Tag Archives: anthropology

Thoughts on “Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn” by Karen McCarthy Brown

This book has been on my shelf for a few years. I purchased it along with Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen (click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of my review of Deren’s book). I bought these books because they were recommended to me by a close friend who was initiated into the Vodou tradition in Haiti, and I was interested in learning more about the religion. I would later learn that Mama Lola was the manbo who initiated him.

The book is an excellent academic work. Ms. Brown is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Anthropology of Religion, so not only does she explore the mystical practices of the Vodou religion, but she also presents a moving look at the challenges that face Haitian immigrants in the US who struggle with poverty, racism, and discrimination. Having known many Haitians from my years living in Miami, I was able to relate to a fair amount of the personal stories presented in the book, having seen friends deal with the same types of struggles. Professor Brown does a great job explaining how popular culture, institutionalized racism, and organized religion all contribute to the negative stereotypes associated with Vodou.

American popular culture dwells on images of Vodou’s malevolence, an attitude as nonsensical as equating Catholicism to Satanism. The understanding most North Americans have of Vodou is derived mainly from its portrayal in novels, films, and television, where images of sorcerers, zonbi, snakes, blood, and violence abound. In the United States, the word voodoo is used in a casual and derogatory way to indicate anything on a spectrum from the deceptive to the downright evil. If it were not so clear that racism underlies these distortions, it would be hard to understand why this kind of stereotyping is tolerated for an African-based religion when it would not be tolerated for other religions.

The negative portrayal of Vodou in the press, in novels, and in travelers’ accounts began in earnest shortly after the Haitian slaves won their freedom, a period in which slavery was still practiced in the United States and in many European colonies. The argument was often explicitly made that the barbarism of their religion clearly demonstrated that Haitians were incapable of governing themselves—an argument used by the United States and several countries in Europe to justify their refusal to recognize the fledgling black republic. Racism is more covert and convoluted these days, but the stereotypes of Vodou still serve their purposes. One of the central ways such propaganda works is by characterizing Vodou as in every way the opposite of “true” religion, that is, of Christianity. This description is ironic, for people who serve the Vodou spirits consider themselves good Christians.

(pp. 110 – 111)

It is important to remember that Vodou is a rich spiritual tradition, and like any spiritual tradition or religion, when practiced in earnest, will instill the practitioner with spiritual values and promote individual growth. I love the way Maggie, who is Mama Lola’s daughter, explains this, emphasizing how having Vodou in her life helps her live in the world, and elevates her above mundane and meaningless human existence.

“You know, maybe if I wasn’t part of Vodou, I would not know so much about people. Maybe if I did not grow up in it, I would be just, you know, just like ordinary people . . . walking . . . like everybody else walking on the streets, up and down . . . and don’t know right from wrong.”

(pp. 298 – 299)

There is profound wisdom here, and something we can all learn from. So many of us are guilty of “walking,” and being lost in our self-importance while cut off from reality through the constant stream of digital noise. We have forgotten that we are spiritual beings having a worldly experience. I can still picture my old Haitian friends, and I remember distinctly how deeply spiritual they were, how caring and charitable. I think the world could learn from the Haitian people, about the importance of community, family, tradition, and spirituality.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope this post inspired you.

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“Between Dr. Watson and Lawrence of Arabia” by Umberto Eco

While they sit quietly in their apartment, Holmes suddenly says, “You are right, Watson, it does seem a very preposterous way of settling a dispute.”

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 203)

The quote is from another brilliant essay written by Umberto Eco and included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. Eco is citing Sherlock Holmes, who deduced that Watson was thinking about how war is a foolish way to deal with a problem. And I agree.

Eco goes on to explain that the biggest problem with the way most countries wage war is that they rely on brute force, as opposed to studying and learning the culture of the opposing country and then addressing the conflict on a socio-anthropological level.

And don’t tell me that when a country is at war, there’s no time to listen to social anthropologists. Rome clashed with the Germanic tribes, but she needed Tacitus to help her understand them. When it comes to clashes between cultures, the conflict can be tackled not only by manufacturing cannons but also by financing scientific research, and this is something that the country that managed to get its hands on the best brains in physics—while Hitler was trying to send them to concentration camps—ought to know perfectly well.

(ibid: p. 206)

But there’s the rub. Too many Americans have a distrust of the intelligentsia, calling them “elitists” with venomous disdain.

The war in Iraq seems to be a conflict begun without consulting the universities, due to the American right’s ancestral mistrust of “eggheads” or, as Spiro Agnew called them, “effete snobs.”

(ibid: p. 208)

It’s been more than 15 years since Eco wrote this, and it feels like the issue that he described has only become more stark. I can only hope that these are the last death throes of a dying paradigm that is about to shift. It’s high time we began valuing intelligence instead of blindly worshipping might and power.

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“Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti” by Maya Deren – Pt 2

DivineHorsemen

I finished reading this book last night. To sum it up, it is nothing short of amazing, one of the most powerful books I have ever read. Not only is it highly informative and inspirational, it is masterfully written. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in religion, spirituality, anthropology, sociology, or with even the slightest interest in human culture.

This post covers the second half of the book. I cover the first half in an earlier post.

The second half of the book focuses primarily on the voudou rites. It is emphasized that voudou rituals are religious and not magic rituals. The purpose of a religious ritual is very different from that of a magical ritual.

… religion differs sharply from magic, for the sorcerer’s apprentice has only to learn the proper words and their proper order to achieve the desired result. The magic ritual is made mysterious because the magician conceals his means from the eyes of the observer; the religious ritual seems mysterious because the observer cannot yet grasp the meaning of what he sees. In a sense, religious training develops the psychic perception and power of the individual; magic apprenticeship provides informations as to the means of manipulating the world. (p. 158)

One of the rites discussed is that of baptism. I found this fascinating, particularly because all I knew about baptism was Christian-based. In voudou, baptism is the process of making something divine, thereby creating an object that can be used to contact the divine spirits.

… baptism does not so much confer divinity upon an object per se as it makes the object a “door” by which divine energy may be drawn into this world by those who possess the key, which is the name to be called. (p. 186)

Voudou rituals are intended to serve the gods, not to attempt to bend the gods to serve the practitioners. For this reason, voudou practitioners are called serviteurs, since they are essentially offering themselves to the gods.

Divinity is an energy, an act. The serviteur does not say, “I believe.” He says: “I serve.” And it is the act of service — the ritual — which infuses both man and matter with divine power. (p. 187)

Two key components of a voudou ritual are drumming and dancing. These help alter the serviteurs’ consciousness, opening them up to the mystical experience. Deren states that drumming is “the organic axis of the spiritual cosmos, around which all temporal elements of ritual are centered.” (p. 238) Regarding the ritual dancing, she asserts that “such dance might be understood as a meditation of the body.” (p. 241)

The final chapter of the book focuses solely on possession. There is no way that I could do this chapter justice in a blog post. Suffice to say that it is riveting to read. Deren describes in breath-taking detail how it feels to become possessed, the physical and emotional changes that one experiences. It must be read to be appreciated. I will note, though, that she describes the loss of self associated with possession by a loa (divine being) as a feeling of death, since one’s spirit is displaced by the loa.

To understand that the self must leave if the loa is to enter, is to understand that one cannot be man and god at once. (p. 249)

I cannot emphasize enough how powerful this book is. Just looking over my notes as I write this post fills me with awe. Now, as an added bonus and to whet your appetite to purchase and read this book, I am including the film that Deren made documenting her observations. It’s worth taking the 50 minutes to watch. The footage of the rituals, including possessions, is amazing. Enjoy, and thanks for reading.

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“Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande” by E. E. Evans-Pritchard

This is a book that has been sitting on my shelf for a while. I picked it up years ago while scouring a used bookstore and had never gotten around to it until now.

The book is an anthropological study of the mystical practices of the Azande in Africa and was originally published in 1937. Evans-Pritchard was a Professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford University, so this is not some new age book touting an idealized view of indigenous tribal rituals, but an objective, detailed account of his observations during the time he spent living amongst the Azande.

There is a wealth of information in this book and it is written in a style that is accessible and engaging. It is by no means dry academic writing (except for the introduction by Eva Gillies – I would skip over that unless you like that kind of stuff). There were lots of things I could expound upon, but I will limit myself to a few key items.

One thing I found fascinating is the observation that the Azande used drumming and dancing to evoke the “manifestation of esoteric powers” (p. 88). This is something that seems to be consistent with most indigenous groups. I think it also explains the current interest in drum circles. Where I live, there is a weekly drum circle in the center of town and it draws many people who participate, either as drummers or as dancers.

Regarding the use of oracles, Evans-Pritchard writes: “Azande observe the action of the poison oracle as we observe it, but their observations are always subordinated to their beliefs and are incorporated into their beliefs and made to explain them and justify them” (p. 150). This is true of every culture. Each individual’s belief system determines how that person perceives events. Consider how the beliefs of a theoretical physicist and those of a religious fundamentalist would cause each person to view the same occurrence in a different manner.

Finally, regarding magic, the Azande believe that the main purpose of magic “is to combat other mystical powers rather than to produce changes favourable to man in the objective world” (p. 199). This is the opposite of what practitioners of magic in the west believe. According to Aleister Crowley, the purpose of magic is to manifest occurrences in accordance with one’s will.

This book is probably not for everyone. I personally enjoyed it, but that is because I have an interest in mysticism and anthropology. If either of those topics interest you, then you will likely enjoy this book.

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