Tag Archives: spirits

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.

7 Comments

Filed under Non-fiction, Spiritual

“The Invisible Man” by H. G. Wells: Belief in the Unseen

I figured I would start out the October spooky reading with the classic sci-fi tale from H.G. Wells. Not surprising, Wells weaves some thought-provoking social commentary into his story. While I discovered a lot of philosophical ideas within the text, the one that really stood out for me was the question of whether things unseen (such as God and the spirit) can exist.

My sense is that during the time Wells was writing, the dominant scientific belief was that if something truly existed in the universe, then it could be scientifically observed and studied. There was skepticism that unseen phenomena, such as God, could exist.

After the first gusty panic had spent itself Iping became argumentative. Scepticism suddenly reared its head—rather nervous scepticism, not at all assured of its back, but scepticism nevertheless. It was so much easier not to believe in an invisible man; and those who had actually seen him dissolve into thin air, or felt the strength of his arm, could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

(H. G. Wells: Seven Novels; p. 197)

I addition to a skepticism of the existence of things unseen, there is also social stigma attached to those individuals who do perceive beings that are invisible (angels, demons, spirits, gods, etc.). These people are often considered delusional or mentally ill, and that the unseen entities with which they are conversing are just creations of a diseased mind.

This stranger, to the perceptions of the proprietor of the cocoanut shy, appeared to be talking to himself, and Mr. Huxter remarked the same thing. He stopped at the foot of the Coach and Horses steps, and, according to Mr. Huxter, appeared to undergo a severe internal struggle before he could induce himself to enter the house.

(p. 198)

After Kemp, who symbolizes the scientific thinker, encounters the invisible man, he begins to ponder the existence of invisible entities. Essentially, he is contemplating whether the existence of God is a possibility.

“Invisible!” he said.

“Is there such a thing as an invisible animal? In the sea, yes. Thousands! millions. All the larvae, all the little nauplii and tornarias, all the microscopic things, the jelly-fish. In the sea there are more things invisible than visible! I never thought of that before. And in the ponds too! All those little pond-life things—specks of colourless translucent jelly! But in the air? No!

“It can’t be.

“But after all—why not?

(p. 223)

Another interesting point about this passage is that Kemp claims that the sea has more things invisible than visible. The sea is a common metaphor for the subconscious mind. Psychologically speaking, there is so much happening in the mind that is beyond the grasp of our ordinary consciousness. Science has not even scratched the surface of the deeper realms of consciousness. There is much there that is still invisible to us.

For me, the most powerful passage in the entire text is when the invisible man reveals to Kemp his plans for establishing a “Reign of Terror.”

“Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is they know there is an Invisible Man—as well as we know there is an Invisible Man. And that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes—no doubt it’s startling. But I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways—scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.”

(p. 251)

Here Wells is making a dual criticism. On one level, the passage expresses his views on the concept of a vengeful God, one that hands down orders “on scraps of paper” (symbolizing scriptures) and then doles out severe punishment to the people who fail to heed the word of God. Additionally, Wells is criticizing the concept of divine rule as embodied in an absolute monarchy. These rulers live in palaces, unseen by the common folk, and hand down laws (more scraps of paper) and decree punishment upon those villagers who fail to obey the laws.

What makes this book such a masterpiece is that it is a great story, and it also has deeper meaning if you look beneath the surface. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. Have a great day, and keep reading cool stuff.

2 Comments

Filed under Literature

Thoughts on “Henry VI: Part 2” by William Shakespeare

Reading this play not long after finishing Henry VI: Part 1, I can see just how much better Shakespeare’s craftsmanship is in this play.

As I am wont to do, I figured I would share and comment on the passages that stood out for me.

And, force perforce, I’ll make him yield the crown,
Whose bookish rule hath pulled fair England down.

(Act I, scene i)

Henry is criticized for being bookish, in other words, educated and thoughtful, as opposed to being a man of action. It is similar to the mindset of many people today. Educated leaders are deemed “elitist” by many individuals, who prefer a leader who embodies the characteristics of the common person. There is even the belief that the best political candidate is the one who has little or no experience in government, and virtually no formal education. Personally, I think being thoughtful and educated are prerequisites to being an effective and good leader.

Patience, good lady; wizards know their times:
Deep night, dark night, the silent of the night,
The time of night when Troy was set on fire;
The time when screech-owls cry and ban-dogs howl,
And spirits walk and ghosts break up their graves,
That time best fits the work we have in hand.
Madam, sit you and fear not: whom we raise,
We will make fast within a hallow’d verge.

(Act I, scene iv)

In this scene, Bolingbroke is preparing to conjure spirits. What struck me about this passage is the importance of time when performing an occult ritual. There are certain times, essentially threshold periods, when practice of spiritual or mystical arts is considered to be more effective. Midnight, dawn and dusk, solstices and equinoxes, full moons—these are all times that are significant in religious and mystical rites.

Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous:
Virtue is choked with foul ambition
And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand;
Foul subornation is predominant
And equity exiled your highness’ land.

(Act III, scene i)

Again, I could not help but notice the correlation with the political climate today. The majority of politicians do not appear to act based upon what is right and best for the country and the population, but instead are motivated by self-advancement and financial manipulation from corporate entities. Short-term financial benefits are often considered more important that long-term solutions to challenges. It is this short-sighted mentality and the self-centered focus that has led us to the socio-political mess that we are dealing with today.

Every time I read Shakespeare, I marvel at how similar humans are today to our ancestors 500 years ago. We have not advanced or changed all that much. Our technologies and general knowledge have leapt forward, but our core beliefs and motivations have remained the same. Personally, I feel that humans need to embrace a new paradigm if we are to continue as a species. If we maintain our current trajectory, I do not see our civilization lasting much longer.

5 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 4 – The Sacred Work

PrometheusUnbound

Although I feel as if I could write forever about this play, I will stop at four (a nice symbolic number). In Act IV, there are two passages sung by the Chorus of Spirits which resonated deepest for me on this reading. They are somewhat lengthy, but need to be included in their entirety.

We come from the mind
Of human kind
Which was late so dusk, and obscene, and blind,
Now ’tis an ocean
Of clear emotion,
A heaven of serene and mighty motion

From that deep abyss
Of wonder and bliss,
Whose caverns are crystal palaces;
From those skiey towers
Where Thought’s crowned powers
Sit watching your dance, ye happy Hours!

From the dim recesses
Of woven caresses,
Where lovers catch ye by your loose tresses
From the azure isles,
Where sweet Wisdom smiles,
Delaying your ships with her siren wiles.

From the temples high
Of Man’s ear and eye,
Roofed over Sculpture and Poesy;
From the murmurings
Of the unsealed springs
Where Science bedews her Dædal wings.

Years after years,
Through blood, and tears,
And a thick hell of hatreds, and hopes, and fears;
We waded and flew,
And the islets were few
Where the bud-blighted flowers of happiness grew.

Our feet now, every palm,
Are sandalled with calm,
And the dew of our wings is a rain of balm;
And, beyond our eyes,
The human love lies
Which makes all it gazes on Paradise.

The first thing that struck me about this section were the references to Coleridge’s masterpiece, Kubla Khan. The image of the caverns as “crystal palaces” conjures images of the “caves of ice” in Coleridge’s poem. And of course, the image of Paradise.

Like Coleridge, Shelley is expressing the creative power of the human consciousness, particularly those deeper realms of the subconscious represented by the caverns. All great art is an expression of this deep subconscious. But what Shelley implies, which I think is so poignant, is that it is the emotion of love which allows us to glimpse into the deeper areas of our souls, to “gaze on Paradise,” and thereby create art which captures the true divine essence of our beings.

In the next passage sung by the Chorus of Spirits, Shelley connects the creative power of the human mind with the myth of Prometheus.

Our spoil is won,
Our task is done,
We are free to dive, or soar, or run;
Beyond and around,
Or within the bound
Which clips the world with darkness round.

We’ll pass the eyes
Of the starry skies
Into the hoar deep to colonize:
Death, Chaos, and Night,
From the sound of our flight,
Shall flee, like mist from a tempest’s might.

And Earth, Air, and Light,
And the Spirit of Might,
Which drives round the stars in their fiery flight;
And Love, Thought, and Breath,
The powers that quell Death,
Wherever we soar shall assemble beneath.

And our singing shall build
In the void’s loose field
A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield;
We will take our plan
From the new world of man,
And our work shall be called the Promethean.

The first thing that struck me about this section is the contrast between what I’ll call the trinity and anti-trinity. While there must always be a balance in nature, and therefore a balance within ourselves, we must turn to the positive trinity if we want to create art that is spiritual and conveys the beauty of the divine. Shelley expresses the trinity that fosters creative expression as “Love, Thought, and Breath,” and the anti-trinity, which clouds the creative ability of humanity, is “Death, Chaos, and Night.”

When Shelley states that “our singing shall build / In the void’s loose field / A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield,” he is asserting that it is through artistic expression, particularly poetry, that humanity will be able to elevate itself to the level of divinity.

Finally, “our work shall be called the Promethean.” Prometheus was the god who defied authority and gave light to humanity. This then becomes the task of the poet. The poet and the artist must challenge the established authority and bring the concepts of love, spirituality, and enlightenment to all humanity. The work of the artist is the work of Prometheus. It is the only through the Love, Thought, and Breath of the poet that our civilization can overcome the powers of Death, Chaos, and Night.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you are now inspired to take on the Promethean work.


 

Other Posts on Prometheus Unbound:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

8 Comments

Filed under Literature, Spiritual

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XI – A Gathering of the Shades

Odysseus and Tiresias: Wikipedia

Odysseus and Tiresias: Wikipedia

In this book, Odysseus describes how he performed the ritual that Circe instructed him to do. He raises the spirit of Tiresias who tells Odysseus that he is being punished by Poseidon for blinding Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops Polyphemus. He then describes the other spirits he encountered, specifically the warriors that died at the battle of Troy. He also sees the punishment of Sisyphus.

The section that stood out the most for me in this book is when Alkinoos praises Odysseus for his honesty.

As to that, one word, Odysseus:
from all we see, we take you for no swindler—
though the dark earth be patient of so many,
scattered everywhere, baiting their traps with lies
of old times and of places no one knows.
You speak with art, but your intent is honest.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 197)

We have some serious irony here. Odysseus is not really an honest person. He’s the Trickster. I’m starting to think that he is making all this up, that the odyssey is really a mental construct in Odysseus’ mind. I am going to have to start reading a little closer to see if I can uncover any more clues to support the assertion that Odysseus is really full of it and just making up a story. I’ll let you know what I discover.

Read on, friends!

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized