Tuesday, September 27, 2011

But Enough Laughing at Twits: here's a Request for a Miracle

From Facebook:

Prayers for Baby Spencer Kelly
Spencer Michael Patrick Kelly was born at 349 pm at Bergan Mercy Hospital in Omaha Nebraska. Spencer is already a baby of miracles and with your prayers we are hoping for a lot more. Kathy and I were never supposed to have children on our own, then Spencer. That was the first miracle, the second is that Spencer was never supposed to make it thru the night, the third being he was never supposed to make it thru the second night. Spencer is going on his eight day now, he is ticklish, likes his Mommy's singing and his Daddy's touch. They are pretty sure he has a degenerative neuro muscular disease, but bloodwork wont confirm this for 3 to 4 weeks. If this is correct, then Spencer will have a very short time with us, we give thanks that we have been able to meet him, touch him, and Mommy even got to change a poopy diaper!! We have not been able to hold him yet because he is on a ventilator, nor have we been able to hear him cry, things we look forward to. I believe thru the power of prayer and God's grace, Spencer has stayed with us this long, my hopes by reaching out to more people, more prayers, the longer and better he will be. Thank you in advance for you help, Mommy and Daddy, Sean and Kathy Kelly

I know there are some serious, no bullshit, take no prisoners magicians reading this blog.   I also know you have lives and things to do.  But I'm asking if you could take some time and send some healing to this  family.  This particular cause is near and dear to my heart and I figure if anyone can come up with a miracle, it's this motley crew.

Catching up on Old Times with Chuck Hall (warning: possibly NSFW imagery)

I'm sure you all remember Charlton "Chuck" Hall.  He's the leader (and sole member) of the Black Mountain Druid Order, the creator (and sole practitioner) of Mindful Family Therapy, and the head (you know the drill.. ) of Culture Artist, a group which seeks to educate people on sustainable living. But despite wearing all those hats, he still finds the time to be a censorious shitbag who throws temper tantrums when he is called out on his misbehavior.    

A month back, Chuck gifted us with some truly impressive tooth-gnashing and mouth foaming on the comments section of Wild Hunt. When he realized he was making a public spectacle of himself and putting his businesses (such as they are) in a bad light, did he say "Gee, maybe I should consider some anger management therapy?"  Did he say "I should avoid acting out in public, seeing as how I am trying to run a business?" Did he say, "Boy, I sure look like a pluperfect horse's ass, and maybe it's time for me to count to 10 and slink away. 

What do you think?

And so Chuck was mocked and scorned for a few days, then flushed down the memory hole like so many other turds before him.

Fast forward to this morning, several weeks later, when I received a comment on Google+ from "Sencha the Druid" informing me that "A complaint has been lodged with Google and the FBI about your stalking and harassment."

For those who don't know: I'm a veteran of the Usenet flame wars, who served my first tours of duty on FIDONet back in the days when insults had to travel over phone lines via UUCP.   I've long since retired from the fray, but no warrior ever really gives up the fight.  When some bonehead comes around waving his ass cheeks in the air like a lust-befogged baboon, I'm contractually obligated to pick up the paddle and use him like a none-too-bright piñata.


And so I gave him 15 minutes of my time, and some of my Photoshop skills. The final mashup combined Charlton "Chuck" Hall and GOATSE - a perfect meeting of the minds if ever there was one.

I assumed this would cause Chuck to hop up and down in a most entertaining fashion, and I was right.  In a series of Google+ comments he accused me of being a "child molester" and asked "Why do you hate therapists so much? You must have had a bad experience when they put you in the mental hospital." (Because accusations of crime and mockery about a target's mental health are an invaluable part of any therapist's toolkit).

I flagged a couple of his comments, and noted to him that "Sencha the Druid" wasn't going to pass muster under the G+ "real names" policy.   He reiterated his claim that I was guilty of "stalking and harassment" while bragging that I had brought him several new referrals.  Soon after that, his G+ account disappeared.   And so I figured this had ended with a visit from the Black Mountain Druid Order People's Front Suicide Squad.

Then I see this on his Facebook page:


LOL...apparently somebody created a fake Google+ account in my name. For the record, I don't have a Google+ account. If it's who I think it is, I may need to delete my Facebook account as well. If I do, I'll keep in touch by email. If you're interested in staying in touch, message me and I'll send you my email address.


Nothing says "I've just been spanked like a red-headed stepchild" than the Hacker X defense. But Chuck is nothing if not persistent. He has since reported me to US-CERT and the Internet Crime Commission for "cyberbullying and harassment." (I'd love to see the look on Agent Smith's face when he sees the Chuck/GOATSE mashup which has been entered as "Exhibit A"). He also friended me on Facebook using his "Titus Agnosticus" account after I specifically requested he not contact me again, all to remind me that I was stalking and harassing him.

I am glad to see that after nearly a decade in retirement, I'm still able to inspire such passion with just a few well-placed keystrokes. Trolling really is just like riding a bicycle.

Monday, September 26, 2011

From "Talking with the Spirits" -- an Excerpt on Gnosis

During the early days of Christianity, various models of worship and belief squabbled amongst themselves for primacy of position. One popular movement took its lead from the Mystery cults which were popular at Eleusis, Delphi and throughout the eastern Roman Empire. Instead of pistis (πίστις) or faith, they relied on gnosis (γνῶσις) – knowledge based on experience of the Divine. They sought salvation not from sin but from ignorance: redemption came not from mere belief but from direct personal revelation. But alas, those who favored faith won the backing of Constantine and his successors. By the end of the fifth century their Gnostic competition had largely been reduced to a heretical footnote in the history of the True Religion.

Near the end of the 19th century, a number of occultists became interested in the Gnostics. The most important occult thinker of the period, Helena Petrova Blavatsky, was particularly enamored of Gnosticism, believing it a direct link to the “ancient wisdom” which had been preserved since time immemorial by the “Secret Chiefs.” Her devotees and detractors alike followed her lead: G.R.S. Mead translated numerous Gnostic texts, while Aleister Crowley named the central ritual of his Ordo Templi Orientis the “Gnostic Mass.” Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung devoted particular study to Gnosis, recasting its doctrines and rituals as techniques for analytical psychology and self-integration. And this interest only grew stronger with the 1945 discovery of many long-lost Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi and their subsequent translation.

The various Gnostic sects had little in the way of dogma – indeed, dogma was shunned as a creation of the evil “demiurge” who was responsible for the creation of the material world and who closely resembled the Old Testament’s Jehovah. But they were united in believing that man contained a spark of Divinity which, when awakened, would be freed from its stupor and from its prison. In being awakened, they would return to the Oneness of the Godhead. This awakening could only neither through reason nor faith but only by a direct revelatory experience that transforms the Gnostic. This experience would free them from the constraints of time and space. The mundane world we perceived through our five senses was not something to be worshipped or even honored, but rather a trap from which only a select few might escape.

But where the Gnostics saw the world of the senses as a pitfall keeping us from Reality, most modern philosophy sees it as the only thing worthy of consideration. The idea of a “higher reality” was so much silliness and superstition. That which is Beyond All Words is beyond all meaning; that which cannot be weighed, measured and quantified directly or through its impact on our world is of no importance. Using the materialist/scientific approach, one can describe the various sensations one has during a mystical experience and measure its effects on the mystic’s life through various tests. One can discuss how this mystic’s experience is shaped by various sociocultural and historical factors. One can give the mystic a thorough physical examination to check for signs of disease, and examine electroencephalograms in search of any aberrations from the norm. But one cannot answer (or even ask) the most important question of all: during this experience Who is communicating with the mystic?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Strange Bedfellows: Ayn Rand and Flannery O'Connor

courtesy of Cracked.
On a friend's mailing list, a healthy, if sometimes heated, discussion arose about the merits of Ayn Rand.  As can be expected, opinions were mixed but quite strong.  Some admired the merits of Objectivism, while others panned her prose, philosophy and followers.

Speaking as charitably as I can, I find Rand's skills as a philosopher somewhat wanting. She's given to dogmatic statements and blanket dismissals that would get her swatted down in any half-decent Philosophy 101 class.  (And don't even get me started on how badly she misunderstood Nietzsche or how she disparaged his philosophy as the nihilistic ravings of a madman while glorifying Nietzschean Übermenschen). But it's those very weaknesses as a philosopher which served to make her such an effective writer.

"Effective writer?" you may ask, pointing to her one-dimensional characters, her lengthy passages of exposition and her penchant for writing tomes which were approximately the size of the Manhattan Yellow Pages And yes, she's guilty of all those things.  Rand is by no means a subtle writer: she's a strident polemicist with little use for nuance or ambiguity.  But she transforms her weaknesses into strengths: her books succeed because she has such undying conviction in her beliefs. (Don't believe me? Point to another 1,200+ page tome from the mid-20th century which is still being read today).

In that she reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Flannery O'Connor.  O'Connor was a rare combination - a devout Roman Catholic born and raised in Georgia.  Her stories combine the kudzu-choked strains of southern Gothic literature with the brutality and glory of a Passion Play.  For O'Connor fiction was a way to explore the workings of Grace, to chronicle the descent of the Holy Spirit among the people wandering through the rural south trying to figure out what they needed more, sin or salvation.
"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness," he said and his voice had become almost a snarl. 
"Maybe He didn't raise the dead," the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.  
"I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't," The Misfit said. "I wisht I had of been there," he said, hitting the ground with his fist. "It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady," he said in a high voice, "if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now."   
His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children !" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.

Both O'Connor and Rand had deep convictions and the certainty of faith. But O'Connor understood that faith entails a Kierkegaardian "blind leap" which does not reject so much as transcend reason.  It is not so much that Rand did not make that leap as that she did not recognize she had: she made an idol of her convictions and called them "reason."  And because she was a skillful prosodist, she created a fascinating idol which has attracted many passionate worshippers

O'Connor's work is Grand Guignol Catholicism: as she put it, "I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear."  Ayn Rand's writing is Grand Guignol Capitalism. Socialists aren't just wrong, they're active agents of evil.  The horrors of egalitarianism are writ large, so that nobody might be deceived by their lies and their pretty words.  They are both writers of ideas, writing not just to entertain but also to educate.  But O'Connor understood that her stories were exaggerations which pointed to a deeper Mystery: Rand (and, later, many of her followers) made the mistake of thinking her fiction was an accurate representation of mundane truth.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

More on Race, Clan, Ancestry and Heathenry: Deconstructing Deconstructor

My earlier post on an earlier post from Jason Pitzl-Waters (shades of infinite recursion!) has sparked a few conversations in various venues.  For the sake of convenience, I thought I'd bring them together here.  Let's start with these bon mots from "Deconstructor," who spoke his mind in the Wild Hunt's comments section:
OK, let me try to understand .....you have greater expertise in African Diaspora religions.....that means you are an African? Or does that mean that you study/practice African religions? You're a white person immersing herself in African religion? 
Reminds me of the times I spent with Minnesota Cree and Taos Pueblo Indians. A lot of Native Americans do not like white people who want to 'walk the red road'... They see it as another form of encroachment upon their own sacred grounds. 
It's THEIR native American identity...Identity is not a commodity... For many it's all they have left.. 
paganism is one way for white people to awaken their own roots.....but you're not going to find your roots in African religion unless you're African. 
You want to develop a folkish/ancestral practice by going to African religions? Surely you jest?
As I said in my earlier post, there are Haitians who will not offer initiation to non-Haitians.  As I also said, this is not about being "African" or "European" but about being Haitian. It's a distinction which many Americans - including, apparently, Deconstructor - have problems grasping.  There are also houses which will initiate non-Haitian members: Société la Belle Venus in Jacmel and Brooklyn is one of these.  And while I agree that one needs to address issues of cultural appropriation, something tells me that Deconstructor's objections were based in other concerns.

With regard to people of one ethnicity or nationality developing a spiritual practice by going to a different culture, I have three words:  The Golden Ass.  And if that picaresque tale of a Roman Isis-worshipper doesn't convince you, here are another three words: Cult of Mithras.  The ancient world was a far less provincial place than many would have you think.  There have been trade routes for millennia, with extensive commerce in goods, Gods and genetics.

One develops an ancestral practice by establishing a relationship with one's ancestors. The "White Table" or "Boveda" is one popular and effective way of doing that.  And while Deconstructor and others may associate this with Espiritismo and other practices popular in Central and South America, it has definite roots in Europe.  (Does the name "Allan Kardec" ring any bells?)  The point is to make and strengthen the ancestral contact by whatever means are available to you.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Race, Tribe, Family, Clan: the Difference between Skin and Blood

In a recent Wild Hunt, Jason Pitzl-Waters discussed white nationalism in the Heathen community.  This has long been a bugbear among American followers of the Nordic and Germanic gods.  Many of their faith's holy symbols were co-opted a few decades back by a certain Austrian failed artist, and have not yet lost that nasty tinge. (I am sure the Tibetans sympathize).  As is often the case on Wild Hunt, the comments proved illuminating, if only in illuminating the serious issues Americans have with the whole concept of race.

If it's any consolation, the Heathens aren't the only ones who suffer from this.  I have seen quite a few "Afrocentric" black Americans arrive on forums dedicated to Vodou, Lukumi and other African Diaspora/African Traditional religions and declare that no white person has a right to serve African spirits.   They are often non-plussed when their message of Black Solidarity gets a chilly reception from the Haitians and Cubans on the board.  This becomes especially galling to them when the house defends its white members despite their objections, or gives them a not so gentle tap with the Banhammer.  But I've also seen many white neophytes declare blithely that spirit has no color and that every spirit can be served by everyone: those who say otherwise are just being elitist, or maybe even "reverse racists."

The truth, as truth is wont to be, is a bit more complicated.  I can't speak to Heathen views on the subject (but I'm hoping that some of my more qualified friends will step up to the plate on that).  But I can talk about some of the ways in which this question plays out in Vodou.

Within the Vodou community, there are definitely houngans and mambos who will not initiate anyone who is not natif natal Haitian.  They feel that Vodou is a Haitian practice and should be reserved to those with verifiable Haitian ancestry.  But this has nothing to do with our modern conception of "race."  These houses are equal opportunity: they bar their doors against black and white non-Haitians alike.  (Keep in mind that in Kreyol Haitians are negs - black - while all non-Haitians, regardless of skin color or ethnic background, are blans, or white).

There are also spirits one has en sang, or "in the blood."  These are spirits served by your ancestors, passed down through familial lineage.  If you don't have these spirits in your blood, they are not interested in hearing from you.  At best they will ignore you:  at worst, they will see you as a tasty snack.  This isn't about race or even nationality: every servant of this spirit may be a black Haitian, but not every black person, or even every Haitian, can serve this spirit.

This is troubling to those who want to believe the spirit world is an egalitarian and democratic place.  Alas, it is neither.  The misté  (mysteries) work with whom they will and turn away from others.  Their decisions sometimes appear capricious, and are certainly not overly influenced by human concerns about moral or ethical behavior.   The lwa helped Papa Doc Duvalier maintain his hold on power for decades despite abundant human rights concerns: many of the country's most powerful houngans and mambos were also numbered among the most sadistic Tonton Macoutes.  We don't know how or why the spirits make their choices to accept or reject prospective servitors.   But we do know that they make those choices, and that sometimes they choose to say "no."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dr. Corbeaux on the New Orleans Voodoo Handbook

Arkansas Hoodoo Man Dr. Lazarus Corbeaux has weighed in with his thoughts on the New Orleans Voodoo Handbook.  When you're done watching that, check out the rest of his channel: he has a lot of excellent hoodoo and rootwork advice for those interested in Ozarks folk magic.  (And if you aren't interested, you should be! While New Orleans gets the lion's share of the attention, Ozark witches have long practiced a potent blend of Elizabethan-era European folk magic and African-American hoodoo - and have recently begun adding Curanderismo, Brujeria and other Mexican and Central American practices to the mix).

It's always nice to get positive reviews, especially from those who know their stuff.  If they're liking my book in Arkansas, I know I must have done something right.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sex, Drugs and ... Well, Drugs, Anyway: Still More on that Certain Interview

The conversation about that not-ready-for-Patheos interview has continued on the comments section of Sannion's blog.  Cara Schulz, whose husband (an attorney) originally recommended against posting the interview, said:
Unless YOU have ever had to pay an attorney to fight the feds to get your site back on the internet, it’s pretty easy to just say “Oh well, Patheos, just suck it up and print whatever and let your attorney handle it.” This is still a start up company, I’m sure money is tight. Would the site get tagged for the interview? Probably not. But probably, when you are talking about shit-tons of money in legal bills, is not something to jump into. And well..the feds have been pretty trigger happy in the past year shutting down sites for some truely bullshit reasons.
As I said earlier, I am sympathetic to those who are afraid of becoming casualties in the War on Drugs. But I would also remind Mr. Schulz, Esq. of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.  Unless Patheos was offering online gambling,  bomb-making instructions and "hit lists" or pirated movies and software, they are almost certainly covered by the clause which states "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

This leads me to wonder if concerns about "legal issues" were a convenient fig leaf for the real problem.  In a recent posting Star Foster discussed what she saw as some of the obstacles to Paganism "going mainstream"
You would think it would be enough to be Pagan and to promote Paganism. It’s not. Paganism carries a wave of causes along with it , as if it crawled out of the sea dragging a net full of strange fish. Many of these causes are considered so broadly worthy and integral to Pagan values that they are practically inseparable, such as GLBTQI issues, environmentalism and equal religious rights.
Yet to be Pagan is to be expected to be pro-kink, pro-nudism, pro-legalization-of-marijuana, pro-sex-worker-rights, pro-homeschooling, pro-polyamory, pro-homeopathy, pro-choice, and a bunch of other things. It’s a lot of banners to fly. If you were to try to carry a physical banner for all of theses causes you’d be crushed and smothered by the weight.
There’s nothing wrong with these causes, but they aren’t our religion and they can’t form the litmus test of our religion. You can be a teetotaling conservative who dresses modestly, advocates celibacy until hetero-marriage and eats off Styrofoam plates and still be Pagan if you seek a relationship with the Gods, ancestors and/or land spirits.
Being Pagan is hard enough, and a lifetime of work, without being expected to fight for and espouse every alternative lifestyle option. Not supporting causes that are not part of their lifestyle, particularly when they are illegal, doesn’t make someone less Pagan. For Paganism to be mainstream, it really can’t be carrying an army of banners around everywhere it goes. The Pagan banner is heavy enough.
It appears that Star wants very much for Paganism to be a "mainstream" religion.  To that end, she would like to de-emphasize some of the more controversial lifestyle choices that have become popular within the Pagan subculture.   I can definitely sympathize with her desire to be taken seriously by the greater community.  I would even agree that these choices should not form a "litmus test" for who is or is not Pagan.  But I would follow up with a question: who exactly is using this "litmus test?"

I've never heard anyone claim that support for marijuana legalization, sex worker rights, or legal abortion was a prerequisite for identifying as Pagan.  I've heard a few horny predatory Pagan guys try to convince Pagan women that kink and polyamory was a prerequisite - more precisely, kinky polyamory with said H.P.P.G. - but that is far more widely mocked and scorned than accepted in any Pagan community I've encountered.  If there's a litmus test being used here, it appears to be one which seeks to separate the "acceptable" Pagans - the ones who won't ruffle too many feathers at a Hadassah meeting or Presbyterian bake sale - from the fringe elements.

This isn't entirely inappropriate, given that Patheos strives to be an Interfaith site and to encourage dialogue between various faith communities.  But I wonder if we aren't selling those Hadassah members and Presbyterian elders short.  The very fact that they have sought out an interfaith website proves that they're willing to learn about other religious traditions rather than dismiss them out of hand.    It also suggests they're open to exploring challenging topics, even if they might respectfully disagree with some of the conclusions presented.  (And they might not be that quick to disagree, as can be seen by a quick look at the members of Religious Leaders for a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy).

If we are only to discuss legally sanctioned activities, we're going to shut down discussion on Frs. Daniel and Phillip Berrigan and their long history of anti-war protests. We'll need to change the subject whenever someone brings up Starhawk's non-violent direct actions at Diablo Canyon and other nuclear sites.  These spiritual leaders have all been driven by their faith to speak truth to power, despite the consequences.  In their honor, and in memory of all those whose lives have been destroyed by the lies and injustices of our "War on Drugs," I close with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail:"
[W]e who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Yet Another Kenaz Filan Special on Tarot Readings

To celebrate the turning of the seasons - and pay some bills while I'm waiting on various royalty checks -  I'm offering a special bonus.  With every reading you get a Ginsu steak knife an autographed copy of my latest masterpiece, The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook.   

Where else can you get a reading and some reading material for only $60, I ask you?  Supplies are limited, so act now.  Operators are standing by. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Holy S**t, or Finding the Divine in Unlikely Places

In the comments to my earlier post on Imperial Deities and Familiar Spirits, Mad Fishmonger (who earlier wrote a very thoughtful response to my post on Heresies and Preconceptions) noted:
The condescension towards Judeo-Christian humility in the face of the spiritual dimension is only partially justified: one cannot help but feel awed by the greatness of things if one is the least bit spiritually evolved. We are all tiny humans, and yet we all have greatness within us potentially; with such knowledge one need not feel "special-er" than anyone else. Petitioners of Apollo came to his Temples with great reverence and respectfulness; Dionysians may have been more liberal, but even in their celebration there was often a prevailing and sobering tone of solemnity. Sometimes all of us feel very much more like creatures of flesh and blood, or clay and water so to speak, than spirit and soul. 
I have no objection to approaching the Gods with humility and reverence.  In fact, I've often complained about how we've lost the "holy terror" which often accompanies a visit from the Divine.  (I blame that on the Monotheists too: more on this momentarily).  There are many Beings which are wiser, mightier and more important than us. It is fitting that we should respond to Them with worship and awe.  But they are not the only, nor even the most common, denizens of the Spirit World.  And the Judeo-Christian approach generally ignores them or treats them as inherently evil.

(This is a comparatively recent event.  The early Christians transformed many local genii and ancestral heroes into "saints" working for God and His Holy Church.  Only those who could not be co-opted were condemned as "idols" and "devils."  With the Protestant Reformation, even the saints and intercessors were cast to the outer darkness).

In a polythestic culture it's easy to find the Divine everywhere.  This narrative from Dr. Gabi Greve, a longtime resident of Japan, gives an example from Shintoism:
When we remodeled our old Japanese farmhouse, we had to do something about the old toilet. It was just a small pond in the ground, with two beams over it where you had to balance real hard while performing your job. Below you was the open sewer. The local carpenter decided to drain the sewage water, fill the hole up with earth, and level it with the rest of the ground. But before doing anything, we were informed, we had to pacify the Suijin-sama living in the bog. With rice wine (Japanese sake) and purifying salt and a lot of mumbling prayers, the deity was informed that s/he was to be relocated to the wet rice paddies further down the hill. After the water was drained, a pipe was stuck in the hole before it was filled up, so that Suijin-sama, who might have been trapped inside, could find a way out." Gabi-san also discovered a web site (no long online) claiming that this toilet-water Suijin takes the form of good bacteria -- bacteria that cleanses the water for reuse in the soil.
And while we're on the topic of feces, here's P. Sufenas Virius Lupus describing his experiences with a less-known but still helpful Roman deity - Sterculinus, god of manure-based fertilizer:
Sterculinus has been instrumental for me in finding the most useful and productive ways to deal with the most trying and difficult situations in my life since he came into it. When something can't be transformed by proper placement into a force that will contribute to one's overall garden health (i.e., one person's shit is another's fertilizer, as long as it you put it in the right place!), sometimes it is just better to "flush," wash your hands, and go about with your day. The discernment to know which situation is which is also a part of Sterculinus' influence in my experience.
The polytheistic world features a plethora of Gods and spirits struggling with and against each other: there is no place where we cannot find spirit  Within a Monotheistic world, there is only the One.  That which He declares holy is holy: all else is cast to the winds like chaff.  If He is not to be found in bejeweled idols or verdant sacred groves, He certainly won't deign to be found in a septic tank, a whorehouse or a rotting pile of trash. And as the Creator grows ever more distant from His creation, those who grew up hearing there was only One God find it just as easy to believe there is none at all.

This is the place in which many modern Pagans find themselves.  They have rejected their God and the most inconvenient and stupid of His purported commandments.  They have replaced YHVH the Abusive Gym Teacher with kinder, gentler parental models.  But they have not yet questioned the prejudices and preconceptions which come with His teachings.  Their gods are still distant and remote.  Sometimes they are even non-existent: many who reject God & Son have filled the void with "archetypes" and "symbols."  Others accept their reality, but believe They speak only through ancient legends and stories from long-ago Golden Ages.

Perhaps the greatest lie of the Monotheistic Conquest is this: the Gods no longer speak with us.  If we are to honor Them again as they once were honored, we must not be deceived.  We must know that the stories from the past are important, but so too are the stories which They write with us here and now.  And one of the best ways of doing this is to recognize the Gods of our time and our place.   Research is important: there are many good reasons for studying the cultures in which our Gods were first worshipped.  But if we are to make our religion a vital faith instead of an academic exercise, sooner or later we have to stop looking in libraries and start exploring the shithouse.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Critics Speak on the New Orleans Voodoo Handbook

Kirkus Reviews has weighed in with their opinion, calling it a "winning blend of urban and religious history from famed New Orleans Vodou priest Filan" and stating
Filan includes everything the novice priest or priestess could want to know. From famous figures like Dr. John and Marie Laveau to the use of candles, oils, prayers and poppets (voodoo dolls), the author outlines the tenets of this spiritual practice with clarity, and his starter set of tools, accompanied by instructions on how to use them, is only limited by readers’ imaginations.
Meanwhile, Brother Ash at Crossroads of Sorcery says "With the “New Orleans Voodoo Handbook” Kenaz Filan gives readers a guide not only to Voodoo as it is practiced in the city, but also the culture and history that has shaped it," but cautions that "Someone looking for a simple cookbook of spells and formulas will be sorely disappointed."

Br. Ash is obviously a two-headed rootworker: as if on cue, we have a pair of one-star reviews on Amazon which state "Voodoo is vibrant and flourishing in New Orleans,but you won't find that out here.This is "Voodoo Lite" from an author who specializes in it" and call The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook the "[w]orst book on Voodoo instruction ever."

(I can sympathize somewhat with the critics.  I definitely was more interested in talking about New Orleans culture than in writing a spell-book.  New Orleans Voodoo and Haitian Vodou are both intimately tied to place and history: if you don't understand the backstory, you'll never figure out what's going on.   And while I found the story of New Orleans endlessly fascinating - and far more entertaining than many of the old clichés and legends - I can see where it might seem a distraction to someone who just wants to become a Voodoo Queen in 10 easy lessons). 

Whatever else happens, within its first month of release The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook is already shaping up to be my most talked-about and most controversial book yet.   

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11: Intake Processing

This story was written in late 2001.  It was the first introduction to Charley Delcruccio, Intake Processing Guide and Afterlife Orientation Specialist (any resemblance to Harvey Delcruccio, swankest Ghede ever to come out of Brooklyn, is purely coincidental).


"The man with the megaphone said everything was going to be all right."

The primly-dressed Jamaican women frown as Charley tacks the INTAKE PROCESSING sign to his card table.

"The plane struck the other tower," the woman in blue says.

"That's right," her friend in red agrees. "Not ours."

Smoke pours from the World Trade Center. Papers spiral in the cool September wind. A leaper spirals screaming alongside them. St. Gerard Majella crosses himself as she enters the Land of the Dead. Charley reaches out, but there are no AOGs left on the table. He reaches over the limbless torso of Robert-Francois Damiens and takes the last two copies from the bench.

"There was another plane, and … look, ladies, read the book, why don't you? It'll save us all a lot of time."

Burning jet fuel streams down the maimed buildings and snakes onto the pavement. A flaming tendril curls toward Charley, then turns left toward Crustyfred the Punk. The woman in red watches Crustyfred scratch his nose ring from the inside, then turns again to Charley and Damiens.

"He specifically told us to return to our desks," she insists again.

Crustyfred sneers. The syringe in his arm sparkles pus-yellowgray in the jet fuel's light. "Sure. Follow orders like the corporate sheep that you are…OWWWW!!!!" Crustyfred looks accusingly at Charley. "Why'd you hit my needle, man?"

"So you'd shut up and make yourself useful. Go get me another stack of AOGs."

"That really hurt, dude…" Crustyfred says as he makes his way back to the Supply Tent.

Damiens snorts. "Ohhhh … poor baby!!! Hees arm hurts."

The Jamaican women examine the cover of the Afterlife Orientation Guide. A burning messenger stumbles past, smoke rising from his dreadlocks as he searches for his bicycle. The women look at each other, then back at Charley and Damiens.

"Good morning, mademoiselles. Damiens would teep hees hat to you, but he hopes you understand."

The woman in blue wanders off, muttering "There's something wrong here" under her breath.

"But he told us to return to our desks…" the woman in red says again, holding her AOG vaguely as she follows her friend.

Crustyfred returns, a pile of books beneath his tattooed and trackmarked arm. Charley looks over at Trinity Church, where two of the Puerto Rican muertos he met at last month's Misa are setting up a processing table. Next to them a Mormon, a Rabbi and Dave the Hippie scan the growing crowd, boxes of freshly mimeographed AOGs by their side. A burning leaper blazes a meteor trail to the ground.

Jesus H. Christ, how big was this thing anyway? Charley wonders.

"Ma liberaci del male!!!"

The high tubercular color drains from St. Gerard's sunken cheeks as he cries out not in the voiceless language of the dead but in the Italian of his youth. Charley runs over to his side.

"What's up, kid?"

St. Gerard whimpers, his gaze affixed on fifteen seconds away.

"It's coming down. Dear Mother of God, it's coming down!"

Something rumbles like D-Day. A hot wind blows from the growling tower. Charley grabs Damiens and puts him atop the stack of AOGs, then ducks beneath a police car.

"You fuck!!! Damiens ees not paperweight!!!!! YOU FUCK!!!!!"

* * *


Damiens spits ashes and powdered concrete as Charley and Crustyfred put him back on the bench. "Damiens speets on you! He speets on both of you!"

"Ahh, lighten up, Stubby," Charley says. "In times like these everybody needs to lend a hand."

"Oh-ho-ho-ho. You funny man. Eef Damiens had knee he would be slapping eet. Ho-ho-ho. You fuck."

A team of firefighters make their way toward the World Financial Center, leaving no footprints as they walk through the ankle-deep ash. Charley looks around at the milling ghostly crowd as he brushes the dust off the AOGs.

"We're gonna be needing all of these and then some. Ya done good, Stubby." Charley looks around. "Anybody seen the kid?"

* * *

The chubby system administrator smiles at St. Gerard. "All the while I was standing on that windowsill I was so afraid I'd go to hell if I jumped. Thank you so much for clearing that up for me!"

"I'm glad I could help, Patrick. I wish I could do more."

"I just have one more question, if you don't mind." Patrick looks down at the shattered remains of a trashcan protruding from his ragged Babylon-5 t-shirt. "Am I always going to look like this?"

St. Gerard shakes his head. "He makes the blind see, the lame walk, and the wounded whole. It's part of His job description."

Patrick looks across the plaza at Damiens. "What about him?"

"Some people never ask to be healed. I don't really understand it. I wish Fr. Liguori was here. He's much better at theology than I am."

Patrick squeezes St. Gerard's hand. "God bless you, Father."

St. Gerard looks away, then, when he sees the crowds of dead, looks back at Patrick. He forces a smile. "God bless you too."

"Santo Gerardo Majella!"

The little man in the bloodstained dishwasher's apron breaks away from the crowd and falls to his knees at Gerard's feet.

"It's all right. You don't have to call me a saint, really." St. Gerard looks around again, trying to avoid catching anyone's gaze. He tries to maintain his balance as the little man embraces him.

"Excuse me! Can somebody help me here?!"

The man with the cell phone hits redial, then curses under his breath until he spots Gerard. "Hello. Excuse me? You know what's going on here, Father?"

"I'm not a priest. I'm just a lay brother…"

"Can somebody tell me what's going on??" The man with the cell phone pushes the dishwasher away. St. Gerard steps back from both, looking about like a trapped animal as he stumbles over the twisted remains of a mailbox. The man with the cell phone pushes forward until Charley grabs his shoulder.

"Anything I can help you with, Chuckles?"

The man pushes redial, then curses again. "My phone's dead."

"I'm biting my tongue." Charley hands him an AOG. "Here, read this."

The man with the cell phone examines the book, then throws it on the ground. "Do you have any idea how many people died today? That is in really, really bad taste."

"So's your tie, but do you hear me complaining?"

"I'm a very busy man. I don't have time for this nonsense." Cellphone man turns around again.

The little man is kissing St. Gerard's hand as he tries hard to pull away. "What's going on here, Father?"

"I keep telling you, I'm not a priest."

Charley taps Cellphone man on the shoulder. "Leave the kid alone. He's handling Catholics. I'm in charge of atheists, agnostics and general assholes."

"I'm an Episcopalian."

"Like I said. You been holding that damn thing all morning. Did you notice it was melted to your hand?"

Charley rips the cell phone away. A pinky and part of the ring finger come off along with the phone.

"My phone!"

"You won't need it."

He looks at his maimed hand. "My fingers…"

"You won't need them either." Charley stoops and picks up the AOG. His battered pork-pie hat falls off, exposing his bald spot and the bullet hole in the center of his forehead. "Like I told you before, read this. Start with the section for those what crossed over sudden."

The dishwasher holds Gerard's hand tightly, muttering too softly for Charley to hear. Cellphone man wanders away, the book dangling limp in his maimed hand. Gerard looks up toward the sky, then sees the pillars of smoke and flame. His eyes are hollow as his cheeks as he returns to the dishwasher and tells him, "Yes, yes, of course I'll do everything I can for your family."

Charley puts his hat back on and turns to Crustyfred. "Keep an eye on the kid for me. I'm worried about him."

Again the D-Day rumble.

"Oh no. No. Don't even theenk about eet!!!!! No!! YOU FUCK!!!!!!!"

* * *

"Ptui!!! Ptuii!!! Ptuiii!!!"

Charley wipes ashes from his coat. Damiens spits out dust as Gerard and Crustyfred dig him from the debris.

"You fucks!!! Damiens speets on all of you! All except you, Gerardo. Damiens does not speet on you because you are a pere."

Gerard looks away. "I'm not a priest…"

"Fine. So then Damiens speets on you too. Ptui!!!" Damiens spits out a shard of glass. Behind him, Dave the Hippie takes a long drag on a Marley-sized joint, then passes it back to the smoldering messenger.

"So in 2001 you can have grass delivered to your office?" Dave grins broadly as he lets out smoke. "Cool."

"Why should Damiens care eef you are priest anyway? When they executed Damiens, the priest says, 'After they reep you apart weeth the horses, we weel say Mass for you een the Cathedral.' And Damiens says, 'Oh, thank you, Pere, that makes theengs so much better.'" Damiens spits out more ashes. "You fuck."

"I gotta hand it to you, Stubby. You take a lickin' and keep on tickin.' I'd give you a Timex if you had any place to put it." Charley shakes his head as he examines the crowd milling outside the ruins. "Make sure you save those AOGs."


Crustyfred dances about in a circle, his tattered Doc Martens splitting further with every stomping step. "Take that, you Capitalist motherfuckers!!! Kerblaa … OWWWWW!!!!"

Crustyfred pouts, exposing the moldy safety pin in his lower lip. "Why'd you hit my needle again?"

"Same reason as last time," Charley says. "So you'd shut the fuck up. And go tell Central to send reinforcements."

"That hurt," Crustyfred mutters under his breath as Dave the Hippie passes him the joint.

"Ohhh … the poor revolutionary feels the steeng of oppression."

* * *

"This is Officer Lopez," Dave says as he introduces the mangled cop. "She wants to help out."

Crustyfred sniffs the air. "Whoa … I'm smelling bacon … OWWWWW!!!" Crustyfred rubs his arm. "That hurt, dude."

"It was supposed to hurt, you Red bastard," Charley says. "Now go ask Central when the hell the reinforcements are coming."

Crustyfred looks accusingly at Dave as he walks away. "I never thought you'd sell out, dude… OWWWWW!!!! Not you too…"

Charley tips his hat, exposing his bald spot and bullet hole again. "Pleasure to meet you, Officer Lopez. What's a pretty lady like you doing walking a beat? It's dangerous out there."

Lopez pulls two cigarettes from the flattened pack in her pocket and hands Charley one. "Yeah. I hear you can get killed." She lights Charley's cigarette, then her own. "Look, Pops, can the small talk. We got an emergency on our hands. What can I do?"

"I'd tell you to read the AOG, but since we're in a hurry, here's the Reader's Digest Condensed Version. You see anybody panicking, calm them down. They get too excited, they might get stuck in a loop and wind up haunting somebody's basement for God only knows how long. You see people wandering around, send them toward an intake table. The Buddhists got a Wheel of Death and Rebirth booth on the other side of Liberty Avenue; the Moslems have a table by Brooks Brothers; the Hindus and Protestants are down by the World Financial Center; the Jews and Catholics are set up on Bowling Green; and Neopagans are down by the piers with the Rastafarian camp."

"I know." She smiles as widely as her broken jaw will allow. "If I hadn't busted your buddy smoking a blunt, I still wouldn't know what happened."

"Sorry you had to find out like that. We usually have a more individual oriented approach to your transition."

Officer Lopez shrugs. "It's all right. Anything else I can do?"

Charley gestures toward Gerard. "Keep an eye on the kid. He means well, but he's frail. He's got a delicate constituency."

"I can't be dead," the heavyset woman says firmly. "My feet hurt. How can I be a ghost if my feet still hurt?"

"There's not that much difference between spirit and flesh. I know it's difficult to understand. It took me a long time." St. Gerard looks down at her high heels. "You should talk to St. Francis. I'm sure he can get you some comfortable shoes."

"I. Don't. Need. Shoes." the woman says, enunciating every syllable. "I. Am. Not. Dead."

"I know that you're very confused." St. Gerard tries to walk away. "If you'll just wait here somebody will be with you in a minute. I'm sorry I couldn't be more help."

Gerard wheels as a large man knocks a Pakistani hot dog vendor to the ground. "Wait! Please! He didn't have anything to do with this! Stop!"

St. Gerard runs between them, catching a glancing blow in his chest. He wheezes and coughs up blood as the large man pulls back for another punch.

"Hey!!" shouts Officer Lopez.

The large man stares at the mangled corpse shambling toward him, billyclub in hand. A gas main erupts. The large man falls moaning as Lopez's nightstick meets his exposed kneecap. The Pakistani man returns to the twisted remains of his hot dog cart as Lopez walks to a vantage point beneath a twelve-story steel shard.


The little girl runs screaming through the crowd, her purple dress bloodstained and torn.

Oh Christ, a kid, Charley thinks as he looks away. I hate taking kids.

"It's all right, bambina, it's all right." St. Gerard picks her up. "Nobody can hurt you now."

The little girl sniffles. "I lost Ducky."

"Shhhh. Shhhh. We'll find Ducky. Where did you lose him?"

"I was holding him when Ms. Chen told us the firemen were coming. Now I lost him." The little girl waves the mutilated stump that used to be her right arm. "I want Ducky!"

St. Gerard barely flinches. "Don't worry, bambina. We'll find Ducky. But first we have to get away from here. This is no place for little girls. This is no place for anybody."

"I want my Mommy."

"I know." His voice is calm and soft but Charley can see the lines on his forehead and the rigid set of his jaw. "You must be very frightened."

The little girl nods.

"It's all right. We're all frightened. I'm going to take you someplace safe."

The little girl curls close against St. Gerard, playing with his rosary beads with her remaining hand as he walks away stoop-shouldered.

* * *

"Dude, Central says they're totally maxed out on reinforcements." Crustyfred steps back, moving beyond Charley's reach. "He said they're sending over two more cartons of AOGs as soon as they get them mimeographed."

"Two cartons of AOGs! We got a catastrophany on our hands and they send us two cartons of AOGs?" Charley looks around at the wandering ghosts. "You go tell them we got one police officer managing crowd control here. We need more dead cops."

"Fuckin-A right we do … OWWWW!" Crustyfred looks over at Dave. "You hit my needle, dude…"

Dave shrugs. "Charley was busy."

"When this is all over with," Charley says, "remind me to put Lopez in for a commendation. And does anybody know where the kid is?"

* * *

St. Gerard staggers wheezing to a park bench. The dark man moves aside to let him sit down. "Are you all right, Father?"

St. Gerard shakes his head, coughing. "I'm sorry, I'm not a priest."

The dark man hands him a bottle of water. "Drink this."

St. Gerard takes a sip. "Thank you. You're very kind." He tries to hand the bottle back but the dark man refuses it.

"Drink, drink. I didn't finish it before we crashed. Please. Drink. You need to take better care of yourself anyway."

"You were on the airplane?"

The dark man nods, his smile growing broader but no warmer as he stares at the pillars of smoke. "They never made allowance for devotion."

St. Gerard stares blankly. "I don't understand."

The dark man glances upward. A legal brief crumbles to glowing confetti and falls through them. Charley watches from behind a mangled phone booth.

"Kid! Get away from him!" Charley cries out.

The dark man looks over at him, then returns to Gerard, his eyes peacock-blue and his voice cool and soft as spring water. "You dragged yourself from your deathbed to feed the poor. And why? Devotion." He savors the word like it tastes sweet in his mouth. "You sacrificed your life doing what you thought God wanted you to do. Just like they did." The dark man surveys the carnage. "Blessed are they who do God's will."

"This isn't God's will," Gerard says, his voice edging toward hysteria.

"He's no good, kid! Don't listen to him!" Charley shouts.

"He told the Israelites to slaughter the people of Canaan. He told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac." The dark man raises an eyebrow. "Who are we to question God's will?"

Gerard rises, his face stricken. "You think this is God's will?"

The half-empty water bottle falls from Gerard's hands as the dark man's smile goes from cold to sad. "All we can do is God's will."

St. Gerard steps backward, clutching his stomach like he's just been stabbed. Charley thinks he might fall, but then he rights himself. His face is expressionless and his eyes hollow as he stumbles away muttering. The pavement shimmers amber in the firelight. Gerard falls to his knees in the broken glass.

"Jesus, kid, you OK?"

"Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta." St. Gerard's rosary beads jangle together in his trembling fingers as he prays in the Italian of his youth. The dark man laughs softly as he throws the half-empty water bottle into the trash.

"Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta."

"Snap out of it, kid. You're giving me flashbacks of Sister Maria Giacometti and her Ruler of Pain."

"Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta."

"Come on, Jerry. You're scaring me here. Don't go looping on me."

Below the twelve-story steel shard, Officer Lopez hustles two more wandering spirits toward the Wheel of Death and Rebirth. The wind shifts. The stench of burning jet fuel wafts above the smell of blood and powdered concrete. Gerard rocks back and forth in time with the dark man's sad laughter. "Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta. Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta. Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta ."

"Yeah, yeah! You guys can't handle reality so you turn to organized religion. OWWW!!!" Crustyfred rubs his abscess, then stares accusingly at Charley. "You keep hitting my arm!"

"Because you keep flapping your jaws. Put a sock in it, why don't you? And leave the kid alone. He's intercessorizing."

Crustyfred pouts. "But that hurt…"

"Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta."

Damiens snorts. "Ohhhhh, poor baby! Always hees arm ees hurting. Maybe you should find your Mommy so she can kiss eet for you and make eet better. Damiens weeshes hees arm hurt. Damiens weeshes he had an arm."

Charley turns to Damiens. "If you had an arm you'd be your own best friend, Stubby."

"Oh-ho-ho-ho. You are funny man. Damiens can hardly keep himself from laughing you are so funny. You fuck."

"Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta."

Charley turns back to Gerard. "Come on, kid. Snap out of it. Don't go looping, kid. Come on."

Gerard looks up at the pillar of smoke where the South Tower once stood. His knuckles are white as he clutches his rosary beads. " Prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell'ora morta!"

Officer Lopez directs a charred paramedic toward Charley's intake table. The wind picks up. The sun breaks through the smoke. Charley and Crustyfred throw up their arms against the sudden flash of brilliance. Damiens averts his eyes cursing. Sirens echo in the distance. Gerard grins like a baby, tears rolling down his face as he stares straight ahead at the place where there is no building, where there is no fire, where there is only light.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Imperial Gods and Familiar Spirits

The pre-Christian world had no shortage of great temples and sacred shrines devoted to mighty Gods and Goddesses, many of which have survived more or less intact .  We have snippets of the sacred stories and liturgies of Thebes, Luxor, Babylon, Athens, Rome and other major city-states.  These fragments and ruins have come under close scrutiny as we attempt to plumb the secrets of "Roman religion," "Greek ritual," "Celtic worship" and suchlike.  But while these efforts have yielded some interesting results, I wonder how accurately they reflect the spirituality  of the pre-Christian world.

For as long as there have been empires there have been gods of empire. Conquered nations were expected to make obeisance to the conqueror's deities: the tributes of subject peoples enriched many a holy temple.  These offerings and rituals were more akin to the American "Pledge of Allegiance" or Soviet military parades than to the Christian idea of "worship."  In honoring the empire's gods you proclaimed your loyalty -- or at least recognized their military superiority.  In building a great monument to your patron Gods you acknowledged Their blessings, but also displayed your city's wealth.

But while people went to these public temples for public functions,  their primary spiritual focus was on the gods of hearth and home.  Local and ancestral spirits were more directly connected to the lives of their devotees and more ready to intervene in their daily affairs.  Artisans, criminals, and farmers might have a special devotion to the patrons of their trades:  fishermen and sailors might propitiate both Poseidon and the nymphs who ruled over a particularly treacherous inlet.

(I should add here that "local" does not necessarily mean provincial.  A merchant might bring home a foreign deity who would, within a few generations, become one of the town's most beloved spirits.  There have been extensive trade routes throughout Eurasia since before the dawn of history).

These spiritual arenas - the public and private - co-existed in relative comfort.  One might fulfill civic duties at a local temple, drop a coin in the stream for a local spirit on your way home, then spend some quiet time with your ancestors before your hearth.  So long as you posed no threat to the established order, you were free to believe as you chose.   It was only with the establishment of "Christiandom" - first as an effort to preserve the crumbling Roman Empire, then as a defensive coalition against the new threat of Islam - that the public religion set out to control private spiritual practice.

Laws against malevolent magic are not unique to Christianity or to monotheism.  What is unique to these traditions is how they define all other spiritual practices as inherently evil, or at best terminally flawed.  The mystical experience is either carefully delimited, or rejected outright as demonolatry and sorcery.  The idea of local wights is treated as silly: sentience, like souls, is a human phenomenon and one should worship the Creator, not the Creation.  Instead of a world full of Gods, we get a distant Divinity engaged in a fearful struggle with equally shadowy Forces of Evil.  

Reclaiming that public space is a very important goal: there are good reasons why we need an above-ground presence in our community.  But we must first establish a direct and personal private spiritual practice.  Before we set up our temples, we must first recognize the Divine in our homes and in our daily lives.  It is not enough that they be inaccessible Presences or Symbols: they must become that which the One Who Will Have No Others Before Him fears and loathes most of all, familiar spirits.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On Michael Harner II: Danger and Protection

In his original response to Galina's post, Tim Flynn said:
With respect to protection/defense. I think your misunderstanding here is reflective of the problem of sorcery and shamanism. Harners earliest reported initiatory work was with the Shuar/Jivaro, a culture rife with harmful sorcery practices and defenses. Harner has reported that this culture does not journey to the upper or lower worlds - where one might empower oneself as a form of protection. I believe he sees that as the most important work for many of his students. He does see certain kinds of protection work to be advanced, and has taught this to a much lesser degree. Perhaps its valid to critique that balance, but it does not come from ignorance or lack of knowledge on his or other faculties part. Concern with sorcery, and involvement with defense can often be a reflection of disempowerment, rather than advanced skill.
Tim makes a good point regarding disempowering concerns with sorcery and black magic.  We've all run into people who see the devil in every misfortune and fancy themselves the victims of all sorts of spiritual malfeasance.  Sometimes these fears are rooted in mental illness: at other times they stem from a deep existential ennui.  (There's nothing quite so interesting or ego-gratifying as being preyed upon by Eternal Cosmic Evil).   This sort of behavior needs to be discouraged, and its underlying causes addressed and treated.

But I am still left wondering if the FSS has not gone too far in the opposite direction.  The Shuar/Jivaro are hardly the only culture "rife with harmful sorcery practices and defenses."  In fact, I've yet to encounter any indigenous culture which did not have well-developed traditions of spiritual defense.  If we are going to talk about universal beliefs in shamanism, I'd be hard pressed to find one more widespread than "the spirit world can be a dangerous place."

This is not surprising, given that the material world which hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers inhabit is a dangerous place. Famine and disease are never far away: their everyday life puts them in constant contact with risky situations.  (And things generally don't get better for the poor and dispossessed when they move/are moved to more urban environments: those who doubt me need only look to Port-au-Prince, Havana, Lagos or similar cities).  Their mundane lives require vigilance, discretion and caution, and so they take similar care in their spiritual work.

By contrast, much modern American spirituality speaks of a Law of Abundance, a Prosperity Gospel, a heavenly cornucopia where divine game show hosts dispense blessings, wisdom and new cars to anybody who wishes to play.  Death is kept safely hidden away in hospices, funeral homes and slaughterhouses.  (When did you last see a dead body in the road, or watch your lunch being killed?)  Because we have little direct contact with danger,  we envision the spirit world to be as safe as our mundane existence.

Alas, our worlds - mundane and spiritual - are not safe places.  Good intentions are useless against predators and parasites in either realm. Malaria-carrying mosquitos need to be met with bug spray, not unconditional love.   Illusions about a nurturing, benevolent universe are harmless enough if you're properly sheltered: they are far less benign once you leave that warm cocoon.  And there really is no way to encounter the Divine without that exit: indeed, I'd say it's the first step on that journey.  Thus, I would much prefer that spiritual self-defense and shielding be taught not as an advanced technique but as a prerequisite to any further study.

Monday, September 5, 2011

On Michael Harner I: Culture, Reductionism and Spirituality

In response to Galina Krasskova's recent interview of yrs. truly, a Core Shamanism student named Tim Flynn took issue with some of our critical comments about Michael Harner.  Since Mr. Flynn has been kind enough to speak at length on his understanding of Core Shamanism and the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, I wanted to return the favor.  Accordingly, I'd like to address a number of his points separately, so as to give them the attention they deserve.

From Mr. Flynn:
It is not Harners or the FSS intent to create a "culture - free shamanism". I think their "Living Treasures" program speaks to this, as well as trainings with indigenous shamans that are offered when possible. It is the intent of the FSS training to reawaken something authentic for westerners. Its impossible to do anything without culture, I think Michael understands this well.
While I hate to start our discussion with a disagreement, according to the FSS website:
Core shamanism consists of the universal, near-universal, and common practices of shamanism not bound to any specific cultural group or perspective, as originated, researched, and developed by Michael Harner. 
This approach to indigenous spiritual practices - and to spirituality in general - has a long tenure.  Helena Petrova Blavatsky sought the "Secret Doctrine" behind all modern religions. Aleister Crowley created tables of correspondence which mixed and matched deities on Qabalistic paths, stating "when a Japanese thinks of Hachiman, and a Boer of the Lord of Hosts, they are not two thoughts, but one."  It's part and parcel of the post-Newtonian world: the scientific wish to reduce a complex reality to its underlying equations.

There are many good reasons why scholars and practitioners alike might want to examine commonalities of religious practice among different cultures.  But I'm not sure it is entirely helpful when constructing or reconstructing an animist practice.  Scientific reductionism seeks to reduce the mysteries to recipes and rational explanations.  Animism, by contrast, seeks a direct and personal engagement with the material world. The botanist may know that tree's genus, species and approximate age: the shaman knows that it favors offerings of yellow ribbons, tells great dirty jokes, and readily shares gossip about the goings-on within this particular patch of land.

Many academic efforts to understand shamanism have fallen afoul of this.  The academic catalogues the  various substances used in a specific operation.  This is then used to "explain" what the shaman is actually doing. The ritual is recast as a psychosocial or medical operation.  Comments about "talking to the plant" are dismissed as superstition or metaphor: that which cannot be explained using contemporary scientific knowledge is ignored.  And because the spirit world has proven reluctant to jump through hoops and perform verifiable, repeatable experiments for scientists, the theological dimensions of this act are generally neglected in favor of the psychological.  Scholars who doubt the existence of their own souls can hardly be expected to find souls in trees, rocks and wildlife.  And what began as a spiritual quest becomes solipsism, with the voices of the Allies and Gods reduced to subconscious mutterings bouncing off the inside of the shaman's skull.

Having expressed my doubts, let me offer praise where it is due.  According to the Foundation for Shamanic Studies website,
Our Living Treasures designation provides an annual lifetime stipend to exceptionally distinguished indigenous shamans in less-developed countries where their age-old knowledge of shamanism and shamanic healing is in danger of extinction. Special care is given to providing the economic assistance necessary to allow these Living Treasures to pass on their knowledge to their people.
Whatever theological or philosophical differences I may have with Michael Harner or the FSS, I give them credit for giving something back to the community.  Today most indigenous shamans are living in conditions ranging from poverty to extreme poverty.   While I remain critical of the power dynamic between Core Shamans and indigenous shamans, I also recognize the value of this sort of financial assistance.  This is one place where I'd encourage non-Harner shamans to follow the FSS's lead.  Supporting indigenous cultures with positive thoughts and awareness-raising is good, but supporting them with a check is even better.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Evil Botox Parties, Anyone?

According to recent scuttlebutt, my friend Galina Krasskova is now holding "evil Botox parties."

This, of course, is a scurrilous rumor.  To set these wagging tongues to rest, here is a picture of yrs. truly taken at our most recent "Botox for Beelzebub" party.  (ISTR that it was right after the human sacrifice but before we sliced the cheese log).  

Hopefully this will put an end to any misunderstandings.  I'd say more, but my lips still won't move. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

On a Certain Interview

By now you may have heard that Patheos refused to run Galina Krasskova's interview of yrs. truly, citing objections with the content - more specifically, the content which dealt with the use of illegal drugs.  According to one commenter, Cara:
My husband (attorney) took one look at the article and said that it would be legally very, very risky for Patheos to print something like that. It got too much into the 'how to do something illegal' - and that Patheos could be criminally liable, even if no one is shown to act on the instructions, for printing something like that. At the least, Patheos could suddenly be shut down by the Feds.
I'd like to chalk these concerns up to the arm-waving hysteria I've posted about recently. Unfortunately, Cara's concerns are not entirely unjustified.  Harm reduction advocates have frequently run afoul of law enforcement officials who accuse them of promoting drug use.  Needle exchanges are regularly harassed by police and were denied federal funding for decades despite overwhelming evidence that they help prevent the spread of AIDS and other diseases.  It's not a coincidence that the harm reduction forums like Bluelight and Drugs Forum host their servers offshore.  The War on Drugs has spawned a prison/industrial complex which guards its privileges and powers zealously and is not afraid to attack its critics with a whole range of legal and extralegal weapons.

Apparently one of the things which raised some Patheos-hackles was my list of suggestions on how one might determine that their usage of a controlled substance was becoming uncontrollable.  Drawing a distinction between recreational use and abuse is controversial in some quarters. The idea that one might be able to enjoy an occasional line of coke or syringe full of heroin without becoming an addict  is dangerous.  It's safer - more socially acceptable, at least - to say "If you so much as sniff second-hand marijuana smoke, you'll be shooting up within weeks."  But as Jacob Sullum pointed out:
The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse indicates that about 3 million Americans have used heroin in their lifetimes; of them, 15 percent had used it in the last year, 4 percent in the last month. These numbers suggest that the vast majority of heroin users either never become addicted or, if they do, manage to give the drug up. A survey of high school seniors found that 1 percent had used heroin in the previous year, while 0.1 percent had used it on 20 or more days in the previous month. Assuming that daily use is a reasonable proxy for opiate addiction, one in 10 of the students who had taken heroin in the last year might have qualified as addicts. These are not the sort of numbers you'd expect for a drug that's irresistible.
Today, our primary model of treatment for rehabilitation is the 12-step/abstinence program.  We are taught that addiction is a progressive and invariably fatal disease which can be controlled only with extensive therapy and treatment.  But according to the folks at Harvard Medical School:
There is a high rate of recovery among alcoholics and addicts, treated and untreated. According to one estimate, heroin addicts break the habit in an average of 11 years. Another estimate is that at least 50% of alcoholics eventually free themselves although only 10% are ever treated. One recent study found that 80% of all alcoholics who recover for a year or more do so on their own, some after being unsuccessfully treated. When a group of these self-treated alcoholics was interviewed, 57% said they simply decided that alcohol was bad for them. Twenty-nine percent said health problems, frightening experiences, accidents, or blackouts persuaded them to quit. Others used such phrases as "Things were building up" or "I was sick and tired of it." Support from a husband or wife was important in sustaining the resolution.
The powers that be are lying to you about the Drug War.  They are lying because it gives them power over you.  If they can protect you from cocaine, they can protect you from vitamins and raw milk:  by declaring you an "addict," they can dispense with inconveniences like criminal trials and enrich their coffers thanks to forfeiture laws.  They can make a well-regarded religious interfaith portal dump anti-Drug War postings because they fear civil and criminal liability: ask yourself just how many other websites have suppressed material because of this chilling effect.

And for those of you who may think me a wild-eyed radical, I close with the words of one of the modern conservative movement's elder statesmen, William F. Buckley, Jr.:
I have not spoken of the cost to our society of the astonishing legal weapons available now to policemen and prosecutors; of the penalty of forfeiture of one's home and property for violation of laws which, though designed to advance the war against drugs, could legally be used -- I am told by learned counsel -- as penalties for the neglect of one's pets. I leave it at this, that it is outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana. I would hope that the good offices of your vital profession would mobilize at least to protest such excesses of wartime zeal, the legal equivalent of a My Lai massacre. And perhaps proceed to recommend the legalization of the sale of most drugs, except to minors.