On the arcana

6 06 2011

Or two posts in one

About a year ago, I took a personal field trip to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to investigate the phenomenon of the treaters, or traiteurs. The more I read or hear about these folk healers, the more I realize that people’s attitudes towards certain things “back in the day” were quite different from our own. For one thing, I cannot find many instances of people actually writing down the prayers used by the folk healers in their cures. These were supposed to be secret, and only to be passed down to a member of the opposite sex. (As I have found out, this passing to the opposite sex was also the case for Appalachian folk healing.) If a healer could not find someone willing to learn the prayers, he or she took them to the grave. My wife’s great-grandfather was a treater, and the prayers died with him.

Why they were so secretive about these prayers is an object of speculation among anthropologists. One researcher has stated that the secrecy comes from the time of slavery. A slave who had managed to bring the healing arts with him from Africa did not want to reveal this to his master, since this would mean that he would be pressed into practicing them, and if unsuccessful, blamed for their failure, or possibly worse, of killing with black magic. This was perhaps to the point that the arts would die with them if for some reason they could not be passed down to someone reliable. The key seems to be that the power to heal was not seen as something belonging to the treater. Unlike curanderos in Latin America, they were not perceived to have el don or a particular power to heal. The prayers were what was important, and they were communal property, in that a treater could never charge for his or her services.
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The Linguists

5 05 2011

I liked this film very much. It reminds me of my suggestion to my in-laws to stick a tape recorder in front of my wife’s dying grandmother to get some words of her Creole French on a recording for posterity. (They say it can’t be released, because it is a conversation between her and my wife’s father fussing about a relative.) Such things make me sad. Even though French is not a dying language, it is in these parts.

On bringing a knife to a gun fight

3 05 2011

I mentioned in an earlier post my wife’s great-grandfather, Rene Broussard. From the looks of it, he was half-white and half-Creole (mixed blood), and was, as already mentioned, quite wealthy for his time. He also taught himself to read English (most people were still speaking French in that part of Louisiana at that point). He also like to dabble in the “black arts”.

According to family lore, one day, Mr. Broussard got into an argument with another man when that man pulled a gun on him and fired five times at point blank range. Mr. Broussard had drawn his knife and came at him, and not one of the bullets hit him. He then gutted that man in the stomach with his blade, killing him instantly.

Now why did none of the bullets hit Mr. Broussard? Well, you see, Mr. Broussard had cut out pages of the magical diagrams from the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses and pinned them to his body under his clothes for protection. He came out of the fight unscathed.

The moral of the story: sometimes you can bring a knife to a gun fight, depending on what else you happen to be packing.

Kids, don’t try this at home.

On superstition – part II

20 09 2010

“Your grandmother was superstitious,” my mother told me when describing my paternal grandmother’s veneration of la Santa Muerte. “She said that if she prayed to her, she wouldn’t come to take her in the night.”

This from my mother, who could seamlessly weave faith and folklore, old wisdom and wives’ tales into her exhortations to close the door when I left the house or not put too much salt in my food. Even my mother has standards, even when it seems that I don’t.

Perhaps this was the reason why my mother would only reluctantly tell us how things could really be like back on el rancho in Mexico. It was at a birthday dinner that AG and I took her out for (my mother is out of her element in any restaurant that doesn’t serve hamburgers) that she first told me about the remedies for el mal de ojo, or evil eye. I had known such things existed, of course, as my closest cousin was “cleansed” by his grandmother of the fright sickness. This type of stuff was just background noise for a pocho kid growing up in rural central California. By the sheepish way that my mother recounted this particular story, she probably already heard the “half way catechized” Catholic naysayers telling her that this was just superstition. “Here, have another scapular.”
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The cursed accordion

10 08 2010

According to the account, a now famous Cajun accordion player was suddenly plagued by a mysterious lung ailment that the doctors could not cure. He was taken to a treater who told him that he had been “struck” by someone who put “snake poison” on his accordion. The treater “put” a prayer on the accordion and washed it to counteract the poison. He then performed frequent treatments on the patient for three weeks, and concluded by placing a “prayer note” between the keys of the man’s accordion. Shortly after the treatment the musician began to feel better and eventually experienced a full recovery.

-found in “Cajun and Creole Treaters: Magico-Religious Folk Healing in French Louisiana” by Rocky Sexton, in Western Folklore, Volume 51, July/October, 1992.

Some links to start off your week

8 08 2010

David B. Hart continues a series of interesting of reflections over at First Things, this time regarding Julian the Apostate. I reproduce my comment here:

Excellent article. It reminds me a lot of Pierre Chuvin’s Chronicle of the Last Pagans. One must remember that, by this point, many pagan philosophers such as Plotinus and, more closely to Julian, Iamblichus of Chalcis, had already instituted a sort of Neoplatonic reformation of paganism, just in time to see everything disappear before their eyes. As was pointed out, Julian wanted the pagans to adopt greater levels of compassion and mercy to compete with the Christians, though with obviously little success. Reading late Neoplatonism up to Proclus is thus a fascinating exercise, as they by that point had become essentially monotheists, seeing the ancient myths and symbolism as reflections of a hierarchy of intelligences flowing down from an ineffable One.

Of course, all of this was transmitted to Christianity through the mysterious figure called “Pseudo-Dionysius”, who replaced the idea that “all things are full of the gods” with “all things are full of the angels “, (though Origen may have already stated this). From that vision of the celestial hierarchies came the cathedrals of Europe, our pomp and ceremonial, our most exalted works of literature, and so forth… all the way up to modernity. It is arguable then that the reason that we are becoming less Christian is that we have become less “pagan”: we have ceased to see our culture and religion as a tradition based on the eternal harmony of the music of the spheres and more as an absurd leap of faith amongst a lot of dead rocks. We tend to try to build our faith without culture, and it is no wonder that we fail.
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Cultural Catholic serendiptity

25 05 2010

image credit

“I’m looking for a 100 committed Catholics. Are you one?”

Uh, no. I am lucky to get out of bed for Mass on Sunday morning. (He must be selling something.)

I click anyway.

When one considers how vastly different our modern society is when compared with the society in which our parents and grandparents lived, as recently as the 1950s, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that this “interesting” time in which we live is an epoch that is between goodness and evil and, it would seem steadily drifting away from the former and toward the latter.

Okay. Now I know he wants money.

You and I cannot stand by in silence as challenges mount. We must take our places in this struggle and peacefully do our part in the cause of truth.

How much is it going to cost me?

This is why I need to find 100 comitted Catholics [what’s with this guy and typos?] who will stand with me in “fighting the good fight” by becoming a member of the Envoy Institute of Belmont Abbey College…

By becoming a member of the Envoy Institute — you can do it today for as little as $10 per month (about the cost of lunch for two) — you will directly participate in the Envoy Institute’s robust outreach to our culture, you’ll directly help preserve the Catholic identity and faith of countless Catholic young people…

Where do I sign up? Wait a minute! No thanks.

I close the browser.


Of late I have been dissecting all aspects of cultural Catholicism: the imagery, the laziness, the Voodoo of making deals with God and then breaking them. For most of my sentient life, I have counter-posed Catholicism to the world, even though that was not how I was raised. I was raised a church-going, cultural Catholic. Catholicism primarily informed the rhythm of life in a very low key way. While I went from crazy fundamentalist to strange spiritual seeker, reversion to normal life has driven me to choose once again the Faith of my childhood. While some people con-vert, and others re-vert, I think at this point I am in the process of di-verting. As I have put it before, how can I keep the Faith without the Church being all up in my business?
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Traditional faith healing in the Catholic world

18 04 2010

Above, the opening of a film that you can watch on-line concerning a curandero and bone-setter in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Sorry, no subtitles.

The second set of videos I found was on a newsite in Lake Charles, LA, regarding Cajun traiteurs. AG’s great-grandfather was a Creole traiteur, according to my father-in-law. This is the first extended video I have seen on-line concerning this practice:

Unveiling the mystery of traiteurs

Profile of a traiteur: Helene Boudreaux

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14 04 2010

A folk phenomenon among the Creoles of color of southern Louisiana, the cauchemar is an evil spirit that comes to ride on the chest when its victim is asleep. The evil spirit or witch is not visible, but can be felt pressing on the chest, not allowing the victim to be heard. In contemporary French, “cauchemar” is just another word for nightmare, but for the Creoles of southern Louisiana, it was interpreted as a preternatural phenomenon, often sent as a warning not to commit a particular kind of transgression. AG’s aunt once told her as a child about it, although AG thought that she was just making all of it up. It was also known as “witch riding”. Remedies for the cauchemar have much in common with other methods of “fooling” preternatural spirits found in other places:

…what my mamma said for me to do is put some stones or some beans under my bed, under my mattress, and put them in a circle ’cause he can’t count and, ’cause he doesn’t come in the daytime. He only comes at night. And, uh, she said cauchemar’s gonna see the stones under my bed, and he’s gonna keep counting in a circle, and he’s so dumb that he won’t know to stop, and then by the time he finished keep counting it’s gonna be daytime. Or he counts the . . . put a fan in your window and he counts the little holes in the screen and by the time he finished counting it’ll be daytime.

More information of the cauchemar can be found in Katherine Roberts’ essay on the subject

St. Joseph’s Altars – New Orleans, 2010

20 03 2010

From St. Dominic’s Church down the street from our New Orleans home, where we found a charming comment to a St. Joseph’s prayer (once posted on this blog):

Say for nine mornings for anything you may desire. It has never been known to fail, so be sure you really want what you ask.

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