Some ideas about consumer culture, Paganism, and Palo

Nsala malongo,

I wrote this post originally for my own blog, Arguing with the Moon. Tata Eric Colon invited me to cross-post it here. It’s speculative, as I’m feeling around for new tools to use to think about some of the issues at stake in the Palo community. I used Wicca as a parallel religion because my blog readers tend to be more familiar with Paganism than with Palo, but also because I think it helps to illuminate some of the patterns I’m working with.

–Ngueyo Ndumba Kunayanda Matari


I’m presently taking a history course on the development of American consumer culture. It’s interesting stuff, right up my alley (I’ve been interested in self-fashioning for a while), and it makes for some cool ways to look at U. S. history and cultures. (For example, there’s T. H. Breen’s assertion that the new commodity culture of the 18th century Thirteen Colonies had as much to do with the move towards the American revolution as ideas about freedom and democracy did.) Anyway, one of the things we’ve been talking about in this class is the way the colonies/U. S. shifted into what we think of now as a consumer culture.

Basically, up to the first half of the 18th century, your status was linked to your place in your community. High status people generally held important roles in their communities — ministers, doctors, lawyers, landowners, etc., often several of these at a time. You tended to define yourself (or be defined by) what you did, and your wealth and status flowed out of that. I know this isn’t exactly an earthshaking idea, but here’s where it gets interesting.

Society became more mobile from that point on. The frontier kept moving farther back from the East Coast, while older settlements prospered and grew. England was producing more and more consumer commodities like fine cloth and china — not yet at the Industrial Revolution, but headed there — and they imported them to the colonies, where the colonists happily bought them. Local craftsmen experimented and innovated to produce their own consumer goods (clocks, for example), and they often used itinerant salesmen to take orders in rural areas and then deliver finished products. Other artisans themselves worked as itinerants. It became common for young people to get into trade and travel for business. Meanwhile, other people followed the frontier, looking for cheap land and establishing new settlements, which in turn welcomed trade.

As this happened, the ways people signaled their status began to shift. If you were on the road, you couldn’t let people know you were a man of high standing with your land-holdings, your reputation, and the grandfather clock in your house (though these things were still important). Instead, you used your money to show your standing by the fabric and cut of your coat, and your other personal effects.

The kicker was, anybody could “dress the part” they wanted, provided they had the money — and commodities got cheaper as trade expanded and production technology improved. Status stopped being about what you did and started being about what you could buy. (And then rules developed about the best ways to use/display/eat what you could buy, the correct fork to do it with, etc. as the upper classes re-distinguished themselves from the lower. But that’s probably something best saved for another post.)

What I want to take away from all that is that the North American colonies, then the U. S., became a socially fluid society, where people moved around frequently, wealth was the key denominator of status, and folks used personal goods, often portable, to indicate who they were or who they wanted to be. We still do this (to a greatly complicated extent) now.

If you’re still reading, you no doubt are wondering what this stuff is doing on a self-described “woo-woo-themed occult-y blog.” But here’s where I veer off into more woo-ish territory.

My acquaintance Thorn recently gave a talk on Gardnerian Wicca at a local Pagan Pride event, during which she said (or maybe it was during the conversation afterwards, but anyway) that one of the differences between Gardnerian Wicca and NeoWicca (my choice of term) is that Gardnerians emphasize praxis over belief. They don’t care if you think the gods are psychological archetypes, spirit beings, or whether you believe in them at all actually, provided you do your part in the coven rituals properly. It’s a mystery tradition, and you partake of the mysteries by undertaking the rituals.

Many NeoWiccans, on the other hand, put belief before praxis, which lets individuals and groups be very flexible about how they do Wicca. Belief in the Goddess/and God, or the gods, plus perhaps the Rede and various magical things, are the core of Wicca to these folks.

Ok, so? Lots of Pagans come from Christian backgrounds, and most Christians consider correct belief to be the important thing. Habits carry over.

Yes. But I think something else is going on as well.

Let me quote from a post my godfather in Palo made this morning:

Remember when we have ritual processes done to our body it is the spirituality of the house that we are embarking on. So those people who claim a lot of different houses and Muna nso are missing the point. That is not what Palo Mayombe is about Muna nso don’t make you and names like Juan diablo or Periquito Perez don’t make a person be a spiritual teacher or a student of knowledge.

When you initiate in Palo, you make a pact with the spirits of a Muna nso (“house”) and its spiritual lineage, but you also join a ritual community, and you can’t actually learn or do much without that community. My godfather is decrying “initiation collectors,” because often those folks don’t actually stick around a house long enough to learn much, and instead try to use their many initiations as a source of authority.

What I want to do here, hopefully without ticking anyone off (seriously, I’m trying to be thoughtful here, not offensive), is draw a parallel between the stress on belief over praxis widespread in NeoWicca, and the stress on initiations over praxis among some ATR practitioners (since I don’t think this is an issue in Palo only).

Or, flip that: the parallel between the Gardnerian coven and the Palo Muna nso.

The Gardnerians famously coined the phrase, “You cannot be a witch alone.” You can do all kinds of witchy things as a solo practitioner, but if you want to practice Gardnerian Wicca, you have to have a coven. Full stop. Similarly, while you can do lots of Palo things on your own, to learn them you need to be “at the feet of the nganga,” in a Muna nso; and you can’t do anything major, like initiate someone, without the Muna nso.

Where I’m going with this is back to the early 18th c. in the North American English colonies, where your status came from your role in a community.

Flip back to the parallel between belief and initiations. What do they have in common? They’re individual and portable.

What I think I’m seeing here is the tension between an older worldview and a younger one, one that has evolved in contemporary America (and probably elsewhere, but I’m sticking to what I know best) in a milieu shaped by consumer society. In a consumer society, the individual is paramount, because the society is mobile, fluid, and anyone can be whomever they want if they have the correct accoutrements.

This begins to explain, for me anyway, some of the internal tensions the ATRs in the U. S. are currently grappling with. (Gardnerian and other BTW trads as well, from what I understand, but that’s not my community so I can’t really be certain.) It is sometimes extremely difficult for people raised in American society to come to terms with the communal nature of these religions (trust me, I’m speaking from personal experience!), and I believe this is an ongoing fault line that sparks off controversies periodically.

I’m going to leave this here for now, while I do some more reading and thinking.


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2 Responses to “Some ideas about consumer culture, Paganism, and Palo”

  1. xXsurrealkillerXx says:

    I found this article to be very useful as I am just beginning my journey into Palo. Some of the subjects that were touched on have been those of things that I myself, have been discovering. Here in The A.V. we have a thriving pagan and Neo Wiccan community, as I know many of them personally. It seems as though people inherently want to relate what they consider to be alternative faiths, as the same thing. I have not yet been initiated, because I find it to be disrespectful to enter the practice without taking the time to research and discover what I can about Palo before I begin. For many years prior to meeting the Palero/a community that I recently have, there were so many social stigmas placed on this particular practice. Unfortunately it seems as though many people can not decipher personal opinion ,research, and tradition from the general westernized stance on something that so fluently involves the usage of bones and animals.
    When these alternate faiths are also easily jolted by another faiths practices, I can see the disconnect formulate, even with the smaller relations that are shared. I would never have considered myself pagan, though I have always delivered my own personal relationship with the spirit realm. I’m noticing that Palo Mayombe has not only a very strong archetype, but a prevalent one, especially compared to the deity worship used in Wicca. The energies are very real, the result of practice is very real (from what I’ve witnessed). It’s this “realness” that seems to incite the judgement and fear. Many people wish to “practice” and go about it through their lives entirely unaware of how to care for, and maintain any actual connection to the deity, or deities, that they worship. This is where I’m noticing the implications of the “status” obsession. Some people seem to confuse their connections with these deities to formulating a sense of power. Ego I’m sure, can be just as dire and deadly to Palo, as any other tradition that so closely works with spirits. You want the power, the status, and to be the house hold name, while totally negating any sense of respect and morale for the spirits and tradition from which you embody, hence my thoughts in unity…

    I feel as though no revolutionary ever truly conquered nations without first baring a strong army, and strong believers. Not to get geeky, but I think of protons and neutrons, that can only gain strength in numbers. Nobody should ever willingly abandon their roots in search of a greater tree. We all know that the strongest connections to something greater then us are formed through the meeting, and combining of energies. To separate yourself is unfair to your own spirit, and those other spirits that need you.
    Sorry for the length of this comment, I’m obviously very opinionated, but I was taken by this article and it conceived a plethora of thoughts from within that I wanted to share. Thanks for making my brain work today guys.

  2. This is a very well-written post. I agree with a lot of it, but I think one thing you’ve overlooked is the specific influence of the “occult lodge” on Western magical/spiritual traditions. In groups like the Masons it’s not at all uncommon to collect memberships in a large number of different lodges and the number of lodges one is simultaneously a member in good standing of is viewed as a status symbol in the overall group. I’ve seen a living example of this in one elderly gentleman I’ve worked with who, despite being in his 80s, is to this day extremely proud of his membership in nearly every Masonic lodge in the area. Some of the culture clash may come from that, more than from anything inherent to American society.

    Another potential source for these tensions may be the influence of the new-age movement, where expensive weekend courses, certifications, initiations and attunements are the norm and collecting a large number of the same is expected and is again used as a status symbol. This may be more explicitly connected to the aspects of American society you’ve described, as the money involved in obtaining these makes them a much more direct measure of personal affluence.

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