Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Spell Books and Spell Kits: for Matt Deos

For some time I've been promising Matt Deos a shout-out.  Matt, a Houngan Asogwe made by Boston/Jacmel Mambo Maude Evans, is not afraid to share his opinion on Vodou. We have butted heads on a number of occasions, but I've never questioned his devotion to the faith, his passion for the lwa or his knowledge.  (He has some great info on introductory ancestor work and sevis lwa here).  However, disagreement doth ever fuel the blogosphere. And so I thought I'd address one of his longstanding complaints here.  If I have misunderstood or misstated his position, I trust he will step in and correct me.

Matt dislikes Voodoo/Vodou/etc. "spell books" and "spell kits." He (and quite a few others in the various African Traditional Religious communities) think that spell books and kits are disrespectful.  They see them as attempts to profit from their religion by cheapening and commercializing the spirits and their sacred rites. Not only is it disrespectful, it's a waste of time and money, since these mass-produced products don't work. As Matt puts it:
A truth: information is useless unless it is given the proper way. That’s a core piece of Vodou… those pretty veve? UTTERLY USELESS unless they are handed to you by your teachers in your House. (seriously… veve differ, and each House/lineage has the veve that correspond to the spirits of the House. Veve are also useless unless made the proper way… so those sites and books that tell you to tape up a photocopy? TOTAL BULLSHIT. Its not real, its not a part of the tradition, and its not going to help you to use it… but of course, the book isnt gonna tell you that...
None of this ‘service kit for sale’ crap, none of this calling on random lwa who you dont even know if you have a relationship with… the buried rule here is that ANY lwa can do anything for you. Read that again. Get out of the mindset of each having ‘powers’ or ‘portfolios’ where only one spirit can perform a task for you, or the idea that each only has specific uses. Its not real. Any lwa can do anything for you… serve the ones you have. Get the reading, and skip out on the online or written accounts or kits (always for sale, funny that) that will teach you how to serve a specific spirit; you dont need it, and in essence its fraud.
I can't deny that many people come to these traditions with an attitude of entitlement. Neither can I deny that there are some atrocious Vodou books and websites out there, or that many of Vodou's most visible leaders serve primarily as public embarrassments.   But with all that being said, I still think there is something to be said for spell books and spell kits.

(Disclaimer: I have skin in this game, having penned Vodou Love Magic and Vodou Money Magic).

While spell books are less common in Haitian Vodou than in many other traditions, that may primarily be due to the country's low literacy rates.  It is not difficult to find spell books in English, Spanish and Portuguese which promise aid in love, money, gambling and various other earthly concerns. Spell kits are certainly found in another Kongo-influenced tradition, American Hoodoo.  In my forthcoming New Orleans Voodoo Handbook, I provide a recipe from the Cracker Jack Drugstore's 1930's era pamphlet Black and White Magic of Marie Laveau - a recipe which required ingredients sold by said drugstore.  So far as I can see, a "Peaceful Home spell kit" would differ from these instructions only by virtue of convenient packaging.
sprinkle every room of your house with “Peace Water” and burn the “John the Conqueror Incense” mixed with the “Helping Hand Incense.” Sprinkle some “Jinks Removing Salt” all around the outside of your house. Apply to your body daily the “Peace Powder” and anoint your head and clothes with “Bend Over Drops.” Burn for one hour each day or night the “Peace Candle” until you have burned three of them.

The person who purchases a spell kit is evidencing faith. They have put their money on the table and asked a lwa, orisha, saint, god, etc. to step into the picture. They have expressed a willingness to see magic in all its beauty and terror: they have dared to ask for the miraculous. That is an enormously courageous step in a society which denies the existence of magic and the miraculous and which mocks those who believe otherwise.

The spell kit (or the properly written spell) establishes commerce with the spirit.  An offering is made. This can be as simple as a candle and a prayer.  It can be an elaborate ritual involving expensive items offered at specific times at inaccessible places. Whatever it is, it establishes commerce between the supplicant and the spirit. It creates a sacred exchange: something is given in expectation something will be received.  It also establishes boundaries: you are giving the spirit a candle, a glass of wine and some flowers in lieu of offering an eternal pledge of fealty.

A spell book or kit may provide a good learning opportunity. If your petitions fall on deaf ears, you're out a comparatively small sum of money and time. If your spell works, on the other hand, you have established an important connection have seen real evidence of magic and the spirit world.  I have seen many people who became involved in Vodou after purchasing a spell kit.  Whether or not their lost love returned or their promotion came to pass, the candles and oils had a major positive effect on their lives.

I don't think that willy-nilly purchase of spell kits is the most effective way to approach the lwa. I would definitely recommend a reading from a competent practitioner and training with an actual functioning société.  Approaching random spirits with no guidance can be time-wasting at best and actively dangerous at worst.  But I have also found that the spirits will come where they will, and will use any available doorway.  If you seek the lwa, rest assured they will find you.