Who do you voo doo?
The ceremony begins with a Roman Catholic prayer. Then three drummers begin to play syncopated rhythms. The attendees begin to dance around a tree in the center of the yard, moving faster and harder with the rising pulse of the beat. The priest draws sacred symbols in the dust with cornmeal, and rum is poured on the ground to honor the spirits. One woman falls to the ground, convulsing for a moment before she is helped back to her feet. She resumes the dance, moving differently now, and continues dancing for hours. It is perhaps no longer she who is dancing: She is in a trance, apparently possessed by Erzuli, the great mother spirit. It is an honor to be entered and “ridden” by a Loa, or spirit.
Spooky tools for voodoo ghouls:
I Got My Mojo Workin’!
You might think you were in Haiti, where such rituals are commonplace: Voodoo is the dominant religion. But no.
You’re in Savannah, Georgia. It’s a somewhat hidden lifestyle in the Low Country, one that is especially secreted away from non-African-American citizens.
And you’re me.
I live in Savannah, and often drove past a little stripmall-type business on my way to and from home. It’s probably three or four blocks from my front door. It’s located next to consignment stores, a brass buffer, a musician’s equipment store, a cake decorator, a Wendy’s. It does not stand out, and it takes effort to patronize this store, as hours are irregular–at the whim of the store keeper, primarily–and the road it faces is frequently clotted with what passes for a traffic jam here in lazy, tiny Savannah.
It’s Midterms time again, and was heading home and it popped into my head that maybe I should try to spot the botanica. Maybe I could check it out. I decided to pull off and spend a little time browsing. I assumed it would be a place with books, candles, maybe some tarot decks, maybe some Oriental tchotchkes and crystals. You know, New Age-y. It will probably smell good and have windchimes and maybe a cat or two. They probably sell tea. Maybe I could offer to work there.
“I put a SPELL on you…
beCAUSE you’re MIIIIIIIINE!”
— Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Am I qualified? Well, no, but there’s a kid I talk to online, and he insists, for reasons of his own, to greet me as a VooDoo Princess. It’s this, and other quirks, that make me think he’s afflicted with 12-ness, but he means no harm. At any rate, if I wanted to do that voodoo to you, this town is as nice a place as any to get going with that stuff. So, okay, the first step is to visit a supply store. Can’t bake a cake without flour, and can’t be a big shot VooDoo Queenie without getting major mojo ingredients.
First of all, even looking for it and knowing it was there and going at a slower-than-normal clip, I passed right by it and had to turn around. It’s that much under the radar. When I pulled into the parking lot, a bleached blonde fat redneck woman boggled openly at me when she realized that I was heading towards the botanica. I had time enough to think to myself that this was a bizarre reaction from a total stranger before I opened the door to the store. Then I got it…sort of. I was an invader. The proprietress did not often get Caucasian chicks wandering into her establishment. It was a hardcore voodoo shop.
Fortunately, I find all kinds of new experiences fascinating, and I was willing to stay and explore and chat with the shopkeeper, and perhaps to learn something new. She was bored and I was hot and in no hurry to get home to wash my breakfast dishes.
Most of the store was taken up with candles and oils and incense, as expected, but there were certain differences between a botanica and your average New Agey store. First of all, don’t expect it to be polished and Yuppified. (And don’t drink the tea you can get there unless you’re sure you know what it has in it.) Most of the products were homemade locally. There is no discomfort with what outsiders would consider “black”, or dark, magick. Casting a love spell is a big no-no in most “white”, or healing / ‘good’, magick, as is attempting to control the will of other people in any other fashion. Not so in a botanica, where you can buy candles shaped like nude women and men (for use in sex and love spells, of course!), as well as various herbs and roots and powders and candles and oils, all intended to force someone else to bend to your preferences. We might judge that. Voodoo practitioners don’t. In fact, they probably reason that someone else is out there working a mojo on you already, so why not work your own personal mojo and get your requests listened to by the Loa too?
Again, it’s all somewhat alien to Caucasians, and that’s not a big surprise. It’s not our history, it’s not our culture. It’s not our place to horn in on what we do not have the background to deal with. Further, the tradition has many names and many different practices. The tradition in Louisiana is different from the tradition in Haiti, which is again different from the Gullah-based tradtion here in the Low Country.
In recent years, there has been a little more demystification of voodoo. Book lovers have gotten a glimpse from time to time, but only a glimpse. Fans of cyberpunk author William Gibson are aware of his interest in the Loa. It would seem that there are no two things more distinct than the primal, mystic, organic world of Haitian Voodoo (or voudoun), and the detached, mechanical world of the high-tech future. Yet Gibson parlayed off the success of his first SF ‘cyberpunk’ blockbuster Neuromancer to write a more complex novel, Count Zero, in which these two worlds are rapidly colliding. Gibson apparently felt there was an instinctive linkage between Haitian Voudoun and the urban hyperreality of his fictional Sprawl. As a fan of jazz and other urban music, Gibson instinctively found the religion for his new urban dystopia. The essential struggle in the book is between a Voudoun / cyber sect and the Yakuza, the Japanese gangster conglomerate. It is a battle between two traditions: one of power, corruption, and influence and the other of passion, magic, and sensuality. There are scholarly papers being written about how belief in the loa and belief in the possibility of the Internet–as a vastly interconnected System / Sprawl / Matrix–eventually developing a rudimentary artificial intelligence or awareness might tie together to explain a third popular meme, that of the Ghost in The Machine. (If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I urge you to explore it on your own, as I am long-winded enough without digressing off into THIS particular subtopic!)
Other bibliophiles discovered Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Berendt’s book introduced readers to Minerva, voodoo priestess, and the powerful and infamous (but currently deceased!) Dr Buzzard, of St. Helen’s Island, the courtroom specialist, who used power, unknown tongues and the Evil Eye, to cause hostile witnesses to seize up in the middle of crucial testimony and fall–frothing and twitching–to the courtroom floor. “Root doctors” command respect, fear and healthy fees for their services. And even though Dr Buzzard is now dead, believers still petition him for favours, lucky numbers, support in their causes. He’s still a big man in the voodoo community. Death has not cramped his style one iota.
At a voodoo ceremony, believers gather outdoors to make contact with the Loa, any of a pantheon of spirits who have various functions running the universe, much like Greek gods. Each of the spirits has a distinct identity. Some are loving and good, while others are capricious or demanding. Haitians believe that the Loa most often express their displeasure by making people sick. There is also a responsibility to care for beloved and deified family spirits and to honor a chief god, Bondieu. During the ceremony, participants ask the spirits for advice or help with problems. It’s said that more than half the requests are for health.
My new shopkeeper friend would dispute this. Or maybe she just read me well, and realized my impecunious state at present. As I noted, I’m pretty much a jobless ne’er-do-well at present, though I’d rather not be. Her clients buy come-to-me oils and money candles and prosperity incense sticks. They empty their already slender wallets, hoping to receive an insight so they can choose the correct three-digit Quik-Pik lottery number.
In the West voodoo has been portrayed in zombie movies and popular books as dark and evil, a cult of devil worship dominated by black magic, human sacrifice, and pin-stuck voodoo dolls—-none of which exist in the voodoo practices that originated in Benin. This isn’t the whole story. In Haiti, voodoo began as an underground activity. During the 1700s, thousands of West African slaves were shipped to Haiti to work on French plantations. The slaves were baptized as Roman Catholics upon their arrival in the West Indies. Their traditional African religious practices were viewed as a threat to the colonial system and were forbidden. Practitioners were imprisoned, whipped, or hung. The slaves continued to practice in secret while attending masses. What emerged was a religion that the colonialists thought was Catholicism—-but they were outfoxed.
It was easy to meld the two faiths, because there are many similarities between Roman Catholicism and voodoo. Both venerate a supreme being and believe in the existence of invisible evil spirits or demons and in an afterlife. Many of the Loa resemble Christian saints, endowed with similar responsibilities or attributes. For example, Legba, an old man, is said to open the gates between Earth and the world of the Loa, much like St. Peter traditionally throws wide the gates to Heaven. But there are differences. Westerners tend to believe in free will and personal choice. Not so in voodoo. The Loa are believed to determine our lives to an astonishing degree and they are always present in great numbers: there might be two people in a room, but there are also twenty Loa. Participation in voodoo ritual reaffirms one’s relationships with ancestors, personal history, community relationships—-and the cosmos. There’s another important difference: anthropologists estimate that voodoo’s roots in Benin—-formerly Dahomey—-West Africa may go back 6,000 years (an estimated 60 million people practice voodoo worldwide). Compare the longevity of these beliefs to Christianity, which has been with us for only a little over TWO thousand years.
Savannah has an active voodoo subculture here, though naturally it is not as widespread, commonplace or accepted as it is in Haiti, and yet the customs arrived here and persist for the same reasons: slavery and tradition. Isolated on coastal plantations, the slaves created a lingua franca–a common tongue. We call it Gullah. Maybe after Angola. Maybe from the West African Gola River. Nobody knows. Gullah slaves may have been stripped of everything but their names but they came from oral cultures. They had no books, no saved scrolls that could be torn away and flung overboard. They remembered what was sacred. In Cuba, they call the magic Santeria. In Belize, obeah. In Haiti, voudoun. In New Orleans, voodoo. Folklorists call it hoodoo, conjuration, rootwork. But the Gullah do not call it anything. Perhaps it is too fearsome for utterance. Certainly, casual talk is a faux pas of cosmic proportions. Nonbelievers are ashamed of their forebears’ credulity. Belivers are afraid of spiritual retribution. Even if they do not have a name for the tradition itself, the do have a name for the sorcerers who practice it. The Gullah call them root doctors, a literal translation from the west African Fon, which pegged tribal medical doctors as workers with roots.
Our voodoo folks down here are mostly root workers.
While I was in the store, a customer came in with five children. One child is also clearly not a relation but a babysittee. He’s blonde and even paler than I am. The other children are siblings and other babysittees. And they are incredibly well-behaved. Perhaps the babysitter has impressed upon them that running amok in a root worker’s shop and attracting exasperated attention is a bad idea.
She pretty much ignored me and started telling her troubles to the shopkeeper. She used to have good luck, but now it has turned against her. Precious Jesus alone knows why. She needs something powerful to fix her luck. She needs money, and money just fall out of her hands and bills come. She has the bad luck, the juju. Someone or something has fixed agin her, and she needs to turn it back around.
You get the idea.
She’s a bubbly older lady, and she makes me smile with her animated gestures and her lengthy, heartfelt speechifying. I say something to the effect that if the shopkeeper can’t fix it, there’s no help in this world, and they both favour me with a big grin. I then butt out and just continue to browse.
After the babysitter purchases her candles and powders and oils, the shopkeeper and I continue to chat as I browse, taking note of the differences between the botanica and a typical New Age store. You can buy “rum” at a botanica. (I wouldn’t wish to presume as to its alcohol content or taste, but the spirits probably are happy with it.) There are buckeyes and other roots, fenugeek and other herbs, bayberry candles for money-attraction and other candles, gold glitter dust and other powders to sprinkle, burn, wear or mix into various concoctions. It’s interesting.
I do have to say that there is a slightly dark feeling to some of this stuff, but that’s more due to my background and belief system than any inherent evil lodged in, say, a baggie of lavender buds or a bath oil with food colouring and herbs in it. A hammer can help you put things together by helping you nail things together, and it can help you dismantle things by helping you pry nails out. Peanut butter can improve a jelly sandwich or kill someone with legume allergies. You get the idea. It’s how you use the tools, not the tools themselves.
I left without buying anything (I had no money to buy anything even if there was something I wanted), though I had inspected her (seven) decks of tarot cards. I owned about 2/3 of the types she was offering, which is an indication to me that this isn’t where I need to be browsing for tarot decks anyway. Which means it is also not a place that would be interested in hiring me to do tarot readings. (The shopkeeper also noted that two customers per day means business is booming.) But finding stores with tarot decks I don’t have (and still want) is getting more challenging.
Yeah, I’m a tarot deck collector and a reader and have read since I was ten or eleven years old. I started collecting decks shortly after college. I have almost 70 decks of cards of various types, 55-60 of which are strictly tarot and the remainder of which are still divination decks of some type or another (like the one based on Jungian psychology, one based on Osho Zen, et cetera).
Do I believe it is actually telling someone’s fortune to read their cards? No, not really. I think the subconscious reacts to the symbols and uses them to translate what your intuition has already picked up on from your client.
On the other hand, I can’t really explain how this worked: I did conduct an experiment a few years ago. I offered to read tarot cards for people over AOL Instant Messenger. This is something that I have charged up to $30 for, though I’m still cheaper than most tarot readers, as I spend close to an hour or more with each querent. Readings go for $20-25 for fifteen minutes in Atlanta, LAs Vegas and New Orleans. What a bargain. And, being poor, I can’t afford to do hour-long readings for free these days. An hour spent noodling around on AIM is an hour I should be spending working on my websites or job-hunting, you know?
Anyway, I read for a few dozen folks, and I knew nothing about them except their “handle”. I said I didn’t want to know whether they were male or female, how old they were, where they lived, or even what their question might be. And out of all those blind readings, only ONE person said that I was inaccurate, but her question had been “should I have an affair with another married parent I run into while picking up my child at daycare”, or so she revealed when we discussed her reading afterwards, and the cards had said no, no, no, a thousand times no, don’t do it, all signs point to no, are you fucking insane, this is a bad plan, perhaps an illuminated billboard saying “NO!!!” would help, no, no and no…and she kept rephrasing the question to me again and again, hoping for a yes to justify her desire to give into her loin-flamage stirred by her libido. And I couldn’t give it, not based on what the cards were saying.
What happened? She probably fucked him. She wasn’t going to hear that it was a bad idea. Do I care? Not really. I gave the advice that was sought, but to care too much would be to inject my own opinions and morals into the reading. I don’t think married people should ignore problems in their marriage and seek booty from other married people that they aren’t getting at home. But that’s just me. Also, people who have a polyamorous and mutually-agreed-upon situation should know that I am not talking about them.
Voodoo practitioners probably wouldn’t have told her it was a bad idea, though I don’t know that for sure. I assume that only based on the plethora of products available to help the customer go after whatever booty object they desired. There were no warning labels, if you know what I mean.
I’ve been to New Orleans and I have what my former roommates and I dubbed a “poodoo doll”, a poppet in a coffin made for tourists to buy as a curiosity. The poppet looks like Mr. Hanky (from South Park), hence the nickname. Hey, I’m sure I could hex someone into a fierce bout of constipation if I concentrated hard enough.
I’ll probably talk about tarot and Qabbalah (what little I understand of it, of course!), and Taoist philosophy and travels hither and yon and so forth in future blogs, but, for now, I have rattled on long enough. Also, I got a check today from CafePress and I intend to treat myself to actual food. And maybe a pack of clove cigarettes. Yeah! So I’m off like a prom queen’s dress. Chat with you later.