DANCING WITH THE DEAD: Voodoo, Paganism and Possession

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Dr. Strange runs the Voodoo down. . .
DANCING WITH THE DEAD:
Voodoo, Paganism and Possession

The drumming and chanting have been going on for hours. The final offerings and propitiations have been made, and now the tension mounts to its peak. The Spirit moves its host, performing an intricate and physically impossible dance. As full possession strikes, series of tests are performed by the Spirit to prove its authenticity. Then it speaks, answering questions and making pronouncements. When the Spirit is released, the host slumps to the floor, exhausted.

You have just read a description of:

  1. Holly Roller Pentecostal snake-handler revival service
  2. Consulting the State Oracle of Tibet
  3. A Voodoo ceremony
  4. All of the above

(If you choose either 1, 2, or 3, you have magickal tunnel vision. The answer is 4, of course, and for extra credit, see how many more examples you can find).

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Once, I made the mistake of telling a witch that a close study of Voodoo might fill in the gaps in her ritual hygiene. She was quite frightened by the idea of possession, even though she called down the goddess every month. This only made sense if she viewed ritual as some form of experimental theater, with little or no magickal content. While I have no quarrel with that concept – theater and magick are intimately related – the difference should be respected.

Many years ago, while managing a theater where an acting company performed rotating Shakespeare all summer, I met a method actor whose techniques for getting into his roles hovered on that boundary between theatrical magic and magickal possession. He was one of the leads in the company and had four demanding parts, including three of Shakespeare’s toughest and most diverse, Falstaff, Polonius and Lear. I watched him build his characters as each went through rehearsal and entered the schedule, amazed that he could learn Lear while performing Polonius, and then Falstaff. But it was as the full cycle started in rotation that I realized his secret.

Each night, he would arrive at the theater soon after I did, hours before the show. He would go on stage and sit down center looking up at the set for the night. He might sit there a few minutes, or might still be there when the techies arrived to check the lights and sound. When he was ready, he would go down to his dressing room, ignoring any greetings or interruptions, and put his costume and makeup on. Then he would sit, very still, occasionally mumbling to himself as if going over his lines.

He would stay like that until about fifteen minutes before show time, when he would emerge in total character. He would stay in character, backstage, between acts, and so on, until it was time to go back to his dressing room. He would take off his costume and makeup, then go to sleep for as much as an hour before he woke up, showered, and left.

At a party one night, I asked him about his routine and his ability to hold his character. He laughed it off at first, but when he saw that I was seriously interested, he explained it something like this:

“I start with the set so I can imagine the world that the play takes place in,” he confided. “Each play has its own world, its own reality, and I need to feel that to know what my character can do in this world. Some nights, its tough, hard work, and takes forever. But I know when I have it. I feel numb, sort of empty. Then I go down to the dressing room and fill that emptiness with my character. I start with his image, externally, then I try to see him moving and acting out the life you don’t see on stage. I give him depth, I get to know him, think like him, so that when I come up on stage, there is nothing to hold but the character. No ‘me’ at all. Then after it’s over, I just peel off and collapse. When I wake up, I feel like me again.”

Now, imagine for a moment that we are an alien anthropologist who does not know that Shakespeare is a secular playwright and assumes that Lear is a mystery play on the Divine King or The Merry Wives of Windsor is a fertility ritual. In this view, his performance is an example of possession. He was possessed by the spirit of Lear or Falstaff, who are appropriate tribal god forms. Alien anthropologists from a more materialistic culture might postulate simple auto-hypnosis as the basic mechanism in all ritual effects. A third group might suggest that the tightly scripted quality of known performances indicates a literary context for the work.

Before we select a perspective for our tunnel reality, let’s remember the ghost of The Shadow that haunts its author’s, Walter Gibson’s, old apartment. Gibson wrote hundreds of thousands of words describing The Shadow’s world in that apartment. Years later, complete strangers still see a man in a broad brimmed hat and cloak gliding down the hall. The Shadow’s Ghost is a created spirit, what the Tibetans call a tulpa, or thought form.

So let us say that the actor built up a thought form of his character, and then invoked it each evening in order to do the play. The literary context then becomes the structure within which the thought form manifests, allowing for coherent performances as well as a sense of newness and freshness in each individual performance.

This creates a powerful and dramatic catharsis, but is it magick? It is to the extent that it changes the consciousness of the audience, but it isn’t in terms of contact with Spirit. The Tibetans define the difference between tulpas and spiritual beings, such as the five Buddha forms, as one of simple sentience. A spirit is a creature who is conscious of Self, but has no body or physical locus of manifestation. A discreet, although discarnate, sentience defines self-awareness as pre-existing the intervention of the host, in other words, the spirit is autonomous, in both thoughts and actions.

I suspect that my witch friend actually thought of “The Goddess” as a kind of thought form that one put on for the catharsis of ritual, not as a spirit that animated her body and consciousness with a sense of otherness. A good Voodoo ceremony, I suggested, would quickly correct that misapprehension.

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Voodoo comes from the old Dahomean word for spirits, and in the new world of slavery it became the word for the practice of religion itself, emphasizing that, even though Catholic elements are involved, this religion focuses on the Spirit in all its manifestations. These spirits are often called the loa, (lowah) or the “mysteries.” In a curious linguistic synchronicity, the Congo region origin of the word loa, was known to the ancient Egyptians as the home of “the Elder Spirits.” The word the Egyptians used for “spirits” was l-w-a, pronounced the same as loa. Even more curious is the Tibetan use of the word l-h-a, again pronounced exactly the same, to refer to the native Bonpo spirits, which would indeed have been the “elder spirits” of Tibet.

In the late 1960’s, while helping a friend film a documentary on a snake handling Pentecostal sect in the backwoods of South Carolina, I caught my first glimpse of possession. One lady we interviewed said that it felt like “a bucket of warm love” poured down her back, and then she knew she was ready to pick up the snakes. They also used fire and poison as tests for “true” possession, during which they would speak in tongues and give prophecies. Accidents only happened, the congregation agreed, to people who were not filled with the Holy Spirit. There were indeed very few fatalities for so potentially lethal a form of worship.

I discovered Voodoo by accident while working on a weekly newspaper for the black community in North Charleston, SC. In search of something interesting to write about each week, I found that the local community put great store in Root Doctors in general, and in particular one Gris-Gris Lady who lived out in Hell-Hole Swamp. (The low country north and east of Charleston is filled with circular holes formed over a million years ago when a shower of comet fragments pelted the mud flats of the retreating sea bed; most are a few yards across, but in Four-Hole and Hell-Hole Swamp – real names, honest! – they are very large, some more than a mile in diameter.) After much hassle and many wrong turns, I managed to get an interview with her.

She lived in a small “hole,” in a home-made house of indistinct antiquity wedged between the boles of four large cypress trees. We sat in a single room that was both living space and temple to the loa, and she told me of the ancient tradition, going back to the womb of Africa itself, “the Golden Coast of Guinee,” and then forward through the slave trade to the tropical islands, and onward to the swamps from the indigo and sugar plantations. The Madame herself came from five generations of “conjure folk,” although she was the first in her immediate family to practice as a Gris-Gris.

I left in a daze, did some more background interviews with other people in the community, (“Ain’t nobody what don’t go the Gris-Gris when they need a little luck, or want to be sure of their woman. No mind you see dem praying in church come-a-Sunday…”) and ended up with one of my best pieces. That might have been all there was to it, except for another case of possession.

The story itself is long and complicated, but simply put, one of my roommates became possessed by a dead woman from the 1840’s. At our wits end, her husband and I took her to see the Gris-Gris Lady. She confirmed the diagnosis, “this chile been took by a duppy,” and prescribed a remedy: a shamanic voyage into the underworld for spirit support, along with an un-remitting reliance on a being she called “The Landlord of the Cemetery,” a sort of lord of the dead whose talisman she gave me.

I followed her instructions and spent a wild night roaming through the swamp, physically, and the underworld, psychically. Apparently, I was successful in summoning help. The duppy left and my friend’s wife remembered nothing afterward. I was also left with the talisman, which managed to stay with me through the years.

Voodoo returned to my life unexpectedly. I had explored every tradition I could find, from Sufism to Wicca to crystal squeezing and back again by way of Enochian science – Dee and Hurtak – to Nyingma-pa Buddhism. I even invented a few traditions just to see how well they worked. But the loa slipped in on me.

The Madame’s talisman reappeared after an eight year absence. I read Maya Deren and Louis Martine. I watched a botched Orisha ceremony, and, suddenly, several things clicked at once.

My natural magickal inclination had been given me long ago. The Landlord of Cemetery is one of the Barons, the Ghedes, and their indefinable tricksterish role seemed tailor-made for my style of magick.

Being guided by the Baron is not for the faint of heart. This is a loa of great power, not so much lord of the dead as Death itself in all its kinky, sexy, thrill-seeking ubiquity. But Death is simply the personification of change, which is the moment to moment entwining of being and non-being. And in Voodoo, one quickly learns how thin that permeable membrane called Death really is.

**********

That summer, at my favorite pagan weirdo festival, I attended a series of midnight Voodoo rituals conducted by Louis Martinie, of The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot fame, and Mambo Miriam of the Ramparts Street Voodoo Temple in New Orleans. Since I had been suggesting that an injection of New Orleans Voodoo was just what the Neo-Pagan community needed as a corrective for its devastating dose of spiritual ennui, I was delighted and made a point of attending each night.

The first few midnight rituals built slowly, raising some potent energy but far below the peak of most Voodoo ceremonies. The drumming was excellent and Mambo Miriam conducted a fine revival style ritual in the true New Orleans eclectic manner, mixing languages and metaphors into a truly surrealist expression of deep wisdom. Her impromptu sermons to the crowd buzzed through the group mind like some metaphysical jazz riff; a collective exhalation of wonder greeted one scat-sung hymn to Erzulie, and often Mambo Miriam shifted a psychic perception into a spiritual realization with just a few seemingly random phrases. But the crowd responded self-consciously and the loa were sluggish in the cool damp of the northern night.

Friday night, I wandered off to watch the festival fireworks after the Erzulie round of the ritual. I was standing in the shadows at the edge of the crowd, (wishing I was as high as the people doing the light show and fireworks) when I looked up to find a young Ghedalia-type standing next to me. Her face was half white/half black, with eyes diamonded in the opposite color, and she was wearing white tights with a shawl around her waist and her long brown hair, and nothing else.

She smiled at me, and I nodded back. A moment later, she turned and headed up the hill, through the midway zone of the festival, toward the Voodoo circle. Is this a call, I thought? And then I followed her up the hill.

They were indeed calling Ghede and my guide jumped into the circle and began to dance. As I watched, I became aware of The Baron. Not tonight, he said, tomorrow night: Saturday.

Well, a Baron Samedi working was indeed planned for the next midnight, as I found out later. The Ghedalia was a sign, my shadowed female self come to haunt me, one that demanded that the Baron be feminine in his expression. Being familiar with the Baron’s quirks and sense of humor, I was more dismayed than surprised by his intentions. Devotees of the Baron often used feminine clothing as ritual garb to emphasize the transitional and changeable quality of Death. At least I had the long hair for it…

Saturday night’s bonfire acts as the festival’s climax and this year the Voodoo ritual was scheduled to begin just as the bonfire vibe reached its first plateau. With the help of L.V. and my wife, Darlene, I was able to supplement the Baron’s usual Mojo coat, top hat and round smoked glasses with high heeled granny boots, hose, a black nightgown and black crepe skirt. And, of course, blood red plastic finger nails. I painted my usual skull face, fluffed my hair out from under the top hat, and we were off to the bonfire.

Article Continues After Illustration
Dr. Strange As The Baron
Dr. Strange Takes-In The Baron

The bonfire lighting ceremony at this pagan gathering is a perfect example of magickal theater. The procession enters, led in a slow circle by the eight torch bearers, followed by the directional dancers and then the costume parade of pagans on review. A great circle is formed, the quarters danced in, the special elemental guests invoked – the green man and the earth dragons were the focus this year – and then the torch bearers begin to tease the crowd and the bonfire until it all goes up in a swirl of flame and dancing people. Always a nice rush and a worthwhile shift in consciousness.

I arrived at the site of the Voodoo ritual in time to get thoroughly smudged and blessed by Mambo Miriam. The altar was laid in the central fire pit and consisted of two torches, a small coffin with a skull and crossbones banner over it and seven red candles encircling the perimeter. A shell held a burning cigar and a bottle of rum stood beside it, offerings to the Baron.

The working built slowly as the energy from the bonfire surged and ebbed in the distance. Papa Legba was called to open the way into the spirit world, then the ancestors were honored. At this point, Mambo Miriam launched into her sermon on death. The spirit began to move as she spoke, her words flowing beyond their surface meanings into vast patterns with an almost Buddhist flavor. I cannot recall a single phrase, but when the call to the Baron began, I found myself submerged in a group hallucination of an elaborate Danse Macabre.

The ancestors rose from the earth and danced with us around the altar. The earth became a huge mound of bones where all things depended on the juice and marrow of those who had gone before. Our fleshy existence was a gift – a gag gift really since no one ever explains what it’s for, exactly – but a gift from our ancestors, our DNA, nonetheless.

As I danced I felt the mask begin to slip, even my new personae peeled away. I opened myself to the call and its rhythms. A quiver started at the top of my head and slid down my body until it seemed as if I was vibrating faster than ever before, every cell vibrating, right down to the DNA. I let the sensation carry me around the altar a few times, and then I noticed her.

One of the young ladies who had been dancing with the Veve banners each evening, choosing Legba consistently, sat slumped over the edge of the central altar. She seemed deep in trance, – Mambo Miriam had checked on her from time to time – but something caught my eye. The girl was trying to move.

Over the next few minutes, as the Baron Samedi chant rose and fell, she slowly learned to move her body enough to crawl into the ash-filled altar space. With a dread-full fascination, I watched her move her limbs as if trying to articulate a puppet’s gestures. It seemed as if some spirit gripped her flesh, then found its solidity daunting, feeling its control seeping away like water through a leaky bucket. Her arms flopped forward, her head rolling up, then dropping loose, as her torso writhed deeper into the ashes of the cold fire pit.

Mambo Miriam signaled for the drums to stop, then launched into another round of sermon. Speaking strongly, she called for us to rise up and dance our life as a sacrifice for death, to feel the joy of the body as a gift of death and then to dance our expressions of gratitude. At that moment, I grokked that Mambo Miriam was trying to rouse the girl crawling in the altar space, to pull her back from some internal gulf. The drums began again, strong and hot and fast, and I was swept up in the Baron’s energy. I began to dance like I had never danced before, like I had never imagined I could dance.

The Baron had filled my body with a delicious sense of otherness, a sentience that was laughing at my amazement while causing my body to perform in astonishing ways. I twirled and looped and writhed and wiggled and skipped and flipped my skirt, shaking in an intense quiver from head to foot, and all of it on high heels!

As we danced, the girl in the altar pit began to move again, crawling slowly toward the circle of the red candles. Reaching one, her hand would snake out in that awful controlled way and snuff out the light. Methodically, she continued on around the circle, dousing lights and overturning torches until the ritual area was completely dark, lit only by the ambient light of nearby campsites and the irregular flares of lurid flame-light from the bonfire. The rhythms soared and the dance spiraled faster around the dark altar.

I felt it first as a cool breeze moving through the hot currents of the dance. The Baron laughed and the other Ghedes and Maman Bridgettes and Barons took it up and the laugh lapped the circle and broke like a wave over the drummers. “Come Baron, come come,” one of them called into the suddenly chill air. The membrane trembled, and the dance slowed to watch the eerie tableau of Mambo Miriam and the girl from the fire pit hugging and murmuring to each other in front of the altar. The bonfire soared in the distance, drenching the scene in vivid orange and pale yellow.

It seemed to last forever, but eventually Mambo Miriam called for the girl’s friends and they took her out of the circle and revived her. The dance continued, building back up to a peak crescendo that we held for over an hour. Near the end, I felt the Baron leave me and my knees almost buckled. I stumbled away from the circle and painfully made my way up the hill to my campsite. I fell asleep just as the sky opened up and drenched the dawn.

**********

Voodoo has taught me two great truths:

One — The earth is the bones of our ancestors.

Two –Possession is good for the soul.

**********

I found out the next day that the young lady had been “taken” by the spirit of Miriam’s dead husband and magickal partner who had recently died in the spring. Powerful working was the general consensus.

Among my Voodoo friends are several who have gone the same eclectic intellectual spiritual path that I have taken. As with myself, Voodoo acts as a balance of right and left brain that allows them to participate in a way that most witchly or ceremonial magick does not.

The Golden Dawn’s Neophyte ritual gives one the basic key to all forms of magick: “By Names and Images are all Powers awakened and re-awakened.” This particularly applies to Voodoo, given perhaps the inclusion of rhythms along with names and images. Voodoo has the added attraction of its infinite adaptability. There is no Pope of Voodoo who can declare an orthodoxy. Every practitioner discovers what works best for them; it is the ultimate freewill anarchistic religious expression.

Choosing to be a witch, a pagan, or a magician in the last half of the last decade of this millennium is an expression of a sense of cultural dislocation, a kind of trauma-induced schizophrenia complete with delusions and regressive ideation. If our rediscovery of magick is to be real, not delusional, then we must understand our own processes enough to separate out wishful thinking from divine guidance, thought-forms from spirits, and psycho-pathology from parapsychology.

Possession is good for the soul because without the experience it is hard to imagine how narrow our world really is. We live in a multiverse of infinite richness, and reality will always be stranger than we can imagine.

©Copyright
2003 by Dr. Strange. All Rights Reserved


©Copyright
2003 by AlternativeApproaches.com

Dr. Strange

About the author: Dr. Strange is a consulting magician, magickal scholar and pagan gad-fly. Known as the Mage of Mo-town, he studied applied karma mechanics, advanced hedonic engineering and the rock and roll Kabbalah with Masters such as Li Po, Guru Sam, Rev. T-Bone Wyrd, and Haji Omar beni Ouarda. Currently employed as an Astral Traffic Controller.
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Vincent Bridges

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