Monday, June 28, 2010

Interview with Ócha'ni Lele (Part II)

Q: I’m seeing a lot of people who are interested in serving the orisha and working with them, but who are not particularly interested in joining an ilé and getting initiated. What ways (if any) can they approach the orishas safely and respectfully?

A: I’ve been around the new-age movements for quite some time, and in my days I have seen ... everything. In Orlando there was a group that practiced “Santerísmo,” and I’ve met many people worshipping the orishas through the pagan faith of Wicca. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I wasn’t impressed.

Still, at their most basic level the orishas are the forces of nature. One could leave offerings for Oshún at the river, Yemayá at the ocean, or Ogún at the crossroads. Prayers and cleansings to Érínlè could be made at the place where the river meets the sea. But even though one makes those offerings at the appropriate places, the question remains, “Would the orishas hear the supplicant or even accept the offerings?”

My belief is maybe.

The reason I say maybe is because of an orisha in our pantheon similar to one in your own, Elegguá. Elegguá is the orisha who stands at the crossroad between heaven and earth; he is the orisha who determines if our prayers and offerings reach the orishas, or if they don’t. In the oral corpus of Unle Meji (8-8 in the diloggún) we have many stories explaining why this is so, and in the body of the original manuscript Teachings of the Santería Gods I wrote one of the patakís explaining why Elegguá had this very special ashé, this power. Unfortunately, due to space constraints I had to cut it from the final manuscript. I’ll share this story with you here (and please forgive its rough nature – I never wrote it as a final draft):
Olódumare was alone in heaven, contemplating his creation, the earth. It was like a smooth turquoise stone, wrapped in black velvet and nesting carefully in a swath of swirling planets and stars. It teemed with life, forms and figures drawn from the creator’s own dreams. For an eternity, the eternal had molded and minded his sculptures, nurturing them with his ashé. With his work completed, Olódumare was exhausted. Yet his emissaries, the orishas, were new and fresh. “If I give them ashé,” Olódumare thought, “I can rest and watch my world evolve.” 
As if in prayer, Olódumare touched his hands to his forehead; then, he bowed, crossing his arms over his chest. He sent his thoughts over the earth, and called his orishas home. 
Elegguá was the first to hear his summoning, and Elegguá was the first to arrive. The orisha was not young himself; his form coalesced when Olódumare first awakened and spread throughout the universe. He, along with the powerful Orúnmila, through the eyes of Agidai, watched creation as it unfolded. They saw the first stirrings, and knew them intimately. While ancient, Elegguá’s physical form was new, and he had the strength to do what Olódumare was too tired to complete. 
Elegguá grieved when he saw his father. Olódumare seemed old and weak; the act of creation drained his strength, and he sat in a chair, looking small and ineffective. In reverence, Elegguá prostrated himself on the floor, saying as he did, “Olódumare, you look tired. Please, let me help you with your work.” 
Too tired to stand and bend but unable to leave Elegguá stranded on the floor, Olódumare stooped from his seat and blessed the orisha, bidding him to rise. Every movement he made was slow and pained, and he knew he would never finish the work ahead alone. “Son,” he agreed, sadly, “You are right. For centuries I have worked so that you all had a place to live. I, with my own hands, created a world and the universe in which that world dwells. I did not realize how exhausted I was until I sat here today. But before I can rest, there is more work to do, work that cannot wait. I must suffuse each orisha with my ashé if I am to retire and turn the world over to them. I doubt I have the strength to do it alone. But if you help me, you might be here with me for a very long time. Please, do not tease me or make false promises. Have you the dedication for such a task?” 
Elegguá knew he was eternal, like his father, and knew that he had nothing but time on his hands. “Father, you have sacrificed your own eternal existence to create us and the world in which we live. How can there be any doubt? I must stay with you until the end. It is the least that I can do for you.” 
With Elegguá at his side, Olódumare continued to call the orishas to heaven. Each left imbued with ashé. In the beginning, Elegguá stood by his father, a silent participant in the ritual of ashé; and by watching, he learned what ashé was, and how it was given. Each who came failed to notice Olódumare’s exhaustion, and no one save Elegguá offered to stay and help. 
As Olódumare’s strength waned, Elegguá became his strength, and helped him put the ashé on each head that came to him. Soon, Elegguá was so proficient in bestowing ashé that he was able to do it alone, with Olódumare watching and blessing it by his words only. It took sixteen long years, but finally the last orisha came through Olódumare’s doors; and that orisha received ashé from Elegguá’s hands while Olódumare watched proudly. He was thankful, for Elegguá finished a task he did not have the strength to complete. God was grateful, and rested. 
After the last orisha came and left, Olódumare looked at his son; he was worn out from the work. “Elegguá, you have served me well, and you have learned things no other orisha knows. Now, it is your turn to have ashé.” Olódumare then ministered to him, and as ashé settled on his head, Elegguá’s form refreshed, and he became a young child. “You can be young or old as it pleases you, Elegguá.” Elegguá marveled at the miracle. “I called you first, and you will always be first, and since you were the last to leave me, you shall also be the last in all things. And because you served me so well, I give you a special task in the world. The road between heaven and earth must be sealed. You will be that seal. Anyone who wishes their prayers to be heard by me must first go through you, and you have the right to demand payment from them before you let them pass. Those who bring gifts to you have my ear; those who come empty-handed, you can block them as you wish. As you were my helper here; you will be my helper on earth.” 
So Elegguá, after sixteen years of servitude, left heaven and settled at the cross-roads separating the spiritual and material realms. Those who approached the gates to heaven had to first petition him, and Elegguá, at his whim, would either allow or deny access to heaven. No mortal dared approach without making ebó, and no orisha, no matter how powerful, could sway Elegguá without a gift. This was the beginning of his great ashé in our religion, and how Elegguá amassed great wealth.
It is for that reason that I can only say maybe when asked if an orisha will accept or even know about an offering when someone outside our faith makes it. Before approaching any orisha, Elegguá must be supplicated; also he receives a portion of each offering made. Yet the only way to know what Elegguá wants from us is to ask Elegguá; and the only way to approach Elegguá directly, at least by the uninitiated, is through a reading with either obí (the coconuts) or the diloggún (the cowrie shells). And the only people in the world who have consecrated Elegguás to whom one may throw obí, or consecrated cowrie shells that will access the 256 odu of creation, are the santeros, the priests who have initiation.

There are myriad paths to the orishas: there is the Lucumí faith (Santería), Candomble, and dozens of traditional Yoruba faiths that have made their way into the United States. If I’m not mistaken, Vodou, the faith you practice, has Yoruba influence and worships quite a few of the orishas in its way. If someone truly loves the orishas and wants to worship them, in my opinion they will walk one of the paths that actually leads to them and not some hodge-podge “mix and match” thing they create as they go. That, quite simply, is cultural appropriation.

Q: I was intrigued by your criticism of William Bascom’s dismissal of the diloggún (cowries) in favor of the Table of Ifá. I wonder how much of his prejudice stems from the fact that the cowries have become prominent in Cuba, whereas Ifá is favored in Africa. I’ve noticed that many academics focus on the African roots of the religion and denigrate, ignore, or minimize the variations which became prevalent in the New World.

A: To be honest, I’m surprised that anyone considers William Bascom an authority on anything regarding the diloggún. His first book titled Ifá Divination: Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa was published in 1969. It seems the manuscript for that volume was finished (barring final edits) in March of 1965 when he wrote the original preface to the volume. He did spend a considerable amount of time doing research for that volume. In his preface he wrote, “Most of the data for this study were recorded in the city of Ife in 1937-1938 on a predoctoral fellowship from the Social Science Research Council ... six weeks were spent in Igana during that year.” A later Fulbright grant allowed him to spend three months in Meko, three months in Oyó, and three months in Ijesa – all during the period from 1950 through 1952. During that time he also spent a day or two in the following towns: Ilaro, Ilara, Abeokuta, Ibadan, Iseyin, Oke-Iho, Irawo, Ogbomoso, Osogbo, Sagamu, Ijebu Ode, Ondo, and half a dozen towns throughout Ekiti. Two months were spent in Nigeria in 1960 and three months in 1965; this was funded by the University of California’s Institute of International Studies and the Social Science Research Council. He admits in his preface that Ifá divination was not the only subject studied during this time, but he doesn’t list what other studies were completed.

If we accept that the period in 1937 through 1938 was a full year, Bascom spent a total of 26 months doing his research on Ifá – or two years and two months. It is an impressive amount of time for a cultural anthropologist to spend studying a single subject. Personally, I don’t agree that this makes him an authority on Ifá divination. I feel that the true authorities are the people who live and breathe Ifá every day of their lives. Still, he had a considerable knowledge base from which to write his book.

Contrast this with the period of time he spent studying diloggún divination among the Yoruba. Turning to the introduction of his book Sixteen Cowries, Bascom writes, “When we (referring to his only research subject Salako) met in February, 1951, Salako was about seventy years old ... toward the end of our three months in Oyó, Salako agreed to recite all the verses that he knew into a tape recorder so that they could be preserved for the future... He then sat down before the tape recorder with Mrs. Berta M. Bascom and recorded five and a half solid hours of verses.” Those quotes come from pages 11 through 12 of his text, and the research done with Salako formed the bulk of his knowledge about divining with cowries. Contrast this: Bascom spent roughly 26 months researching Ifá among the Yoruba; however, he spent only five and a half hours of his final months in Oyó recording divination verses from the diloggún. These were gathered from a single research subject named Salako. Five and a half hours, and maybe a couple of friendly conversations, are not enough time to master the bulk of what diloggún is. Honestly, from his field work one cannot say that Ifá divination was more prevalent among the Yoruba at that time because Bascom did not spend that much time with cowrie shell diviners. His view is unbalanced.

That is why I criticize Bascom’s field work regarding diloggún divination; and that is why those who study the subject need to do their own field work and form their own opinions. As a Lucumí priest and diviner, I know from experience that there is nothing simple about this system, and from conversations with Lucumí babalawos, I know our method of divination is just as complicated as theirs.

Q: I also loved your description of ebó. You hit the nail on the head when you stated, “To the Lucumí, everything in this world has its price – that price is known as sacrifice, or ebó.” I think there's a great sense of entitlement not only in Western spiritualism but in Western culture. I wonder how much of that plays into the controversy about sacrifice in African Diaspora religions.

A: It is true that we are a culture espousing instant gratification, and that flows into Western religion. Christianity is the worst. They might argue this point, but Christians for the most part don’t go to Church on Sunday to evolve or grow spiritually. They go to feel good about themselves. Spend all week smoking, drinking, partying, overeating, having premarital sex, doing drugs, cheating on your spouse, lying, beating the children, mistreating the dog, taking God’s name in vain, coveting ... name your sin. But it’s okay because come Sunday one can go to Church or go to Mass and beg forgiveness. “Jesus” wipes it all away and the soul becomes white as lamb’s wool. Monday morning one returns to their daily life knowing there is salvation, and if a person messes up again it’s okay. It’s okay because Jesus will forgive. And so the cycle continues. There is no personal responsibility in any of that.

It makes me ill.

Our religion doesn’t give us that freedom to mess up and beg forgiveness. It demands personal responsibility in all that we do. First and foremost the orishas demand behavior modification. Do the same thing the same way and you’ll get the same results; if you want to grow, if you want to evolve, you have to modify the things you do so you get different results. Also, while prayer is an important part of our faith, worship is a very active thing. This religion is more than a religion; it is a culture. We have foreign languages to learn; we have songs to memorize; and even our bodies must be trained to dance a different way. To be a part of this faith, I even had to learn how to cook because the orishas are spirits who like food! And work itself is an important part of worship: there are floors to sweep and mop; chickens and other animals to pluck, skin, and butcher; there are tons of foods that must be cooked, fabrics to sew, necklaces and mazos to bead. I don’t think any other faith I’ve known has involved work at such an intense level as an act of worship.

Work itself is ebó!

And I think you are right: The great sense of entitlement shared by Western culture and Western spirituality is the reason there is so much controversy about the practices of ebó and sacrifice. People expect something for nothing when it comes to God.

Q: The Lucumí faith, Santería, practices animal sacrifice, and this is a form of ebó. Is it fair to say that the sacrifice of an animal is the highest ebó one may offer?

A: No, it’s not. Although animal sacrifice seems to be a huge thing, in truth it is not the highest sacrifice one can offer. The holiest material ebós in this religion are, from highest to lowest: ñame, corn, coconut, and fresh water. When marking ebó with the diloggún, the sacrifice of an animal is the last thing asked after all other options have been explored. And as anyone who has read my books will note, there are myriad options for ebó that do not include the sacrifice of an animal. The practice is overly sensationalized by the media.

Interview with Ócha'ni Lele (Part I)

This has been an excellent month for me. Not only did I get a chance to read an advance copy of Ócha'ni Lele's Teachings of the Santería Gods: The Spirit of the Odu - I had a chance to interview the author!  Lele is a great interview subject - intelligent, articulate and opinionated, with no fear of sharing his feelings despite whatever controversy may arise.  I enjoyed speaking with him and hope you enjoy reading his thoughts too!

Q: I remember a great deal of controversy after you released The Diloggún. Many santeros felt that you revealed too much information to people who were not initiates. As an author myself on Vodou, I’ve run into this problem. How do you respond to these critics?

A: Early in my career when I released my first book The Secrets of Afro-Cuban Divination I felt that I had to address my critics. As I’ve continued to write I’ve gotten a lot older and a little bit wiser; and I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to address any of my critics if I don’t want to. Not everyone is going to like everything I write; likewise, not everyone is going to like everything that I do. What’s important, however, is that I am happy with the work I’m doing, and that the orishas are happy with the work that I’m doing. Thankfully not one orisha has ever come down at a tambour to express dismay over my work, but many orishas have acknowledged how hard I work to both educate and illuminate the masses. As long as I’m right with the orishas, Olófin, and my egun, I’m on the right path.

As for revealing secrets, I’d like to argue a counter-point. The diloggún is our holy book, oral though it may be, and every Lucumí adherent has a right to know its proverbs and patakís. These are the spiritual foundation of our religion; and they are where the divinatory meanings of the odu originate. Sure, knowledge of ebó is a shaky area but no one has ever given me a valid reason as to why a member of our faith should not know about ebó. When it comes to the manipulation of the diloggún for divination, I’ve had a few priests argue those instructions should not be in any book; however, their argument has always been one that a fraudulent practitioner could open a hand of shells and start divining for the masses. Honestly, that has always been a danger. In my time I’ve known a few “santeros” whose initiations were suspect, and these were people who had large clienteles for divination. Over the years we’ve even had fraudulent priests moving among us, people claiming elder status when in truth they never had anything put on their heads. My books don’t create that danger; instead, I believe they help protect against that danger when an aleyo (outsider) or aborisha (orisha worshipper) goes to see a new diviner. Armed with a basic knowledge of divination, they know who is skilled and who is not.

Plus, anyone involved in this faith for any length of time soon discovers the flow of divination on their own. Mostly that’s how I learned it: by careful, critical observation. Well, that plus asking a lot of questions along the way, and making copious notes from memory when the session was done.

More importantly, I think my books help protect against fraudulent activity. Some of my biggest critics have been the most uneducated priests, and quite a few of these were diviners. The Diloggún created both a basic reference book and a standard of practice. While some orisha lineages do have differences between my text and their own practice, differences which are just as valid as my own, overall my technique is sound. A “diviner” untrained in divination cannot pick up a hand of shells, mumble a few prayers, throw a few random casts, and prescribe the most outrageous or expensive ebós for their clients. My other book Obi: Oracle of Cuban Santería fulfills the same function. I’ve often joked about “end-of-the-month” santeros, priests whose bills are due on the first of the month suddenly deliver end-of-the-month readings that financially gouge their clients – all because their own bills are due! If nothing else, my work helps bring an end to that practice – financial extortion.

Plus, as a writer yourself I’m sure you’ve discovered that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and the more you're on their lips, the more people will buy your book to see what the fuss is about. And the more they scream about the "revelation of secrets," the more people will want to buy it to have those secrets for themselves. Truly, there are no secrets in my book; there is nothing that an aleyo or aborisha could glean from my writings about the real mysteries – that which happens in igbodu (the sacred room) when the white curtain goes down. But if people want to scream that I’ve revealed those secrets, who am I to stop or correct them? Criticism, whether good or bad, creates buzz by word-of-mouth.

Q: How did you choose the patakís you chronicled in Teachings of the Santería Gods? You mentioned that for every one you transcribed and turned into a story, there were many more that could have been included.

A: It was a difficult process. When I planned my work initially, I envisioned a set of 16 books, each dedicated to one family of odu. I wanted to write a book of patakís for the parent and composite odu of Okana, one for the parent and composites of Eji Oko, one for the parent and composites of Ogundá, and so forth. Each volume would have been the size of The Diloggún, which was roughly 400,000 words (give or take a few thousand). Even in a work of that size, I would have to be selective. The number of patakís found in each odu is legion.

Unfortunately, I presented my proposal and sample manuscript after the recession hit. Publishing models were changing and works the size of The Diloggún no longer fit in with those models. The publisher really wanted the books, but asked me to start by writing a single book. That single book had an allotment of roughly 65,000 words. I was devastated.

When the contract arrived the devastation didn’t last long. As I rewrote within the publisher’s contracted length, I discovered that there was both wisdom and beauty in brevity. I reread both works dealing with diloggún as a system of divination, The Secrets of Afro-Cuban Divination and The Diloggún. In the pages of both books patakís were mentioned but not detailed, and those were the first ones I included in Teachings of the Santería Gods. After transcribing those, I went back through my collection of notes and picked the ones best illustrative of themes I wrote about in my previous two books. Following that logic made inclusion of appropriate patakís simple, and when I was done I was proud of the collection. Not only do I feel that they are best illustrative of the parent odu, but also I feel it is some of my best work. Even better – most of the stories are not well known, so the book will be a process of discovery and learning for readers.

Q: Okana is a fierce witch who is all desire and greed, but she finds her redemption through healing. The Little Monkey learns that "a good thing is repaid with bad," yet he still remains a chattering happy fellow, content to let others find their own good and bad. These and other patakís show a great moral complexity and a richly nuanced way of looking at the world. The Orisha and the Odu seem very human, with heroic virtues and tragic flaws.

A: And that’s exactly how it should be. I’ve noticed in recent years that most people catalogue the patakís as if they were facts and figures; however, myth and spiritual stories are not meant to be like that. Like any type of literature, they are filled with conflicting themes, powerful heroes and sometimes even more powerful antagonists. They are meant to be investigative and learning tools, springboards for discussions of ethics and morals. More importantly, they are meant to be entertaining. It was hard to instill all of these things into the patakís, but I think I did a good job. Obviously I must have, because you as an outsider picked up on all that and more!

Q: I loved the stories about Oshún. I've run into her a few times when I was doing readings for people who were interested in Vodou. She showed up long enough to say "NO! This one is MINE" and I had to tell them, "No, your path isn't Vodou; it's Lukumí." [I make it a point never to argue with Orishas, especially beautiful ones who carry daggers!]

A: I, like you, make it a point never to argue with the orishas! Even if they come barehanded, it’s never a good idea!

Friday, June 25, 2010


Pre-Columbian Central Americans paid homage to Quetzacoatl, the great feathered snake who marked the boundary between earth and sky. Vedic Hindus speak of Vritra, the great drought-serpent who swallowed all the world's rivers until being slain by Indra (some say Sarasvati). Chinese mythology credits Nü Gua, a snake with the head of a woman, with creating mankind and the institution of marriage. Haitian Vodou pays homage to the great white serpent Damballah whose scales are the Milky Way, while Christian mythology blames the fall of man on the snake, "the most subtle of the beasts of the field." Be they present as friends or enemies, snakes are often found in creation mythologies. The many different roles they play can all be reflected in Ior, the Futhorc Serpent-Rune.

One common thread is the role of the serpent in creating boundaries. Both Quetzacoatl and Damballah keep the heavens and the earth separated: Jormungandr coils around Midgard, marking its borders and serving as a barrier which holds the world together and protects it from outside attack. Ior can be a powerful shielding rune, both on its own or combined in a bind-rune with other boundary-markers like Othila. It can be used to distinguish between that which is and is not yours: this can be very helpful for those who are codependent or who frequently take on responsibilities (and blame) for burdens they need not carry. Ior can also help you to determine the line between truth and falsehood or between valuable and useless: any distinction between one thing and another involves the creation of a boundary. Because they are tremendously flexible, snakes can mark these divisions with great precision.

But that same flexibility also allows the snake to transcend boundaries. Snakes can climb walls and squeeze themselves through tiny cracks: they can be found nesting in the highest branches and beneath the deepest roots.  Ior can be used to overcome barriers as well as create them. Where Thurisaz blows apart things that stand in your way, Ior lets you continue on your path in a more peaceful manner: it does not destroy obstacles so much as provide you with a way of avoiding them. This is often the best course of action for all concerned: combat generally requires a great expenditure of time and resources and snakes (like other cold-blooded animals) know that energy is best conserved whenever possible. Combined with Ansuz, Ior can help to establish lines of communication with a stubbornly hostile colleague: it can also be used as a delivery mechanism to allow other runes to get past defenses.

Ior can also be a deadly attack rune. The great pythons can constrict with devastating force: the venomous snakes can deliver a painful or fatal bite. Anyone who has seen a serpent strike at its meal knows how fast they can move when quick and decisive action is required. Combining Ior with Uruz or Isa can give you a bind-rune which will leave your opponents enmeshed in crushing coils: bound with Wunjo or Laguz, it can inject them with a lethal dose of poison. Yet once again Ior moves past boundaries and easy definition: not only can it harm but it can work powerful healing magic. Much as the snake sheds its skin, Ior can help you to slough off disease or chronic conditions. Combined with Dagaz, it can lead you to a spiritual rebirth: combined with Jera, it can lead you to the satisfactory conclusion of a long and arduous cycle.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Kenaz Filan goes Multilingual

My latest project, Kenaz Filan en français, is part of my continuing efforts to master le premier langage de l'art, la philosophie, et l'amour. I am no Honoré de Balzac or Michel Foucault (although in my drinking days I could have given Serge Gainsbourg some competition!), so you can expect that my translations of earlier posts will leave something to be desired. I am hoping that with time my mastery of French will improve and I will sound like Jean Genét rather than one of his less gifted cellmates. Any corrections from those more skilled in French than myself (which is no small group!) will be welcomed.

My first order of business will be to translate my rune posts into French: afterwards I will try to keep both blogs updated simultaneously.

Monday, June 21, 2010


According to Northern European legend, the worlds came into being when Muspelheim, the blazing land of the fire giants, struck Niflheim, the icy home of the frost giants. They will end at Ragnarok, when everything returns to the primal fire to be recreated again.  Fire marks both beginning and ending: it reminds us that everything new rises from the ashes of the old and that there can be no destruction without creation - and vice versa. This is the great mystery of Cweorth, the rune of the fire-twirl which sustains life and the funeral pyre which marks its passing.

Like any flame, Cweorth cannot operate without fuel. To effect its transmutations, it consumes that which is unnecessary, outmoded or superfluous. This can be a painful process:  what we desire and what we need can be very different. When Cweorth acts to change us, we may lose those things which we hold most dear: we may find our most cherished illusions about ourselves and our world stripped away.  Cweorth can manifest like Tarot Trump XVI (the Tower).  It is the lightning strike which knocks down the fortress built on sand, forcing us to rebuild on a more sturdy foundation.  For those of a more technical bent, Cweorth can function like a security audit on our networks.  It can point to gaping holes and potential exploits in your defenses, giving you a chance to repair them before it manifests as an attack on your system.

If Os functions as the higher octave of Ansuz, Cweorth can be called the higher octave of Kenaz.  Both runes act as agents of initiation and rebirth. But Cweorth is more harsh and impersonal. If Kenaz transforms the individual, Cweorth changes the group and the world. Kenaz is the light which allows us to survive the horrors wrought when Cweorth comes into play in the political sphere. Cweorth sparks the  war which will ultimately resolve the long-standing border dispute: Kenaz can provide us with the foresight and wisdom to bring it to the best possible conclusion. Kenaz can help us to manifest what should be: Cweorth is concerned only with that which must be.  Kenaz is the divine spark within us, while Cweorth is the flame which in the end will consume even the Gods.

Cweorth also partakes of the nature of another flame-rune, the need-fire of Naudhiz. Like Naudhiz, it can become the flame which drives us onward. But while Naudhiz is the urge to survive, Cweorth provides us the energy to go on when survival is no longer an option. The starving Jews who fought when all hope was gone in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising knew Cweorth all too well.  In the end we all return to ashes: Cweorth lets us choose the hero's death and the deeds which will blaze bright as a pyre after we are gone. In the end, our bodies and our lives are superfluous: Cweorth liberates us from their bondage and purifies our spirit that it might return to its rightful place. It leaves us in the end with nothing but our works and the monuments we leave behind. And if those too will one day be consumed, Cweorth reminds us that they are no less valuable for that. Cweorth forces us to grab the present and make the most of it:  that which is will become that which was and that which is no more.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Rights of Clients, the Rights of Practitioners

Quite a few of the people who frequent Vodou, Rootwork/Hoodoo or African Traditional Religions forums are looking for a practitioner to do magic on their behalf. Quite a few others are practitioners seeking clients. If you believe in Adam Smith, this may seem an ideal situation: a marketplace where buyers and sellers can meet and make arrangements for private workings. The truth is that the spiritual marketplace, like any other marketplace, is fraught with danger and those who stumble in blindly are not likely to fare well. And this is true for those on both sides of the equation: a naive seller who thinks s/he has stumbled upon the pathway to riches may fall as hard as a naive buyer who is convinced that s/he is one wanga away from a lottery jackpot and early retirement. If you are going to engage in spiritual commerce, it behooves you to set some appropriate boundaries.

"Caveat emptor" always applies. If you are seeking a houngan, rootworker, iyalocha, etc. you should do some research and check their reputation. Everyone has a few disgruntled clients and there are certainly many practitioners who will try to build their own reputations by tearing down others. But where there is smoke, there is often fire. If there are numerous accounts of a teacher engaging in sexual, physical or financial abuse, you may want to take them seriously. (And while sex magic is a valid path, it is emphatically NOT a part of Haitian Vodou or any African traditional religion. If someone suggests the solution to your spiritual problems can be found in his pants, or tells you to strip naked so he can give you a "spiritual bath," run, don't walk, away). If you find your worker-to-be has a history of using information gained in confidence to embarrass dissatisfied clients ("Of course your wife wouldn't come back to you. It's not MY fault that you're an unemployed alcoholic!" etc.), you can assume that your information will be used in a similar fashion.

By the same token, I also recommend "caveat vendor." If your prospective client sends you pages of word salad talking about how aliens from Mars and the Zionist Occupying Government are conspiring with her ex-husband's new girlfriend, you may want to think twice about taking her on as a client. If someone wants a wanga so his girlfriend will "jump when I say jump and do everything I tell her to do like the bitch she is," you accept his money at your own peril. One of the best way to avoid loud, disgruntled clients is to avoid people who need a psychiatrist more than they need a spiritual advisor. There is no shame in saying "I don't think I can help you: best of luck in your search." There is shame in taking financial advantage of mentally ill or desperate people. And not only is it unethical, it's bad business. You'll soon find that those clients will take up an inordinate amount of your time and energy - then turn on you when you're unable to provide them the healing they so desperately seek.

As with anything else, a little bit of common sense can go a long way. If you spend as much time and energy researching a rootworker as you would researching a prospective dentist or caterer for a big party, you're likely to avoid the worst case scenarios. If you treat your obligation to your clients as a sacred duty and respectfully decline to take on people whose needs are beyond what you can offer, you're likely to avoid most public blow-ups and mud-slinging. In either case ask yourself "I am going to be spending several hours with this person: would I feel comfortable sitting beside them on a long bus ride?" If the answer is no, both of you need to look elsewhere.


Astrologer Dane Rudhyar referred to the outer planets (Uranus, Neptune and Pluto) as the "Higher Octaves" of Venus, Mercury and Mars, respectively.  In his words
The field of activity extending (symbolically at least) between the Sun and Saturn is the field of the conscious; it is energized by the Sun and structured at one level by Venus and at another by Saturn. The field of activity beyond Saturn's orbit represents all that is also beyond the strictly conscious activities of the individual, of the person defined by his or her ego structures and by the shape and the limits of his or her physical body. These two fields are essentially different in character.
This is a useful way to describe the relationship between the runes Ansuz and Os. Both of them are connected to communication: both can be called upon to establish a connection between the worlds of the Sacred and the Profane, and each can best be understood in light of the other. But Ansuz is more grounded in the mundane world and in the information exchanges which allow our society to function.  Os, by contrast, is intimately tied to the spiritual world. It offers access to the highest forms of inspiration. If Ansuz is a means by which we can communicate with the Gods, Os is a means by which They communicate with us.

Many people believe that the Gods spoke with men only in a long-ago Golden Age. As we have drifted away from our original perfection, They moved back to their divine realms and left us to our own devices. This idea appears in many cultures, from the Judeochristian Garden of Eden to the "Kali Yuga" cycle of Hinduism.  It explains the distinction between our flawed world and the perfection of divinity, and it also empowers a class of theologians to make sure scripture is interpreted in a way that best suits the needs of the ruling class.

Os puts the lie to that assertion: it reminds us that the Gods are intimately involved in our daily lives and in the workings of our world. Os simultaneously reaffirms and transcends the divide between the spiritual and material. It is the rune of omens, of prophetic dreams, of the lightning flash which turns its target into a Speaker for the Divine. Os transforms the artist into a skald, a channel for forces which can transform the world. In tandem with Ansuz, it becomes an engine which moves the world in accordance with the Will of the Gods, investing words and symbols with an irresistible force.

But Os also cautions us that the Gods are not always benevolent nor is their Will always merciful. If Os is a higher octave of Ansuz, it is also deeply connected to the Need-Rune Naudhiz. Os is not concerned with what we might like or what might be best for our personal interest: it tells us instead of that which Must Be. Like the outer planets of astrology, there is something vast and impersonal about Os.  As Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." To Os we are but brushstrokes used to create the Big Picture. It will take exquisite care in placing us, but will erase us without hesitation should that prove necessary.

When Os appears in a reading it means that the spiritual world has taken notice of the situation. How that  interest will play out depends on the surrounding runes and the querent's actions, but for better or worse it will play out.  What seems of little importance to us may be of great value to the Gods: what seems priceless to us may be a mere trifle to them. When Os is in play we will do best to listen and to learn.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Depending on which rune-verse you study, you may come up with some very divergent ideas about this rune. The most popular interpretation today is inspired by the Old English verse, which describes Kenaz as a "torch," a fire which burns "clear and bright" and which brings illumination to those within the hall.  But Norwegian and Icelandic verses describe this rune as a "sore" and connect it with death.  One reading seems to bring enlightenment: another disease and ruin.  As is often the case, there are great mysteries hidden within this paradox - and great power for those who can reconcile the seeming opposites.

It is no coincidence that initiation rituals frequently involve a ceremonial death and rebirth. The transformation from outsider to dedicant involves deep change within the individual's interior and exterior life.  Initiation does not just provide access to the Mysteries: it grants membership in a social group and entails new rights and responsibilities. The person who leaves the initiatory chamber may be very different than the person who went in. This change can be disorienting and traumatic: in putting aside childish things you put aside a way of life which had its joys as well as its miseries.  Kenaz reminds us that wisdom comes with a price and that every fire must be fed.

The fire of Kenaz is not one that can easily be snuffed out. If you try to contain it, it will break free and burn its way through you like an ulcer eating its way through your skin.  Those who have experienced "shaman sickness" - the mental and physical upheaval that can take place when the Gods reinvent Their chosen clergy to better suit Their purposes - know all too well how painful the process of enlightenment can be.  The sores with which Norwegian and Icelandic poets identified Kenaz also served to mark their bearers as a people set apart - not as cool, dangerous magicians but as diseased lepers shunned by decent folk. Wisdom does not always bring profit to the wise: those who think otherwise are encouraged to read H.G. Wells' classic short story, "The Country of the Blind."

But if it is channeled Kenaz can become the fire of inspiration. Kenaz is connected with smithing, the transformation of raw ore into weapons, armor and artwork. It can also be the flame which purifies, cauterizing wounds and burning away impurities. Like the Christian legend of the Holy Spirit descending as fire, Kenaz can enflame you with new ardor and zeal. If you are suffering from ennui or feel that you have "lost the spark" in your job or your relationship, Kenaz can rekindle those old flames and remind you why you once felt so passionate.  It is not the blinding mystical inspiration of Wunjo: Kenaz is a much more practical rune.  It provides a way out of the darkness or an elegant solution to a problem: it concerns itself less with the ways of the Gods and more with the ways of our world.

Yet despite this (another paradox!) Kenaz is intimately connected to the Divine. It is the creative fire which Prometheus stole from heaven and brought to the mortals: it is the place where Spirit and Matter meet, like the meeting of Fire and Ice which created the Nine Worlds of Norse legend.  It makes the mundane holy and the sacred useful.  Kenaz is the spark of divinity which burns within each of us, that light which reminds us of where we have come from and where we are going, the flame which is fueled by our bodies and our lives.  It is the fire which strips away the dross from us and makes us something greater: it is the light which illuminates the truth and sanctifies that which is profane. 

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Kenaz Filan Interview Tonight on "Unraveling the Secrets"

Tonight I will be interviewed by Dennis Crenshaw and Rick Osman on Unraveling the Secrets from Midnight to 2 am Eastern time.  I will be discussing Vodou and trance possession, among other topics, and am looking forward to my first online video appearance. And for those of you whose computers aren't up to online video, the audio portion of the program will be simulcast on Blog Talk Radio.  See you at the stroke of midnight!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Our culture has an innate distrust of "one-true-wayisms." We would like to believe that one creed is just as good as another and that everyone is entitled to believe whatever they like so long as they don't force their ideas on anyone else. Postmodernist philosophers have suggested that objective truth is merely a tool used by the dominant classes to maintain their privileged position. This worldview is challenged by Teiwaz, the Tyr-Rune. Teiwaz proclaims not only that objective truth exists, but that there are some truths which are worth fighting, dying and even killing over.  But if it has little patience for relativism, neither is it a rune of simplistic moralizing. Like truth, Teiwaz is often hard, complex, and even paradoxical.

Tyr, the God who gives this rune its name, became most famous for his role in trapping Fenrir, the great wolf who threatened to devour the Nine Worlds.  Before he would consent to being bound by the magical rope, Fenrir demanded that one of the Gods place his sword-hand in his mouth as proof that no treachery was involved. Tyr agreed to do so: the wolf was tied and, in its efforts to escape, bit off Tyr's right hand. In breaking troth with the Great Wolf, Tyr preserved the universe from destruction. He proved himself willing to sacrifice not only his life but his honor for the greater good.  When Teiwaz comes up in a reading, it may require this kind of sacrifice from the querent - not romantic martyrdom but squalid shame and degradation for that which Must Be Done. Teiwaz reminds us that honor is about living righteously, not about acclaim from the crowd.

But though Teiwaz can demand difficult choices, it can also provide stability. Teiwaz points toward the facts which underpin our world. Gravity sends the earth spinning around the sun, whether or not we choose to accept it.  2 + 2 = 4. Those who say it equals 5 are not expressing a different but equally valid way of looking at things: they are simply wrong.  And like mathematics and physics, there is an underlying truth to the ways of righteousness. Those ways may be as complicated as calculus or quantum mechanics: they may lead us not to the bright new future of Broadway musicals but to the terrible conclusions of Greek tragedy. But they are still there, and may still be followed by those who choose the right over the convenient.

Needless to say, Teiwaz can be a terribly dangerous rune. To claim the truth and take responsibility for protecting it is a mighty obligation.  Wielding Teiwaz requires tremendous humility and compassion: you must know well the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness and you must be prepared to mourn for that you must destroy.  If you are not worthy to take up Teiwaz it will turn on you. It will find all your weaknesses and failings and use them against you: in the process it will either teach you a hard lesson or it will destroy you.

When angered, Teiwaz can attack with a fury that would give Thurisaz pause. It combines that rune's pinpoint rage with the massive irresistible power that Isa brings to a problem: its strike carries the weight of the inevitable.  Those who are willing to follow Teiwaz wherever it might lead them can use that might toward a final victory. They may not survive the battle, but if their cause is worthy they can know that it will ultimately triumph, no matter the cost.