Last Friday night, towards the end of my Ifá oracle session conducted by my Oluwo (godfather), the Orisha Orunmila declared that in order to remove the ibi (negativity) associated with the signs uncovered in my reading, I needed to take a series of spiritual cleansing baths. Many religions advocate the removal of spiritual pollution (what the ancient Greeks called miasma) through a variety of methods; in Ifá, as in related African Diaspora Religions (ADRs) like Vodoun and Santería, ritual baths comprised of sacred herbs and other organic ingredients are commonly prescribed for the removal of negative energy from one’s head (the locus of personal destiny) and home environment. While some baths are for initiates only, meaning they are comprised of blessed ingredients arduously prepared–under the benevolent auspices of the Orisha Òsanyìn, Lord of the Forest and Master of Plants and Herbal Medicine–over a span of days by one’s godparents and other trained clergy in the religion, the ones the Orisha prescribed for me last Friday were ones I was meant to prepare myself, and ones anyone could easily do, whether they adhere to any of the ADRs or not. Since they’re easily adaptable to any religious tradition and made of readily available ingredients (i.e., they’re probably already in your kitchen pantry), I thought I’d share with you how you go about preparing for the series of ritual cleansings known as “sour” and “sweet” baths. Continue reading
In the cosmology of the West African religion of Ifá, as in other African Diaspora Religions (or, indeed, many traditions rooted in animism), physical sickness and ill fortune in the home may often result from the interference of malevolent spirits. The spirits’ presence would be determined through an Ifá divination session. I had such a session two nights ago, when I went to see my godfather in Ifá (my oluwo) for a consultation on the recent surprising break (towards the end of May) of my Hand of Ifá idé: a yellow-and-green beaded bracelet worn on the left wrist that denotes my initiation in the religion and my relationship to Ifá, the orisha of divination (His colors are yellow and green). Inbetween the breaking of this vital apotropaic talisman and this past Wednesday’s divination session, I’d attended a drum ceremony (bataa) for the spirits of the dead (eggun) at my godfather’s Ifá house. As I’m one of those “empath” types that seems to attract spirits of the dead, I knew I had to take serious precautions before showing up for the bataa: drum ceremonies almost always involve spirit possession, and the last thing I wanted was an unwanted spirit clinging to me. So I warded myself by drawing certain sigils using cascarilla on my feet, legs, and nape of the neck (that last part is tricky)–the vulnerable parts of the body woeful wights are said to “jump” first when they want to attach themselves to the living. Continue reading
During my lunch break today, I swear I spotted an avatar of the Orisha Eshu. A young man skateboarding downhill on Adams Street in the shadow of the Sears Tower (yes, you read that right: as a native Chicagoan, I refuse to call it by any other name), weaving in and out of hordes of slow-moving tourists on this gloriously sunny and summer-like Monday. He sported a t-shirt that looked like a modified version of the Chicago flag: instead of the iconic series of four red, six-pointed stars, however, the word “Character” was emblazoned in large cursive script.
Ashé, ashé! I mentally affirmed as I read the t-shirt’s message and silently blessed the youth that whizzed past me. I pulled down on the collar of my shirt to expose my newly acquired elekes, and I said a prayer of thanks to each of the Orisha whose energies find manifestation in the individual necklaces ringing my neck, the necklaces I received this past Saturday night (the timing was interesting: Dark of the Moon and right on the cusp of the onset of a Mercury Retrograde period) in an initiation ceremony that lasted nearly four hours. Continue reading
“He commenced his walk, but soon again stopped and this time just before me.
“‘Jane! Will you hear reason?’ (he stooped and approached his lips to my ear;) ‘Because, if you won’t, I’ll try violence.'”–Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847), Ch. 27
Recent literary criticism has attributed an air of notoriety to the Gothic’s reputation for contesting conceptual boundaries. Encoded within Gothic narratives is a play of terms, of oppositions, which attest to a fundamental ambivalence: good depends on evil, light on dark, reason on irrationality, in order to define limits. This play of antitheses means that Gothic is an inscription neither of darkness nor of light, a delineation neither of reason and morality nor of superstition and corruption, neither real nor fantastic, but both at the same time (Botting 9). Such amorphous inclusiveness reflects a major problem of defining the “Gothic” itself. According to Sarolta Marinovich, for example, it is “not so much…a specific genre in literary history…but…a mode of writing to be found in novels and poems alike” (189). Little wonder that Julian Fleenor proposes that the Gothic “is a protean entity not one thing. There is not just one Gothic but Gothics” (4).
One of the factors surrounding the Gothic that has remained constant over the past three centuries is its affiliation with women. Indeed, from its late-eighteenth century inception as a genre to its twentieth century “drugstore” incarnation as a formulaic “romantic novel stamped by a brooding sense of mystery and terror” (Whitney 11), the Gothic has been considerably shaped by women. According to the findings of feminist literary theory and criticism, the Gothic, either as a genre or “mode of writing,” suits women writers’ purpose: not only can it give voice to the (hitherto unmentionable) female condition of marginalization in androcentric society, but it can do so indirectly, given the Gothic world’s precarious balance of “the real” and “the fantastic” (van Leeuwen 37).
“As early as the 1790s,” states Ellen Moers, “Ann Radcliffe firmly set the Gothic in one of the ways it would go ever after: a novel in which the central figure is a young woman who is simultaneously persecuted victim and courageous heroine” (91). For many feminist critics, who claim that the victim aspect is more pronounced in Gothic than its counterpart, the affinity between gender and genre is problematic: while the terror and rage that women experience within patriarchal social arrangements (especially marriage) may find expression, Gothic resolutions all too often entail an affirmation of the status quo, pointing to the notorious ambivalence of Gothic fiction. According to Tania Modleski, for instance, “Gothics, like Harlequins, perform the function of giving expression to women’s hostility towards men while simultaneously allowing them to repudiate it” (66). Kate Ellis maintains that the Gothic novel creates, “in a segment of culture directed toward women, a resistance to an ideology that imprisons them even as it posits a sphere of safety for them” (x). Michelle Massé argues that “the husband who was originally defined by his opposition to the unjust father figure slowly merges with that figure. The heroine again finds herself mute, paralyzed, enclosed” (20). In short, the maiden of the Radcliffean mould may act bravely, but she cannot surmount the sphere of woman’s socially enforced helplessness. Continue reading
Vračari: The Serbian Feast Day of Saints Cosmas and Damian, Folk Magic, and the Sacred Twins of African Origin
In Serbian folk understanding, there are two days of the week that are ideal for “throwing” magick (gatane, vračane): Tuesdays and Fridays. Hence today is a doubly auspicious day for magickal workings–not only is it a Friday, but it’s the Feast Day, in the Serbian Orthodox Church, of the Vračari: the Twin Magicians, Saints Cosmas and Damian (Kozma i Damijan in Serbian).
The official Eastern Orthodox Church lore regarding them is pretty scant. Catechetical books say they were they were doctors renowned for supernatural healing skills, ones who didn’t accept payment for their miracle cures. They lived/were martyred in the third century CE, and they even wound up healing the nasty man who sentenced them to death.
This is where folklore becomes much more of a reliable indicator of the importance of these saints in Serbian culture than official Church doctrine. In a nutshell, Sveti Vračari–literally, “the Saints Who Throw Magick”–are petitioned by everyday people (but especially women, as Serbian folk magic is overwhelmingly a female phenomenon) to expedite their personal magical workings. Should the Saints’ Feast Day fall on a Tuesday or Friday, so much the better! Those workings can be of a self-directed or externally oriented nature, of course, and since Saints Cosmas and Damian were healers while alive, spells to effect healing in one’s self or on behalf of someone else are, not surprisingly, the chief reasons why the Vračari are invoked. Continue reading
The New World Wyrd: Polytheistic Pagan Practices, Cultural Contexts, and Defining Boundaries in Pursuit of the Limitless
I was 18 years old when I came out of the broom closet to my Serbian immigrant parents, announcing that the Serbian Orthodox Christian faith in which they’d raised me was irreconcilable with my expanding consciousness that came to understand Deity, humanity’s relationship with nature, and human nature itself in ways that were markedly different from the catechism of my upbringing. While my parents weren’t wholly surprised–despite being devout Christians they (especially my mother) always encouraged openminded inquiry about world religions; furthermore, it was commonly accepted in my family that I was “weird”–there was an air of sadness to near elegiac levels in the kitchen of my childhood home that September day when I made my announcement. Continue reading