The sacred for sale

6 01 2011

Again, thanks to Wufila for posting this link to the Wall Street Journal article on the return of hoodoo practice in the Internet age. The article and the video were fascinating. Some random thoughts:

1. An anxiety of influence: I think that there is no doubt that there is some sort of flow of rituals and prayers between Mexico, the Caribbean, and the American South. The rose of Jericho ritual seen here is something that can also be seen in Spanish-speaking botanicas and occult shops. I have even seen before a holy card of High John the Conqueror in Spanish. It would probably be impossible to find out who influenced whom in this case. As in social and economic questions, the United States is inevitably tied to Latin America, and vice versa, at least in its undercurrents.

2. There is no “authentic” anything: People can decry the commercialization of traditional magical systems. In this case, some critics say that these on-line shops are not selling the “real deal”. As in cases of other forms of religious traditionalism, one must protest that there is no “real deal”. Often, practices that people think of as traditional, supposedly dug out of the consciousness of the noble savage without the interference of commercialism, are merely products of a previously forgotten commercialism. One cannot reduce the question to one of sequential time. The roots of tradition, I’ll say again, are in eternity, or rather, in non-time. To paraphrase Nietzsche, a more accurate definition of tradition would be a repetition repeated so many times and in so many circumstances that we forget that it is a repetition; a nonsensical mimicry whose real meaning is always up in the air. Besides, many of these rituals’ very intention is personal profit. In the Internet age, we have gotten much more efficient at obtaining it.

3. The sacred for sale: A former co-worker, not a consistent churchgoer by any means, once went to a Latino evangelical church and told me about the experience. He said to me, “the guy [i.e. pastor] said a lot of things that I can use in my daily life”. That is the essence of religion in the modern world, at the root of even in the supposed Third World Christian revival. When we see this sentiment in botanicas or candle shops, we cringe, but we are only cringing at ourselves, since they do in an open manner what even the most crazed religious fundamentalist does secretly. If the structure of traditional religiosity was the Gothic cathedral, with its hierarchical approach to the divine (the narthex, the nave, and the sanctuary, the pulpit), the postmodern icon of religion is the botanica or the “candle shop.” [In its Catholic flavor: in the Protestant manifestation it would be the megachurch stage as the scene of a virtual/real altar call.] In these establishments, you take what you need and leave, tradition is side by side with innovation, good is side by side with evil, and you can get anything you want as long as you have the money. Really, those of us with a more traditional bent are like those who shop at farmer’s markets or mom-n-pop stores: we experience a more authentic personal experience with vintage religiosity, but we are still consumers nonetheless. That “vintage religiosity” was born of an age of religious coercion and necessity, and that age is not ours.

4. And no, I don’t believe in that shit: I mean, I study it, but the reader should know that in my heart of hearts, I am a good Catholic boy. Seriously, I don’t mess with this stuff. It is like the anecdote with Niels Bohr having a horse shoe over his door for good luck: “Of course, I don’t believe in this stuff, but I was told it works even if you don’t believe in it”. I am actually pretty scared to death of this type of seemingly harmless occult trinket. I was raised in a very Catholic (though not cultish) household. My fascination with this sort of thing probably comes from questionable healing practices that are almost mainstream in Mexican culture, its complimentary charismaticism, and my paternal grandmother’s devotion to Juan Soldado and la Santa Muerte. But my personal religious frame is still pretty orthodox, even if I spend a lot of time intellectually dismantling it (for good reason, I would claim). Or rather, I am pretty skeptical of anything, at least on the intellectual level.



4 responses

7 01 2011

Back in the dim haze of prehistory when televisions had knobs, a local over-the-air public access station in my childhood region devoted about 3/4ths of its programming to call-in tarot readings, psychic advice, and the ritual prescriptions of a Santeria priestess. Picture two boys, one an evangelical Protestant, another a product of Irish Catholicism, staring blank faced at the priestess’s prescriptions of St. Anthony votive candle burning and weird doings with saints’ statues. We thought some of the advice was simply hilarious because its importance did not register with our Jansenist and Reformed sensibilities. Why the heck would someone smear oil all over their bed linens? If we did that, we’d get a stern talking-to by our parents. Luckily we never tried. It wouldn’t’ve done us any good, anyway.

I’m sure that stations been off the air for a while, especially now that analog TV has been phased out in the USA. Still, I wonder — what community formed behind this television station? The priestess and the psychics always had business at all hours of the day. Did people bond through this televised community of the occult? I suspect that hoodoo shops aren’t just places to get herbal remedies and ritual objects. Rather, they are congregations no different than what one would find at a parish Mass, camp meeting, or Friday mosque prayers. The “exotic” nature of Afro-Caribbean ritual (as defined through prejudice), as well as the jaundiced view many throw at Afro-Caribbean ritual, might encourage semi-anonymous occult displays such as found on that public access station. Back then, a sole practitioner socially isolated from other ritualists could find fellowship just two rabbit ears and a phone call away.

6 01 2011

You might find this book interesting. It’s certainly entertaining, and about half of it deals with hoodoo, including an interesting chapter on Cat Yronwode, one of the online hoodoo merchants mentioned in the WSJ article. She was, incidentally, at one time a large force in the comic book industry. Which, I guess, proves your point!

6 01 2011
john burnett

Google, which you allow to advertise on your blog, provides interesting correlation, to wit:

Ads by Google [for a South African audience; i mutilated the links so they wouldn’t be live]:

The spell casting Queen
witness the power of spiritualworld same day results call +27793595972.

cast a spell
prosperity love spells that works within seven days 0787857739

Healer/Spell Caster
Change Your Life Now All Spells Cast. Visit to Cast Now.

Voodoo love spells
For Love, Business, Spells, Luck Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban

And here in Za, some grocery stores sell herbals and love potions etc along with asprin and cough medicine.

6 01 2011

They sell Juan the Conquistador candles in one of the grocery stores in Des Moines, with a picture that makes the woody root look like Cortez! Is that the same icon as on the holy card you saw (and what was the prayer?)

Thanks for the book – I’m supposed to be writing a paper but I can’t put it down!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: