Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ask Voodoomama: How NOT to Ask Voodoo Mama a Question

In case you don't follow my other blog Ask Voodoo Mama, I just posted a discussion about the kinds of questions I get that I really shouldn't be getting. That old saying "There is no such thing as a stupid question" is a downright lie. Check it out and tell me if you agree.

Ask Voodoomama: How NOT to Ask Voodoo Mama a Question

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Who Skinned the Black Cat? Online Botanica sells the Face of a Black Cat as Good Luck Curio




I want to know, since when was a black cat face used for good luck?

I don't quite remember how I stumbled upon this page the other day, all I know is that I did.  I normally like to peruse Papa Jim's Botanica site because he carries stuff I don't carry. However, this is one item I won't be purchasing from him or anyone else, and I certainly won't be aspiring to carry it.

The website says "Black Cat Face. Place in your home or business for Good Luck, Protection From Evil."

"This product was added to our catalog on Thursday 24 February, 2011."

Now, I am all for  the rare and hard to find curios and I will climb a mountain or mountains (literally) to get them. But a black cat face?

I don't even know where to begin with this one.

Well, I posted a link to it on my Facebook page and got a lot of responses, which is why I thought I would blog about it and do a little scientific examination of the evidence. And, being the scientist that I am, I have an inquiring mind and I want to know, who skinned the black cat?

Any research begins with a question. We want to find out something, so we research it. We form a hypothesis and develop a theory, collect our data and then methodically go about proving or disproving the hypothesis. The results may or may not support the hypothesis. Either way, if we can confirm one way or another it's good research, even if we don't confirm the initial hypothesis because at least we have accurate information about the issue at hand and draw a conclusion or conclusions based on facts. We end up with more information than we had in the beginning of the research so we add to a specific body of knowledge that everyone can draw from. Not only do we benefit the scientific community with new found knowledge, we also benefit society at large.

Research also begins with something the researcher is passionate about. When I saw this image and the accompanying advertisement, I was appalled. And I am  not alone. Here are a couple of the comments that supported my initial reaction:

Sorcha Puridai Isn't there some law against that? It should be reported. If it originates from outside the country, it's illegal to import - or export if its inside. There should be a way to shut this down. More education is needed because there are superstitious and impressionable people out there who support this kind of trade ...

Fred Cislo Jr Okay that is just wrong! I would be pissed if somebody told me they bought that!

And there were more. but then, there was this post:

Willa Wylde im betting its not a cat face at all but a fox, you can buy them from various leather places like Tandy, i used to use them to make dream catches and such it even looks like the fox shape...just saying

It's always good to have different opinions about things. Sometimes we can't see the other side of Exu's hat because we can't stand on both sides of the street at one time. But, if we are open-minded and don't jump to conclusions, we can discover the truth based on the evidence at hand.

After reading Willa's comment, I questioned whether or not it was in fact a fox and not a cat. I am not convinced either way...yet.

Now I am writing an article about black cat sacrifice in Volume 2 of Hoodoo and Conjure Quarterly so I don't want to repeat that here, but I do want to give a little contextual background for our informal study of this alleged black cat face. There is no doubt that the use of black cats in magick has a long history in Europe and in hoodoo. Cats played a large role in ancient Egyptian society, for example, as they were used for pest control and were deified (i.e. Bast, Mafdet). In fact, cats  were afforded the same mummification and burial as people were. In ancient Greece, cats were revered and if one was found hurting or killing a cat, even accidentally, the punishment was death.

In New Orleans Voodoo, black cats have been the subject of controversial sacrifice  in the past, particularly with regards to finding the one bone in the body that is all powerful.

Thanks to Robert Tallant and other writers who focused on specific excerpts of his mostly inaccurate and sensationalized account of New Orleans Voodoo, the urban legend of the black cat as THE sacrificial lamb of New Orleans Voodoo has become an undisputed historical fact. He even has a chapter in his book Voodoo in New Orleans called Skin a Black Cat with your Teeth. According to Tallant, “ Sacrifice and the drinking of blood were integral parts of all Voodoo ceremonies. Usually it was the blood of a kid that was used, but often it was that of a black cat”(Tallant, p. 15). The prevalence and inaccuracy of such accounts is something I discuss in the article in HCQ. One thing I have not been able to find, whether truth or fiction, is the use of a black cat face specifically, for good luck.

In at least 20 articles I researched for the article in HCQ, absolute statements are made about the orgiastic parties led by Marie Laveau where the Voodoo worshippers danced around a cauldron filled with frogs and into which snakes and a black cat was tossed. Where did they get their information? Tallant of course, typically the only source cited for these statements. Since the sacred serpent, Li Grande Zombi, is our major Spirit in New Orleans, I hardly doubt anyone was throwing snakes into a cauldron. With such proliferation of unsubstantiated claims, it has become an almost iconic representation of New Orleans Voodoo, albeit completely biased and unfounded. It reminds me of a similar phenomenon that is prevalent on the internet today where people take one source, usually Wikipedia, and regurgitate the information without any critical analysis of the information and without any original authorship that contributes to the body of knowledge. YAWN....

Now the black cat bone is another issue, and it is seemingly supported by local lore and in various blues songs such as the one I have in this post. The truth is, however, the use of black cats in sacrifice didn't start with New Orleans Voodoo or hoodoo. For example, here is a description of the gruesome black cat bone ritual found in the book of St. Cyprian (O Antigo Livro de São Cipriano: Capa de Aço) first published in 1849:


Cook the body of a black cat in boiling water witH white seeds and wood from the willow until the meat is loosened from the bones. Strain the bones in a linen cloth and, in front of the mirror, place the bones, one by one in your mouth, until you find that you have the magic to make you become invisible. Keep the bone with the magic property and, if you want to go somewhere without being seen, place the bone in your mouth."


Do I have to say that a black cat bone, even the "one" alleged special bone will not make you invisible? Admittedly I have not tried it, but I would bet it just ain't so.

During the 17th century, a cat boiled in oil was believed to be excellent for dressing wounds (Russell, 1972). While the mental picture of this is reprehensible, there may have been some (unknown at the time) scientific merit to this, if it was a black cat that was used.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health discovered the gene mutations associated with a black coat in three types of black cats: the domestic cat, jaguar and South American jaguarundi. Apparently, the mutations affect a gene in the same family as one that causes a resistance to HIV in humans. "There is a mutation in humans that knocks this gene out and causes complete resistance to HIV," O'Brien said. So it may be that the same gene responsible for a black coat may also provide resistance to diseases. You can read the whole article here.

In hoodoo and in New Orleans Voodoo, black cats are associated with good luck and have been advertised as such since the late 1930s. They are particularly good luck in sports and games of chance. The tail of a black cat when pointing upward was considered lucky, and if you stroke a cat's tail nine times before playing cards, it is said to give you a winning edge in card games.

There are many references to the various mystical attributes of black cats from numerous cultures - some positive and some negative. Most "superstitions" about black cats are positive, up until the Middle Ages, that is.

I was born and raised in New Orleans and lived there over thirty years, and I never heard of using the face of a black cat for good luck or anything else. That doesn't mean it never was, just that I never heard of it anecdotally. Even the folks I knew who practiced the darker arts never used the skin of black cats. And try as I might, I can't find reference to the use of a black cat face specifically as a good luck curio in any of the folkloric or anthropological literature. I searched the entire database of literature available through the American Anthropological Association, as well as the library at Walden University, through which I have access to hundreds of academic journals. Nothing...not even a hint. If anyone knows of a reference, please post it in the comments section because I would really love to know if I missed something.

However, my question, who skinned the black cat? is jumping the gun. I have to first prove there is indeed a black cat face on Papa Jim's website.

Research Question: Is Papa Jim's Botanica really selling a skinned black cat face on their website?

Or, is it the face of a fox? Let's examine the evidence, beginning with the obvious. Papa Jim's Botanica states: "BLACK CAT FACE... Place in your home or business for good luck, protection from evil."

Of course, you can't believe everything you read or see, so let's check out the photos and and see if we can differentiate the alleged black cat face from a black fox face.

The first aspect of the images to compare is the shape of the faces. I found a couple of photos of black fox faces and compared them against the black cat face found on Papa Jim's Botanica website. To do this, I used Photoshop to remove the backgrounds of both photos and placed them side by side for comparison. And to be completely fair, I am aware of the variations of pelts and there are some fox faces that appear more rounded than pointed, so I did a side by side comparison of those  as well.

Sample 1:



Sample 2:




Next, I took the individual photos and superimposed them on top of each other, taking care to size them to equal sizes without distorting the ratio. Note that in the images, I made the cat face image into a colored graphic in order to clearly see any similarities or differences in the overall shape of the faces.

Sample 1: Cat face superimposed on fox face

 
Sample 2: Cat face superimposed on rounded fox face


Next, I examined the details of the photos, starting with the noses. The alleged cat face appears to have a smaller nose than the fox face, which appears to be a bit square. In addition, in both of the fox photos, the snouts are narrower than the alleged black cat photo, although the fox face with a rounded nose is not as elongated.

Another detail I noticed is the fur. The fur on the fox appears a bit coarser than the fur on the alleged black cat. And the ears...it looks as if the ears of the alleged black cat face are smaller  and more centrally located than the fox ears, which appear to be larger and laying to the sides.

So far, it's not looking good.

That said, my observations are extremely limited in both the photos and the lack of an ability to hold and feel both specimens firsthand. Further, it is difficult to see the details of either picture clearly.

Even if it is not a real black cat, shouldn't the consumer be told? Why would they say it is a black cat if it is not? It's not like they are asking hundreds of dollars for it. Is it worth selling a black cat face for $22.00?

What do you think?

I have chosen not to link to the site because I am already giving them free advertising as the subject of this blog post. No doubt, some freak will read this and want to buy it. That is on them, not me. If you want to see the ad, just google the words "black cat face" and it will come right up (unfortunately).

My first cat was a black cat named Moses. He was so sweet and I really miss him even though it has been over thirty years since he has passed. I can't imagine someone skinning a black cat and saving the face to sell on a website for good luck. That just can't be good karma.







Black Cat Ju Ju at Creole Moon
 

References

Tallant, R. (1946). Voodoo in New Orleans
California Folklore Society (1964). Western Folklore, Vol 23.



Copyright 2010-2012 Denise Alvarado, All rights reserved worldwide. Please ask if you would like to repost this article.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Black Hat Tactics in Clandestine Hoodoo Wars


The term black hat comes from the internet marketing field and refers to unethical and borderline illegal (if not illegal) tactics for garnering traffic and business. They employ methods for SEO (search engine optimization) that include spamming, link farms and article spinning (basically rewriting someone else's article via the use of special software). These are the messages you get in your emails that say "Long time no see" or "check this out" or "have you seen this yet?" and when you click on the link it takes you to those prescription drug sites or some other place you have no interest in. Where do they get your emails from? Well, a lot of places, but many find mine through my contact information at my websites. They email me as if placing an order or asking a question.

There are many underhanded tactics these folks use to achieve their goals; some are effective, many are actually counterintuitive. Eventually, these techniques get the attention of Google and other search engines who remove the Black Hatter’s sites from their indices. Their sites are no longer crawled by the spiders and no longer show up in search results.

I have spent years studying the techniques of the internet marketing gurus in an effort to learn how to market by business on the internet. I have spent time on hackers forums to learn how to keep people from hacking my sites and know how to fix vulnerabilities when it does happen (and it has). The other side of the coin are the legitimate, organic means of SEO, referred to as White Hat tactics. It’s like learning to be a two headed root woman, you need to know both sides of the coin to deal with any given condition that presents itself.
I was thinking about these Black Hat/White Hat tactics and how nicely the terms apply to the internet community of hoodoos.

For example, have you ever been to a blog and someone writes a nasty little comment  from “Anonymous?” I had a few of those here during the Alvarado vs Yronwode incident. Insults were hurled complete with name calling and slander. I deleted those.

For some reason, people get riled up about something, undoubtedly triggered by a blog entry, and then go off on a tangent that has little, if anything, to do with the blog post. They speak confidently and write fearlessly, stating their opinions and making accusations that may or may not be true, but their comments are not done with any integrity because they hide behind the “anonymous” signature. Black hat hoodoo…spreading negative energy on the downlow.

How about this one: private messaging members of a forum, carefully sidestepping the forum owner, sporting their wares and promoting their business. This is usually done under an alias so they are not easily identified by the forum owner. Black hat hoodoo…advertising on someone else’s dime.

Here’s another one: writing disparaging reviews on Amazon.com that stick out like a sore thumb. This only applies if you are an author, but it’s pretty obvious when a review is an actual “critical review” as opposed to a criticism of the author fueled by some underlying jealousy or whatever. As an author, I don’t expect to get 100% positive reviews. I shouldn’t be in the business if I have unrealistic expectations like that. But, it is easy to tell when someone has a chip on their shoulder as opposed to someone who actually has some good feedback for you. I have noticed this has happened to several authors, usually by the same group of people. I even had someone write a negative review of one of my books and they admitted they never even read the book! Still, their little rating goes a long way in the overall ranking of the book. Whatever, Black Hat hoodoo… taking unfair and unprofessional pot shots with no foundation on a competitor.

Here’s a good one: links on your Facebook page by a competitor. This is a real pet peeve of mine. Post on your own damn wall, and if you don’t have enough friends and fans, then spend a few years like the rest of us staying up and working fiendishly all night, studying, marketing, and creating good products and information. Build relationships with people, learn how to network… get in the game or get out.

Here’s one that really gets my goat: the person who joins my forum and steals my content and ideas. The content is copied and pasted to another site without permission or attribution. Since I have devoted a couple of posts going off on that tangent, I will spare you another rant. I’m just sayin’…it falls into the category of Black hat hoodoo.

Okay, I have one more thing on that note and then I will move on…there is one such person on my forum who has ordered from me and copied the design and labeling of some of my products and has them for sale on their site (you know who you are). Now that’s Black Hat hoodoo with extremely LARGE huevos!

So far, the examples I have given are annoying and rude tactics, but not really dangerous. I mean, if I offer a good quality service and products then I don’t have anything to really worry about…except for the time that it takes to get these folks off of my junk.

Oh, there is one other thing I have to worry about - being banned from Google for duplicate content. Not that I am duplicating content, but that my content is copied by someone else and Google, whose behavior is shaped by algorithms, can’t tell where the original content came from. All it knows is that it is a duplication and one site has to go. Just pray it ain’t mine.

Now, there are other tactics used that are dangerous and anyone who is in the business of conjure should be aware of some of these. For example, so-called “friends” who only show up at “special” times. I call these folks the Spy Boys of hoodoo. This is a term borrowed from the Mardi Gras Indian tradition in New Orleans. On Mardi Gras and St. Joseph's night, one member of a gang - the Spy Boy - runs reconnaissance missions around his gang's path, looking for feathers and listening for chants of rival gangs. They are the scouts for the Chief. In hoodoo, these are the spies of a jealous competitor, someone who has it out for you and who is doing a work or planning a work on you. They get off on their underground alliance and report to their “chief” who needs information and wants to know what you are up to. They want to know where your vulnerabilities are. And since we are all human and the internet consists of social networking, we often post personal information about ourselves and experiences we go through. The Spy Boy, who could be female as well as male, is the snitch and reports to their “leader” and is an active participant in the Black Hat tactic.

Have you ever belonged to a forum and noticed  that if you disagree with someone or post information about something (let’s use our new magazine journal Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly as an example), say you want to tell everyone about his great new hoodoo mag, and your comment is deleted or you are reprimanded by the forum administrator or moderator? What is that about? In this case, the Black Hat tactic is a defensive measure, designed to squelch the success of another.

Then, you notice that because you are a friend of the person who posted the discussion, all of a sudden you start experiencing a streak of “bad luck” And, that bad luck gets worse and worse until something downright dangerous happens. Maybe your children and pets have even suffered… you wonder what’s going on. You don’t want to be paranoid so maybe you talk about it to a few people you trust, and find out you are not alone. Similar things are happening to other people who have similar associations. It seems to be too much of a coincidence to BE a coincidence. So then you have a divination done and see what that might reveal and your suspicions are confirmed. This is Black Hat hoodoo at its lowest, folks.

In fact, there are tenets against targeting children and animals in most, if not all of the organized ATRs. People who breach these taboos are said to lose their power and the power of their main spirits. They only have the lower entities left to work with, and the allegiance of these lower spirits cannot be guaranteed.

People who stoop to the lowest of the Black Hat hoodoo tactics are the most dangerous because they have no super-ego monitoring their id, to put it in psychoanalytic terms. The super-ego is the part of the psyche that sets boundaries on behavior based on morals and ethics. The id is the part of the psyche that is comprised of pure instinct and impulse. They don’t care if they lose control because they have no morals. The out of control behavior that results with a poorly functioning super-ego feels powerful because of its intensity. The lengths to which they go to exact revenge with unbridled instincts makes them feel superhuman and untouchable, as if the laws of nature do not apply to them. But this is just an illusion…out of control is out of control, pure and simple. And anyone who acts maliciously towards another out of jealousy or competitiveness will eventually find themselves sucked into a dark hole with no way out. Unfortunately, these folks tend to do a lot of damage on their way down.

I am sure many people have their own examples of Black Hat hoodoo that they have experienced. Truth be told, I have merely scratched the surface here.

Copyright 2010-2012 Denise Alvarado, All rights reserved worldwide. Please ask if you would like to repost this article.

Friday, February 25, 2011

How to Make a Voodoo Doll

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Absinthe Conjure Oil (Green Fairy Oil)


Here is a sneak peak into the revised edition of the Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook. It is an excerpt from the formulary section about Absinthe. If anyone decides to try it, please do share the results!

Absinthe is a potent alcoholic beverage made from select herbs and a large percentage of the purest alcohol. In French, the word "absinthe" means "wormwood." Accounts in ancient texts date as far as 1500 B.C. mention wormwood's medicinal as well as religious significance. The original recipe was simply wormwood leaves soaked in wine.

Absinthe was also known as the "Green Fairy" during its heyday in France in the 1800s. The Green Fairy is the English translation of La Fee Verte, the French nickname given to absinthe in the 19th century. The nickname stuck, and over a century later, “absinthe", "Green Fairy", “Green Goddess”, and “Madness in a Bottle” are some of the names that continue to be used.

According to some accounts, absinthe was first formulated in the 1790s by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland. He made it by combining wormwood with other herbs such as hyssop, coriander, anise, and melissa, with 68% alcohol. He created the amazing elixir to treat his patients and patented it as a “cure-all”, guaranteed to heal what ails you.

The legacy of absinthe as a mystifying, addictive, and mind-altering elixir continues to this day. Absinthe has been largely and incorrectly portrayed in fine art, music, literature and the media as an unnaturally glowing green liquid that causes over-the-top hallucinations and madness.

Absinthe is an anise-flavored liquor or spirit that is made by steeping wormwood (wormwood has been defined as the quinine of the poor) and other aromatic herbs (hyssop, lemon balm, and angelica) in alcohol. The drink is distinguished by its dazzling emerald blue-green clarity, due to its chlorophyll content. When mixed with water, the liquor changes to cloudy white. Absinthe drinking was exported to New Orleans and the French Quarter, where the Old Absinthe House has been a tourist attraction for more than a century. Absinthe appeared in New Orleans liquor advertisements as early as 1837, but its popularity didn't take off until the latter half of the 19th century with the opening of the barroom that would become the Old Absinthe House in 1874.

The classic French absinthe ritual involves placing a sugar cube on a flat perforated spoon, which
rests on the rim of the glass containing a measure or “dose” of absinthe. Iced water is then very
slowly dripped on to the sugar cube, which gradually dissolves and drips, along with the water, into
the absinthe, causing the green liquor to louche (“loosh”) into an opaque opalescent white as the
essential oils precipitate out of the alcoholic solution. Usually three to four parts water are added to one part of 68% absinthe.[1]

In the Czech Republic they have a different absinthe drinking ritual, which is not recommended. They set it up similar to the traditional way with a slotted spoon and sugar cubes, except they soak the sugar directly in the absinthe, then set it on the spoon and put a match to it. The absinthe in the glass, and the sugar, both ignite and the sugar melts and drips down into the glass. The remnants of the cube are eventually dropped into the absinthe and the fire is blown out. The warm absinthe is now ready to drink. This method of absinthe preparation is obviously dangerous, and again is not recommended.[2]

Aleister Crowley wrote about the spiritual/metaphysical function of water in the making of absinthe in 1917:

 "Here, too are marble basins hollowed—and hallowed!--by the drippings of the water which creates by baptism the new spirit of absinthe."

Absinthe conjure oil is used to enhance psychic visions and create unusual spiritual clarity and heightened clarity of mind and vision. This oil will also produce vivid dreams and is a powerful aphrodisiac.  

Like the absinthe ritual for creating the beverage, conjuring the magickal oil also involves a ritual of baptizing the spirit of absinthe into being. Make sure your herbs are fresh and green, though dried. This is extremely important for the final product. Here is the formula for making absinthe:

Herbs
  • Cardamom
  • Lemon balm (Melissa)
  • Hyssop
  • Common wormwood (Artemesia absinthium)
  • Petite Absinthe (Artemesia Pontica)
  • Green anise or Spanish anise, powdered
  • Whole and powdered fennel
  • Calamus, powdered (minor ingredient)
  • Fennel, powdered
  • Peppermint

Essential Oils:
  • Oil of wormwood
  • Anise essential oil
  • Peppermint essential oil

Additional ingredients:
  • Base alcohol (beet alcohol or grape alcohol is traditionally used, but you can substitute Everclear since we are not concerned with the taste)
  • Distilled water
  • Sugar cube

If you have gathered your own wormwood, your will need to strip the leaves from the stems because you only want to use the leaves. Combine all of the herbs in a mortar. Gently macerate the herbs together until they are well mixed and the fragrance is strong. Pour a quantity of base alcohol in a copper pot and dilute with distilled water to about 85%. Add the herb mix and allow to steep in the alcohol over night. In the morning, add a little more water and heat over the stove on low heat for about an hour. Keep the pot covered, and periodically stir the mixture and collect the condensation from the lid of the pot. Take off of the stove and allow the liquid to cool. Strain the alcohol out of the herbs and do a second maceration with the artemesia, hyssop, and lemon balm using about half of the strained liquid. You can either add the herbs in loose, or put them in a tea bag to make the straining process easier later. Warm over the stove until hot but do not allow it to boil. Remove the mixture from the stove and allow it to cool. This mixture should be a bright emerald green. Strain the liquid again. Filter through cheesecloth into a clear bottle until clear of herbs and sediment. Add the first liquid to the bottle and cover tightly.

Allow this mixture to sit for a couple of weeks to allow all of the fine sediment to settle to the bottom of the container. When the liquid appears very clear, you are ready to make your smaller bottles of Absinthe Conjure Oils.

For a one dram bottle of Absinthe Conjure Oil, take about 10 full droppers of the Green Fairy liquid and put in the bowl. Add one full of dropper each of the oil of Wormwood and the anise essential oil. To this, add about half a dropper full of peppermint. Gently stir the oils and liquid. Now, fill your smaller dram bottle about 3/4 of the way full with the Green Fairy liquid.  Place a funnel into the top of the smaller one dram bottle and put a sugar cube into funnel, so that the distilled water you will add has to pass through the sugar. This is the actual baptism of the Green Fairy. Using an eye dropper, slowly add the distilled water, drop by drop, on the sugar cube until the bottle is full. The final mixture should be a milky green if done correctly.

You should have enough extra absinthe elixir to last a long, long time. It will not go bad so long as you store it in a cool dark place, in a dark amber bottle (or other dark colored glass). Do not refrigerate your absinthe elixir because some of the chemical constituents may crystallize and may not remix with the other ingredients when it reaches room temperature.

Most folks who make the Green Fairy conjure oil will simply blend the essential oils in a base of grapeseed oil, perhaps with a sprig of wormwood added to the bottle. This is certainly a less complicated method. However, as you can imagine, the effect is not nearly the same on a magickal level. You don't have the intimate relationship with the herbs, the same kind of intensity of intent from the whole process, and you don't have the baptism of the spirit of absinthe. The technique I have described here really is a fabulous process and you will feel ecstatic when you get it right.

The base absinthe formula is a vintage recipe for the absinthe brew and so it can technically be drunk as an alcoholic beverage. Please exercise caution when consuming absinthe as it is an extremely powerful Spirit.

Here are a couple of vintage New Orleans recipes for drinking absinthe. While drinking absinthe is not a hoodoo activity, it is decidedly New Orleans and so I have included them as a little lagniappe for their historical value.

Green Fairy Frappe

1 ounce base Green Fairy formula
½ ounce simple syrup
7 fresh mint leaves
1 ounce soda water

Combine mint leaves and simple syrup in a tall glass. Add crushed ice. Place an absinthe spoon over the top of the glass and place a sugar cube. Add the absinthe by carefully pouring it through the sugar cube into the glass. When all the absinthe has been poured into the glass through the sugar cube, cover with a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Top off the drink with soda water.

Absinthe Cocktail

1 jigger absinthe
1 teaspoon sugar syrup
1 dash anisette
2 dashes Peychaud bitters
2 ounces charged water

Fill a highball glass a little more than half full with cracked or crushed ice. Pour in the absinthe, sugar sirup, anisette, and bitters, then squirt in carbonated or other live water. Jiggle with a barspoon until the mixture is well frapped. Strain into cocktail glasses which have been iced ahead of time.[3]


[1]The Virtual Absinthe Museum, (2002-2008). Retrieved, July 27, 2010 from  http://www.oxygenee.com/absinthe-ritual.html
[2] Earl, J. (2008). A Brief History of Absinthe
[3] From Famous New Orleans Drinks and how to mix‘em by S.C. Arthur 1937

Copyright 2010-2012 Denise Alvarado, All rights reserved worldwide. Please ask if you would like to repost this article.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Fantasy called Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving as it is currently portrayed by mainstream media and in the majority of academic settings is laden with myths, misinformation, and falsehoods. Driven by the need for a "feel good" history, society continues to ignore the painful fact that the Native American genocide is quite possibly the most denied of holocausts. This denial serves to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and fails to provide our children an honest education. An unknown history is a history destined to repeat itself. As such, it is imperative to learn the historical truth and pass this truth down to our children who are the next generation of leaders - leaders who determine which course this country will take with regards to the social and political relationship with Native American people.

One of my biggest pet peeves is the reference to Indians in the past tense, as if there are no longer any living Native peoples. My other huge pet peeve (which almost yearly lands me in the principle's office) is sending my son home with a pilgrim hat or feather in his head. 

Why teach the truth about Thanksgiving? 
  1. To debunk stereotypes and historical myths. 
  2. To move away from a monocultural paradigm to a multicultural one. 
  3. Thanksgiving is a much bigger concept than the feast at the Plymouth Plantation. 
  4. When lesson plans are built upon partial and biased information, we are not teaching the truth.

The Problem

Myth: The pilgrims came to American to escape religious persecution (partial truth). Why is this a problem? Because it sets the stage for perpetuating the stereotype of Noble Civilization vs Savagery (Berkhofer, 1978, Jennings, 1976). 

Fact: Pilgrims were a subsect of the Puritans, political revolutionaries who intended to overthrow the British government, and did so in 1649. Many were fugitives, as well as victims of bigotry (Larsen, 1981).

Myth: Thanksgiving Day represents a day when the pilgrims and the Indians sat down and shared a feast with each other in peace and harmony to celebrate the fall harvest. This event was the first Thanksgiving.

Fact: In 1970, the Wampanoag secured a copy of a Thanksgiving proclamation made by the governor of the colony. After a militia returned from murdering the men, women, and children of an Indian village, the governor proclaimed a holiday and feast to give thanks for the massacre. Other colonies were encouraged to do the same every autumn when the crops were in; in other words, at each fall harvest, go kill Indians and celebrate your murders with a feast.

The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present Warr with the Heathen Natives of this land, written and brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of his judgements he hath remembered mercy, having remembered his Footstool in the day of his sore displeasure against us for our sins, with many singular Intimations of his Fatherly Compassion, and regard; reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy, and giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them, without such Disadvantage to ourselves as formerly we have been sensible of, if it be the Lord's mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with Thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions:
The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favour, many Particulars of which mercy might be Instanced, but we doubt not those who are sensible of God's Afflictions, have been as diligent to espy him returning to us; and that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying Him; the Council doth commend it to the Respective Ministers, Elders and people of this Jurisdiction; Solemnly and seriously to keep the same Beseeching that being perswaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies and souls as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.

Myth: The pilgrims invited the Indians to the feast to show their gratitude for the help they had received.

Fact: The purpose of the feast was to negotiate a treaty that would secure the lands of the Plymouth Plantation for the pilgrims.

Myth: Squanto was captured by a British slaver who raided the village.

Fact: Squanto was kidnapped by Captain Thomas Hunt, an associate that Captain John Smith had left behind to continue trading with the Indians after their mapping expedition in 1614. Captain Hunt betrayed John Smith, and kidnapped 27 (or 24 to some sources) Indians who had been lured aboard his ship to trade beaver skins(Captain John Smith, 1624).

Myth: The first Thanksgiving was the feast at Plymouth Plantation.

Fact: The first Thanksgiving was approximately 30,000 years ago according to the most recent archeological data. By the New Stone Age (about 10,000+ years ago), Thanksgiving had become associated with giving thanks to God for the harvests of the land. Many indigenous people have feasts of gratitude multiple times throughout the year and for a variety of reasons. Thanksgiving has always been a time of people coming together and giving thanks for that fellowship has become part of the celebration for many. In short, there are many Thanksgiving stories to tell. Why limit ourselves to one myth?

How did the current myth of Thanksgiving come to be? 

It is the product of the melting pot era of the 1890s and early 1900s when our country was attempting to develop a national identity. Public education was a major tool for social unity, and to many writers and educators this meant a common national history. History was written to reflect this goal. As a consequence, Thanksgiving became a national holiday (1898), replete with stereotyped Indians and stereotyped Whites, incomplete history, and an inspirational myth.

So, what can we learn when we teach a balanced and informed Thanksgiving?
  1. There are cultural differences between Indian tribes. Not all Indians look the same or live the same way.
  2. We can learn about the political structure of Indian tribes and the importance of women in government.
  3. We can broaden our concept of Indian leadership. For example, the Wampanoag did not have chiefs; rather, they had sachems and tribal councils.
  4. We can learn how the Constitution of the United States and articles of Confederation came to be. We can learn what the Constitution of the United States and Articles of Confederation are, for that matter.
  5. We can learn the importance of conservation by taking care of the land (Mother Earth).
  6. We can learn about respect, honesty, and integrity in our interactions with others and in how we conduct ourselves.
  7. We can learn about how the seasons are celebrated in different cultures.
  8. We can learn the importance of the family dinner table.
  9. We can learn empathy and compassion for others.
  10. We can learn about agriculture.
  11. We can learn about the different dwellings various Indian tribes used and continue to use, as well as the dwellings of people in cultures all over the world.

REMEMBER: The antidote to a feel-good history is not a feel-bad history, but an honest and inclusive one (Loewen, 1998). 

References

Berkhofer, Jr., R. F., (1978). The White Man's Indian, Vintage Books, Random House, New York
Jennings, F., (1976). The Invasion of America, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.
Larsen, C, M., (1981). The Real Thanksgiving, Tacoma, Washington:Tacoma Public Schools
The Council on Interracial Books for Children, (1971). Chronicles of American Indian Protest, Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Pub. Inc.,

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Photos copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved worldwide.

Copyright 2010-2013 Denise Alvarado, All rights reserved worldwide. Please ask if you would like to repost this article.



Sunday, September 12, 2010

What's in a Name?

Every now and again, I am asked about why various practitioners use "nicknames" as their main identity. In many traditions this is the norm. Spiritual mothers of New Orleans are all Mama something's or Reverend Mothers, and who knows how many drs there are in the world of hoodoo. I have been referred to as Mama D, Priestess Denise, Voodoo Mama, and reverend sista docta healer medicine woman by any number of people. I use to use Voodoo Mama much more than I do now, but as I have become much more in the public eye and have a serious academic reputation to maintain, I have transitioned over to my real name as my primary identity. I happen to be of the school of thought that transparency is a good thing because it gives my clients more confidence in me as a practitioner. Even when I used Voodoo Mama more than I do now, I have always been open about who I am and where I am from. Just check any of my websites and click on the About Me page and you will learn a lot about who I am, my background, and where I am from.  If anyone wants to know who I am, just look...it's really no secret.

I can't say this is the case with everyone. For some reason, there are those who insist on using a first name or some given name and do not reveal anywhere on their sites their real names or anything much about them at all. Maybe that works for them, I don't know. Personally, I would feel much more confident in having someone perform a service for me if I knew who they were, what their experience was, and where they are from. I mean, I wouldn't go to a dentist named Dr. Bob with no reference to his training or expertise anymore than I would go to a spiritual worker named Dr. Bob who gives no reference to how he obtained his expertise or background. But that's just me...

And for the haters out there, Dr. Bob is a fictitional name with no reference intended towards any real person.

I think this is one thing that is addressed with Cat Yronwode's Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers (AIRR). For people who need such validation and have no other background or qualifications, this can be a good thing. I suppose even those who have a background could benefit as well. That is what credentials are for, to demonstrate a level of mastery over your particular area or areas. Credentialing gives you credibility because it is bestowed upon you by a group of peers who are already established in your area. But it is only one way in which a reputation of reliability is built or demonstrated. There are many more ways, such as time in the field, life experience, and related professional credentials along with complete transparency.

Now I am not a member of AIRR, nor do I intend to become a member. My life is a whole package of credentials that make me an expert at what I do. Credentialing is a tricky thing when it comes to indigenous healing systems, however. The requirements for holding specific titles are not uniform across cultures. What makes me an expert in my area does not make me an expert in your area, especially given regional and cultural differences. But the fact that my experience lies in a different, but related tradition does not make me any less reliable or competent than you (and I am speaking figuratively here).

But this brings me to an issue that just irritates the hell out of me. Why is it that people who have no idea of my experience or credibility are so quick to attack and squash? What is it with these people? And you know who you are...

Look, if you are going to criticize me and my work, then do so with intelligence. Read my work, learn about my background, dispute what you see with the facts and not with some side of the mouth, grade school playground bullshit. I welcome open discourse on any topic in which I have written...or not. I think intelligent discussion is productive and constructive. It keeps you and I in check and it keeps us accountable to each other and at our best. Nothing wrong with that.

As an academic with advanced degrees, I am used to having to back up every statement with proof. That is the culture of the academic world. If I say something about Native American healing for example, I better be able to back it up with facts or a damned good theory based on related literature and research. My name depends on this. I have taken this training and used it in my life as an indigenous healer, author, and rootworker. The training I have endured on an academic level makes the malicious gossip on forums a joke. But jokes can be hurtful.

My academic training is an afterward, though, to my spiritual training. I wasn't born an academic...I became one. I wasn't born in a university. I was however, born and raised in the unique, Voodoo and hoodoo rich culture that is New Orleans. I am a Creole woman and proud of it. And at the risk of sounding racist and absolutely not being racist, no white person half my age can tell me what I am and what I do is not legitimate. My earliest lesson that I can remember being an actual lesson was by a spiritualist aunt on the bayous of Mississippi when I was around five years old. I was instructed in the art of candle magick and communicating with Spirits. That's when my spiritual training started...at least, that's when I remember it starting. My whole childhood I was taught about plants, minerals and animals, what is referred to as herbalism and animal and mineral curios in today's hoodoo lingo. Back then, and I'll date myself, back in the 60s, we didn't call what we lived hoodoo. It was just life. It was fixing this and doing that or making a mess of somethin'...you get the picture.

And I'll share something else for those of you who feel the need to denigrate my name and for those of you who may just be interested in the juicy details. Do you know what it is like to grow up in the Deep South as a person of color? Nevermind the fact that I was a Voodooist (and in New Orleans, this includes hoodoo for many people, including myself). Do you know what it is like to have to shove your spirituality away underground just so you can maintain a measure of safety? But still, not be safe anyway? Do you know what it is like to pass as white when you can just to be accepted and not part of a "nigger hunt"? Yes, I said it...I said it because it is the sad ass truth. I can tell you that I know what it is like to be shown an oozie in the backseat of someone's car, ready to be used on such hunts, and praying to the Spirits that be that I would not be found out for who I am. Because many of my friends were white, and because I am creole, I was more accepted than my darker brothers and sisters. People focused on my Indian and Spanish heritage more than anything else. But these experiences affected me in a deep and profound way, and for a long time it affected me in a bad way because I internalized it, felt guilty, and punished myself for the sins of another.

At this point, if you are still reading, you may be wondering what does this have to do with hoodoo or Voodoo? Well, I am here to tell you that it has everything to do with it. Because hoodoo is not just a "magickal system" as it has been reduced to in contemporary writings. Hoodoo is part of the history of Louisiana, and I am part of that history, along with anyone else who was born and raised in the culture as I was.

Indigenous religions have for ever and a day been demonized by the predominantly White Christian majority. My ancestors were oppressed in the least and murdered at the worst for being who they were. The religions of my ancestors were made illegal and many were imprisoned. Children were stolen from families with the express intention by the government to break down the family systems and destroy culture. This was very effective. Hoodoo, that is, the use of herbs, roots, bones, natural elements and their spiritual qualities was not separate from Voodoo. According to Dahomean cosmology, the knowledge of how to utilize the sacred herbs, roots, bones, and other natural elements for controlling and changing one’s destiny was given to the people from Legba, who received the knowledge from the Forest Spirits. Hoodoo, in its form today, is a direct result of colonial government policies, church dogma, and slavery, and ongoing persecution of those who openly practiced the Voodoo religion.

And so I ask this question of my criticizers, is this part of your history? If so, what are you taking it out on me for? If not, what are you taking it out on me for?

See, the thing is that just because I was born a Creole doesn't mean I am immune to criticizing other people for what they do. There were times in my life that I am not proud of that I exhibited the behaviors of my oppressors too. I used words and actions to hurt other people, both on a magickal and a not so magickal level (its called lateral oppression in psychology). And then I was enlightened by a few good people who understood the soul wound that I was experiencing. The soul wound is the effect of intergenerational trauma on the psyche of the colonized. Yeah, it is somehow metaphysically technical and you will either get it or you won't. Either way, its okay. We all come to understanding in our own time and I am am certainly not one to judge another for their degree of enlightenment.

What this all boils down to with regards to name bashing on seemingly meaningless forums is tolerance and respect for self and others. You can either continue to be intolerant and disrespectful of someone you don't know and have never spoken to (but if you have read this lengthy post of mine you know me a little better), or you can quit being a cowardly gossiper and address me directly, like any self-respecting person and professional practitioner in any field should do. After all, if we are rootworkers in it for healing and light, then why not act like it.

Now, dispute THAT.

Copyright 2010-2013 Denise Alvarado, All rights reserved worldwide. Please ask if you would like to repost this article.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly! A New Magazine for Hoodoo and Conjure Enthusiasts!

If you haven't heard by now, there is a brand new magazine on the horizon for folks whose souls lie deep in the heart of the conjure arts. I am so excited about this project and the response we have received from the endeavor...it just validates the need for such a magazine.

You may be wondering how this all came about. Well, I cannot take credit for the original idea...it came from Papa Legba who advises me on business opportunities on a regular basis. It was after petitioning him that it became clear this was a project worth attacking, so I pitched the idea to someone I thought to be my friend, who immediately said she was in, albeit mostly for friendly support.

Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly it is a project that I believe should reflect the community of rootworkers, conjurers, folk magicians, authors, and artists inspired by Spirit and the conjure arts. This is proving to be a realistic goal as I have been approached by several folks who are eager to contribute in a variety of ways. I have wonderful interviews featuring notable folks in the magickal arts, as well as the every day rootworker. I am featuring professionals and those who practice privately or within their circle of family and friends. I am featuring a column on international hoodoo as it is evident this tradition has spread to all corners of the world. And, as an artist myself, I am featuring artists who are inspired by Spirit and conjure.

For example, the first featured artist is Deacon Gary, th' Georgia Mojo Man and his Allegedly Genuine Souvenir Mojos. Deacon Gary really was a deacon in a local church in his community, so he dons the title honestly; it is not just a clever title. The first time I set eyes on his art I knew he was ridden by Spirit to create signatures of love and luck to share with the world. Take a look at what he has to say about his conjuring process:

"Brethren, it is a true saying that "Mojos are curious horsemen", mounting steeds of diverse forms and sizes. And I, Deacon Gary, the Mojoman of Georgia, by the inspiration of the Creative Fire from the Great Creator Spirit, am appointed to the selection and acquisition of horses, worthy and acceptable, for Mojos to mount.

Once a horse, worthy and acceptable to be mounted by a Mojo, is chosen, then is the Mojo conjured to ride forth into the world."

Oh, there is so much more to this story but I have to save it for the magazine.

Another regular column you will find in Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly is based on my new book the New Orleans Voodoo Hoodoo Formulary. I will share with our readers recipes for New Orleans oils, portions, gris gris, powders, floor washes, spiritual baths and animal and mineral curios. Few people outside of New Orleans Voodoo realize the influence of the French perfumeries on some of the formulas. And, some of the regional differences in the various botanical and zoological materials incorporated in ritual formulas within this tradition have been hotly and incorrectly contested in some of the forums. I think that sometimes people like to argue for the sake of arguing, and as a result miss the opportunity to learn a little something  that could quite possibly enrich their lives and practice.

These are just a few of the topics you will find in Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly. To read more, please visit the official website Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly.

Copyright 2010-2013 Denise Alvarado, All rights reserved worldwide. Please ask if you would like to repost this article.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

St Joseph, a Jack of all Saintly Trades




The thing that I love about the conjure arts is that we have a solution for any problem if we know where to look. There are works that can be done to help increase money flow, find a new job, enhance love relationships, and to even sell your home. That's where St. Joseph comes in.

St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and earthly father of Jesus Christ, is honored as the patron saint of families, fathers, expectant mothers, travelers, immigrants, house sellers and buyers, craftsmen, engineers and working people in general.

More than ever before, America's home sellers and realtors have turned to St. Joseph to get an advantage in the tough home sellers market. A spell performed with a statue of St. Joseph is used to make a home or other property sell very fast once it is listed on the real estate market.

The solemn tradition of burying St. Joseph in the earth began hundreds of years ago in Europe. During those times, an order of nuns prayed to St. Joseph (the patron saint of the family and household needs) when they needed more lands for convents. The Sisters were encouraged to bury their St. Joseph medals in the ground.

Over the years, the tradition arose of St. Joseph having a special power in real estate transactions and home sales. The medals evolved into statues, culminating with the complete St. Joseph Home Selling Kits currently available. Today, thousands of home sellers and real estate agents nationwide continue this successful tradition; they are looking for a little divine intervention.

St. Joseph is highly venerated in New Orleans. On St. Joseph's Day he is honored with lavish altars, good food, and celebration. He stands beside Black Hawk and Moses in the spiritualists churches as a patron saint  of social justice.

St. Joseph's Day Altars

by Anna Maria Chupa

Background


Photograph by Anna Maria Chupa
St. Joseph's Day altars began as a custom brought to New Orleans by Sicilian immigrants. The tradition of building the altar to St. Joseph began as far back as the Middle Ages in gratitude to St. Joseph for answering prayers for deliverance from famine. The families of farmers and fisherman built altars in their homes to share their good fortune with others in need. The tradition grew to a more public event on St. Joseph's Feast Day on March 19. Today the individuals who work on the altars are fulfilling their own promises to St. Joseph "to share their blessings with those in need."(2) Without exception, the altar workers explained that they contributed to the altars not for their own purposes but 'for St. Joseph' or for a family member or friend.(5)


One tradition entails begging for the supplies to build the altar. The altar must not incur "any expense nor any personal financial gain."(2) As an act of devotion to St. Joseph, supplicants would promise to build an altar should their sons return home from war safely. Part of the personal sacrifice involved was the act of begging for food.(5)

Although there are perishable foods on the altars, a large portion of the breads, cookies and cakes are wrapped so that they may be given to charities after the altar is broken. The altar is broken after a ceremony which reenacts the Holy Family seeking shelter. The ceremony is called Tupa Tupa "which in Italian means Knock Knock." Children dressed in costume "knock at three doors asking for food and shelter. At the first two they are refused. At the third door, the host of the Altar greets them and welcomes them to refresh themselves."(2)

Butler's Lives of the Saints lists St. Joseph as the patron saint of Families, Working Men, Social Justice, and the Church. St. Joseph is also the Patron Saint of the dying.(3) Following the blessing of the altar on the afternoon of March 18, visitors are invited to leave written petitions to St. Joseph or donations for the poor. The Mary's Helper Newsletter invited people to mail their petitions for the altar in the event that they could not visit personally.

Spiritualism and Vodun Connection

My own journey to the St. Joseph's Day altars began while I was conducting research on Spiritualism and Vodun in New Orleans. In my search for more information on Damballah, an African spirit who came to be associated with St. Patrick and with Moses in the syncretized Vodun of new world contexts, I also saw frequent references to St. Joseph. Spiritualist churches who honored Black Hawk as a patron spirit of social justice simultaneously honored St. Joseph and Moses in prominent positions on their altars.

The Mary's Helpers Newsletter makes an interesting connection in the interpretation of Joseph as a deliverer. "It was told to the Israelites in the Old Testament, 'Go to Joseph,' if they wanted any favor or benefit, referring to the Joseph of Egypt. 'Go to Joseph,' is the advice and counsel given to every Catholic who wants a favor and believes in the sanctity of the Holy Family."

More on Sicilians in New Orleans

Photograph by Anna Maria Chupa
Members of The Greater New Orleans Italian Cultural Society (GNOICS) built their first altar in 1967 "on the front steps of the St. Joseph church on Tulane Avenue."(4) In 1978, the altar location was moved to the Piazza D'Italia, primarily because inclement weather in previous years made the outdoor location on the steps of St. Joseph's problematic.(Chupa:98) Piazza d'Italia is located on "300 Poydras, to the rear of the American Italian Renaissance Foundation Museum and Library building."(4) In 1998, the Altar was prepared under the direction of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Bertucci who have been involved with the altar preparations since 1967. The GNOICS altar has since been reestablished at St. Joseph's Church.


The concentration of Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans explains why this tradition is almost exclusive to this southeastern city. Whereas most immigrants from Naples "settled in New York and other cities along the eastern seaboard" the Sicilians "sailed from Palermo and landed in New Orleans. Between 1850 and 1870, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there were more Italians in New Orleans than in any other U.S. city. By 1910, the population of the city's French Quarter was 80 percent Italian. Today there are 200,000 Americans of Italian descent living in New Orleans and its suburbs, making Italian Americans the largest ethnic group in the city."(4)

Symbols in the St. Joseph's Day altar
Many of the altars we visited were constructed in the form of a Latin cross with two additional tables running parallel to the length of the cross. This tripartite arrangement refers to the Trinity. A statue of St. Joseph or a picture of the Holy family is usually at the top of the altar.(1)

"All of the items on the altar -- food, candles, medals, holy cards and fava beans -- are blessed by a priest in a special ceremony the afternoon before an altar is 'broken.'" That evening people may visit to pray and leave petitions. Donations are collected for the poor."(1)

Over the doorway a fresh green branch is placed to indicate that the public is invited to participate "in the ceremony and to share the food."(1) The specially prepared breads on the St. Joseph1s altar make take many forms. As this custom is observed during the Lenten season, and the tradition was begun in Sicily where fish and shellfish were more common than meat, decorative breads in the form of shellfish are common. Other symbolic imagery specific to Joseph might include tools used by a carpenter (ladder, saw, hammer, nails) as well as sandals, lilies and a staff. Some of the breads are prepared with a decorative interlace and filled with figs, alluding to the fig orchards of Sicily.(1)

Breads and cakes may also take the form of more common Christian symbols, i.e., the Monstrance or Spada which holds the sacred Host; the Chalice, which refers to the consecration of the Bread and Wine at the Last Supper; the Cross (crucifixion of Christ), Dove (Holy Spirit), Lamb, Fish (Jesus as the Lamb of God and the Fisher of Men); and Hearts (Sacred Heart of Jesus, Immaculate Heart of Mary. A heart pierced by a dagger also refers to the grieving mother or Mater Dolorosa and may bear the names of recently departed loved ones.) A Crown of Thorns and Palms refer to martyrdom and symbols of eternal love.(1)


Wine bottles on the altar represent the miracle of Cana and the twelve whole fish represent the twelve apostles and the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Other images specific to Sicily include grapes, olives and figs referring to the orchards and vineyards in Sicily. Two prepared foods that are commonly seen on the altar include the Pignolatti and the Pupaculova. The Pignolatti are fried pastry balls joined together in the shape of a pine cone representing "the pine cones Jesus played with as a child." The Pupaculova is a baked bread which encloses a dyed Easter egg representing the "coming of Easter."(1)


Bread crumbs or "Mudica" are served as a seasoning over the Pasta Milanese on St. Joseph's Feast Day and symbolize sawdust.(1) The food served to the public on St. Joseph1s Day is a reenactment of a promise made to St. Joseph for delivery from famine. "Small bags are given as keepsakes to all who visit the altar. Each bag may contain a blessed medal, holy card, fava beans, cookies or bread."(1)

The people we spoke to had several interpretations regarding the appearance of lemons on the St. Joseph's Day altars. Citrus fruits are common in the orchards of Sicily. One woman said that it was good luck to "steal" a lemon from the altar leaving hidden coins behind for the poor.(5) Several women told us that a lemon blessed on St. Joseph's altar will not turn black and is a symbol of good luck.(6) Another woman said that the lemons are for young married women who want to become pregnant. Still others mentioned that during certain periods, the lemon was a luxury so its appearance on the altar is a way of returning ones good fortune to others.(5)

Artichokes figure prominently in the food served and when they are available in abundance, stuffed artichokes may also appear on the altars. In 1998, because artichokes were so scarce, they were not seen on the four altars we visited. In 1997, the artichokes were plentiful.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous symbol to be found on the altar is the lucky Fava Bean. "The gift of a blessed bean is the most well known of the customs associated with the St. Joseph's Day altar. During one of Sicily's severe famines, the fava bean thrived while other crops failed. It was originally grown for animal fodder, but because of its amazing resilience, it became the sustaining food of the farmers and their families. The dried bean is commonly called the "lucky bean." Legend has it that the person who carries a 'lucky bean' will never be without coins. The fava bean is a token of the St. Joseph's Altar, and a reminder to pray to St. Joseph," particularly for the needs of others.(5)

References

  1. St. Joseph Church, Gretna, LA St. Joseph Altar Customs
  2. Mary's Helpers, Inc. News: February 25, 1998
  3. Butler's Lives of the Saints 1991
  4. IADI: Spring 1998
  5. Anna Chupa, Field notes, March 18, 1998. Interview with Dolly and Peter Bertucci, Piazza D'Italia and visitors and altar workers at St. Joseph's Church, Gretna, LA
  6. Anna Chupa, Field notes, March 19, 1997. Interview at Our Lady of Lourdes, Violet, LA 


Copyright 2010-2012 Denise Alvarado, All rights reserved worldwide. Please ask if you would like to repost this article.