Alleged “Black Mass” In Mexico

A Daily Mail story about a “Black Mass” has been circulating on my Facebook feed. The article depicts every cliché about Satanism, which in and of itself set off my skeptical spidey senses. The images are actually quite stunning and beautiful (though I do cringe at the animal sacrifice—somewhat hypocritically, because I love me some rare steak), but, apart from the pentagram, the costumes indicate indigenous practices, not quite “satanic” ones. As an important comparison, animal sacrifice is virtually universal in terms of human religious behaviour, despite modern Western aversions to it. The ancient Israelites sacrificed to God; the Romans to the Emperor; and various types of Shamans still do this today.

Brujo4 Brujo3 Brujo2 Brujo

The Daily Mail article is (likely deliberately) sensationalist, and thus flawed because it highlights these supposed “satanic” elements to correspond to Christian fears of devil worship. The entire article consists of quotes from shocked American tourists repeating propaganda about Satanism, with virtually no other information on the group, the ritual, the location, context, or history of the event.

After a little Internet research, it is likely that these images come from the Brujo Festival in Catemaco, which celebrates the varied and rich sources for Mexican brujeria. The relevant quote:

“Historically brujos, shamans, warlocks, or  whatever you choose to call them, occupy a revered place in Mexican indigenous culture. The Aztecs classified almost 40 different types of healers.

On the spiritual side, after the Spanish conquest, Catholicism’s attempt to slaughter indigenous culture was transformed by native peoples into metamorphed saint worship and, especially in Veracruz, abetted by a large influx of African slaves and their jungle heritage.

Cuban santeria, Haitian voodoo, and Catemaco brujeria are closely related and promise their aficionados blissful enlightenment, and, to cover all bases, even throw in a little devil worship.”

(More information can be read at the Catemaco website: http://www.catemaco.info/brujos/)

This is a far cry from “Devil Worship,” but actually a local Mexican festival that acknowledges its confluence of cultural inheritances with elaborate and abundant rituals. To frame it in terms of Satanism is what scholars call an imperialist imposition: that is, interpreting the “foreign” according to one’s own fears and culture. It imposes characteristics unto it that correspond to Western concerns, concerns that may or may not be native to the practice.

It also looks like an amazingly fun time a legitimate research project.

Academic Writing: Or, How to Avoid Being Sick Over Your Laptop

My writing process is thus:

1: Vomit words on a page.
2: Leave it for two weeks.
3: Re-write everything.

Or, as my friend Erik Östling puts it, the old “puke and revise” method.

Much of academic writing is taking two separate ideas and merging them together. A basic formula could be: here’s this one dudette’s theory on something religion-related, and here’s this religious group behaving in ways I find interesting, so my job is to see what is gained or lost by applying this theory to the practice. Does it fit well? Why or why not? What insights can we glean from the group’s practice? How could the theory be revised? Etc.

It’s simple enough. Good scholarship does this kind of thing seamlessly.

The problem, is that academics are rarely marrying just two ideas (that’s for undergrads [P.S.: I love teaching undergrads.]), but are instead trying to present a seamless disscussing on one topic by weaving in multiple theories, discourses, and ideas in a way that does not leave the reader confused, angry, and unwilling to fund, publish, and work with you.

I am obsessive. Before beginning to write I collect mass amounts of data before I get a clear idea of what it is I am actually trying to do, overwhelming the issue and confusing myself for days, before I finally streamline my thoughts. The eventual clarity is a glorious euphoria: Oh this is what my paper’s about!!!

The current problem under review: how do you write a thesis proposal on the Church of Satan, which incorporates two separate fields of study, western esotericism, and media/material culture studies? That is, how do I look at the material culture of these Satanists in a way that corresponds to similar studies on magical groups, without the study reading as disjointed?

For those unfamiliar, it is somewhat rare to study contemporary ritual/magical groups in terms of material culture. First, because modern magicians simply are not as studied, and second, because when they are, they are usually studied under the rubric of western esotericism (not material culture).

There is always overlap between fields. The issue, is that when you go cross-disciplinary, your methodology requires refining to adapt to the tug-and-pull of different disciplines, in a way that benefits the particular study best. The proposal I put together at the beginning of my doctorate is no longer completely relevant, as I’ve refined my approach. It’s now time to put it all together.

That’s where I’m at. I’m not yet certain how to do this. And I have a thesis proposal (over)due.

Lucky for me I can vomit on my blog.

Magic: A Brief (Ongoing) Discussion of the Term

Magic is a Western word, born out of the western context. You can read its semantic use in popular discourse from the Oxford Dictionary Online. Note its common applications: as manipulation of events, as adjective, as verb, etc.

Its use within the larger western discourse of religious studies, though has nuanced definitions. It begins with the Greek encounter with Zoroastrian priests and their perceived esoteric skills, wherein magi comes to mean the foreign, mysterious, and occult. It retains this notion of specialized arcane knowledge to the current day, but has also developed other threads along its journey.

Most relevant to me, is the history of how scholars have studied magic. It begins with a Protestant discourse that retroactively applied the term to all things not Christian. Though the word itself predates the early anthropologists, we, in the academy, are most influenced by the first scholars to study “magic” with a social scientific (not theological) methodology. Magic could be:

    1. “Primitives” in foreign areas. Early anthropologist traveling to exotic places and labelling all indigenous practices as magical. Max Warwick presents an excellent discussion on his cross comparison on how the term is applied in studies in Oceania and Africa. For example, some chroniclers use it to denote malevolent practices, while for other cultures it is considered good. In yet others, magic is neutral, but the intent of the skilled person depends on how it is viewed. As these European writers use western language and discourse to describe the foreign ideas, terms like “magic,” “witchcraft,” “sorcery,” “spells,” and “curses” have a wide-range of meanings and applications, with little to no discussion of nuance, and no systematic standard between and among the European writers. Marwick advocates for scholars to define their terms for each study (For group A “magic” is considered evil; for group B is it not, etc.).
    2. Peasants, and their superstitions, sometimes based on older pagan ideas, or simply viewed as more common, a low culture as opposed to high culture. Much of what was considered not part of the practice of civilized elites was denounced as “magic.”
    3. Rival Christianities: your form of Christianity is clearly inferior to mine, and therefore magical, if not satanic. To which the response is an equally emphatic: No, your form of Christiniaty is clearly “magic,” and thus false.
    4. As early European anthropologists viewed civilization as the pinnacle of an upward trajectory model, they also retroactively applied the term magic to previous monotheistic religions, not solely pagan practices. Under this rubric Judaism (with its “archaic” ritual sacrifice) is magical, as are those funny types of Christians [Catholics]. Echoes of this remain within academic discourse, wherein the assumption that anything “ritualistic” is more base, carnal, and not in keeping with the Protestant ideal of internal, direct communion with god. The implication is that anything done with the body, the material, and the carnal is corrupt and inferior.

That is, for much of contemporary history, “magic” is informed by what Christianity claims it is not. Even as what-it-is-not is ephemeral, contested, and constantly in flux according to the socio-politico-religious influnces. What is considered “Christian” in one time/place/context could be considered heretical in another. No discussion of magic can ignore the history of Christianity and how it self-defines: the two are intertwined.

In the modern context, we have yet another use of the term, with the emphasis on technologies used to create magical illusions that tie into the discourse on science versus religion, with magic taking on this hybrid type of non-status. Magic as illusion by the exceptionally scientific. It is entertainment and wonder for a general population, performed by skilled scientists. To be a stage magician is still to manipulate the natural world, yet with the audience suspending disbelief in order to engage with the wonder and awe of the event.

Still, in the case of stage magic, there is an amphasis that it is not religion, not miracle. To believe that stage magic is miracle puts one in the camp of the delusional, unscientific, and guillible (much like the current anti-religious discourse in the western world). Complicating things further, is that many of the earliest scientists engaged in ideas that modern scientists consider pseudo-science or occult magic (see John Dee). Some of theses sciences were fully endorsed and funded by the Church. Some scientists also fuelled the idea that they held supernatural powers (Nichola Tesla was known to encourage rumours of his magical abilities).

Contemporary self-identified magicians (of which there are many types) also contribute to blurring the categories, by claiming that the effectiveness of magic is a science not yet explained by current methods (echoing Arthur C. Clarke’s statement: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”). Magic, within these groups and individuals, can be anything from harnessing biological and psychological techniques, to manipulation of spirits and/or demons via ritual to do your bidding, to an understading that magic is performative and cathartic in and of itself, without requiring deeper supernatural explanations.

In the convoluted ven diagram of Religion versus Magic versus Science, there was and continues to be much overlap.

How do I, then, propose to study and write a dissertation on magic, a thing that has no clear definition?

Well… stay tuned.

Transposing Vodou: Haitian Spirits in the (Virtual?) Diaspora

Alexandra Boutros, in her article, “Virtual Vodou, Actual Practice: Transfiguring the Technological,” examines the intersection between virtual interaction and Vodou practice, and how practitioners navigate technology and popular depictions. She writes: “digital technologies—the possibilities and limits generated by the interaction between technology and technology use—shape manifestations of Vodou in the digital public sphere” (2013, 239). That is, there are now practitioners of Vodou who have no national or genealogical connection to Haiti and thus Vodou, but who nevertheless have become immersed in its virtual community.

Boutros argues that popular depictions of Vodou, despite often being wildly inaccurate, are also the initial draw for the virtually curious.[1] Because of this, Vodou practitioners that have initial contact online may or may not interact with Haitian practitioners; the demographic has expanded far beyond a connection to Haiti. Boutros writes:

Vodou is a fluid and orthopraxic religion in which multiple voices from multiple geographic centers can potentially address the constitution and the constituents of the religion. This multi-vocality maps itself onto the workings of new media, where social networking and software publishing practices seem to create an all-access public sphere. (2013, 241)

Boutros states that the intersection between religion and technology is often framed negatively; technology somehow dilutes or diffuses the notion of an “authentic” religious experience (and yet again, we bump up against the idea that “legitimate” religion is solely defined by an inwardness and sincerity). Yet there are many religions developing an online presence in the face of the overwhelming amount of virtual interaction increasing in the modern world. Examples range from; Ask The Imam and Catholic virtual confession app for smartphones, to new religions such as pagan technomysticism, and even religions that are born online through chatrooms, such as therianthropy (do watch the short video below, it provides a succinct description of how this fascinating movement emerged).

Boutros examines how these virtual spaces intersect with religion, but I would like to back up a bit to look at how grounded (quite literally, in many ways) Vodou is with Haiti in the first place, in order to then to consider Boutros’ comments.

Karen McCarthy Brown (perhaps best known for her book Mama Lola) writes in her article, “Staying Grounded in a High-Rise Building: Ecological Dissonance and Ritual Accommodation in Haitian Vodou,” that when Africans were enslaved in Haiti their homeland became spiritualized (1999, 82). Practitioners wishing to call upon their spirit ancestors draw a cornmeal veve on the ground of temples or shrines, directed at specific spirits. Veve are considered a passageway through the “watery subterranean world they call Ginen” to a spiritual African homeland (81). The veve’s intersecting lines have cosmological meanings, as McCarthy Brown writes: “It is both a crossroads, the ritually accented place where two roads meet at right angles, and a map of the cosmos itself; both a reference to an intimate corner of human-scale space and a cosmogram” (1999, 82).

Veve Erzulie
Veve Legba

McCarthy Brown argues that the first migration (from Africa to Haiti) transformed Africa into a mystical homeland, one accessible via rituals and the spirits. The second migration (from Haiti to North America) again transformed Vodou practices (it itself a mix of indigenous, African, and Catholic sources; the indigenous Taíno population did not survive colonialism). Haiti, as the geographical location of the spirits, becomes transposed in various ways throughout the diaspora. McCarthy Brown describes Haitians who smuggle small amounts of Haitian soil back to their new residences, but even with access to the soil, certain practices such as pouring libations to the spirits presents a problem in such dense concrete clad cities as New York. She writes:

It is impossible to say how many times and in how many different ways the people who serve the Vodou spirits have to experience the impenetrability of the ground in New York City before they begin to feel that the spirits are starving, and they themselves are slowly being drained of life energy; in New york is it hard to keep believeing that “from up here to down there, in Ginen they hear,” when Ginen is so palpably inaccessible. (1999, 85)

The dilemma of “feeling rooted” then prompts a variety of practices that transpose Haiti in New York and other North American cities. One example is where a Priestess placed a tub to collect the water, rum, and perfume libations that were poured to the spirits. She then bottled the liquid in small containers, which practitioners took home to then spread the “bath” on their skin over three days, without washing, in order to absorb the liquid. The porousness of skin has replaced the absorbency of the earth. McCarthy Brown observes: “In theory, at least, one could feed [the spirits] as well through the skin as through the earth” (86).

Haitian Vodou, then, literally inhabits the earth, and this has cosmological, practical, and even national implications in the diaspora. Boutros is addressing the next step: from Africa to Haiti to North America to the virtual world. She states that as Vodou has become more publicly visible and acceptable, as well as its legal recognition in Haiti, has opened up the secretive and guarded religion to the public sphere (240). As non-Haitians become interested, their connection the earth in Haiti in then negotiated in various ways.

These individuals have no genealogical or geographic connection to Haiti, the cosmological center of Vodou, and they often “find” Vodou not initially through direct contact with Vodou practitioners, but through mediated representations that instigate a desire to seek out more information. (240)

When such individuals become interested in Vodou, it creates somewhat of a clash between those that view Vodou as inherently connected to Haiti, and newcomers without the genealogical or geographic connection. As Boutros quotes one online practitioner, commenting on non-Haitian practitioners:

I can’t argue that my experience of [Vodou is the same as] someone who grew up in a household where the spirits were served regularly. . . My problem with a lot of these sites . . . is that there is very little acknowledgement of that difference. Sometimes that difference can be opportune. I remember some of the things that I didn’t understand about the spirits, and that makes it easier for me to explain things to people like me: North American new-age-types who did not grow up in a culture that served the spirits. But it’s important to be honest about difference and ignorance. (Gede.org in Boutros 248)

The concerns over authenticity are then negotiated in two areas: first, in the connection to Haiti as the cosmological centre, and second in terms of how this connection is mediated via technology. This technology is developing its own notions of “space”:

Online religious practitioners often amend the term to talk about cyberrituals and cyberspiritualities, and more mundane concepts such as cybertalk and cybermalls pepper everyday speech. This vocabulary points to a hybridized conception of cyberspace as a terrain that blends the virtual and the actual, making durable links to tangible geographies and undercutting the notion that cyber-identities are free-floating entities with no connection to “real life.” (Boutros 2013, 249)

We may eventually view virtual spaces as benign to the religious experience, its integration into our everyday lives becoming so commonplace that it is no longer considered a threat to our perceived notions of “authenticity.” But as a new technology, is it yet another medium to navigate our religious experiences (such as texts, rituals, images, sounds, our own bodies, and other media). The experiential is always at the centre of how we self-define our religious notions, and virtual interaction is yet another way to mediate that experience: discuss, dissect, advise, consult, and promote our ideas.

[1] It is interesting to note that there is a significant amount of members of the Church of Satan who were also drawn to seek more information because of depictions of Satanism in the media, films, and heavy metal music. This differs somewhat from pre-Internet members, who sought information through occult bookstores and/or various New Age types of activities and groups, wherein pamphlets, leaflets, periodicals, newsletters, and bulletins produced by various Satanists for various purposes (magic, fiction writing, essays on Satanism, promoting a particular local cabal to national members, etc.). The difference is the initial level of commitment and certainly the ease of access. Some Satanists of the older generation lament that what they call First Phase Satanism (an overly enthusiastic and sometimes misguided interest in Satanism) is on the increase with virtual interaction, whereas before, it took a certain amount of genuine effort to actually write a letter, partake in a cabal, or attend an information session.

Boutros, Alexandra. 2013. “Virtual Vodou, Actual Practice: Transfiguring the Technological,” in Jeremy Stolow, ed. Deus in Machina: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between. New York: Fordham Universty Press: 239-259.

Brown, Karen McCarthy. 1999. “Staying Grounded in a High-Rise Building: Ecological Dissonance and Ritual Accommodation in Haitian Vodou,” in Robert A. Orsi, ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press: 79-102.