TWH – November can be considered a month of remembrance and reflection as we think of those who have crossed the Veil. It ends on the eve of World AIDS Day, commemorating the first of the two major pandemics of the last 40 years.
For people with access to health care, people with HIV can now live a relatively normal life span. For people without access to healthcare, HIV infection can still be lethal. It was also the case during the early days of the pandemic. Mass death impacts spiritual practice.
Recently, the Wild Hunt spoke with a Witch and a Yoruba practitioner about HIV, COVID-19, and their spiritual practices.
Orion Foxwood founded Foxwood Temple and the House of Brigh Faery Seership Institute. He discussed how his spiritual practice has informed his view of pandemics.
“I’m a Faery Seer, Traditional Witch and Conjure man in Southern and Appalachian traditions. In all those teachings, movement or breath begets the ignition of life … the ‘breath of being,’ the ‘pneuma’ (Greek),’ruach’ (Hebrew), ‘Spiro'(Latin) – sacred words for that which begets, fuels, and fans the plasmatic fire of existence in the heavens and within … breath, the sacred Breath. The same directive sits at the spiritual heart of both HIV and COVID – we must care for each other one family.”
Foxwood described the early days of the epidemic within gay male communities:
During the AIDs crisis of the 80’s and 90’s, I watched nearly all of my friends and colleagues die from an invisible foe that targeted people like me. Until we knew how it spread, all of us felt like inevitable targets, marking time until it seized us.
With increased knowledge, it became clear that condom use would allow gay men to live a relatively whole life. That relatively whole life, however, came at a cost.
Foxwood described that cost, “Prevention meant a barrier, a loss of new freedom. Just as we started to grow as a self-identified community celebrating the joy of being out, gay, and not alone – we are told we must use a barrier, the condom .… We owned it – our responsibility to each other and ourselves.”
According to Foxwood, condom use meant an acceptance of mutual responsibility for protection.
“Only when we owned our risk, understood that we had power to protect ourselves, and made it normalized, did condom use become a ‘routine’ thing.”
Foxwood described an ever-present sense of dread in the days before treatment, “The looming shadowy specter was ever-present – there was no effective treatment, no benefit to testing, no reward for knowing. Testing was considered by many, a relief for the moment or a death sentence.”
Once protease inhibitors came on the scene, things changed drastically. He said, “miracles happened before your eyes …. people lived, hope arrived. [People found] an incentive to know and the specter faded. Neither death nor infection were destined – life was truly attainable but we had to be individually empowered and communally focused.”
People, regardless of risk group, who lived through that first pandemic, tend to see COVID-19 through its lens. Foxwood discussed how COVID-19 differs from HIV.
“[This new virus] spreads through breath and we all gotta breathe, right? No abstinence from breath and no identifying out on this one. Where HIV progressed slowly, COVID is fast … and the numbers are skyrocketing. So many deaths so quickly. This one is big, bad, and fast. It has carriers without symptoms. But what kept us alive and well, [and] could keep us alive again [would be to] make prevention a ‘WE’ thing …. I stay home to protect my breath. I wear a mask to protect others’ breath. Everyone’s fundamental requirement for life … air, breath has to be in our scope of care, our commitment to life”
Foxwood went on, ”I feel that the Pagan and magical community really rose to the challenge fast. Gatherings went online …. We know isolation. We know how to lay low, pull inward, and be silent to avoid harm, while being in the silent presences of stone, forest, and star …. Dig deep and anchor in your home. Then live considerately in the greater house too. Time and magic will roll the circle round to the right treatment and vaccine. It’s our virus for as long as it’s here. Its real, so embrace it as a harsh teacher. Denial isn’t an effective barrier against either virus. Loving action is a formidable wall protecting all. What once seemed like harsh wisdom for specific communities affected by HIV is now, in the Covid-19 world – a reality for all.”
Sangoma Oludoye follows the Yoruba tradition. Its priests and laypeople largely work with the Orishas. Oludoye described an Orisha as “a force of Nature.” The Orisha of the woods, plants, and what grows, Osain, provides herbal medicine. Oludoye described Oshun, the Orisha of rivers, as the Mother of Rivers on the earth. Oshun is also the Mother of Rivers in the human body. Secular people call those “rivers in the human body” blood vessels. Oludoye said that, in Yoruban tradition, “We are animists. We are people who believe” that everything has a spirit.
Oludoye described how someone from the Yoruba tradition might react to a positive HIV test. They might say ‘Oshun, you are the Mother of Rivers in my body now. If there’s some kind of foreign god damn thing in my blood that is going to kill me what do I need to do?’”
Oludoye’s brother died of HIV around the time that AZT (azidothymidine) was becoming available. In speaking about how people treated him, Oludoye’s anger barely stayed hidden.
“I was right there in the hospital. People wouldn’t touch my brother. They let him lay in his shit all night.”
Oludoye said of that time, “it was horrendous for people. At that point, you got AIDS. You got sick. You started dying. Your body started leaving.”
Oludoye noted the differences in current treatment, “I feel like the people who catch AIDS now or become HIV positive – it’s like the difference in a bicycle and a car.”
Priests of the Yoruba tradition learn astrology, botany, cleansing, and hygiene as well as herbal and natural medicine. They also learn how to work with the Orishas. Oludoye said that healing rituals focus on mental, physical, and spiritual health. People in the Yoruba tradition already place a spiritual value on hygiene. They are taking up wearing face masks. Oludoye said people in that tradition are “not real big huggers like in this America.” Generally, they tap on the shoulder. If they do not have that intimate relationship, they do the Wakanda salute.
The lack of growth of wisdom from HIV to COVID-19 disappointed Oludoye.
People are flying out here without a mask. They are having 7,000 people weddings and crowding up airports … as if we did not lose millions of people to AIDS. So yeah, that’s what sits in my heart. To be quite honest, it’s a reflection for me. If we learned anything from AIDS, it should feed our compassion.
As someone who lost family to AIDS, Oludoye said, “I would hope that the loss of that person grew compassion and empathy in the depths of our soul in a way that speaks to our codes of conduct moving through a pandemic.”