Two weeks ago, while winding up the story of the colonial Rhode Island astrologer Joseph Stafford, I noted that the kind of occultism practiced by Stafford and Johannes Kelpius—the learned occult traditions of the Renaissance, which were experiencing their last golden autumn in Europe during the years when the American colonies were being founded—was by no means the only kind of occultism being practiced by settlers in what became the United States. There was also a great deal of traditional folk magic, which crossed the ocean from every part of the world that people left to come to America. In a future post I’ll talk at length about some of the European folk traditions that made the leap across the Atlantic and put down roots here.
This week, though, we need to talk about another important body of folk magic that got here with newcomers—the magical traditions that enslaved Africans brought with them on their forced journeys to the New World. The immense and important role that the African magical heritage has played in the occult history of the United States is easy to misunderstand, and it doesn’t help that a great many people over the years have gone very far out of their way to misunderstand it. In order to make sense of it, we’re going to have to start with some basic points that most Americans never learn in their history classes.
The first point that has to be made is that Africa is not a single country with a single culture and a single magical tradition. It’s the second largest continent on the planet, accounting for 20% of Earth’s total land area. At just shy of 12 million square miles, it’s three times as big as Europe and a fifth again the size of North America. (Most Americans don’t realize this because the Mercator projection used for most of our world maps inflates the size of northern countries while making tropical regions look much smaller than they are.) The nations, peoples, languages, cultures, and occult traditions of so vast a land area are just as diverse as the landscape itself. When American history textbooks say that the slaves came “from Africa” and leave it at that, in other words, they leave out far too much.
The part of Africa that matters in the history of the slave trade is an arc of the continent’s west coast extending south from the Senegal and Gambia Rivers at the furthest point of Africa’s great westward bulge, then east along the northern shores of the Gulf of Guinea, and then south again to the mouth of the Congo River and beyond, into what is now Angola. To put things in perspective, the distance on land from Dakar in Senegal to Kinshasa on the banks of the Congo is about the same as the distance by road from Cincinnati, Ohio to Anchorage, Alaska. It’s a huge slice of an even bigger continent, and the people who lived there during the era of slavery were accordingly diverse.
The second point that has to be made is that it’s an absurd misstatement to claim that Africans in these regions were happy, primitive, illiterate tribespeople sitting around in grass huts until white slave traders showed up. (It’s all the more ironic that this claim so often gets made implicitly, and sometimes even explicitly, by exactly those people who are quickest to accuse others of racism.) In point of fact, the history of civilization in West Africa goes back a very long ways—longer than the equivalent history in Europe; the first cities in West Africa emerged around 2000 BCE, centuries before the founding of the first European cities. Those cities had all the characteristics of high civilization well in advance of such urban Johnny-come-latelies as London or Paris; Timbuktu in the present nation of Mali, for example, was a major center of scholarship and culture during the years when Europe was in the depths of the Dark Ages.
By the 15th century, when the first Portuguese ships began timidly poking their way down the coastline from Morocco, the vast majority of West African societies were literate, urban, and civilized. Three great empires dominating the trans-Sahara trade routes—Ghana, Mali, and Songhai—had risen and fallen in the region long before Europeans got there. Bustling port cities dotted the coast, especially in the West African heartland: the region on the northern shore of the Gulf of Guinea, where Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria are today.
West Africa in those days was also rich in resources. Several parts of the region had substantial gold mines; ivory commanded a high price north of the Sahara, and so did many other local products. Among those products, of course, were human beings. Slavery was a normal practice in most of the world’s nations in the 15th century, and the bustling urban centers of West Africa had slave markets long before the first ship arrived to buy slaves to ship to the New World. Though some enslaved Africans were kidnapped by white raiders, the vast majority were purchased at slave markets in those port cities.
That said, the coming of the transatlantic slave trade transformed the economics of slavery. What made things different was the fantastic amount of money that could be made by slave-worked plantations in the New World in an era of global maritime trade. Tobacco, cotton, sugar, and a dozen other cash crops could be produced cheaply in huge volume and sold to customers around the world, allowing plantation owners and merchants to rack up unparalleled profits. All that was needed to uncork that wealth was a limitless supply of cheap disposable labor, and that could be purchased, of course, in the slave markets of the West African coast.
As a result, the nations of West Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries ended up with an exact equivalent of the “resource curse” that afflicts so many tropical countries today. West African rulers and elite classes could become fabulously wealthy by agreeing to trade on terms that impoverished their nations and ultimately led to social and economic collapse—and this, in too many cases, they did. The result was the largest forced migration in human history, a mass movement of enslaved Africans that took something between 11 million and 28 million people (no records were kept and so all we have are estimates) across the Middle Passage. That migration unfolded in stages, and this is where the history of the western shores of Africa intersects with the history of the United States.
The first drafts of the plantation economy got started in the colonies that became the southern half or so of the United States, and so most of the enslaved Africans who arrived here came early on in the transatlantic slave trade’s dismal history. Since most West African nations were still more or less economically intact during that period, the majority of the slaves who were brought to the future United States came from regions far from the heartlands, on the two ends of the great swath of coast described earlier: the valleys of the Senegal and Gambia rivers in the far west, and the lands around the great watershed of the Congo and its tributaries in the far south.
That was simply where it was convenient for raiding parties from West African kingdoms to go first. Only later, as West Africa neared economic collapse, were enslaved people taken in huge numbers from the heartlands of the region, and by the time that happened, the importation of slaves to the United States had all but stopped and most slaves in the United States were born here. The West African people who were enslaved went mostly to the Caribbean islands, which kept up the mass importation of enslaved Africans until much later. That mattered because, again, Africa is not a single country and its peoples don’t belong to a single culture.
The complex spiritual and magical cultures of the West African heartland gave rise to Vodoun, Santería, and most of the other African-diaspora religions of the Caribbean, with their priesthoods, rites of possession, and elaborate divinatory and ritual traditions. Those traditions, important as they are in the broader African diaspora, had little impact on the North American mainland until very recent times. Outside of New Orleans, which has a complex magical history of its own, the traditions of African magic and spirituality that endured here in the United States were primarily those of the Bakongo, the people of the lower Congo valley and the coastal regions nearby.
These differ markedly from the West African traditions just mentioned. They do not rely on elaborate rites and hierarchical priesthoods; they focus on less complicated forms of reverence for ancestors and nature spirits, and work extensively with nkisi—a word that means both a spirit and an object in which spirit resides. (The difference only appears in the plurals; minkisi are things that contain spiritual power, while bankisi are spiritual beings, some ancestral, some nature spirits.) A nganga, a specialist in working with bankisi, makes use of minkisi to mediate between living human beings, ancestors, and nature spirits. Over all these reigns a creator god, Nzambi a Mpungu, who is present in all natural things and controls the forces of nature.
The order of the cosmos established by Nzambi a Mpungu is displayed in Bakongo tradition by the Kongo cosmogram, an equilateral cross that indicates the Four Moments of the Sun—sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight—and unites life and death, the realm of the living and the realm of the ancestors. The horizontal line is the boundary between the mountain of the living and the white clay realm of the dead; the vertical line is the path that connects them; the place of noon above represents the masculine and the zenith of physical power, the place of midnight below represents the feminine and the zenith of spiritual power.
It’s a robust and resilient faith, one that could be preserved even in the grim conditions of slavery. It also blended well with the traditional religion of the Senegalese and Gambian people who were brought here as slaves, many of whom also revered a creator god, Roog Sene, and offered prayers to ancestral spirits known as pangool. The Bakongo traditions and those of Senegalese and Gambian origin, in turn, also found common ground with certain trends in Protestant Christian spirituality, and the resulting fusion gave rise to one of the great traditions of American magic: the tradition variously called conjure, rootwork, or hoodoo.
Hoodoo is not “voodoo” (that is, Vodoun), and by and large it’s only white people who confuse the two. Vodoun, as already noted, is descended from the religious traditions of the West African heartland and took on its modern form in Haiti. As for hoodoo—well, to begin with, nobody knows for sure where the word came from or what it originally meant, though there are plenty of theories. It’s best described as what happened when traditional Bakongo spirituality had to adapt to the harsh conditions of slavery and the physical and spiritual ecology of a distant continent.
That process of adaptation involved a good many transformations. North American plants and animals replaced those found in the lush tropical forests of the Congo valley. Words changed—in place of minkisi, slaves used the terms “toby,” “hand,” or “mojo”; in place of banganga (the plural of nganga), they spoke of hoodoo doctors and rootworkers; in place of Nzambi a Mpungu, they spoke of God, and in place of the Kongo cosmogram, they revered the Christian cross. The shift in terminology was never complete—the word “mojo,” for example, may well be descended from the Kikongo word mooyo, the spiritual power present in minkisi, and the phrase “goofer dust” for graveyard dirt almost certainly derives from the Kikongo word kufwa, “to die”—and the underlying practices remain identical.
The use of graveyard dirt is a good example: important in Bakongo spiritual practices because it forms a point of contact between the realms of the living and the dead and gives access to ancestral bankisi, it’s equally important in hoodoo, and the offering rituals used in the lower Congo valley to gather the dust of the ancestors are paralleled by the hoodoo custom of paying the dead for their graveyard dirt with silver coins and whiskey. Resources changed, in other words, but the fundamental structure of thought and practice did not.
Perhaps the best way to make sense of the transformation of Bakongo spirituality into hoodoo is to see it as an exact parallel to the transformation of African music into African-American music. The banjo, that quintessentially African-American invention, apparently drew inspiration from a Senegalese instrument, and musicologists are still arguing about where in the span of Africa affected by the transatlantic slave trade the distinctive blues scale and the intricate syncopations of African-American music have their roots, but the basic principle is the same: a sensibility and a stock of forms and practices with African roots adapted successfully to the resources and challenges of a new continent, and gave rise to vibrant and creative traditions here. It’s far from inappropriate to think of classic Southern hoodoo as the precise magical equivalent of the blues, in fact, and to think of the later, urban forms of hoodoo—which will be discussed in a later post—as the equally precise magical equivalent of jazz.
Fortunately for musicologists, the early history of the blues and jazz are fairly well documented. Unfortunately for students of occult history, the same is not true of hoodoo. What’s known today about the early stages of hoodoo’s history comes almost entirely from archeologists on the one hand, and written accounts by white journalists and diarists on the other.
Ever since it became politically possible for archeologists to excavate old slave quarters in the eastern United States, field reports have dealt (or, in tones varying from discomfort to contempt, refused to deal) with the vast number of minkisi of various kinds that turn up wherever slaves lived. Written accounts from the colonial era are full of references to the magical practices of African and African-American slaves, sometimes quite detailed, though every example I’ve seen in my research views those practices through an assortment of distorting filters: those of mainstream Christianity (which assails them as devil worship), those of scientific rationalism (which dismisses them as ignorant superstitions), or sometimes both of these at once.
What nobody has today, and almost certainly no one ever will have, are accounts from the other side of the picture, the side of the enslaved Africans and African-Americans who transformed their traditional magical and spiritual practices into the oldest versions of hoodoo. Nor are there historical records of the people who made those transformations happen. All that survives is a legend: the legend of High John the Conqueror.
According to the story, High John was a king in Africa who was kidnaped by slave traders, sent in chains across the Atlantic and sold into slavery somewhere in the American South. In the woods near his cabin, he found a root with great magical powers, and used the strength, cleverness, and luck that the root gave him to turn the tables time and again on his white owner. According to African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote a much-quoted account of the legend, High John went back to Africa as soon as slavery was abolished in the United States, but he left the secret of his root behind to help other African-American people.
Did this happen? In a certain sense, of course it did. The Roman writer Sallust noted that myths are things that never happened but always are, but he forgot to mention that legends are things that never were but happen over and over again. Behind the legend of High John the Conqueror are the dimly remembered legacies of countless thousands of African and African-American slaves who used hoodoo to help them cope with the trauma of forced migration and the harsh realities of slavery. Those stories doubtless blended with incidents borrowed from tales about trickster-figures of the sort beloved in African legend, and with bits and pieces from other sources—that’s the way legends grow—but it’s likely enough that a core of truth lies at the center of the story.
Some African or African-American slave, certainly, figured out that a particular root found in the American south—the jalap root (Ipomoea jalapa) is the one most commonly used in hoodoo practice today—could be employed effectively in magical practice; someone—possibly the same person, more likely other people—identified several other roots in the same region with magical properties, and started using them. Those roots remain standard items in hoodoo practice today. Jalap root is sold and used as High John the Conqueror root, and other roots found in the south have related magical uses and names that reference High John in one way or another: Southern John, Low John, Little John to Chew, and so on. Lacking any less legendary name for the persons involved, we may as well credit these discoveries to High John the Conqueror.
The discoveries were made, the transformations took place, and Bakongo spirituality found a new home and evolved into new forms on the North American continent as hoodoo. It has remained widely practiced here ever since, and not only among the descendants of slaves. It’s one of the more interesting features of the history of occultism that practitioners of magic swap techniques and share what they know, and it’s another that these exchanges reliably ignore the ethnic, religious, and cultural prejudices of the broader society. Thus by the late 19th century if not before, hoodoo came to be practiced by white as well as black mages; hoodoo techniques spread through the American occult community generally; and hoodoo practitioners adapted teachings and techniques from other occult traditions to their own uses. Over the course of American occult history, as a result, a great many people followed in the footsteps of High John.
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Another bit of magic in the Americas – my mum lived in Colombia in the 70s and I asked about what went on. Magic there mainly revolved around statues, and people also carried little bags of stuff for protection.
Folks may enjoy Dr. John’s music as an accompaniment, Black John the Conqueror: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGPthoS5oP0
Thank you for this history. Not something that a Canadian would usually encounter either. Up here we also do not encounter any Native Canadian nor Inuit cultural/physical lore, but the more I learn of such, the more precious becomes Mother Earth – and the more repugnant the despoiliation of her by our Eurocentric heritage. I can never become Native Canadian, nor Inuit, nor black, but I can call out the private and too often public racism of people of my own cultural/social heritage.
Thank You for this superb essay.
I should not be, but I am always amazed at the depth of your knowledge.
I am afraid that you will have to deal with another class of trolls, the ones that say that it was just the western nations that dealed in slavery.
I have been doing some reading on Ifa (of the Yoruba), which appears to have some interesting connections with geomancy, but I believe that magical tradition is West African, as opposed to the tradition(s) you’re discussing specifically here. I rather stumbled across the Ifa (via Miskatonic Books’ and IFA: Forest of Mystery) and I’d like to learn more about a magical tradition originating from a very different culture than mine. I suppose finding a good history of pre-colonial Africa would be a place to start, if only to identify the cultures involved. Having grown up in the southern US, part of me wishes that an occult-minded archaeologist might publish a solid study of the magical traditions of slaves from the Ante-Bellum period. How fascinating would that be?!
Shaun, delighted to hear it! I’ll get something up on my Dreamwidth journal in the next day or so.
Yorkshire, fascinating. The statues are probably a borrowing from Catholic folk religion, but the little bags sound a lot like minkisi. It might be worth looking into the history of slavery in Colombia and see if there was a large Bakongo presence among the enslaved Africans who were brought there.
Jim, thanks for this!
Bruce, true, but don’t forget that your ancestors also had folk traditions worth remembering and reclaiming. I’ll be talking more about those two weeks from now.
Whispers, you’re most welcome. As for the trolls, I’m not too concerned; those who follow the list rules will get a nice page-long flurry of links demonstrating just how ignorant they are about world history, while those who don’t follow the list rules will have their attempted rants softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again.
David, yes, the Ifa oracle is from the West African heartlands north of the Gulf of Guinea, and yes, it’s related to geomancy — it’s the most complex and richly developed of a very large family of oracles found all over sub-Saharan Africa. (I’m quite convinced that geomancy is of African origin, having emerged from that family of oracles and reached the Muslim world via those trans-Sahara trade routes I mentioned in the post.) As for books on African history, I have no idea what’s available right now; the book that helped me see past the usual cliches was Great Civilizations of Ancient Africa by Lester Brooks; my junior high school library had a copy of it. I don’t know if it’s still in print but it was a very good read.
Thank you for the explanation of the difference in religious traditions between the ATRs and what would become Hoodoo! The cosmology of the ATRs has always seemed highly intuitive to me, whereas the cosmology of Hoodoo practice seemed somewhat opaque, and your essay helps me understand much more. If were to have settled on a religious practice by some sort of rationalist deduction, I would have almost certainly arrived at the practice of an ATR.
I find it interesting to reflect, too, on the raw diversity of spiritual traditions and currents around the world. It really seems to me that the subtler planes have as much or more diversity as the material plane, and the many inductions downward perhaps that spiritual paths more diverge than converge.
Urban Hoodoo and Jazz certainly are a fascinating parallel! Jazz assimilated a lot of really interesting influences like brass bands which come from European military tradition, as well as all sorts of
African and African-American traditions too. Here we can see the grimoire tradition entering Hoodoo, the various Solomonic Seals, Planetary Hours and Days, and not to mention candles!
Interestingly, a friend of mine in New Orleans once described that city as the Northernmost Caribbean center of culture, which certainly feel true to me while there. Indeed, New Orleans felt totally unique to me while I lived there, much closer to a bustling port of Latin America than a city not too far from Tallahassee or Houston.
Dear John Michael Greer,
This history is wonderful to see, and I look forward to reading more of what you have to say in this line. I think we need to have more of an idea of the immense complexity in our history–and the world history– and the powerful, and inevitable forces of transculturation.
I may have a more crunchy question for you over at “Magic Monday…”
Many thanks and kind regards,
Fascinating! I would also like to know which histories of Africa you recommend. I lived in Sierra Leone as a child, which probably was a peripheral region in the pre-colonial period.
Didn’t plantation economy start out on Madeira and the Azores and expand in Northeastern Brazil and the Caribbean before spreading to the English colonies? However, this doesn’t distract from your point that those regions that abolished slavery later are now strongly influenced by traditions from the West African heartland. Bahia in Brazil seems sometimes like a copy of Yorubaland…
One more point: I was under the impression that the Empire of the Congo in the 15th and 16th centuries was quite centralized, but I am no historian.
Firstly, the Kongo cosmogram reminds me of the Druidical wheel of the year, with the difference, that the Kongo cosmogram is rather a wheel of the day, so to speak. There is even a equivalt of yin and yang, like in some Druid traditions.
Secondly, that magical traditions borrow freely from each other is something not widely known, so it is not really surprising that the ancient Gauls emprunted the magical practice of leaden curse tablets, which were widely used in the antique Mediterranean world. Curse tablets were found, to my knowledge, with inscriptions at least in Gaulish, Latin, Greek and Oscan.
Will you eventually turn these essays on magical history into a book; it’s not only be very entertaining but would serve as a great general reference work. Do you think we’re in the early stages of a society-wide revolution in our understanding of consciousness? An understanding of occult history would be very helpful in this regard. I think Jon Rappaport, with his emphasis on the power of imagination, is definitely onto something.
My father was Colombian and when I had my DNA done, my own African ancestry turns out to be 2% Cameroon, Congo and Southern Bantu Peoples, and 1% Ghana. The first group covers a huge area, but as they refine the testing it’ll get more precise.
Thanks, that was very informative. Even people who maintain that there is no such thing as magic can learn some interesting and relevant historical facts from this week’s post.
Hi JMG… and commentariat!
Thanks for this lovely article.
I picked up a copy of “The Life and Times of Sun Ra” by John F. Szwed at a used bookstore back in March. Amongst my other readings, I’ve read the first section of that book up until Sun Ra’s time in Chicago. It was eye opening to read about his early history in Birmingham, and fascinating how he would play a lot of shows at the Prince Hall Freemason lodges. That scene and milieu has been on my mind since I read it, and I look forward to the future section where you detail, as per your simile, that aspect of African American occultism that would be similar to jazz.
All the best,
Violet, interesting. I find the West African religious traditions intriguing but not personally appealing, while Bakongo cosmology feels so intuitive to me that I’m considering getting my DNA tested. (There’s a family story on my mother’s side about a Native American ancestor, but that was used quite often in 20th century America to provide camouflage for the far more socially difficult issue of African-American ancestry.) As for New Orleans, I’ve never been there, but the fact that Vodoun put down roots there so early, and so easily, suggests that you’re likely correct.
C.M., one of the worst things modern US education has done is that it’s made history seem boring. History is the most fascinating thing there is; it’s your story, my story, everyone’s story, and if you get down into the colorful details it’s livelier than any fiction can be.
Matthias, I may have been misinformed about the relative dates of the plantation economy in various parts of the New World; certainly the English settlements in what’s now the southern US went into plantations very early, but if things got going elsewhere earlier still, that’ll want to be factored in. As for the Kongo kingdom, the information I’ve read suggests that its degree of centralization depended very much on the individual monarch — in that sense, rather like the European kingdoms of the same period, which were very centralized indeed under a strong king and very decentralized under a weak one. My point, though, was that the religious institutions were much less centralized than in West Africa, and I’ll keep that clarification in mind.
Booklover, the parallels with Druid cosmology didn’t escape my notice. It fascinates me that so many of the alternative spiritual traditions in America these days use something not that dissimilar to the Bakongo cosmogram, with the four moments of the sun very often involved!
Greg, I do indeed plan on using these essays as raw material for a book on American magic. It’s high time that more people, in and out of the American occult community, got some assistance breaking out of the faux-historical delusion that sees mainstream Christianity and rationalist materialism as the only two currents worth noticing in America’s spiritual history.
Yorkshire, interesting. If I understand correctly, the Kikongo language is closely related to Bantu and other East African languages and the Bakongo migrated from eastern Africa in relatively recent historic times, so that’s not too surprising.
Mister N, you’re most welcome. Even those people who don’t think that magic works can certainly learn some history from those of us who know better. 😉
Justin, we are seriously going to talk about Sun Ra as this conversation proceeds, as he was up to his eyeballs in some of the most creative aspects African-American occult thought. As I’ve done so far, I plan on using specific individuals where possible to trace out broader trends in the history of American magic, and he’s too colorful and too brilliant to leave out.
Thanks, JMG. Learning the history, that is not in the history books written by the victors, is why I keep coming back.
Hmm. An African king gaining the power to protect his people from a magical plant. I wonder if that could ever pop up in popular culture at all… :p
It would be very interesting to compare African-American Christianity with Hoodoo, see if there is any syncretism going on (or perhaps, how much). It’s not like they’d be the first Christians to do so.
It’s interesting for me to hear you say that about New Orleans. I come at it from the other way – I’m from the Caribbean and all my friends who’ve lived there or even just visited told me that they felt they were home. More so than in Florida!
I had a good friend from New Orleans in college and the more we got to know each other the more we realised that our family histories were almost parallel – until Jim Crow, really.
Very interesting — great article!
Thanks for this. Something I’ve never really understood is how the Europeans and Euro-Americans were so able to start the slave trade. In the Americas, pandemics brought to those peoples weakened some of them to the point they were totally unable to resist. (This was especially virulent here in Oregon, where disease traveled ahead of the “whites.”) I haven’t read of similar plagues in west Africa brought by Europeans, but maybe that was a factor.
I got to see Sun Ra perform a couple times, first in the early 1980s (only stayed for the first four hours of the show). Last time he played for an hour, his energy was not as robust any more.
Curious what you think about the magical aspects of the global pause we are all in now. A real time global exercise to practice for climate mitigation and the downslope of peak everything …
You might be interested to hear that there is a strong Kongo component in certain elements of Haitian Vodou. While most of it, obviously, derives from West Africa (like the word vodou itself!), there were quite a few slaves brought from the Kongo kingdom.
Within Vodou there are different “nations” with different musical styles, icons, practices. In Haiti the slave trade ended before it did elsewhere in the Caribbean, so that could be why the Kongo influence was sustained. Whereas in Cuba (like Brazil), by the time slavery ended it was fuelled largely by the Yoruba civil wars.
When I did my DNA it showed both Central and West African, and somehow it determines that the Central African is farther back, which would jibe with the patterns of who they imported when.
Thanks for a great post. I am so unfamiliar with how these influences shaped the US!
Wonderful essay. I look forward to the rest of the series.
I’ve read that the plantation system in the U.S.was started in South Carolina by slave lords from Barbados. The system they started spread west and south to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and was substantially different from the slavery of the Tidewater areas of North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia. A key difference was that slaves vastly outnumbered freemen, and that the slave lords were deathly afraid of rebellions, like the rebellion in Haiti. My source is American Nations by Colin Woodward.
Darkest Yorkshire: on Africans where you don’t expect them. An entire shipload of slaves seized control of the ship carrying them to the New World and ended up in Ecuador, where they settled. The son of one of the men became an official of the Spanish government, with governorship of a large section of the coast. A portrait of him and his two sons, resplendent in a combination of Inca and Spanish finery, but carrying what appear to be African style spears, is in the Prado. Look up Don Francisco de Arobe. Wonder what influence they may have had on the religion and magic of the area.
Fascinating. This is very interesting indeed, JMG: I’ve read a lot about the Yoruba-based religions of the Caribbean over the years, but I know very little about the hoodoo of the mainland US, so I’m looking forward to reading more. (For what it’s worth, the possession rituals of voudun etc have striking similarities to those of traditional folk Daoism and – I’m told – of north Africa, possibly in the Berber areas. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from that, but it seems to me that there must be a reason).
A reader here (I forget who, but thanks to whoever it was) mentioned that Harvard have a course on divination on their MOOC. It sounded interesting, so I signed up. It’s very much a basic introduction, but it did look at West African ifa. It’s very interesting: the diviners need to train for years in order to qualify, and must memorize large quantities of oral lore, which forms the basis for the interpretation of the divination process. I was struck by the parallels with the similarly oral learning of the Druids, though there doesn’t seem to have been any communication between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa in the period of the Druids (though, again, the Berbers certainly acted as a bridge, so who knows?)
Obviously, there’s all kinds of hidden layers to human experience – thanks again for bringing some of them out of obscurity.
Oh, if anyone is interested, I wrote a brief review of the Harvard course here.
Mac, you’re welcome and thank you!
Nerwen, most hoodoo practitioners are Protestant Christians, and yes, there’s a great deal of syncretism. Some of the most interesting is in the Spiritual churches, which have syncretized hoodoo with Spiritualism and Christianity; most Spiritual churches have Reverend Mothers, though I don’t think the Bene Gesserit had anything to do with that. 😉
Thesseli, thank you.
Mark, you’re still thinking of slavery as something that was imposed by white people on the Africans. As I noted in my post, slavery was commonplace in Africa long before Europeans got there; what happened was that merchants from Europe showed up with plenty of money and started buying slaves at long-established slave markets. The local slave merchants were doubtless delighted to have a new market for their product, and since the Europeans had practically limitless budgets due to the profits from the plantation economy, they could just keep buying, and buying, and buying…
Dax, fascinating. No, I wasn’t aware of that, though it doesn’t surprise me to hear about it.
Tomriverwriter, thanks for this. I’ll look into it.
Bogatyr, fascinating. For what it’s worth, there’s a theory in historical linguistics that argues that the features that set the Celtic languages apart from all other Indo-European languages, such as the habit of starting most sentences with a form of the verb “to be,” were inherited from a pre-IE language stratum related to Berber.
I’ve had a ‘John the Conqueror’ candle on my desk for twenty plus years, grinning at me with that devious smile. His was the only printed vela that I kept, all my other candles, it was only the color that mattered. So many times I’ve thought getting rid of them all but I never do. Personally I think it’s because of John the Conqueror that they’re all still here.
Thank you for the education of who is.
Fascinating! Thanks for this intriguing essay. And the wonderful & diverse comments that have been made so far are certainly providing much food for thought.
It made me recall my high school days (circa 1967-68), in a world history class (which had the standard boring narrow Euro-centric focus that even there left out the most interesting parts). Anyhow – students were assigned to do an essay (and class presentation) on any topic of world history that was of interest. I (anglo (i.e., white) female) felt that there was a lot of ignored history & i strongly felt that Africa (other than ancient Egypt) had to – just HAD TO! – have been home to some old civilizations. Sure enough – thanks to a decent school library – i found some information on a number of ancient & medieval era civilizations in Africa & did a research project on that, a kind of general survey with highlights of a few areas;. I don’t remember most of the details or the response, except i received a decent grade. It was a project i enjoyed,
For those interested in knowing more about how the limitless demand for slaves and supply of money hollowed out West African societies from, David Graeber’s Debt contains a chapter on myths that formed in one such society during that time.
I love the way the occult find ways to adapt symbols. If something can easily be combined with another common symbol in society, why take that path and avoid the troubles of appearing suspicious. Doing research on these things definitely is a bit like being a detective.
Thank you also JMG for the distance comparison. I wasn’t aware of the vastness of the African continent.
Fascinating history lesson. What I find interesting is that the early Middle Ages in Europe were dominated by Islamic & Byzantine (Rome 2.0) cultures, a trend that continued the long long trend of civilization being centered on the Mediterranean, the Middle East & China: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_cities_throughout_history
It must’ve seemed a bizarre notion, even to African kingdoms on the periphery of the waning Islamic world, that the Portuguese or Spanish or English were a threat. Instead, they probably thought they were getting the better end of the trade from these country bumpkins, just like we (Americans) did with China. That is the fatal mistake, of course, as Spengler has noted.
Mark: On the specific point of why African slaves didn’t die to European diseases when that issue foundered attempts to enslaved captured Native Americans – well, that probably has a lot to do with how there was far more contact between Africa and Europe than there was between the Old and New Worlds. The only contact reasonably well attested between the Old and New Worlds before Columbus and Vespucci is the Vinland expedition; while there may well have been other voyages that were lost to the records, that does tend to set a ceiling on just how much contact there was. Moreover, a) Vinland and thereabouts are the easiest places to reach from the Old World and they’re pretty isolated from the rest of North America and b) a lot of the more speculative contacts between the Old and New World are dated to the ancient Mediterranean seafaring empires, which would predate the speculated appearance of quite a few modern diseases (IIRC smallpox is thought to have evolved only sometime in the last 2500 years or so); even if, say, the Phoenicians did manage occasional trips to the Americas and back, it’s a safe bet there’s at least a thousand-year gap where the Vikings were the only Europeans making it to the Americas, and IIRC west Africa tended to use boats like canoes that were unsuited to ocean travel.
Africa, on the other hand? Well, I’m relatively unfamiliar with the sub-Saharan and Indian Ocean coast parts of African history, but I am reasonably familiar with both North Africa and the major empires of West Africa. Both (along with the coastal kingdoms/sultanates of the western Indian Ocean) were part of the broader Islamic world – the legendary gold-deflating pilgrimage of Mansa Musa, the most famous ruler of the Mali Empire, was specifically the hajj – and tied into the trading networks thereof. Not just the ivory, gold, and salt traders, either – though those cargoes in and of themselves would probably have been enough to ensure regular contact between Africa and Europe, since those trade networks sometimes reached all the way up to Europe. (I’ve seen speculation that one of the reasons for the failure of the Vikings’ Greenland colony, in addition to climate fluctuations, was a thawing of relations between the Islamic world and Christendom in the late Middle Ages after a few centuries of tensions; this made it easier for Europe to buy African elephant ivory again, undercutting Greenland’s walrus ivory exports.) There was a reason the Barbary corsairs (based slightly further north, on the southern shore of the Mediterranean – IIRC Tunis was one of their main bases) were so widely feared in Europe – for quite a long time, Islamic law was that Muslims could not be enslaved but Christians were fair game, and thus the Barbary corsairs routinely enslaved the crews of ships they captured and the population of towns they sacked. Further north, this is why the Ottoman Janissaries of a later era were drawn from the Balkan Christian population, and there’s some evidence that’s surfaced lately that one source of Viking wealth was using the river systems of eastern Europe to transport captured Europeans to traders who in turn shipped them further to the Middle East. I would also imagine this is another reason more slaves came from the Congo in the earlier days of the slave trade; Islam never really made it quite that far south in Africa.
(The Western model of slavery is unusual in its *brutality* – the result of the demands of the plantation system, possibly abetted by some of the local spiritual ecosystem (I’m quite convinced the American South, at least, has more than a little Mesoamerica in it) – but slavery is by no means a strictly Western phenomenon.)
Of course, ship crews in the ancient world were very much vectors for diseases, and slave ships doubly so. Which meant that African slaves had some measure of exposure to and immunity from Old World diseases, while captive natives… didn’t.
 – At least in North America that particular term gives me a whiff of a certain sense of humor – I’m not sure anyone’s really a native in these parts, even people whose ancestors have lived on the same patch of land for ten thousand years – but I digress.
Jeff, you’re most welcome. High John is powerful mojo, no question.
PatriciaT, delighted to hear it! I hope at least a few of the other students picked up on that. If I ever have a bunch of spare time and nothing else I have to research or write, I’d like to do a history of the world that breaks out of the “Rise of the West” handwaving and puts the whole planet in perspective. It would be a fun project.
Matthias, thanks for this. I’ll check that out when the libraries open back up again.
Prizm, you’re most welcome. The Mercator projection should be scrapped — it really does distort people’s view of the world.
Brian, the four centuries of European global domination (1550-1950) were a profound anomaly in world history; it’s as though New Zealand conquered the world. Much of the history of the next four centuries or so will be the process by which history reverts to normal and Europe becomes what it’s been through most of time, a mountainous and not especially interesting peninsula sticking off the west end of Asia.
As most of you know, I’m a plant identification geek. I believe one of the northern variants of High John the Conqueror grows on my compost pile and other places in my Illinois yard! It’s also called bindweed. When my husband and I moved into our little house approximately three years ago, we inherited a giant pile of dirt and junk that we were only able to afford to remove last summer. Bindweed grew all over that thing. Bindweed likes to strangle other plants! I moved a Rose of Sharon too close to the aforementioned hill of junk and it got strangled to death. I’m thinking it might be perfect for the northern Illinois Ogham I’m trying to formulate, most likely in the place of Gort/Ivy because of its strength and tenacity.
I will photograph it for you all once summer arrives and the bindweed blooms. 😀
Thank you for another fascinating entry into this series. I echo what others have said, I’d love to see this become a book and I’d be among the first to order a copy!
Your discussion of the ignorance that some folks have with regards to Africa and its numerous civilizations and cultures reminds me of an incident from the history of mathematics which I love to share with my students. Fractal geometry came to prominence in mathematical and scientific circles during the 2nd half of the 20th century, and its discovery has often been credited to Benoit Mandelbrot, a European (and, to be sure, an incredible thinker who lived a fascinating life). The problem with that attribution, of course, is that fractals had been known in Africa for untold centuries. I believe the first westerner to realize this was an anthropologist who noticed fractals in the layout of villages from aerial photographs in the 80’s, and I’m pretty sure there’s at least one African divination system based on fractals too (and boy would I love to learn that system from a seasoned practitioner!)…
Somewhat off topic, but are you familiar with the work of F. W. H. Myers, and if so, would you care to comment on his theory of personality surviving bodily death?
There is a super podcast called The Fall of Civilizations which I think long time readers of JMG would really enjoy.
Episode 7 is about the Songhai and I have to say, when I listened to it I realised just how little I knew about the African civilisations.
I occured to me that, like South America, a region may look rather ‘backward’ and ‘primitive’ to European eyes if it had been aggressively denuded of 20M of its population during the previous century.
My girlfriend and I both did a genetic test from 23andme – a highly questionable decision, I’m aware, as they can now do anything they want with our DNA including selling the data – but we were curious and were willing to take the risk. I had no detectable trace of anything non-European – not even an Elizabeth Warren’s worth. My GF, though, had roughly 0.6% Congolese and/or Angolan.
I was not surprised that there would be a trace of African ancestry, of course – that’s extremely common for Americans no matter how light their skin color.
(One time I browsed Stormfront out of morbid curiosity and found that there had been a short-lived fad for ancestry testing, but this ended very quickly after many of them got their results back and found out they had rather more than one “drop” in their bloodlines. Of course they were angrily denying it and spinning conspiracy theories about DNA testing companies, in that angry tone people take on when one of their core beliefs has just been upended. It was pretty good comedy.)
What surprised me about my GF was the region in Africa – I thought that most American slaves were of West African origin, from roughly modern Senegal through Nigeria. I didn’t know that the Congo basin was a major source of the slaves that the West African states captured in war or bought from those who did and sold on to European slave traders. I’d guess many might have originated from deeper inside Congo and were captured and sold by the Kongo Kingdom as it expanded and found a market with the Portuguese at first, but I don’t know much of anything about it.
Do you know any good books on the African states of the region during the time of the transatlantic slave trade? I really enjoy reading about forgotten parts of world history.
I am loving these pieces on the little heard histories of the world. If a decade back you were to say to me “hey, you are going to be head over heals with history in a decade!” I would have probably dismissed it entirely as “I don’t need history, it is all about the future!”. Life is strange like that, I like it a lot.
A side note : For whatever reason I never associated Sun Ra with the occult even though now it is blindingly obvious just by putting those words next to each other. I look forward to it.
@Brian in regards to the European rule. As JMG noted, it was a very odd arrangement. Something I like to point out to people, the fact that China is not the major ruling world power right now is an oddity. Current western rule is a combination of stolen momentum of the fading European empire combined with fossil energy/resource fueled military might. It too will fade with time. China is playing an admirable game trying to take back their throne and it will be interesting to see their movement over the coming decades. Moments liek this I feel like George Carlin “I want to live a thousand years just to see the end of the American empire know what happens with China and Russia and see where it all ends up”.
On a side note, in my small country, Mauritius, found not very far from Madagascar, we had a french and english plantation economy with lots of African slaves from Madagascar and Mozambique and later with indentured labourers mainly from British India (and even some slaves from west Africa! Imagine this, there is quarter in the Capital city Port Louis called Camp Yoloff – Yoloff being a west African language).
Consequently, we have a fairly robust folk magic tradition here and its practitioners are called “Longanistes”. The local folk magic incorporates elements from Madagascar, Europe and India. I really don’t know how much of it has been researched by our local historians but one university academic told me that among Rastafarians here, once a year they go to “Le Morne” mountain where escaped slaves hid away. They get high on Marijuana (called gandia here) and then have conversations in the dead of night with their ancestors. A form of ancestor worship.
In the local press, from time to time there are reports of “longanistes” at work and charging large sums to their clients! There is a brisk trade here in magic. So much so that in many christian cemeteries the large crosses that used to be found there have been taken down as attracting nightly folk magicians! Cemeteries are also fenced off by law to prevent people entering them at night for magical purposes.
I remember once going into a police station and seeing a notice that officials from a local mosque had complained of nightly magical activities by persons unknown to them on a road intersection next to the mosque! They requested that the Police patrol the area at night. In our British based criminal code there is a section that deals with magic. One may be prosecuted if one has used magic to fool people and extort money. So the practice itself is not forbidden, only if the practitioner uses it to extort money to gullible people apparently. I am not aware of anyone recently being so prosecuted!
There is also an Islamic version of magic here, perhaps better called Theurgy. And decades ago I met one of its practitioners. He is dead now and he told me he had been trained by a mage from Persia, before world war 2! He reported that he had his own Djinn (a being of fire according to the Quran) that he could call forth. He could ask the Djinn to perform certain things. But whatever he asked of the Djinn it had to be in line with Quranic teachings. He told me he often helped persons find a spouse! He used a lot of magic squares apparently.
I even saw an Indian fakir sleep on a bed of nails once! I really could not believe my very eyes!
Although my country is very safe and at peace, there has been very rare reports of human sacrifice, alas. The last case I remember was a few years back when the body of a woman was found hacked in several pieces and thrown into a small lake. The head was never found. The police suspected magic and sorcery. The culprits were never found.
Violet and David by the lake,
There’s plenty of Ifa traditions embedded in Brazilian, Haitian, and Cuban religious practices. Since the latter two countries were used as proving grounds to break the spirit of newly arrived slaves before sending them on to the States, a great many early Vodoun and Santeria practices were brought intact into the southern states. New Orleans was a main port for resale of Caribbean slaves, and the French there were far more permissive about open expression of African culture, even allowing slaves to congregate and celebrate in their free time. Being a French city, sexual mores were also more permissive, and miscegenation was nowhere near as frowned upon as in British colonies. French masters took African mistresses, often paying for the good upbringing of the fruits of their union. Later French gentlemen competed for the attentions of the beautiful and highly coveted quadroons and octoroons their grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ generations had sired.
By the time the United States came to control New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, French permissiveness had already firmly taken hold there, and was not going to be easily uprooted. Restrictions were increased, but never to the same level as other cities in the South. Congregating of slaves was eventually restricted down to just one location known as Congo Square or Place des Nègres. Forcing all slaves to meet in one place actually facilitated the exchange of ideas and traditions among slaves who previously met in separate locations. Hence why New Orleans still has such rich expressions of conjure and jazz and the funeral cults we call Mardi Gras clubs.
Naturally, Congo Square became a tourist destination for early Americans to be thrilled or horrified by the music, dances, and rituals of their black neighbors. Since most American slave owners were terrified of insurrection and had outlawed all drumming, many white visitors to Congo Square were hearing the complex interlocking polyrhythms in Yoruban and other African drumming traditions for the first time in their lives. Contemporary descriptions and journal entries run the gamut from mystified to terrified to enchanted. Many of the rituals that live on today in hoodoo and blues and tap have roots that were shared and traded in a run-down square in New Orleans. It was a different kind of proving ground, one to rebuild broken spirits.
Very interesting. I used to think that hoodoo was a purely jocular expression. Then I read somewhere that it was a racist urban legend. Even later that it was entirely based on German grimoires. And now I read this!
Also, I always wondered why the US doesnt have its own version of West African syncretist religion.
Looking forward to book!
That was a very interesting overview of the origins of the West African slave trade. There was slave trading in East Africa as well, dominated by the Arabs, but the history is not so well known.
Regarding the state of civilization of West Africa, I did read that the academic gown, as worn at graduation, had its origin in West Africa. It was the style of clothing worn by an African scholar who travelled to England in the 1200s and so impressed the academics there that they decided to adopt his garb for themselves as a mark of respect. Subsequently in West Africa it became the traditional garb of horse traders.
Online references, however, state that academic garb derives from the ecclesiastical dress of the Middle Ages, so I can’t be sure which story is correct.
David By The Lake, I can recommend the book Into Africa – A Journey Through The African Empires by Marq de Villiers and Shelia Hirtle. The continent is taken in sections based on the ancient empires, with one author presenting the history and the other travelling there for an on-the-ground perspective. 1998 Orion Books is the version I have, with about 150 pages on the areas related to this post (of a 400 page book).
You tied hoodoo vs, say, voudon in with early-wave vs late-wave slave trafficking. I noticed that you also said hoodoo merged with Protestant Christianity, which was and is the dominant faith of a lot of the South. Where the dominant faith was Roman Catholic, there’s where I’ve seen or heard of Santeria, Voudon, and the like. How well do these things tie in together, and is it only a coincidence? The folk magic of New Mexico is curandismo, which I have notes on somewhere from a class taken long ago, but which includes both herbal and spiritual healing.
Careful, the (Canadian) Iroquois hunted the beaver to extinction and enslaved or annihilated all tribes around them that got in their way, often by torturing them to death over days in creative and gleeful ways. That’s not exactly a Euro-heritage thing. Just as Kings enslaving their own people and selling them for gold out of Africa is not a Euro-heritage thing. It’s a “Human” thing. Isn’t belief in the beautiful, primitive child-like “noble savage” the real epitome of racism? They’re not real people with real power, real responsibilities, real flaws and problems, and real, powerful, and extensive kingdoms. No, Africans lived in huts and their vast kingdoms are erased by history of the “noble savage”. The Iroquois who had the largest army in North America were just a nobody, a victim of an inevitably all-white people, and have no force of their own except in relation to the “important people”: the only “real” people who ever acted on anything: Euros. Why look for their history or preserve it since they never existed anyway?
How does that compare with saying Africans, AmerIndians were enormous historical forces larger, greater, more diverse than Europe, but have been eclipsed in their time like Greece and Rome. You know, like we will also be eclipsed and vanish in ours. The meta-belief in innate goodness or badness based on race is also racism, and much more insidious.
As JMG says, your own heritage has been fighting endlessly in Europe to get the upper hand for Nature and Balance, so will you likewise discredit the eternal efforts of Euros that have finally turned and made the West clean and ecologically-minded? That even now wants to push more in that direction at the cost of our power and comfort? The Euro-resisters were people too, again discounting that race has anything to do with it. All humans have all trends running underneath always.
“The system … was substantially different” Slavery being of some form in Europe, and was in Britain always – that’s why it existed in America, which was Britain (broad brush). They always make it seem an “American” thing. In fact, it was worldwide, and we were only middle, not late, in erasing it, at enormous national cost. Anyway, Euro slavery was indentured servitude, already a watered-down slavery, as Europe already was trying to avoid straight slavery while the rest of the world embraced it – those naughty Euros. The 7-year indenture of people was as brutal as anything, and was only sidelined to minor status because of the certain-death of malaria, as Scots and other whites throughout the Caribbean perished like rats. Thus the plantations turned to the malaria-resistant Africans more out of desperation than any intent, to keep the cash flowing. And as here, bought slaves from other Africans, kingdom-to-kingdom in a way, as slavery was there, in Europe, in Islam, and didn’t fade until, heavens, when? 1880s? Only to return worldwide now, as nobody cares about Nike and Apple and East European sex trafficking in Manchester or Miami either? I wants my iPhone! I want my cheap shoes! Death camps and suicide nets be drabbed. That’s us. And we fight it like they did. We’re not better, not different. (Source in “Bound Over”, a book pointing out why Founder Father children of parents nearly killed by Indenture would say “Give me Liberty or give me Death” and mean it, unlike the hollow and cost-free signaling of today.)
It’s important to point out that it wasn’t a race thing. Not at first. It was kingdom-to-kingdom. Nor was it a power thing. At first Europe was weaker than Africa and America, naïve bumpkins indeed. The plantations and attempts were smaller, a tiny outfit of a few men, a few convicts, like a coca-growing operation in Columbia, only the drug was sugar. We see these things from their outrageous exaggerated industrial endpoint of 1859, not their bare existence in 1659. Or at least, this is my understanding of it. Look at it from the human point of view, not from today’s morals and biases. They weren’t dumb. They were just like you. What were they thinking? If we won’t judge lived experience now, why judge your fathers then?
I have always hated the Mercator projection. It should be reserved purely for navigation. The dymaxion world map which is an equal area map really shows Europe as a smallish peninsula at the edge of the Eurasian landmass and the vastness of Africa. The best though is of course a globe though it needs to be a good one. Somehow they manage to produce these with large distortions too by squashing up at the equator.
Hi John Michael,
Thanks for the history lesson, as down here we learn little of the darker sides of the history of your country. All cultures have them, and people have been moving around the planet and displacing other people and causing outrage and mayhem for as long as there have been people.
Incidentally, down here the English sent their n’er do wells for forced labour in the form of convicts. I’m waiting for the first cruise ship (dare I cheekily use the word ‘stricken’ to describe the industry?) to suggest converting one of their ships into a prison hulk. Everything old is new again. Your essay has made me wonder what went on with the convicts that may have gone unrecorded.
It is interesting that you mention: “practitioners of magic swap techniques and share what they know, and it’s another that these exchanges reliably ignore the ethnic, religious, and cultural prejudices of the broader society… because I just purchased a book on Indigenous fire land management practices and connection with country. Fire Country by Victor Steffensen, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it. The land down here definitely needs some serious healing.
What do you think about the theory of historical or generational trauma in people whose ancestors suffered from colonialism, slavery and genocide? Could there be an occult component to that as well?
How interesting! I’ve just recently read Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, one of the subplots of which deals with a group of Herero who the Germans, after massacring their village, have taken prisoner and covertly posted to a subterranean base to help build V-2 rockets in the last years of WWII. Their home village is referred to as having been built in the shape of a sacred mandala divided in four quarters, the women living in the north, the men in the south, with a circle in the middle, “the pen where we kept the sacred cattle”…
For those interested, later in the book, as part of the book’s extraordinarily weird symbolism, a connection is drawn between the mandala and the visual impression of the V-2 rocket viewed from below, its four fins making a cross centred on a circular base.
But that’s by the by… what I really want to say is, even though the gender assignations are the opposite of the ones you give, I’m convinced that Pynchon was drawing from this Kongo cosmogram! If I’m not mistaken the Herero come from Angola as well as Namibia, right on the southernmost point of the region in question, the epicentre of the slave trade, so it fits geographically.
I don’t know if there’s any fans of Pynchon out there – he is technically ‘post-modern’ which I know is a bad word to some – but I found Gravity’s Rainbow to be a fantastic read and it’s never been far from my thoughts in the week or so since I finished it. So I just had to remark on this!
The guy knows his Hermeticism too; there’s lots of detailed references to Qabalah and Tarot interwoven in there.
Anyway, thanks for another fascinating essay JMG!
Based solely on the unquestionable similarity in the names, High John must be a direct descendant of Prester John! How dare you not trace your lineage from this noble line of Johns? 🙂
That is an interesting point you make, but I would like to say that the list you linked to is hopelessly biased – the authors have only looked in those four regions for cities and then claimed that these were the largest cities! Mohenjo-Daro only comes up once when archaeological evidence has consistently shown the Indus-Valley was the most densely populated civilisation of its time (more than twice the size of Sumeria). As a matter of fact, where is Tenochtitlan?
So while Europe has ebbed and flowed in its importance, I think it’s fair to say that civilisation is more than just a project of the four places you listed. India didn’t become the world’s second largest population (and stay as the world’s largest economy for 17 centuries, according to some historians) by not having urban centres.
An absolutely fascinating account weabing magic and history, I wish this was back to the series format of TADR!
Tres Bla; Thanks for bringing up GR. I was long a Pynchon fan. I read GR three times. Right now, however, Foppl’s siege party from “V” is more on my mind.
There was (and is) plenty of slavery to go around.
Another forgotten aspect was the EAST African slave trade throughout the Indian Ocean basin.
Quillette did a nice piece on it: https://quillette.com/2019/02/06/understanding-modern-african-horrors-by-way-of-the-indian-ocean-slave-trade/
Humans take to slavery like ducks take to water. What was a Russian serf but a slave?
Really glad you are cracking this egg. There is far too much fear and superstition surrounding American magical practices and our well-being would be greatly improved if people were not too shy to talk about their experiences in public.
The Kongo cosmogram resembles the native american cross of the four directions.
Very interesting. I’ve studied Candomble (from Brazil), which along with Santeria has a strong presence in my area (Greater New York). These traditions naturally syncretize with Roman Catholicism and various European polytheistic traditions, but until this post I didn’t understand why they seemed so different from what is seen in the African American traditions. Insightful.
Dear John Michael Greer,
PS To my previous comment:
After many years gone by I still recall being much surprised by this fascinating book on the slave trade by economic historian David W Galenson: Traders, Planters and Slaves: Market Behavior in Early English America. In case you haven’t seen it, I can recommend it.
Another point you make here, that African cultures from which slaves came to the Americas were incredibly diverse, is something fascinating to see in the development of Gullah. The father of that vein of research was linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner — for an excellent article on Turner and his work, see http://magazine.uchicago.edu/1012/features/legacy.shtml
Quell Blog – I’m afraid I’ve not read V so you’ll have to explain that one. I’m sure I’ll get to it at some point though. After Vineland and now GR I can feel myself becoming somewhat addicted to his style. It’s just such intricate and amazing storytelling. I’ve been sizing up Mason & Dixon for my next ride…
As I understand it “slavery” is sometimes not visible to us because of the vocab used at the time to describe the situation. This is particularly applicable to the large volume of Europeans who were involuntarily transported to the North American plantations and used up, well before any Africans.
Kimberly, do you know which species of the Ipomoea genus it is? Bindweed’s certainly in that family, but the tubers have very different properties from species to species — the sweet potato is also a member of the family, for example.
Ryan, fascinating — I didn’t know that about fractals. I’m not at all surprised, though. As for African divination systems, it’s quite possible — the divinatory oracles of sub-Saharan Africa have been neglected to an embarrassing degree; there’s a very rich panoply of traditions.
Kevin, do you mean his basic argument that human personalities survive the death of the body and enter into a “metetherial” world of images apart from matter? I see no reason to doubt it, as it corresponds closely to the teachings of occult philosophy, the evidence from near-death experiences and reincarnation studies, and my own memories from before my current life.
MCB, exactly. Colonial policies that strip countries to the bare walls and funnel all the wealth back to Europe also tend to have that effect. India, for example, was the richest country in the world in 1600; by 1900 it was one of the poorest, because every scrap of wealth that wasn’t nailed down had been extracted and shipped off to London.
Grebulocities, as I noted in my post, the heartland of West Africa contributed rather a small proportion of the total slaves brought to the US; a much larger fraction came from the Congo basin, so this doesn’t surprise me. I’m not at all sure what’s currently available in terms of books on African history; the book that I originally read on the subject, which I noted above, is apparently long out of print.
Michael, but history is about the future! It’s by knowing the patterns that events follow that we can anticipate the future most effectively.
Karim, how fascinating! Thank you for this.
Tidlosa, interesting. No, it’s not a joke or an urban legend — it’s one of the great American occult traditions. If you want to know more I can point you at half a dozen good websites!
Martin, interesting. I hadn’t encountered that theory before, but the timing would be right — in 1200 West Africa was one of the richest parts of the world, and Europe was busy borrowing Muslim cultural traditions hand over fist.
Patricia M, that’s a fascinating question that will require more research. I’ll see what I can find out once the libraries open again.
Devonlad, hear, hear!
Chris, everything old is indeed new again. Enjoy the book!
Yorkshire, of course. Cultures have egregors connected to them, which are the summation of the life experiences of the members of the culture, and those can be shaped powerfully by collective trauma. On the other hand, you’ll have to look long and hard to find an ethnic group that hasn’t had a long history of collective trauma…
Tres Bla, hmm! I haven’t read Pynchon yet; that might just motivate me to do so once the libraries reopen.
Jo, a possible connection between Prester John and High John has actually been suggested by folklorists. I’d be concerned that my lineage of Johns leads back to the work of the famous Thomas Crapper instead… 😉
YCS, I’m trying to move more in that direction. Stay tuned for more occult history…
Teresa, good. The word “serf” is derived from Latin servus, “slave.”
Aloysius, true enough. I’m working on it…
Danaone, and it may be that that’s one of the reasons that Bakongo tradition set down such deep roots here — its cosmology may resonate well with the deep magical patterns of the American land.
Fra’ Lupo, glad to be of help.
C.M., many thanks for both these references!
Anonimoose, as you probably know, the relative status of indentured servants and slaves is a hot button issue among historians these days. I’m currently trying to track down references to Irish and Scots people who were kidnaped or sold into lifelong indentured servitude — i.e., slavery — in the New World. It’s not accidental that the 13th amendment reads as it does: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Thanks for another interesting essay. I have less to contribute on the Americas side of this story, but a few somewhat random details from the African side.
When I was traveling in West Africa, I spent quite a bit of time on L’ Île de Gorée, which is a small island just off the mainland of Senegal near the capital, Dakar. At the time it was populated by around a thousand people, including a colorful group of drummers and dancers from the Baye Fall sect of Mouridism known for their magical abilities. In the past it was also apparently used as a slave trading center. There is some debate about the validity of that claim, with some research that seems to show the reality of the slave trade in that location was more of a myth, but nonetheless it serves as a focal point for the history of slavery in Africa and is a prominent cultural site. I visited ‘La Maison des Esclaves,’ or the House of Slaves, where slaves were held before being shipped overseas. It was a haunting, dismal place. There was a doorway overlooking the sea called the ‘Door of no Return,’ which was apparently the last contact the captives would have with African soil before they were loaded onto ships. The bottom level of the house was basically a prison cell – cold stone walls with iron circles still embedded into the walls where people were chained. Apparently they were packed in like sardines, with no bathroom facilities and no food or water. The scarier part was that the upper floor of the house was inhabited by the French colonists, directly above where the captives were held. Through the very thin floorboards, the cries would certainly have been heard, not to mention the stench. I would be interested to hear if you know more of the history of that particular place, and could help to separate fact from fiction.
In Senegal I met some remarkable people, including a powerful old man on Gorée Island. ‘Baye Durgee’ – he was one of the Baye Fall elders, who must have been about 80 years old but danced like he was 18. The first time I met him, he basically told me my entire life story before I even so much as said hello. He just walked up to me and told me what I was doing there, what I was suffering from, and other things besides. I spent some interesting times with him. The whole group of Baye Falls seemed to be collectively quite powerful and psychic, and had a strong connection to their religious leader or ‘marabout’ that was viewed as an intermediary between the people and Allah.
In Guinea, on another trip to West Africa, I had the opportunity to visit the medicine man of my drum teacher, Famoudou Konate. He didn’t speak a word of French, only Malinke, and Famoudou had to interpret for me. He seemed to practice what I now would recognize as geomancy. He had a small bag of sticks or bones that he cast a few times, and drew the figures right on the ground in the sand. And then he also told me my life story, with accuracy that surprised me at the time. The nature of his interpretation seems quite familiar to me now since I have taken up geomancy – the same categories of interpretation, the same details that are somehow particular yet slightly vague at once.
As you may recall, my husband is from West Africa – from Nigeria where he grew up. The stories he tells about the magic he witnessed in his village seem to defy the law that the planes are discrete and not continuous. He’s away at work right now or else I would ask him for some good stories, but they would likely boggle the mind of a westerner who doesn’t think magic is possible.
A great book on the slave trade in West Africa and the diversity of it is:
_The Slave Trade_, by Hugh Thomas
Among his sources were the slave ships’ logs from Lloyds.
A great focus is on the economics and actual voyages and buying of the slaves from the West African kingdoms.
The diversity of goods used in trade is interesting, for example:
In places with a tradition of iron working, European pots and pans were refused lest they infringe on the local craftmen’s income, but they’d buy (with slaves) all the pig iron on the ship. One kingdom down the coast – these people were tired of the high prices of their neighbor’s ironware, and the ship imported pots and pans were most welcome.
In places with a weaving tradition – perhaps thread was welcome – or not.
In places with a lack of access to cloth, English cloth was welcome – if it was the right colour/patterns.
Different places in Africa wanted different colours and sizes of glass beads, or different types of tobacco, etc.
And everybody wanted guns and ammo and powder.
Dealing with the kings and their representatives is also covered – one had to follow local protocols and of course make sure the local king got his cut.
And it has good coverage of the rise of abolition and the navel enforcement on the eventual ban in slave trading.
About impoverished colonies, oh, yes. Consider the so-called Hundred Years War. What happened was that Henry V of England moved in on a disunited France, with a weak Dauphin, full of squabbling nobility. Though Joan of Arc – another visionary who might have had ties to the occult or might not – gave them a setback, the English looted France most thoroughly. Then along came Henry VI, who really had very little interest in (or experience in, since he came to the throne as an infant) governing, and inherited a war of occupation in a France that had been looted blind. And attracted a collection of squabbling, often corrupt nobles around him, some as incompetent as the Earl of Suffolk, and the Retreat from France began.
Historians blame a lot of factors for this, including King Henry himself, but the fact was, the war in France was costing England more than it could afford by that stage.
JMG- I attempted to post this earlier on my phone, but wasn’t sure if it got through. If it did, and is awaiting moderation, I apologize for the double post.
Christine Kenneally has an interesting take on the culture of slavery in modern Africa in her book Invisible History of the Human Race. She talks about how parents will warn their children against their uncles or other relatives, saying things like, “careful, he might sell you, you know how uncles are…”
It’s been a while since I read it, so I can’t remember exact geographical details, but apparently, the cultural memory of mistrust has come down through the generations. Kenneally posits that some of the issues in Africa don’t just come from centuries of being gutted by colonists, but also a sense of betrayal, from a time when relatives would sell young family members into slavery.
The book is well worth reading- it is somewhat a love letter to genealogy, and Kenneally looks into the insights people get from having DNA tests done.
Tres Bla- Mason Dixon is the Pynchon book I have read, and re-read. I really enjoyed it, but haven’t dug into Gravity’s Rainbow yet.
I always enjoy reading about these lesser know bits of American history. Its almost like that North America / the New World served as an alchemical cauldron of all these magical traditions and practices- European, African, etc: they were all brought together here, broken down to adapt to the new realities of the place, and then recombined them into what we see today. Fascinating stuff.
Its funny, but ever since taking the plunge into the occult world more than a year ago, I see references to these traditions where before I might have though nothing of it.
As an example, this past winter I read through a few of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings books. She is best known for her work the Yearling, but also for Cross Creek, which describes her life and surroundings in rural, 1930s northern Florida. Being a wealthy (compared to the locals) white woman from the north, she ends up employing several of the local black folks as house servants and field laborers on her farmstead. One of these elderly black women, by the name of Martha, impresses upon Rawlings that it is no good to clean and sweep out the fireplace on Fridays (bad luck), onion peels must go into the woodstove and peanut hulls must not be thrown out of the door (prevents quarreling in the household), and under no circumstances will anything ever be swept out of the door after sunset- if this occurs, it will upset “the night-folks” and bring about catastrophe. Martha even apparently had Rawlings help her make a “cunjur bag”, but of course Rawlings botched it much to Martha’s chagrin.
But, what surprised me most was Rawlings reaction to it all: she actually indulged them in their practices, didn’t claim it was all outright superstitious nonsense, and even began to put stock in them. But then again, given the way Rawlings wrote about nature and her adoration for it, you get feeling that she was not in the thrall of the religion of progress. I wonder how many others of her time shared her view…
Haha, oh my! I had to do a wiki search; that is delightful. It would be a very fascinating story if Prester John and High John were related.
Tres Bla. Many think that “V” was TPs best novel. I’ve read them all, but the latest/most recent one I actually enjoyed was “Mason & Dixon,” which also has an African episode; the Transit of Venus expedition. Frankly, I wouldn’t bother with anything after M&D. I disliked “Against the Day” so much I read it 1.9 times. Foppl’s siege party takes place in SW Africa. It’s the first of TP’s rather disturbing explorations of S&M/exploitation culture. Each of his novels seems to “go there” sooner or later, as you must’ve seen in “GR” with Katje; Pynchon sharing his own dark side, apparently.
Thomas Pynchon’s entire catalog of novels is chock full of a mishmash of occult symbolism, most of it very golden dawn oriented, but there’s hoodoo and African-inspired things too. If I remember right Against the Day even has the Golden Dawn in it (he changed the name, but not much else). I wouldn’t want to say Pynchon was an occultist (I have no idea really). My sense reading him is more that he was fascinated by symbol systems in general and ways information is conveyed without words. Then again, that’s more or less what initially attracted me to the occult as well, so who knows, maybe he was/is.
This is fascinating. I really enjoy forgotten history brought out of obscurity. I’ll be studying and enjoying this one for weeks!
Re Candomble—has anyone read David St Clair’s (old) Drum and Candle? Does anyone know if it’s accurate or if it’s that unDruidly substance one finds in a pasture that’s home to a male bovine? 🐄
@ Anonimoose and JMG
I highly recommend the Great Courses program Before 1776 by Robert Allison. The audiobook version is quite long, 18hrs, but long audiobooks are the best at improving my tolerance for housework! He goes into great detail on the distinctions of how bondaged labor played out for Europeans vs Amerindians vs Africans and how that differed both geographically and temporally in the North American colonies over roughly 200 years. I think he makes a good case that bondaged labor of Europeans changed drastically very shortly after African slaves were imported and that the new system the Africans were subjected to was materially different in key ways, but he makes his argument carefully and provides good references. He also corroborates the American Nations author’s history of the Carolinas being founded by Barbados plantation owners to feed the sugarcane workforce.
Hi, from the looks of things, the bindweed in my yard is Calystegia sepium. Being a bit plant-obsessed from a young age, I do remember my mom growing annual Ipomoea purpurea in pots and pointing it out various places as “morning glory”. I’ll try to track some down and grow it in the future.
Stefania, many thanks for this. I’m not well informed about L’ Île de Gorée, though I’ve heard of it; you’d have to ask someone more knowledgeable about whether the stories are accurate or not. As for magic and the planes, Vine Deloria Jr.’s last book, The World We Used to Live In, makes a similar point — there are eyewitness reports of phenomena that are very hard to square with the world most of us experience. I find that the rule that the planes are discrete and not continuous works for helping people make sense of the kind of magic I do and teach — but it’s possible that there are other kinds, of course.
As for African divination, as I mentioned to another commenter, that’s an extraordinarily rich field about which people elsewhere in the world know practically nothing. I’m glad that at least geomancy made it across the Sahara!
Sunnnv, thanks for this. That’s a useful measure of the complexity of the era.
Patricia M, exactly! Imperialism always makes a big profit to start with, and it always ends up costing more than it’s worth.
Katsmama, fascinating. Given the fantastic amounts of money that the plantation economy generated, it’s not surprising that such things happened.
Andrew, thanks for this! In the 1930s in America, women of the middle class usually got their hair done by hairdressers who came to their homes, and a great many of those hairdressers were African-American. Enough of them sold hoodoo products to their white clients — “here’s a new style for your hair, and here’s some really lovely new lipstick, and here’s a charm to keep that cheatin’ man of yours at home where he belongs” — that hair products catalogs in those days which sold to the trade carried hoodoo supplies alongside hair care and skin care products. So Rawlings wasn’t that far from normal…
Jo, it would indeed.
Your Kittenship, glad to hear it. I’m not familiar with the book, sorry to say.
Buzzy, do you know if there’s a book that covers the same data? I don’t find audio courses congenial at all.
Kimberly, I’m not at all sure if I. purpurea will do the trick, but it would be worth researching. I. jalap aka I. purga seems to be the one with the mojo. If you can grow trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) or galangal (Alpinia galanga), those are Low John and John to Chew respectively, and have important uses in hoodoo as well.
Hi John Michael,
You mentioned indentured servants. As an historical example, it was widely reported during the Gold Rush era down here that many of the Chinese labourers (who were picking through the tailings, and doing quite well out of that activity much to the chagrin of the Europeans) were actually indentured labourers. I guess nobody knows the true extent of that activity, but I’d suggest that it was more probable than not given the reputed social hierarchy’s in those communities.
Incidentally, people forget that such things go on nowadays on the quiet, and I’m not talking about people who have hocked their souls to the banks. Best not be involved in such business is my thinking, but plenty of people take advantage of such poor souls.
It is a dark and ugly topic, but all the same it is part of our story.
Some of those “superstitions” remind me of things my mother used to say to me years ago. Straight Irish tradition, I thought. I still don’t ever sweep the floor straight out the door. Always a dustpan and brush. And for a bit of Mitteleuropa I always to shut the doors and windows at night. Thank goodness for security insect screens.
In The Birth of the Modern World, CA Bayly makes the point that a lot of the methods of capitalism, such as concentration of labour and mass production, developed before the technologies of the industrial revolution. He calls it the ‘industrious revolution’. It included the shipyards of the Venice Arsenal and on the south coast of England, some of the textile industry, and primarily plantation slavery. He describes slavery as “beastliness, but very efficient and flexible beastliness”. The reason steel plants and chemical plants came to be called that was because they introduced organisational methods from the plantations to other industries.
Two really good books I’ve read specifically about slavery are The Making of New World Slavery by Robin Blackburn and The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker. The latter has a lot of detail about the societies the slaves came from, and those that sold them. Now that I think about it, there was an article, possibly in Historical Materialism, that claimed the boatmen on African rivers were actually a proletariat before Europeans even arrived. So parts of Africa may have had their own independent version of the industrious revolution.
The Allison audio course on colonial life includes a 100+ page syllabus outline of his points, with many references included. Briefly skimming his citations I note a few –
Peter Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 to the Stono Rebellion, pub. 1975
John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, pub. 1998
Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery/American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, pub. 1975
Daniel Littlefield, Rice and the Making of South Carolina: An Introductory Essay, pub. 1995
Daniel Littlefield, Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina, pub. 1981
Wilcomb Washburn, The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, pub. 1957
Gary Nash, Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early North America, pub. 2006
Also, for those looking for a better history of Africa, this caught my eye –
David Northrup, Africa’s Discovery of Europe 1450-1850, pub. 2008
The cosmogram is interesting because it shows the direction going counterclockwise. Which of course is obvious why that should be, since the Congo is south of the Equator and so, for most of the year, the sun would follow a course across the northern part of the sky, and the shadow of a gnomon would trace out what we northerners would call a counterclockwise path for most of the year, too. In contrast to what we in the Northern latitudes experience, with the sun rising and passing overhead from left to right, the shadow of the gnomon tracing a path from left to right on the ground, hence ‘clockwise’.
If I may regarding the various Ipomoea’s:
I really like the morning glory family, and have a good deal of experience with a lot of them from sweet potatoes, to the various morning glories grown for their flowers, as well as with High John the Conqueror Root.
Certainly, the plants have a really interesting energy: I. purpurea and I. tricolor both have enough LSA — similar to LSD — in their seeds to create a hallucinogenic trip and there’s something carried in the energetic signatures of the plants that reflect that. While I have no doubt that these plants have magical uses I’m actually quite leery of them, since it is my understanding that the LSA rich seeds were used magically in ancient Mesoamerican ritual, and that’s one egregore I would wish to leave well alone!
Bindweeds are in a different genus, the Convolvulus genus. I’ve never noticed any sort of interesting energy from them.
Sweet potatoes are seriously charming plants. They have a sort of “cabbage patch” feel, with an energy friendly, somewhat bland, rotund, and generous.
I. jalapa has really, really intense roots energetically. High John Root has an almost indescribable smell, too: smoky, resinous, earthy, almost like human flesh. The roots look the scrotum and testicles of a dark brown skinned man. They straight up communicate psychically with a person who holds them. They sort of laugh at danger; they see all sorts of ways around problems; they are sexy, courageous, indestructible. I encourage folks to consider buying a High John root and rubbing it while in a difficult situation and seeing what happens, although, of course, I would suggest divination before jumping into anything of the sort! Luckymojo.com has in its forums accounts of high-strung macho guys who fooled around with High John roots and got messed up something proper.
One can also listen to Muddy Water’s amazing song “My John the Conqueror Root,” which gets the vibe down cold and the lyrics really reflect the traditional magical uses.
That certainly is interesting! Looking at the four-fold cosmology I am immediately reminded of both First Nations cosmologies as well as Carl Jung’s mandalas. None of these were intuitive to me, although of course I find banishing rituals useful and rewarding. The sort of passionate devotion to a personal patron deity, rounded out with careful divination and formal offerings, and a sense of a vast hierarchy of conscious beings of various grade of divinity is what I find so intuitive. Interestingly, the descriptions I’ve read of the cosmology of Quimbanda were remarkably close to classic Neoplatonic theurgy, which I also find almost common sense in its concordance with my some of deepest senses of orientation.
As for New Orleans, it really is touched by the sensibilities of these religions. During Mardi Gras they have literal processions in the names of the classical deities with floats going down the streets and people thronging behind dancing — the Krewe of Zeus, the Krewe of Comus, the Krewe of the Muses, etc etc. This strikes me as remarkably close to old time, late classical processions with the Neoplatonic philosophers used as one of their framing metaphors for the afterlife of devotees! Indeed, the Weltanshuuang of New Orleans really takes from the passionate devotion of Voudun, which again, strikes me as remarkably convergent with what I know of late-classical religion. People in New Orleans live with an ethos derived from this Weltanshuuang, with a great emphasis on living out one’s own personal destiny regardless of any sort of monotheistic framework of valuation. Louis Armstrong makes a tremendous amount of sense as someone raised in this city.
I wonder if the differences between these cosmological sensibilities are something of the Cabalistic distinction between Form and Force? It appears to me that the Bakongo cosmology tends to be more Form based, whereas the cosmology of the Yoruba diaspora seems for Force based. I’m curious if you think this may be a useful distinction?
That makes a lot of sense! I really miss New Orleans and Latin America in general: I personally find the culture way more congenial than that of the bulk of the United States. If there weren’t some very good reasons for my living in the northeast I would probably move back.
I think it’s also relevant that New Orleans was as far down the river you could get. The really rebellious slaves concentrated in this area, at least according to Catton. It makes all sorts of sense that of all cities in the United States, given both its unique colonial history and its unique geography, that it would develop an African-influenced culture totally distinct from anywhere else in the United States.
This may be of interest to the crowd here: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/59w8yd/i-died-met-god-and-came-back-as-a-roots-healer
“Bishop Dickerson is an 83-year-old healer living in Osyka, Mississippi. As owner of the Spiritual Candle Shop, he creates amulets and other talismanic items using roots, oils, candles, herbs, and various curios that are part of the African American folk magic pantheon. These are his own words, as told to Justin Fornal over a series of interviews.”
Chris, indenture was extremely common until quite recently. Apprentices were normally indentured to their masters, for example — they received no pay and put in a lot of hard work in exchange for being taught whatever trade they were learning. Yes, such things still go on today.
Yorkshire, many thanks for this. Lewis Mumford made the same point in The Myth of the Machine, pointing out that the earliest “machines” were made entirely out of human beings and that later industrial machinery was an attempt to imitate the efficient rhythm of a work gang.
Buzzy, many thanks for this. Once the library system opens again I’ll check ’em out.
Renaissance, exactly, and discussions of the cosmogram I’ve seen online make exactly that point.
Violet, I’ve often thought of I. jalap as a great example of the doctrine of signatures; the roots look like a well-filled scrotum, and their magical effect can be basically summed up as providing the person who carries one with balls! As for form and force, yes, though I think there are subtler dimensions as well.
Ip, a classic shamanic induction, too! Many thanks for this.
You say the Mercator projection should be scrapped, what should replace it?
Thank you for these articles – my lack of comments so far shouldn’t be taken for a lack of interest; I just know so little about this side of America’s history to begin with, though I am glad that is changing.
You are of course right to say that “one of the worst things modern US education has done is that it’s made history seem boring…. [but] if you get down into the colorful details it’s livelier than any fiction can be.”
My frustration with the dull way history is taught – compared with the sorts of fascinating stuff you find if you actually look – has inspired one of my personal projects, an outline of a History of the American Revolution in the Style of Herodotus. It would be one volume divided into nine books: Books VII to IX are the Revolutionary War itself, Books I to VI are the backstories of the various nations, ethnics groups, and religious and philosophical traditions that played into that event, going clear back to the eleventh century.
It’s going to take me years to bring my knowledge of history up to the point where I would be ready to commence, but if I finally do it, I will make sure that Johannes Kelpius, High John the Conqueror, etc. make their appearence.
@ Everyone who’s wailing on the Mercator Projection
I think a point a lot of people forget here is that all map projections are trade-offs; they preserve some features of the geography but not others. On a Mercator map, what’s preserved is that straight lines are constant bearings, so if you set your compass to a certain bearing and follow it, you will trace a straight line from one point on the Mercator map to another. This is essential for navigation, and even if the next great civilization arises in Indonesia or Guinea or thereabouts, its mariners will still use the Mercator projection.
On the other hand, it is indeed a poor choice for world maps on classroom walls. In that context, preserving area is quite a bit more important than preserving bearing.
Hi John Michael,
I hadn’t mentioned it, but I’m most certainly looking forward to reading your history / lessons on nature magic in this series of essays.
Worked out in the forest today and it’s hard work, but when an area is ‘cleaned up’, it looks exactly like it should look at this stage of the process, and there is a feeling of completeness in the act. 🙂
Fascinating post. I’m looking forward to the book-length version. I love learning about this stuff.
I was intrigued by your response to Ip regarding the southern roots healer with a “shamanic induction”. Why is it that shamanism recurs in all sorts of tribal societies all over the world, but not where there is an organized religion? We have shamans from arctic societies, and the African diaspora in North America, but apparently not in vodoun, or western esotericism.
I am puzzled by this since, as in the case of the root healer, the shamanic induction is not voluntary. Maybe sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Is it an emergent phenomena having to do with the spiritual context? Do certain types of ritual or religious activities suppress shamanic experiences? Otherwise we should have shamans spontaneously cropping up in other spiritual traditions. I wonder if this provides another clue about which particular societies back in the African motherland gave rise to the practices we are seeing in North America.
Your Kittenship, interesting. I wonder how many celebrities are starting to notice that life is going on just fine without them…
J.L.Mc12, there are hundreds of other map projections. You can read about them here.
Wesley, delighted to hear it. With regard to the Mercator projection, I’d point out that people in other maritime cultures got by just fine without it; Chinese junks sailed to East Africa, Arab dhows crossed the Indian Ocean from end to end, and Polynesian vessels explored the Pacific using other ways of mapping space. That being the case, I really don’t think it’s accurate to assume that all future societies will be forced to use the kind of sailing chart that happens to make sense to us…
Chris, I bet!
Samurai, shamans do pop up in every culture — people simply use different models to explain their experiences. In today’s America, for example, one of the standard models for shamanic experience is “being abducted by extraterrestrials.” Check out sometime how many people who have spontaneous abduction experiences — as distinct from ones that are manufactured after the fact by the misuse of hypnosis — report psychic experiences and get involved in alternative spirituality after the experience.
Thanks for this essay. Very informative, and I’m greatly enjoying the comments as well.
I hope I may also say a hearty (off topic) thank you to Christophe for all the practical info on muscle testing. I am limiting internet use to an hour a night, so I tend to read a bunch all at once, and maybe long after it was posted, but I am paying enormous attention to his posts, with gratitude.
That is amazing, JMG. I had always thought that UFO abduction stories sounded a bit like Fay/faerie stories from pre-Christian Europe (which also sometimes include abductions), but I never made the connection with shamanism. I will have to think about this for a while. My first reaction is that it seems tragic, because the alien abduction experience doesn’t lead to a spiritual path in any straightforward way. I would guess that for people who experience this, it would cause an incredible amount of confusion, questions about sanity, and other difficulties.
One thing I am wondering about High John is whether some of the traditional magic back in Africa feature roots in such a central way, or whether that is a new adaptation to North America. Given the number of wild plants, mushrooms, tree barks, flowers and what have you, it seems unlikely that someone forcibly taken to a new continent would just stumble upon a magical plant without some sort of guidance, either from tradition or elsewhere.
@JMG, in regards to the past and the future. I should have clarified my original statement, however you did it best. The past is a way of knowing the future. I fell in love with history for many reasons but plotting out the future was one of the major points.
The world we live in today is the future of the past. As much as some folks talk about “the end of history” they couldn’t be further from the truth. It is funny thinking of modern events and thinking how little of the details will probably be remembered/recorded and seeing how it pans out with time.
Anyway, back to the theme original essay.
I live in Australia and it is interesting to see that, as far as I know, there has not been any major native religious movement here since European settlement some 232 years ago. Almost everything is just imported near verbatim from the northern hemisphere with little to no changes at all.
An obvious example is Christmas with Santa Claus, reindeer and snow men in the middle of Summer.
That there is a mixing pot of ideas in the Americas is interesting to see as it is largely absent or at least very well hidden/occulted.
So far the most I have seen personally comes from the Druids as we remap the eight seasons to our side of the planet so they make bit more sense. Also as discussed in the comment section here a few weeks ago there is the rumblings to trying to revive some of the original native inhabitants seasons – that may well turn into something interesting with time.
A few years ago an archaeological dig on Maryland’s Eastern Shore turned up an artifact that may have combined the Bakongo cosmogram with the Biblical symbol of Ezekiel’s Wheel: “The excavated artifact contained a cosmogram-like figure molded into the lid of a canning jar, ringed by a series of circles and a wheel, which researchers believed to be the remnant of a small cart or barrow.” (See here or here.)
Separately, to JMG, are you familiar with the writer Albert Murray? This week’s essay is probably the sixth or seventh that has brought his work to mind for me. (Other times when you’ve written about architecture, mythology, the spiritual influence of place, and especially American history, culture, character.) It’s never a specific enough connection to describe in a concise comment, but I suspect you’d find a lot to chew on in his body of work.
He’s difficult to characterize briefly, but there’s a distinct and subtle set of ideas running through all his work. I’m just going to drop in a paragraph that hints at a few of his themes:
“Thus, in the second and third quarters of nineteenth century America, Negroes can find adequate historical as well as mythological documentation for ‘all that really matters’ in the establishment of their national identity. Not that they need to do so to meet any official requirements whatsoever. After all, such is the process by which Americans are made that immigrants, for instance, need trace their roots no further back in either time or space than Ellis Island. By the very act of arrival, they emerge from the bottomless depths and enter the same stream of American tradition as those who landed at Plymouth. In the very act of making their way through customs, they begin the process of becoming, as Constance Rourke would put it, part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian–and part Negro!”
That’s from his essay “The Omni-Americans,” which is as good a place to start with Murray as any.
Hi John Michael,
Reading over your shoulder at the other comments, I note that there is a certain sort of narrative being thrown about which suggests an unlikely turn of events. Other folks most certainly hit the oceans and sought out new land and/or trade opportunities with other folks – and long before the Europeans thought to do such things. It’s a human thing to go walk-about and I mean how else would our species have spread out across the globe if they hadn’t done just that? Seems common sense to me.
Thought you might find this article interesting: Did Aboriginal and Asian people trade before European settlement in Darwin? I also believe that European diseases produced lower fatality rates than with the southern indigenous folks, and that I reckon is indicative of contact with their Asian neighbours.
Scotlyn, you’re most welcome.
Samurai, see if you can find somewhere a copy of Passport to Magonia by Jacques Vallee, which talks a lot about the parallels between UFOs and faery lore. As for Bakongo magic, if I understand correctly it involves a lot of roots and other plant materials as well.
Michael, good heavens — not one Australian religious movement? That’s really quite strange. I don’t know of another colonial society where that’s the case.
Jonathan, no, I’m not familiar with Murray at all. He sounds interesting.
Chris, the Chinese were certainly doing long-distance voyages long before the Europeans got into it, and there’s a fair amount of evidence for Old World visits to the New World long before Columbus took a wrong turn on the way to Cathay, so the article you’ve posted seems quite plausible to me.
Re: Albert Murray, this interview is a pretty good introduction. He talked as well as he wrote.
This is really fascinating! Africa has always been a large green and orange blotch on the map for me, and I know pitifully little, being preoccupied elsewhere. From a Far Eastern perspective, the Kongo cosmogram is very interesting. The Chinese ideogram for 10 is a cross like that 十 (I don’t know if that will come across), and it signifies “all things.” Put a line above and below it, and it becomes “king” 王、connecting all things between Heaven and Earth. The sacred chant of the Fuji Faith “Sanmyo Tokai Rokkon Shojo 三明十開六根清浄” (Three luminaries, 10 openings, six-sense purification) contains it, and aside from “three” it figures most prominently among the numbers presented in the liturgy. An example phrase, “The darkness in ten directions on ten sides is illuminated by the moon at 3,000 cho [distance]; the moon at 3,000 cho is utterly lost in the 72 Heavens.” If I understand correctly the numerology is derived from Taoism.
I look forward to more!
I read Drum and Candle in the Seventies. It was the first thing I ever read about Afro-diasporic religions or Brazil. I haven’t had another look at it in ages. The few details I remember seem to hold up pretty well. It seemed like a good piece of journalism, sympathetic and not in any way sensationalist.
I have subsequently had some contact with Santeria and an active house of an Americanized version of Umbanda, and I read Tell My Horse, but I have not learned much more about Brazilian magical religion than I did then.
Regarding apprenticeship, it is still being practiced as JMG describes it on a small scale in Japan for the traditional arts, and I have a friend who underwent apprenticeship to become a swordsmith. A master smith will have three strong young men whom he feeds and lodges under austere circumstances, and they observe the master and find ways to be of assistance, gaining trust and being gradually allowed to take on more advanced tasks until they learn the art.
Fascinating account, JMG. Hoodoo seems very ‘exotic’ to my Canadian sensibilities – it is something virtually unknown in mainstream Canadian culture.
Regarding your search for references to Irish and Scots slaves in the New World, I wish I could be of more help, but I do recall reading a few years ago about Irish slaves being treated worse than African slaves in Jamaica (for example, Irish slaves were considered to be totally expendable, while African slaves were still considered to be an investment): the vitriolic hatred that the English had towards the Irish still floors me. The father of somebody I once worked with a person whose father was an Irish-descended Jamaican who wrote a book on the subject: I’ll see if I can track it down and get back to you if it is promising.
Mr. Greer, I’d like to recommend a book which you might find interesting, namely, ‘The Word as Revelation: Names of Gods’ by Ram Swarup. Given that you are a pagan, you might like this book.
Jonathan, many thanks for this.
Patricia O, fascinating! I’ve read that there’s a lot of Taoist occultism in various corners of Shinto, mostly brought in via the old Onmyodo tradition.
Ron, I’m quite sure it’s unknown to the mainstream, but I’d encourage you to do some poking around in odd corners — I get the impression that Canada has done a more thorough job of ignoring its weird history than the US, which is saying something. Please do let me know if you turn up anything about Irish slaves!
Rajat, thanks for this. I’ll keep an eye out for it.
Regarding Canadian history, a good symbolic pivot is 1967, Canada’s 100 birthday, when the cultural elite shifted from the notion of Canada from being at the forefront of British loyalism to the forefront of liberal cosmopolitanism. A shift that the nationalism scholar Eric Kaufmann has compared to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Here are two good books representing before and after:
In addition to Drum and Candle, David St Clair also wrote The Psychic World of California, which is a wide-ranging, pretty good account of California occultism and alternate religions.
The Kongo Cosmogram reminds me very strongly of the Ancient Egyptian representation of the daily journey of the Sun Boat of Ra. There could easily have been early back-and-forth between the two cultures.
Re Hoodoo and Canada–there is a fellow who calls himself Utu Witchdoctor who works in the Afro diasporic traditions in Canada. He lives an Ontario town that was a final stop on the Underground Railroad and has written a book _Conjuring Harriet “Mama Moses” Tubman and the Spirits of the Underground Railroad_. It is published by Weiser. Utu was one of the people deplatformed (rejected after having been accepted as presenters) from Pantheacon 2019 when accused of cultural appropriation because he is white. According to his facebook entries he got involved in the African religious community through his drumming. That’s all I know about him.
When I was researching my book on Jane Duncan I noticed that her books set in a fictional Jamaica mention the Negro knowledge of poison bush–“Dozens of them, the Negroes know them all” as one of her characters explains another character’s suicide. As a visiting member of the white elite, Duncan had no knowledge of the magical practices of the island, only seeing the occasional religious enthusiasm caused by new cultish varieties of Christianity. She also learned that the plantation owners had usually imposed their own brand of Christianity on their slaves–Scots bringing Presbyterian ministers and the English building Anglican churches. Even in the time Duncan was there, the late 1950s, some of the larger landowners still expected to have a defining role in the selection of new clergymen in ‘their’ church. Although Duncan never mentioned it, I learned that In a continuing battle against magical beliefs and practices, the Jamaican government still bans catalogs, products and books from the de Laurence Company, a major supplier of Hoodoo and obeah products.
Ron, there was a letter from the British authorities to the Govenor of Jamaica that basically said “If the French invade you can arm the blacks, but under no circumstances arm the Irish”.
This was a very fascinating piece! I’d always had the impression a lot of the slaves brought into the US were Muslim-partly this came from reading Roots and Malcolm X, but I also had a friend about ten years ago who was doing his Ph.D dissertation with this thesis, and who claimed that he’d found evidence of folk Islam surviving in a few African American families as late as the 1930’s. I also knew about the Yoruba influence on Afro-Caribbean spirituality, but the Congo thing was new to me.
One thing though-the first plantation economies were actually in the Spanish Caribbean, and got started a century or so before Jamestown. The reason African culture survives there to a much greater extent than in the US South is because sugar farming was much more deadly to slaves than the tobacco and cotton agriculture practiced in what became the US was. I don’t remember where, but I read some years ago that at one point, the average lifespan of a slave in colonial Brazil (another major sugar-growing area) was four years. None of the Caribbean sugar islands or Brazil ever had a self-sustaining black population the way the colonial US south did-the death rate was so high (from tropical diseases and overwork-sugarcane, absent modern mechanized farming, is an extremely labor-intensive crop) that slaves constantly had to be bought in from Africa all the way up to 1800 or so. A large portion of the participants in the Haitian rebellion had been born in Africa, which is why Voodoo is such a presence there.
Also, this article might be interesting-it talks about the practice of “voodoo” (the author is clearly describing what you call Hoodoo) in lowcountry South Carolina, including by white people.
Ron M: re “the vitriolic hatred that the English had towards the Irish still floors me.”
There is nobody you hate worse than someone you’ve wronged.
Aidan, that makes a lot of sense. I suspect that if my Canadian readers do some digging in pre-1967 history, especially in ethnic communities and in the considerable Canadian occult scene, they’ll find all kinds of interesting stuff that’s been erased from Canada’s officially approved history.
Robert, one of the most interesting questions that’s been raised by African and African-American researchers is the possibility that there was a considerable diffusion of Egyptian culture southward by way of the kingdoms of Kush and Nubia in what’s now the Sudan. Mind you, we’re talking huge distances here — from the First Cataract on the Nile, the traditional southern border of ancient Egypt, to Kinshasa on the Congo River is about the same distance by road as from Raleigh, NC to Juneau, Alaska — but the Bakongo people came from further north and east in historical times, so the possibility of transmission can’t be ignored.
Rita, yes, I heard about Utu Witchdoctor. I’m frankly glad that Pantheacon has shut down for good — it got far too poisonously political in its last years, which is of course one of the several reasons I stopped going. Thanks for the Jamaican information — fascinating.
Tolkienguy, there were certainly Muslims among the enslaved Africans brought to the US. Senegal and Gambia were somewhere in the process of becoming, as they are now, majority Muslim. As for the Caribbean plantations and the death rate, can you point me to sources? I’d like to have something to cite.
Here is a quite interesting piece on the history of Islam in the New World. In fact, the first words between an Old Worlder and a New Worlder (sans the Norsemen) might have been in Arabic!
I have been through a 19th century homestead maintained in its original state in Waterdown, Ontario as a heritage site. It was the house of my ancestor Dr. David Duncombe. There was an interesting feature in it: A separate entrance for the Irish ‘farmhands’. They had their own entrance and a stairway up to their shared bedroom of straw mattresses. Their entrance led to the fields. It was setup so they did not have access to the rest of the house. If I remember correctly they did not eat with the family either although I could be mistaken on that point. It certainly felt strange that there were these live-in ‘farmhands’ that worked the fields, who were not allowed in the parts of the house where the gentleman’s quarters were…
Robert Mathiesen wrote, “The Kongo Cosmogram reminds me very strongly of the Ancient Egyptian representation of the daily journey of the Sun Boat of Ra.”
The daily journey of the Sun Boat of Ra is the inspiration for a basic ritual of the OTO, Liber Resh vel Helios. Omitting the instructions for the signs and gestures, it goes like this:
Let him greet the Sun at dawn, facing East . . . Hail unto Thee who art Ra in Thy rising, even unto Thee who art Ra in Thy strength, who travellest over the Heavens in Thy bark at the Uprising of the Sun.
Tahuti standeth in His splendour at the prow, and Ra-Hoor abideth at the helm.
Hail unto Thee from the Abodes of Night!
[at noon, facing South]
Hail unto Thee who art Ahathoor in Thy triumphing, even unto Thee who art Ahathoor in Thy beauty, who travellest over the heavens in thy bark at the Mid-course of the Sun.
Tahuti . . .[this part is always the same] . . .helm.
Hail unto Thee from the Abodes of Morning!
[sunset, facing West]
Hail unto Thee who art Tum [pronounced Toom] in Thy setting, even unto Thee who art Tum in Thy joy, . . . at the Down-going of the Sun. . .Hail unto Thee from the Abodes of Day.
[midnight, facing North]
Hail unto Thee who art Kephra in Thy hiding, even unto Thee who art Kephra in Thy silence, . . . at the Midnight Hour of the Sun. . . Hail unto Thee from the Abodes of Evening.
The general idea comes by way of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but I think Crowley composed this invocation. The full text may be found in Magick in Theory and Practice and the larger collection Magick.
Re: death rates of slaves on colonial sugar plantations. I’ve seen the four-year life expectancy figure somewhere as well, but a look through the sources I know didn’t turn it up. Richard S. Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 includes a careful review of the available figures and simply affirms that “all the evidence points to a demographic catastrophe for the slaves,” with planters importing new captives every year to replace those who died.
Dunn’s book also recounts the Barbadian planters’ visits to Brazil to learn the sugar business in the 1640s, their transformation into a slave society, and the transplanting of that model into South Carolina in the 1670s and ’80s.
Re: white slaves, I know there are a few books and many articles online trying to document the keeping of English and Irish indentured servants as slaves-for-life. I certainly haven’t read them all, but those I did read seemed, to my mind, to have an agenda. It’s hard to imagine it never having happened at all, but it seems that that sort of exploitation was hampered enough by English politics and law that it would have been an unnecessary inconvenience once the exploitation of Africans as chattel was instituted. (My investigation of a couple ancestors who were “barbadose’d” out of their beds into servitude has them obtaining free status by the normal legal means, even despite one master who tried to keep his servant more indefinitely).
Last, to JMG, I was just re-reading a book called The Spirit of Black Hawk: A Mystery of Africans and Indians and wondering whether Mother Leafy Anderson will have a place in this series?
Really looking forward to the book this will become. Thank you!
Chris at Fernglade wrote, “I also believe that European diseases produced lower fatality rates than with the southern indigenous folks, and that I reckon is indicative of contact with their Asian neighbours.”
Jared Diamond goes into some detail about historical contact and resulting diseases between Australians and their neighbors closer to Asia in his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. For the Makassan contacts, he doesn’t go into anywhere near the detail the article you referenced does, but he goes on to consider the influence of Papuan culture on the northern tip of Australia.
My parents bought an old farmhouse with a similar setup many years ago. The kitchen area with door to a back / wood shed and out to the barn had a separate service staircase which led to a room above reserved for the farmhands and separated from the rest of the house by a locked door..
I was told the purpose of the arrangement wasn’t to keep the farmhands out of the gentlemen’s quarters, it was to keep them away from the daughters in the house.
If this is wandering too far off topic, please delete.
I believe you are correct, JMG re: the virtual invisibility of the occult (including Hoodoo) in Canada. My working thesis is the strong influence of Presbyterian Scots in the country: their demonizing of Catholics (which I witnessed first-hand through my step-father: it was downright scary, I tell you!) was matched only by their demonizing of anything that wasn’t straight-laced, “Presbyterian approved” (and, I might add, downright boring).
@Yorkshire, thanks for that historic tidbit; I can’t say I blame the British authorities’ position… a pretty canny lot, I’d say.
@Patricia M: so true. Thanks.
@Ian: fascinating details. I am absolutely certain that the Irish farm hands did not dine with their Anglo “Lords” in Waterdown. A few decades ago I took an Historical Geography course (the professor virtually worshipped Lewis Mumford, as I recall) and my main project was to spatially map different ethnic groups in my home town in Eastern Ontario based on census data in the late 19th century. It was so amazing to see how the Scots and English (primarily descendants of the United Empire Loyalists) occupied the core of the city, with all the Anglican and Presbyterian churches in the middle (their spires still pierce the sky to this day), with the Irish and French (and their Catholic church) occupying the hinterland. One of my childhood friends lived in a typical 19th century mansion in my hometown. The servants’ quarters were above the kitchen and close to the coach-house: they had their own staircase (rickety and narrow) and had only one door on each floor to the main part of the house. The servants back in the day were undoubtedly Irish. Just on this note, my mother (who grew up in early 20th century Toronto) used to tell me stories of when a new kid moved into the neighbourhood, all the boys would gather around and their first question was “E, I or S?” If the new kid said “I” (meaning “Irish”), he got punched in the nose. So much for “Toronto the good”!
Above I mentioned I lived for several years in Sierra Leone as a child, and speculated that Sierra Leone might have been peripheral to the slave trade. The Gullash have been mentioned above in a different commentary. Now I found out that African farmers with rice planting knowledge were captured in Sierra Leone, in part by English-African mixed families, and transported from the Bunce Island slave castle to the low country of South Carolina and Georgia, especially to the islands. At that time, today’s Sierra Leone had hardly been converted to Islam nor Christianity. Read more here.
This is very cool!
One thing re: slavery and the curse of excess, I think, is that Western slavery only (as far as I am aware, am open to correction) took on a specifically racial aspect in the plantation system. In Rome, being a slave was a thing that happened if your people got conquered or your parents were too poor or you annoyed the government too much; being a thrall among the Germanic peoples seems likewise. But there wasn’t the idea that a specific race should be slaves, to the best of my knowledge, or was naturally inferior, slaves could often buy their freedom, the children of a freed slave were free automatically, etc.
Not that slavery was a great practice in any of these cultures, granted. But there wasn’t the same idea of race behind it.
It seems like, once the West started becoming very wealthy off the slave trade, and constructing whole economies on it (the cotton gin etc), there was a major push to justify that as the natural order: the way things were supposed to be and always would be. Seems like there might be a parallel or two to our use of fossil fuels and high-energy lifestyles…
What’s your opinion on “Traditionalist” philosophy Mr. Greer?
I wouldn’t trust the DNA companies as far as I can throw them as they have been caught on a number of occasions making things up or lying for political reasons.
Beyond that sometimes the tests also do not come out right and the cheaper tests are just not that fine a resolution anyway.
Figure after 5 generations you’d have less African blood than Neanderthal in any case and someone getting worked up about the fact that great great great great grandpa’s nasty behavior with a slave girl on any moral grounds needs to get a clue. The past was a different country and what matters is what you do now and tomorrow
Not that any of this matters a whit beyond my reflexive loathing of deceit.
As for our hosts affinity to Bakongo ideas , could be race memory if you buy that , a similarity with your own Druid teachings or could be a reincarnation thing. Sometimes we remember the strangest things. I know I do.
That said, I want to say thanks for the topic. So few people, even ones who should, understand that Africa is not monolithic but a huge diverse continent and so little understood.
Jonathan, thank you for these sources. Highly useful!
Ron, that makes sense. Normally, where there’s that much repression of weirdness going on, there’s a lot of stuff to be repressed…
Isabel, that’s correct as far as I know.
Aidan, I see it as understandable but misguided — precisely as much so as its exact equivalent on the other end of the political-cultural spectrum, the New Age movement. In both cases, you’ve got some good ideas borrowed from occultism, mushed up together with a profoundly unhelpful historical mythology (the myth of progress in the case of the New Age, the myth of the golden age in the past in the case of Traditionalism), and an endlessly elaborated ideology meant to deal with (or rather to avoid dealing with) the hard fact that the practical end of the system does not do what it’s supposed to do. (I’ve discussed here the spectacular flaws in the system of magic promoted by Traditionalist guru Julius Evola).
A lot of the problem, of course, is that the Tradition being promoted by Traditionalists is just as imaginary as the New Age so breathlessly awaited by so many New Agers. Evola, again, is a great example; his “Hyperborean tradition” was patched together out of the pop culture of his time — if you know your way around Nietzsche, Bachofen, and Weininger, to name only the most important cultural fad-figures of his time, you know most of what you need to know about Evola’s sources. Actual, small-t traditions (in the plural) grow organically over time and so can correct initial mistakes and adjust to changing cultural patterns; manufactured faux-Traditions like Evola’s don’t and can’t.
Simon, I’m pretty sure it’s not a matter of reincarnations, as I remember my past lives tolerably well. What else it might be is an interesting question. I hope, though, that you didn’t think that I was planning on loading an unhelpful burden of moralizing cant onto the question!
JMG, stop me if these are too many references, or if this isn’t the place for it. If that’s the case, no need to put this through.
Michael A. Gomez’s Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South has chapters on a number of African regions and ethnic groups in which he gives attention to cosmology, then discusses those cultures’ interactions with one another in various places and periods in North America, and finally traces features of black American religion, natural magic, and folklore to their sources in particular African cultures. Plenty of references and quite a few good anecdotes.
Mr. Greer, I believe a while back you gave an extended world timeline of the near-future based partially on your Retrotopia scenario. I was wondering if you could tell me where it is.
It’s certainly true that the racializing of slavery that happened in the New World was a development in response to pretty specific conditions and trends. The system of mass chattel enslavement of Africans came together for economic and demographic reasons; conceptions of race developed in response, to help manage and later rationalize the power arrangement.
That process is well-documented. It’s really pretty astonishing to watch the way the legal codes and economic systems in early Virginia and South Carolina incrementally created and enforced the categories of black and white, and then terrifying to realize that the cultural reality of race and racism that we know was not a cause of such laws but a consequence of them. With the power arrangement in place, culture and ideology adapted.
Though her biases are apparent, Jacqueline Battalora traces the process well in this presentation.
Jonathan–one of the striking features of the early slave codes was the efforts taken to keep white servants separate from Africans. Any notion that the the white race ‘naturally’ finds blacks repellant is easily dispelled–you don’t need laws to force people to behave naturally. Many laws against interracial sex, marriage, etc. It seems obvious that if black and white servants hung out together they might notice that they share more with fellow servants than with the ruling class—the major program of the rulers in the South was to keep poor whites down by assuring them that they were better than and should not take common cause with their black neighbors.
Yes, it was certainly a divide-and-conquer maneuver; the ruling-class colonists said as much themselves.
One of the interesting things about the process is that they didn’t have to give up much of anything. By generating the legal statuses “black” and “white,” and taking from blacks– opportunities, rights, and then legal personhood altogether–they gave the status “white” actual value. That established a basis for a necessarily separate social identity. And at no cost to the ruling class. At a profit, in fact!
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