On the Care and Feeding of Spirits
In our first Deep Dive post, we started scratching the surface of Vodou’s philosophical underpinnings and the deep mysteries behind what we do; we jumped into the start of Colonial history for part 2, but today, we’re gonna get back into the philosophies behind How Things Work.
As we’ve mentioned so far, the African root philosophies that would birth Haitian Vodou in the cauldron of the New World shared the idea that all things are made of or contain a particular substance, or energy, that our limited language skills in English can only approximate as “Spirit”. This substance can enter into interactive relationships with other forms of energy, including human beings.
Now, before you jump out at me with a “But Houngan Matt, isn’t that too big of a jump to be believed? I mean, we’re getting into Xenu territory here….”, Id like to use a few examples from normal daily life around us to describe what I mean.
If you have a farm, a garden, or for you deep-city dwellers, maybe some houseplants, you’ll know that these are living beings; they probably dont run around much (I dont know your African Violet’s life) but in order to keep them alive, happy, and rewarding you with fruits, flowers, or simply better air quality, there are forms of vital energy you have to administer to them in order to keep them alive. They need water, sunlight (to varying degree), well-rotted organic material, fertilizers to give them nutrients… they need care, but they need care in the form of building-block energies that keep them alive and keep them growing.
This all makes sense, right? I know that somewhere out there I have a reader or two who self-identify as the Black Thumb of Death, but for most of us the concept of taking care of a houseplant isnt that alien. We can also understand that plants have varying and different life cycles than humans do; there are some that are only going to do their thing for a short time, but there are hosts of plants that we can take care of that, in a perfect or at least well-tended environment, last significantly longer than we do as individuals.
We may divide the plant and give pieces of it to grow for our friends, passing it around to a wider community; we may take care of plants left to us or taken in honor of departed loved ones (imagine someone taking pride in having moved their Grandmother’s favorite peonies to their own yard, taking care of them because of the association with her) or a several-generations-old Bonsai tree that has been raised, loved, trimmed, and carried for many years and many individuals. These plants can bridge times and generations of people.
We may also in some circumstances raise plants knowing that their main benefit will only come after our own passing on; in the Middle East, there is a common proverb that speaks to the idea of planting Date Palms… Noone plants Date Palm for themselves. These trees will only bear fruit for future generations, so the initial care and planting are an act one undertakes for the benefit of those who may or may not even remember the planter.
Now, a brief side-step into certain kinds of trees (which, of course, could be planted by a gardener and tended as per our above examples); Aspen trees are known to form HUGE ancient colonies over extended hundreds of years; beneath the soil, the root structure can spread for miles with new above ground growth appearing to be separate trees, but which are in fact simply additional above ground growths of the same spreading plant. Entire forests of Aspen can be the same plant, millions of tons of biomass, only appearing to be hundreds of individual trees. (look it up; there are several named Aspen “entities” that are known to cover hundreds of miles. Outside the real scope of this blog, but fascinating nonetheless and a worthwhile way to spend a few hours reading the ‘net).
OK, I hear you, I hear you… there ARE reasons why our local Vodou blog has been spending the last few minutes talking about plants, I promise; namely, one specific thing all of our vegetative examples have in common.
They all sustain themselves and grow through what they consume or what they are purposefully fed.
Now, for the Vodou perspective, this is once again where things can get Xenu-y to folks who havent been exposed to the logic behind it. Spirit/Energy, once again a breakdown of the real thought enforced by the limit of English as a language, can be fed, sustained, raised, divided, and grown to massive scale; just like our plants in the above examples, the inherent energy that exists in all things can follow very similar patterns. It also can share a common food.
When we speak of “Feeding” Spirit, generally what we are talking about is viewing the recipient of our attentions as a concentrated bubble, or Point, of Life energy. In our earlier post, The Soul and The Body, we spoke of one piece of the Human energetic field as the Gro Bon Ange, or the Big Good Angel; this component is the Life Energy of the Human, the animating spark of Divinity that lives in each and every living thing allowing it to move, grow, and otherwise experience Life as a being. Everything living has it’s own version of this same energy, and though we use the term Gro Bon Ange exclusively to speak about that of our fellow Humans, there is no sidestepping needed to look at the darling puppy curled up in my lap as I write and clearly see an animating spark. Believe me, that spark is there, and it can be seen even more clearly when this little monster is tearing around the house.
All living things share this vital force; feel free to call it Qi if you swing Taoist. Those philosopher-mages are definitely on the right track.
Thing is, Life Energy can be taken, it can be transferred, and it can be consumed in much the same way as the plants we spoke of before break down and consume the material of what was once itself alive, or in much the same way as you will enjoy the meats and/or vegetables on your plate once dinnertime rolls around. Life consumes Life, Spirit consumes Spirit. To us, those two clauses are really the same idea… that which contains energy needs energy to survive and to grow.
If you place your plant into, say, sand… maybe even into styrofoam peanuts, well… without adjusting the content of the water in, say, a hydroponic growth environment, the plant will wither and die as there would be no nutritive content for uptake through it’s roots (and I cant imagine not feeding my little puppy, so we’re just not going to go there). Without feeding on living energy, living energy dies.
Now, we can also clearly see a life cycle pattern emerge; living things begin as small as possible… a tree seed, a zygote, the combination of cells that will divide and build upon themselves as they consume, you guessed it, energy.
In Vodou terms, this explosive rate of growth and change as a new Being emerges, develops, and grows to maturity is a particularly Hot period of energetic expansion. Some Beings will always be expanding and growing, like our Aspen grove example above, but most living things reach a plateau period where the rapid growth of Hot youth is replaced by a stable maturity that can last a time; sometimes as long as the Being is sustained and fed it’s required needs at this point, it can last indefinitely, but in the case of most other Beings there is a natural Entropy, a fading brought on by advanced age as the Being progresses from stable maturity into a gradual decline. If no food source is forthcoming, the decline will be much faster and, while it may follow a very different pattern than that of slow age, it will come to the same end… Death. For most beings, this period of gradual degradation is one that requires fewer calories, less energy than the period of stable maturity, and considerably less than the initial growth spike of youth. This time is a cooler time, energetically, as the Heat of the being gradually fades. Witness the ancient glory of truly ancient trees; non-clonal specimens like Methuselah, a 5000 year old bristlecone pine in Yellowstone National Park… they live, but they no longer truly grow. Well beyond stable maturity, these Beings enjoy a low perpetual twilight as they continue to exist.
(Compare that to The Pando, a stunningly 80,000 year old Great Colony of over 40,000 individual quaking aspen trunks that covers a region of Fishlake National Forest in Utah, which shows no signs of cooling, entropy, or decline.)
Now, to go a step closer to Operating Thetan (Scientology pun again… forgive me; blame South Park), Vodou sees the stages of Hot/Expansive spiritual growth, Plateau/Maturity, and Quiescence/Cooling/Diminishment in a very long view. Let’s take a moment to create a historically-accurate but totally fictional example, and meet my imaginary friend Edenausegboye. Great guy. Dead a few thousand years now, but hey… for the sake of our example, let’s mentally venture back in time and see him when he was really at his best.
Before slavery, before colonial expansion; before even the blooming and spread of the Great Desert of Africa, the Sahara…. so we’re looking back approximately 4 to 5 thousand years. Nah, we dont need to be as precise about the date this time; two reasons… for one, we’re not in a chronological history post, and, for two…. Edenausegboye is imaginary.
Eh-deh-nah-oo-seh-BOH-yeh. In the Fon language of what’s now Benin, my buddy’s name means “A Man’s Good Deeds are Remembered”, which is perfect, because what we’re doing now is *precisely that*, remembering and examining his deeds. It’s hard for Americans to really understand Beninois naming conventions, so for sake of brevity let’s just call him by his nickname, Eden.
Now, Eden has a garden. (See what I did there? Ive been waiting on this one for a while, so take a moment to really groan… let it out. Good. Thanks.) One day, as he’s working out in the garden, digging out the fertile earth to lay in a new bed where his grain will grow, Eden finds an unusual stone in the soil and recognizes that there is something different about this rock; in his outstretched arms, it feels like it pulses a bit. It feels like it’s alive. He puts it to the side and continues working the soil, but his thoughts keep drawing him back to this unusual rock, and when he wakes from his daze, he sees that he isnt tilling, he’s just standing there staring at the stone. He can’t shake it; the stone wont let him.
Eden is no fool; he calls out to his wife, Omolara… her name means “Born at the Right Time”, and she was; for when she comes out to see Eden in the garden, he shows her the stone and instantly she feels it too. She tells him that, when she was a child in her mother’s village, she heard stories of natural powers that had hidden themselves in the ordinary world. Gifts of God they were to some people, but to others they could be dangerous… they did not fully understand the limits of people, nor did they understand the greed, anger, and malice of other people. In her home village, Omalara’s mother had been a priestess, and her daughter remembered.
Omolara knows that the stone was meant to be her husbands. If it had been meant to be hers, she would have found it; she also knows that her husband is going to need her wisdom and experience working with the Stone, as it contains a concentration of energy that’s going to need to learn how to interact with him.
First, she tells him to immediately fetch a gourd of water; the rules of hospitality and welcoming a guest extend to Beings that may not be in a Human body. Water will help them welcome the Stone; she guides his hand in pouring cool water onto it’s surface while prompting him to verbally welcome it and thank it for coming into his life. Eden rolls his eyes a little at being spoken too like a child, but he knows that hers is a wisdom he needs. Her thoughts have moved on to what to do next.
Second, Omolara tells him that in order to properly care for their new Stone, a share of their meals will need to be dedicated in its honor, but not the way he may assume at first. Energies like these need Life, she tells him, and the stone will take from their dinner what they do not consume themselves; it will work out, she tells him, but for now, he’ll need to bring the stone into their dwelling and give it a place by the door. She goes out to check on her birds, knowing that dinner tonight will involve a little something…. extra.
When she’s selected the right bird, she goes back in side to see how Eden is doing with his new friend. She explains to him that Spirit, like the one found in the stone, consumes Life Energy to grow, survive, and work; showing him the bird, she explains that the food she prepares for their dinner has a special component that can be shared with the Stone in a way that wont deprive Eden of any part of his dinner, but that just like the birds in the yard, the Spirit IN the Stone will learn to recognize the hand that feeds it. Handing him the bird, she teaches him words to say as a way of dedicating the acts he is about to undertake in honor of the Spirit in the Stone, and teaches him that the Life Energy of the bird can be given to the Stone as it’s food, leaving behind the physical parts that they themselves eat. The Stone will get the blood, and the Life Energy it contains, and they will have the meat as they always do. As the Stone eats, Eden can feel that he has entered into a respectful relationship with the Stone; he places a small amount of the cooked bird and grain beside the Stone as he and Omolara sit for dinner, and pours a bit more water to welcome the Stone’s presence into his home.
That night, Omolara pays close attention to her husband as he sleeps; she knows that dreams and night-visions are the primary ways these Beings speak, but in his sleep Eden remains still and smiling. His restful sleep a sign to her that things are right, Omalara allows herself to drift off.
Over time, Omolara teaches Eden many things her mother passed to her… other forms of energy that can be shared with the Stone, such as certain oils poured on to it, flowers gathered in it’s honor, time spent in meditation, and prayer to Deity said in the Stone’s honor that the Light of God may look favorably upon it. She knows that youthful Spirits that are just discovered have to learn how people work; she cautions her husband about making promises to such a young and Hot spirit, because she knows it will not be forgiving of human errors. She cautions him not to be greedy or angry if he ever asks the Stone for a bit of favor, as young and Hot Spirits can be demanding in their needs for attention and food, just as their baby daughter gets demanding when it is time for her to be fed. She reminds him that as blood carries the Life Energy the Spirit needs as food, he must never serve on days he is wounded or bleeding, lest the Spirit be too tempted by the blood it knows carries it’s needed sustenance. Things will take time, but Eden will learn.
Over the years, Eden and the Stone learn to work with one another; the Stone has given Eden it’s name, and revealed it’s spirit to be one of growing things, hard work, and dedication. Eden gives what he can of the things he has, establishing a pattern of Energy transfer that meets the Stone’s needs, and the Stone has learned that Eden is a patient and generous man full of kindness. A system has been mutually constructed between the two; Eden has taught the Spirit what he will and will not give, and the Spirit has taught Eden protocols and rituals he can use to gain a response from the Stone. Omolara watches Eden teach their daughter; she reminded Eden that by giving service to the Stone and welcoming it into their house, they opened up an arrangement that would last longer than they would…. just like the ancient trees, the Being in the Stone would continue to grow larger and with a longer lifespan than their short time on this Earth. Wisely, he teaches his daughter that her monthly blood, while neither unclean nor dangerous on its own, would tempt the spirit merely by being the fluid it eats Life Energy through, and that while she is on her courses, she should avoid active service to the Spirit.
Over the long years, their daughter learns the ways to call the Spirit, and passes the knowledge on to her children, who pass it to their children, and so on… with the long passage of time, instead of a single Human interacting with the Spirit, a growing community carries it forward and feeds it, increasing it’s power but also increasing it’s civility. Over time, the harsh edges and demands cool, and as the Spirit grows in stature it is no longer required of it’s people that they go to the Stone to serve it. It has given them symbols they can use, taught them ritual protocols and invocation language they can use, and it has risen in status to the position of a beloved family and clan Elder who’s wisdom helps keep the whole community moving forward.
More years pass… the clan that carried the spirit has grown, intermarried, spread; no longer confined to a single geographic area, subtle differences emerge between groups that serve the spirit. Some in wheat growing regions present it with offerings of bread; those in rice growing regions give what they grow. The communities practices differ, and the traditions that have built up slowly evolve into separate practices; some of the most ancient symbols remain constant, but in practical comparison, the different communities appear to be working with distinct yet related Powers that share a common root as the communities evolve and symbols are brought slowly in from other communities the Spirit’s followers interact with, intermarry with, war with… gradual changes seemingly pull the Spirit apart, or present as though different faces are shown to different communities depending on community need and the rites/invocations by which they ask the Spirit for assistance. In time, different Spirits are brought together into the clans, and groups of spirits are served together by their peoples.
In time, sweeping sands begin to grow and separate whole communities and nations as desert takes over once-fertile grasslands. As time progresses and communities lose touch with each other on either side of the Sahara, the traditions established in the deep past refine themselves, evolve, change, but still at core share the deepest roots of humans who found and learned to interact with local Hot points of energy. Systems were born and co-created, a mutual give and take was established, and as spirits taught humans how to feed an care for them in exchange for protections, favors, and wonder, Humans taught the spirits how to be civilized, how to behave, and as the spirits cooled with time and exposure to humanity, they grew in scope and number of people who would pray to and work with them.
Sometimes, on rare occasion, a community may die out or forget to pass on the techniques by which their spirits could be called and served; peoples fell to plagues, wars, or natural disasters, and none remained who remembered how the mutually beneficial relationships with the spirits functioned… in the absence of a community and a dearth of offerings, those spirits faded, cooling past the point of wakeful assistance, and gradually disappeared. Other times, spirits demanded too much when they were young and Hot; doing harm to those in relationship with them, or punishing the overly greedy with ever increasing demands. Spirits not cooled by kindly hearts such as Edens demanded ever harsher feedings, possibly even demanding loved ones as gifts of life energy instead of accepting cooler offerings. Some communities chose to forget those spirits, locking them out, and others maintain them in secret to this day.
Some are like summer flowers, growing fast and putting on a show before fading; some are like the most ancient trees, giving soft wisdom as they endure. Some are tended and hybridized into the most fanciful, colorful, and delicate flowers; others are tended for their usefulness, their thorns, their fruit. Others form incredibly vast networks of roots and connections, giving rise to many stalks and trunks that each appear different, but which all share the same hidden source. Some are weeded out of gardens when they show themselves to be poisonous or the tendency to vine and strangle others; some which are most dangerous are hidden away for the day they will be needed as vital medicine that can only be safely administered by those in the know. Some are still young, constantly emerging… but some beloved spirits still carried by the community stretch all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
Now, it comes as no surprise that Vodou is a sacrificing tradition; all of the interwoven web of African Disaporic Traditions that work with spirits feed their spirits life energy, and the form that most commonly takes is that of a community meal. As these traditional religions stretch back into pre-Supermarket times and communities, where people were and are responsible for killing dinner, it only stands to reason that the spirits are given the Life Energy and the community enjoys the physical food; Vodou is one of these community practices, and our spirits are fed Life Energy from animals as well as from other forms such as flowers, prayer, and the dedication of time spent in particular activities. These gifts of energy sustain the spirit, allow them to grow and expand, and give them the energy to perform the tasks we ask them to do for us.
The word Sacrifice is one that English makes a tad tricky; it’s very definition is “To Make Sacred”, but years of Hollywood and other sensationalist entertainments (and propagandas) have led to the word having a particular connotation that racists and bashers like to constantly browbeat the Vodou community with… to them, Sacrifice is wonton killing, cruelty, or the use of blood to fuel “spells”. You’ll see videos on youtube, facebook posts, holier-than-God attitudes and all sorts of drama sourced in racism but aimed at Sacrifice, especially from communities not connected to African traditions or people.
To Vodou, sacrifice is integral, and holy; especially in the modern age, to know that we are intimately responsible for the life energy we ourselves consume keeps us in touch with our food sources at a most intimate level. We see this as vital to our understanding, and a way to maintain deep respect for the lives that are taken that our own may continue. We try to make the act of taking life as painless and humane as is possible, knowing that the spirit of that animal is made of the same spirit we are, each a piece of God made manifest, and that to needlessly cause suffering or pain would be to needlessly insult that which gives us the bounty we so gratefully receive. Our spirits receive the sustanence just as we do, and together our community is carried forward so that our children may continue to carry what our ancestors carried for us.
The practice itself is reverential and beautiful; many of the steps involved source themselves in our fictional example’s idea of pieces of technology taught by the spirits themselves in order to bless or acheive particular results. The animal is bathed, perfumed, and wrapped in a scarf of a color keyed to the spirit or spirits receiving the gift of the Life Energy. The animal is given food and water, the consumption of which is taken to be approval or consent; they are blessed with holy water and the sign of the cross is drawn in cornmeal across their back. Finally, the life is taken as swiftly as possible to cause a minimum of pain or fear (as we’re firmly against needless torture and pain)(and typically the spirit receiving the gift is called into possession to do the final act themselves; there are ceremonial actions they perform that bless those assembled with a gift of Life Energy from the spirit as a part of the communion the animal represents). Afterwards, the meat is prepared and cooked, to be enjoyed by the community as a part of a communal feast.
The process is nothing scary, nothing creepy… well; for those who are immersed in Supermarket culture, for whom meat is a concept devoid of life that arrives on a styrofoam tray under plastic, the forced reminder that that form of food has a face can be hard to adjust to. To me, that forced reminder forces us to recognize the interconnectedness of all things and the web of give and take our world operates on; life consumes life, and while all things grow, for them to do so something else must end.
I have heard of environments that attempt to change the patterns and the sources of the Life Energy given; much like the cross drawn on the animals to bless and sanctify the process, these environments draw a cross of cornmeal on the necks/backs of unknowing participants, telling them they are receiving a “blessing” yet marking them as the source of life energy to be consumed by spirit. To me, this is a terrifying innovation; the people who go to celebrations do not need to be marked as food, as doing so only drains them of their own Life Energy (and to not tell them that they themselves are on a plate is the very depth of horror and abuse). This is not a blessing, no matter how it is couched; it is spiking a vein to slowly drain the participants in a way there is no way to benefit from.
We do not EVER give of our own Life Energy; in the many things Spirits learn, how not to drain life dry is not one of them. Giving of yourself would only sap your needed vitality and the consequences are dire. Fading luck, illness, accident, and death, and believe me… these are things you dont want to have to face. If you are untrained in humane sacrifice, give flowers, prepare foods, say prayer on your spirits’ behalf, partake in rituals led by trained and initiated clergy that you can benefit from, but never give of yourself and CERTAINLY never give of another human. That door only leads to Corruption.
This may be the longest post on this blog so far; it opens the door beautifully to our next History segment, which will start to talk about Slavery, Diaspora, and the Colonization of the Caribbean. For now, though, take a moment to sit with a tree if you can, and breathe. Just breathe. Feel the interconnectedness if you can, or meditate on how all things are filled with Spirit; some may speak to you, some may not, but see if you can feel it. Breathe. Smile.