He laughed and told me that I wouldn’t be the first to run like hell from my initiatory helping spirit. It’s par for the course.
This is Part II in a four-part series on shaman sickness and initiation.
Part I can be found here.
It was shortly after suddenly splitting into multiple personalities but shortly before the nightmares about the devouring tiger that I journeyed to find answers about what was happening. Night after night unseen hands groped around inside me, pulling things out and putting things in, agonizingly stretching my sense of what it means to be human – or, whatever it was I was finding myself to be.
I hoped my helping spirit Maria would have some answers, but she was nowhere to be found.
An ocean’s surface.
Inside, a woman draped in jewels and fine cloths.
“Obeah Woman,” I found myself exclaiming.
She let out a hearty laugh.
Such words had never come out of my mouth, nor had I ever heard them. And while I knew next to nothing about the tradition of Jamaican Obeah, there was something West Indian about her. I also knew that she loved molasses. She didn’t tell me that – I just knew it.
This was my initiatory helping spirit. This was the spirit that was causing my death.
Both spirit-induced and human-led initiations into spiritual traditions often involve a tutelary helping spirit whose medicine the initiate will spend at least some portion of their lives bringing into the world. This helping spirit might also carry traits that are a reflection of the initiate’s own personality, whether those traits are on display or hidden in the sub/unconscious.
The relationship between the initiate and the helping spirit is sometimes intimate enough that its boundaries can be blurry. In the Yoruba tradition of Ifa and its African-diasporic offshoot Lucumí / Santería, children of a particular Orisha (who is said to “crown” them or “have their head”) in some ways represent that spirit here on earth, and even their relationships with children of other Orishas can mimic their crowning spirits’ relationships with one another as found in sacred lore. Similarly, Odin’s wives – women in god-spouse relationships with the All-Father of Norse tradition – often happen to be rivals of one another. In short, the veil between the worlds is nearly thin enough as to be non-existent.
One medicine person I know in the Lakota tradition was told by their primary helping spirit that their work with them – a certain set of teachings they were delivering to a group of people – would be complete in a couple of years. On the other hand, I know of more than one shaman who is a lifelong god-slave to a spirit due to past-life debts – for them, even romantic relationships with other humans requires permission and appeasement through divination and sacrifices.
Initiatory and tutelary helping spirit relationships come in many varieties from different origin points but are always deeply intimate teacher-student relationships centered around healing the parts of yourself standing in the way of being able to fully carry that spirit’s medicine in the world – and then carrying it for the greater good of a community.
The idea of a spirit having the ability to up-end someone’s life without warning may be foreign or uncomfortable in magickal traditions in which gods, saints, and other entities are primarily seen as working spirits helping with requests put forth by the practitioner in exchange for offerings and devotion. Even modern American Neo-Pagan traditions maintain a narrative that posits the agency of the practitioner above all else. A deity or other spirit may make themselves known to someone through signs and visitations, but whether or not a real relationship develops is in the hands of the human being.
When refusal of the spirit’s advances isn’t an option and the practitioner’s life inevitably begins to crumble, our collective ignorance about such processes often results in such individuals being shunned and seen as unstable — the latter of which is not entirely untrue given the liminality of any initiatory process. But in a shamanic or indigenous community, there’s a greater chance that someone will understand what is going on and community resources can be put toward helping the individual make it through the trial.
In our contemporary animistic communities, writings about spirit-induced initiations by individuals like Raven Kaldera and Galina Krasskova have resulted in controversy and public denouncements as contemporary American practitioners prefer their gods relegated to mythology, working spirit roles, and as excuses to buy pretty things rather than seeing them as the forces of agency that they are, sometimes demanding sacrifices of some individuals in exchange for gifts that they are not allowed to refuse.
Every contemporary shaman and dead-man-walking spiritworker I know has experienced homelessness during at least one of their spirit-induced initiations. I also know of a Mambo in Haitian Vodou who was a nurse before she fell and broke her leg, taking it as a sign that patience had run out on her starting her sosyete. And I once performed a reading with a Protestant Christian black American woman whose son had been stricken with an undiagnosable illness and she was sure that his girlfriend had put roots on him despite her staying by his bedside. My reading indicated that this wasn’t the first time this had happened and if he didn’t change his ways and heed the call to ministry that he knew was on his life, it would end. She knew exactly what I meant. I prescribed bathing his eyes in a weak tea of Eyebright to bring clarity and suggested she call a trustworthy Pastor or other official from her church to her son’s bedside too so that he could begin taking the necessary actions in alignment with his destiny.
Spiritual callings are cross-cultural and even the term “shaman sickness” fails to encompass the wide breadth of these kinds of sudden life emergencies that trigger a death and rebirth within the individual. But if we, as a culture, can learn to recognize the signs, we’ll all be the better for it.
Fail a lot. Don’t consider yourself an expert until you have collapsed your life as a side effect of practicing magic because that’s what it does. Ask any shaman ever. – Gordon White of Rune Soup
Throughout the sickness, I searched endlessly for Obeah Woman’s true name – something that I recognized from a tradition familiar to me. Was she really Olokun of the Yoruba people? She displayed gender-variant traits like them. Or maybe she was La Sirene, the mermaid lwa of Vodou. Many initiatory helping spirits don’t reveal their names early on so as to avoid confusion about their true natures, wanting their initiates to get to know them first before turning to their myths or the accounts of others.
But not in my case.
It wouldn’t be too long before I came across Nina Simone’s ecstatic live track in which she exclaims “I’m the Obeah Woman / From beneath the sea / To get to Satan / You have to pass through me.”
I also found her embodied in character of Addaperle the Feel Good Girl and her motion picture counterpart Miss One, the Good Witch of the North, in the 1970s film adaptation of the Broadway play The Wiz, carrying a chalkboard etched with lucky numbers for winning policy games and oozing that “eccentric aunt” feeling that’s so particularly electric.
Then I found her in the theme song from the 1990s sitcom Living Single as the silhouetted woman with dance moves both warrior- and river-like shortly after realizing that she reminded me precisely of how the ocean feels along the beaches I grew up on in Far Rockaway, Queens.
But this was before I’d seen her other aspects. During the more grueling months of my trials with her, particularly while being forced to resolve my childhood wounds around gender expression, she often appeared as a short large-breasted huge-dicked hermaphrodite Pygmy witch.
Then, as a pipe-smoking Plains American Indian woman.
And then in what I consider to be her original form – a young gender/role-variant African woman with child in one arm, weapon in the other. Both fierce warrior and loving mother. Something akin to how my own energy runs, I discovered. But then again, what is gender except how our energy runs?
Karin Miller, “African Mermaid,” ca. 2011, from the series Sea Changes.
It was another friend of mine who introduced me to Mami Wata, a pantheon of female African water spirits, and it was there that I found the closest match. Apart from the obvious, Mami Wata’s ties to symbols of prosperity and divinatory gifts are keenly similar to Obeah Woman’s regal presence, and anthropological records of black and indigenous West Indian adherents speaking of “Mammy-Water” help account for Obeah Woman’s unmistakably New World essence.
“The prevailing literature [on Mami Wata] tends to exclude African-Americans without realizing that they are even more connected to African spirits because of the devastation of slavery in which Mami also suffered. Far too many young black men are suffering mental disorders especially schizophrenia, starting as young as 13 yrs., because the source of their problem is Mami.”
Overt “shamanic” initiation aside, our culture’s relentless narrative that the value of young black American men lies especially in their ability to forsake all vestiges of beauty, compassion, depth, and receptivity is entirely at odds with such an entity’s gifts, and perhaps even her demands if the genealogical timing is such that a young American brother has fallen under her gaze. These cultural pressures are in no way absent for queer and gender-variant black men, often resulting in internalized homo- and transphobia as absence of full and authentic personal expression is seen as the epitome of masculinity and is the precursor for its erotic consumption in our current age.
“Black men who are traditionally initiated to Mami as a balance of their masculine force, are often unaware of their ancestral matrilineal heritage, and pressure is often forced on them to conform to a false machismo not characteristics of ancient African philosophy or culture. In America, when black men are born to Mami Wata, they are often at a loss to explain their spiritual sufferings, and some tend to self-medicate with illicit drugs, alcohol or other dissociative means. Some even resort to crime, or exhibit such psychotic behavior that they are eventually institutionalized.”
Such observations provide powerful commentary on the active power of ancestral lineage in the lives of contemporary Americans, and as a spirit who is as much Woman as she is the total defiance of gender norms, Obeah Woman’s medicine as a re-balancer of the scales is sorely needed in our age. May She be hailed.
She is a goddess of prosperity. She is a goddess of death and of truth-telling. She is the storm that clears the air and makes way for a new day when what has been collectively forgotten is remembered, and we mourn. We mourn for our hearts. We mourn for those lost. We mourn for the Great Forgetting.
And then we remember.
And then, we dance.
(to the tune of “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree”)
Obeah Woman laughs far beneath the sea
Draped in jewels and gold, laughing “ke ke ke”
Laugh! Obeah Woman, laugh!
Lead us to our authenticity!