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 . . .
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.)
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.”