Sunday, January 31, 2010

Today's Moment of Sheer WTF-itude

Patti Smith covers Debby Boone.   No, I'm not joking.  The woman who recorded Horses and Radio Ethiopia does a fantastic version of "You Light Up My Life."

The video comments contain one true groan-inducer.  In the pre-song interview Smith says that her favorite singers are Mick Jagger and Maria Callas. This leads one Youtube fan, Hollypop3000, to ask the eternal question:
who did she say her favorite singer was maria collis? who is that
As an ardent classical music fan, this question made me feel like an obstetrician reading the notorious Internet meme "how is babby formed? how girl get pragnent?"

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Updates to

I have just finished updating my website: among the new features are updated links to the various interviews and a new Amazon store with links to some recommended reading materials on Haitian Vodou. (I hope to expand this over the next few weeks to include books on Haitian history, Afro-Caribbean religions and other systems of magic: future sections will focus on New Orleans, Hoodoo and Haitian music.

The old homepage has needed attention for some time: I'm glad I finally got around to fixing it up. 

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Devil You Say: My Membership in the Church of Satan

I might seem an unlikely member of the Church of Satan.  I'm a hard polytheist who identifies as a cultural Catholic: most public CoS members are strong atheists and loud, proud blasphemers. But I nonetheless am a 2nd Degree member and a good friend of several leading Satanists, including High Priest Peter Gilmore.  (Sorry, I don't know Marilyn Manson or Sammy Davis Jr.).

My reasoning is simple: I enjoyed the hell out of Anton LaVey's The Satanic Bible. It's a masterpiece of comedy by a great American curmudgeon - and like any good comedy, it contains plenty of serious truth beneath the laughs. People make the mistake of comparing LaVey to Aleister Crowley: his writing is much more in the spirit of Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken.  And the fact that many of his followers and critics don't get the joke only adds to the humor.  (Some people have accused him of plagiarizing Nietzsche, Jack London, and Ayn Rand.  I'd only ask this: until Anton LaVey, who discerned the common strains of thought between a militant aristocratic elitist, a militant socialist and a militant libertarian?)  

Many people have criticized the Church of Satan as an "Anton LaVey fan club." For me, that's one of its strong points.  A fan club is a mutual appreciation society for people who enjoy the work of a particular artist, a place where folks with a common interest can network.  Fan clubs don't seek to convert the world or put fatwas out on heretics who dare to defame their idols. Those who kill in the name of their favorite band or actress are treated as obsessed criminals, not feted as heroes and martyrs. Fan clubs celebrate the genius of talented individuals: they don't deify them.

I don't really care whether or not LaVey actually schtupped Marilyn Monroe or tamed lions in the circus.  Given that he listed Basil Zaharoff and P.T. Barnum as major influences in his authorized biography, I would expect that he never let the facts get in the way of an entertaining story.  Since one of his biggest messages was "there are no gurus," I'm not surprised to discover he didn't behave like a sainted guru. Nor do I care: my enjoyment of his work has little to do with his life. (Although I do admire his lifelong performance art piece: Howard Stanton Levy's creation of Anton Szandor LaVey is a brilliant achievement).

Do I worship Satan? If you mean the "Father of Lies and all that is evil in the world," obviously not.  A moral worldview based on "I will be evil and do evil" may make for entertaining Hammer films or Marvel supervillains, but it isn't really very practical.  But I do have a great admiration for the Devil in his role as prosecuting attorney and revealer of hypocrisy.  (Given my devotion to Loki, that's hardly surprising). Deflating the pompous is both entertaining and enlightening: it's hard to follow the emperor blindly when someone is reminding you his wrinkled old ass is flapping in the breeze. And if we can laugh at ourselves as heartily as we laugh at others, we can avoid falling into the error of believing that we are marching down the One True Way.

It's important to remember that people trying to create heaven on earth have given us some of our nastiest hells. The Khmer Rouge, Sendero Luminoso and a certain failed Austrian artist were all convinced that their cause was just and their actions perfectly moral: we may accuse them of being in league with Ol' Splitfoot but they were certain that God (or history, which is just as inscrutable and all-powerful) was on their side. Their devils were their enemies - the bourgeoisie, the intellectuals, the Jews, and everyone else who didn't buy into their brand of morality.  The crimes committed in the name of Satan pale beside the carnage created in the name of truth and justice.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Sultan's Ghost: from the New Orleans Voodoo Handbook

According to the legend Jean-Baptiste La Prete, being short on funds, leased his winter home on 716 Dauphine Street to a turbaned gentleman who claimed to be the Sultan of Turkey. Upon signing the lease, the Sultan moved in along with an entourage of harem girls, beardless boys and eunuch guards who patrolled the balconies with drawn scimitars. Those who gained entrance to the Sultan's inner sanctum told wild tales of debauched orgies and banquets: those who stood outside the gates noticed the constant smells of opium and incense.

Then, one morning, police were called when neighbors noticed rivulets of blood running beneath the iron gates. When no one answered their summons, they forced the doors and entered the home. There they found body parts scattered throughout the house: the servants, guards, harem girls and slave boys had literally been hacked to bits.

Going into the garden, they found a hand sticking out from the dirt: the Sultan had been buried alive and suffocated before he was able to claw his way out of his shallow grave.  The crime was never solved. Some claimed the culprits were pirates who wanted the Sultan’s treasure. Others said the Sultan was really the Sultan’s brother, who had escaped to New Orleans after stealing gold and slaves only to find that an ocean was no shield against the Ottoman Emperor’s wrath.

Since that time, 716 Dauphine has gained a reputation as one of the most haunted houses in New Orleans. People have reported hearing the tinkle of Oriental music, the smell of incense, or bloodcurdling screams. Apparations of a light-haired man in Turkish garb have also been spotted, and some say that a gnarled tree in the garden is possessed by the spirit of the murdered Sultan, who has caused it to twist in the form of his death throes. Says Virgie Posten, a choreographer who lived at 716 Dauphine for a brief time in the late 1950s:
...I moved out of that place a few months afterwards because I saw a man in my apartment on two different occasions and could never really explain how he could have gotten in or out of there so quickly without a sound.

My two-room apartment had only one door, which opened into the main hall only a few yards from the foot of the enormous central staircase that wound its way up to the floors above. I always kept it locked, and even if whoever it was had had a key, I think I would have at least heard it turning in the lock. Yet there was nothing. Only silence. One minute he was there…the next he was gone! He didn't seem hostile. He'd just stand there and look at me, but it was terribly eerie and nerve-wracking!

After that second time, when I woke up in the middle of the night and saw him standing at the foot of the bed staring at me, I made up my mind to get out of there," continued the still-attractive brunette. "There was no sign of him when I turned on the lights and got up to check, but I abandoned everything there the next day and went to stay temporarily with a girlfriend until I could find another place to live. Of course, I still wasn't thinking about ghosts.

It wasn't until a few days afterward that I happened by chance to see an article in the newspaper about the house and its legend. Then I realized where I was living. The description that the paper gave of the "sultan" - how he was supposed to have been 'to the blond side,' despite his Turkish origin - seemed to fit the person I'd seen and set me thinking.

My third and last experience, however, was the most frightening of all. That was the night my girlfriend and I stopped by the house to get a few of my things, which I'd left there until I could move them out. We were standing in the dimly lit hallway in the empty house, as I locked the door, when we suddenly heard a blood-curdling scream come out of the inky blackness somewhere at the top of the staircase just a few feet from us! It was petrifying - a long shrill scream that ended in a horrible gurgle! We ran as if the devil himself were after us to the street door. For a moment we even got wedged in the doorway, as both of us tried to get out at the same time! We laugh about it today but it was pretty frightening at that moment! The very next day I got my things out of there.
Alas, details of this story are sketchy. Some versions of the legend claim the atrocity took place in 1792, even though the La Prete House was not built until 1836. And there is no contemporary mention of this Sultan or his murder in any of the local papers. (Even in the Big Easy a crime this brutal would surely have gained attention from the press!) I was tempted to write this off as yet another legend created for "ghost-hunting" tourists. Then I discovered an earlier story compiled in 1866 by local historian Charles Gayarré.
In the beginning of 1727, a French vessel of war landed at New Orleans a man of haughty mien, who wore the Turkish dress, and whose whole attendance was a single servant. He was received by the governor with the highest distinction, and was conducted by him to a small but comfortable house with a pretty garden, then existing at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine streets, and which, from the circumstance of its being so distant from other dwellings, might have been called a rural retreat, although situated in the limits of the city. There, the stranger, who was understood to be a prisoner of state, lived in the greatest seclusion; and although neither he nor his attendant could be guilty of indiscretion, because none understood their language, and although Governor Périer severely rebuked the slightest inquiry, yet it seemed to be the settled conviction in Louisiana, that the mysterious stranger was a brother of the Sultan, or some great personage of the Ottoman empire, who had fled from the anger of the viceregent of Mohammed, and who had taken refuge in France. The Sultan had peremptorily demanded the fugitive, and the French government, thinking it derogatory to its dignity to comply with that request, but at the same time not wishing to expose its friendly relations with the Moslem monarch, and perhaps desiring, for political purposes, to keep in hostage the important guest it had in its hands, had recourse to the expedient of answering, that he had fled to Louisiana, which was so distant a country that it might be looked upon as the grave, where, as it was suggested, the fugitive might be suffered to wait in peace for actual death, without danger or offense to the Sultan. Whether this story be true or not is now a matter of so little consequence, that it would not repay the trouble of a strict historical investigation.
The year 1727 was drawing to its close, when on a dark, stormy night, the howling and barking of the numerous dogs in the streets of New Orleans were observed to be fiercer than usual, and some of that class of individuals who pretend to know every thing, declared that, by the vivid flashes of the lightning, they had seen, swiftly and stealthily gliding toward the residence of the unknown, a body of men who wore the scowling appearance of malefactors and ministers of blood. There afterward came also a report, that a piratical-looking Turkish vessel had been hovering a few days previous in the bay of Barataria. Be it as it may, on the next morning the house of the stranger was deserted. There were no traces of mortal struggle to be seen; but in the garden, the earth had been dug, and there was the unmistakable indication of a recent grave. Soon, however, all doubts were removed by the finding of an inscription in Arabic characters, engraved on a marble tablet, which was subsequently sent to France. It ran thus: "The justice of heaven is satisfied, and the date-tree shall grow on the traitor's tomb. The sublime Emperor of the faithful, the supporter of the faith, the omnipotent master and Sultan of the world, has redeemed his vow. God is great, and Mohammed is his prophet. Allah!" Some time after this event, a foreign-looking tree was seen to peep out of this spot where a corpse must have been deposited in that stormy night, when the rage of the elements yielded to the pitiless fury of man, and it thus explained in some degree this part of the inscription, "the date-tree shall grow on the traitor's grave."
This "small but comfortable house" was located on the site of the La Prete House: the date palm in question grows in its garden. Could that old legend, retold and updated as time went on, be the basis of 716 Dauphine's evil reputation?  Does the ghost of that murdered Turk still wander the halls of the La Prete home, condemned to relive his murder over and over through the ages? Perhaps Gayarré had the best suggestion for those who would find out. "Ask Nemesis, or — at that hour when evil spirits are allowed to roam over the earth, and magical incantations are made — go, and interrogate the tree of the dead."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Making Sense of Disaster: More on the Haitian Earthquake

In response to my earlier post, my friend Noira pointed out:
While we all know that this line of reasoning (abortions, homosexuals, improper offerings) is faulty, you cannot possibly deny every event in human history also has spiritual forces and Karma behind it. The world is not just what we see with our eyes. I don´t have such high spiritual gnosis in order to understand major cataclysms, but I am completely convinced, that others who are more experienced have it.
Noira raises an excellent point. As practitioners of an animist religion, Vodouisants believe that the material universe is a living and sentient being and that there is an overriding purpose and order behind seemingly random acts. She also understands that simplistic explanations like "God causes natural disasters because he hates homosexuals, abortions and the ACLU" are neither true nor useful.

So what can we learn from catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake?

I think the most important lesson may be this: there are things which we are powerless to prevent or even to predict. It's tempting to blame natural disasters on some shadowy conspiracy using secret weapons. That implies human agency and human control.  The Elders of Zion, Bilderbergers or Illuminati are less frightening, on an existential level, than the idea of random chaos rearing its ugly head when we least expect it.  The secret societies are run by humans (or, if you believe David Icke, by sentient reptilian aliens). You can reason with humans (or even sentient reptilians): you can plead your case with them and make them understand. There is no negotiating with a hurricane or an earthquake; there is no appealing to the emotions of a mudslide or an outbreak of disease; there is no bribing a volcano or a tsunami. 

Vodou is about gaining power, but it is also about recognizing the limits of one's power. Vodou recognizes that there are mighty forces in this world which are not human and which have never been human. Some of these forces you can bargain with: others can only be avoided to the best of one's ability.  Vodou does not promise its devotees that their lives will be free from suffering or want: it is about doing the best you can with what you have.

Another possible lesson may be this: the universe does not revolve around us. Most of the proposed "answers" to the question of disaster come from a very humanocentric worldview.  But what if humans are just one part of Gaia, and not even a particularly important one? The world got along just fine for eons without human beings: it might get along just fine for several more eons without us. Instead of earthquakes being a response to man's sin, why not consider them a release of pressure built up within the planet - pressure which must be released lest it threaten the entire system? The planet does this not to punish us or to educate us, but to protect itself. Our suffering is just collateral damage, something which has little or no impact on Gaia's continued well-being.

From there we might come to a third important point: the universe does not exist to teach us or to protect us. Responsibility for our education and well-being as humans rests squarely with us and with our fellow human beings. As Frank Miller said in The Dark Knight Returns, "the world only makes sense when you force it to." If you want to find a spiritual lesson from disaster, it comes in our response. In helping our fellow man in need, we fulfill the purpose of our incarnation: in bettering their lot, we better our own. Rather than contemplating why these things happen, we do better to ask how we can ameliorate the suffering they leave in their wake.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Haitian Earthquake and Why it Happened

So far I've seen suggestions that the Haitian earthquake happened because
I'd be interested in hearing speculation about why the following natural disasters happened:
In the 2004 tsunami, who offended God: the Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or Christians? I would say that the 1976 quake proved God hated Mao -- but then what about the subsequent Sichuan quake of 2008, which killed nearly 75,000 people.  (Perhaps S/He hates Chinese spammers as well?) And if we're to believe the evidence of the Lisbon quake, it appears that Pat Robertson may be on to something, since God seems to have a grudge against both Muslims and Roman Catholics.

While we're on this line of reasoning: why did the Higher Power see fit to destroy San Francisco in 1906, several decades before those godless homosexuals moved in? And while I have heard that S/He was upset with New Orleans in 2005, I'm not sure what the folks in Galveston did that led to a Cat 4 hurricane wiping out their city in 1900.

Let's face it, folks: natural disasters happen because we reside on a living planet.  We can ask why the gods allow these things to happen, or we can assume that They put us here to take care of those who get caught up in the chaos.  The first allows us to shirk our responsibility for our fellow human beings: the second puts the burden squarely on our shoulders.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

New Kenaz Filan fan page on Facebook

In my latest Facebook experiment, I've created a Kenaz Filan fan page.  This includes a discussion forum where people can post questions concerning my books and a photo section where you can add pictures of altars, shrines and other Vodou items.  Interested parties are encouraged to join and post comment: like many other worthwhile things on the Internet, fan pages improve with community input. 

Sunday, January 17, 2010

He's Mr. Lord of Misrule...

While I've become semi-famous for my work with Vodou, I also work with other spirits. A few years back I attempted to contact Freyja through a guided visualization, and discovered that I had already been claimed by another figure from the Norse pantheon... Loki.

Dealing with Loki is rather like sharing your living quarters with a foul-mouthed child prodigy with a bad case of ADHD.  You develop an instinctive terror of the words "I'm bored." You get to watch The Dark Knight over and over while Loki waves his "Joker" pennant and shouts advice at the screen. And just when you're ready to strangle him he does something that is utterly charming and thereby turns away your wrath.  (I can see why he got away with so much for so long...)

Loki's learning and erudition is phenomenal: he's got the proverbial silver tongue, and uses it regularly to explain why his latest scheme is an excellent idea. He also has friends throughout the Nine Worlds and many others that the Germanic shamans never got around to mapping.  Bearing his mark - I have his runes branded on my left breast - can get you in many places when voyaging. It can also get you kicked out of many places, but that's another story altogether. 

Since many of my other spirits have statues, Loki insisted that I get him one as well. This is the statue he chose.  He now wants two smaller versions, so they can accompany him when he sings the "He's Mister Heat Miser..." song.  He's also provided me a way of calling on him. It is an extended version of "The Aristocrats" which begins "Gerald Gardner walks into a talent agent's office" and goes straight downhill from there.  Let's just say that before it's done Silver Ravenwolf's Underworld Passage gets explored and R.J. Stewart shows us all what a real Scotsman wears under his kilt...

His relationship with the other spirits in the house can be... tempestuous.  Loki is the classic example of the "smart-assed masochist."  You might think that nobody would crazy enough to get on Danto's nerves when she's in a bad mood... but then, you'd probably think that nobody would be crazy enough to try shaving Sif's head.  He generally stays on our Ghedes' good sides by providing entertainment in the form of booze, dirty jokes and regular trips to the best whorehouse in the Nine Worlds.  (He once said of Harvey, "Watching his hairy ass pumping up and down was like watching a wolverine worrying an elk carcass." I'm not sure I needed that mental image and I'm pretty sure you didn't either).

And while I have your attention,  Loki would also like to voice his complaints about his portrayal in Marvel Comics. He doesn't have a problem with being called a supervillain, but he objects to wearing a silly hat. He also wants to know when Thor started using three-syllable words, but I'm not sure I want to go there.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pat Robertson, Satan and Vodou

A great deal of attention has recently been paid to Pat Robertson's claim that
Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French ... and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.'" True story. And the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another.
Unsurprisingly, many people are outraged by Robertson's comments, seeing them as "anti-Vodou." Yet in many ways Robertson's worldview is not so different from that of a Haitian Vodouisant.

In the New York Times David Brooks, quoting Lawrence Harrison, said that "the voodoo religion... spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile." Both Brooks and Harrison miss the point: for most poor Haitians life really is capricious and planning futile. Vodou does not reinforce that message but acts as a practical counter to that harsh reality.  It offers the promise that you can better your position if you propitiate your spirits and seek their aid.  It postulates a world where spirit is intimately involved with matter and with believers. It does not present life as capricious: it claims that the spirits reward those they favor and punish those who do not pay them sufficient attention. And if you think that Vodou considers planning futile, you try putting a fet together sometime! 

Like Vodouisants, Pat Robertson believes that God is intimately connected with the mundane world. His God cares so much about his followers that he personally intercedes to cure hernias, hemorrhoids, varicose veins and flat feet. And his God punishes those who anger him. After the 9/11 attacks, during a CBN broadcast in which Jerry Falwell blamed pagans, feminists, abortionists, gays and lesbians and the ACLU for offending God, Robertson offered this prayer in an attempt to appease his angry spirit:
We have sinned against Almighty God, at the highest level of our government, we've stuck our finger in your eye. The Supreme Court has insulted you over and over again, Lord. They've taken your Bible away from the schools. They've forbidden little children to pray. They've taken the knowledge of God as best they can, and organizations have come into court to take the knowledge of God out of the public square of America.
Haitian Vodouisants believe that angry spirits may wreak vengeance on individuals who have offended them: in some cases, they may even take their wrath out on family members or loved ones. Robertson's spirit won't be satisfied with just killing your child or ruining your marriage: he won't rest until he kills thousands of your countrymen with an earthquake, rams a plane into your skyscrapers or smites your city with a hurricane. He may accuse Haitians of conspiring with the devil, but most Vodouisants would run screaming from the bloodthirsty djab he serves.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

New Review on Strategic Sorcery by Jason Miller

I have just posted a new (and very positive) review of The Sorcerer's Secrets: Strategies in Practical Magic, the latest book by Jason Miller, on Jason is also the author of the highly-recommended Protection & Reversal Magic: A Witch's Defense Manual (Beyond 101) and is one of the few writers today offering solid, down-to-earth practical advice on magic for magicians. His work is the antithesis of fluffy: it's no-nonsense stuff which will help aspiring sorcerers to break out of the trap of talking about magic without ever accomplishing any.

Jason's material is accessible to intelligent newcomers but also contains plenty of thought-provoking material for more experienced folks.  His work is a purgative to all the pablum and silliness which clogs so many occult bookshelves and a ward against those who would turn sorcery into mental masturbation and wooly-headed thinking.   If you haven't read any of his books yet, you owe it to yourself to pick them up.

The Haiti Earthquake

I have not yet heard from the members of my house concerning their families in Haiti.  (Kathy and I have avoided calling them so as not to tie up their phone lines: we thought it would be best to give them time to contact their relatives and ascertain their losses before trying to contact them, and we know it is very difficult to reach Haiti right now).

Our thoughts and prayers are with them and with everyone else who has suffered from this tragedy. We will keep you informed as we learn more: in the meantime we would ask that everyone offer whatever help they can through the Red Cross or relief efforts of your choice.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Boy, I'm getting tired of eggs and cheese

In an effort to rid myself of those extra 4o pounds I've acquired over the past couple of years (or at least the 20 I've acquired since I moved to New Jersey), I've begun the Atkins Diet. In the past I've found this is an effective way to lose weight and stabilize one's eating habits: now that I'm eating meat again, I can use this until such time as I'm back to my fighting weight of 165 or so.

I am presently in the Induction Phase, which involves extreme limitation of carbohydrates until such time as your body goes into ketosis. It's working pretty well: I've lost about six pounds in the first week. (I realize that much of this is water weight). I can't wait until I've lost another 10-15 pounds, so I can start eating something besides meat, cheese, eggs, greens and cruciferous vegetables.

Taking white bread and rice out of the diet isn't that hard and I never had that much of a sweet tooth, but I miss potatoes (that Irish heritage coming out again). And let's not forget the joys of waffles, pancakes and other breakfast essentials. (Ah, for the simple pleasures of a blueberry muffin with my coffee). But overall this is an easier way to drop some unwanted pounds than other diets: carb cravings can be handled much more easily than food cravings. And I'm getting into the habit of drinking lots of water, which is always good and helps you stay more full.

Anyway, here's hoping my New Year's resolution to get back into shape pans out.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Vodou Money Magic is at the presses.

I just finished speaking with Inner Traditions: Vodou Money Magic will be going to the printers today and should be hitting stores soon. I am looking forward to its release - and the check which should be arriving in my mailbox soon thereafter!