A Voodoo Experience in New Orleans

As you’ve probably picked up by now, I live in New Orleans.

I’ve always been fascinated by this city. Its history, culture and color have continually drawn me to it over the years. When I had just graduated from college, I tried for the first time to come here but circumstances did not allow it. I tried many times over the intervening years to get here and it just seemed like it was never meant to be, until that fateful festival where I met my significant other. At that festival, he managed to convince my best friend and her boyfriend to allow him to go and stay with them while he performed at the Ohio Renaissance Fair. While he stayed with them, he gave them an open invitation to visit him in New Orleans as a way of saying thank you. They took him up on it and brought me with them. And in many ways, even though I went back and forth from New Orleans to Ohio for a while before actually moving here, as of that visit I never really left.

There are many things I love about the city, one of which is how openly Pagan this city is. We have a huge Voodoo community here (as you might expect) and a vibrant Pagan community. No one looks askance at the pentacle necklace that I wear. I had a girl come to the door the other day who was doing surveys. She asked me right away if I was Wiccan and exclaimed “How cool!”.  People openly have shrines and altars for various deities all over the place (and this goes for the Christians as well…). When I go to the cemeteries, I see spells drawn into the ground and offerings left behind. I do my best not to disturb these workings. You pass many businesses and residences that just have little bits and pieces here and there that speak to me of magic and ritual. I don’t care whether you believe in magic or not, there is magic in New Orleans.

This past year, The New Orleans Healing Center opened up on St. Claude. This is a beautiful building that holds so many things: local artists are prominently displayed, there is a community theater, a book store, a little middle eastern restaurant, a yoga studio, a food co-op, a Botanica, , an interfaith meeting room, a police station and many other wonderful things. They hold community gatherings and fund raisers. It is a place for the community, by the community.

The New Orleans Healing Center

The New Orleans Healing Center

Last week I received an email through our local Pagan meetup about a public voodoo ritual that was going to be held out in front of the Healing Center. I was excited; I had never actually seen a real Voodoo ritual before and this one was going to be about helping to protect the community, which in that neighborhood especially, is definitely needed. Every little bit can help. The ritual was going to call on Ogou Achade to help fight crime in our beautiful city.

Sallie Ann Glassman

Sallie Ann Glassman

Sallie Ann Glassman, a well known Mambo here in New Orleans, and her house La Source Ancienne Ounfo, were running the ritual. Sallie Ann runs the Island of Salvation Botanica in the healing center and is a major contributor to the center as well. I’ve only ever heard good things about her and every time I went into the Botanica, I always found good vibes. I don’t know how else to describe it. While most Voodou practitioners set my teeth on edge (they carry a wildly different magical energy than any tradition that I’m familiar with), the Botanica always struck me as a welcoming sort of place.

One of the requirements of being a dedicant in Blue Star is that you go and see at least three other tradition’s rituals. This is to make sure that students of Blue Star are aware that there are other paths out there, to make sure that Blue Star wasn’t the first thing they found and that they think they are stuck with it. I’ve gotten off pretty easily on this; I’ve been Pagan long enough that I’ve had the opportunity to see many different rituals in many different settings. But some of our other dedicants haven’t. So this was going to be their first non-Wiccan ritual.

I had no idea what to expect. The invitation told us to wear all white and have a red head covering. It also told us to bring an offering and listed some things that would be acceptable. Not surprising most of them had to do with fire, metal and warriors.

We showed up early to find the ritual area being prepared. Sallie Ann was the first person we saw and she was immediately welcoming. Sallie Ann is an extremely frail seeming woman, but by the end of it all, I was seriously impressed with both her presence and with the work that she did. The ritual was done in French, so I really can’t tell you much of what was actually said. And again, I’m not familiar with Voodoo ritual, so this is what it seemed like to me:

They began by doing something similar to what we do in Wicca. It seems like they called the quarters and swept the circle. A male member (the priest/houngan?) drew the quarters from the altar (which was simply items placed in the middle of the space on the ground) with a machete and then several other female members danced behind him, presenting fire and water (it seemed like water, it was a liquid in a bottle, I assume that it had been blessed or was a mixture of other things). But they did this by song and dance as well. Sallie Ann did not sing the ritual, another member of the house did. This woman had a lovely voice, though it had more power to it than eloquence. The members of the house called back to her at specific moments. Next they presented offerings, again, dancing them through the quarters, presenting them to all the directions. After the house finished with their offerings, they let everyone else participating present theirs. Some were able to present their offerings in the way the Voodoo house had done it and others, like me, (knowing that there was no way I could do anything that complicated without much practice), simply walked up, presented their offerings respectfully and bowed. After presenting their offerings, each participant took a pinch of gunpowder and threw it on a lit charcoal. After everyone had finished, apparently something wanted a little more oomph, because seemingly for no reason that we could see, the whole little bottle of gunpowder exploded.

After this, everyone seemed to settle down into the actual ritual. Sallie Ann and her priest had a mock fight. He carried the machete, she carried a shaking gourd. At the end of this fight, he submitted to her and they presented to each other. After this, Sallie Ann began to draw four veves around the central altar. This was an amazing thing to watch. I’ve seen veves before, sacred drawings in Voodoo worship, but I’ve never seen someone draw them in ritual with the traditional cornmeal. She did this quickly and precisely, though it still took her a significant amount of time. I assume that each veve had a different meaning for each direction. They were fairly large and intricate. Sallie Ann didn’t falter once. After she drew them, she and girl who had been singing the ritual, went to each veve and seemed to do another blessing with both fire (candles) and the water that was used before. When this was completed, I assume that the space had been adequately prepared to call to Ogou Achade. (From the brief explanation that she gave before the ceremony, they had to create the poles from above and below to call to the Lwa. I’m sure I’m mangling these terms, but it seemed like they needed to create a pole to draw the spirit in). She drew another large veve in the East that seems to have been the call to Ogou Achade himself.

First Sallie Ann and her priest went around the group and did energy work with each of us. They each had a shaker gourd (and after asking permission of each person), did a small working with each person. They worked their way up a person’s back, shook the gourd over their head several times and then worked back down again. This experience alone was enough to nearly knock me over. I have never felt energy work hit me that much before. And watching my fellow dedicants and our neophyte, who had come with me, they had a similar experience. Then Sallie Ann and her priest went around the circle and blessed everyone with the cornmeal of the last and central veve.

After this, Sallie Ann actually called Ogou Achade into her. I’ve never before seen someone who is ridden, but it was more than a little scary. There is no question in my mind that that seemingly frail little woman carried the warrior Lwa within her. Ogou Achade also worked his way around the circle and blessed everyone by spitting rum over us. This was an extremely intense experience. I’ve been a part of invocations before. Confronting a God is not new to me, but this was much scarier than the gods that I am familiar with. Ogou Achade carried the machete with him and the look in his eyes was not necessarily friendly. He was obviously a warrior that is willing to fight for the community, as we were asking him to. At the end, Sallie Ann had to lie on the ground and recover.

Through all of this the singing and dancing continued. The energy that was gradually built up was absolutely palpable. There were drummers who played through the whole thing as well. I’m sure that I’ve forgotten a lot of the details and mixed the order of everything around. This was one of the most powerful rituals that I have ever been a part of.

This also ended up being one of the most public rituals that I have ever been a part of. St. Claude is a very busy street. Traffic flew past us the whole time and many people who were walking by did more than simply stop and go around us. We ended up with a lot of people who were simply walking past, who stopped and stayed on the outside of the ring for the whole two hour long ritual.

And one of the most significant things that I took from this ceremony was the joy that everyone who was there brought to it. Even the strangers who were passing by on the street stopped and either watched or jumped in to participate. No one stopped and accused us of worshiping the devil or of doing something bad. They were openly happy to see us doing this sort of work. Would that happen anywhere else in this country?

As one of my friends said, “It’s funny, but I always think of Vodou as New Orleans’ indigenous religion–I don’t practice it but I do like to visit & pay homage periodically”. I agree with this statement entirely. While Voodoo is not a practice that I will pursue for myself, I was amazed and grateful for being able to be a part of this ritual. I also think that it’s another amazing part of this vibrant and wonderful city and all I can do is reflect, once again, how lucky I am to get to live here and be a part of this. I would definitely encourage anyone to experience something similar!

(For another perspective, go and read my friend’s blog post “Ashe” from her blog, LA to LA).

Attention Louisiana Pagans!

This is more of a quick service announcement before I post a longer blog later tonight.

I am a member of the New Orleans Lamplight Meetup Group. We are working on putting together a Pagan Pride Day (under the umbrella group The Pagan Pride Project) for New Orleans in 2013. We are having our first official organizational meeting this Sunday. I am copying in below the email from our fearless leader Ty. If you are in Louisiana and want to participate, or know someone else who might, please pass this along!

Pagan Pride Days are great opportunities for the Pagan community, and hey…this is New Orleans, we have some big ideas for this. But we need a lot of help!

~ Owl

Hi everyone!  This is Ty from New Orleans Lamplight Circle.  I am sending this email out to every group I know in the Pagan/Vodou/ceremonial magick community in the greater New Orleans metro area.  We are having a meeting on SUNDAY, JUNE 3RD AT 2:15 PM AT THE NEW ORLEANS HEALING CENTER 4TH FLOOR INTERFAITH SPACE (2372 St. Claude Avenue, New Orleans).  This meeting is to discuss plans for a potential Pagan Pride Day in 2013.  We want this to be a big event that involves everyone in the community, so we want your participation as well.This first meeting will cover various topics, like:
1. Purpose and theme of a Pagan Pride Day
3. Determining sources of funding
4. Types of activities
5. Potential dates and locationsYour personal and/or group’s involvement is up to you.  We definitely need people to be committee members to handle various parts of the PPD, and we also need co-sponsors (who would fundraise in their own group to bring much needed funds into the PPD budget).  PPD will be under the auspices of the Pagan Pride Project, a 501c3 non-profit organization, so all donations will be tax deductible.

I understand that not everyone receiving this email is Pagan; however, I believe many of us are so interlinked with each other spiritually and socially that it’s important that the Vodou and ceremonial magick communities also “represent” as well.  This day is meant to be a true representation of New Orleans Paganism, and many of us have embraced/incorporated other non Neo-Pagan paths into our practice.  All are awesome and all should be present at NOPPD 2013!!

Some of the groups we’re inviting (though there’s certainly no limit) are: Covenant of the Pentacle Wiccan Church (New Orleans AND Lafayette), Circle of the Tree, Coven of the Gryphon/Gryphon’s Nest Campground, Highland Oak Nemeton, Alombrados O.T.O., La Source Ancienne Ounfu, Voodoo Spiritual Temple, Voodoo Authentica, N.O. Healing Center/Pluralism Project, Temenos ta Theia, LAW/Sacred Paths Community Center/Moondance Circle, Keepers of the Hearth, The Amethyst Cottage, Rose & Antler Coven, Wisteria Temple, House of the North, UU Church (New Orleans AND Baton Rouge), Coven of Moonlight Spirits, Central LA Pagan Assoc., Living Temple of Wicca, Dragon Moon Coven, CenLA Broom and Brew, Mosaic, Coven of the Grove, Circle of the Silver Moon, Mississippi Magick Society, K.C. Perilloux/N.O. Witches Ball, HEX, etc.  We would like to extend the area of the PPD to include southern Louisiana up to Alexandria, and southwestern Mississippi.  Please forward this email to anyone else who might want to participate, as I may not know EVERYONE in the community.
I am asking everyone to RSVP by responding to this email no later than May 31st.  Even if the leaders of certain organizations cannot be present, you can still send a representative in your stead.  If you have questions you need answered BEFORE the meeting, you can reach me at 504-621-0274.  Answers to questions regarding PPD stipulations can be found at www.paganpride.org.I hope to hear from all of you soon!Ty

The Order of the Garter and England’s Witches

“Avanti, Avanti, Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense!”

One of my favorite Wiccan tales is about the creation of the English Order of the Garter.

A tradition in Wicca is that when a Priestess has hived three covens, she becomes a Witch Queen, and is entitled to wear a green snake-skin garter with a buckle for every coven that she has hived. A Priest earns the title Magus, though he does not get a garter. The S.O. says that Priests just “get to smile and look pretty”. The tradition of the garter was mentioned by Margaret Murray, who said that the garter was historically a “badge of a witch”. Whether Margaret Murray was correct or not is up for much debate. Either way, the green garter is traditional now.

The story goes that the Duchess of Salisbury was dancing with King Edward III when her garter, her green garter mind you, fell to the floor. Supposedly the whole room went silent (which assumes that the rest of the court knew what the green garter symbolized), and waited to see what the King would do. This was the time period when the Inquisition was raging across Europe, though it hadn’t yet made it to England. According to the story, the King picked the garter up and tied it to his own leg, saying “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense”, or “Evil to those who think evil”. This symbolized to the rest of the court that Edward knew his dancing partner was a Witch, but wasn’t going to allow the Inquisition to come to England. Thus the Order of the Garter was created by the king to protect England’s witches. Again, whether this is true or not, witches weren’t burned in England traditionally until the rule of King James I, who became the King of England in the early 1600’s. (Burnings started happening in the 1400’s, but weren’t quite the overall societal reaction to witches in England. Again, one can probably debate the history of this).

In Witchcraft Today Gerald Gardner cites the story, saying: “The King’s quickness saved the situation and placed him almost in the position of their incarnate god in the eyes of his more pagan subjects. This was followed by the foundation of an Order of twelve Knights for the King and twelve for the Prince of Wales, i.e. twenty -six members in all, or two covens. Froissart’s words imply that Edward understood the underlying meaning of the Garter, for he says, ‘The King told them it should prove an excellent expedient for uniting not only his subjects one with another but all foreigners conjunctively with them in bonds of amity and peace.'” (Gardner, 119-121, Fiftieth Anniversary edition) In The Meaning of Witchcraft, in the chapter titled ‘Significant Dates in the History of the Witch Cult, with Special References to Britain’, Gardner says that this happened in the year 1349.

As the S.O inserts…of course every English school boy knows the tale, but without the Witchcraft references. But as several other writers point out, the more conventional tale of how the Order of the Garter is founded doesn’t quite hold up. It’s not like most ladies of those days couldn’t deal with a garter falling off at an inopportune moment. It probably happened all the time. Why was it necessary for the King to intervene? (And whether or not the Duchess of Salisbury, or in some stories, the Maid of Kent, was the King’s lover, shouldn’t have mattered here one way or another as far as a dropped garter). In the non-Witch version, when the Lady’s garter fell off, the knights jeered at her. King Edward is known for upholding chivalry in his court. The jeering seems somewhat out of character. So what other reason could there have been for Edward III to make such a point of tying the Lady’s garter to his own knee? In the more conventional stories there seems to be a lot of clumsy explanation that suddenly becomes unnecessary when the presence of Witchcraft is inserted.

I’ve been reading Lammas Night by Katherine Kurtz, a fictionalized account of the Grand Coven which was purportedly convened by the magical practitioners of Britain in 1941 to stop Hitler’s invasion. This is another story told by many esoteric traditions. Apparently this Grand Coven was an event that had not been witnessed since the Grand Coven that thwarted the Spanish Armada in 1588 if tales are to be believed. If nothing else, we do know that one day Hitler woke up and decided not to invade England, exactly when he was poised to do just that. The German War Machine was all lined up for invasion. We have no idea why Hitler decided to not cross the channel. In Lammas Night, Kurtz ties the Order of the Garter to both the stopping of the Armada in Elizabeth I’s time and to the Grand Coven which stopped Hitler during WWII. Kurtz involves a prince of the Royal Family in this scenario, which ties the story to the idea of the Seven Year King, or the Sacred King and the notion that every seven years, a “king” needs to be sacrificed to the land for it to prosper and flourish. In the story of the founding of the Order of the Garter, Edward III stands up as the Sacred King. (King Arthur is another traditional Seven Year King, if you want to look at more connections to this idea).

I like to think that, if nothing else, it gives more historical proof of the witch cult in England, whether or not “Wicca” was its actual name. It’s a great story that everyone should know. In Blue Star, we chant Edward’s statement each Beltane, a slogan that celebrates our freedom as witches today. This is yet another great example of being proudly and openly Pagan. If they could do it in the 1300’s, why is it still an issue today? We should use this story as an example of our own modern presence. Some people are willing to stand up to bullies and say that some behavior is not acceptable. Who knows? Maybe someone unexpected will do it at the right time and change the course of history. It seems the Duchess of Salisbury did just that!

To Read the Rede

A discussion over on Camylleon’s blog reminded me of the fact that I’m pretty sure the Wiccan Rede is probably one of the most misunderstood pieces of Vogon poetry ever cited. I hate it when I walk into occult shops and see plaques with “And it harm none, do what ye will!” plastered all over. I see it on t-shirts and posters, pens and embroidered pillows. It just won’t go away. And needless to say, that wording isn’t even correct!

All in all, the Wiccan Rede has a lot of good stuff in it (even if it is horribly worded). But I think that it’s almost completely ruined by the fact that people like to ignore its entirety. When people focus solely on “An it harm none, do what ye will”, the importance of everything else it talks about is lost. People seem to forget that while that last line is a nice little bit of wording, it really doesn’t sum up the rest of the Rede, and that there are, in fact, many more lines to it (25 more, to be exact).

How come people like to entirely ignore the lines “Deosil go by the waxing moon, singing out ye Witches’ Rune, Widdershins go by the waning moon, chanting out ye Baneful Rune”? Isn’t this saying that there is a time and place for both light and dark? It also says, “fairly take and fairly give”. We see this with the Charge of the Goddess as well; people like to ignore that there is also a Curse of the Goddess, though it is much less known. The line “When misfortune is anow, wear the star upon thy brow” refers to shielding in defense of yourself. You can’t just cite one line of the Wiccan Rede without looking at other parts of the liturgy and understand that there is a greater whole. Unfortunately the world is not all puppies and rainbows. Wiccans get a bad reputation from their blindness in regards to this balance of good and bad. “An it harm none, do what ye will” would be great in an ideal world. We don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a much more complicated and scary world.

Maybe it’s because I started my Pagan life as a pirate and not a Wiccan. The Wiccan Rede is not the end all, be all of my ethical and moral decisions. You have to take these things with a grain of salt. There is always a dark side to the light. There’s a reason that darkness exists. It always goes back to being balanced. I don’t usually see things in shades of white and black. I live very much in the grey. One of the things the pirates discuss a lot is the fact that you need to know your shadow self. You need to understand your bad side and what that side of you is capable of. If you aren’t aware of this, you can’t guard against it. You have to acknowledge it to understand it and to understand why the things that part of you may want to do are wrong and why they should be restrained. If you want to put it a modern context, look at Freud’s idea’s of the Id, the Ego, and the Super Ego. Negative impulses exist, and always will. You can’t just sum up an entire ethical framework with something like “An it harm none, do what ye will”. Life is just not that simple.

We were just discussing the Grimm’s fairy tale Sleeping Beauty at a Pagan meetup. When the evil fairy shows up at the party to curse Sleeping Beauty, the last fairy who hasn’t yet given her gift cannot undo the curse that the evil one has given. She can mitigate it, make it much less severe, but once spoken, the curse can’t be entirely taken back. A friend of mine pointed out that you can also see this in the story of Esther in the Bible. The King can’t just take back his order for the massacre of the Jews; all he can do is allow the Jews to fight back. This is a good example of the threefold law. Anything you say or do, can never be entirely taken back. Usually, once something is said, it takes on a life of its own and the next time you hear it, it has grown threefold from whatever might have been originally. This is why the threefold law is so true. It’s not saying that you can’t ever cause harm, it’s saying that if you do, it’s going to grow much bigger than you expect and when it comes back on you, its going to have greater consequences than  you originally considered. It’s also saying that this is true of any good you put out there. “An it harm none, do what ye will” is therefore not as simple and straightforward as people like to misconstrue.

In the traditional Wicca of the fifties, sixties and seventies, Wiccans were not afraid of the dark side of the Craft. They recognized that when you worship Goddesses like Hecate, Cybele, Demeter, the Morrigan and Hel, you weren’t necessarily going to be working with “the light” all of the time. When you read Aradia it is full of death and violence and curses. People were not afraid to go after those who were attacking them. (Whether or not you believe that Leland was given something that was actually “true” Witchcraft, the book Aradia was certainly instrumental in shaping early Wicca). In the eighties, Wicca began changing into a much more “Neo Pagan” sort of religion and started to become side tracked with political correctness. The Starhawk generation changed Wicca into a pretty religion. Wicca lost its bite. It was at this point that the last line of the Wiccan Rede became the penultimate line.

For me, it comes down to accepting personal responsibility. You have to hold accountability for your actions and you have to know when an action is appropriate or not. Decisions like these are very rarely simple. And sometimes you have to stand up to someone who is malevolent and send everything that they’re doing to you back to them. What if you don’t and they go from you to someone who is much less able to handle whatever it is that they’re doing? We need to get over “An it harm none, do what ye will” and focus on how we can protect others who are in the Craft; by looking backwards, we can move our ethical thinking forward. There’s no reason the last line of the Rede can’t be a solid foundation for our Wiccan morals, but it isn’t the only way to approach life, especially when you want to ignore all of the Rede’s other ramifications.