Live and Let Die
by Stephen Grasso
When I was young and my life was an open book, I used to say “live and let live”, but in this ever changing world in which we’re living, you sometimes need to step up and challenge pernicious ideas where you find them, raise a sword to ignorance and send bigotry home in a fucking ambulance.
As a western occultist who has been up to his ears in magic and witchcraft for well over a decade, I’m fairly used to the funny glances and uncomfortable silences that you get if your involvement in occultism happens to come up in general conversation. I tend to keep my trap shut about such matters when in company, and keep my various extra-curricular activities with bone wands, crossroads dirt and snake worship on a strictly need-to-know basis most of the time (like you do).
It’s annoying – in a world increasingly divided between the narrow absolutist positions of religious fundamentalism and militant atheism – that the perspectives of someone genuinely attempting to explore, in a down-to-earth and rational manner, the wealth of theory and practice consigned by the rise of industrialism to the pejorative waste-bin labelled “magic”, should still be treat like a raving lunatic at the very passing mention of an interest in these areas. But that’s the canvas we have to work with, and as long as bemused ignorance doesn’t escalate to witchburnings – literal or metaphorical – those of us ploughing away in this weird and neglected field don’t really have it so bad.
Until recently, I haven’t really had that much personal experience of having my spiritual beliefs and practices exposed to virulent prejudice and bigotry. As a white Englishman living in London, I’ve largely enjoyed the benefits of being able to get up to all sorts of supernatural mischief without anybody really giving that much of a toss. The worst I had ever had to deal with in the way of oppression is the occasional taxi driver or commuter raising an eyebrow, Roger Moore-style, if they happen to overhear something that they shouldn’t have. But over the last couple of years, as I’ve become a little more vocal in writing about my interest and experiences with the world of Les Mysteres, I’ve noticed the sands of tolerance begin to shift slightly in certain company. People have some funny ideas about Voodoo, even in occult circles.
Voodoo is a living and experiential tradition, and its manifest mysteries are not contained or revealed in easily digestable occult paperbacks or available over the internet. However magic in the western world – from the medieval grimoires of Agrippa, to the intellectual magical writings of Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn, through to modern day chaos magic – is largely a textual tradition, transmitted and sustained by the written word. Voodoo just doesn’t really lend itself to book learning, there are no step-by-step exercises that a person can follow out of a pamphlet to get from step A to step B, and it can only be apprehended through direct personal experience. So faced with this conspicuous lack of written information, when western magicians look at Voodoo, they sometimes seem to create a skewed caricature of what they think it is about.
Voodoo typically occupies an odd space in the collective imagination, similar to how the popular notion of Tantra involves western fantasies of 24-hour orgasmless sex marathons with saucy new age ladies in a variety of curious positions – a far cry from the depth and breadth of Indian esoteric thought and practice. Voodoo, likewise, seems to exist for people as a bizarre pop-culture collage of zombie movies, Baron Samedi coming out of the ground to harangue James Bond, giant space scorpions in the Invisibles, cameo appearances of Brother Voodoo in old Dr Strange comics, Lisa Bonet dancing with a snake in Angel Heart, and Eshu knows what else.
A certain dissonance seems to take place where otherwise intelligent people genuinely can’t seem to differentiate between the lurid Hollywood stereotyping of these traditions and the possibility that these ancient African mysteries might consist of something a bit more complex, meaningful and engaging than a sensationalist externalisation of some film director’s fear of black people. And this kneejerk demonisation of Voodoo is prevalent not only in right-wing religious fundamentalist circles – where you might reasonably expect to find it – but is far more widespread in contemporary occultism than many allegedly liberal counter-culture types might like to admit or acknowledge.
Voodoo and related African Diaspora magico-religious traditions have survived intact through prolonged and dedicated efforts to suppress them, with the gun and the slave whip, over many hundreds of years. So in the scheme of things, a few erroneous and misconstrued ideas floating around fairly marginalised territories such as the occult sector of the internet are hardly a credible threat to the healthy survival of these traditions. However, just because something is fiercely resilient to an unjust beating, doesn’t mean you should stand idly by when one is being dished out directly under your nose. So the purpose of this article is to take a closer look at some of the popular misunderstandings and misconceptions about Voodoo, examine some of the pernicious ideas that surface from time-to-time, and try to shine a bit of light on the darkness of ignorance.
The white darkness
One of the most frequently misunderstood aspects of Voodoo in popular consciousness is perhaps the nature of trance possession. There is a strong control freak element to a lot of western magic and a great deal of emphasis is placed on magical circles, wardings, banishings, and symbolic demarcations of space. One of the first things you learn in magic is often some variation on the lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram, which is an interesting and empowering rite with great depth and many applications, but can also foster a subtle underlying sense of “bad stuff out there” that constantly needs to be kept in check and swept away by the repetition of this and other formulae. From the very beginning, the aspiring western magician is conditioned to think about magic in terms of boundaries and safe space, and the divide between the ivory tower of the Magus and the messy and unpredictable sprawl of nature is magically enforced in a variety of ways.
The self-image of the Ceremonial Magician is that of a person of power who may choose to invoke deity or spirit within certain controlled circumstances, but generally does so for very specific reasons outlined and determined ahead of the ritual, and any deviation from this predetermined script is considered largely undesirable. So the idea of openly inviting another entity to take over your body for a period of time, with no magic circle drawn out on the floor and no control valve, tends to give a lot of people the horrors. There is a real fear about giving over control to an external force that I think emerges out of a distinctly western notion of self and other that is not really present within African magical traditions in quite the same way. I think it is possibly this fundamental difference in basic set and setting that makes practices such as possession sometimes appear hazardous and terrifying to the western mindset.
Perhaps this typical fear response to possession derives from the residual influence of pseudo-Christian grimoire magic that strongly permeates western esotericism due to its significant influence on figures such as Crowley and the Golden Dawn. The inherited wisdom of western esotericism teaches us to treat our interactions with all discarnate entities almost in the manner of the Goetia: A series of carefully brokered business arrangements entered into, sometimes with significant risk, that we must manage dispassionately, almost like colonial masters, calling on angelic names and words of power to back us up. By contrast, in traditions such as Voodoo, the nature of the relationships that are formed with deities and spirits are fundamentally familial, in the sense that the Lwa (the Gods of Voodoo) are considered ancestors of the human race with a real interest, care and compassion for their children, and an active involvement in the personal growth and development of those who serve them.
Deity work in western magic is often utilitarian in its focus and emphasis. Nine times out of ten, you approach deity or spirits because you are looking for something. For example, there is the well worn cliché of the magician who has a problem that needs to be fixed, say they want to get laid, so they pick up a handy God directory, such as Crowley’s 777 at best or “godchecker.com” at worst, and thumb through the section on Goddesses of Love until they find one that seems to fit the bill. A little like looking for a plumber in the yellow pages to fix a blocked drain. There is no prior contact or relationship in place before you summon them up and phone in your request, and very rarely will you follow up the interaction with any further conversation after you’ve got what you wanted. That is, until the next time you need something done – but when you’ve got a whole directory of deities to choose from, who’s to say you ever need to call the same number twice.
Voodoo has a fundamentally different dynamic for managing interaction with deity. You may go to the Lwa in times of trouble and ask for their help in certain situations, but much of Voodoo practice is celebratory rather than utilitarian, and concerned with understanding and honouring the living personifications of nature and consciousness that are the Lwa. Through regular service to the Mysteries you begin to develop close and meaningful personal relationships with deity – relationships that are based on love, respect and mutual support. Nobody comes to the door with these relationships already in place. They develop over time, through practice, and they continue to change and evolve with each passing year just like any other living relationship with another being. Any magic that takes place in Voodoo, does so within this broader context. You are no longer calling a random number out of the phone book, but taking your problem to a much loved relative who you speak to all the time, share a drink with every week and regularly invite over to dinner.
Any possession that takes place in Voodoo, also does so within this same context. You are not inviting an unknown alien presence to take over your body, but taking a backseat so your parent Lwa can step in for a time. There is trust, kinship and familiarity in these exchanges. A practitioner’s Lwa are with her all the time, a constant nurturing and supportive presence, and the moment of full possession is often more like a rising to the fore of a deep rooted part of oneself than a sudden invasion by some external agent.
Possession occurs most frequently between a practitioner and their particular patron Lwa, their Mete Tet, the Spirit of their head and patron Saint. A person’s Mete Tet is a force fundamental to their nature, a personality with whom they share many qualities and specifics of temperament. A forceful, practical, hard working person with aggressive qualities might have Ogun as their Met Tet. A great communicator who thrives on making connections between others, might have Legba as their Mete Tet. The qualities of a person’s patron Lwa might sometimes be latent or sublimated in their personality, but they will always be there, and the best way to get sense of which Lwa walks with you is by observation. What do you do in the world, what role do you fall into within your community, how do you negotiate the problems that life throws at you, what are you about at your very core.
One Voodoo practitioner who has a close relationship with Erzulie Freda Dahomey – the Lwa of love, beauty, luxury and dreams – describes her relationship with her Maitresse as such that it is often difficult for her to tell where her own personality ends and that of Erzulie Freda begins. Such is the closeness and familiarity that underpins interactions with the Lwa, including the act of possession, which she describes as being a little like lending a cardigan to her sister for the evening.
Perhaps the best way to convey a sense of possession in Voodoo would be to give an example from my own experience. It’s happened to me on several occasions, but this particular instance took place one evening during an important altar service that I made for Ogun, the God of iron, war, industry and getting things done. I had made good offerings of all the food and drink that he likes. Put on some music that he enjoys and which expresses his mysteries, old 1930s work songs and folk songs about blacksmiths. Shared some rum and beer with him by the altar. Had some conversations and told him what was on my mind. I had a problem that I wanted to talk to him about. I wanted to call on his help and blessings in a certain area of my life, so I spoke from my heart to the Lwa and lit a candle to represent my prayer.
Services for the Lwa are something I really enjoy. I love making altars, decorating them with the attributes of one of the Lwa, veves drawn in cornmeal, candles in their colours, annointed with their oils, perfumes and florida water, incense and sequined flags, music and drumming. I love the whole creative process and immersive sensory experience of this practice, as it is this that brings you close to the Lwa, and brings them closer to you.
I’d been at the altar for a while, just enjoying the sense of presence and communion, having the conversations, asking for a bit of support and help where it was needed. I relaxed into it and felt his vibe coming on, the heavy scent of iron, the energy and excitement of steel clashing against steel, the huge strength of his presence. I savoured this mystery, felt this power coursing through me, not as something foreign or invading but as a part of my own nature coming to the fore and finding full expression. The possession itself arose totally naturally out of this process of devotional celebration, with no sudden crisis but a gradual handing over of the reins.
It wasn’t full amnesiac possession. I was still sort of there, in the background, watching what was happening, but Ogun had stepped in. He marched up to my bedroom and started stamping his feet and clapping his hands, singing one of the work songs I had played for him. It wasn’t really my voice coming out of my mouth anymore. He danced up a real power and energy through his song, with his stamping and clapping, and I realised afterwards that he was casting a spell in the room where I sleep in answer to my prayer. When he had finished working his magic, I came back to myself and returned to the altar to assimilate what had just happened. It felt like a real blessing. It always does, when you make service and prayer to the Gods and they answer so directly and so dramatically.
Ancestors and atavistic powers
I think of the Lwa as the ancestral powers of the human race. Atavistic forces within the consciousness of the species that rise to the surface. So when I serve Ogun, I am acknowledging the first iron worker, the first guy who learned how to fashion the first tools and shape his environment, the power within humanity that built civilisation, the aspect of my nature that gets up and gets things done. I can see the mysteries of Ogun in my Dad a lot. He’s a carpet fitter and even in his 60s he still works hard seven days a week, hammering nails into floorboard to make sure there is food on his family’s table and to strive for a better standard of living. That’s the mysteries of Ogun right there, in action in the world, and when I pour rum for Ogun or cook him some food, what I am doing is strengthening my connection to that very human power. I’m recognising this power in myself, and feeding this part of my nature so that it will grow strong and healthy. This power is something that has been passed down from generation to generation, from Ogun to my Dad, to me. It’s the drive to get up and do a hard days work; the will, knowledge and action to make positive change to my circumstances; the iron in my belly that takes a stand for what is right.
For me, Voodoo practice is about recognising these powers within our nature and within Nature in its widest sense. Some of the Lwa are concerned with specifically human experience, such as Erzulie Freda, the personification of beauty, loveliness in all its forms and luxury beyond requirement. Making space in your life for Erzulie Freda is a recognition of all the things that are not fundamental to your survival needs but enrich and give purpose to your existence. You serve her with beautiful flowers, fine perfume, champagne, and delicate chocolates. She is the vision of beauty and perfection, but she cries tears of sorrow for the world because the reality of life on Earth can never live up to her perfect vision of how things can be. There are deep mysteries here that speak directly to us about crucial aspects of human nature and human experience, more so than I can possibly convey in a piece of writing like this, because such mysteries are ultimately experiential and imparted in the heat of magic.
Other Lwa are less concerned with everyday human experience but the very condition of being alive itself. For instance, Dambala Wedo, the Great Sky Serpent, is a manifestation of the life force. He winds up the poteau mitan, or central pole of the temple, with his serpent consort Ayida Wedo in an image reminiscent of the Caduceus. The ancestors are said to be carried on the back of this Great Serpent, in a way that recalls the DNA double helix. Dambala is life itself, vitality, peace, compassion, purity and healing. Working with Dambala feels a lot like working with Chi, and you come away from Dambala services feeling refreshed and strengthened at your core in a similar way to how you feel after an hour of Tai Chi or Chi Kung work.
The mysteries of Voodoo are deep, complex and express all of Nature, all of human experience, and the many and varied mysteries of life on Earth. Clearly possession in Voodoo takes place within a complex ecology of relationships, interaction, mutual support, personal growth and understanding. Yet this process is continually misunderstood and misrepresented by both the media, and by many magicians, as being something broadly akin to the classic demonic possession portrayed in films such as “The Exorcist”. A malignant, hostile invading presence that takes over the body of the hapless, and often deluded, primitive worshipper to work their wicked will in the world and cause misery and suffering to all involved. The disconnect between these two ideas of possession is staggering, but if a person is unable to conceive of a familial and cooperative foundation for magic, then possession is always going to appear frightening. How we frame our interactions with Gods and Spirits to a large extent dictates the sort of experiences that we are likely to have from those interactions, and a narrative based on control, distrust, coercion and subjugation is going to produce results far different from one based on love, trust, faith, respect, family, and mutual cooperation.
Offensive and derogatory stereotypes of Voodoo abound, most frequently issuing from the mouths of those who have either limited or no direct experience with the matters they are discussing, but nonetheless appear to take some sort of weird pleasure or titillation from identifying an enemy without. Patterns of abuse such as this are often nothing more than examples of frightened humanity trying to shore up its ego against the night. It is a defence mechanism where you take all of the things that terrify you about yourself, about your own nature, about the human condition and the state of the world, and you project them onto a convenient “other” – deemed the cause of all the ugliness of mankind and existence. Sometimes, among magicians, this other might be a supernatural entity that you see yourself in opposition to, and with which you spend hours engaging in entirely subjective, largely delusional, astral combat. In other instances, it might be a particular magical tradition that you have convinced yourself is evil and destructive and must be kept at bay. It is a train of thought and a pattern of behaviour that may in its early stages simply alienate you from a few friends, but as history demonstrates, when followed to its ultimate conclusion it ends in the construction of gas chambers.
African traditions such as Voodoo are frequently denigrated by western practitioners to the level of the demonic, the insectoid, and the Qliphotic. As an example, during the Q&A session of a talk I gave on the subject a few years back, one of the attendees excitedly brought Kenneth Grant into the picture and started vigorously asserting that the Lwa were the entities who occupied the Tunnels of Set on the reverse of the Tree of Life. As I’ve attempted to illustrate, the Voodoo pantheon is just as broad and varied as that of any other culture, with its Gods and Goddesses of love, passion, war, industry, peace, purity, compassion, death, fertility, motherhood, the forest, the seas, the sky, and so on – Yet you rarely hear people claiming that, say, the Norse pantheon or the Greek pantheon are actually the denizens of the reverse of the Tree of Life. I don’t claim any expertise in the minutia of Kenneth Grant’s cosmology, having only read one or two books in his Typhonian series, but from what I know of the Tunnels of Set, it’s simply not a place that Belle Mademoiselle Erzulie Freda Dahomey would ever be seen in a million years. All of that slime would ruin her new dress and I suspect their facilities for keeping champagne chilled would leave much to be desired.
In another instance, last year I saw the blurb for a talk that someone was giving in London on working the “left-hand path”, that slippery and ill-defined of beasts. In his introduction he claimed he would be discussing entities such as “Dambala: the dark and destructive serpent god of Voodoo”… That would be Dambala, the God of peace and purity. The father of the pantheon, the great serpent in the sky and divine epitome of life itself, called on primarily for healing, purification, nourishment and cleansings. Bruce Forsyth is more of a dark and destructive force in the world than Dambala, and the most basic academic account of Haitian religion would make Dambala’s role within the pantheon fairly clear. Yet some sense of entitlement seems to send people out on the occult scene preaching bizarre depictions of Voodoo that don’t really appear to be rooted in anything more solid than their own rich fantasy life, tendency to read escapist literature as objective fact, and presumably a lot of drugs.
Coming across this sort of material, as I do from time-to-time, is a bit like catching somebody getting themselves worked up into a creepy, masturbatory, BDSM fantasy about your parents. It’s difficult not to interpret some of the positions above as plain racism, pitching as they do the black-skinned Gods of Africa as a kind of evil counterpart or antithesis to the goals of, traditionally white-skinned, traditional western magic. Yet it is often an unconscious racism, with the perpetrators of these misconceptions not necessarily comprehending that there might be anything fallacious or problematic in their depiction. This knee-jerk distrust of African divinity seems so deeply ingrained in western culture that it seems to pass without comment or interrogation most of time. Sometimes the language of discourse about these matters itself can be highly informative into unconscious patterns of racism that can emerge out of our processing of another culture’s spirituality. For instance, I came upon one internet discussion where someone was happily referring to the Lwa as “critters”, and it occurred to me whether he would also refer to a God like Zeus or Thor as a critter, and if not, why apply the different criteria of judgment?
This desire to demote African divinity from the status of Gods is scarily prevalent among certain occultists and rarely seems to get questioned or unpacked. It is as if there is some deep-rooted prejudice that manifests itself as a need to relegate the deities of an entire continent to the more manageable category of lesser spirits simply masquerading as Gods to dumb natives who don’t know any better.
Incey wincey spider climbed up the spout
One of the most persistent and persistently annoying misconceptions about Voodoo is that it is all about giant scorpion gods floating in space who want to turn you into kung fu assassins and/or death, corpses and zombies. It’s another instance of people taking comic books and horror movies as their primary sources, and not bothering to look any further or consider any information that does not conform to their falsely constructed supposition. One of the main inadvertent sources for these misconceptions among western occultists is Grant Morrison’s seminal comic, The Invisibles, which did much to popularise occultism generally and chaos magic specifically during the late 1990s. The Invisibles was a great comic, and its weaving of conspiracy fiction, occultism and autobiography made it required reading for a generation of would-be bedroom sorcerers. Although largely fictional in its scope, its author is a practising magician of many years standing, therefore its themes and ideas have been adopted as key principles of magic by many readers, and the work as a whole is often considered an occult text.
In an issue of the comic entitled, “A Season of Ghouls,” the author tells the tale of a Haitian Mambo taking care of her community in modern day Brooklyn by calling on the Lwa Papa Ghede for protection. It’s one of my favourite stories from the series, both well researched and based on some of the author’s own experiences and experiments with Voodoo. However the research for the issue spans both traditional Haitian Vodou, and the Voudon Gnosis of Chicago occultist, Michael Bertiaux, whose infamous and long out-of-print tome “The Voudon Gnostic Workbook” became something of a holy grail in the occult world, with sought-after photocopies of the text regularly changing hands for hundreds of dollars on Ebay. Bertiaux was a priest in the Episcopal Church who travelled to Haiti in the 1960s as a missionary and received initiation into the Jean-Maine lineage of Vodou, an aristocratic Haitian house with strong Gnostic elements.
There is a clear and identifiable Vodou line of transmission that runs through Bertiaux’s work, but it equally draws on elements of Thelema, Tantra, Shinto, Martinism, cottaging and the work of pulp horror writer HP Lovecraft to create a unique synthesis significantly removed from the practices of traditional Haitian Vodou. His work includes notions such as astral lycanthropy, where the magician takes on a shamanic were-spider form for various journeying purposes; and makes reference to certain “insect Lwa” such as Baron Zaraguin and his family, who are concerned with time travel. On a cursory read of the Voudon Gnostic Workbook, the insect Lwa actually seem to play a fairly peripheral role in Bertiaux’s system, yet the fictional appearance of these entities in the Invisibles – portrayed as menacing, extradimensional, monstrous insect intelligences – has somewhat cemented the notion that such beasts are the axis upon which, not just Bertiaux’s idiosyncratic system of magic, but Voodoo as a whole is assumed to revolve.
This patently incorrect impression of Voodoo cosmology is frequently taken as the starting point for further unfounded speculation and ill-informed conclusion jumping, reaching its apotheosis in the rather ugly and offensive idea that the entire pantheon of Lwa are a form of predatory and parasitic insect spirit. This process of othering invariably considers the Lwa as a homogenous whole, a seething, volatile mass of astral tarantulas and swarming psychic locusts that could devour the body and soul of any foolhardy magician who strays too close to their territory. Conspicuously, such forthright demonisation generally avoids any reference to the actual complex human personalities of the Lwa – and they are profoundly complex and profoundly human.
For instance, Erzulie Dantor – frequently represented by images of the Black Madonna with child – is a Lwa much concerned with the right speech and right action of her devotees. She’s the Big Momma on the block, trying to keep her children on the straight and narrow. The tough single mother with a knife between her teeth, overcoming the odds to make ends meet and put food in hungry mouths. She is both loving mother and fierce protector, a wellspring of compassion and the epitome of “tough love”. She likes listening to R&B records, drinking strong Haitian rum, smoking filterless cigarettes and enjoys offerings of roast pork and dark chocolate. She is a woman of the world who can teach her children how to overcome any adversity and grow up strong and resilient like her. She loves her babies and would do anything to keep them from harm, but understands better than anyone that the friction of the world is the soil in which we must grow. Where would the nuanced personality, good taste and spiritual concerns of such a complex and classy Lady be accommodated in the horror show insect feeding frenzy envisioned by paranoid minds and outlined above?
Attempting to identify a parallel between the Lwa and the insect world is a bit like asserting that the Norse pantheon are actually all really squirrels because of the presence of the squirrel Ratatosk on the world tree, Yggdrassill. It is both random and non-sensical, and would be entirely derisible were there not something both offensive and politically unsavoury in this movement to equate the divinities of West Africa with the insect kingdom. It is somewhat akin to racist depictions of ethnic minorities as being subhuman or only a few steps removed from animals, and to come across this sort of odious doctrine festering in the backwaters of contemporary occultism is something of a call to arms for anyone opposed to racism and religious intolerance.
Yet such squeamishness towards the insect kingdom itself is also worth further interrogation. Insects, beetles, spiders, ants and flies are among the most emotive symbols of mankind’s fears and the subject of a thousand irrational phobias. It is telling that our species’ most common visual depictions of the monstrous and the unknown are invariably either insectoid or amphibious in form – either a cluster of gnashing mandibles and probing antennae or a mass of seething tentacles. From HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos to Grant Morrison’s Invisibles, we are confronted with images of the alien and the horrific that are culled from the natural world. It is as if we have an automatic fear response to these territories that are either too small and numerous, or too far beneath the ocean waves, to fall under mankind’s subjugation – so we make villains of them, and turn their image into a mask for our own internal horrors. The naturalist, J.B.S. Haldane, was once asked by a clergyman what he might infer about the mind of the Creator based on his wide-ranging study of life on Earth. Haldane famously replied “an inordinate fondness for beetles” derived from the then-current count of beetle species at around 400,000. I’m by no means an insect-shaman, and my experiences of communication with the small ones that burrow and crawl is limited to encounters that arise naturally from sharing a garden with the fantastic panoply of life that exists right under our noses. For instance, asking ants not to extend their voracious empire over my patch and giving a bit of respect to the elaborate spider world in my shed that was there before I was. In such conversations, I’ve never really got a sense of the insect kingdom being these terrible emissaries of some extradimensional prison world, as they are sometimes painted by occultists; and I’m fairly certain that all such visions of insect horror have much more to do with the troubled emotional landscapes of the observer, rather than an objective glimpse of something fundamentally wrong with the universe. The little guys are only trying to eat, and reproduce and carve out a bit of space to live on this diverse planet like the rest of us. “All is well, and all will be well… in the garden” to coin a phrase.
The Lwa are not insect spirits any more than Mercury or Aphrodite are insect spirits, but Voodoo is broadly an animist tradition, and respects the consciousness and living essence of all things – from centipedes to roosters, beetles to bricklayers, ants to anthropologists. (Estate agents and recruitment consultants, at least in my personal cosmology, fall squarely outside of this category of respect, but I digress…) Voodoo is concerned with all of nature, and everything on the planet has magical significance. Trees and plants, fish and mammals, stones and sea shells, the wind and rain, the Sun and Moon. All is living, all is numinous, and by virtue of our mutual existence on the planet, we are constantly engaged in a living dialogue with all things. It is this dialogue that Voodoo is concerned with, and it could be described as a functioning technology for participating more fully and consciously in that ongoing dialogue.
Waking to the world
Nature can be both the brilliant scarlet of a butterfly’s wing as it alights on a dew-covered leaf on a spring morning – and it can be red in tooth and claw. Voodoo, therefore, is not a saccharine-coated new age religion concerned only with sweetness and light, but contains within it all of the possibilities that are within nature. Just as you cannot easily ascribe binary categories of “good” and “evil” within the complex ecosystems of nature, so it is in magic. There are two principle rites of Voodoo, the Rada and the Petro, denoted by the colours white and red. The Rada Spirits are those concerned with coolness and freshness, whereas the Petro Spirits are hot and volatile. It would be incorrect to consider the Rada Lwa “good” and the Petro Lwa “evil”, as a Sorcerer might conceivably work dubious magic with the help of the Rada Lwa, or alternatively do good work for their community with the help of the Petro Lwa. They are simply two modes of being in the world: temperate and fiery, calm and passionate, sober and drunk. They are complimentary to one another and both are necessary for a balanced understanding of nature. The moral compunction of the Voodoo practitioner is not dictated from on high by some abstract spiritual force, but is self-determined and a matter of personal responsibility. Ultimately, each of us – whether we are practicing magic or simply living our lives in the world – are accountable for our own actions and the effects and repercussions of those actions upon others and upon our society. We make up our beds and then we have to lay in them, for better or worse. Not every Voodoo practitioner is necessarily going to be a clean-shaven warrior of light on the side of little shops, china cups and virginity. There are as many dodgy characters operating within African Diaspora magico-religious traditions as there are in any other grouping that contains a broad cross-section of different individual human beings, be it western magic, martial arts, the Eastern guru scene, the corporate sphere or the ruthless back-biting world of competitive flower arranging. Human weakness, selfishness, and the destructive impulse are not exclusive to any particular grouping, and the catalogue of atrocities perpetrated throughout history in the name of gentle Jesus meek and mild, would seem to demonstrate this.
There are no “good” magical traditions and there are no “evil” magical traditions. What seems reasonable and expedient to a middle class sales executive living off a comfortable salary in suburban Hertfordshire, might not align directly with the motivations and survival needs of a single parent struggling to feed her family on a low income in Port-au-Prince. Context is everything, and when observing and interpreting some of the darker corners of Voodoo, it is important to keep in mind that this is a tradition that has been kept alive through terrible trial and adversity. There are Lwa within the pantheon who reflect this: the sorrow, the rage and the desperation of their children taken to a brutal land and abused by white westerners for money. There are Petro Lwa that embody this hurt and anguish, as fierce as the fires of revolution and swift as a cut throat in the night. But they are not the whole story, simply a point on the full spectrum of human experience. Voodoo contains all of life and all of nature. Some of what it contains may not be entirely palatable to prissy notions of polite spirituality, but nature doesn’t always come in the form of daffodils and baby piglets. Arguing with that basic reality of life is a bit like trying to debate ethics with the storm that just blew over a tree and totalled your car – and it is the basic realities of life with which Voodoo concerns itself.
The most basic reality of life to which we are all ultimately subject is, of course, death. The image of Papa Ghede or of Baron Samedi – the archetypal grinning skeleton with top hat, coat tails and cane – is one that has permeated western culture, showing up on everything from record covers to Bond movies. Perhaps it is because our culture is in denial about the inevitability of this most basic of life functions, that we react so negatively to visual representations of skulls, skeletons and the accoutrements of the cemetery. It is difficult for us to accept that a deity so strongly associated with the tomb could possibly be anything other than evil personified, but in Voodoo, Papa Ghede is far removed from the grim reaper or pale rider of European mythology. Ghede may dress in black and live in the cemetery, but he’s a good guy. He’s the first ancestor of man, the first one to ever die, and he’s there on the other side waiting for us. He’s the Godfather of Souls who looks out for us at that final crossroads that we all face in life. He reassures us that it’s all right on the other side, cos he’s there and he’s dancing the banda, smoking a fat cigar and flirting with all the girls. Ghede is about life as much as he is about death. You can’t have one without the other, and it is only through the awareness of our inevitable death, that we can truly grasp the value of every precious living moment that we have on the planet. His symbol is the skull, because a skull is the shell of a human life. It’s a sacred object, and we’ve all got one. Ghede reveals to us this nakedness of our being, the beauty and joy of our basic physical existence. These may be uncomfortable mysteries for us to look at, especially in the West, but there is no denying that they are the facts of our existence. It is the business of the magician to face the realities of her consciousness and condition on the planet. If your magical work is constantly gratifying – an endless pleasure dome of candy floss and ego-massage – and never throws up any material that you find challenging or difficult to work through, then no real growth can occur. It is through stepping outside of our habitual comfort zones and moving through our conditioned responses, that we receive wisdom and empowerment.
In Haitian creole, this process of growth that occurs through contemplation of the Mysteries and interaction with the Lwa is called connaissance. It is a somewhat enigmatic term that implies a deep understanding and intuition developed directly from one’s practice. For we do not simply go to the Lwa when we want something, but for the teachings that they reveal and the personal evolution that they bring to us. Unlike western magic, with its notion of a celestial climbing frame from Malkuth to Kether, or certain Eastern doctrines that pursue an eventual escape from the physical, an enlightenment or attainment of Nirvana – Voodoo is concerned with a gradual revealing and instinctive comprehension of the mysteries of nature and existence that are all about us right here and right now. It has many parallels with Tantrik practice, in that the world about us is considered the ultimate reality to which we are habitually blinded and conditioned from fully perceiving. There is no escape hatch to be found, and the Garden of Eden is all about us if we only have the eyes to perceive it.
Relationships with the Lwa and Orisha permit us to engage deeply with certain mysteries that impact upon our lives all the time and which we are continually involved in. For instance, the Orisha Shango is the God of thunder, fire, passion, masculinity and power. He is a great King – thought to have once incarnated as the fourth King of the Yoruba – and a mighty warrior, formidable magician, great lover and unsurpassed dancer and drummer. His symbol is the double-headed axe, which suggests that power can cut both ways. The sacred tales of Shango reveal a complex picture of the interplay between power, passion and a fiery nature, and the consequences and responsibilities that come with these mysteries. A relationship with Shango can teach us how to navigate these forces as they appear in our lives, and by honouring this Orisha we are effectively opening a dialogue with deep elements of ourselves – and elements of human nature itself – that otherwise would remain abstract and impersonal.
Similarly, in Haitian Vodou, the various Erzulies – such as Erzulie Freda, Erzulie Dantor and La Sirene – are each expressive of a different mode of femininity. They represent different ways of being in the world with their own specific strengths, powers and characteristic solutions to problems. As you come to understand something of the nature of these Lwa, and begin to honour the presence of these mysteries in your life – not just in your magical practice, but in your actual life, in the circumstances of your personal history, reflected in people that you know, and as immanent facts of your every day experience – you start to see how the Gods are not just a soap opera of mythic characters endowed with superhuman powers, but living processes that we are intimately immersed in.
Erzulie Freda is a seductress who slowly reveals glimpses of herself to her devotees, her mysteries unfolding like a burlesque revue: A colourful spray of flowers that catches your eye, a love song on the radio, a glass of champagne on a summers day, a pretty girl who passes you on the street, a quickening heartbeat, a fleeting exchange of glances, the scent of fine perfume, the best day of your life, your first kiss, the love you feel in your heart, so much that you think its going to burst, the most perfect thing you can think of, so much beauty that tears start to well up, how did you get so lucky, lying next to someone that loves you, not a care in the world, everything coming up roses, a whirl of parties, and music and dancing, the time of your life – and then the sorrow that comes when you realise that these things are fleeting. That life on earth is also struggle, and suffering, and dog-eat-dog, and your inability to square that, and the tears that come in droves when you remember how lovely it was and not being able to understand what happened. How did we get to this? Why has it all gone bad? What did I do wrong? Isn’t it a pity how we break each other’s hearts. And suddenly you’re not just crying for yourself anymore but for the whole world, and all the sorrow there ever was comes through that tiny crack in your perfect day, and the tears don’t stop falling and you cry yourself to sleep. Erzulie Freda is this totality. Hers is a mystery that we return to again and again throughout our lives, in different permutations and life situations, an infinite wardrobe of experience supplying her with fresh costume changes as she dances onto the floor for another number. In the image of the Mater Dolorosa, most frequently used to represent Erzulie Freda Dahomey, the Virgin’s heart is pierced with a lance but it does not bleed. Erzulie feels this sorrow, her tears fall, but it does not kill her. Her sorrow runs its course, she transforms it, she finds beauty again. She’s your heart’s desire, the best thing that ever happened, and when she smiles and winks at you, there is no sorrow, there is no heartache or sadness, and her presence makes a hazy memory of discontent. Erzulie Freda dispels these things with a twirl of her fan. Nothing is static in Voodoo. The Lwa themselves never just represent one thing, but a range of experience, all the possibilities inherent in a certain mode of being. Connaisance develops as we start to observe the motion of these currents in our lives, and learn how to speak directly with these forces of nature, feeding and nourishing them when their presence and influence is weak, soothing and placating when their presence is heated or volatile. Bringing the balance and equilibrium that we require in our lives for stability, but understanding that friction and turbulence are also facts of existence and often necessary for further growth and evolution to occur.
Confrontation with the mysteries is nourishing and fulfilling, but it can be challenging. The nature of your relationship with a particular Lwa will directly reflect the nature of your relationship with the mystery that they represent. For instance, a misanthropist who doesn’t believe in love, has hardened her heart against the possibility of romance, and despises all sentimental gestures and frivolity – might find her relationship with Erzulie Freda to be problematic to say the least. Likewise, someone who never gets anything done, avoids hard work as much as possible and is squeamish about confrontation, might find that they don’t really see eye-to-eye with Ogun. Such clashes of personality with the Gods can be intimidating. Once you have opened the door to experiencing life through this lens, the presence of the Lwa can be alarmingly real – so finding yourself on the wrong side of them can be disconcerting. But it is through these encounters that real change can occur, and we are given opportunities to transform ourselves and our world.
A living relationship with deity, with its up and downs, its challenges and its tribulations, provides a theatre in which you can heal and resolve the issues that you have with their field of mystery. Over time our hard-hearted misanthropist can work out her problems with Erzulie Freda, heal the quarrel taking place in her soul and let love in. Our work-shy layabout can learn how to communicate with his Ogun, long-neglected and under-nourished, and discover vast reservoirs of energy and determination that he thought were closed to him. We go through life mistaking our conditioning, our habitual responses and well-worn behaviour patterns to be the entirety of our being. Early traumas and formative experiences in childhood, or adulthood, can leave us convinced that certain qualities or ways of being are simply closed to us – barricaded off and denied us – the exclusive province of others more gifted or confident.
Through introspection into the Mysteries, you come to understand that these gifts and qualities are not random trinkets doled out arbitrarily at birth, but living Powers that can be accessed and conversed with. Perceived difficulties can be resolved through this process, you can close the distance between you and whatever qualities you are estranged from, and entirely new relationships can blossom into fruition. In our dealings with the Gods, there will always be those with whom we feel a deep affinity, great mysteries in whose presence we are comfortable, and it is important to cultivate and strengthen these connections. But the real task of the magician is in the process of working with deities who we don’t have an affinity with, whose mysteries we don’t really understand, and whose presence makes us feel distinctly awkward and uncomfortable.
If you can change this through your regular practice – take a problematic relationship with a deity, and through your effort and devotion, repair the damage and make it healthy – the repercussions can be profound and wide-ranging. It is not just one relationship in the theatre of magic that you are changing, but the entire lens through which you habitually process a certain mode of experience. If you can fundamentally transform how you relate to core mysteries of life such as love, sex, strength, passion, work, conflict, parenthood, birth, growth and death – in the context of your relationship with the Lwa who govern these areas – then your world becomes a very different place, full of very different experiences and possibilities. This is the Great Work. It can sometimes be difficult, challenging, frightening, tough going – but nobody said real magic was supposed to be a walk in the park. We live in a world with a lot of problems, sickness, and fear. In our journey to consciousness we have grown apart from nature. We have grown apart from our bodies. We walk around like brains in jars, animating robot arms and robot legs to ferry us to work and back. Our survival instincts sublimated by mechanised living, we shuffle around paranoid, alienated, debt-ridden cities searching for meaning. We’ve been taught to see the living world as either decoration or resources to be plundered, and march on towards environmental disaster looking for someone else to blame. We perch at the top of the food chain, but we don’t like to get our hands dirty. We hide our barbarism in murder factories behind the scenes and call it something else. Our separation from nature is a chronic dis-ease – we speak of it as something alien and other to us, but we are as much a part of nature as spiders and magpies and trout. We are animals in the jungle. Intelligent monkeys who have learned to use language and fashion tools to shape our environment. We’ve got this far and accomplished so much, but without awake awareness of our condition within nature, we are destined to self-destruct and take countless other species with us to extinction. This separation must somehow be repaired at a cultural level. If there is any metaphorical reality to the Biblical Fall, then that is it. If there is any Abyss for us to traverse on our camel, then it’s right there. We already have a wealth of tools, passed onto us by our ancestors, for enabling this process. Many of them buried, hidden and occulted from the perspective of western society, but not too difficult to unearth if you dig around in the right places.
Voodoo, and its related traditions, is one such body of knowledge and practice. It can teach you to feel kinship with fire and iron, the river and the ocean, the city and the forest. It can help you reach your ancestors and draw on their great strength and support in all that you do. It can show you how to be awake – present in the moment – standing on clean Earth with the Sun, and Moon, and the infinite canopy of space above. It can wake you to a world of mystery, a world of magic, a world of animism and spirits.
This is heavy gear. Stepping into such a world can take some acclimatisation. If it were an easy hop, skip and jump away from the nose-dive of western culture and its excesses, then we wouldn’t find ourselves in such a predicament. Magicians are pioneers, operating in areas that aren’t even supposed to exist, according to the dominant discourse of western society. We’re teaching ourselves to swim in strange waters, and navigating by whatever maps have been passed down to us by previous generations. It can be difficult at times, but the rewards are genuine and possibly imperative for our species continued health and survival.
If you’re in this game, you need all the help and support you can get. There is no time for territorial disputes and magical pissing contests. It’s not a time to be drawing up battle lines between this tradition and that. There is one earth and one sky, and a proliferation of different cultural perspectives on the same human predicament. We live in an age of unprecedented global communication, and the opportunity to understand the world’s diverse magical traditions as a single body of knowledge has never been greater. If you choose to squander that by spreading paranoia and disinformation about traditions that you simply do not understand, then you have lost your way. If you believe the snares and flytraps of your ego are greater than the truth of my heart, then you are mistaken. The business of a Doctor is not to wage petty skirmishes with those floundering in the darkness of their own fear and ignorance, but to heal sickness and treat illness wherever it occurs. Wake up. There’s work to be done.
Stephen Grasso is a writer and artist based in London. He gets up to some weird business with rum and smokes, handfuls of dirt, meat and bone, sticks and stones, blood and iron, fire and water. He’s writing a book on his experiences with things that aren’t supposed to exist. It will be out when it’s done.