Seekers and Guides: Cultural Negotiation

Seekers and Guides: Cultural Negotiation December 8, 2014
Vodou Mirror (Museum Exhibit) by quinet.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Vodou Mirror (Museum Exhibit) by quinet. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The lwa started reaching out to my husband and myself six years ago.  I don’t know why it was that the Baron Samedi chose to stop by when Erin was in the hospital after his accident.  Why Him, and not some other god; perhaps one we were more familiar with?  My only acquaintance with the Baron to that point had been roleplaying games.  Prior to that our only contact with the lwa had been that Papa Legba was a patron to one of my teachers.

Erin was hovering between life and death, so naturally that’s the Baron’s area of concern; but Wiccans have other gods they typically deal with in that realm.  Why did Baron Samedi reach out to us?  I have some guesses about the factors that may have come together for that.  First, I think maybe He was at Vancouver General for someone else who fell under His purview and we just happened to be there.  Second, I’ve been a witch for a long time so I am (usually) capable of recognizing spirits when I see them, so it was easy enough for Him to speak with me.  Third, Erin is very good at reminding people why they should enjoy life, and I have done a lot of work with the dead, so I’m sure the Baron recognized that we shared common goals and interests that fell into His special purview. Fourth, the Baron is also very “real” for a god.  I guess when you spend enough time with mortals, you learn to appreciate them and see things a little bit from their point of view.  Sometimes He can get carried away with the party, but He probably has a greater appreciation for human frailty that a lot of other gods just don’t, since They don’t have those same frailties Themselves.

Baron Samedi. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

So, in other words, He was in the area, happened to have information that would help me, and reached out to comfort me because He’s a nice guy.  He was able to do that because I am one of those people who walks between the worlds.  Someone else might have missed the gesture; and indeed, one could easily interpret that experience as entirely circumstantial if one were not spiritually inclined.  And because of His interaction with us, we were favourably disposed towards Him and the lwa in general; and being a slick customer, He recognized an opportunity.

To be fair, I suppose it could also have been the Catholic connection.  The Baron is equated with St. Lazarus in the syncretic symbolism of Voodoo.  In addition to all the witches doing magick and all the healers sending Reiki, there were many Catholic relatives, and their churches, who were praying.  How much connection does a god who has taken on syncretic elements have with the original deities (or this case, saints) who became conflated with Him?  I can’t say; but I can’t imagine that there’s no connection at all.

The lwa spend a lot of time in this world compared to other deities.  They are horsed regularly by Their followers, while most Pagans don’t Aspect their gods at all, and those of us who do usually only do so once in a while and for specific purposes.  When the lwa find a cheval to work with, They always do things that are very physical; They eat, They smoke, They drink, They have sex.  Those who do not practice Voodoo often equate this with vice; some even claim that the cheval is possessed by a demon.  But think about it: what if you had no physical body?  Wouldn’t you want to get the most out of tactile and physical experience when you had access to one?  It’s certainly a common theme in ghost stories . . .

Sculpture of the Horned God of Wicca found in the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In 2010 I was invited to present at a panel at the Canadian National Pagan Conference in Montreal.  Erin and I drove across the country because it was cheaper than flying and we could both go.  Every time we crossed a provincial border we smoked a cigar in offering to Papa Legba, who is the lwa of barriers, borders, crossroads and liminal spaces.  So He’s the guy you go and see at the crossroads who became conflated with the Devil in American myth.  Through the Devil as psychopomp comes a link to the Horned God of the witches; perhaps that was enough to make us a blip on Papa Legba’s spiritual radar.  Or perhaps He was the one who sent the Baron in the first place, since all lwa need His permission to cross into our world.

A lot of great things happened at that conference, but what is relevant to my story here is that I met Witchdoctor Utu and the Dragon Ritual Drummers, who taught a Voodoo workshop and introduced us to the ceremony to Open the Gates, and the ceremony for Shango.  It was clear that the lwa were reaching out to we two Western Witches, and They were probably one of many factors that made a lot of unlikely things come together to bring us to that event; which turned out to be a life-changing experience.  Alone, unaided, with no relief driver (because the car was not adapted for Erin to drive) I drove us across the country in four and a half days.  I have been assured since that this is physically impossible without high-test stimulants; the strongest I had was that cross-border jolt of nicotine and a regular supply of coffee.  I believe we were meant to be there.  And I believe the lwa were perhaps the driving force that made that happen.

We went home with a new appreciation for Voodoo and for the lwa.  I reminded Erin of the visitation from the Baron, and he decided to take Him as a patron deity.  This was the beginning of the process of learning how to incorporate the lwa into our lives; and of the lwa learning how to incorporate us.  We celebrated my husband’s survival by going to the site of the accident on its anniversary and doing the Opening of the Gates ritual, then making offering to Papa Legba and to the Baron.  We began doing this ceremony to contribute to local Pan-Pagan gatherings such as Pagan Pride.

The Black Madonna of Częstochowa, the inspiration typically used in the depiction of Erzulie Dantor. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Further research into the lwa drew me to the fascinating transformative powers of Erzulie.  As a Wiccan I was struck by the parallels between Her and other goddesses of love; usually the more ancient (and often dangerous) ones, like Astarte, Inanna, Ishtar and Freya.  Perhaps practicing Vodoun might be offended by that, but for me, it offered a way to approach Her.  And at the same time, I believe She began to reach out to me, leaving me omens and signs and touches of Her presence through Her symbolism and associations, much in the way that Wiccan presentations of goddesses do.  It turns out that Erzulie is also both “Queen of Heaven” and “Queen of Hell”; Her Freda aspect is all about mercy, love, romantic love and compassion; Her Dantor (Petro) aspect is all about the fierce (and often violent) protection of women and children.  This was something I learned over time and research.

Later that year we went to PanFest and we learned that entirely independently, our friends ByThor and Selene had taken up the study of the lwa also.  Selene invoked the lwa and offered a cigar as part of the Pan-Pagan opening ritual.  We compared some notes, and we took home Selene’s invocation to the lwa of justice, Shango, for aid in the court matters surrounding the accident.  And they weren’t the only ones.  All of a sudden we started seeing Voodoo practitioners actively participating in the Pagan culture and in the blogosphere.  All of a sudden magick sites incorporated Voodoo spells into their formularies, and occult publishers began including both theoretical and practical books on Voodoo in their titles along with the ones on ritual magick and Witchcraft.

We began actively working with the lwa in a syncretic kind of way.  On one hand we were very Wiccan.  On more than one occasion we Drew Down the Baron and Erzulie (usually separately) instead of horsing Them; which was an interesting process in which the lwa had to negotiate the rules and limitations of a cast circle and a witch’s will (the details of which are kind of personal.)  On the other hand we incorporated some Voodoo traditions.  Because the Opening of the Gates was the only ceremony we really knew, we began using that at the beginning of rituals in which we were calling upon the lwa (it’s only respectful to ask Papa Legba’s permission, after all).  I had already created a govi box instinctively for my miscarried daughter, and I began treating it as such.  I expanded the Brighid altar I already maintained at our hearth to include Maman Brigitte also.  We made an altar in our home for both the Baron and Erzulie; and you know, with a tall skull candleholder on one side and roses on the other, I thought it perfectly balanced the Wiccan juxtaposition of death and life/love.

At Beltane 2012, instead of making an “Aphrodite’s Temple,” I opened an “Erzulie Temple” in a box trailer at my home (I was hostessing,) and I did it again the following year.  And when Beltane was over, I was disinclined to take down the Temple.  I left it there, determining that it would be a place to work sex magick, which I and my friend/initiator/sometime-lover Lord Redleaf was actively researching; and I offered a Wiccan ritual in which he and I innocently asked Erzulie for Her guidance in this.  I felt that She had partially guided me to that work; that She had a message that She wanted to share; and just as Diana had done when She guided me to a life of Witchcraft, Erzulie recognized someone whose goals matched Hers reasonably well.  And so Erzulie took us up on the invitation.  The result was a crazy whirlwind of transformative events in my life, much of which was confusing and painful and which I may write about at a future date.  Ultimately it was a powerful healing process, but it was a traumatic one; one of those crazy initiatory kinds of experiences.  Lilith Dorsey would have told me not to ask unless I was prepared.  A Vodoun would have known what she was in for.  But I am not a Vodoun; I am a Wiccan and a Witch, and I do things in a witch’s way.

Eventually the Temple expanded to include other lwa and Wiccan deities such as Herne also, but keeping the Temple through the winter turned out to be an onerous process.  Everyone in the household (which now included Redleaf in a mostly-polyfidelitous trio with myself and Erin) began to get feelings of malice from the Temple at night during the cold.  “I don’t think They grok winter,” Redleaf confided to me.  Bad luck began to follow us when we had neglected the Temple due to human frailties.  I installed a heater and began plugging in the electrical, but that was just too expensive in the winter months so we kept it to Fridays, with a big Friday ceremony to honour Them, and for a while that seemed to placate our ambassadors from the lwa and the Voodoo culture.  But this sometimes didn’t work out during the Yule activities, and then the feelings of malice would radiate from the Temple again.

A Vodoun would tell me that the lwa are jealous and They demand your full attention.  But as a Witch, I don’t appreciate jealousy and vengefulness directed towards me from the deities I worship; that’s one of many reasons that I’m not a Christian.  This malice directed at us for “not doing it right” almost completely succeeded in alienating Redleaf.

We speculated why the lwa might be interested in getting involved with the lives of witches.  What would motivate Them to act outside of Their traditional sphere of influence?

And then it came to me.  Witches are the natural allies of Voodoo.  We are both relatively new syncretic religious movements with some very ancient and primitive elements.  We both incorporate ancient animism, magick, and a Christian overlay into our faith.  We are both victims of misunderstanding and fear; we are both often accused of “cultural appropriation.”  We are often told that we’re “not doing it right” because we choose to do it differently.  We both value the mysterious and accept all aspects of life, including death; and both of our faiths were born from powerful cultural clashes.  Perhaps the lwa were deliberately reaching out to the Neopagans in order to expand Their area of influence.  Why not?  They’ve done it before, when They were the Orisha and became the lwa in the first place; and obviously, a certain degree of adaptation was required on both sides.  And Wicca certainly has precedence in being willing to incorporate other gods in our syncretism!

Inside Magical Elements in Red Deer, AB. These shelves are filled with intermingled Wiccan spell ingredients and Voodoo gris gris. Photo by Sable Aradia, copyright (c) 2014.

When I went on my book tour through Western Canada I made it as far East as Winnipeg, and in every Pagan shop I visited (aside from the New Agey ones) I invariably saw Voodoo spell components and Voodoo or Voodoo-inspired paraphernalia next to the Witchcraft spell components and paraphernalia.  This was not true when I went across the country to Montreal four years ago.  But there was a well-developed Voodoo community in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto and they were just starting to actively connect to the Pagan community in 2010.  This hardly confirms my theory, but it certainly lends it some credibility.

For those who believe in some actual “reality” of spirits and deities, I believe this is how syncretism is born, and my partners and I were (and are) experiencing it in action; indeed, we have been taking an active part in the process.  In the deities of another culture and faith-path we saw Powers worth working with, who offered a slightly different take on some of the mysteries we considered integral to our faith; and yet, we saw parallels between Them and our faith’s traditional deities.  I imagine it must have been the same for the Romans when they looked to the Greeks, or possibly even for the followers of the Aesir when they encountered the followers of the Vanir (saying that the theory of the Norse pantheon being a fusion of two original pantheons proves correct.)  The Greeks themselves engaged in this process with the Cretan goddess we know today as Aphrodite, and possibly with Hecate as well.

I finally sat down in the Temple and lit candles and made offering.  Once I had observed proper ritual I spoke to the lwa directly.  “You’re not going to get far with the witches with threats,” I explained.  “Witches don’t tolerate that kind of thing.  They find other gods to worship.  We expect and accept guidance, direction, and some degree of cosmic manipulation.  But we don’t like outright threats.  If you want to win the witches over, you’ll get farther with honey than with vinegar.  You’re alienating the guys and you’re going to alienate me.  Please lighten up and I’ll try to do right by you.”  And then I promptly made altars in the house to each one of the lwa we’d been working with – including Shango (whom I have since learned does not appreciate sharing an altar with anyone) to show Them that I was willing to meet Them halfway.  They reciprocated by easing up on the hostility and working with us in a more Wiccan way.

I assume there will probably be more such discussions in the future, and we will have to find a balance in the process of working together.  In the meantime, what will happen to the Pagan community in Canada over the next few years, I wonder?  Will Wicca take on some Voodoo elements?  Will Voodoo take on more Neopagan elements?  Will a new faith develop that mixes elements of both?  Is it already happening with the rapidly-growing Neopagan shamanism that is also developing in pockets in the Canadian Neopagan community?  Is this connected to the resurgence of interest in traditional Witchcraft?  I suppose only time will tell.  But it’s certainly an interesting process, and I’m excited to watch it unfold, and in some small way, to be a part of it.

“Bamboula” by the Dragon Ritual Drummers; which is the song for the ceremony to Open the Gates.

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