Friday, May 16, 2014

Impietas IV: Locus

The mysteries of Eleusis could be celebrated nowhere else. Demeter had different cult centers throughout Greece, including places that had their own mysteries just as ancient and esteemed as those at Eleusis. But there was only one Eleusis and one set of rites carried out there. 
This is why all attempts at transplanting them to other locations have been doomed to failure. 
It was here and only here that she finally settled after her long and painful search (hence the site’s name) ; only here where she was received by the king whom she instructed in gratitude for his kindness; only here where she adopted Triptolemos and sent him out to teach the world agriculture; here where she was reconciled with her daughter and all the rest that formed the backdrop of the mysteries. This happened nowhere else in all the world, so these mysteries could take place nowhere else. In those other places different things had happened such as her transformation into a mare or her seduction of a mortal man. As a result these places had their own unique mysteries. The mysteries that we will celebrate here are likewise going to be shaped by time, place and culture. 
New Orleans, 1726. From Wikimedia Commons.

Links between New Orleans and St. Domingue spiritual practices are tenuous and links between 19th and 21st century New Orleans Voodoo even shakier.  Today New Orleans spirituality encompasses the Thelema-influenced practices of Sallie Ann Glassman; the Belize-inspired work of Miriam Chemani; the Lukumi-flavored rituals of Lilith Dorsey.  It would be easy enough to follow Cat Yronwode's lead and dismiss the whole thing as a "newly constructed faux-religion which has no cultural, family, liturgical, or social roots in traditional African, African-American, or Haitian religions, but traces back to literary sources instead." Yet this easy dismissal ignores both Voodoo's cultural impact and the place in which this "faux-religion" takes root.

Like Blanche DuBois, New Orleans depends on the kindness of strangers. Many of her most influential figures came from elsewhere.  At a time when most Blacks were heading north Leafy Anderson left Chicago for New Orleans: within a decade after her 1920 arrival her guide Black Hawk was one of the city's most loved "hoodoo spirits."  Italian immigrants brought muffalettas and the Feast of St. Joseph. Spanish governors created much of her distinctive "French Quarter" architecture. And we wouldn't have Blanche, Stanley and Stella if a shy young man born in Mississippi, raised in St. Louis and nicknamed "Tennessee" hadn't found a spiritual home in the Vieux Carre.

New Orleans makes her living off desire.  She promised forbidden delights to frontiersmen slogging west through the malarial swampland: the Mississippi rolled along to ragtime and laughter and mosquitos whirling with moths around her whorehouse lanterns.  Yet she sates the spiritual hunger of pilgrims as happily as she meets more carnal needs.  Yronwode notes "New Orleans Voodoo has historically had no community membership base, in Louisiana other than as a source of employment for shop employees, dancers, authors, and publishers." She might consider how many other American cities have successfully monetized local spiritual practices.  The commercialization of New Orleans Voodoo is not a sign of decadence but of strength.

Port cities have always been places where people and Gods came together to share ideas, goods and beds.  Slaves from Mali brought their pentatonic scale with its distinctive flattened thirds and fifths: African griots became Louisiana bluesmen.  After the Spanish-American War, a shipment of Army surplus brass reorchestrated the blues into Dixieland jazz.  If contemporary New Orleans Voodoo draws from many different sources and honors many new spirits so did the faiths of Hellas, where Thracian Orpheus was honored with Cyprian Aphrodite and Luwian Hekate.  And if the old rituals have been washed away by time and the river, new ones have risen in the rich Delta soil.

Much as the Eleusinian Mysteries told the tale of Eleusis, New Orleans Voodoo tells the story of New Orleans. And just as Eleusis echoed the sagas of Greece and Rome, so does New Orleans Vodou contain within itself the American mystery. It is a faith crafted by travelers, created in a legendary land with a mythical past and an uncertain future.  It is a religion where African and European influences co-exist fruitfully and uneasily, where stylized Indians roam the land once held by real Indians, where sin and salvation walk hand in hand.  Its magic lies not in mojo bags or spoon dolls but in the sultry summer air and the muddy Mississippi, in the blood of those who walked its streets before we were born and who will walk them after we are dead.  If it is a flawed and hollow faith, it is but a reflection of the greater emptiness within ourselves.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Impietas III: Frith

Every one of you reading this has warrior dead in your line. You wouldn't be here otherwise. Every one of you has people, men and women both, who made the hard, necessary, and sometimes brutal choices of taking up arms to defend their families, their villages, their traditions. Honoring the military dead ... is honoring that spirit that says "you may destroy my nation, my people, my family, you may take everything but it will not be with my help. It will not be today. It will not be now. It will not be without a very bloody price that you may not wish to pay."
There’s a lot of talk about 'frith' in our communities. Well, frith is built on the blood and bone, the guts and screams and tears of your warriors. Only warriors truly understand the cost of frith. You want to honor your peace-makers? Honor first the ones who took their place on the firing line.

Today Get Carter is considered one of Britain's greatest films, certainly its finest crime drama.  1971 audiences reacted to this gritty tragedy with shock, disgust and horror. Director Mike Hodges' vision was unleavened by the wisecracking wit of Dirty Harry or the stylized ultraviolence of A Clockwork Orange or The Wild Bunch.  Set amidst the smoldering scrap heaps and dive bars of an impoverished northern England town, Get Carter looked like it was filmed in a dirty ashtray.  Protagonist Jack Carter (Michael Caine) was a vicious contract killer, no better than the whores and ruffians he dispatched with steely-eyed efficiency.  Most critics and cinema-goers dismissed it as a nasty film about nasty people doing nasty things to each other.  After its release it sunk into obscurity, forgotten by all but a few cinephiles.  (Most notably two young directors named Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie).  But as Swinging London gave way to Maggie's Millions and Free Love was replaced by the Age of AIDS, Get Carter looked less like a dog-end in a punchbowl and more like a harbinger of things to come.

While Get Carter is lauded today as a Very Important Movie, many of its fans remain entranced by its brutal violence and even more brutal characters.  They see Carter as a celebration of nihilism, when in fact it is as ordered and moral as a Greek tragedy.  Their confusion is understandable: the ethical system underpinning the film hearkens back not to Christianity but to pre-Christian Anglo-Saxonry and Jack Carter acts not to bring justice but to restore frith.

* * * * *
The oneness of the kindred was no mere conceptual ideal; it was implemented and practiced as a matter of course in everyday life, and the name for this many-faceted thew was frith. "Frith is something active, not merely leading kinsmen to spare each other, but forcing them to support one another’s cause, help and stand sponsor for one another, trust one another... The responsibility is absolute, because kinsmen are literally the doers of one another’s deeds." (Groenbech, Vol I., pp. 42-43)... 
Frith was nothing if not partisan: focused on security and stability of the kindred, it had no application to those individuals and groups who lay outside the boundaries when it came to a conflict of interest between the two. Nor could any notion of absolute, unbiased justice make a dent in it: defending one’s kindred was always right, no matter how wrong their actions were. Frith was the paramount thew, taking precedence over all others.
Winifred Hodge
Outside the confines of respectable society reside those who are neither respectable nor particularly social.  This is the world Jack Carter inhabits, a place where he has earned some success as a foot soldier to a London mob boss.  Like many of the mercenaries slashing their way through sagas Carter has escaped both his humble beginnings and his earliest crimes.  He has no reason to pry when his estranged brother dies in a drunken accident, no reason to go against the friendly advice his employer proffers like a velvet glove.  No reason save that an empty whisky bottle was found in the wrecked car and his brother always hated whisky.

Yet still Carter returns home, taking the northbound train with his assassin seated behind him and Chandler's Farewell My Lovely on his lap.  He is well-acquainted with the rules of this game and knows its inevitable ending.  Expiating his own sin against his family, he plumbs the depths of this new violation and methodically repays everyone involved.  As he turns from the last corpse a sniper's bullet sends him to the ground, frith restored and blood answered with blood. Like most sagas, Get Carter is a cautionary tale. When frith is lacking in the larger community -- in this case the criminal underworld -- the family is not safe. When the family is not safe the community is not safe.  Our ancestors knew firsthand a blood feud's terrible cost.

While kindred ties often lead to violence, they just as often prevented conflict.  When you are held liable for your brother's antics you have a powerful incentive to keep those antics in check. When slurs thrown at a random stranger might be met with a response from that stranger's extended family you chose your words carefully.  You did unto others as you would have them do unto you because you know they would return the favor.  As with pietas, frith worked in a series of concentric circles.  One was tied by blood to kin, by kin to community, by community to the Gods.  To our contemporary eyes Jack Carter seems a godless brute.  Yet in the eyes of his northern European ancestors (who were driven by shame and had to be taught guilt) Carter's behavior would be seen as laudable: what we call  murder they called right action.