Seeking Initiations

I’ll start with a hoodoo story.  About 10 years ago, I was in California and I went out to the Lucky Mojo shop to get a lodestone and some Black Arts oil. They were all out of the oil but, since I’d driven about 4 hours to make the visit, Cat Yronwode was kind enough to mix up a bottle of it while I waited.  It was very inspiring to actually watch her work.  While she mixed it up, I asked her for the recipe—not really expecting her to tell me, but aware that if you don’t ask the question, you’ll never get the answer.  She said, “If you want to know what I know, you have to do the research I did.”  Period.  That was exactly what I thought she’d say and I took no offense at the response.  Her point: in magic, as in anything else, you have to put your time in to actually get real skills.

I mention this because it applies to an even bigger issue.  I inveigh pretty loudly against gatekeeping in magic and, I think, for good reason.  I believe we should honor what makes us all unique but we should also accept that we are one and that love, exchange, and understanding crosses all boundaries.  

With that in mind, I want you to teach me what you know and maybe I have something to offer you as well.  When we share with each other, we both grow stronger.  Everything beautiful is the product of two other different things coming together.  Think about that.

But you can’t buy your way into a spiritual system, even if you have the best intentions.  That includes hoodoo, Wicca, or even very open practices like spiritual yoga or Reiki.  Let me repeat that: you cannot buy your way into these things.  When Cat said that if I wanted to know what she knew, I had to pay my dues, this was the lesson.

We’re seeing a lot of suburban Caucasian North Americans seeking initiations into African American, Afro-Caribbean, South American, and Mexican magical-religious systems—not because they’re necessarily spiritually called to do so, but because it’s trendy and seems edgier to them than their existing Christian, neopagan, or Indo-European reconstructionist traditions.  

And because the occult merchandising industry aims primarily at those with the most disposable income to spend on books, ritual tools, events, etc., we’re also seeing the commodification of of the ATRs the same way witchcraft got commodified from the 1960s to the present.

But the ATRs are primarily oral traditions and naturally resist this kind of economic colonialism.  I understand this and it saddens me that there can’t be more cultural exchange taking place beyond tone-deaf non-magical academic anthropology on one end and pseudo-spiritual opportunism on the other.  But I keep in mind Cat’s lesson and I have to stress: if you want to be initiated into a tradition that is not culturally your own, you have to assimilate to the host culture first if you want the initiation to be real.

You have to pay your dues.  Since these systems are so closely linked to their cultures (i.e. there isn’t much distance between cultural identity and spirituality), you can’t just walk in, pay for an initiation, and then claim that as an identity.  It’s disrespectful and pointless, even if you don’t realize it at the time.  Just remember: culture and conjure go together.

This may seem ironic coming from a white conjure worker.  But I actually have paid my dues, many times over and have nothing to prove.  Also, hoodoo as a practice doesn’t contain formal initiations like some of these other systems.  So it’s kind of unique in that the dues-paying is a lot more implicit and informal (but still there).  I have been initiated into other forms of magical-religious practice, but those forms were closer to my ethnic origins and weren’t therefore a big leap.  

My point here is actually simple and not so original, but I think I need to make it because I spend a lot of time arguing in the other direction (that we should come together and share what and who we are across boundaries).  I don’t like the term “cultural appropriation” being used as a racial gatekeeping term (people with a certain skin color can’t learn or shouldn’t be accepted).  At the same time, when you approach someone’s house and ask to live inside, be ready to accept their way of life and understand their culture / language instead of trying to buy your way in.

It is my sincere wish that all cultural identities be honored, respected, and preserved.  I also hope that this will never stand in the way of universal brotherhood, love, and growth.

The Ordeal of Synthesis in Magical Systems

The greatest obstacle to growth is fear.  This is easy to accept in the abstract, less so in one’s personal life.  But as a way to briefly discuss how magical practices change in the historical macrocosm as well as every person’s microcosm, I need to make fear and growth stand beside each other.  I want to suggest how the former tries to obstruct the latter for reasons that have nothing to do with magic as a practice or a way of life and everything to do with cultural assumptions and ignorance.

In order to do this, I need to talk about something called “paradigm shift” and how it seems to work relative to  branding, trendiness, lingering religious assumptions, and spiritual uncertainty in magical thought.  This sounds complex on the surface, but it actually comes down to a few simple concepts that can be hard to spot at first.  However, like a formula plot in a Hollywood movie, once you recognize the pattern, you will always see it.  This isn’t very romantic or exciting, but it’s useful if we want to be better magicians and witches.

“Paradigm shift” is a term created by science historian, Thomas Kuhn, whose Structure of Scientific Revolutions examines the way “an individual or society’s view of how things work” changes.  It’s an excellent book / concept and very useful to every field of knowledge because it looks at how trends and assumptions affect the way people form a sense of what is real and true.  For example, before Joseph Lister applied germ theory to sanitation in medical settings, such a thing sounded like crazy talk to the learned doctors of the 19thcentury.  Now we use antiseptics to save lives.  This is paradigm shift—when the established way of determining what is true (the existing paradigm) gets overturned (shifts) and the authorities accept a new vision.  

Not surprisingly, paradigm shift also happens in the occult.  In his Conjure Codex I essay, “Old Wizard,” Jake Stratton-Kent writes:

In these days of niche markets, modern occultism is prone to dividing the magic of the past into brands. Drawing links between magical approaches in different periods and cultures can draw suspicion where none is necessarily deservedThe idea that some old bloke might be right, and the mass produced manuals might be wrong can take a long time to arise. Such prejudice is especially likely when he insists on drawing parallels, say, between magical papyri and later grimoires which are considered different brands – even though the papyri were written in the same language as that in which the word goetia first occurred. Such fashion-driven suspicion is not soothed when I go on to compare both with New World magical traditions.  (my emphasis, 13)

In this sense, those from a strictly exclusive ATR magical-religious system, for example, might be highly suspicious and critical of a western magician claiming access to those spirits via grimoire evocation methods.  And a traditionalist grimoire magician might be highly suspicious and critical of a mediumistic new age way of contacting spirits using crystals and binaural brainwave entrainment. These all represent traditions (paradigms) through which their practitioners construct a sense of what is true and false, real and unreal in their magical experiences.

Branding is no doubt to blame for much of this.  As in all publishing, the branding and marketing of occult texts depends on thinking in exclusive categories, in what Stratton-Kent calls “niche markets.” Say you’re a grimoire magician.  As such, you may want to express your magic in terms of that brand identity.  You might not even be conscious of this.  But if your bookshelf has a plethora of grimoires, ceremonial magical texts, bits about Crowley and Mathers, and very little on ATR religions, folk magic of the Americas, or Asian magical-religious practices, you have likely been channeled into certain types of marketing.

The good news is that paradigms can and eventually will shift.  As Stratton-Kent points out, “[W]ith practice [in evocation], spirits develop a well-rounded character, and an increased possibility of ongoing relationships with spirits rapidly develops from this. If this is reminiscent of Voodoo religion, that is all to the good” (14).  In other words, the more you work with a particular system or paradigm, the more it will connect you to other systems or paradigms, precipitating a shift or synthesis in your thinking.  But not everyone is experienced enough or determined enough or talented enough to reach this point.  In fact, some of the loudest voices in the occult often come from the most limited, scared practitioners.

Again, branding comes into play.  People heavily invested in a particular system or religion, especially those who make some sort of income off being a magical authority, want to protect their brand at all costs. You see this a lot in the ATR and conjure communities where being the neighborhood rootdoctor or card reader is a full-time job—so much that trashing one’s competition seems to be a standard part of the brand identity.  But boasting and arrogance seem to exist in every field where a large part of it is subjective.  This is true in the arts, in politics, in sports—anywhere a hard-edged objective standard for quality doesn’t exist.  

So I can hang my shingle out as a conjure practitioner and spirit evoker. And even if I have a magical lineage (which I do have and which proves nothing, by the way), I might still feel insecure that some kid down the block with tarot deck and a candle is going to steal my clients away from me.  Luckily, for my own sense of sanity, I have a regular job which makes this sort of paranoia and uncertainty unnecessary in my life.  But go on social media or discussion forums (even advanced forums like Studio Arcaniswhere I moderate) and you’ll see a lot of empty trash talking and boasting by people trying to say, my magic is deeper, better, older, more authentic than yours and if you claim to know what I know (and don’t look like me, follow me in some way, or come from my unique ancestry), you are deluded and / or fake. Such talk comes with the territory for better or worse.

Unfortunately for the poseurs and the gatekeepers, you can’t stop change with fear and braggadocio.  You can’t stand in the way of paradigm shift.  Owen Davies’ Grimoires: a History of Magical Books is all about this.  He notes that “The history of grimoires, as told in these pages, is not only about the significance of the book in human intellectual development, but also about the desire for knowledge and the enduring impulse to restrict and control it” (278).  Someone will always be suspicious (and ultimately afraid) of anything that departs from the comfort and security of their current “traditional” paradigm.  Or, as Stratton-Kent puts it:

From my point of view, approaches to goetia that remain – rather than begin – “by the book” become stale and clichéd. Reliance on the book once some experience with it has been gained is neither satisfying nor convincing. Old wizards like myself, who hail from a time before magic became commercially driven, are prone to more experimental approaches – departing from the more instantly recognisable avenues. As time goes on it becomes apparent that some of these departures make sense of older traditions – and others not so old – whose relationship with goetia is at first less than obvious.  (12)

Therefore, whenever you see someone vehemently gatekeeping, either along the lines of race / ethnicity (white people can’t do non-white spirituality), initiation (my magical society holds the keys to immortal truth and only imparts them via super-secret initiations), lineage (I come from 15 generations of witches back through the Burning Times), or divine revelation (the Flying Spaghetti Monster came to me in a dream and unless you had that same experience, you’re not a real practitioner), you need to also recognize their fear.  They are desperately trying to control knowledge, to accumulate as much power as possible by preventing paradigm shift.  And while that is understandable, it is also futile and ignorant.

We can do old-system magic and we should.  But one thing we can’t do is insist on “purity” in anything.  We can’t disregard what magical thinkers and practitioners have discovered and said since the era in which we locate the “real authentic magic.”  Instead, we have to look at it as a process of growth and evolution in which old systems and practices cycle through different periods and cultures, taking on new ideas, and absorbing new perspectives.  The gatekeepers will fade into history.  The people forging new syntheses and drawing new connections will be remembered as visionaries.  So it is with all human knowledge.

Racial Gatekeeping in Magic

It was bound to happen.  That which is truly occult remains hidden but is nevertheless influenced by cultural trends.  And one of the biggest trends these days is stereotyping and tribalism.  It was only a matter of time before the post-New Age demimonde in the west began to suffer from these things as well.

Much has been said (and will be said) in the media about why the world is more divided than ever.  But it may be sufficient for the purposes of this discussion to sum up the problem like this: technology and science have made us powerful and vulnerable; politics and ethnicity have made us self-righteous and angry; and identity has become fluid as a result.  When will humanity wake up and unite as one people?  Not in this century, at least.  People today are deeply invested in what makes them different from others.  They feel they need to protect their (racial-ethnic, national, sexual, political, professional) identities in order to protect their lives.  

At the same time, others are openly attacking people on the basis of how they identify and who they are.  Trump wants a wall just so the racists who support him will keep doing so.  And every time he says something horrible about a particular identity group, his supporters cheer.  The political left in the USA wanted a woman in office so badly that many backed Hillary on that basis alone, even though Bernie might have been a far better and more viable candidate.  As a former member of the Green Party, I also thought Bernie would be the best.  In the end, I voted for Hillary because Trump was unthinkable for me.  He still is.  But I won’t ever vote along party lines.  I believe if you’re not willing to educate yourself about the issues, you shouldn’t vote.  It shouldn’t be about identity.

Sexual identity is becoming more fluid than ever.  Information technology is a deciding force in everyone’s life.  And people lead highly mobile lives—more so than at any other time in human history.  Because this is how the world is (and how it’s becoming), cultures will clash, will blend.  People of different skin colors will intermarry in all sorts of gender combinations.  New hybrid cultural traditions will emerge.  The concept of “cybernetics” will evolve as the line between technology and physiology becomes blurred.  This isn’t pie-in-the-sky speculation.  These things are happening right now, things that have been for some time.  William Gibson once wrote that “the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” And we’re seeing that.  We’re also witnessing it get more evenly distributed across geography and identity every year.  All this scares the hell out of people.

The world of witchcraft, sorcery, and magical-religious organizations can feel particularly threatened, as if there’s no place in the bright technocratic future for old things and their mysteries.  But this is a mistaken assumption.  As any millennial Wiccan can tell you: the Goddess is alive and magic is afoot—even if you have the text of your esbat ritual on your iPhone and you’re playing a track of shamanic drumming you found on YouTube.  The old things will never go away.  They’ll just acquire new hybrid forms.  Just like us.

Of course, I would say this.  I’m a hoodoo worker and the history of hoodoo is all about absorbing other cultural practices.  I’m also white.  And this bothers certain practitioners who like to argue that white people can’t do hoodoo and any white person who tries is “culturally appropriating.”  African-American culture certainly dominates in the history of hoodoo, but, as I have written and said many times before, there are Eastern European, Western European, Chinese, Native American, Jewish, South American, African, South Asian influences in hoodoo from classical, medieval, renaissance, and modern time periods. There are also some practices that originated in North America, mostly between the end of WWI and the beginning of WWII in the South and Midwest.  Hoodoo, by definition, is North American in the best possible way: it accepts everything that comes to it and grows.

Most magical / religious systems—with the exception of some folkish (ahem, racist) heathen groups and closed ATR communities—accept sincere seekers without too much gatekeeping.  But because of the times in which we live, this level of openness is bound to frighten and anger those who feel their identities are threatened.  White privilege is a thing, yes. But my spirits don’t care that I’m white.  And I’m not in the business of racially polarizing my magic.  Sure, I have ancestral spirits who are just working for me.  But, aside from that, the magic I do doesn’t discriminate.

I had three principal teachers in hoodoo over the years: one was a gay white man, another was a straight black man, and another was a bisexual white woman.  They all spoke about their teachers, who were black, white, male, female, gay, straight, Jewish, Asian, and Middle Eastern.  But there was never a moral judgment attached to these labels.  It’s just who their teachers happened to be.  Coming from this multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural background, you can see why it would sound pretty mean-spirited and ignorant to me when I hear people say whites can’t do hoodoo and then accuse me of culturally appropriating their practices.

On Tumblr, there is currently a group of highly vocal women of color who refuse to have anything to do with white conjure workers.  And, while I think that is pretty racist in itself, I have responded (and will respond again, I fear) with three things:

First, learn your own history—that of conjure and culture (because they’re inseparable).  It’s a lot more open and fluid than you think, just like your DNA, just like the language you speak and the music you listen to.  Learning who you are will make you kinder and more tolerant of others.  Because we are one.

Second, it’s perfectly fine that you only want to do conjure for and with people of a certain skin color and cultural identity.  There are also some Nazi Asatru groups doing this.  You might learn about them if you want to see a mirror image of what you’re doing.  Don’t like Nazis who think only people with verifiable Nordic bloodlines should be allowed to worship Odin?  Oops.  I guess we have more in common than you thought. 

And third, cultures mix and combine in order to form new wonderful expressions of human experience.  That’s how humanity has evolved so powerfully.  You can’t fight that.  Today, a straight white man is making a jack ball (as I did yesterday, in fact).  Tomorrow, a gay Asian woman will be reading Lenormand cards while she burns some 7 African Powers incense.  Does that bother you?  If it does, I recommend you read Psalm 62 with emphasis on the last line [12]: “Also unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy: for thou renderest to every man according to his work” and keep forgiveness on your mind.