Monday, May 31, 2010


General, your tank is a powerful vehicle.
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs a driver.

General, your bomber is powerful.
It flies faster than a storm and carries more than an elephant.
But it has one defect:
It needs a mechanic.

General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.

[From a German War Primer, by Bertolt Brecht]

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Angelique Kidjo on Voodoo and Catholicism

This is an excerpt from a June, 1998 interview with Angelique Kidjo (AK) done by Nick Harcourt (NH) of radio station KCRW in Santa Monica, CA, during the "Morning Becomes Eclectic" show. The transcript is from here. The excerpt starts where Angelique is already talking about her tour at the time and she starts to talk about her two religions ....
AK: I decided to move forward, to go and meet the black Diaspora that comes basically from Africa that are in the world. And my first stop is in America. And, of course, that album has a sound of R&B and soul and funk, that was my first influences. And my second stop is gonna be in Brazil, and my third stop is gonna be in Cuba, Haiti, and New Orleans because all of those places keep something which is very close to my country which is the Voodoo religion and the rhythms.
NH: Let's talk about the religion a little bit if you can before we play some more music. I know that you actually share two religions, I mean, you have Catholic. And you have animism. How do you juxtapose, I mean use both of those religions, how can they both be a part of your life? I'm not saying that they shouldn't be. I'm just interested to know how do you make these two religions both a part of who you are?
AK: When the missionaries arrived in Benin, for example, and they brought the religion, they asked everyone to be baptized, and everybody had been baptized but, we told them from day one that our religion we wanna keep it because our religion is very important for us. And they were obliged to accept that, there was no way for them not to accept that because people wouldn't go to their church and not go into their Voodoo ceremony after. So the first cathedral that had been built in the history of the Catholic religion in Benin was built right in front of the Temple of Python. And those two priests were very close friends. And how did those affect my life and I incorporate them in my life? It's simple. In the Voodoo religion they teach us to respect the nature and to respect every human being. Everything that is alive on this earth we have to have respect for because we believe in Voodoo religion that without the nature, a man would not exist, a human being would not exist. Therefore, we choose to believe in the thunder, in the lightning, in the water, in all the elements that are surrounding us, our lives. Snake is very important because they say in the mythology of the Voodoo religion that this world had been created by two snakes, male and female; during 40 days they created all the planets. And at the dawn of the 41st day, they embraced themselves and left the earth to leave the human being to do what they have to do. And those snakes are called aida-wedo, which means what belongs to the earth belongs to you. And when those gods come to reward somebody who works for a community, they come in terms of rainbow. And they call these two rainbows rainbow snake. And in Haiti, they call it aida-Houeda, and everything stays like that because, what is very important for me is the care of each other. That's what Catholic religion teaches us: You have to love each other. God doesn't send us on the earth to kill each other. He sent us for us to use our brain and our self-conscience to work for a better life for every individual and for everybody. And that's one of the things I really appreciate, too, in the Voodoo religion, where we deal with community.
NH: Well, I like that you can take both of those beliefs because animism itself, or Voodoo, is obviously really a belief of everything having a purpose and everything having a soul and everything having a reason, and taking the caring part of the Catholic religion and putting it together. That makes sense to me. Anyway, why don't we have some more music, and then we'll come back and talk some more in a little while. What's the next piece you're gonna play for us?
AK: The next song I wanna sing is gonna be an a capella song a singer from Togo next door to Benin used to sing. It's called "Blewu," and that singer was one of my biggest influences, too, in Africa. She died in a car accident in 1973, and it was a loss for us in West Africa because she was very big. And "Blewu" means, it's a thanking song that we used to sing when everybody joined for a drum or for a concert, and we ask the Almighty to send everybody back home safe, with no harm to anyone. So, for the listeners outside, this is my thanking for them sitting down or driving their car listening, this song is dedicated to everybody.
NH: On Morning Becomes Eclectic at KCRW, it's Angelique Kidjo.
AK: (sings "Blewu")
NH: Angelique Kidjo live on Morning Becomes Eclectic. That was beautiful a capella piece. Thank you so much.
AK: Pleasure.
NH: OK, so we're talking about the fact, I'm sort of backtracking now, how you started, you came to Paris, your career really began there, at least the Western part of your career. You're now living in New York City. How do you find New York City? How long have you been there?
AK: A year. Almost a year, yeah.
NH: And the community, it's a pretty different place from Paris.
AK: Oh, it is different from Paris, and it's different from Africa where I come from. What I like about New York is the energy in that city. I mean, it's moving non-stop. And when you are in New York, you have an idea of how the world can look like. You have every kind of different person, different parts of the world there. You have Asia, you have Latin America, you have Africa, you have North America, you have Europe, you have everybody living in New York City. And I like the energy, and I like the way you work there. When you wake up in the morning, you wanna do something, they can be efficiently used, and boom, have things done, and I like that.
NH: It's certainly a city of many, many, many different cultures. Los Angeles is, too, but I would think that New York is probably even more diverse.
AK: Absolutely, and I like that. I'm somebody who likes to challenge and mix things and mix people. I like that.
NH: And you were saying that your next stop is going to be Brazil. You want to live in Brazil at some point?
AK: Yeah, I'm going to go to Salvador Bahia to start with to write because the Salvadorian people have a very close history with my village. The first colonist that arrived in Benin was a Brazilian white man called Francisco de Souza. He arrived and he was very close friends of the king. And he was married to different women there, he had a lot of kids, and you have a huge, big community of mixed kids between Brazilian white people and Beninese women. And there is an anecdote about this guy that arrived that explains completely how things happen like this today, how slavery was possible, and how the relationships are still in Africa. As I was saying before, he was a friend of the king. And they had a fight, I think he betrayed the king. and when you betray a king, they kill you.
NH: Not a good guy to betray.
AK: No.
NH: Not the king.
AK: So in the Voodoo religion, there are two colors that you can't play around with: red, which is the color of the blood that links animals and human beings together, and the color white, which is the color that we wrap the god and goddesses in, meaning, it is the light, it has nothing to do with the dark. So because he was white, they couldn't kill him. So the king said, "Why don't you dye him with indigo?" So they dyed that guy with indigo and they tied him up outside in the backyard, but he was looking at them, his eyes were blue. They were like, "This is weird; he's not a black man, we can't kill him. Let us let him go." So they let him go, and he moved from the Kingdom of Abomey to my village. So, the people that come from Benin and go to Salvador Bahia, they came back, and they influenced the traditional music of my village. There are a lot of things that sound like samba and like the drum of the olodoum. And they came back, too, and built up a museum in my village. So when you go to my village and you visit my village, you have two museum. You have the museum of Benin, with the beginning of the colonization and the slavery -- the people that came back, the Cubans came back, the Brazilian people came back, the Haitian people came back, to influence the music itself and the way of life. And you have the museum of the Salvadorian people that came back to Benin and built up a museum. So, people tell me that going to Salvador Bahia is just like my village, so I wanna go there.
NH: So you wanna go check it out.
AK: Oh, yeah.
NH: Do you get back to Benin, to your own village very often? Do you return?
AK: Oh, yeah, I try once a year.
NH: To go home, you still have family?
AK: I have my dad, my mom, my family, my uncles, my aunts, and cousins.
NH: So it's always good to go back and make that connection.
AK: I need to go.
Angelique Kidjo in concert in Benin
(where she was born):

Friday, May 28, 2010

Holy Crap! Two reasonably intelligent reviews of Stephen Prothero's "God Is Not One"

According to Stephen Prothero's own self-glorifying narrative, he is on a daring crusade against the "dangerous" and "seductive" "prevailing metaphor" for how we have come to (mis-)understand the world's religions. It's strange, then, that he has so far encountered remarkably little criticism in response to his new book, God Is Not One. But maybe that is starting to change.

A few discordant notes are beginning to be heard, finally, in what has until now been a monotonous chorus of puff-pieces, soft-ball interviews, and one particular "review" that keeps getting repeated over and over and over again.

First up, there is Jay Tolson, writing in last Sunday's Washington Post (here). Tolson starts off his review by congratulating Prothero for having "thoughtfully dispelled" the following "misleading notion":
Seeing the world's major belief systems through Enlightenment-tinted glasses, a succession of influential philosophers, artists, scholars and even many religious leaders have tended to minimize the differences of ritual and dogma among the various religions to emphasize a supposedly universal and benign truth shared by them all. Such well-meaning believers (and they do constitute a kind of religion of their own) have subscribed to variations of the Dalai Lama's affirmation that "the essential message of all religions is very much the same."
But wait a minute. This is not what Prothero says at all. Prothero doesn't argue against those who "minimize the differences" between religions. Prothero argues against those who claim that "all religions are the same."

You see, it would be one thing if Stephen Prothero were to accept the premise that there are both differences and commonalities among the world's religions. But he does nothing of the sort. He categorically denies that there is any spiritual common ground between the "rival" religions of the world.

Having congratulated Prothero for what he has not done (or even set out to do), Tolson does, by the end of the review, get around to pointing out that Prothero never "adequately wrestles" with the questions he has raised. In fact, Tolson admits that God Is Not One fails to be anything more than a "primer on eight major world religions". In other words, Prothero has written just another survey of religions, and one that is little, if any, different from the very books (Huston Smith's The World's Religions in particular) that Prothero claims to be debunkifying!

Tolson squarely hits the nail on the head when he states that Prothero has completely failed to provide "a sustained examination of the incommensurability of the world's religions", which, not to put too fine a point on it, is precisely what Prothero had promised to provide.

Alec Solomita, writing in last Sunday's Boston Globe (here), is more to the point. From the beginning he characterizes Prothero's book as an "attempt to debunk the idea that all religions are brothers under the skin." And Solomita makes it clear that in his opinion Prothero's attempt not only fails, but disappoints.

But, as was the case with Jay Tolson's review in the Washington Post, Solomita also cannot bring himself to cast the issue in the mindlessly crude manner that Prothero does. For Prothero does not anywhere claim to be attacking the notion that "all religions are brothers under the skin." Instead, Prothero boldly declares, over and over and over again, that he is out to disprove the claim that all religions are the same.

There is a big difference between saying all religions are "brothers under the skin" and claiming they are "the same". And the most important difference is that many people do claim that humanity's religions share a kind of kinship, but no one seriously claims they are all the same.

It would be one thing to differ over how (and how closely) the world's religions are related to each other. But it is another thing altogether, at the serious risk of repeating myself, to deny that there is any spiritual common ground whatsoever among the world's religions, as Stephen Prothero emphatically, proudly, and repeatedly does.

Solomita presents much more detailed criticisms of Prothero than what is found in Tolson's comparatively superficial review. But both reviews should be read carefully by anyone interested in how the Saga of Prothero's Quest is playing out.

Both reviews clearly and effectively make the same basic point: Prothero never even begins to even attempt to make good on his chest-beating declamations about taking on the terrible mind-destroying "meme" that "all religions are beautiful and true." Tolson's and Solomita's joint decision is all the more damning since they are both sympathetic to Prothero's cause, and they were both clearly hoping he would succeed - or at least that he would actually try.

Previous posts from this blog on Stephen Prothero's "God Is Not One":
Good Fences Make Good Religions?
Who, if anyone, is Stephen Prothero arguing with, other than himself?
How Stephen Prothero mangles the economics-politics-religion analogy
The basis of universal spirituality
Contra Prothero

[The smoking crater pic is from The epic bike fail pic is a combination: the kitty is from here, while the bike fail itself is by jeremy king.]

"Such is the relationship between Africans and foreign religions."

Here is yet another "cut and paste" item from the African press on the subject of African Traditional Religion. This time it is an unabashedly positive article about the Ifa tradition in Nigeria, and also about how an increasing number of Africans are daring to speak out against "the insidious stereotypes that have been built about the African traditional religion by practitioners of the more dominant religions."

The article is by Abimbola Adelakun, and it was originally published in the May 12 issue of the online version of The Punch: "Nigeria's most widely read newspaper." The original article is here.
Derided, misrepresented, Ifa priests tell their stories
By Abimbola Adelakun
Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Lovers of Nigerian films will be familiar with this trend: a man or a woman who wants to harm his/her neighbour goes to Ifa priest for help. He/she is given a charm and the evil intention most likely succeeds. The victim suffers for a while and then a Christian pastor or Islamic cleric is invited to pray for him/her.

The victim is delivered and everybody goes home rejoicing. For good effect, the ‘Babalawo‘ who carries out the evil is sent some spiritual missiles when prayers or a Bible/Quran is hauled in his direction. He slumps, dies and the power of light which Christianity/Islam represents is seen as having triumphed over darkness and evil which the African traditional religion is seen as representing.

It doesn‘t happen the other way round - a Babalawo untying the knot that Christianity/Islam has tied.

Over the years, this mode of thinking has cultivated a stereotype in Nigerian films. However, practitioners of African traditional religion are not taking matters in their stride anymore. In their own little way, they are set to contend with the insidious stereotypes that have been built about the African traditional religion by practitioners of the more dominant religions.

Babalawos who feature in films are already towing this path. One of them is Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon, the popular Ifa artist who also produces the TV drama on the Ifa corpus, Ifa Olokun Asorodayo. Elebuibon is one of the most visible Ifa practitioners and artists in Nigeria and beyond. He has taken the Ifa culture to many countries and also tried to disabuse people‘s minds about Ifa and African traditional religion.

He blames the misrepresentation of Ifa in Nigerian films on ignorance.

”They do not know the difference between ‘Babalawo’, ‘Onisegun’ and ‘Oloogun Ika’. The Babalawo is one that is rightly positioned in Ifa Olokun Asorodayo to solve the problems of the world. He is to repair issues about people‘s lives and make the world better. Rather, they make films in which they muddle everything together.”

Another of these Babalawos is Peter Fatomilola. He is a lecturer, actor, writer, producer and director of several films. He has been into the Ifa practice since the age of six and was initiated into the Ifa scared groove, Igbodu, at 18. He says his acting talent was discovered by Prof. Ola Rotimi when the latter returned from the US sometime in 1967. Like Elebuibon, he blames the misrepresentation of Babalawos on ignorance.

”People see someone with leaves in hand or chanting incantations and quickly conclude that he is a Babalawo. A Babalawo is to African traditional religion, what the Pastor and Imam is to the church and mosque respectively. As the Bible and Quran are books of knowledge, so is Ifa. They mix things up and think that Onisegun (herbalists), Oso(wizards) and so on are all Babalawos. Onisegun deal with roots and herbs and he can decide to use it for good or evil purposes. Babalawos too learn about roots and herbs but that is because from time to time, Ifa might recommend a solution that they will not necessarily refer to Onisegun.”

Fatomilola has starred in films like SekeSeke, Rere Run, Afonja, Saworo Ide etc. He has close to 500 films to his credit.

Much younger but not in any way to be disregarded in the Ifa practice is Fakolade Ajanaku. He was born into a family that practices Ifa and he seems well versed in the Odu corpus. Ajanaku responds to enquiries from our correspondent with first, a verse of Odu Ifa before going into details. He attributes his going into films to watching Elebuibon on TV while growing up.

Getting into films, however, was not because of his Ifa knowledge. He told his father he wanted to be an actor and he was registered into a film company. He believes he has paid his dues and is today a film producer. He has starred in several films such as Bolode Oku, Ase n tedumare, Odun baku etc. He acts other roles but due to his knowledge of Ifa, he tends to be favoured when a choice needs to be made for the role of Babalawo. For instance is Ase n tedumare which he wrote and also featured as Babalawo.

On the portrayal of Babalawos in Nollywood films, he attributes the misrepresentation to mischief.

”What belongs to them means nothing, but it is what others show them that attract them. Ifa divination was performed for the fish who sought the friendship of the hook,” he said, chanting a verse from Odu Ifa to buttress his point. ”Such is the relationship between Africans and foreign religions. Why do they choose to show only the negative side of Babalawos because they want to put up their own religion?” he wondered.

As an actor, he admitted that he has been conned by filmmakers a few times when he was given only a portion of the script to study and act. While watching the whole film later, he saw that the rest of the story didn‘t portray Babalawos in good light. For that reason, he has sworn that he would never take up a role as a Babalawo without reading an entire film script.

Chanting Ifa verses in films do conjure up spiritual power, they all agree. Fakolade says that what he does is to stay at a very ordinary level where his chant would not cause harm. For someone so versed, he says, he does not use fake chants like others who do not know about Ifa but act as Babalawo all the same.

Fatomilola also uses authentic Ifa Odus in films because, according to him, there are millions of people out there who are very knowledgeable about Ifa and can tell immediately if the chant is fake - something that is capable of detracting from the integrity of the film.

He says that for a Babalawo like him, chanting Ifa verses do conjure up power in the spiritual realm. He says he feels his body moving spiritually when he is at it.

”Unless the person is not a Babalawo and is chanting what they wrote in the script for him. If you are one, you will feel it.”

Through their films, people have come to know them in many places all over the world. Fakolade and Fatomilola have clients all over the world and they divine for people even on cell phones.

"Even without putting out signboard," Fatomilola says, "people seek us because they have seen us in films and they know we are real Babalawos."

Elebuibon lectures on Ifa in many universities abroad.

With the films they are making, they hope to disabuse the mind of the audience about the roles of Babalawo in the society and also help them to be rightly positioned in a modern society.

Elebuibon whose studio was gutted by fire sometime last year says that the place is being put together again. By October, he will be releasing two films he is producing in conjunction with some friends and institutions in Philadelphia, United States. They are titled Elegbara and Esentaye. Both are to espouse the values of Ifa and the roles of Babalawos.

”Esentaye will tell the story of how knowing a child‘s destiny from birth will guide his/her choice in life.”

He appears not bothered about the negative things being said about Ifa and Bablawaos in Nollywood.

”People have written a lot about it. Orisha World Congress has done a lot in that but some people will just never change their minds.”

Other posts on Traditional African Religions:
"What exactly is it about traditional religion that we fear?"
"The Destruction of Christianity" (On the situation in Kenya in 1955)
"Why not leave them in peace?"
"Witchcraft holds out against modern age"
200 Million African Pagans
"Togo's Voodoo Fetish Markets Do Brisk Trade"
"Africa became Christian by Submission not by Conversion"
"The first thing Christianity did in Africa . . . ."
You might be Pagan if .... (Part Deux)
You might be a Pagan if ....
Every picture tells a story
More On Traditional African Religions
Traditional African Religions Continue To Thrive
Fela Kuti and Traditional African Religion
Secret Knowledge, Sacred Knowledge (on Candomble)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Isaac’s tumors fade away. Thirty more years with Phae.

Isaac’s tumors fade away.
Thirty more years with Phae.

Isaac’s tumors fade away.
Thirty more years with Phae.

Isaac’s tumors fade away.
Thirty more years with Phae.

ॐ त्रियम्बकं यजामहे, सुगन्धिं पुष्टिवर्धनं
उर्वारुकमिव बन्धनान् मृत्योर्मोक्षिय मामृतात्

ॐ त्रियम्बकं यजामहे, सुगन्धिं पुष्टिवर्धनं
उर्वारुकमिव बन्धनान् मृत्योर्मोक्षिय मामृतात्

ॐ त्रियम्बकं यजामहे, सुगन्धिं पुष्टिवर्धनं
उर्वारुकमिव बन्धनान् मृत्योर्मोक्षिय मामृतात्

[Aum Trayambakam Yajamahe,
Sugandhim Pushtivardhanam;
Urva Rukamiva Bandhanaan,
Mrityor Mokshiye Maamritat.

We pray to Lord Shiva whose eyes are the Sun, Moon and Fire
May He protect us from all disease, poverty and fear
And bless us with prosperity, longevity and good health.]

If you are reading this, please pray for Isaac Bonewits. He is an elder of the wider Pagan community who is very ill with a rare form of colon cancer. Phaedra, Isaac's wife, has asked for Pagans across the US to pray tonight at 9:00 pm local time: "Isaac's tumors fade away. Thirty more years with Phae."

So Mote It Be.

Lady GaGa Prayer Candles (Because We Can, Part Three)

[Most of the images of prayer candles in this post are from the BrightGlowCandle.Com website. Check it out.]

I realize that Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, in all probability, intends her new eponymous Prayer Candles to be viewed through the comfortably distancing lens of ironic detachment. But such self-conscious indifference is just an act. Literally.

In fact, homo religiosus longs to infuse every aspect of our lives, including the minutiae (and not-so-minutiae) of mundane daily existence, with spiritual significance and divine influences. Human beings have always chosen to adorn our homes, our bodies, our highways and byways and alleyways, our public spaces and private places, our shops and farms and government buildings, etc, with religious icons, idols, representations, logos, ornaments, signs, symbols and so forth. These representations range from the huge, elaborate and unimaginably costly: such as magnificent works of fine art made with gold and precious jewels; to the humble, almost unnoticeable, and downright cheap: such as the lowly Prayer Candle.

And if, in these modern times, we feel the need to feign coolness as we express this basic urge to surround ourselves with religious bricolage, well, I guess it's better than nothing.

One should not be too dismissive toward at least the idea of the Lady GaGa Prayer Candle. The Savage Mind of homo paganus recognizes no boundary, whatsoever, between religion and popular culture. They are one and the same.

Take, for example, a low budget Indian movie released in 1975. This was very loosely based on a little-known folk-cult among poor women in northern India centered around an obscure Goddess named Santoshi Maa. The film became a huge financial success, to everyone's amazement, but the response did not stop there. Showings of Jai Santoshi Maa became religious events. People took their shoes off before entering the theater, and burned incense once inside. While the film was in progress those in the audience bowed every time the Goddess Herself appeared, or her name was spoken, and even threw flowers at the screen.

Thirty-five years later, Santoshi Maa has gone from being an unknown Goddess worshipped by poor village women who spread her cult by word of mouth, to an international religious phenomenon with at least one Temple in the United States, multiple websites, the Goddess's own wikipedia entry, and other accoutrements of a modern religious success story. The Goddess Santoshi Maa, along with her movie and her devotees, have also become a focus of serious researchers. Devotees of the Goddess even use the film as a "how-to" video for the proper way to call upon the Goddess and receive Her blessings.

I thought about Jai Santoshi Maa after watching James Cameron's Avatar. That, too, is a film that depicts a benevolent Goddess who is called upon in a time of great need, and who answers the desperate prayers of her beloved children. And watching Cameron's movie was a genuinely moving spiritual experience for many people.

And yet in American society one can go just so far but no further in open expressions of religiosity in public. Why? Only because we impose that on ourselves. I'm not proposing that such a thing is possible or even advisable, but just consider this thought experiment: what if Americans had reacted to Avatar in a way similar to how Indians responded to Jai Santoshi Maa? Why not? Why not turn viewing a film about the victory of the Goddess Eywa over the malevolent forces of greed, hatred, and ignorance into an act of participatory religious devotion? Why not take one's shoes off before entering the theater out of respect? Why not bow and throw flowers at the screen every time the name of the Goddess is mentioned? Why is it so difficult for people to even imagine such a thing happening?

But when it comes to something safe, like Lady GaGa, people, some people anyway, take the opportunity to abandon all restraint and allow themselves to briefly experience some good old-fashioned Dionysian frenzy. People anxiously await a Lady GaGa concert (or Ke$ha or whoever....) the way others devotedly anticipate a Papal visit. And from the standpoint of event-planning, crowd-management, merchandising, etc, what's the difference really?

Now I know what some of you are thinking. You're thinking, well, you know, Santoshi Maa is, like, a Goddess and everything -- and Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is just some 25 year old Italian-American art-school dropout turned megastar. Well, let us not forget that the world's leading religion, with twice as many followers as the one in second place, is a cult based on the worship of a dead guy. It's true that he has been dead for a very long time, but he was still alive when the whole thing started.

And especially when it comes to the lowly Prayer Candle, mere mortal status is really not, in itself, a barrier. Take, for example, Juan Soldado, a humble private in the Mexican Army who was arrested, tried, convicted and executed for the crime of raping and murdering an eight year old girl in 1938. His devotees claim that he was an innocent victim of Mexico's notoriously corrupt power structure. He is especially popular among Mexican immigrants coming to the United States "without documents", as they say. These newcomers to the Land of the Free pray: "Juan Soldado, ayúdame a cruzar" ("Soldier John, help me to cross"). For more on Juan Soldado check out Paul J. Vanderwood's Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Soldier, Saint.

More well known is the famous Mexican revolutionary hero Pancho Villa. Prayer Candles bearing his likeness can be found in any well apportioned Botanica in any major US city. These candles also bear the traditional prayer addressed to Pancho Villa by those in need:
Al espíritu mártir de Pancho Villa Gran General Revolucionario
En el nombre de Diós nuestro Señor invoco a los espíritus que te protejan para que me ayudes. Así como ayudaste en el mundo terrenal a los NECESITADOS. Así como venciste a los PODOROSOS. Así te pido tu protección espiritual, para que me libres de todo mal y me des el ánimo necesario y el valor suficiente para enfrentarme a lo más dificil que se me presente en la vida. Amén

PRAYER To the martyr spirit of Pancho Villa Great Revolutionary General

In the Name of God our Lord I invoke the spirits that they protect you so that you may help me. As well as you helped the NEEDY in the earthly world. As well as you conquered the POWERFUL. This I request of you your spiritual protection, so that may free me of all evil and you give me the necessary spirit and sufficient valor to confront the most difficult things that are presented to me present in this life. Amen
And if these examples don't impress as being sufficiently "spiritual", then perhaps I could interest you in some Allan Kardec Prayer Candles? Kardec was the founder (or, more correctly, "systematizer") of Spiritism. Kardec is an enormously popular occult figure in Latin America, where he is often referred to as the Divine Messenger. Born in Lyon, France, Kardec was well-educated and from a wealthy family. He devoted his life to science, education, and social reform. He did not become involved with Spiritism until he was already in his 50's, but when he did, he "transformed a fad into a movement, popularizing the messages of the spirits that taught that each soul could be reincarnated many times as it moved progressively along a path toward divinity." [From Lynne Sharpe's excellent book Secular Spirituality: Reincarnation and Spiritism in nineteenth century France.]

Then there is El Niño Fidencio, a Mexican Curandero born in 1898. Fidencio spent most of his life in the town of Espinazo, where tens of thousands of fidencistas still come to pay homage every year at the time of Fidencio's birth and death (in March and October). Many of these devotees come not just to receive healing, but to become healers themselves, for they believe that they are able to assume El Niño's divinely endowed healing powers. Here is how the cult of El Niño was described in a 1997 article that appeared in the National Catholic Reporter (the author is James Burbank -- his fascinating piece was the cover story for the February 7 issue of the NRC that year):
ESPINAZO, Mexico -- Twice a year this sleepy northeast Mexican hamlet, two hours' drive from Monterrey, comes alive. Tens of thousands of Hispanic Catholics from south Texas and Mexico conduct annual pilgrimages here to venerate their curandero folk saint, El Nino Fidencio. Despite repeated warnings by Monterrey Archbishop Adolfo Rivera to avoid the heretical festivals, crowds of the faithful continue to come.

These crowds know no heresy in their veneration. For many Catholic Mexicans on both sides of the border, religion is anything but pure, and naturally so. It is the product of a synthesis of Indian and European cultures that has evolved since the Spanish conquest of the Americas. This explains why a curandero, or shaman-healer, is also called a saint . . . .

Born in 1898, Jose Fidencio Sintora Constantino came from the state of Guanajuato as a young boy to Espinazo, where he served as housekeeper for Enrique Lopez de la Fuente. The boy showed a gift for healing, a knowledge of medicinal plants and concoctions and an affinity with the supernatural. As a young man, his reputation as a curandero spread. Hundreds seeking cures camped out in Espinazo.

In 1928 Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles' suppression of the Catholic priesthood had resulted in the Cristero Revolt. Calles, who organized Mexico's dominant political party -- the PRI -- the following year, came to Espinazo to arrest the curandero faith healer for practicing medicine without a license. After El Nino cured the politician and his ailing daughter, thousands descended on Espinazo. By the time of his death, El Nino was the most famous Mexican curandero.

In 1938, Fidencistas say, El Nino was murdered by jealous physicians. Before he died he made a prediction. He said he would come back three days after his death. El Nino would return by inhabiting various spirit mediums called cajitas (little boxes) or materials (literally matter, applied to persons who believe they embody a sacred personage) through whom he would speak, act and heal the sick.

Another popular Curandero with his own Prayer Candle is Don Pedrito Amarillo. Below is an excerpt from the description of Don Pedrito from Dr. Eliseo Torres' Curanderismo website at the University of New Mexico:
Don Pedrito Jaramillo is perhaps the most famous curandero of all time. Known as "The Saint of Falfurrias (Texas)," Don Pedrito was a great folk saint -- a personage to whom people pray to combat their illness, change their luck, or as a simple expression of faith, who is not a canonical saint of the church but is neverthless acknowledged as one by the people.

Don Pedrito was born in 1829 in Mexico. Nothing is known of his childhood, but he was aeither a shepherd or a laborer; in either case, he was poor. When he was 52 years old, Don Pedrito is said to have asked God to heal his sick mother, pledging that, if his mother were not healed, he would leave Mexico. Thus, when his mother died, Don Pedrito crossed into Texas. This was in 1881. Don Pedrito is said to have been familiar with the Texas territory he entered from previous experience partly because he had helped run booze illegally into the area when he was younger.

Don Pedrito is said to have learned of his healing gift when he suffered a fall from a horse (he was, apparently, a mediocre horseman at best). In the fall, he injured his nose badly, and the pain was excruciating. Then something led him to a nearby wallow where, for no reason he could name, he dabbed mud all over the injured spot. This assuaged the pain and he was finally able to sleep after several sleepless days and nights. Don Pedrito later said that during that sleep, God spoke to him, commanding him to spend the rest of his life healing the sick and injured. From then on, Don Pedrito was a healer.
There are also Prayer Candles specifically devoted to the Orixas, as well as Candles with such wonderful names as Easy Street, Law Stay Away, and Shut Up, and also more profoundly dubbed Candles: The Omnipresence of God, Ecce Homo, and King Solomon.

Interestingly, especially from the standpoint of religious syncretism, it turns out that the Prayer Candle itself is a relatively recent innovation in spiritual technology. Peter Doan Reed, an Irish immigrant who owned a grocery store in San Antonio, Texas, decided to start making his own devotional candles in 1937, and this eventually led to the now iconic "seven-day candle". The tradition was carried on by his son, Peter Nathan Reed, who died in 2009.

I will end with an excerpt from a 2005 Chicago Tribune article, by Monica Eng, on Prayer Candles and their inventor (the article identifies the elder Reed as "Mexican born". I think that's a mistake. But he did live in Mexico first after emigrating from Ireland before settling in San Antonio.):

Prayer candles are popular, even with non-believers

Chicago Tribune, June 25, 2005, Monica Eng

Known as prayer candles, seven-day candles or, in Spanish, veladoras
, they come in 81/2-inch glass jars filled with about 71/2 inches of paraffin and usually bear an image and a prayer.

Scholars and candle industry folks find their origin hard to pinpoint. According to Sister Schodts Reed, chief executive officer of the Reed Candle Factory in San Antonio, her Mexican-born father-in-law, Peter Doan Reed, invented the prayer candle in the late 1940s.

The elder Reed started making votive candles — which are always burned in glass and are so named for their use when making a vow or petition — in 1938. But after about a decade of making standard votives, Reed, in 1947, came up with a tall jar model that could burn for seven days and bore a picture of a spiritual figure along with a prayer.

“His goal was to allow people to have their particular patron saint with the image on the candle so that they could light it and have their prayer on it,” Reed said. "That way, they have a silent prayer that is continuing even after they are done praying."

Reed said her father-in-law’s company started out selling just a few types of silk-screened prayer candles, and now it produces 350 saint varieties alone, many with paper labels. And this doesn’t count the mystical varieties made by a subsidiary, Mission Candles.

The popular candles can be bought in herbal/spiritual shops called botanicas, often found in Hispanic neighborhoods and from Web sites or supermarkets.

The usage of these candles has evolved far outside of a religious context. On the same Web site and even on the same store shelf, you can find Virgin Mary candles not far from "D.U.M.E. Black List" candles that are purported to help you, well, kill your enemies.

More common uses include attracting a specific mate with a "Come to Me" candle while simultaneously sabotaging the mate’s current relationship with a "Break Up" [Separar] candle. According to Carlos Soto, manager at Indio Products, a chain of botanicas in Southern California, the combo is his No. 1 seller.

The target market for seven-day candles is primarily female, according to botanica representatives across the nation. Jorge Diaz says most of the customers at his Texas store are Hispanic, but on the Chango Web site they are "almost all Anglo or African-American. More and more of them are getting into this."

This is the third post of a series titled
"Because We Can: Syncretism from a Pagan perspective"
The other posts so far are:
"When you enter a village, swear by its Gods."
"African Traditional Religion Allows Syncretism"

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"When you enter a village, swear by its Gods." (Because We Can, Part Two)

[This is the second in a planned series of posts on the topic of syncretism from a Pagan perspective, under the general title "Because We Can". The first post was "African Traditional Religion Allows Syncretism".]

Religion, properly understood, has much more to do with play than with work. It also has much more to do with dancing than with walking (and even less to do with marching or standing in line), more to do with songs than with speeches, more to do with poetry than with prose.

And religion also has far more to do with ambiguity than with certainty, and with liminality than with boundaries. Although, if you think about it, there would be no liminality without boundaries. Or even if you don't.

Which brings me to today's question: what will archaeologists think five thousand years from now when and if they dig up Lady GaGa Prayer Candles (just announced today as part of the Lady Gaga Alejandro Digital Bundle)??

And what will they think if they ever dig up my house and find an assortment of Hindu and Buddhist religious items along with Celtic, Greek, and Roman idols, Santeria candles, drums, rattles, masks, feathers, Tarot cards, Runes, and empty bottles of Golden Monkey Beer?

But seriously. To the modern mind, the issue of religious syncretism is framed with reference to concepts of religious "purity" versus religious "mixing", whether such terms are explicitly used or not. But the idea of "pure" versus "mixed" (or "degenerate" or even "polluted") religion is an invention, or, more accurately, a fantasy, of the monotheists. You see, there are no "pure" religions, and this is true of Christianity, Islam and Judaism just as it is true of all other religions.

If (1) syncretism refers to a state of "impurity" and, (2) no currently or previously existing religions are or have ever been "pure", then (3) syncretism is a general feature of Religion itself, rather than something, by it's mere presence or absence, distinguishing a class of non-syncretic religions from a class of syncretic religions. But while all religions may be syncretic, not all syncretisms are created equal.

The publisher's blurb for Eric Maroney's 2006 book Religious Syncretism characterizes syncretism as "the opposite" of fundamentalism. In the opening chapter of that book, Maroney defines syncretism as follows: "Syncretism occurs when one religion adopts, absorbs or otherwise accepts elements of another religion." To this definition Maroney adds an important qualification: "the categories we use to separate religions are not as fixed as they appear."

Maroney also highlights the stark contrast between how syncretism is viewed by monotheistic religions, that is, with hostility ("often" as "the sworn enemy"), versus how syncretism is viewed by the rest of humanity's religions: "other religious traditions often openly adopt the practices, customs, styles of worship and the deities of other religions." Maroney also correctly points out that despite this difference in attitude, monotheistic religions nevertheless also engage in syncretism, although they have "infrequently acknowledged" it. [All these quotes are from page 6 of Maroney's book.]

Maroney has the distinct advantage of not being a professional academic, and, therefore, enjoying the freedom to speak plainly. If you prefer a jargon enriched version of someone saying essentially the same thing, you might try Anita Maria Leopold's General Introduction to Syncretism in Religion: A Reader (2004), edited by her and Jeppe Sinding Jensen. Despite the more obtuse academese, Leopold's treatment of the complexities and obscurities of syncretism is quite good.

Which brings us to the first of two longish excerpts. This one is an oldie but goodie from Ramsay MacMullen's Paganism in the Roman Empire (1983). I think it is fair to say that professor MacMullen "makes few concessions to the reader", as the old saying goes. Therefore I will take the liberty of outlining his main points immediately below his own words:
Plutarch's friend Clea, herself a priestess at Olympia, was also initiate in the rites of Osiris. She, then, could hardly have objected to the accommodation of a second loyalty; no more the priestess of the Sun at Philippi, initiate into the mysteries of Cybele and of Dionysus. A cult association of Hercules set up a dedication to its own God in the temple of Jupiter Dolichenus in Rome, and "the votaries of Sarapis," another guild, built a meeting room for Isis and Cybele in Rome's port. Examples abound of ministrants of one sort or another erecting an altar or a plaque or themselves signing some honorific inscription, in worship of a God other than the one they served. The practice can be observed without distinction of honorand, whether Roman, traditional Greek, Oriental, or Celtic; without distinction of area; and only circumscribed in time, perhaps. It may be that such actions are more often attested in the period after A.D. 150 than before. But even that is not sure.

These apparent betrayals of one's God were of course no only open, else never known to the present; they were divinely authorized. "By the interpretation of the rites of Sol," a worshiper honors Liber and Libera. Obviously the priest himself had overseen whatever was done; or a village honors "Zeus Galactinos according to Apollo's command"; a "priest of Sol invictus saw to the dedication of holy Silvanus, from a vision"; and so on, by a direct order from Hercules or Men or Apollo. It can only have been priests who guided these acts, seeing in them no betrayal at all. No one but priests can have permitted the placing in the temple of Dolichenus, in Rome, a relief that shows the God sitting next to his consort and holding busts of Sarapis and Isis: he had welcomed his friends from Egypt into his house. Priests directed that the feasts of Iarhibol and Aglibol in Palmyra should fall on the same day. The accommodation, fraternal welcome, courteous referral, or punctilious deference shown in one or another part of the surviving testimony seems to an unbeliever merely the interaction of worshipers and priests. But the worshipers and priests naturally saw it as the reflection here below of relations existing in the world above. Tolerance in paganism operated at both levels, until Christianity introduced its own ideas. Only then, from Constantine on, were Gods to be found at war with other Gods.
[Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire, p. 93]
1. MacMullen begins with a reference to Plutarch's famous essay "On Isis and Osiris", which is in the form of a letter to Clea: "herself a priestess at Olympia [and] also an initiate in the rites of Osiris."
2. In the remainder of the first paragraph, MacMullen goes on to produce a long list of other examples of persons or groups dedicated to one deity who also demonstrate some form of piety toward another deity.
3. MacMullen then points out that "these apparent betrayals of one's God" were all done openly and without any apparent embarrassment or anticipation of disapproval from others.
4. MacMullen makes the above point even more pointed by specifically pointing out that cult officials not only knew of, but approved and even participated in "these apparent betrayals of one's God." And to drive the point home even further, MacMullen states that, as a matter of fact, it must be the case that in all of these acts, the religious officials in question saw in them "no betrayal at all."
5. The participation of priestesses and priests not only demonstrates that these acts were officially approved, but that they were "divinely authorized," at least in the eyes of the pious at that time and place.
6. As far as the ancient world is concerned, therefore, "tolerance in Paganism operated at both levels," that is both on earth, where the acts are performed, and "in the world above," where the acts are not merely authorized, but where their "reflection" is found in the harmonious relations among the Gods in Heaven.
7. At this point MacMullen does a little plain speaking of his own: religious tolerance, both above and below, ruled the day "until Christianity introduced it's own ideas. Only then, from Constantine on, were Gods to be found at war with other Gods."

And now here is the second excerpt, from which the title of this post on syncretism has been lifted. It is from Robert G. Hoyland's 2001 (Routledge) Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam (here is a BMCR review of the book).
In monotheism the sacred is concentrated in one omnipotent and omniscient entity, whereas in polytheism it is diffused over a wide range of beings, places, objects, practices and human personnel. In reality there is both seepage in most monotheisms, with saints and shrines and the like tending to proliferate, and some telescoping on the part of many polytheisms, with one God often being preferred over the others. But the difference between the two is real and substantial.

Firstly, in pre-modern societies that had not secularised public life and relegated religion to the private domain, monotheism is by nature intolerant and intransigent. For there to be only one true God all the other must be impotent frauds, and those who worship them are not just in error, but damned, and should be fought or at the very least shunned. If you believe in many Gods however, there is no reason to be hostile to Gods not your own, nor any bar to paying them and their faithful your respects. "When you enter a village, swear by its Gods" as the old Arabian proverb goes.

Second, the words of a unique omnipotent God must needs be the absolute Truth, in the light of which its recipients should therefore regulate their lives and interpret their world. Polytheism, on the other hand, is neither so unitary nor so coherent. It is rather a variegated worldview, one capable of eliciting a rich and subtle range of meanings from a multi-faceted reality, one desirous of understanding and influencing the many and varied ways the natural world impinges upon us . . . .

[T]he sophisticated civilization of south Arabia had the most developed pantheon in Arabia with the names of over one hundred deities featuring in the surviving inscriptions, though many of these probably represent different aspects of manifestations of the same God. 'Athtar almost always occupies first place in lists and his cult was spread throughout the region. Moreover, in one text we find a worshipper thanking another God for "interceding on his behalf with 'Athtar", confirming that he enjoyed a certain primacy . . . .
The patron diety (shym) of a people was of more immediate significance in south Arabia than the remoter figure of 'Athtar. The four principle peoples had as their patrons Almaqah (Sabeans), Wadd (Minaeans), 'Amm (Qatabanians) and Sayin (Hadramites), and each people was collectively termed the "children" of their respective patron deity. The last would be characterised as the "lord" of the shrine that served as the cultic centre for his people (e.g. "Almaqah lord of Awwam", the principle temple in Marib) . . . .

In less complex societies than south Arabia the pantheon might be much smaller and the patron deity might assume a particularly prominent place. Thus the inhabitants of the fertile oasis of Dedan turned to Dhu Ghaba, "the master of the grove", for their needs and rarely to any other. The Minaean God Wadd appears in a few inscriptions, but these are presumably attributable to the Minaean colony that ran trade operations in the oasis. Then there is Kutba (or Aktab), God of writing, who is probably related to a Babylonian scribal deity, perhaps brought to northwest Arabia by the Babylonian monarch Nabonidus. But other Gods are mentioned no more than once or twice, probably invoked by travellers passing through rather than native worshippers.
The Nabataeans were similarly loyal to Dushara, "the master of the Shara", the mountain range encompassing their capital Petra, and "the God of our lord ... the king of the Nabataeans". At Petra itself the only very popular deity was al-'Uzza, "the mighty Goddess", who is celebrated both in texts and and in artistic representations. However the Nabataeans were rulers of a kingdom, and in the territories they controlled many other deities were worshipped, such as Hubal and Manat in Hijaz, and Allat in the Hawran and the Syrian desert.

Moreover, as international merchants, they were exposed to many foreign influences, and it is not therefore surprising top find that the cult of the Egyptian Goddess Isis was widespread in Nabataea . . . .
Palmyra was a special case, for it possessed a very cosmopolitan population, many members of which had brought their Gods with them, and by virtue of its location had long been exposed to a number of different cultures, which had left their mark on its religious life. Hence a great diversity of deities jostle for position in the city's epigraphic record. The best documented cult, since AD 32 at least, was that of the divine triad Bel, Yahribol and Aglibol. Bel emerged as a supreme God, while Yahribol, an ancestral deity of the oasis, and Aglibol, a deity of a north Syrian immigrant community, became his acolytes. However, Bel continued to associate with other divinities, such as the sun God Shamash and in particular his female partner Herta. We also hear of the ancient Canannite/Phoenician deity Ba'alshamin, the Arab Goddess Allat, the Mesopotamian deity Nergal and so on.[Robert G. Hoyland, Arabia and the Arabs, pp. 139-142]

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Because We Can: Syncretism from a Pagan perspective

"African Traditional Religion Allows Syncretism"

While looking for information on the indigenous religious traditions of Tanzania I ran across a fascinating and revealing paper written by Richard Cox, a missionary who works for the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Tanzania is a nation of about 40 million people (the seventh most populous in Africa), and is one of the places in which African Traditional Religion (ATR) has been the most resilient. The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) is one of the most active and aggressive Christian missionary groups in the world. SIL has faced persistent accusations of working closely with US based multinational corporations, American right-wing politicians, and even the CIA, especially in Latin America.

The paper in question is titled "Why Rangi Christians Continue to Practice Traditional African Religions". (The Rangi people are an ethnic/linguistic group in central Tanzania with a total population numbering about 350,000.) Richard Cox, an American based missionary who, as per SIL protocol, conducts his missionary work in the guise of "linguistic field work" wrote this article (which is available online here) after an incident which he describes as follows:
The Uganda/Tanzania Branch of SIL conducts an orientation course for new members coming to work in East Africa. One of the components of the course is a scheduled lecture about African Traditional Religion (ATR). In 2006, ten expatriates attended the course. There were also five Tanzanian nationals present. The Tanzanians fulfilled various roles such as interpreters, Swahili language teachers and cultural guides. I was asked by the branch administrators to present a lecture concerning ATR. During the course of the lecture, I emphasized the fact that most Tanzanian Christians were still involved at some level in ATR. After mentioning some of the ATR practices I was aware of, I asked the Tanzanians if they could verify my assertions. One of the Swahili language teachers, a man in is mid-thirties, stated that my assertions were true. Then to everyone’s surprise, he stated that after returning to his home village the previous year for the first time after being in the capital city for more than ten years, he and his relatives sacrificed a goat to the ancestral spirits. Why did the young man admit this and feel that, even though he was a Christian, it was necessary to make such a sacrifice?
Please note that Cox cannot help himself from wondering aloud not only how a Christian could participate in a Traditional/Pagan religious ceremony, but why he would admit to it! Everything that needs to be said about how monotheists and Pagans approach syncretism in completely different ways is packed, if very densely, into this question.

The obvious answer to Cox's question is that obviously his African associate saw nothing wrong with what he did, and, therefore, it did not occur to him to not "admit" to it. And it is equally obvious from Cox's question itself just how taboo syncretism is to the average superstitious Christian savage.

(I guess Christians, with their pathetically impoverished theology of only one lousy god, view participation in Pagan rituals the same way they view receiving daily nude massages from the Rentboy they brought with them on vacation: even if you are found out, at least have the Christian decency to deny it! I mean act like you have some shame, for chrissake.)

Cox then proceeds to provide a long list of reasons why "Rangi Christians" continue to practice African Traditional Religions. Predictably, many of the reasons that Cox gives are just standard issue pot-shots at the Catholics, who were the first cultural imperialists to stake a claim on the Rangi's immortal souls. You see, the way the Wycliffeans see things, if the Rangi had ever been properly dunked for Jeebus, instead of merely being sprinkled with the holy water of the Papists, they would have severed all ties with Devil Worship from the get-go.

Anyway, Cox eventually gets around to the real reason "Rangi Christians" still sacrifice goats to their ancestors, utilize traditional healers, refuse to cut down their ancient sacred groves where the old initiation rituals are still held, and so forth: because "African Traditional Religion allows syncretism":
Finally, ATR allows a person to ‘be a Christian’ while still practicing ATR. ATR, which is not a systematic system as practiced by the Rangi, doesn’t have to exclude Christians. In ATR, one can attend church services, be baptized, partake of the sacraments, and still practice ATR. It is not necessary for people to hold a tightly structured and logical belief system in order to function in their everyday life. A person’s theology is what they act out, not what they profess to believe. Many Rangi do not see a problem with holding on to both ATR and Christian beliefs. For many in the West this is a logical inconsistency, but for the Rangi this is a practical outworking of their lives and cultures. This syncretistic mixture is what has been modeled for them in the past and it seems to work for them practically. Indeed, it could be said about most believers in a particular religious tradition that the belief espoused and the practices adhered to are not logically consistent. Therefore this syncretistic amalgamation is acceptable among the Rangi. It is simply a matter of fact that Rangi Christians do not understand the majority of the implications that Biblical teaching has for their daily lives; thus the reason for the continued syncretism.
The arrogance really is breathtaking. Africans only "hold a tightly structured and logical belief system" to the extent that they are Christian! And their traditional religion is not "systematic". Why? Because it "doesn't have to exclude" other religions. This bullshit is only to be expected from Christians, especially missionaries, and most especially the disarmingly uncomplicated Christian soldier types of the SIL. All too often, though, one finds the same crap being spewed by supposedly objective scholars, and even supposedly Pagan scholars.

Bottom line: Syncretism is what people naturally do when left to their own devices: when it is allowed. All genuine religions, that is, religions that are legitimate expressions of the inherent spiritual impulses of homo religiosus, not only allow, but thrive on and naturally express themselves through syncretism. Any "religion" that is incompatible with syncretism, as Protestant Christianity is, at least when properly understood, is something else again.

[If you are interested in African Traditional Religion, then check out this other post, and links found therein: "What exactly is it about traditional religion that we fear?"]

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