

You identify as a Godslave: this triggers a lot of people. They are terrified at the idea that a God might claim them or force them to do something without their consent. Could you talk a bit about what "Godslave" means and how being a Godslave effects your life?

It defines my life. Every blessing that I have, and I have been gifted with many, has come to me as a result of my service. You do the work and the Gods will pour blessings in to your hands. At the same time: where I work, what I do, where I live, whether or not I can have any particular partner, sometimes what I eat and drink and wear are all dictated to me. How much sleep I get, and what friends I may have are impacted by Odin’s ownership of me. How I spend my money falls under a powerful taboo too. I am held to an extremely high standard by my Gods. Furthermore, if anyone or anything in my personal life interferes with that relationship, with my service to Him, they do not long remain in my life.

To be a Godslave means, essentially, exactly what it says: I am the property of a Deity. I have committed myself to this relationship and given up personal agency to a degree that triggers the hell out of many who hear the term. My life revolves around Odin primarily, other Gods secondarily and my service to Them. I did not have a choice as to whether or not Odin would take me up. I did have a choice in how much I fought Him, how much I cooperated with Him, and how useful I made myself. I chose to try to be as useful as possible. He gives me a pretty long leash, as it were but in the end, I am a tool for Him. I do not think that is a bad thing. I believe knowing one’s place is good and natural and allows us to truly shine. There are those called up like this who struggle much more than I with it though (and I want to be clear that not everyone is going to be or needs to be a Godslave. The Gods require different things from different people. I suspect there are as many ways to serve as there are people serving).

Because this word ‘slave’ is so triggering, I want to point out that my relationship with Odin is more multi-faceted than any one term can encompass. He is my Master, yes, but also Beloved, Husband, Teacher, Boss, Ancestor, and a thousand other things. I don’t fixate on the ‘Godslave’ part of the equation when I interact with Him. I am me, and at any given moment I will be used in whatever capacity is of most use to Him. I’m a priest, shaman, teacher, writer, poet, warrior, godslave, counselor, and probably royal pain in the butt for Him. I am all of these things and more or none of these things should He require. To quote Whitman: “I am vast. I contain multitudes.” Still, I won’t deny that the psychology of ownership can be a struggle at times and many of us find it helpful to have a term that so clearly identifies how we are bound.

‘Slave’ is a very loaded term for many good reasons. While in the BDSM community, it is a positive term of self-definition, or a role and job to be taken on with initial consent and under specified contractual terms, outside of that world it summons up images of the triangle trade, or sex trafficking or millennia of human horrors. It speaks to violence, suffering, cruelty, and an enforced lack of personal agency. Human to human that is a horrible thing and nothing in that description reflects the reality of Godslavery.

Still, we do not have another term that sends quite the same implication of lack of personal agency, of being bound to something bigger and stronger, to forced service. If the word is triggering I blame the paucity of our language. There can be immense fulfillment and joy in Godservice but that does not change the fact that many of us have no initial choice in the matter.

People don’t like to think that the Gods can affect us nonconsensually. It’s not a very post-Enlightenment, American idea. Free will, comfort, and lack of inconvenience are the virtues of the New Age movement and those things have precious little to do with actual encounters with Gods. Our ancestors would have understood that. I laugh when I see the endless arguments in Heathen forums about whether or not one should go down on one’s knees to one’s Gods. If a Deity truly is there, your knees will bend and it is right and proper that they do so. The Gods are real, not manifestations from our unconscious. They are not caricatures on a page. They are real, independent entities and They are deserving of our respect.

We each have our portion in life: what we are given in blessings, what we owe in return. It is right and proper to pour out offerings: to the Gods, the ancestors, the land spirits. It is egotism bordering on hubris to think that our personal comfort has anything to do with that. It is also hubris to think we have a right to negotiate and argue over the trappings of service. It is not our place. Much of being a Godslave is about learning one’s place. It allows one immense freedom to function well when you know who is above you and who is below you in the hierarchy. But we as a culture have forgotten how to think this way. We expect our spirituality to be egalitarian. The Gods are not egalitarian.

I think it’s an incredibly modern conceit that we have the right to set the terms with the Gods. It comes from a remarkable obsession with individualism and egotism and an equally remarkable disrespect for discipline, hierarchy, and chain of command. Frankly, we need to get over ourselves. I believe that Odin forces me to use the term ‘godslave” precisely because that phraseology is so triggering. It says “we can’t control this process.”

What’s ironic is that we can control an awful lot about being claimed by a God: we can control ourselves, how we act, how we prepare ourselves, how we make ourselves useful, deal with our own baggage, etc. We are not equal to the Gods and They are real, and sometimes, They demand things. To those who for whom religion is a largely theoretical exercise (the majority of people, I’d warrant), that is a terrifying dose of reality.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Myths of America

Earlier I talked about how various mythical ideas of Africa shape our experience of African and African Diaspora religions. But how do our native myths and images color our vision of magic? What indigenous myths do American practitioners bring to the table? What propagandas and spectacles have shaped our vision of magic and the world? And how do they influence our interactions with non-American practitioners?

Vodou teaches reverence for the ancestors: we cannot understand a branch without knowing the tree.  The most important thing your forebears leave you is their way of looking at the world.  We may treasure it or throw it away, but we must engage with it. And so I thought I'd talk more about my culture's mythology for a change. Fellow Americans are free to chime in and I welcome questions and comments from my readers from abroad too! (And definitely check out John Michael Greer's excellent commentary on the American myth of Progress in his Archdruid Report).

One of the great American demigods is "Equality." According to this view, all men should be held as equally important in our society.  People who have committed comparable crimes should receive comparable sentences, without regard to race, ethnicity, and social or financial status.  People with comparable intelligence, drive and education should make comparable salaries.  We recognize that our reality often falls short of the ideal, but we are moving forward toward it. Indeed, some say we have already reached our goal and that "special interests" are trying to hold us back.

One of our great mythological battles has been our confrontation with the demon of "Race." Since the Civil Rights movement we have come a long way toward addressing some of the darker parts of our history. By recognizing these and making the appropriate public confessions, we hope to seal this demon in the brass jar of history, to be brought out only as a reminder of the Bad Old Days before we received the Truth that Equality should be extended to non-white people as well.

But in all our effort to vanquish Race, we have paid much less attention to another old demon - Class. We are a country of "one person, one vote:" we are a place where anyone can rise to the top with enough persistence and ability. (Don't believe me? Just ask Horatio Alger, Napoleon Hill or Anthony Robbins).  This feeds into one of our Major Gods, the Free Market.  To serve the Free Market, one tries to legislate as little as possible: the goal is that famous "level playing field" we sought for our darker-skinned brethren. As Janny Scott and David Leonhardt said in an excellent New York Times piece on class in America:
Mobility is the promise that lies at the heart of the American dream. It is supposed to take the sting out of the widening gulf between the have-mores and the have-nots. There are poor and rich in the United States, of course, the argument goes; but as long as one can become the other, as long as there is something close to equality of opportunity, the differences between them do not add up to class barriers.
Again, this is not to say that we have achieved those myths. Nobody would say that we have. What is important is that we have internalized them.  We believe the world would be a better place if everyone had the opportunity to actualize themselves without fear of Oppression (from diabolical conspiracies like Communism, Fascism and latterly Islam).  If everyone cherished our ideals of Freedom, Democracy and Equal Opportunity, the world would be a better place. We may protest the current state of things, but it is because they fail to live up to these standards: we fancy ourselves orthodox against their heresies.