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.