Archives For Stacey Lawless

A Few Notes on Palo

Stacey Lawless —  May 24, 2013 — 9 Comments

Nsala malongo! I’ve been learning about Palo cosmology and history over the last couple of months, and slowly unraveling some of the confusion I had about how the religion works. I thought I would offer up some of what I’ve learned, detailing a little of our worldview and the fact that there are different denominations, or ramas, of Palo. (By the way: any mistakes here are entirely mine, while the goodness in this piece must be credited to my teachers.)

And without further ado . . .

The dead

The dead are the basis of everything in Palo.

We call them the bakulu, which means ancestors, but the concept of “ancestors” tends to make Americans think of family trees. “Bakulu” can (and does) refer to lineal ancestors, but the dead are so much more than that. They are the basis of all life. They are the stuff of the material world, and the sea of possibilities that configure and reconfigure the fates of the living.

Kongo cosmogram, showing the cyclical nature of human existence.

Kongo cosmogram, showing the cyclical nature of human existence. The horizontal line represents the boundary between the living and dead.

We do think about and work with individual dead people: named ancestors, spirit guides, the beloved dead uncle who always gave you good advice. Sometimes they come to us in dreams and intuitions; sometimes, if we’re fortunate, they come to us in possession and bless us with their healing and wisdom.

But we also think of the dead as an anonymous collective, a force, a field, a sea. The KiKongo word “Kalunga” means simultaneously the collective dead, the saltwater ocean, and the cemetery. To the people of the kingdom of Kongo in central Africa, whose traditions gave birth to what would become Palo, the land of the dead lay below the sea. The surface of the sea was the demarcation between the living and the dead, a site of creative tension and power. Graves, too, were points of contact, and dirt from a grave carried the power of the deceased person within. You can still find seashells left on graves in Black family cemeteries in the United States, a trace of the old philosophy.

The spirals of conch shells symbolize the cyclical nature of existence in Kongo thought: death is hardly an end, merely a transition to a new existence. The dead are being continually reborn, crystallizing into their lineal descendants, or appearing as trees, pools and stones, plants and animals. Everything in the material world is a form of the dead, precipitating out of Kalunga like grains of salt out of seawater, to exist for a while before being dissolved again.

Nzambi

The source of the living and the dead is Nzambi a mpungu. Nzambi is neither male nor female, and is the ever-present majestic force that brought creation into being and permeates it. In Palo we tend to think of Nzambi in these terms, as the creator, because the Kongo traditions in general have been in continuous dialogue with Christianity for centuries. But Nzambi can also be thought of as the first ancestor, emphasizing the continuous cycle of life and death. In that sense, creation just is, with no beginning and no end.

The mpungos

And then there are the mpungos. Mpungu is a KiKongo word that refers to power generated by something, or, as my Tata once put it, “a hot stove can have an mpungu.” So in essence, it’s just a force. However, some lines of Palo have developed certain of the mpungos into major powers, even to the extent of conceiving of them as divinities. The Internet is full of descriptions of the mpungos, who have names such as Chola Wengue, Siete Rayos, and Zarabanda, and the tendency is to syncretize them with the Orishas of Santería. Not all ramas (which are, essentially, Palo denominations) work with the mpungos in this way, however.

The Ramas of Palo

The way a rama regards mpungos and the dead seems to be one of the major distinctions between lines of Palo. (There are many other distinctions, but they have to do with ways of conducting ritual.) There are numerous ramas, but the three main ones are Mayombe, Briyumba, and Kimbisa.

Palo Mayombe is probably the oldest one. It works primarily with the ancestors of blood and spiritual lineage, and in the past, if you were not of Bantu descent, you could not be initiated into Mayombe houses. (“Bantu” refers to a group of related African languages, of which KiKongo is one, and by extension to the ethnic groups that spoke these languages.) Mayomberos tend to see the mpungos as natural forces only, not divinities, and to downplay them in Palo practice.

Palo Briyumba developed out of Palo Mayombe and broke away from Mayombe’s ancestral focus. Briyumberos began to initiate non-Bantus. They also developed pacts with dead spirits who had no blood or lineaged connection to the Paleros, putting them to work and in some cases effectively enslaving them. Briyumba came into its own during Cuba’s wars of independence, and saw justice in conscripting the bones and souls of deceased oppressors to serve those they had formerly abused. In Briyumba, the mpungos are used to give attributes and direction to the dead who serve the Briyumbero.

Kongolese crucifix

A Kongolese crucifix

Palo Kimbisa developed in Oriente, the eastern part of the island of Cuba, and has absorbed influences from several other traditions, including Haitian Vodou. (There is a long history of contact between Oriente and Haiti, which is only about forty miles away from the eastern tip of Cuba.) Some Kimbiseros make extensive use of Christian symbolism, and some work with the Catholic saints. One theory of Kimbisa’s origins is that they lie with Kimpa Vita’s Kongolese Christian reform movement, which blossomed in the kingdom of Kongo for a few years in the eighteenth century, before being brutally repressed. Kimpa Vita had thousands of followers, many of whom were subsequently sold into slavery in the Americas. It is an intriguing theory, but nobody knows for certain if it’s true.

It is Kimbisa that regards the mpungos as divinities, finding parallels between them and the Orishas, and focusing much of their work and veneration upon them, instead of upon the dead. The dead in Kimbisa are the medium that the mpungos use to affect the world.

 * * * * *

Dear readers, I hope you enjoyed this. When I was starting out on this path and trying to read everything I could find on Palo, I was very confused about who or what Paleros worked with, and what was up with all the crucifixes and Orisha comparisons and whatnot. If I can straighten a little of that out for other readers and seekers, that’s great. In fact, let me try this: if you have questions about Palo, bring them up in the comments section and I’ll try to answer them in my next post. (Just bear in mind that I’m new at this and there may be things I can’t answer due to ignorance or oath.) Malongo yaya!

Ghosts have become popular in the last decade or so. Paranormal investigation, or “ghost hunting,” shows chronicle the adventures of people armed with an assortment of sensory equipment, most of which is easily available online in case you want to start your own investigative team. Or you can apply for admission to one of the many teams already in existence. For those who want to dabble in exploring hauntings, but not jump into the life of a researcher, there are scores of haunted sites and ghost tours you can pay to visit.

What has stirred up this interest in ghosts? One theory is that the availability of sensory devices like EMF readers and the ovilus have made it possible for more people to go out in the field and pursue their interests in the paranormal. That doesn’t answer the question of where the interest comes from, though. Is ghost-seeking simply another manifestation of America’s current interest in the occult? Is it an attempt to scientifically evaluate the existence of spirits (rather like some forms of 19th century Spiritualism)? Some investigators seem to be doing a grown-up version of legend-tripping, armed with gadgets instead of candles and incense.

Other investigators, though, have gotten involved because they want to help the dead.

Ahmadi Riverwolf

Ahmadi Riverwolf

I spoke with two women who work with Cressona Paranormal in Pennsylvania. Ahmadi Riverwolf is a Yayi Nganga in Palo Kimbisa (a Yayi is a full priestess, Palo Kimbisa is another rama of Palo – a different denomination from Mayombe, so to speak). Jhada Addams is an Omo Yemaya (a Santera crowned to the Orisha Yemaya). Both had mediumistic tendencies before initiating into their respective African Traditional Religions, but have since discovered a calling to help the dead. Ahmadi has been on a couple of investigations with Cressona Paranormal, while Jhada has served as a consultant on one.

Jhada: For me – my entire gig is trying to give the spirit what it needs to elevate. Light. Prayers. Songs. If it needs to go, I help it break free so it can go. If it wants to stay, I then have a conversation with the homeowner about how to live in harmony with the spirit.

Ahmadi: They want to be acknowledged, they have unfinished business, or they need help to be elevated. Sometimes they want to leave where they are and don’t know how.

I asked Jhada and Ahmadi how working with the paranormal team fit their religious practices. Both stressed the deep importance of the ancestors in the ATRs.

Jhada: In both Palo and Santeria, ancestors are VENERATED. Appreciated and incorporated into daily life. You have to remember that from which you came. It’s ESSENTIAL. There are so many spirits out there, cast adrift because so many people in this country can’t handle death – it’s heartbreaking.

Ahmadi: They deserve respect, honor, acknowledgement. We would not exist without them.

I asked them to expand on this a little. There’s a difference between ghosts or restless dead and ancestors in the ATRs – ancestors have “crossed over,” to use the common phrase. They can and do act in the lives of their descendants, but are refined, profound spiritual forces, not the confused shades typically encountered in true hauntings.

Jhada: I’ve run across urns that people had simply dropped off in antique or oddities/bargain shops – with just a rime of ashes in the bottom. The family member didn’t even care enough to wash the urn out properly.

Ahmadi: That just sickened me.

There was a time I found a headstone carelessly chucked into a rubbish heap in a local cemetery. I picked it up and could hear a woman cry that she had been forgotten. The loneliness of the spirit was palpable. I took her home and she’s been on my altar ever since, decorated with bling and happy.

Jhada: I do what I can to ease their spirits, and their crossing.

By working with Cressona Paranormal, Ahmadi and Jhada explained, they benefitted from all the perspectives the team brings to their investigations – including practical experience with things that go bump in the night for entirely mundane reasons, like plumbing.

Jhada Addams

Jhada Addams

Ahmadi: Sometimes our beliefs can color our judgment. We need to approach these cases with a spiritual, yet clinical eye sometimes. We are going into people’s houses. ANYTHING could happen. Many are things not paranormal at all. Or magic.

Calming people down is sometimes the biggest challenge.

Ahmadi also noted that many physical conditions, allergies, and pharmaceutical side effects can produce symptoms that may seem like spiritual activity.

For those who think they might be interested in working with the dead, Jhada and Ahmadi stressed that the best first step is start honoring the ancestors.

Ahmadi: Anyone can set up an ancestor altar and light a candle and a glass of water. Set up a spot with mementos and pictures.

Jhada: And, honestly, everybody should. If nothing else, for their own dead.

Ahmadi: And if something happens like flickering lights or an opening door, say Hello!!

Rev. Tamara L. Siuda is the founder of Kemetic Orthodoxy and Nisut of the House of Netjer. The Wild Hunt reported on her successful crowd-funding venture earlier this month, and I caught up with Rev. Tamara to find out more. We talked about her project, the Ancient Egyptian Daybook, and her experiences with using Kickstarter.

Let’s start with the Daybook. It sounds like the ancient Egyptians used multiple calendars. Could you talk about that a little, and how the Daybook will help modern users keep track of important dates? (Also, did I hear that the Daybook will actually be a book and a planner?)

The ancient Egyptians had a minimum of four different calendars in use. They’re all the same length (except for one weirdness in the lunar calendar), with 12 months of 30 days each, and five extra or epagomenal days to round out the 365-day solar cycle.

The Sothic calendar or stellar calendar starts its New Year based on the heliacal rising of the binary star system Sirius (Sopdet to them, Sothis to the Greeks) over a certain geographic location, usually the royal residence. This usually happens in modern Gregorian August today.

Egyptian_calendar_dark

An Egyptian calendar on papyrus

 

The lunar calendar designates New Year as starting on the day of the first New Moon that occurs on or after the heliacal rising of Sirius. Otherwise, it’s identical to the Sothic calendar except that it occasionally adds an intercalary/epagomenal MONTH when there are 13 moons in a year.

The civil calendar designates New Year as starting on an arbitrary date. Once upon a time, the civil year matched the Sothic year, but because of the slippage of time (each of our years is not exactly 365 days long, and ancient Egyptian calendars had no actual leap days until the late period), the New Year kept moving earlier and earlier in the year until it was occurring in completely different seasons than the celestial events it was supposed to match.

The Alexandrian calendar is a fusion calendar, created by decree under Octavian/Caesar Augustus. It is a civil calendar at its base, but it fixes the New Year date to the Sothic rising date. It then adds leap days as necessary once every four years, and some of the lunar-based holidays retain their lunar dating schema.

The Daybook will explain how each of the calendars is created, and then provide the actual holidays matched up to the various days (each calendar has the same days/months/seasons, except that extra month in the lunar year). So anyone who gets the Daybook can choose a new year date and a calendar type, and then go from there. The project will also include an optional perpetual calendar planner, with Egyptian dates only and a space for people to write in which Gregorian dates they correspond to in that person’s chosen format.

Was this your first venture into crowd-funding? How did you choose Kickstarter as your funding platform? How did you decide to present your project the way you did?

This was my first crowdfunding project. I chose Kickstarter after reviewing various platforms and formats, and finding one that I felt provided enough exposure to get the project done, as well as enough protection for potential investors so that they wouldn’t feel like they were taking too much of a risk providing me with funds for a project that isn’t yet completed. I spent more than a year watching similar campaigns, getting to know other content creators/project owners, and learning how crowdfunding really works, before I created a video and jumped in myself. I decided to go with something fairly light-hearted as I have always believed that academic things don’t have to be utterly boring, and that there is a lot of interest in ancient Egypt that could be captured with the right presentation. I wanted to provide something that represents both what I want to do with the Daybook, and would accommodate the particular interests and concerns of anyone who’d be willing to back it.

Now that you’ve seen the Daybook Kickstarter through, is there anything that in hindsight you wish you’d done differently?  Conversely, is there anything you’re really glad you did do?

I wish I’d spent more time before the project went live, to talk it up amongst my friends and family. Having a wide base of people who already support you before you begin is very important, both to build a starting momentum, and to keep people interested in the project as the days go on and on until the goal is met (or not met). I wish I’d not been as uncomfortable with the idea of asking people for money to help with the project earlier. I could’ve started this project years ago! During the campaign, musician Amanda Palmer, who did a very successful Kickstarter herself last year for an album, appeared at TED and gave a talk called “The Art of Asking” that has since gone viral. In it, she talks about how crowdfunding isn’t so much about asking people for money, as giving people permission to help you. It gave me much to consider, and anyone who is considering crowdfunding a creative project should check it out.

More stamina/more understanding that the project was going to require hours and hours each day to keep working on, would also have been helpful. It was really my day job during those 30 days to get the pledges going and keep the publicity happening. It’s grueling, and if you are not employing anybody to help you promote the project, as I was, you’re doing all of that yourself. The last 24 hours of the campaign I don’t think I got more than an hour of sleep, between both the sheer amount of “push” PR that had to be done, and the excitement of watching us meet and exceed stretch goals.

I am very glad that I went through with the campaign, even after I’d been afraid to start it. I’m delighted that there was such a wide interest, even from complete strangers, and enjoyed interacting with the backers and potential backers during the process. It was also exciting and fun to take part in Kickstarter with other projects that went live around the time mine did – we all contacted each other and provided support and advice back and forth, and had little celebrations at every success. I’m glad that I was able to connect to such a diverse group of people for a project that I think will be beneficial to many, and that others seemed to agree it was worth doing and were willing to provide financial support to make it so.

Were you able to tell if any social media platforms were especially helpful in drawing attention to the Daybook?

Luxor_Temple-Egyptian_calendar

Egyptian calendar on the wall of the Temple at Luxor

Kickstarter provides project creators with extensive metrics. More than a third of the attention, in terms of both page views/video views and actual backing, came from Facebook, and at least two thirds of that came from specific promoted posts at a low cost threshhold (specifically, five promoted posts at $10 each, spaced out across the campaign, promoted to “friends of friends”). A significant amount of attention also came from Twitter, where I somehow got the attention of a number of important authors including Neil Gaiman, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Judith Tarr, who “re-Tweeted” information about the Daybook to their own followers. Smaller responses came from LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Reddit, in that order. It does seem that social media is an important tool in getting one’s message out for a Kickstarter campaign.

Have you got any future projects lined up that you might crowd-fund?

 I have been asked by a number of my backers about whether or not I’d be willing to open a second Kickstarter campaign to meet the final “stretch goal” that we did not achieve in the campaign, which was a fully-interactive calendar app for mobile (iPhone and Android), that was estimated to cost between $36K and $40K to produce. I’m not ruling that out, though I’m certainly going to take a break between campaigns if only because I’m exhausted from the first one! Thirty days of having to be on top of a Kickstarter campaign is a lot of work. I put in between 5-8 hours each day, with no days off. Any day that you don’t promote your campaign is lost backers. You have to stick with it constantly, and continually stir up publicity, to succeed. It’s like running a marathon – you can’t stop until the finish line.

Do you have any advice for Pagans who are considering crowd-funding for their own projects?

 Do your homework before you begin. Decide which of the several crowdfunding sites is appropriate for your project; there are completely different philosophies, acceptable project types, and audiences on each site. Once you decide which site you want to use, start looking up projects that are similar to the one you want to do. Contact the project creators. Most will be very happy to talk to you about their process. I had four Kickstarter mentors, all of whom were successful and who were tremendously helpful to me as I planned and executed my project. Make sure you contact your existing family, friends, and audience – most extremely successful projects are presented by people who already have a following/established brand. And don’t be afraid to ask.

 

Kinship and community

Stacey Lawless —  March 22, 2013 — 31 Comments

Although I came back from Pantheacon with lots of anecdotes and experiences (most of which were extremely positive and fun), I find that the only story I have to tell you right now is one I didn’t want to tell. It won’t leave me alone, however. It’s just this: I had a dreadful time with the Morrígan devotional ritual, “The Heart is the Only Nation.” I know many people who attended absolutely loved it. Teo Bishop, in particular, seems to have been deeply affected by it, and I envy him. I went to the devotional hoping to be moved by it. I guess I was, although not in the way I wanted.

It’s a quirk of my personality that I react badly to being asked to identify with a group. Damned if I know why. If I voluntarily align myself with said group, that’s okay, but being confronted with any sort of team-building, identity-merging activity irrationally unnerves me. It feels like an attack. When I was a kid, I had recurring nightmares about being infected by zombies or assimilated up by Borg-like collectives. I don’t have that kind of a strong reaction anymore. But, unfortunately for me, the Morrígan ritual pushed my fear-of-loss-of-self button, hard. Maybe if I’d been expecting it, it wouldn’t have thrown me, but I wasn’t. So, suddenly, I went from opening up to the ritual to slamming closed, feeling threatened, depressed, angry, bitter, alienated. And I was much too far from the door to make a discrete exit.

So, I breathed and tried to work with the emotions, and went through with the ritual. It was a rite about deepening the bonds of kinship and community. I value these, so by gods I was going to grit my teeth and be in community. To try to be gracious and as open to the experience as I could be, even though what I really wanted to do was crawl away into a dark corner. It never occurred to me that I could have just stepped back from the circle into the darkness at the edge of the ballroom. I didn’t want to distract anyone around me from the work they were doing, so I worked too.

I spent the rest of Pantheacon, and a good part of the following month, mulling this experience over and thinking about religion and kinship, so I suppose the Morrígan devotional did its job even on my cranky self.

Anyway, this story really is not all that important. It wanted to be told, but I think the real reason to tell it is because it gives me space to say that sometimes, being in community is the worst. Doing anything with other humans is too often a real drag, and sometimes you can’t escape. You have to grit your teeth and go through with whatever it is you’re doing with all these people just because it has to be done. The reason I’m stating the beyond-obvious here is that I’ve been thinking about the post yesterday about Yana, and kinship, and solidarity with other Pagans. The costs of being in community, and the effort it can take to return to the work of building and maintaining those bonds again, and again, and again.

As Jason said, Paganism is international now. And I hope it’s not speaking too strongly to say that now modern, international, post-Drawing Down the Moon Paganism has a martyr.

After I post this, I’m going to light a candle on my boveda for Yana in her journey to her gods. Then I’m going to meditate on what I bring to this community, to “Pagandom,” as I like to call it in lighter moments. What I can do to contribute to the ties of kinship and affection and religious experience that strengthen this community. What work needs to be done for our safety and well-being. I haven’t done a lot of interfaith or intrafaith or outreach work before, so this is all going to be new. Will you walk with me?

Meeting the Pagans

Stacey Lawless —  February 14, 2013 — 8 Comments

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in four years. She moved up north for a while and we fell out of touch, so when she moved back we had some catching up to do. The last time we’d seen each other, I was calling myself Heathen and thought that I might become a Freyrswoman. Needless to say, I had to explain that my spiritual journey had covered some ground since then. The strange thing was, as we talked, I realized that it felt like far longer than four years since I last lifted a horn in blót – even though I never lost contact with my local Heathens, and attended a blót as a guest only a few months ago. I also told my friend about getting ready for PantheaCon, and the contrast between how I felt about PCON and how I felt about my own Pagan past gave me some food for thought.

The road to PantheaCon opened for me in December, just a few weeks after my rayamiento. My Tata (Palo godfather) announced that he was going to be on a panel about minority religions and the media (“Setting the Record Straight: Pagans and the Press”), and checking the schedule, I saw that Jason Pitzl-Waters was also on that panel. I wound up getting into an online conversation with Jason about PCON that left me thinking I just had to try to go. Crowds aren’t my favorite, but I was thrilled about the Giant Pagan Event, plus I had the sense that here was a door that I had to try to get through. When my boyfriend agreed that yes, we should go, I was stunned (he’s so much more of a hermit than I am). We bought the various necessary tickets and made the plans and I’ve been thoroughly excited since . . .

But the funny thing is, I can’t quite figure out why I’m excited. I mean, it’s great to be stepping out, finally, into the wider world of Pagandom, meeting people, experiencing different traditions, and delighting in the gathering of the tribes. I find it very ironic, though, that I’m entering this world not as a Pagan, but as a Palera. For whatever reasons of destiny or personal quirks, I never found an expression of Paganism that resonated well with me, or provided a good vessel for my hopes, fears, personal growth or spiritual yearnings. I confess I got rather frustrated with the search, too, and there were more than a few times when I was tempted to write the whole thing off. And apparently the process left a few scars, because I realized the other day that although my identity is still oriented towards Paganism, in a general way, I think of you guys as “you guys” and not “us.”

This is an uncomfortable thing to write, not least because I’m writing it here on The Wild Hunt. The flip side, though, is that I am writing about it on The Wild Hunt, at the same time I’m talking about heading out to PantheaCon. Clearly, those scars don’t run all that deep. And I suppose this could mean that I’m going to PCON to find out why I’m going to PCON – that this is the part of my journey where I get to discover what Pagan things are like outside of my little corner of the Southeast.

There are definitely worse quests to undertake. And I do have some concrete goals and desires for PantheaCon which will keep me busy. There’s the glorious opportunity for networking, for example. I think Pagans and the African Traditional Religions are, or at least should be, natural allies in the contentious religious environment of the U.S., and I hope I can accomplish a little work to that end, even if it’s just swapping a few email addresses. Given that I’m going to meet the redoubtable Wild Hunt-ers in person, I anticipate this will be pretty fun and effective.

I want to see how the other ATR practitioners on the schedule present our religions. And, speaking of events on the schedule, I’m hoping to learn more about how different Pagan groups are doing Ancestor veneration and spirit-work. (Healing the dead, and healing with the aid of the dead, are old interests of mine that I now have the tools to pursue in earnest – and I may be on the verge of becoming something of an evangelist for Ancestor veneration. But that is definitely a topic for another post.) The Circle of Bones ritual, in particular, looks intriguing.

I’m completely stoked about the fact that I’m finally going to be able to meet friends in person who I’ve only ever known online. Also, this is the big opportunity to introduce my boyfriend to my Tata and some of the other folks in my Palo community, which is a small triumph considering we can’t afford to travel to the West Coast very often. And, of course, there’s that  one panel I simply must attend . . .

Roads opening, doors to walk through, quests to undertake. That does sound kind of Pagan, doesn’t it? I’ll be making notes on the journey, and will no doubt write about the adventures when I return. If you’re going to be at PantheaCon too, look for me – my hair’s not blue anymore but is still spiky, and you can’t miss the spiral tattoo on my neck. Come on over and tell me your story. I’m here for the gathering of tribes, after all, and I do want to meet you.

 

Meeting my Palo family

Stacey Lawless —  January 26, 2013 — 7 Comments

Nsala malekum! I thought I’d tell you a little about my initiation into Palo Mayombe. I can’t describe the rayamiento itself, because that would break my oath, but a lot of things that happened that weekend were part of my initiatory experience, and I can talk about the exciting stuff that happened the day before. I hope that by doing so, I can give you something of the sense of community and religion that I encountered. Palo initiations, like those of other ATRs (‘African Traditional Religions’), take place in two interrelated but distinct aspects of life: the spiritual and the social. You undergo the rituals, and assuming they’re worked well by people who know what they’re doing, you get connected to the spirits of the tradition and they start affecting your life. At the same time, by undergoing the rituals, you’re accepted into what is essentially an adoptive family.

My boyfriend came up with a great allegory for ATR initiations, which I have shamelessly stolen: they’re like becoming a citizen of a country. You’re connected to the other citizens, and come under the rule of the laws of the land. That is, ATRs are what they are because of pacts and arrangements with specific spiritual forces. (This is the basis for the rituals, sacrifices, oracles, taboos, and so forth that practitioners of ATRs live by.) Those forces – the muertos, Lwa, Orishas, or Whomever – are part of the community too. When you’re brought into the spiritual lineage of your house, the ancestors of the lineage become your ancestors, alongside your own blood relations. The other spirits, the Whomever your house serves, accept you and start interacting with you as a member of the house, with all the privileges and responsibilities that apply.

So part of my rayamiento weekend involved another ritual called the presentación. I can’t go into a lot of detail about it, either, but I can say it involves taking the candidate for rayamiento out to be shown to the spirits of nature, especially the spirits of the mountain. Palo is inextricably bound up with these, so it was basically Tata Eric taking me to meet the allies. (Or rather, I should say, “taking us,” because I got a new godbrother that weekend: mi hermano Chris B., who was scratched along with me. He’s a great guy, and it was very cool to have someone going through these experiences right along with me.)

Me and mi hermano Chris before rayamiento.

Me and mi hermano Chris before rayamiento.

We headed out in the morning, picked Chris up, and he and I introduced ourselves to each other while we ran around a supermarket, gathering supplies. It was an hour’s drive from town to the place in the mountains Eric wanted to use for the presentación, and we spent the trip talking and joking around. (I had never been in the desert before, and spent part of the drive going, “Hey, are those tumbleweeds? Are those Joshua trees? Will I see any roadrunners?”) When we got to the right place, we carried our supplies down to a secluded grove by the bank of a shallow, stony river, and set up a ritual space around the foot of the tallest tree. The river is important to our lineage of Palo, so Eric presented us to its spirits as well

as to the mountain, and Chris and I took offerings to the stream and each brought something back. We cleaned up the site when we were done, and drove back into town. I felt clear and light, and very, very good — like I had finally stepped all the way into my place in the world.

That day was a busy one. We got takeout for lunch, and only had an hour or two to eat and relax before it was time to jump back into the car to drive down into Los Angeles. Tata Eric’s partner, Gloria, is a Palera and Santera, and she has a young goddaughter who was on the verge of making Ocha (now she’s crowned and into her year in white). There was a misa espiritual scheduled for the goddaughter and we were all taking part. There I would meet more of the people in the community, and more of the spirits, although this ritual didn’t have anything to do with Palo.

A misa is a rite for communicating with the enlightened dead who serve as spirit guides. It’s neither a Palo working nor a Santería one, but comes from a third Afro-Caribbean tradition called Espiritismo. I’ve heard of people doing Espiritismo by itself, but everyone I’ve met who practices it is also involved with Ocha. The use of the misa to communicate with muertos seems to be fairly common among Santeros. I’m told that it’s replaced lost Yoruba rites for working with the dead, but I wonder if the appeal has more to do with the fact that misas are a heck of lot of fun. (Also, you don’t have to be initiated into anything to take part in one. We all have ancestors, and we all have muertos who walk with us through life.)

A 'white table' or Espiritismo altar.

A ‘white table’ or Espiritismo altar.

Anyway, Chris, Gloria, and I piled into Eric’s car and he drove us to L.A. When we got to the house, I felt like the awkward friend of friends from out of town, but reminded myself that I was actually meeting more people in my community. Tata Eric was heading up the ceremony, and once things got underway, I forgot about being shy. We were sitting around in a circle, praying Catholic prayers in rapid-fire Spanish (well, English for me, but at least I could fall back on my Catholic school education). We had all taken turns cleaning ourselves with white flowers and Florida water, and the praying raised and refined the energies in the room. I started to feel open and emotionally connected to the other people there. The goddaughter’s mother passed around cigars, so I took one and started puffing on it. (Tobacco helps open doors for the spirit communications.) Suddenly I began to ‘see’ people coming into the room, and some of them ‘told’ me they had messages they wanted me to pass on to other participants (though it was less like I heard or even imagined I heard anything, and more like I simply knew what I was supposed to say). I began to relay the messages as they came up, which was quite an intense experience, because even though they didn’t make sense to me, the people I gave them to confirmed them. The goddaughter’s grandmother told me, after I described a spirit who was reaching out to her, that she didn’t know who he was yet — but somebody else had told her about him, with exactly the same details, at a misa the week before. It was a tremendously cool experience.

Gloria’s young goddaughter seemed entirely pleased with the messages that came through for her, and so was her family. Afterwards, they served Mexican pastries and coffee, and Gloria talked about details of the forthcoming Ocha ceremony with the other Santeras there.

Tata Eric & Yayi Gloria

Tata Eric and Yayi Gloria.

I mentioned that initiation into an ATR is also joining an adoptive family. One of the things that really struck me about my particular adoptive family was just how familial it is. The misa was multigenerational, with the young goddaughter, her father and mother, and her grandmother all present and taking part. (Her brothers were off in another part of the house, playing video games.) The next day, the day of the rayamiento itself, I met Gloria’s brother Miguel, who came over to help with the ritual. Like many of the people in this house, he’s a Santero as well as a Palero; and he and Gloria were raised in a family that practiced Ocha. One of the other Paleros who came to help with the rayamiento brought his wife and their toddler son along, and they hung out in the living room and watched kid’s shows on TV while the ritual was underway. It was fascinating, because I had never encountered anything like it before. My experiences with Pagans mostly featured twenty- and thirty-somethings coming together as first-generation practitioners. Some of my Pagan friends have children, but I only know one adult with Pagan parents. I came back from California with a strong sense of the living, rooted nature of Palo and Ocha.

I hope I’ve been able to convey some of the excitement of the day before my rayamiento. It was a splendid prelude to being scratched in Palo, and played a significant role in my overall experience of initiation. The ways I encountered community that weekend, with spirits and with humans, shaped how I encounter both Palo and Ocha now; and the misa gave a needed boost to my self-confidence about doing spirit-work.

My one regret from that weekend is that I didn’t get to see any roadrunners. Hopefully I’ll spot one next time. Malekum nsala!