[NB] Grimoire, Ecstasy, Play, Possession

This is going to be a very notebook-y post, riffing a bit around a common theme.

I recently picked up Erwan Dianteill’s study of the New Orleans Black Spiritualist churches, La Samaritaine Noire. He has a mind to position the spiritualist churches in the broader horizon of the Afro-Caribbean religious diaspora and he does that well. To do that, he starts out by contrasting the spiritualist churches with the hoodoo / rootwork doctors that the churches officially criticize. Which means we get a chapter discussing Zora Neale Hurston, Palo, and the intersection of the grimoire tradition and the African diaspora.

He makes much of the durability of the Red Dragon’s infamous black cat ritual, tracing clear descendants of it in both New Orleans hoodoo, Haitian Vodou, and some early to mid-twentieth century Palo practices reported by Lydia Cabrera. It sets me to wondering if anyone has made any statistical study of specific rituals and their dispersion in both the grimoires and broader religious practice. That would be a useful step toward a richer appreciation of how grimoires were used and not just transmitted.

(Beyer’s account in Singing to the Plants of how the grimoires have disrupted and undermined plant shamanism among mestizo population on the Amazon would be another data point.)

(The statistical analysis is probably on my mind because I recently flipped through an article in the journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft analyzing the frequency and durability of spirit names across generations of grimoires. There was much food for thought there, especially regarding the effort to argue for various names being variations of each other. I’m kicking myself for not writing down the bibliographic info on that article.)

This fits into the same comparative framework that I was in when I did a little comparative tally of metallic associations with the planets, but this time in a different direction. Remember when I mentioned way back about how I found the role of play acting in the Picatrix intriguing? Well, there is an obvious trajectory in which that can be taken—toward a comparison that positions it alongside the possession cults of Africa and the Arabian peninsula.

Whether we are talking about zar or vodu, it is difficult to ignore that these ritual communities tend to divide spirits into types and nations very much akin to the Picatrix’s differentiation of planetary spirits into types and nations. The Picatrix doesn’t suggest that any of the rites lead to possession, but it does lend itself to considering whether they might be modeled on rites that did lead to possession or, alternately, if we can consider the grimoiric play acting and the possession cults as diverging from a common milieu of spiritual experience.

This runs alongside my recent discussion of the Yeatsian daemonic mask, but also of the differentiation of witch and wizard techniques, with the more literate and technical grimoires moving toward an increasingly hierarchical and defined mapping of those spirits and the less literate and experiential ecstatic tradition moving toward looser social groupings modeled on daily life, social groupings into which participants enter under possession and initiation.

This feels like another step in the long diaspora we can trace back to the magi and goes, with techniques mirrored and developed in (sometimes radically) different fashion across a span of thousands of years. There is more than a little evidence that possession cults across the African continent shared practices and rites along trade and pilgrimage routes, which would be something of a parallel to the literary transmission of the grimoiric material (and its says something that the Red Dragon was reputed to have been compiled in Cairo).

The useful part of talking about these as distinct and related diasporic trajectories is that it becomes a little easier to see them amidst still other diasporas, less a clear trail from the present into the deep past and more a series of encounters and mutations, in some of which neither the ‘goetic’ nor the ‘magian’ elements play a determining role, only ancillary ones.

Which gets me back to the African diasporas, Christian diasporas, Jewish diasporas, Arabic diasporas, where elements of the magian-goetic diaspora can be found, but subordinated to practices and conceptions alien to them, different patterns of coming to terms with the basic witch-wizard tensions that animate our human encounter with the spiritual world.

Patterns ever in flux within the crucible of life.

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One thought on “[NB] Grimoire, Ecstasy, Play, Possession

  1. Pingback: [NB] Rite and Record | Disrupt & Repair

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