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.