Friday, February 26, 2010

Kenaz Filan Interview on March 14 8pm Eastern Time (KAPS Paranormal Radio)

I will be appearing on KAPS Paranormal Radio on Sunday, March 14 at 8 pm Eastern to discuss my upcoming book(s) and talk about Vodou with the hosts, Dave and Tom of the Kentucky Area Paranormal Society.   You can listen from their website or through CBS Psychic Radio.  Or you can hear the discussion on HD Radio in Detroit (104.3 WOMC-HD3), Boston (104.1 WBMX-HD3) or Seattle (96.5 KJAQ-HD 3). 

I'm looking forward to the interview and hope to hear from some of the people I've been corresponding with online.  You can send in questions via their chatroom or their phoneline, (248) 545-7685. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It is Accomplished

I have just completed the manuscript for The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook and have submitted it to Inner Traditions

As Benjamin Britten said at the end of his brilliant War Requiem, "Now Let us Sleep."

Monday, February 22, 2010

My fifth book has just been accepted by Inner Traditions

Papaver Somniferum: The Most Dangerous Ally, my book on poppies as plant allies, has just been accepted by Inner Traditions. I should be receiving the contract within the next few days.  I'd like to give special thanks to Jon Graham, my acquisitions editor. Given the controversial nature of this book, and the fact that it's a departure from my usual Vodou-related material, there was some initial reluctance to publish it. Jon worked tirelessly to promote this book to the Powers That Be: if it were not for his efforts, it would still be sitting in publishing limbo.

In the meantime, I am working to finish the manuscript for The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook and begin promoting Vodou Money Magic.  If anyone is interested in having me speak at your gathering or store let me know: I'm sure we can schedule something. I'm also happy to do interviews for Internet radio, broadcast radio, television or print.  (Should Oprah Winfrey has a spot on her calendar, I'm sure I can arrange my schedule to fit hers).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

First Review of Vodou Money Magic

The first review of Vodou Money Magic has appeared on Lisa McSherry's Facing North.  Diana Rachjel was favorably impressed by the book, and even had a few kind words for our house Ghede, Harvey. ("Well-meaning old lecher" is a kind word, isn't it?)  Thanks to Diana for a great review and thanks to Lisa for providing an invaluable collection of Pagan book reviews!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Vodou and Christianity

This question came up on American Voodoo Forum:
Can one serve lwa in an American community without the Catholic (Christian) piety and liturgy that is so much a part in Ayiti? Can one separate?
I have seen many variants of this question come up over the years. A lot of people who have turned to alternative spirituality have had bad experiences with Christianity.  Their religious choices stem from a rejection of the religious dogma which was forced down their throat at an early age.  For some Christianity triggers memories of childhood physical and sexual abuse. Others dislike the hypocrisy and self-righteous behavior of many who profess to be believers. And some of them were raised in non-Christian households: their families would plotz if they saw them wearing a Rosary and decorating their house with saint statues.

Our house (Société la Belle Venus) begins our ceremonies with the Priye Dieu -- prayers to God, the Virgin Mary, and the various saints. If you are initiated in our djevo, you will be expected to spend 41 days visiting a church and saying the Rosary in quiet meditation. This provides you with spiritual protection and helps to cement your dedication to your ancestral faith.  (Keep in mind that the majority of Haitians identify as Roman Catholic and even the Evangelicals have Catholic ancestors a generation or two back). When I asked Mambo Edeline St.-Amand about the requirements for a Jewish or Muslim initiate, she said that person could visit a synagogue or mosque for 41 days and say the appropriate prayers.

Most Haitian practitioners of Vodou also identify as Catholic and will attend Mass regularly, or at least on special occasions like Easter and Christmas. They see no disjunct between their sevis lwa and their Catholic faith.  The Church may not agree, but as good Catholics they've learned that there's a time when one smiles, nods and goes about one's business.  (If you really think that no practicing American Catholic uses birth control, you may be interested in a bridge I have for sale.  It would come in very handy when you're traveling to Brooklyn to attend a fet). 

That being said, there are certainly houses wherein the Christian imagery is downplayed or left out entirely.  Max Beauvoir's Temple of Yehwe and Peristyle de Mariani concentrate more on Vodou's African roots than its Catholic influences.  And while Sallie Ann Glassman (who was raised Jewish) practices a more eclectic style of New Orleans Voodoo, she certainly has Haitian roots: Glassman was initiated by well-known Houngan, artist and flagmaker Edgar  Jean-Louis.

And, of course, you're not obligated to join any house to serve the lwa, nor are you precluded from using non-Christian imagery on your shrines. My altar to Ogou includes a statue of Chinese war god Guan Ti near a bottle decorated with St. Jacques Majeur. My shrine to Freda features a very nice custom Barbie and my Damballah altar features a large shed from an albino Burmese Python and a white dragon statue.  Kathy and I once made a Ghede shrine for a Jewish friend using images of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas

Telling Haitian Vodouisants they are "doing it wrong" or trying to save them from their "Christian conditioning" is the height of arrogance and cultural imperialism. But there is nothing wrong with searching for a house which is a good fit for your spiritual needs and expectations.  In fact, I strongly encourage you to do so. There are many paths you can take on your long road to Gineh: take your time and choose the one which is right for you.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sobriety, 14 years on

For those of you who did not know, I am an alcoholic in recovery. While perusing Bluelight, a Harm Reduction board which proved very useful when I was writing my manuscript on poppies, opiates and painkillers, I found a lengthy thread on alcoholism by several of the board's active and recovering alcoholics.  I wanted to share my thoughts with them and thought my post might prove helpful to others who think they may have a drinking problem.


I've been sober for fourteen years (15 as of October 28, 2010). I've attended a few AA meetings but I'm not a 12-stepper. Reading this thread has brought back a whole lot of memories, including a lot of shit I would just as soon forget.

FWIW, here's what I learned from my addiction.

Sooner or later you're going to hit a point where you can no longer deny you have a drinking problem. From that moment onward drinking will no longer be any fun. The booze will always have that nasty aftertaste of self-loathing, no matter how much you try to tell yourself that this time is going to be different than all those other times before.

That doesn't mean you're going to quit drinking after this. I went on boozing it up for years, but it was never the same. It was no longer funny stories about "Christ, was I wasted." It was "Yep, I'm a complete fucking failure and I know it, and here's a toast to my latest spiral down the bowl." I suspect most of the people posting here know exactly what I'm talking about. The good news is that once you're here you are only a few small steps from getting sober. (Let's face it, what's the sense of doing something if it isn't fun?)

The first few months are really the hardest: I quit for a couple months more times than I can count. Once you get out of the habit of drinking, you start getting into the habit of not drinking. You don't get that "I had every intention of just going to the coffee shop but before I knew what was happening I was in the bar with a pitcher in front of me." You still get cravings now and then, sure, but you have to make a conscious decision to act on them: you lose those body memories of walking to the bar or the convenience store and replace them with body memories of doing something else that doesn't involve booze.

Do I still miss alcohol? Occasionally. I'm a bit of a foodie, so it would be great to have a glass of wine with dinner. And I still think longingly on occasion of a nice microbrew. But I know that if I have that high-end drink today within a few months I'm going to be buying rotgut whiskey just to keep myself numb. And when I think about that, I realize losing out on wine with dinner or a pint of Guinness on a hot day is a small price to pay for living the rest of my life.

Don't get too upset if you slip up: if I had a dime for every time I slipped, I'd own Bluelight. Just because you drank today doesn't mean you have to drink tomorrow. Before long you'll find you are spending more time on the wagon than off it. And even if you never completely kick the alcohol habit, two months on the wagon and one month off has got to be better for your system than continual drinking.

Last but not least: if you are physically addicted to the point where you are starting to get DTs, get medical assistance immediately. Alcohol withdrawal can fuck you up royally and even kill you. I strongly advise against do-it-yourself detox using benzos you bought on the Internet or on the street: some medical situations call for professionals, and alcohol withdrawal is definitely one of them. (If that's not an option, you gotta do what you gotta do - but if at all possible get a competent doctor involved in your detoxification).

To everyone posting here: good luck. Getting sober is going to be a struggle, but if you keep trying sooner or later you're going to make it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Freedom of Speech and Responsibility for Speech

I recently posted a message to a Yahoo group wherein I chided one of my longtime critics for a history of vile racist rants aimed at Puerto Ricans and Haitians. In response, someone complained that " as a amrican we have to right to say how we fell about somthing" and implied that I was impinging on said critic's human rights.  I've seen many variants of this argument online in the past, and thought it was worthwhile to discuss what exactly "freedom of speech" means.

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Note that this does not say "people are not permitted to laugh at your free speech and to call you an idiot."  You have the right to speak your opinion. You do not have the right to expect people will agree with you. They may call your beliefs into question: they may even call your sanity, your morals and your parentage into question. You can respond in kind, or you can choose to ignore their responses. But you cannot expect the government which protects your freedom of speech to impinge on theirs.

Freedom of speech involves accepting responsibility for the consequences of that speech. If you use your freedom of speech to make libelous claims about your competitors, the First Amendment does not stop the aggrieved from suing you for damages.  If you hold unpopular opinions, you may not be jailed for speaking your mind. But you may lose your job or your standing in the community: you may lose the respect of your friends and colleagues. And the First Amendment will do nothing to protect you.

(There are certainly other laws which might do so: if you are fired for exposing your company's illegal perfidy, you may be protected under various "whistleblower" laws, for example. But if you posted a long rant about how your boss has his head so far up his ass that he parts his hair every time he breaks wind, don't expect a lot of sympathy from a judge or jury when you sue to regain your position. And while you may have a case if you're fired because of your religion, that case will be considerably weakened if your religion involves a belief that you have to preach to your students in a public school).

Mel Gibson did not go to jail when he declared that "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." But many people regarded his statement as offensive and stupid, and it certainly didn't do good things for his career. Tim Hardaway was not charged with a crime when he said in an interview "You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known." But he was widely criticized and mocked for his ignorance. (Perhaps the best response came from George Takei). 

Words have power, to heal and to harm. While the Miranda warning only applies to arrests in criminal cases, it contains one phrase which is worth remembering: "anything you say may be used against you." Don't speak unless you are ready to accept the consequences of your speech, and don't assume that today's stupidity won't come back to haunt you tomorrow.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Vodou Initiations Outside Haiti: the Great Controversy Revisited

According to some people, initiations in Vodou can only be done in Haiti. According to others, the first two degrees (Hounsi Kanzo and Houngan/Mambo Si Pwen) can be done outside Haiti but Asogwe initiations should be done in Haiti. And still others claim that an initiation in Vodou can be done anywhere so long as you have the proper setting. Dr. Karen Richman, author of Migration and Vodou, takes the first position:
In rural Haiti, “serving the spirits,” the Vodou deities or lwa, is a family affair. Members of descent groups trace their eritaj, or inheritance, back to a founding ancestor. Both land and lwa are part of this heritage, and are inseparable. Worship cannot be transplanted to Florida; the spirits cannot be appeased from afar, disconnected from their native soil.
My house, Société la Belle Venus #2 of Brooklyn, New York will put initiates in the djevo in their djevo in New York: they also hold initiations in Haiti. I was told that it was preferable for the Asogwe initiation to be conferred in Haiti, but that it can be given in the United States. (I received my Si Pwen initiation in 2003 in Brooklyn: my wife, Mambo Zetwal Kleye, received hers in 2005).  There are other houses in New York, Boston, Miami and Montréal which initiate candidates locally. 

During the reign of Duvalier peré and fils, many Haitian immigrants were political refugees who could not return to their homeland. Today many Haitians in the United States are economic refugees who cannot return because they are here illegally.  It is not surprising that Vodou (which has always been by necessity a flexible tradition that adapted to circumstances) has grown to accommodate the situation of its followers.  And since it is a decentralized tradition with no overarching governing body, it is not surprising that any change will be greeted with controversy and disagreement.

There are certainly advantages to initiation in Haiti, particularly if one has a chance to stay for longer than the bare minimum required for the ceremony. Haitian Vodou is inextricably linked to Haitian culture: living in country can provide you with a better understanding of the deeper meanings behind the elaborately coded songs and myths. There are many powerful pwens and sacred sites in Haiti which are well worth visiting, and the experience of pilgrimage is certainly a worthwhile one.  And there's an economic reason as well: even when you factor in the cost of lodging and transportation, initiations can often be held in Haiti for less than a similar American ceremony.

But there are also advantages to being initiated in the United States (or Canada, or France) by a working société.  It is easy to get initiated in Haiti, return home, and have no further contact with Haiti or with Haitians.  Initiation into a local société can give you the opportunity to attend and participate in fets and ceremonies regularly.  It can plug you into a social network of Haitians and Haitian-Americans as a fellow member, not just a wealthy tourist who comes to enjoy the local color and leaves again after bestowing a few pennies on the deserving poor.

From a spiritual standpoint, I would argue that it is important that Vodou initiations take place in the United States. Much as Haitian immigrants have created Vodu Cubano and Vudu Dominicano in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, I would expect to see the development of American Vodou and La Vodoun Canadienne among Haiti's large diaspora population.  While this will differ from Haitian Vodou as practiced in Jacmel and Port-au-Prince, it will be no less vital and meaningful to its followers. And it will have roots in this country as surely as Haitian Vodou has its demambwe, its sacred land.

Ultimately, houngans and mambos are lords over their own houses.  If you disagree with the teachings of one house, you are free to seek out another which works for you. There is no Pope of Vodou and no council grisée to excommunicate or cast judgment. Those who find fault with another house's practice generally do not consult their priests and do not attend their ceremonies. If enough people shun them, the offending house will find themselves out of clients and members. Otherwise they will become part of the diverse and sometimes-squabbling tapestry which is the Haitian religious and folk tradition.