An Introduction to “The Old Sod”

Excerpt from “The Old Sod: The Odd Life and Inner Work of William G. Gray” By Alan Richardson and Marcus Claridge. Skylight Press, 2011 (reprinted here with permission)

“OK so I’m an old sod, an old bastard, a thousand different kinds of shit if you like, but I am a human being who loved the esoteric Tradition I tried to serve… Perhaps I didn’t do very well with what I’d got but I did my best…”

[letter to Alan Richardson, 19th Sept. 1989]

William G. Gray was a real magician, a kind of primeval spirit who worked his magic as an extension of the Life Force, not as a sop to ego. No-one who met him had any doubt that he was in touch with supra-human sources of wisdom, or that from his home in a dowdy back-street of Cheltenham he was bringing through energies from other dimensions that would one day influence us all. He reeked of psychism like he often reeked of incense, could give you the uncomfortable feeling that he could see right through you and beyond, and had been to places in spirit that we could scarcely imagine. He had powers of low-key prophecy which he often demonstrated, which were often accurate, and he turned some of the convoluted magical systems that had endured for centuries inside-out and upside-down, thus making it simpler for the rest of us to work with Light. Many of the books on magic and the kabbalah which appear today owe a huge if unrecognised debt to his pioneering writing. If nothing else, he was a true original in everything he did. In some ways he was larger than life, and many people were fearful of him. In other ways he had exasperating and unapologetic human quirks which could make him seem very small, depending on where you stood – or sometimes rather appealing if you didn’t get blasted by his ire.

Anyone who ever met Bill Gray must laugh at the books churned out by the self-styled witches, magicians and urban shamans who, a generation later, imagine they are High Priests, mighty adepts, or 21st Century brujos. What empty figures they are in comparison, clutching their amulet-filled power pouches or dream-catchers, communing with their power animals while riding their dainty silver broomsticks through crystal-singing candy-floss Otherworlds where everything is eternally positive and ineffably, irritatingly, nice – and always with at least one eye on achieving a few sound-bites on local tv.

As Bill might have said when asked if they raised any real power: “Raise power? That lot couldn’t raise so much as a good fart between them!”

Yet if there is anything evolutionary about the current urge to revitalise the present by looking at the patterns of the past, and the increasing notions that there are harmonic energies within the Earth and ourselves that can be worked with – whether through green eco-movements, the Celtic Revival or the Wiccan arts – then it is due in no small degree to the work that was done by an old bastard who lived near the bus station in a faded town in Gloucestershire.

At least Bill Gray could raise power. Power that could make your eyes water and your fillings ache, and seep out into the world to change it. That’s what real magicians do. Whether he could always handle it with love or wisdom, is another issue. He made many enemies. Even his friends often winced at his antics. Yet now, a decade after his death, both friends and enemies remain united in their recognition of the fact that – whatever his mortal faults – he was a one-off, and that holy magic flowed through his veins like blood.

Bill was hard. He could intimidate. A real sod at times. He wrote brilliant letters, but when it came to books he often fell out with his editors. Yet they tolerated a lot because they knew that he was in a different league to the other writers on their lists who simply made it up as they went along. Underneath the dense and often abrasive prose, with the alliteration he felt would help get concepts embedded in the readers’ mind, it was quite obvious to them that here was a new level of insight into the theory, practice, philosophy and sheer experience of Magic, and how it impinged upon the world. Here was a real magician.

He seemed to know everything, although he rarely bought a book or plundered the library:

“Do you know why Aleister Crowley spelled magick with a ‘k’?” he asked Alan Richardson once, and the young man perked up because he had read exactly that only days before and saw a rare chance to impress the old mage.

“Actually Bill I do. Not only did he want to distinguish the medieval, supernatural and spiritual art of Magic from mere conjuring, but the ‘k’ referred to the Greek word -”

But Gray wouldn’t let him continue. He had already worked it out himself, intuited it, and proceeded to explain at great length because the lecture was in his head just waiting for an audience. And although it wasn’t exactly what Crowley had said, it was impressively close. All to do with sex.

So for those of who are new to the topic, what do we mean by magic, as practised by real magicians? – regardless of which spelling they use. And why, of all things, did we call his biography The Old Sod?

Bill himself wrote of magic:

Definition of Magic is largely a matter of individual opinion…Fundamentally it remains what it always was: Man’s most determined effort to establish an actual working relationship through himself between his Inner and Outer states of being. By magic, Man shows that he is not content to be simply a pawn in the Great Game, but wants to play on his own account. Man the meddler becomes Man the Magician, and so learns the rules the hard way, for magic is concerned with Doing, while mysticism is concerned with Being.
[Magical Ritual Methods, Helios 1969]

Compare this with Crowley’s:

From the nature of things… life is a sacrament; in other words, all our acts are magical acts. Our spiritual consciousness acts through the will and its instruments upon material objects, in order to produce changes which will result in… new conditions of consciousness.
[The Confessions of Aleister Crowley Bantam Books 1970, page 110]

It was once an art. It was an integral part of Religion. As Bill further explained:

“The word Magic… had root connections with greatness, (Maj) and mastery (Magister), and providing this might be understood in the sense of spiritual development and self-mastery, it seemed a reasonable description of the Path I intended to follow. Orthodox religions of all descriptions rejected Magic as a dangerous rival, yet Magic was inclusive of religion… Religion was collective whereas Magic was individual, and I was all for individualism… I would find my own faith through whatever I might learn of Magic and its practical purposes.”

As to the title The Old Sod

It was partly because he really could be, in the British vernacular, an old sod. That is to say, an extremely awkward character; a bit of a bastard. However it is a term that can be used with admiration and very deep affection also, akin to Americans calling someone an old fart. Second, it also refers to sod as a clump of earth, and has allusions to the pioneering Earth Magic which underlay a lot of his inner work. Bill was aware of both of these usages and grudgingly accepted them. But it never seemed to enter his head that it also referred to his role as the founder of the Sangreal Sodality – the latter word meaning a confraternity of like-minded souls. And beneath these there is perhaps a fourth reason: by calling him this, we could keep him at a slight distance, and not get sucked into the sort of fawning that so often mars the art of biography. We owe the man and his magic a huge debt, and want to repay this as fully and honestly as we can, but we were not totally blinded by his light.

Did Bill have any dark secrets? Well he certainly looked into and possibly explored many dark and secret areas of the psyche, but that is the path of anyone hell-bent on the getting of wisdom. William G. Gray could be and was a mighty magician, but he was also human, with many of the prejudices of his class, age and locale. He lived in Cheltenham for gods sake! and that alone explains much.

Next, to get the current (and tedious) spiritual and political correctness out of the way, Was he sexist, homophobic or racist?

Sexist? No. Not at all. Although hardly what you might call a Ladies’ Man, he could get on extremely well with women, and some – younger ones in particular – often found him immensely charming and loveable. Whatever his faults, none of the younger generation of women ever took him to task for being sexist, although his contemporaries might disagree.

Homophobic? No. We knew a number of gay people in common, who were involved in magical activities, and he never once took issue with their sexuality. In fact he didn’t really understand gay issues much, and the only weak part of his classic Ladder of Lights is when he gives some absurd advice to gay men and lesbian women as to how they might ‘get straight’.

Racist? Well, yes. No denying it. His use of the term ‘Nigerian’ as a euphemism for the obvious became tiresome very quickly. Yes he was a racist – although he modified the term in his later years to ‘racialist’, and this is something that must be looked at in some detail. But right from the start it is worth bearing in mind that one of his most respectful and meaningful encounters in South Africa was with Credo Mutwa, the famous Zulu medicine man, author of Indaba my Children and My People. They got on famously, expressed mutual admiration, and he spoke of it later with great pride. So the issue is not that simple, and we shouldn’t brand and reject him with the bald word ‘racist’ without looking at the whole issue.

For various reasons – legal, moral, literary and magical – we decided that it wouldn’t really be advisable to publish Bill’s autobiography verbatim. So we took the best bits in which he explained things in his own inimitable way, and turned the rest of it into a third person biography in which we could use the memories and comments of those who had known and worked with him. But as he wrote to Marcia Pickands, one of the inheritors of his Magic:

“For gods sake don’t make me out to be any kind of ‘Master-Figure’ with any kind of ‘powers’ or faculties other than those of human understanding. I have simply written what I have seen by the Inner Light afforded me. If this helps others well and good, and if it doesn’t I’m sorry but it’s all I’ve got. What I’ve written is for others to make their own way with and do a lot better than I possibly can. The more they can do with it the happier I’ll be.”
[29th July 1986]

Right then Bill, we won’t make you out to be any kind of Master-Figure as you term it. But you did have talents that went a little further than everyday human understanding; you did have an enormous impact on a wide range of people, either directly or indirectly; you weren’t quite as modest and self-effacing as the above quote might imply; and you could be so bloody difficult that we, who sort of idolised you, will let you have your say in all the important things relating to Magic, but also take this chance to make you listen. Just for once. Blast us to buggery if you want, but be aware that we’ve written according to the inner light that you sparked within us. We are determined to make that light grow. If readers can use it to find their own Holy Grails through the inspiration of your work and example, then we will be more than happy.

10 Questions with Varla Ventura

1. So Weiser Books just launched two lines of ebooks, Paranormal Parlor and Magical Creatures. Can you tell my readers a little bit about those two lines?
Magical Creatures is a collection of stories from out-of-print and public domain books and includes such delightful beings as mermaids; goblins, pookas, and other members of the fairy kingdom; vampires; werewolves; and even mummies! Most of these are “fiction” or folkloric. Paranormal Parlor covers the wonderful world of psychic and supernatural—from old Victorian séances to classic ghost stories.

2. You’re the official curator of these two lines of books. What does that job entail?
I comb through volumes of stories, folktales, and true accounts to find hidden gems with secrets of their own. Sometimes the story is more in the author or the creation of the story. Once I have picked out the pieces I write a little about each book and author into an introduction, trying to put it in modern context. Not all the books are outstanding literary works—sometimes they are just quirky enough to be collectible, which is really what this project is all about. Being a lover of the strange and the forgotten, it is truly a labor of love.

3. What are a couple of your favorite books from the two collections?
From the Magical Creatures collection one of my absolute favorites is Polidori’s “Vampyre, A Tale”. One could argue it isn’t the finest vampire story ever written, but it has tons of cultural and pop-cultural significance. Polidori was Lord Byron’s personal physician and was there the fated night that Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary (Wollstonecraft) Shelley were gathered round the fire, conspiring to write their own ghost stories. This story was born that night. In addition, this was the first vampire novel written and published in English, which pre-dates Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” by seventy years.

From the Paranormal Parlor collection I think the stand-out is this novel, “Jap-Herron”, which was written entirely via the Ouija board. Sounds interesting enough on its own, but it turns out the author and her medium were channeling the ghost of Mark Twain and they claimed this was a novel he had been waiting to write since he died seven years before. The author, Emily Grant Hutchings, claimed that Twain identified her as “the one” to be his scribe. It went to press but was pulled immediately from the stands because Twain’s publisher and daughter sued Hutchings and her publisher.

4. Not only are you the curator for these lines of ebooks, you’re also an author. You wrote “Beyond Bizarre: Frightening Facts and Blood-Curdling True Tales” and “Book of the Bizarre: Freaky Facts & Strange Stories”. What are these books like?
These are collections themselves, probably why Weiser’s publisher thought of me for the first of these e-book collections. They are books of supernatural stories, hauntings, ghost encounters, UFO sightings, strange laws still on the books, bizarre news stories, weird medical conditions, and all manner of sea shanties, rock and roll horror stories and basically truth-is-stranger-than fiction kind of stuff. The kind of thing you read or hear about and then think it isn’t true, and then you investigate further and discover not only is it true, but it is way weirder than you first thought.

5. How did you get interested in, for lack of a better phrase, “the bizarre”?
I was kind of raised in a freaky household. We played a lot with Ouija boards and Tarot cards, celebrated Halloween like most families celebrate Christmas. Seriously, one year my mom kept us out of school until after Halloween so we could fully participate in the costume making and pumpkin sculpting. So I kind of always had an unusual outlook on things. I love freaking people out and I was at a party spouting some weird story and my friend said, “Hey, why don’t you put all your crazy stories together into a book?”

6. Care to entertain my readers with a favorite “freaky fact”?
In 1971 a man in Pennsylvania sued Satan—sighting The Devil himself as cause for all of the man’s ill luck. It was thrown out of court on the grounds that it could not be proved that Satan lived in Pennsylvania at the time.

7. Will these two lines of books from Weiser only ever be released as ebooks? Where can my readers go to buy and download them?
As far as I know there are no immediate plans to make them print books, though I would guess that if one in particular were enormously popular it might be considered. The idea is for someone to be able to collect these inexpensively and amass a collection at their fingertips. They are currently available on Amazon for Kindle, B&N’s Nook and in the Apple store for the any of their reading devices. You can search by the names of the collections, individual title, or by my name.

8. Are there going to be more books added to these collections? Any that you can tell us about now?
Oh yes! Many, many more. We haven’t even scratched the surface of what there is to come. Most of these first ones are personal favorites, but I have begun now to start exploring for new books through a variety of channels—references from the backs of my favorite old volumes of books, recommendations from friends and readers, and online searches. Among the next round, which will be released in early December, we have a ghost story by Charles Dickens, a holiday kidnapping story by L. Frank Baum, a collection of Pooka tales, and a fabulous publication circa 1900 all about a series of séances that took place in San Francisco.

9. And what about you? Will there be more books from you for my readers to look forward to?
I am pretty immersed in unearthing and resurrecting these volumes of forgotten lore, but when I surface I am sure to be half-way through my next manuscript. I have a ton of ideas, and am constantly gathering stories.

10. Parting shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question.
Have you ever seen a ghost?

Nope, but it isn’t for a lack of trying.

About Varla Ventura:
Varla Ventura is the author of “The Book of the Bizarre” and “Beyond Bizarre” and is a lover of all things odd and unusual and truly freaky. Her favorite holiday is Halloween, which she celebrates almost every day. She lives in the attic of an old Victorian in San Francisco. She can be found online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/varla-ventura, http://varlaventura.wordpress.com/, and http://facebook.com/varla.ventura.

Cat’s Eye Tarot

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and with that holiday starts for many people a very stressful time of year. For some, tomorrow’s holiday may be less relaxing day off, and more a tension filled exercise in restraint. You know, restraining yourself from telling Aunt Edna what you really think about her vintage coupon collection. As a bit of a preemptive salve to potentially frayed nerves I found something playful, whimsical, and all around anti-stress inducing, the “Cat’s Eye Tarot” by Debra M. Givin, DVM and published by U.S. Games Systems.

I’m not what you call a “cat person”, although Deborah Blake’s house of adorable cats is slowing chipping away at my hardened heart. Yet upon opening up “Cat’s Eye Tarot” the first words to come out of my cold, bitter, cat hair allergic mouth was, “Awwwwww…….how cute!” Yes Givin, a practicing veterinarian, has created an adorable deck of tarot cards. However before you write off “Cat’s Eye Tarot” as some sort of kitschy theme deck possessing no other value than cuddly cat art, let’s go to the accompanying book for some additional insights.

Givin admits that “the images in ‘Cat’s Eye Tarot’ are simple and uncluttered” and that there are “few, if any, esoteric symbols.” Her choice to work with cats was thoughtful and not just born out of affection for felines. She points out that, “cats are pleasing to the eye, complex in their behaviors, and mysterious in their motivation; an idea model for a visually evocative medium like the tarot.” Color in the deck is used to convey suit energies with “solid practical brown tabbies” for pentacles, “sweet black and white” for cups, “talkative Siamese” for swords, and “flashy red tabbies” for wands. Usual suit symbols are replaced with reptiles, fish, birds, and mice for wands, cups, swords, and pentacles respectively. All were chosen because they are natural prey for cats. See? There is a lot more going on here than just some cute cat artwork. But now let’s get to the de-stressing exercise of checking out some of that artwork…..

I was enchanted at the way The Fool and The Star not only mirrored the art of the traditional tarot, but managed to capture the feelings those two cards convey.

The Fool
The Star

And most readers know my personal favorite tarot card is The Hanged Man, so I couldn’t resist sharing the adorable The Hanged Kitty card.

The Hanged Kitty

Who’s the cutest little representation of sacrifice? You are kitty! That’s right, you are! Why yes, I did just do baby talk to a tarot card. Wanna’ make something of it? In the fullest of disclosures I must admit to one weird mental hiccup that this Hanged Kitty card triggers in my mind. For some reason every time I say “The Hanged Kitty”, in my horrible mind I think, “hung like a kitty”. Honestly, I’m not sure anyone would ever make the boast of being “hung like a kitty”, but alas it is forever entwined with the beautiful, innocent, and pure The Hanged Kitty card.

This review took an odd, and perhaps unfortunate turn…..

Ditch Your Inner Critic

Ditch Your Inner Critic: Five Practical Ways to Stop Beating Yourself Up So your Inner Superstar is Free to Shine

By Amy Ahlers

“If only I were thin enough, rich enough, better-looking…THEN I could stop being so hard on myself.” Have you ever had that thought? If only your circumstances were different you could then magically shift your internal dialogue into an empowering, nurturing, loving one, right? After more than a decade of coaching people from every walk of life, I finally got it: we are hard on ourselves despite our external circumstances.

We beat ourselves up for both the big things and for the tiniest imperfections. And all this punishment isn’t helping us become more successful or to feel more fulfilled or even to get more done.

And who can blame us for being so hard on ourselves? Women have a lot on their plates: careers, romance, kids, health . . . the list goes on and on. We’re supposed to bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, have incredible sex with our partners (never letting him forget he’s a man — that is, assuming he is a man), get the laundry and housework done, have healthy, accomplished kids, and a tight butt and perky boobs to boot. And it’s no easier for men. The demands of modern life make us feel like we’re supposed to enjoy being pulled in a million directions at the same time. And that we’re supposed to be as flexible as Gumby on muscle relaxers. But we’re only human.

What would happen if we gave ourselves a break?

First, it is vital that you identify the critical, catty, judgmental voice in your head as your very own Inner Critic. And I’ve got news for you: Your Inner Critic is a Big Fat Liar! She/he tells you Big Fat Lies to try to maintain the status quo and keep you in your comfort zones – even if your comfort zones aren’t all that comfortable.

If you want to take control of your happiness, it’s time to take Your Inner Critic out of the driver’s seat.

Try the five tips below to ditch Your Inner Critic:

Tip One: Identify Your Inner Critic’s Top 10 List of places, situations, and environments where she/he likes to show up and criticize. Is it at work? Social events? In bed? Whenever you look in the mirror? Once you know what circumstances are likely to trigger Your Inner Critic, you can be better prepared to deal with that voice.

Tip Two: Draw, doodle or sketch a picture of Your Inner Critic. Is he pudgy with big glasses? Perfectly pressed in pink? A slob with a cigarette in one hand and a martini in the other? Don’t worry if you think you can’t draw. No one will ever see this but you, so go for it! Having a mental image of the voice that tortures you – particularly a funny image – can instantly take away some of Your Inner Critic’s power.

Tip Three: Get to know Your Inner Critic on a deeper level. Notice what makes him louder, and notice what diminishes her power. What happens if you just yell “Shut up!”? What if you just look her calmly in the eye and reassure her that everything is going to be all right? Maybe he needs a compliment every now and then? After all, Inner Critics need love too.

Tip Four: What are Your Inner Critic’s favorite Big Fat Lies about you? What does he/she say to you over and over? Is it, “You’re a Failure,” “You’re Unlovable,” or “You’re Not Enough?” Your Inner Critic will collect evidence to make the case that you’re not good enough, even twisting things around when necessary. Your Inner Critic will do everything possible to back up those favorite punishing, disappointing, sad stories about you and your worth, so it’s up to you to remember the good stuff about you, no matter how convincing she/he seems.

Tip Five: Do this powerfully simple three step process to see through Your Inner Critic’s Big Fat Lies:
Step One: Ask yourself, “What is my Inner Mean Girl/Inner Critic saying?” Give voice to the Big Fat Lies you are believing. Speak them – get them out of the darkness and into the light so they can be healed. Don’t hold back here . . . rant! Let it out!
Step Two: Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “What does my Inner Wisdom know?” Sink into the land of your Inner Wisdom’s Truth. This is the place that feels grounded. It feels like home. Really let the Truth wash all over you and disintegrate the Big Fat Lies. Ahhh . . . that feels better!
Step Three: Lock in your Inner Wisdom’s Truth by repeating it (aloud if possible) accompanied by a physical gesture that reinforces the message. My Inner Wisdom has me lightly touch my heart; I have one client who waves his hand as though he were testifying in church and another who touches her belly. This gesture becomes your touchstone, reminding you to step into Truth and feel better.

Shifting your focus to your Inner Wisdom will always bring you in line with your Truth and Compassion, and you will always feel better. As you practice this process more and more, you’ll find your Inner Superstar coming to life.

Here’s the Truth: You are a Superstar.

And I know, because my Inner Wisdom told me so.

About Amy Ahlers:
Amy Ahlers, the Wake-Up Call Coach, is on a mission to wake up your Inner Superstar so you shine bright. She is a celebrated certified success coach, the CEO of Wake-Up Call Coaching, the cocreator of Inner Mean Girl Reform School, and the innovator of many teleseminars such as the Women Masters and the New Man, New Woman, New Life, where she has spoken alongside luminaries such as Marianne Williamson, Neale Donald Walsch, Barbara Marx Hubbard, SARK, Lisa Nichols, Marci Shimoff, Peggy McColl, and many, many more.

Amy has been a featured expert for ABC TV, for The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, the Oakland Tribune, and many radio shows. She received the 2011 Women Who Dare award from Girls Inc. for her work with women in the field of health and wellness, and she leads workshops to inspire women to stop being hard on themselves and to wake up to their true magnificence. Amy resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her beloved husband, Rob, their beautiful daughter, Annabella, and their relentlessly energetic mutt, Dozer.

Based on the book “Big Fat Lies Women Tell Themselves: Ditch Your Inner Critic and Wake Up Your Inner Superstar” © 2011 by Amy Ahlers. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

10 Questions with Kenaz Filan

1. For my readers who may not be familiar, what is Voodoo?
Voodoo is a family of spiritual and magical practices which draw inspiration from the religions of Dahomey – an area comprising modern-day Benin and parts of Togo. Both in Africa and in the African Diaspora, they have incorporated many other traditions as well: there is a strong influence from Kongo and Bantu (central/southern African) and Yorubaland (modern-day Nigeria), combined with a large helping of Freemasonry and Roman Catholicism. Among the traditions which arise from this root are Vodu Dominicano and Vodu Cubano (Cuban and Dominican Vodou), Haitian Vodou, Beninois Vodun, and New Orleans Voodoo.

2. What drew you to Voodoo?
In 1994 I encountered a spirit who identified himself as “Legba” and who told me I was going to become an initiate in Haitian Vodou. At that time Vodou was not really accessible to non-Haitians living in the US, and so I was skeptical.

Then, in 1999, as Vodou was becoming more popular, Legba showed up again and told me it was time for me to travel to Haiti. I informed him that this would be impossible since I had a job and a long-term girlfriend. Within a few days my boss died and the law firm closed. I came home to tell my girlfriend that, only to discover she was moving out and moving in with a guy she met at her job. My path thus cleared, I was able to travel to Haiti and get a lave tet from Danise David of Cyvadier: in 2003 I was initiated by Edeline St. Amand (Mambo Azan Taye) and Hugue Pierre (Houngan Si Gan Temps) in Société la Belle Venus #2 of Jacmel, Haiti and Brooklyn, New York as Houngan Si Pwen Coquille du Mer. And so my journey to Gineh began.

3. How does the Voodoo of New Orleans differ from Haitian and other schools of Voodoo?
Much modern day New Orleans Voodoo begins with Charles Massicot Gandolfo, proprietor of the New Orleans Voodoo Museum. Inspired by Robert Tallant’s 1940s work on New Orleans folklore and religion (Gumbo Ya-Ya, Voodoo in New Orleans and The Voodoo Queen: a Biography of Marie Laveau), Gandolfo’s Voodoo Museum aimed at the tourist trade: he hired practitioners of Santeria, Palo Mayombe and other African Diaspora traditions as well as initiates in Haitian Vodou to work for him. He also, in the best New Orleans tradition, was never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

As a result, many people complain that New Orleans Voodoo is a creation for tourists and doesn’t have authentic “roots.” But New Orleans rootworkers have always done a lot of business aimed at the tourist trade – the Crescent City has always been a tourist town, and people came to get mojo hands, gris-gris bags and other spells designed to bring back lovers and ensure gambling luck.

I’d even argue that this only serves to make New Orleans Voodoo an authentically American spiritual tradition: America has never been good about keeping business and religion separate. A religion which began as a money-making venture aimed at the tourists, but which went on to become a serious and even somewhat respectable spiritual tradition – how American is that?!

4. Your latest book, “The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook”, contains a whole lot of information about New Orleans aside from its Voodoo. The history, the music, and the food all feature prominently. How much influence did these factors have on what is considered New Orleans Voodoo today?
Blues music can be traced back to the Griots of Mali; gris-gris bags come from the “gerrygerrys” carried by the Mande slaves who were brought to New Orleans Voodoo is a product of its culture – or more precisely, of a unique blending of cultures.

5. New Orleans in the past and present has been the home to an amazing cast of characters. Who are a few of your favorite New Orleans people and why?
I am very impressed by Sallie Ann Glassman and Priestess Miriam Chamani. Both are strong, intelligent independent women who heard the Crescent City’s call and answered it. (Sallie Ann is from Indiana, while Priestess Miriam is from Chicago). Both have added new strains of magic to the local practice – Sallie Ann is strongly influenced by Thelema, while Miriam learned Belizean folk magic from her late husband. And both have given back a great deal to the community.

Fred “Chicken Man” Staten was an… impressive… fellow. Long before Ozzy Osbourne did his dove-decapitating trick, Chicken Man made a name for himself biting the heads off chickens. Yet beneath his sideshow geek exterior was a sensitive and tender-hearted fellow (save where chickens were concerned, I guess) who regularly offered aid and counsel to lovelorn tourists and to kids growing up on the Crescent City’s mean streets. He was scorned by many as a “mere showman” – but they forgot that Marie Laveau held dances for bored locals!

As far as New Orleans writers go, my all-time favorite is John Kennedy Toole. Confederacy of Dunces is far and away the greatest book about New Orleans and its ever-changing cast of characters. Ignatius J. Reilly, the book’s protagonist, is one of the greatest literary creations since Don Quixote.

6. The book you wrote with Raven Kaldera, “Drawing Down the Spirits: The Traditions and Techniques of Spirit Possession” features a lot of personal experiences. Did you two ever discuss how much of your own lives you were willing to share?
That is always an issue with me. I’m by nature a private and introverted person: I would rather write about facts, figures and events than share my deepest feelings with the world. Yet in “Drawing Down the Spirits” we found ourselves describing our experiences and providing a lot of sometimes unflattering personal information.

Ultimately, we decided the most important thing we could do with “Drawing Down the Spirits” is provide a guide for people who were experiencing trance possession. This meant we needed to talk about our mistakes so that they didn’t repeat them: it also meant that we had to describe some of our personal interactions with spirit. This wasn’t always a comfortable or an easy process, but I think we did a reasonably good job of describing trance possession for an interested audience. Hopefully some of our readers were able to learn from our errors and go on to make new errors of their own 😉

7. What do you feel is the biggest misconception about Voodoo? Would you like to take a moment here to clear it up?
Where to begin, where to begin? How about I list a few of the big ones:

Flesh-eating zombies come from George Romero, not Haitian Vodou. In Haiti a zombie is typically someone who has been “zombified” through drugs and ritual and who works as a manual laborer. I’ve also seen the term used to describe the spirit of a dead person who is called upon to do magical work I love Night of the Living Dead as much as the next guy – but it’s not Wade Davis’s Serpent and the Rainbow. (And while we’re on the topic, Davis’s book is fabulous but the Wes Craven movie it “inspired” is truly awful – Wes should have stuck to Elm Street and stayed away from Haiti).

“Drumbeat-driven voodoo orgies” are not part of Vodou. The only time sex and magic get mixed in Vodou is before fets or after initiations. You are expected to refrain from sex for 24 hours before a fet (spirit party) and 41 days after your initiation. So it’s not about licentious behavior but about abstinence! The problem is that black people have traditionally been eroticized by uptight Protestants: they saw people dancing and figured it had to have something to do with sex since “everyone knows those colored folks are hot-blooded.” (This isn’t just distasteful, by the way: it’s outright dangerous. Lynching was justified as a way of protecting white maidens from lust-crazed black men, while rape of black women was justified by saying “those savages don’t place any value on chastity.”)

Perhaps my biggest concern is the idea that you have to be initiated in Vodou to serve the lwa. This started when one notorious online personality decided to make a career out of selling Vodou Initiation Tours. The fact is that most people do not need the responsibilities that come with initiation to the Vodou priesthood, and they certainly don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to light a candle for the spirits. The Priesthood should be the culmination of one’s service to the lwa and entry into the next level, not the beginning.

8. Jambalaya, pralines, or beignets?
It depends. I don’t generally have that much of a sweet tooth, but I make an exception for pralines. Jambalaya is a rib-sticking bowl of pure nutritional goodness, depending on who is cooking it and what they threw in today’s batch. And beignets are the perfect accompaniment to one of the Big Easy’s greatest specialties – coffee with chicory.

9. What other projects are you working on that my readers can be on the look out for?
I’m working on a follow-up to “Drawing Down the Spirits” with Raven Kaldera. This is tentatively titled “Talking with the Spirits: a Guide to Personal Gnosis”. After that I’m hoping to follow up “Power of the Poppy” with a guide to stimulants in historical and contemporary culture – that book has the working title: “Speed: 4,000 years of Life in the Fast Lane”. And after that who knows: inspiration strikes when and where it will and we never know where it will take us.

10. Parting Shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question.
What subject(s) would you like to see me cover next? Writing is a lonely business: it’s hard to determine what your audience wants and easy to take it personally when your work gets a less than enthusiastic reception. I’m always interested in hearing what people want to read and writing something that meets their needs.

I’m thrilled to hear you’re doing a follow up to “Drawing Down the Spirits” with Raven Kaldera and I’m very interested in the book about stimulants that you’re working on too! I love the historical context that you give to the subject matter of all or your books, which means that if you find something interesting enough to write about it, odds are very good that I’m going to want to read it!

About Kenaz Filan:
Kenaz Filan is the author of six books through Inner Traditions/Park Street Press, the most recent being “The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook”. The former managing editor of “newWitch” and an initiated Houngan Si Pwen in Haitian Vodou, Filan has written about Haitian Vodou, trance possession and the shamanic and medicinal uses of poppies. Filan has also published essays in various magazines, including “Renaissance” and “Mysteries” and is a regular contributor to “Witches and Pagans”.

You can learn more at http://www.kenazfilan.com and http://kenazfilan.blogspot.com.

Fun with Flummery!

On October 14, 2011 I published a review of Ellen Evert Hopman’s latest book “Scottish Herbs and Fairy Lore”. If you missed the review, feel free to give it a read now, but to sum up; it had a ton of information and I really liked it. One of the things I really enjoyed was that Hopman included recipes for some traditional Scottish dishes. As most of you know, I do love to try new foods, so Jim and I decided to try the recipe for flummery that appeared in the book.

Now Hopman didn’t go into extensive detail about the flummery, and there wasn’t an image or photo of the dish, so I decided to poke around online to see what I could learn about a proper flummery and what it looks like.

Wikipedia describes it thusly, “Flummery is a sweet soft pudding that is made from stewed fruit and thickened with cornstarch. Traditional British flummeries were, like porridge, often oatmeal-based and cooked to achieve a smooth and gelatinous texture; sugar and milk were typically added and occasionally orange flower water. The dish is typically bland in nature. The dish gained stature in the 17th century where it was prepared in elaborate molds and served with applause from the dining audience.

The word also came to mean generally dishes made with milk, eggs and flour in the late seventeenth and during the nineteenth centuries. In Australia post World War II, flummery was known as a mousse dessert made with beaten evaporated milk, sugar and gelatine. Also made using jelly crystals, mousse flummery became established as an inexpensive alternative to traditional cream-based mousse in Australia.”

Much to my surprise there was a whole world of flummery recipes out there of assorted origins and ingredients. I found several Irish flummery recipes that were very similar to the Scottish one in “Scottish Herbs and Fairy Lore”, but there were dozens of recipes that shared almost none of the same ingredients to the recipe I was using. So what is the flummery recipe from Hopman’s book?

Flummery

1/3 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup oatmeal
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons honey
1/4 whisky (we used Drambuie)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1-2 cups berries

Toast the almonds and oatmeal in a pan until slightly browned. Set aside.

Whip the cream until it is smooth, but not stiff.

Warm the honey very slightly so that it will run easily.

Fold the honey, whisky, half of the toasted almonds and oatmeal, and half of the berries plus the lemon juice into the cream.

Mix thoroughly, but lightly, and spoon into individual glasses. Sprinkle with remaining almonds, oatmeal and berries on top.

Chill and serve.

Serves 4-6

Behold! Flummery!

Despite many internet sources touting the blandness of flummery, that was not the case with what we made. It was lighter than a pudding, but denser than a mousse, rich and creamy laced with the faint but distinct flavor of the Drambuie. The berries added a tart flavor and the toasted oats and almond blended in great. It was like a bad ass version of a yogurt, berries, and granola parfait.

There you have it folks, flummery. A tasty treat and just one of the many reasons I enjoyed “Scottish Herbs and Fairy Lore”! If any of you guys try the recipe out, or have your own flummery knowledge, share it with us in the comments!

Put the Needle on the Record

Because of my age, I came into the 1980s late. It was in high school when my finger nails turned blue, my skirts included clingy black shorts sticking out from under that you could see, and on days when I wasn’t wearing a Sandman t-shirt (I must have had 6 or 7 different ones) my shirts tended to be mesh, neon, or perhaps ripped to expose a shoulder. There I was at the beginning of the grunge era, most days looking like I was on my way to audition to be an extra in a Cover Girls or Salt-N-Pepa video. (Don’t you worry your pretty little heads, as Courtney Love happened some floral dresses and combats boots showed up in the wardrobe as well.) In high school when I purchased music singles they were in the cassette single format, also known as cassingles. I rarely gave their covers a second look. Cassingles were simply a means to an end, it was only the music that mattered. Perhaps that’s why I have such a romantic feeling about vinyl singles. There is a magic about that size and format. You can lose yourself in a vinyl cover in a way that cassette tapes never really allowed.

This brings us to what I’m calling “the bestest thing ever”, “Put the Needle on the Record: The 1980s at 45 Revolutions Per Minute” by Matthew Chojnacki. Let me first start with, that is a bad ass name for the book. I don’t know if it was the author or the publisher that came up with that, but whoever did deserves a big thumbs up! If you’re looking to discover the artistic nature of the eighties, look no further. Chojnacki has compiled over 250 vinyl single covers highlighting every musical and artistic corner of the decade. He presents covers together to show trends; the cover of Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” influencing Winger’s “Madalaine”, album sleeves in denim, the cover of La Toya Jackson’s “Heart Don’t Lie” being derived directly from Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”, covers that have the appearance of postcards, the work of Keith Haring, and more!

Kate Bush, Army Dreamers (Design John Carder Bush, 1980, EMI 5106, U.K.)
Dolly Parton, I Will Always Love You (Design Unknown, 1982, RCA 13260, U.S.)

“Two of music’s most distinguished vocalists and lyricists appear here in ‘autographed’ photos” – Matthew Chojnacki

But hold on folks, because “Put the Needle on the Record” isn’t just filled with beautiful images of vinyl single covers. Chojnacki interviewed loads of people involved with them. Artists, designers, musicians, and whoever else played a hand in the creation of the covers are featured throughout the book. Sometimes offering insight into how the art was created, other times revealing behind the scenes stories, and frequently explaining a meaning to the cover that you may not have seen before. And the whole thing is sandwiched between a great foreword from Jake Shears (of Scissor Sisters) and an equally stellar afterword from Nick Rhodes (of Duran Duran).

Madonna, Everybody (Illustration Lou Beach, Design Christine Sauers, 1982, Sire 29899 12, U.S.)
The Clash, This is England (Illustration Eddie King, 1985, CBS 6122, U.K.)

“Madonna’s ‘Everybody’ depicted New York’s Lower East Side/East Village, while ‘This is England’ portrayed a Brit city landscape.” – Matthew Chojnacki

“Put the Needle on the Record” is an art book beautiful enough to proudly set out on your coffee table that is loaded with enough thoughtful pop culture journalism to keep your friends on your sofa for far too long.

Celebrating Cindy

Two years ago I stumbled across a website called www.MyNerdGirl.com and when I did, I started a long distance friendship with the site’s founder Cindy Marie Harney (aka Cindy Chaney). In April 2009 I published an interview with Cindy on The Magical Buffet website. This introduced my readers to a vivacious woman. An intelligent woman willing to take risks with a great sense of humor. The very next month I learned that my new friend suffered from Lupus, and so despite my publicly documented aversion to raising money for walk/runs for causes, I personally donated to Team Cindy and encouraged others to do so.

Although absent from the site in 2010, Cindy and I still kept in touch thanks to the all powerful Facebook. Even though I knew she was struggling with her health, she always projected a positive, upbeat image. While I gripe about my endless strings of doctor’s appointments, Cindy would publicly celebrate her new adjustable bed or upgraded scooter. I admired, and was jealous of, her always glass half full outlook.

In April 2011 Cindy reappeared on The Magical Buffet, again when raising money for Team Cindy’s Lupus walk/run. When I first learned of Cindy’s Lupus she had difficulty walking for extended periods and had to give up dancing, by this year she was suffering from stage four kidney and lung failure and was unable to attend the walk personally. However Cindy had been writing, and she approached me about publishing one of her essays on The Magical Buffet. In June of this year “What I Learned from Bin Laden” was published on the site. “Bin Laden” shared a part of her past I had never known and revealed Cindy to be, in spite of everything, an idealist and dreamer. She ended the essay quoting John Lennon and saying, “Perhaps if we are able to operate in the consciousness of total oneness and abundance, and without the need, desire, and want to compete, then we could have peace. As I write this I am making a pledge to myself to never let others make me question what I know is right, to be true to my soul, to allow myself to imagine what Lennon envisioned, to not let others fear influence me, and to wave my PACE flag for the entire world to see. Will you join me?” Cindy’s essay boasted some of the highest numbers in readers and commenters ever for a post on the site.

Back in April, when hearing about Cindy’s deteriorating health, I wrote, “I can’t read those words and not feel a welling up of rage. I won’t mention anyone by name, but at least one of the women I work with a lot for The Buffet suffers from a chronic pain condition, I myself suffer from several yet to be effectively diagnosed and treated health conditions, and here I find that Cindy, a woman who I would readily describe as one of the ‘best of the best’ is in hospice care. I can’t help but feel there is a war on women right now, and we’re all losing.”

I’m here today with sad news friends, in October we lost, we lost again. Cindy Marie Harney passed away after years of battling Lupus. If you are reading this post at 4pm eastern on Saturday, November 12, 2011, you are virtually attending a memorial being held for friends and family of Cindy’s in Orange, CA. Sadly I could not be there in person, but somehow felt a friendship forged and maintained thanks to the internet being honored online was a fitting substitute.

When reflecting on what to say, I considered going to Cindy’s friends and trying to learn more about her past and life outside of the internet. However I stopped myself. To do so would imply that the friendship we shared online was somehow “lacking”, was somehow not as “special” or “important” as those she had offline. I would never say that, ever. Cindy touched a lot of lives and regardless of whether those people were online or off, she’ll be missed by everyone of us.

Adventures with Stan the Sugar Skull

You might remember that not too long ago I made a trip to Marlborough, NH. While there I visited the awesome store Inkubus, that was made all the cooler for having supplies for making Day of the Dead sugar skulls. I said if I tried making one I would let you know how it went. Well, here we are!

I’ve got to admit my absolute surprise because making sugar skulls wasn’t hard at all. Jim and I braced ourselves for the worst. I even went to the www.MexicanSugarSkull.com website, since they’re company that makes the skull forms we were using, for additional tips. (By the way, their site is really great.) But once we started, we quickly realized that making the skulls was easy and fun. You make a mix of water, sugar, and meringue powder. You mix it with your hands and it feels like damp sand on the beach. It’s uncanny really. We pressed the mix into the forms, turned them out onto cardboard squares, and left them out overnight to dry.

Drying sugar skull halves.

It was really hard to leave them alone while they dried. Jim and I kept hovering over the halves, wanting to poke them to see if they were drying. It was during this drying time that for some reason I decided our skull’s name was Stan.

Now the instructions with the forms, and the sugar skull website, tell you to make your own royal icing to use on the skulls. Well, I’m a lazy girl so instead I bought a tube of white frosting and Jim used that to glue both halves of Stan into one skull.

Stan is now whole.

And now to decorate! Both Jim and I are not what you would call “craft oriented” so we just picked up a few tubes of frosting and a set of plastic decorating tips to screw on to decorate Stan. Needless to say, he is pretty basic looking, but not too bad. Traditionally there should be vertical stripes of frosting over Stan’s line of a mouth, but after doing the line I really liked the way it looked. It’s kind of like Stan is looking at you and saying, “Yep. I’m a sugar skull.” Decorating Stan was the most difficult part of the sugar skull making process since I’ve never really done dessert decoration before.

Stan with two nameless brothers.

Now that we’ve tried it, both Jim and I have the sugar skull “bug”. We’re coming up with all kinds of weird ideas of things to try. Who knows, perhaps sugar skulls will appear on the site again!

Geek Month in Review: October 2011

by JB Sanders

Victorian Lego mansions

And because this is Halloween Month, they’re haunted and abandoned. Yeah, that’s right — haunted LEGO houses.

Suburban life, 4000 years ago

See computer reconstructions of a town from the Bronze Age, which looks remarkably suburban to our modern eyes.

Chocolate Like You’ve Never Tasted

I don’t mean that euphemistically, because these are varieties of the cocoa bean that have been discovered in the Amazonian jungles of Peru. One of the varieties was recently developed by a Swiss chocolatier who sold them for $60/pound. And the reason it’s on the Geeky News? Scientists are sequencing the plant DNA and plotting the mineral contents of the soil where the varieties grow to figure out what makes them taste different.

Megavirus

That’s something you want see in a headline, isn’t it? Real news story, thankfully not as movie-of-the-week as that sounds.

Black Death Decoded

Speaking of tiny malicious organisms, scientists have sequenced the genome of the strain of the Black Death (y-pestis) that killed 50 million people back in the 1300’s. Hopefully to better understand it, and not to ransom the world for 1 billion dollars.

Things Science Fiction Films Have Ruined for John Scalzi

Always an amusing author, this time about things scifi films have ruined for him.

The Aurora Borealis Never Looked Better

So there’s this hotel in Finland that will rent you this cute little cabin specially designed for star-gazing and seeing the Aurora Borealis. Why are they perfect for it? Because they’re geodesic domed “cabins” made of thermal glass (remember, this is Finland, it’s a wee chill).

It’s Back to the, er, Past?

The DeLorean Car Company is releasing an electric car in 2013. Yes, a gull-winged, all-electric vehicle. No, it’s not powered by fusion. Not yet, anyway.

Actual Hobbit House, Minus Hobbits

It’s an off-the-grid, semi-buried, earth-friendly house in Wales. Not exactly a hobbit house, but strongly similar. Looks pretty cool, too.

It’s a Game AND Science!

Protein folding is part of bimolecular science trying to figure out the ideal structures of proteins, and it has possible applications to all sorts of things — HIV/AIDs research, cancer cures, Alzheimer’s. So instead of throwing a fancy screensaver at the problem (ala SETI@home), some clever bunch have come up with a game, and are letting smart-ass gamers find the best folding strategies. That’s right, it’s a video game where winning means curing cancer!
Details and science here:

Inserting Synthetic Objects Into Real Photographs

Prosaic title; amazing results. Science fiction means never believing what you see ever again. These guys have come up with a method for inserting computer-generated objects into a real photographic scene, either statically, or as part of an animation, so that they look real. Seriously real. Watch the video if you don’t believe me.

Solar-Powered Airships

Who doesn’t love airships? All the fun of flying without the jet-fuel headaches. Plus a HECK of a lot more room in the vehicle. Well, now there’s a company working on airships (actual heavier-than-air models) that are powered entirely by photovoltaic panels on the hull. They call them SolarShips. Watch the video to see what the giant-sized cargo hauler looks like.

Only Two Hands!

So this guy is juggling three Rubik’s Cubes. Not that interesting, right? Just juggling. But he’s also solving one of them at the same time as juggling the other two. See for yourself:

From SciFi to Your Wall

There have been a few scifi novels that used bioluminescence for lighting, but no one has really brought the concept to … er … light. Until now! Phillips, yes, the other light-bulb folks, have a working prototype. They power it methane and compost drawn from their concept-home microbial loop system (food waste from the kitchen, basically).

About John:
John’s a geek from way back. He’s been floating between various computer-related jobs for years, until he settled into doing tech support in higher ed. Now he rules the Macs on campus with an iron hand (really, it’s on his desk).

Geek Credentials:
RPG: Blue box D&D, lead minis, been to GenCon in Milwaukee.
Computer: TRS-80 Color Computer, Amiga 1000, UNIX system w/reel-to-reel backup tape
Card games: bought Magic cards at GenCon in 1993
Science: Met Phil Plait, got time on a mainframe for astronomy project in 1983
His Blog: http://glenandtyler.blogspot.com