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.


Witch Mom said...

"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."

Same in my trad, too.

De heer Balthazar said...

The thing is, Hoodoo is a system of folk-magic, not a communal religion with initiations and so forth. I must admit Kenaz, as much as I like your writing style (I have two of your books) what Matt Deos is complaining about has sound religious basis. I also I don't necessarily see the purchasing of a spellbook or kit as an act of faith. Many people just want the object of their spell's desire. Or worse, they just get a buzz off of the exotic, and what seems for them to be, subversive, or 'dark' aesthetics of vodou. This, as Olu Oguibe would put it, in some sense transforms these spirits and their signifiers into "pornographic objects of occidental desire". It's not just about the nature of these products being problematic in and of themselves - it's also about who in fact is doing the buying.

Kenaz Filan said...

@Witch Mom: There will be fools always, and more often than not they will be loud fools.

@Dr. Balthazar: I definitely think Matt has a point (and I hope to go into that in more detail later on). But I'd also point out that the boundary between "folk magic" and "communal religion" is a pretty blurry one in Haitian culture. I also hope to go into more detail on this.

I totally agree with Oguibe's claim. I don't want to be an apologist for cultual imperialism or exoticism, and I definitely agree that "sensation seekers" are rife among those interested in the ATRs.

However, I'd add that those spirits are in my experience quite capable of protecting themselves - or of teaching a much-needed lesson to those who desperately need same. The great danger with spell kits & books, IME, is not that they don't work -- it's that they occasionally do. The moment when a bored agnostic meets irrefutable proof of the spirit world is generally... interesting. For good or for ill, the results are often life-changing.

The Dark Avenger said...

Okay I know who your refering to and I have to say I dislike that guy with a passion. Every time a discussion or whatever comes out about voodou or other info he comes out acting like he owns the entire religion. He has a point but at the same time he rubs me the wrong with his holier than thou attitude.

nutty professor said...

God that's annoying. Some of us read books, spellbooks and such, AND tape veves to our altars too. I also happen to know that most white Americans/Europeans get their first taste of Vodou from the literate tradition, either online, or in books, instead of speaking to people who live in the communities where the religions are practiced. The spell books and kits might be shitty, but they function as a gateway mechanism. Sometimes you end up at the crossroads, and whose to say you came in wrong?

The Dark Avenger said...

I have to add something you mentioned in one of your books to always be wary of those who say that there is only one way to practice Voodou. I think that this is a valid point in my opinion and makes me question the validity of this Matt.

Houngan Matt said...

Thanks! Ive been waiting for this.

You and I have butted heads before, but its always been at least polite; you have a differing viewpoint than I do, but we’re also both in a place where we uncerstand there’s differing ways to do things.

(and a note, while Im not going to name she-who-shall-not-be-named, which makes her sound a little like Voldemort, the blog post in question was 95% aimed at her sales of dried herbs instead of a bath, a photocopied veve, and the other items tucked into a presale “kit”. Regarding some of Vodou’s most public leaders serving primarily as public embarrassments, you hit the nail on the head.)

Regarding Haiti and spellbooks as a sign of literacy, I need to take a brief aside to admit that, within my own house, there is a great deal of written information about work that has been passed through several generations of Manbo… there is a corpus of written work material, but it is the kind that is proprietary to the house and not shared outside of the line. I think of it as a close second to the idea of a working book of shadows, so to speak, where the initiates before me have written, argued, agreed, or scratched out the writings that precede them… Vodou’s version of rabbinical lore as it were.

*I maintain that that is different from what is commercially available online.*

While I was also a bit… well, not as cool headed as I could have been when I wrote that post, in this passage “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.” I find you make the very point I was going after.

*another disclosure; were it not for your book, I would not have ended up where I am. While there are issues I have, there are issues I have with almost every book…*

For me, and the training I have received, it is easier to work with faith alone with basic traditional materials than attempting to fully ritualize things that are foreign to the idea of the tradition; what I mean by that is that, with faith in the spirits, there is simply nothing that cannot be done or cannot be accomplished with nothing more than a lit white candle and a cup of water… or the traditional form of an illuminasyon, the 7 wicks in oil floating above a bowl of water.

Houngan Matt said...

For me, I see the “non-initiate service kit for sale” option to be a corruption of the faith itself; to me, that forces Vodou ideology into an all-too-simple mould that comes accross as one having been taken from a neo-wiccan or new age source (not that those are bad, just that they are distinct from Vodou’s sources).

I have also been taught that while there are certain lwa everyone has access to (which is also a point you make in your initial Vodou text, namely Legba and Ghede) that for further work (and just double checking for sanity and safety purposes) a reading is required to know what an individual’s immediate spiritual court looks like, and which lwa are standing up for the person as ready to speak and ready to work with them. A “new house with Kouzen!” spell, to me, is akin to those who would not even have a relationship with their deities, preferring instead to google up the names of some Moon Goddesses and expect those powers to work for nothing (and, frequently, to be forgotten the moment the right is over, as the individual searches for other deity names that may be more in vogue). From what I have been able to see of the Vodou community, every houngan or manbo who is able to give leson/readings is able to look to see who an individual should serve or who is asking for attention for prior service/protections rendered. not a hard thing to get a hand on.

I dont at all disagree that the blurry line of folk magic/folk wisdom/even including non-asson lineage work opposing the idea of an almost priestly caste/asson/makaya/rite bizango/”leadership” driven community faiths is understandably a tangled mire… in Haiti. Here, in the diaspora, the issue of entitlement and choice comes into play… and its too easy for the majority who see the “kit” approach to believe that there is nothing more to the practice in its home region. THAT’s what disturbs me most; the idea of Vodou being freely available in a bag of dried herbs called a bath that doesnt even have the heat of the maker’s hands, songs, or the baths manufacture as a liquid working… its too common that people just assume the plastic baggy of herbs IS the reality of a Vodou bath (so when they see a priest like me or my manmi, often they’ll balk at a 50$ treatment that they perceive as available for 12 bucks online, and no amount of explaining the difference to them will take hold, since they’ve already been “educated” by Voldemort.)

But thank you; Ive been waiting for the chance to read your reply, and Im also glad that we’re able to disagree (where we do) rationally and conversationally. There’s too much utter bullshit flying around these days in terms of “death threats” and other such madness that its nice to have an actual disagreement.

Houngan Matt said...

To address Dark Avenger’s comments, I have *never* said there is only one way to practice Vodou; within Haiti there are tons… the above list of fran guinen/makaya/bizango et al is just a taste of a huge variety. If you’re addressing those things I have been very public about dismissing as NOT Vodou, such as the Bertieaux/David Beth “Gnostic Vodoun”, I still stand by that. There are things that ARE Vodou, and there are things that clearly are not. (c’mon… “brother molech” insists that a Govi is the clay plate you would normally put under a potted plant… really? Its a terra cotta jar.)

Im not in this for *you* to like me; but Im also most certainly not saying that Vodou is mine or a my-way-or-the-highway scene; I could care less if you question “my validity” as Im also equally public about my lineage and how easy my initiatory family is to get a hold of. Some things ARE Vodou, even when they are things I or my house do not perform; others are very much not Vodou, like home depot govis or families of werespider lwa. I dont hold all the facts, but Ive got enough to know that those things coming from the Gnostics may be magic but they’re not related to the names they give themselves. I’ll be the first person to say I can be a sanctimonious prick about it at times, but hey… dont like me, dont initiate under me.

To address Nutty Professor’s comments, I can see how some things can be viewed as a gateway mechanism; however, if you know they’re shitty to begin with would you use them that way or would you seek out someone who, even if you dont like that person or want to work with them, might be able to point you towards something real and quality that you might find a good fit? Critical book reviews happen all the time; yelp steers a great deal of people to and away from restaurants that others have liked or hated. In a priestly or magical sense, wouldnt you be glad to save money when a crotchety, sarcastic, and sanctimonious prick of a Houngan tries to tell you about the $550 he sent some crazy online Voldemort harridan to buy a sacrificial cow?

I mean, that there’s a lot of cash… and even if I can be an annoying shit, which I know, the point is that five hundred and fifty dollars is a very high amount for most people, this schmuck of a Houngan included. If I can help people by pointing out where the truth is at the same time as showing how easy it really is to reach for an attain, for free, shouldnt I do that? I myself got my first tastes of Vodou from written texts, and after a while I found a house that to me was a perfect fit; then, I found how widespread those houses really are, and how easy it is to find something real instead of an online scam. Is it better to have someone waiting at the crossroads to ask for directions? Or better to look in the glove compartment for a map that isnt there when you find yourself lost?

Kenaz Filan said...

Dark Avenger posted this: I went to approve but accidentally sent it into the Aethyr.


"While I was also a bit… well, not as cool headed as I could have been when I wrote that post, in this passage"

No not at all and I might add you've turned some people off or away from Voodou with your attitude. Its hostile and gives people the impression of arrogance.

“I would definitely recommend a reading from a competent practitioner and training with an actual functioning société."

This is easier said then done and everyone knows that they don't welcome just anyone with open arms. They aren't just going to say, "sure you can join" and whats more I've heard that you have to pay entrance fees and they don't come cheap. Some aren't working and with the bad economy makes this very difficult.

"Im not in this for *you* to like me; but Im also most certainly not saying that Vodou is mine or a my-way-or-the-highway scene; I could care less if you question “my validity” as Im also equally public about my lineage and how easy my initiatory family is to get a hold of."

You got lineage to the religion of Voodou? Really? I didn't know that a lot of white people had actual lineage, my understanding is that they were usually initiated from a societe. That is if of course that your talking about the roots of your societe and not your actual roots.

Not to mention your claim that you got most of your original information from written texts, hmmm interesting. You bash people that read about Voodou but at the same time profess that this is the very way you got started.

Also whats with the usage of Voldemort? If she/he's a fraud why would you compare the person whose supposedly the most powerful wizard in Harry Potter? BTW, why even bring up a kids series in this discussion? It sounds kinda childish.

Either way I'm going to go read some more as I'm currently working on the voodou handbook as well as the Voodou Money Magic. I know they are considered not real voodou to you but hey some of us have to start some where.

Kenaz Filan said...

And Matt wanted to post this, but was having problems with the Blogger interface.


Actually, a reading doesnt say you're joining anything... it says you are hiring a professional to give you professional advice, with an exchange of money so that there is a balance of energy. Joining anything comes much later, and truly you dont have to join anything if you choose not to. The reading however is a basic and very easily available step (that you pay for; they wont turn you away for asking to buy a reading.)

As for a functioning sosyete, it costs nothing to begin attending parties; fetes are usually public affairs, even if they are only quietly announced. It would make you look better to bring a gift for the house, maybe a bottle of rum or a perfume, but if there are admission prices to a fete its not a good sign. Its not a damning one, but its not necessarily in keeping with honoring the community with the party when you charge the community to go to it.

The Dark Avenger said...

Sorry about my attitude earlier. I woke up on the wrong end of the bed and was having a rough time last night. Thanks Houngan Matt for your insight.

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