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.