Archives For African diasporic religion

During his recent visit to Brazil, Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, did something unprecedented. The Pontiff met with a representative of the Candomblé faith, the first time a Catholic Pope has ever done so.

Babalawo Ivanir dos Santos and Pope Francis.

Babalawo Ivanir dos Santos and Pope Francis.

“At odds since colonial times, Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian religions have embarked on a process of mutual acceptance. Pope Francis added words and gestures to this reconciliation of two groups that share a common interest: confronting the growth of evangelical and neo-Pentecostal churches. The photo of Francis wearing a “cocar” headdress given to him by Ubiraí, a Pataxó Indian, went around the world. Ivanir dos Santos, a “babalawo” or priest of the Afro-Brazilian candomblé religion, was also received by the pope in the Municipal Theatre of Rio de Janeiro as part of the rapprochement between the Catholic Church and other creeds and cultures during his Jul. 22-28 visit to Brazil. ‘For the first time, a representative of candomblé was received by a pope. This is unprecedented,’ dos Santos, a member of Brazil’s Committee Against Religious Intolerance (CCIR), told IPS.”

Pope Francis went even farther, he embraced the secular state as a vehicle for religious tolerance.

“Peaceful coexistence between different religions is favoured by the laicity of the state, which, without assuming any one confessional stance, respects and values the presence of the religious factor in society.”

This is a major tonal shift from the papacy of Benedict XVI, who avoided meeting with “non-institutional” (ie Santeria/Lukumi) faiths in Cuba, wouldn’t deign to a meeting with Vodun leaders in its birthplace, and was openly critical of Franciscan interfaith efforts when they included African traditional faiths, buying into Catholic hardliner anti-interfaith propaganda. Further, he had a combative relationship with what he called “aggressive” secularism. So these moves, even if largely cosmetic, resonate strongly to non-Christians watching to see how Francis sets the tone for his church.

Pope Francis wearing a “cocar” headdress given to him by Ubiraí, a Pataxó Indian.

Pope Francis wearing a “cocar” headdress given to him by Ubiraí, a Pataxó Indian.

“Between selfish indifference and violent protest there is always another possible option, and the key to developing a just and fair society as a leader is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue”Pope Francis

For non-Christians, it also has the effect of humanizing the religious “other.” If the Pope embraces reconciliation with Candomblé, with real, human, interface between leaders, why shouldn’t Catholics also embrace practitioners of Vodou? Or indigenous African religions? Or modern Paganism, for that matter? Indeed, the Pope’s new attitude is needed more now than ever before. We live in a world where human beings, fueled by religious beliefs, are persecuting and killing one another in increasingly disturbing incidents. What better time for a Pope to emphatically embrace an interfaith mission? A mission that had been blunted during the Papacy of Benedict, but now, hopefully, will bear new fruit.

 

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Godsmack

Godsmack

The Weird Sisters from Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' After Henry Fuseli (1741-1825); mezzotint by John Raphael Smith (1751-1812)

The Weird Sisters from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’
After Henry Fuseli (1741-1825); mezzotint by John Raphael Smith (1751-1812)

  • Witches & Wicked Bodies, an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, has just opened. Quote: “Witches and Wicked Bodies will be an investigation of extremes, exploring the highly exaggerated ways in which witches have been represented, from hideous hags to beautiful seductresses.” Highlights of the show can be found, here. Wish I could go! 
  • A warrant for the arrest of Satanist who did a graveside ritual to turn Fred Phelp’s mother gay in the afterlife has been issued. Quote: “Greaves said nine satanic church members from New York and other states descended on Mississippi for the ceremony.  He insists that no physical damage was done. ‘Desecration, by all the legal definitions I’ve read, usually involves digging up the grave,’ he said. ‘But we left it as we found it.’ The charges have sparked a huge amount of interest in the Satanic Temple. ‘The news of the gravesite ceremony was very slow to get out at first,’ he said. ‘But now it’s really gaining momentum. They’re threatening to arrest me. What it has done is rally support behind us. It keeps snowballing.'”
  • There should be Humanist chaplains because Wiccans! Quote: “Fleming’s rationale was that ‘there is no way that an atheist chaplain or atheist whatever can minister to the spiritual needs of a Christian or a Muslim, or a Jew, for that matter.’ I’d like to ask Fleming whether an atheist chaplain would be less preferable than a Wiccan (i.e. pagan) chaplain, inasmuch as Wicca is recognized as a religion by the military. In fact, Wicca has to be so recognized, under the Free Exercise Clause of the of the Constitution. It’s because Americans are guaranteed the right to practice their faith — and serving in the military makes that more difficult — that the hiring of military chaplains does not represent a violation of the Establishment Clause.” It’s always weird when your faith is used as prop in someone else’s argument, don’t you think? 
  • Stop trying to curse the IRS, I’m sure they’ve got whole teams of magicians working around the clock to counter-act the constant spiritual bombardment aimed at them. Plus, you no doubt risk getting audited. Quote: “Internal Revenue Service agents found an unwelcome surprise — and a possible witchcraft curse — on Friday when unknown individuals left a trio of charred, headless chickens outside the agency’s McAllen offices.” 
  • A Catholic rants against flameless candles, and no doubt echoes the sympathies of many Pagans. Quote: “But in the holy place, the flameless candle preaches a gospel of irrelevance. The simple flipping of the switch extinguishes the profound semiotic value of the votive candle. The flameless candle says that there is nothing significant in a flame’s dance of ascent, or in wax itself produced by the labor of bees and utterly exhausted by the peaceful but consuming flame.”

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

In the past decade I’ve noticed a rapid increase in the number of modern Pagans who have taken initiations in African diasporic religions like Santeria, Vodou, and Palo Mayombe. Likewise, a growing number of elders and teachers in those traditions have started to attend Pagan events like PantheaCon in San Jose, California. I’ve long been interested in the shared struggles our faiths face, and find the increasing interactions a fascinating and under-studied phenomenon. What will this growing trend mean both for modern Pagan religions and for the African diasporic faiths?

To address some of these questions I’ve interviewed Stacey Lawless (Ngueyo Ndumba Kunayanda), who lives in the Southeastern United States where she is currently reinventing herself. A Pagan for most of her life, she is also an aborisha in Santería and an engueyo in Palo Mayombe. She writes, draws, paints, and has recently started a blog. Stacey is in the process of finishing a Master’s degree in American History and is considering a move to the West Coast. In addition, she wil be starting a monthly column here at The Wild Hunt about her journey into Palo Mayombe.

Let’s start with your religious background, how did you come to modern Paganism, and was there anything from that time that presaged your interest in Palo?

Oh hell. I kind of hate talking about my background in Paganism, because I essentially spent two decades trying to figure out what I was doing. I wish I’d been deeply rooted in something cool and become super-competent in life and magic, but nope. I came to it in high school through a love of nature, plus a love of folklore and the occult, but mostly I read a lot of books and made art on Pagan themes. I did dabble in a few traditions, especially Asatru, but nothing ever clicked for me. I was so hungry for something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was for way too many years.

Asatru did, in a way, foreshadow Palo for me. Something about the runes and the lesser spirits – the disir and huldre, especially – were close enough to whatever it was I was searching for that I kept trying to convince myself I was on the right track, even when I didn’t actually practice the religion any more. I probably drove all my Heathen friends nuts over the last few years as I just couldn’t quite let go . . .

Renee Stout - Eyes of Legba (monoprint) 2002

Renee Stout – Eyes of Legba (monoprint) 2002

What started you on your path to Palo? Was it a gradual process? Did it emerge from a dissatisfaction with what modern Pagan religions had to offer you?

Art started me on this path. I walked into an exhibition called “Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads,” which was a series of works by Renee Stout about Robert Johnson and hoodoo, and it blew my mind. I’m still a huge fan of her art, and it’s had a lot of influence on mine. From there I got interested in African, African-American, and Caribbean arts, especially pieces made for religious use. I read about Haitian Vodou and Santería (or as many of us call it, Ocha), and for a while in the ‘90s I thought I wanted to go into Vodou. But I had no idea how to find a house (and was nervous about it anyway) so I let the idea go. (I confess I did try mixing it with Wicca, but that felt like an insipid way to approach the lwa, so I stopped.)

Mostly, though, I dug in my heels and went into heavy denial of the fact that there was a current of African-influenced something-or-other that tugged at me. I wanted to be Pagan, I wanted to learn the Old Ways of Europe, and I had no earthly idea how I might actually enter one of the Afro-Caribbean religions – not that I tried hard to find out. I just flirted with the idea and kept telling myself that it wasn’t really for me.

In the middle of my Heathen years, I met the man who became my partner, who at the time was a recently-made aborisha (someone with the lower-level Ocha initiations, but not a priest), and we started talking because I recognized the elekes he was wearing. (As a friend of mine put it, “Aw honey, now they’ve sent you a boy.”) We started dating, I joined his Ocha community and became an aborisha myself, and the Orishas began opening doors for me. A year ago, Eleggúa told me in divination that I needed Palo.

And I still dug in my heels and resisted. I did try to join a friend’s munanso (Palo community), but the plans we made for my initiation fell apart dramatically, and I seized the chance to proclaim that maybe it was all a mistake and I didn’t really need Palo. (I can’t recommend this approach to Orisha religion, by the way. They give you advice for a reason.) Luckily, I’d met my Tata-to-be online shortly after that mess, and luckily, he’s a fairly patient man. I finally got over myself and made rayamiento, Palo initiation, in November.

(And, of course, Palo turned out to be the thing I had been searching for all those years. I don’t think anyone who knows me was the slightest bit surprised.)

Stacey Lawless

Stacey Lawless

Is it easy for you to balance your now-dual religious identity? Do you feel like both a Pagan and a student/initiate of Palo? Does one identity dominate?

This is a tricky question to answer. I’ve felt like a Pagan for my entire adult life, despite never finding a home in any Pagan tradition. I thought that Palo would put an end to that, but quite the contrary. I’ve been gaining clarity on what Paganism might mean to me, and some doors have recently opened onto the community that I would never in a million years have expected. I don’t know what the future has in store, but it seems that I’m not done with Paganism yet.

My perspective on it has changed, though. I no longer see Paganism (or Palo or Ocha, for that matter) in terms of beliefs, cosmologies, or ritual forms. I see them in terms of serving gods and spirits in the ways in which they want to be served. So it’s really not a matter of balancing identities or religions; it’s more about maintaining relationships.

I do have a couple of spirit allies from my Pagan past, and the way my relationship with them has changed since the rayamiento is fascinating. I had such a heady, intellectual approach to them before, like I was always half-consciously doing comparative religion around their characteristics. Now they’re beings I know and spend time with.

There seems to be a growing interest in religions like Santeria, Vodou, and Palo among modern Pagans, having lived this process, what do you think drives it? Is there a yearning for authenticity there?

That’s a tough one. I know a number of people who came to Santería from Paganism; some shed their Paganism, others still practice a Pagan religion alongside Ocha, but all of them felt a spiritual calling to Ocha. On the other hand, from what I’ve seen online, there are clearly Pagans out there who are just cherry-picking what they like from the Afro-Caribbean religions and inserting it (sometimes with hilarious results) into their own practices. Neither approach seems to have a lot to do with a hunger for authenticity.

I don’t know. People have always been drawn to these religions for many reasons – the lure of power, a desire for healing, academic interest, involvement with the community, following a significant other or parent in, or even just love for the religions. Maybe some Pagans feel like they need something “realer” than what they’ve got, but I hope for Paganism’s sake that that’s not the only attraction.

What do you think your future with Palo will be like? What do you envision for yourself as you continue to assume the identity of a Palo initiate?

I hope I learn what I need to learn well, and hope I become a good healer. Almost everything in my life is undergoing change right now, so I’m just trying to navigate by what I hope for and let the journey carry me forward.

I think it was Anne Lamott who said, “If you want to give God a laugh, tell Her your plans.”

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

The Lia Fáil - Hill of Tara, Ireland.

The Lia Fáil - Hill of Tara, Ireland.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

For several years I’ve been asking the question of what do we do when the men and women accused of “sorcery” and “witchcraft” are no longer “over there” in Africa or the Middle East, and are instead at our doorsteps.

“If this trend isn’t seriously addressed soon, we may find this madness turning its eye towards “safe” occultists and Pagans in places like America, the UK, Australia, Brazil, and Canada.”

Now, with the UK still reeling over the murder of Kristy Bamu, who died while being tortured under the auspices of an “exorcism” at his sister’s home, and British police being trained to spot cases of sorcery among immigrant communities, some Christian writers have seized on a largely constructed controversy over religious education in Cornwall to cynically launch attacks on modern Paganism. First out of the gate was  Catholic Telegraph columnist Christina Odone, whose anti-Pagan screed I recently highlighted on this blog.

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

To Odone’s credit, she doesn’t explicitly conflate the recent sorcery and exorcism-related deaths and attacks with modern Paganism, though she does bemoan liberals “who spy covert imperialism or racism in every moral judgment.” It took Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby’s insulting and sloppy article to do that. Interweaving Odone’s opinion piece with recent stories on witch-hunting and killings in the developing world, Kerby joins the imaginary dots.

“In 2005, Sita Kisanga was found guilty of torturing an eight-year-old in London, believing the girl to have kindoki. She told the court that, “Kindoki is something you have to be scared of because in our culture kindoki can kill and destroy your life completely.” But officials in Cornwall, England, say there’s nothing to fear. […] It seems that the politically correct Cornwall Council regards Christianity as no better than any other superstition.”

Beliefnet’s sole Pagan blogger, Gus diZerega, has posted his own response to Kerby’s piece, hinting that his time at the religion portal may be coming to an end soon if nothing is done. But even if Kerby does ultimately walk back his statements, the connection has been made, and Catholic columnist Christopher Howse has decided to use it to hammer on Cornwall’s curriculum.

Christopher Howse at Glastonbury.

Christopher Howse at Glastonbury.

“So it seems there are now two kinds of witchcraft: the bad kind that black people believe in, and the kind that should be celebrated because it is believed in by Cornish people.”

Howse seems to suggest that there should be no distinction, that all witchcraft is bad. However, he undermines this somewhat by shifting to a “Paganism and Wicca aren’t truly ancient so they shouldn’t be taken seriously” argument.

“What we do know is that there is no continuity between pre-Christian religions in Britain and the various branches of modern paganism. […] It [Wicca] was no more an ancient religion than Jedi.”

You can’t have it both ways, really. Either all forms of witchcraft and sorcery are indistinguishable, or they aren’t. If you acknowledge that Wicca is something other than the  phenomenon that led to Kristy Bamu’s death, you create cracks in the cynical false dilemma you’ve created to ratchet up the fear and misinformation. This misinformation not only harms modern Pagan religions, but African Traditional Religions as well, and obscures what may be the true culprit. According to groups like AFRUCA, the spread of anti-witchcraft and sorcery violence in the UK is centered in Pentecostal Churches, not indigenous, revived, or reconstructed pre-Christian belief systems.

Blood-spattered bathroom tiles at Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi's flat.

Blood-spattered bathroom tiles at Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi's flat.

“We were concerned about this before this trial of Kristy Bamu,” said Debbie Ariyo, executive director of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca), who added that a boom in pentecostal churches was leading to more children being accused of witchcraft. “This is not a problem with all pastors or all churches, but the branding of children as witches is not abating. It is a growing problem. There are so many children suffering in silence.”

You see, what these concerned Catholics don’t want you to know is that this wave of violence is partially the fault of missionaries who inserted Christian triumphalism and a spiritual warfare dynamic into traditional beliefs about malefic magic. This created deadly consequences the missionaries could not (or would not) understand.

Missionaries have commonly responded [to witchcraft accusations] in two ways, said [Robert] Priest [professor of missions and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School]. The power of witches to harm others is dismissed as superstition, but this seldom persuades local Christians to abandon the concept; or the reality of witchcraft is endorsed by missionaries not wanting to be “post-Enlightenment rationalists” with a non-biblical skepticism of spiritual warfare.

The result is that traditional witch ideas are fused with Christian theology, which obscures the social consequences: Accused witches are often destitute or outcast, and thus socially defenseless. Instead of seeing old women or children as scapegoats, said Priest, Christian leaders suggest that witchcraft participates in genuine spiritual evil and that the accusations are reasonable. “The church is providing the cognitive underpinnings for the past system in the contemporary world.”

Nothing seems to be the fault of Christianity, of course. Even though there are several high-profile Christian witch-hunters who make a name for themselves by casting out demons, and receive support from Western churches. Spiritual warfare is waged, perverting indigenous beliefs in the process, but the response isn’t to crack down on Christian churches, the response is to further demonize non-Christian traditions.

Writers like Kerby and Howse aren’t stupid, they know their assertions will have reverberations beyond the page or computer screen. But will they be willing to take responsibility if their words spark a new moral panic? One that engulfs anyone who is suspected of practicing “witchcraft?” Somehow I don’t think they’ll have the courage or stomach for it, and will instead find someone (or something) to scapegoat. Anyone but themselves.

The moment when “witch-hunts” over there come home to roost on our doorsteps is now. How Pagans react will be very important in how this issue plays out. We must resist at all costs the urge to fall into Howse’s trap and create a “two kinds of witchcraft” split on ethnic lines, and instead build a response that holds fear-mongering churches and writers responsible while creating new coalitions between Pagans and practitioners of African diasporic and traditional faiths. We must not let moral panics break out against adherents of Santeria, Palo, Vodou, or smaller groups, while we try to pretend there’s no connections or overlap between these traditions and modern Pagan faiths. The response to fear and growing hysteria is not to bury our heads, or isolate ourselves, but to show that we won’t sit quietly in the corner while our spiritual cousins are demonized, hoping they won’t turn their attention to us.

Among Pagans, the rallying cry used to be “Never Again the Burning Times,” calling to a distant, sometimes romanticized, past. Perhaps instead we should say “Never Again the Panics,” and use our very real experiences with the Satanic Panics of the 1980s and 90s as an instructional on how to fight these new attempts to “other” belief systems and groups most people don’t understand. The answer to exorcism-related violence and death isn’t to find a single scapegoat, but to instead ensure that education and enforcement are allowed to spread.

The Miami New Times reports this week that Santero Carlos Valdes is pushing to have a violent stalking case prosecuted as a hate crime, which, if successful, would make it the first official hate crime charge involving anti-Santeria sentiments.


Santero Carlos Valdes performing a ceremony at his home.

Prosecutors contend [Kellyd] Rodriguez has terrorized Valdes’s family for four years. It began with anti-Santería rants on the phone, Valdes says, and escalated into death threats, rock-throwing, drive-by shootings, and even heart-stopping phone calls to his young daughters’ schools. […] The oriate is also pushing prosecutors to charge Rodriguez with the first hate crime connected to Santería. […] “I’ve had crucifixes thrown through my windows and a woman try to burn my church down,” says Ernesto Pichardo, the Hialeah santero who took the benchmark case [Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah] to Washington, D.C., in 1993. “So many people in Miami still don’t realize that a santero in his home has the exact same legal rights as a Catholic priest in his church or a Jewish rabbi in his synagogue.”

While this would be the first “official” case of a hate crime against Santeria being prosecuted, the circumstances are hardly unique. Anti-Santeria sentiments and  actions have been well-documented in the past, including harassment by local law enforcement and politicians.

“In 2006, for instance, three worshippers in West Dade were arrested during a sacrifice; charges were eventually dropped. Months later, a Miami-Dade firefighter was booked when a neighbor called 911 about a goat sacrifice. He too was exonerated. In January 2007, Valdes himself was detained during an animal sacrifice. That’s why he originally went on the radio — to talk about the need to better educate police about the religion. Seven month later, in August, Coral Gables Police swarmed a house on Casilla Street, disrupting a Santería service with their guns drawn. Worshippers were detained until officers realized no crime had been committed, but defiant Gables Mayor Don Slesnick vowed to stop all animal sacrifices in the City Beautiful and refused to apologize.”

I have extensively covered the harassment, demonization, and libel against Santeria and other syncretic Afro-Caribbean religions in the United States for some time. Any instance of dead animal parts being found, almost anywhere, results in a knee-jerk invocation of “Santeria,” despite the fact that these assertions are often debunked by various experts, including the ASPCA. It’s unsurprising that some of the old “occult experts” have added Santeria to their resumes when they now talk to police and local communities, these last few years there seems to have been an increasingly ugly dimension to some Santeria stories that point towards anti-immigration hostility, and have even led to what some have called racial profiling.

If anti-Santeria harassment and violence starts to fall under the rubric of religious “hate crimes” it could create a change in how adherents are treated by law enforcement and the media. Once Santeros and Santeras are seen as human beings, and not villainous caricatures, it changes the dynamic. They are no longer the “other,” but our neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Modern Pagans today have been building increasing ties with syncretic African traditions like Santeria and Vodou, with many seeking initiations and training. They are part of our extended family, and we should be concerned with how our “cousins” are being treated. The demonization and harassment of Santeria is but a hair’s breadth from the treatment modern Pagans have received in the past, and in some instances, still receive. Even if Carlos Valdes isn’t successful in his quest to have this case prosecuted as a hate crime, it should still be seen a call towards a new activist spirit regarding how minority religions are treated and portrayed.

Back in April I mentioned the case of Roberto Casillas-Corrales, a Santero living in Utah. A local narcotics strike force raided his home looking for illegal drugs. They didn’t find any, so instead they arrested him for possessing two human skulls.

“Roberto Casillas-Corrales, 53, is facing two counts of third-degree felony desecration of a human body for the two human skulls found on his property, according to a court official. Clearfield police and Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force officers served a search warrant at the man’s home as part of a drug investigation Sunday. No drugs were found. The man told police he used the skulls and animal parts for religious purposes. He said he practices Santeria, a Caribbean religious tradition.”

Now it should be noted that it isn’t illegal to own a human skull, even two human skulls. But when you go to all the trouble of doing a drug raid, and don’t find any drugs, it must be hard to come back empty-handed. Now it seems that prosecutors are walking back on those charges, citing some “further investigation” they need to do.

Prosecutors have dropped the case against a Santería clergyman accused of keeping two human skulls in a shed behind his Clearfield home, saying they want to further investigate the case’s constitutional issues. […] In documents filed last week in 2nd District Court, prosecutors asked Judge David Connors to dismiss the case because “due to the constitutional issues further investigation is needed.” “From the start there was a freedom of religion issue,” said Deputy Davis County Attorney Kathi Sjoberg. “Then there’s some question as to whether or not the process that he went through [in obtaining the skulls] was unlawful.”

Now, the judge dropped the charges without prejudice, so they could charge him again, but you’d think the prosecutor’s office could have found proof they were illegally obtained in three months. As for Casillas-Corrales, he claims he bought the skulls in/from Cuba for 3,500 dollars.

The case raises a lot of different questions. Do law enforcement have any solid evidence that Casillas-Corrales is involved with illegal drugs, or was this a bit of drug-war over-reach? If they were involved in a drug raid, and didn’t find drugs, why did they arrest him for possessing human skulls? Is this due to “occult experts” who like to emphasize ties between Afro-Caribbean religions and the drug trade? Local media reported that Casillas-Corrales was, by all accounts, “somebody who invites people in for celebrations and aids those in need,” so why didn’t anyone dig into the possibility that he was an innocent man practicing a religion that may seem strange and alien to those not exposed to it?

It may be that Roberto Casillas-Corrales is guilty of something. Drugs, improper handling of animals or human remains, or even an immigration issue (he’s not a U.S. citizen), but so far no charges stand against him. In the eyes of the law he’s an innocent man until proven otherwise. His life has been exposed in a way he most likely would not have chosen, and this will have deep ramifications to other practitioners of Santeria, Palo, and related faiths, who will now be even less likely to trust law enforcement (not to mention the press, or at least the mainstream press). I think my recent interview with Morgan Page Iyawo Odofemi fairly sums up the general state of things.

Practitioners of Lukumi, along with most other Afro-Diasporic Religions, have faced an incredible amount of persecution – including being murdered and having our religious altars desecrated. This ongoing oppression, combined with class issues, race issues, immigration status, and language barriers creates a climate where many elders (who are generally people of colour, lower-income, Spanish-speaking, etc.) do not feel comfortable speaking about the religion out of a very real fear of persecution. There are also some priests who are given taboos against being public about their religious beliefs. I don’t think that our lack of public spokespeople necessarily hurts practitioners. I think racism, classism, and xenophobia hurt practitioners. Secrecy is what helped our ancestors to survive and thrive. Ashe to those who want to take on the burden of being public, but I don’t think it’s something we necessarily “need.”

I think the press needs to take a cue from prosecutors and have a greater emphasis on the “constitutional issues” that arise in interactions with Afro-Diasporic Religions instead of going for the sensationalist stenography that seems to sometimes pass for journalism. These faiths are only growing in the United States, and the more we alienate them, the more secretive and hostile to outsiders they will become. If we want to ensure that justice and fairness happen, we can’t allow the tiny amount of outreach that’s happened in the last twenty years to be undone.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

I’ve reported on this again and again; a dead animal (or animal part) turns up and local officials cry “Santeria”. This is despite the fact that academics, experts, and even officials within the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals say that this usually isn’t the case.

“According to experts, like local anthropologist and folklorist Dr. Eoghan Ballard, and Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of anti-cruelty services for the American SPCA, sacrificial remains found in parks, especially those adorned with talismans like candles or pennies, are most often the work of religious novices, teens or satanic dabblers.”

So I wasn’t particularly surprised  to see this article from The Journal News in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley about animal heads turning up in a local park.

While no direct link between the two macabre discoveries has been made, investigators said the incidents were the latest in the Lower Hudson Valley linked to ritualistic practices, such as Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion that often uses animals for ceremonial sacrifices. “Something like this, from what we’ve seen, is pretty close to Santeria,” said Kenneth Ross, the law enforcement chief for the Westchester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is investigating the New Rochelle incidents. “What we’re finding is the ritual here looks like it has to do with the blood or sacrifice to a god,” he said.

The statements by the local SPCA head aren’t that unusual, we’ve seen them before from various law enforcement and animal welfare officers. Nor is the article from The Journal News all that bad, it even goes to the trouble of contacting Miguel De La Torre, a theology professor and all-around go-to guy for debunking Santeria scares. What stood out for me, and made me want to write about it, was this secondary quote from Kenneth Ross of the WSPCA.

“I think what happens is you have different cultures coming into the United States, and when the cultures come in they bring their traditions and they bring whatever they practice,” said Ross, the SPCA police chief. “If you look back in the ’70s … Satanism was the big thing and everybody was dabbling in Satanism. I’m sure it happens and that’s how different sects are created within Santeria,” Ross said. “But I don’t know if it’s the dabblers or is it just the influx of different nationalities that bring their own traditions?” the SPCA police chief added.

Everyone was dabbling in Satanism? Now folks are dabbling in Santeria and creating “different sects”? Or maybe it’s the “influx of different nationalities”? This sort of open conjecture is troubling. First off, I’m concerned when law enforcement agents of any nature start talking about Satanism. For instance, the case of a Humane Society Police Officer, and member of the Lycoming County SPCA, who intimidated a local Satanist and told him that practitioners of his religion sacrifice animals. Add in the not-too-distant “training” many officials received concerning “Satanic crime”, and you end up with officials who may hold dangerous preconceived notions about what’s going on in someone’s house if they are “Satanic”. Secondly, for the last few years there’s been an increasingly ugly dimension to some Santeria stories that point towards anti-immigration hostility, and have even led to what some have called racial profiling.

“Capt. Richard Conklin of the Stamford Detective Bureau said Wednesday that police are targeting people of African, Central American, Haitian, Cuban or Caribbean decent who practice satanic rituals as potential suspects in the grave robbing. “We’re starting to look at this as a ritualistic-type incident,” said Conklin … Conklin said evidence recovered at the grave site and in New Jersey indicate the body was taken for ritualistic reasons. For fear of compromising the investigation, he would not go into specifics …”

In many of these cases I’ve covered the terms “Satanic” and “Santeria” are used interchangeably by journalists and law enforcement officials.  Though both camps are quick to cover their rears with a quick statement that it could just be “vandals”, in case it turns out to be, you know, vandals.

“Still, police note that graffiti and other vandalism — and even more graphic discoveries such as those in New Rochelle this month — could always have another explanation: They could just be the work of vandals.

But how many casual readers are paying attention to the small disclaimer? How much fear and animus towards innocent practitioners of Santeria, and other African diasporic faiths, is being generated by this stream of “dead animal” stories? Why do we almost never see the follow-up stories where it turns out to not be Santeria? I keep insisting we have to on the lookout for the development of new moral panics in our society, are we seeing a “Santeria Panic” in the works? Fueled by sensationalism, ignorance, fear, and increasingly desperate occult “experts” grasping to the last straws of their relevance? Whether a moral panic ensues or not, what is clear is that journalists and law enforcement/animal control don’t seem to care if they all but blame Santeria and turn out to be wrong later.

Is it Santeria?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 22, 2010 — 20 Comments

Once again, it’s time to play that game beloved by journalists, animal control officers, and law enforcement officials: Is it Santeria? That’s right, we present some suspicious evidence and allow you to decide if it was an act perpetrated by that oft-misunderstood Afro-Caribbean syncretic faith, or if it was simply some disturbed teenagers playing with dead animals. Our first case comes from Miami, home to many Santeros and Santeras, where a trail of headless animals was found in a local neighborhood.

“About a dozen goats, cats and different types of birds were laid out on nearly two blocks between 16th Terrace and 15th Terrace on 34th Avenue in Miami, leaving residents scared at what might be next as Halloween approaches … Miami Police believe the dead animals might have been part of a religious ritual like a Santeria, but those don’t usually involve cats. There was also a “very large” animal that no one could identify, residents said.”

Is it Santeria? There’s a clue right there in the paragraph! Did you catch it?  But those don’t usually involve cats”, you see, adherents to Santeria usually cook and eat the animals they sacrifice, and it would be highly uncharacteristic of them to sacrifice dogs, cats, or other household pets. Even more uncharacteristic of authentic Santeria is the following fact in the report: “it seemed like the animals had been dead for some time.” Santeros and Santeras usually don’t hold on to piles of moldering animal corpses and then spread them around local neighborhoods. So if you guessed “probably not Santeria” then you’re right!

Our next case is a tough one! Because it doesn’t involve animals at all, it involves human hearts!

The worker was in an isolated part of the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery on Oct. 12 when he spotted the tops of two jars sticking out of the ground and knelt down to take a closer look, said Colma police Cmdr. Jon Read. He pulled one of the jars from the dirt, saw what was in it, and then he called Colma police. Police opened up one jar and found a human heart with the photo of a young man and woman pinned to it. Nearby there was a second jar with the same contents, but bearing a photo of a different young man and woman. Officers also found partially burned cigars and candles, Read said. The San Mateo County coroner’s preliminary investigation shows the hearts contain embalming fluid and likely come from dead bodies … “The investigation appears to lean toward some kind of ritual involving Santeria,” Read said. Santeria is an Afro-Caribbean religion that melds Catholicism with traditional African religious beliefs.

So we have what is obviously a ritual act, but human hearts? It sounds like whomever did it had access to a funeral home or other business that prepares dead bodies. How about we turn to our panel of expert judges to help out the audience?

Two experts on the religion say otherwise. They said it is unlikely that the hearts were buried by people practicing Santeria, because the faith does not call for human organs to be used in rituals. “I would be totally shocked if it was related to Santeria or Voodoo,” said Miguel De La Torre, a professor at Iliff Divinity School in Denver. “If it is connected to Santeria it would be by people who don’t know what they are doing.” Police say the investigation is ongoing, and they haven’t ruled out the whole thing could just be a prank.

So it doesn’t look like it’s likely to be Santeria, even the Santeria-happy police say it could be a prank, sorry to those of you who were sure they had sure thing!  That’s all we have time for this week, and remember, just because you find a dead animal or a strange looking ritualistic item, it doesn’t mean that you’ve found the handiwork of a Santeria practitioner.

Just as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says:

“According to experts, like local anthropologist and folklorist Dr. Eoghan Ballard, and Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of anti-cruelty services for the American SPCA, sacrificial remains found in parks, especially those adorned with talismans like candles or pennies, are most often the work of religious novices, teens or satanic dabblers.”

So don’t confuse a dabbler with a Santero, and we’ll join you next time for Is It Santeria!