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Fire Flight

Vodun F.A.Q. – How are sex, orientation, and gender perceived in Vodun?

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Fire Flight Sex and gender in Vodun are perceived in line with the science. However, you will rarely see discussion of it outside of writings and academia because the Yoruba, and many other west African cultures consider sexual contact between people to be so sacred and intimate that it is rarely explicitly discussed. Because of this view of sexual contact, discussions of gender, biological sex, and sexual orientation don’t happen sometimes even while someone’s future is being planned around their individual needs. They are just kind of nudged to where they need to be and towards whatever rites of passage are appropriate for them.

What further complicates these kinds of explanations is that gender is perceived differently in indigenous African cultures than in western cultures. Though colonialism forced many surface norms, and some Africans fully converted to their oppressor’s religions, many things didn’t sink in fully, and where they did, these people are considered problematic and anti survival.

Generally, most indigenous west African cultures recognize more than two genders and gender role variability. So there are men, women, intersex people who may function as men or women or both, men who sometimes perform woman like functions, women who sometimes perform man like functions, transgender people who were born male or female in physical appearance but grow up to function differently than the typical path, and sometimes more.

People were identified more by what they did than what their body looked like when they were born. So if someone was functioning in a role typically ascribed to women, they were a woman. If they functioned as a man, they were a man. In some places, the nonbinary or transgender had to pick a lane, but in other places, they had mixed or even double duties. Africa is a huge continent, and the area considered west Africa is very big and contains a wide variety of cultures. There is a saying that “what is a blessing in one village is an abomination in another”. As far as the spirituality goes though, regardless of what a particular group demanded of the humans within it, the legends will still be full of the whole spectrum.

Then when we get into the issue of what particular groups consider a masculine or feminine role, it’s more complicated.

The question of orientation adds even more complication because again, it’s a very intimate matter, but also something that people didn’t generally get into each other’s business about so long as nobody was being harmed. Some situations were even taken for granted. So there is very little mention of the specifics of anybody’s sex life historically unless it was bragging or exceptional.

It is impossible to view African indigenous cultures in LGBTQA+ contexts without defaulting to the colonial lens because prior to colonialism, very few were making these distinctions between people. I am only saying very few because there was enough contact and exchange with Greek and Roman cultures that I am sure that some did form opinions at least in north Africa through those cultural influences. However, for the most part, something being unusual did not necessarily make it abnormal.

Since just homosexual people account for around maybe 10% of humanity, born intersex people around 1/1000, and there is plenty same sex pleasure exchange even among people who would normally prefer people further away on the gender spectrum, it was not, in fact, abnormal. It was normal, just a bit more rare for someone to make it a big deal.

If someone assigned maleness at birth because they have a penis and testicles, grew to be cisgender, and wanted status as a man, and achieved that, and was expected to marry someone assigned female who had achieved status as a woman to continue his line, he did that. Whether or not he preferred to have sex with men was not relevant. One generally did what was expected or demanded of them. Whatever else they did didn’t matter unless it interfered with their perceived duties. Many cultures had a backup plan if for whatever reason, a couple was unable to make children the conventional way. If a guy just could not do the thing with people with vaginas, he might bring in a trusted friend or relative who was willing, and their wife willing to allow it, to step in. Usually a relative was called on so the children would at least be related to him.

Basically, the African way is to not let irrelevant things interfere with survival and the functioning and cohesion of families and nations. This is not to say that every culture or group was tolerant of every thing. Some cultures had and still have traditions that are extremely harmful. It’s just that gender and same sex relationships were not perceived as they are in the west or in eurocentric christianity. So as far as Vodun, it can be assumed that most people are not going to care what your deal is. The problem would start with your family.

Like in other belief systems, there are people who are more or less observant. As opposed to the big monotheistic religions though, the less devout one is in Vodun and most ATR’s, the more oppressive and uncaring of destiny (Akosejaye) one will be. Most family groups in rural areas are farmers. Though the women actually do most of the farm work, the men are in more control of what actually happens in many places. Often family members are treated like commodities who must produce certain things based on gender.

So even before colonialism, and even where it is not still a major influence in spirituality and concepts of morality, most west Africans live under pressure of fulfilling family expectations. In smaller families with fewer children, there will end up being more pressure on each child to excel in school, marry well, and make babies despite destiny. This is why in the U.S. and Europe, there are children of African immigrants who are in their thirties and still have to ask their parents for permission to go on a date with someone.

On the one hand, it is a good thing that parents will stay involved with their children’s lives beyond childhood. On the other, parental influence can be traumatizing, damaging, and in the case of LGBTQIA+ youth, suffocating. For the most part though, especially if their Akosejaye reading said that they would be special in certain ways, parents will try to give guidance without stifling.

Because of the influence of colonial mentality and trauma from interest based patriarchy, especially in the U.S. where these things are highly politicized, one may want to be careful when choosing a group.  Where you don’t want to assume that every group led by a cisgender man is bigoted, it’s fair not to assume that they are not. It is something you might want to ask about if you are considering participation in their community activities or endorsing them.

Good answers are either that they don’t care but are welcoming, or that someone in a prominent position in the group is out and proud.

Ile Baalat Teva, by the way, is openly welcoming and has nonbinary and Gay leadership. I suppose we could be called a Two-head (Gay/nonbinary) and a Hat-trick (Bi/variable/cygender since the knee replacements).

Vodun F.A.Q. – How does Vodun approach abortion?

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In short, Vodun and diaspora belief systems are pro choice. Individuals may have their own opinions about it and various houses and groups may approach it differently, but generally, abortion is not considered something inappropriate or “sinful”. It could be classed as unfortunate or misfortune when it has to be done, but there is nothing like “sin” attached to it so long as it is done respectfully.

For us, every atom in the Universe is sacred, but this does not translate to allowing one’s self to be harmed because one’s own atoms and one’s own life is also sacred. A person with a womb is not obligated to carry a pregnancy that they do not want to. There does not need to be any special reason or excuse. She is allowed to prevent or stop pregnancy as a matter of natural prerogative.

Interfering with a woman’s prerogative is an offense akin to rape which is definitely inappropriate and punishable. It is disrespectful to her and to her ancestors who built her. Only her comfort or discomfort with carrying someone’s genes into the world is relevant.

This does not mean that the decision to carry or not carry a child to term is based on whimsy or just feelings. Aside of the normal considerations like the financial and psychological, and overall situation into which a child would be born, there may be spiritual considerations as well. Someone’s situation at the moment may be pretty bad, but things may improve or it may be that the woman thinks her situation is worse than it is. It could be that though her situation is bad, her ancestors advise her to carry through anyway because the child needs to be born to help change it.

The question of destiny will come up in a practitioner of almost any ATR or ADR, as soon as the question of abortion does. So if after all the thinking, praying, and divination, there is still just no way that the pregnancy should continue, the abortion is done with the gravity it deserves. The child is grieved because they are a child, and it is unfortunate that they could not be born at this time.

This gravity, by the way, is why contraception is considered highly important to most of us. If we’re aware, we’ve been staying close to our Ancestors since before a relationship or even fling that could result in pregnancy started. We tend to take precautions so that this situation doesn’t arise, and if it does, the question of whether or not the ancestors would have been okay with the union being fruitful has already been answered.

It is also not considered a great idea to be sparking a bunch of new souls with people one’s Ancestors would not approve of. Scientifically, once you conceive, that child’s DNA is all up in your system. So decades after you have conceived with Mr. Toxic, his baby’s cells are still in you. Nope. Not something any of us want.

Vodun and most other ATRs and ADRs are very pro science because we are about aligning with Nature. Fetomaternal microchimerism has become a feature in our spiritual and moral decision making because something that becomes a part of your body becomes a part of what influences you.

So the decision to go ahead with an abortion is basically a last ditch effort to minimize damage. It is not approached casually. The situation that would bring it about is prevented to the best of our abilities.

So we try not to even have sex with someone the Ancestors would not want us to make a baby with. If we’re forced to or do so for medicinal reasons, we use contraception. If that fails, abortion is an option.

When weighing the options, one reason we consider abortion a damage control measure is the concept of “abiku”. An abiku is basically a child who is born, traumatized, and dies repeatedly. Abortion itself can cause the kind of damage that may create one, but this is unlikely except in cases where oppression, war, or disasters cause too many miscarriages and child deaths. Abortions done out of necessity during such situations will get mixed in with that atrocity. On the other hand, in a stable situation, the injury is a one time thing and the child may return (since some of their cells are still in the mother) at a better time and merged with the cells of their siblings who would have better experiences.

It’s complicated, and things don’t always go so smoothly, but as I said, the idea is to minimize the damage.

Night Offerings

Vodun F.A.Q. – What are the 7 Principles of Vodun?

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Night OfferingsThe 7 Principles of Vodun are something someone made up to keep things simple. There are many more than seven, and there is no “one true way” that is good for everyone. Much about what you should do in a given situation depends on your head, your devotional and professional egbe(s), your family including ancestors, and what is customary for your people. There are some universal rules and principles, but outside of these, it varies.

Common Rules and Principles

1. The Ori/one’s Personal Divine Essence is the most relevant Orisha in one’s pantheon.

2. The Egungun/Ancestors is the most relevant Orisha with your Ori.

3. Always run everything to do with spirits or spirituality through your Gatekeeper deity or ancestor. This protects you from intruders and impostors.

4. Don’t pollute your altar. Unless you have an exception (determined by your pantheon/culture) you don’t approach any altar or shrine while you are dirty, ill, or excreting any body fluids uncontrollably.

4a. You do not touch anyone else’s spiritual or ritual items, altar, or shrine without their express permission. If the permission cannot be gained by conventional means, divination must be done, and offerings given for it.

4b. Ritual and ceremonial items should be maintained according to the instructions appropriate to the deity. A neglected altar attracts misfortune.

5. Division is an illusion. Every atom in this Universe is sacred. Every thing or being is sacred. Personhood extends beyond humans and animate creatures.

6. There is no essential difference between good and evil in a general cosmic sense, but there is such a thing as appropriate or inappropriate or sustaining and harmful behavior for humans. It is important to be a person of Iwa Pele or good character.

7. Only those fully initiated into Ifa or an African system based in Africa may have a large Eshu shrine as a feature of their home. Others may have or build a small one. Exceptions are natural shrines left in their place or cases in the diaspora when they have been completely cut off from the African priesthoods and had to make due. Since the internet, no new cases like this exist, but there are still shrines built by those in the diaspora that are still legitimate. However, even a small stone in a bowl is sacred.

8. All bodies of water deserve protection. Do not pollute them. Do not allow others to pollute them when you can prevent it.

9. You must not litter or leave items behind that would harm the environment. Be mindful when leaving offerings to make vessels biodegradable, salvageable, or retrieve them to be cleaned and reused.

10. Be generous and compassionate to all to whom is is safe, especially those less fortunate, children, and the elderly.

11. You are not obligated to be kind to your enemies or allow them to harm you. Being a pushover or passively accepting oppression is literally against our religion. Just be intelligent about it.

There are a few more, but these are the ones I could think of that cover everybody. Even with these, the clarifications or specifics will vary though. If you have any others that you believe should be here, feel free to comment. Also comment on others’ comments to confirm whether or not this is true of your branch of ATR or diaspora practice as well.

Blessings and Ashe!

Solutions: How to Avoid Negative Cultural Appropriation of African and Diaspora Belief Systems

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Hof Dor, Israel

Hof Dor, Israel

Lately, there has been some buzz in the community about cultural appropriation of African belief systems.  We’ve talked a lot about the problem, and I think it’s time we addressed some realistic solutions.  The global spiritual community has always shared information, but the speed has increased dramatically since the internet.  Sometimes speed isn’t such a good thing when one is dealing with ideas that can take many years to grasp, even for someone who belongs to the culture in which it arose.

It is very important that diaspora practitioners, who sometimes have the western tendency to be a bit focused on maintaining identity in a way that Africans in their ancestral homelands don’t have to worry about, understand the way others learn about the Vodun.  If you are multi generation legacy, the way you learned is not the only way or the only legitimate way.  For some, this is a journey they began as an individual, or their legacy may be only one or two generations deep, or may have been secret.

In some cases, someone may have been called/contacted by a Vodun, Orisha, Lwa, or other African flavor of Energy/Spirit even though they are practicing a non African faith.  In some, they find that African ideas fill in some space in their belief system that others don’t.  Sometimes, it’s just a matter of liking an idea and incorporating it into their practice.  These aren’t necessarily bad, but can turn bad if they are misinterpreting something, and don’t have the guidance to correct it.

Heritage, Tradition, and Innovation.

A great artist, Pablo Picasso once said that one should learn the rules so that one can break them like an artist.  Though African spirituality tends to be more like a science no matter where in Africa it is from, one should learn the traditions well before taking it upon one’s self to deviate from them.  For this reason, if you are not a practitioner of west or central African belief systems, but were called nonetheless, or you are incorporating Spirits whose relational identities were crystallized in Africa into your belief system, you should take it upon yourself to contact a priest/ess in or from Africa.

All of us in the diaspora with the option and any level of respect, have connections with priests and practitioners in Africa.  All of us.

Be aware that most traditions were local and based around families, clans, and villages, and that the people and geography and climate were important and unique.  What is a blessing in one place may be an abomination in another, as far as general practice, but at the more esoteric level, many things start to merge.  You will do well to be in touch with someone aware enough and deep enough in actual practice, to advise and guide you even though you are far from their local area.

Even if you don’t intend to fully commit to an African belief system, it is important to have this line of communication to avoid doing things that may be disrespectful or just imbalanced or nonsensical.  If, for instance, you are Wiccan, and you like Yemaya, that is all good, but if you want to get the most positive energy from that, you should ask Eshu to open the way for you to speak to Yemaya.  There is no Yemaya without Vodun, and in Vodun, we (generally) call to Eshu (or the Gate Keeper by another name) before we contact other Orishas.  There are many good reasons for this that a priest/ess would be able to explain to you in detail.

We keep in touch with those in the Motherland so that even if our ways are quite different, we stay within certain bounds of sanity and soundness.

Now, using the Yemaya example again, once you understand why you should ask Eshu to open the gate first, and the ways to go about this, you may think of ways to do this “seamlessly” in a Wiccan ceremony or observance.  This is an innovation, and it is okay.  Just get some feedback from your African guides, and perhaps discuss this with others who are doing something similar.

Once you know the traditions, you can understand how to deviate from them in a respectful way.  Respectful deviation is far, far away from negative cultural appropriation.  It is good innovation, and nobody should have a problem with it, though some will anyway.

Doing it Wrong

The wrong way to go about appropriation/incorporation is to steal bits and pieces of practices without any regard for their cultural origins, or to claim titles specific to certain organizations without actually earning them.

It is the habit of many neopagans to call themselves priests and priestesses of whatever deities they like.  We don’t do this in African systems.  To be a priest/ess of a deity, you must pass through the initiations and rise through the ranks of the cult of that deity.  There is no way around this.  The first members of this deity’s cult may have had to go it alone, but once it was established, it became a matter of community.

This does not mean that you are not permitted to worship an Orisha.  Some today are running around telling people that they are not entitled to worship or mention Orisha because they have not been initiated, but this is just a bald faced lie.  The Orishas are forces of Nature, and all living beings live in the same Nature.  Atheists call it “ocean”, and we call it Olokun.  It doesn’t matter what it is called, it is what it is.  Thing is, if you’re going to utter the name Olokun in reverence, you must respect the fact that the name and its legends come from west Africa.  Part of that respect is respecting the priesthood unless or until the day comes that the priesthood no longer respects Olokun, and I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

In the diaspora, there are priests and priestesses within their specific systems.  In this case, they will add which temple or group in which they serve as a priest or priestess, so as to avoid confusion with the temples in Africa.   The ranks may not imply what they would in Africa though.  In some groups, being a priest/ess may mean that they have begun service to the community, and may still be in a phase of training, whereas in other groups, they have passed through the highest initiation for one of more deities.  African systems are alive, and new groups develop all the time.

It is wrong to treat Vodun and other very alive African belief systems as if they are dead, and nobody knows what they should be doing.  It is very much alive, and for anyone in the world with internet, guidance is just a click away.

It is also wrong to attempt to force African belief systems to fit Christian or western “hippie” sensibilities.  Though we do believe that one’s beliefs affect one’s behavior and energy, and therefore one’s life, there is no thought policing in Vodun.  We do not insist that everyone think the same or behave the same or according to the same set of rules and taboos.  Not only do traditions and pantheons vary from place to place, but what is a good deed and what is a “sin” or unwise or negative action varies from head to head.  Sometimes person to person as well.

We believe that all of Nature deserves respect, not denial, and that things that are negative or evil should be coped with honestly.  The “white light” way is not and should not be universal. Conflict feels like an unfortunate aspect of life, but life could not exist without it.  Your body must draw air in and out in order for you to survive.  Sometimes a person must kill in order to protect themselves and their loved ones.

One of the hardest things some of us have found in teaching non Africans and over-assimilated Africans, is getting them to understand that some things others can do and get away with, that they cannot, and vise versa.  What is sweet for one may be bitter to another.  What would depress or degrade one may uplift and exalt another.  There is no one way for everybody.

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