Welcome to The Divination Nation blog!
We are Pleasant Gehman and Crystal Ravenwolf, a duo of divination divas, “spiritual sisters from another mister”. We’re life-long Tarotistas, obsessed with all things esoteric and paranormal. Look for our forthcoming book, “Walking The Tarot Path” coming soon!
We’ve created this blog to share our knowledge and to connect with the vibrant worldwide metaphysical and paranormal community. We hope it’s as fun for you to read as it is for us to write!
We discovered author and cultural anthropologist Tony Kail via his latest book, A Secret History Of Memphis Hoodoo: Rootworkers, Conjurerers And Spirituals. Painstakingly researched, this fascinating work documents the Golden Age of the incredible spiritual underground subculture that flourished in Memphis, Tennessee from the mid 1900’s up through the post World War Two years. The book highlights the careers and lives of famous root workers like “Aunt” Carolyn Dye and the sinisterly named Doctor Scissors, aka Will Self, who became famous as one of the top spiritualist “doctors” of Mojo City’s famed Beale Street, known to many as “Home Of The Blues”. Kail’s research also digs deep into into the connection between the blues and hoodoo, with anecdotes and folklore myths on renowned blues artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and the legendary Robert Johnson , who is said to have sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in Mississipi in exchange for his prodigious talent.
Kail’s retelling of these stories makes them come alive… and it’s no wonder. He grew up wandering Beale Street and recalls shopping at the landmark Schwab’s Dry Goods Store, and being fascinated with the variety of conjure products they stocked…along with household goods, long underwear, vinyl LPs. As a young person and law enforcement officer, he also became close with a number of hoodoo practitioners.
A former deputy sheriff, Kail has over twenty five years experience in researching and documenting esoteric religious cultures throughout the U.S. and Africa. Along with his anthropological work, Kail has provided training and consulting for theFBI, United States Capitol Police, United States Attorney’s Office and the United States Army. Several of his books focus on the occult, many written from the perspective a a knowledgable law enforcement professional. So A couple of his other titles include Narco Cults and Santa Muerte: Mexico’s Mysterious Saint Of Death.
Here’s an interview, in Toy’s own words… enjoy!
DIVINATION NATION: You are a cultural anthropologist and author with several books specializing on groups of regional or ethnic peoples involved with witchcraft, Santeria, Santa Muerte cults and hoodoo. How did you become interested in these niche subcultures?
TONY KAIL: Growing up in the Bible Belt traditions and practices that were viewed out of the ordinary were considered ‘devil worship’ among most of the local community. There was a period of time in my younger days that I believed the lies and misinformation that most magico-religious traditions were filled with criminals and deviants and that animal cruelty and human sacrifices were a norm among peaceful Neo-Pagan traditions. It took several years and much exposure to actual practitioners of these traditions to create a change in my worldview. The essence of this change came from seeing practitioners of magico-religious traditions as people as opposed to mysterious robed figures in the shadows. The same Wiccans that I was taught to fear loved their children, their significant others, animals and the earth. The same devotees of esoteric religions that were constantly blamed for abuse and criminal activity actually turned out to hate criminal activity and abuse as much as non-practitioners do. As a Freemason I have personally experienced similar allegations. The ‘diabolical’ teachings I have taken from the craft include respect for Deity, love for your family and charity for your neighbor. Not a lot of room for closet sacrifices.
In relation to African based traditions, I fell in love with these traditions unknowingly at an early age when I started seeing elements of African-American based Hoodoo and folk practices in my local community. Getting to know a root worker firsthand and then later traveling to Africa, I began to truly enjoy the cultural and historical traditions of African diaspora religions. And like many European based esoteric religions, they too had been labeled as ‘devil worship’ and criminal.
DIVINATION NATION: Who did you learn about these traditions from? Was it just something you became interested in during your studies?
TONY KAIL: At first I began to absorb any book or writing I could get my hands on. Then I realized that the only way to truly understand a culture is to get to know practitioners of a culture. I credit a Wiccan priestess named Jaquie who was not only Neo-Pagan but was an anthropologist herself. She took the time to invite me into her home and to break bread with her family. She took time to explain what her tradition meant as well as members of her circle. I began to interview members of various cultures and in some cases attend rituals and ceremonies. And over time began building friendships with members of various faiths who were willing to teach an outsider.
Throughout the years I would get reports of police and first responders encountering artifacts and rituals that they were either frightened of or antagonistic towards. This became an opportunity to teach them or bridge understanding between outsiders and members of various faiths. Let’s face it, being a Santera in the South has its challenges. Everyone accuses you of practicing a demonized version of ‘Voodoo’ or of torturing animals. For Wiccans in the South the fear of ‘witches’ and ‘witchcraft’ among outsiders still remains for many.
Being involved in law enforcement gave me a tremendous vantage point in understanding how police may encounter esoteric groups or activities. Being involved in the Neo-Pagan community gave me insight into how Neo-Pagans may encounter law enforcement. In the late 80’s and early 90’s many police viewed Wiccans as ‘closet criminal Satanists’ who were dangerous and should be treated as such. Many Neo-Pagan communities viewed police as ‘the man’ who was seeking to arrest and hinder civil rights.
There was an encounter back in the early 90’s where a group of Wiccans were celebrating a seasonal rite on private property in a very rural area of Middle Tennessee. A neighbor called the local police and reported hooded figures with knives, swords and children standing around a fire. When the local police showed up they were instructed by a state police officer at the scene that he had received training and that this group was not breaking the law and were not traditionally criminal oriented.
A local supervisory officer arrived at the scene and began to berate the families at the scene telling them that ‘this is no religion’ and “You’re not going to practice this in my damn county!” Needless to say, the families were quick to call legal advisors. With a pending lawsuit against the local officials, I and several local Pagan leaders met and began to formulate a plan to remedy this situation. We compiled a video of interviews of the people at the scene and I traveled around to various local and state agencies showing the video and explaining how this went wrong. We truly felt like there was a way to bring good from this terrible situation. The bottom line is that there was no training regarding encounters with unfamiliar religious groups. Years later we continued to compile educational material for law enforcement in order to explain what they would see at a private or public ritual. In one video a large circle of at least one hundred participants allowed me to walk through the woods as if I was responding to a call and filming the interaction. This video would later be used to show officers what they might encounter as they walked up on to a ritual in progress. It is important that they see something in a controlled environment so that when they encounter it in a non-controlled environment they do not encounter culture shock.
DIVINATION NATION: You’ve travelled to many places that are widely considered dangerous for your studies…Tell us about your most memorable experience(s) observing or participating in the rituals you write about.
TONY KAIL: I feel like I have been truly blessed to be allowed to witness many different rituals and ceremonies of different faiths. I remember my first Wiccan ceremony. I was so nervous and didn’t know what to expect. I remember standing on the outside of the circle photographing the ritual and truly feeling a change in the atmosphere during the ritual. It was very intense. Years later I attended a private ritual being conducted in a very small living room of a priestesses’ home. Because the group was a little large for the space, I was allowed to photograph and video the ritual standing on a chair by the front door. At one point the priestess called upon the Goddess and the moment she does, a very large cat screeched right outside the front door. I almost fell out of the chair. You can actually see the camera jump in the video. Not something I was prepared for.
Years later I was allowed access to observe a Palo Mayombe ritual. The ceremony took place in a small shed where it was very hot and humid. This was the first animal sacrifice I had ever witnessed in person. I remember before the ritual looking into the cardboard box where the chicken was kept and just wondering if he felt like he was on death row. Once the ceremony began a sense of seriousness and sacredness came over the room. As the priest began to recite his lineage I knew that I was in the presence of something very old and very somber. The smell of rum and cigar smoke filled the air and seemed to build the ritual ‘theater’ that would culminate in the offering of the animals to the spirits. At the time it was very difficult for me to comprehend the use of animals in the ritual. Years later when I would travel to Africa I would see that among many followers of African traditional religions, the chicken or the goat may be the only source of food for a family. An offering of this most valuable object that you have in your possession to a deity is truly a sacrifice. In this context, I began to understand why many of the African diaspora religions utilize animal sacrifice. As opposed to popular media depictions of animal torture, animals in most African diaspora rites are treated with respect. Most are killed and later eaten unless they have been used to remove sickness or brujeria.
One of the most disturbing rituals I have observed was the exorcism of a young child in Kenya. The child was being treated by a local religious sect because the mother complained that he was rolling around on the ground, speaking in languages and foaming at the mouth. The child was assessed by a doctor in the city as having Epilepsy yet the local belief was that the child was possessed by a demon. When we encountered the ceremony two priests of this sect had the young boy sprawled out on the ground between candles and were passing an incense burner over his body and chanting and yelling for the spirit to leave. The young boy laid there terrified even wetting his pants out of fear. There was a tremendous dark feeling to this atmosphere and I remember debating picking the child up and carrying him away from this traumatic experience. I wanted to, but where would I go? What would happen to him once he was returned? We were able to connect the child’s mother with a local resource to get the child help and began to explain the physiological aspects of Epilepsy and its treatment. We would later learn that child exorcisms and witch hunts are rampant in many vulnerable African communities.
DN: Some of your work is about current cultures and subcultures but your latest book covers the rich history of Memphis hoodoo, from the late 1900’s to the early 1980s and into the present. Was it hard to find and interview people who were involved in these spiritual practices “back in the day”? How did you get so many historic photos?
TK: I love Memphis Hoodoo history. Throughout the years I have gathered materials and information of Hoodoo in this region. Growing up in this area I have known families and clients of rootworkers most of my life. Once I began digging into the history of the oppression and racism geared toward African practices in the Mid-South, the doors began to open. Living in this area I never knew the DEPTH of racism and hate toward African culture till I began to find the reports of attacks on rootworkers, till I began to find the stories of police shaking down traditional healers in the 1930’s and till I heard the testimonies of those who were raised in spiritual temples here in the Mid-South that have been attacked and vandalized.
When I first began to dig into this history I was naturally looked at like “What is this white guy trying to talk about African-American culture?” but over time people would realize that I was not about getting secrets, making money or exploiting their culture. I believed and still do that this is a story that must be told. That the root workers and healers that were treated like deviants and criminals should be recognized for continuing the survival of the African traditions. That root workers who worked to bring health to slaves on plantations in the Mid-South were not street-wise cons looking to sell faux mojo bags and rabbit’s feet. And that Hoodoo in the Mid-South is not simply about black cat bones and crossings but is about the survival of Africans, African-Americans and these African traditions.
I have friends who say that the ancestors are trying to tell their story and that is why the doors are opening on all of this material. I don’t know but I will say that once these doors opened it was like turning over a rock and constantly finding another facet of this history. The information, the photographs and the testimonies just came
DN: Tell our readers why you think spiritual practices such as Santeria, hoodoo, voodoo and other similar sects have remained so strong and traditionally-oriented, many masquerading (or intermingled with) with Christianity.
TK: I think that the essence is the root. The root of Regla de Ocha (Santeria), the root of Los Reglas de Congo (Palo and other Bantu Traditions) and Voudon religions is African traditional religion. The deities from Legba to Eleggua all have an African basis. I think that this speaks to the resilience of Africa. Africa has been ravished by colonialism throughout the years but yet remains Africa. The traditions of art, community and religion all carry that stream of African consciousness. Here in the South you might have to dig to find root workers and healers but anyone can hear Africa in the music of the blues or taste it in the style of the food. One of my daily reminders of Africa is in the yard art of a local African-American family that creates sacred spaces on their lawn laden in heavy African spiritual symbolism. Africa is in the soil of the Mid-South.
DN: Can you illuminate the connections between Santa Muerte and the Mexican/ South American drug cartels?
TK: The use of Santa Muerte by Latin-American drug traffickers is a sad reminder that any religion can be prostituted by sociopaths.
The truth is that Santa Muerte is such a sacred symbol to many people around the world that have nothing to do with the drug trade. One of the reasons that Santa Muerte became so attractive to drug cartels is that the symbol was demonized. A psychologist once said “Once you demonize a symbol or make it evil, you give it a magical attraction”. I believe this to be true. Look at how members of the MS-13 street gang have taken various symbols associated with Satanism and are now using them in graffiti and tattoos. The fact is that MS-13 was born out of regions where Catholicism is very popular and to use anything non or especially ‘anti’ Christian would certainly frighten locals and create this magical attraction.
Some Santa Muerte devotees who are not involved in criminal activities explain that she is available to everyone. As a friend who is a spiritual leader in a Santa Muerte church explains, “It is like a mother who may have two sons. One may be good and obey the law and the other may be a bad kid.”
In this worldview it is perfectly understandable that some that walk an unconventional and illegal path may seek her protection. It is a terrible injustice that she and several other Latin-American folk saints and religions are being used by criminals who do not care about the majority of law-abiding practitioners nor how the world perceives their faith.
DN: Do you have any spiritual/ magickal mentors or inspirational historical figures you’d like mention?
TK: I have a lot of respect for the work of folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett as well as Harry Middleton Hyatt and the work they did recording the voices of hoodoo in the Delta. I admire the contemporary work that Mitch Horowitz is doing as a historian of esoteric culture and the work that anthropologist Rafael Martinez has done on Afro-Caribbean religions in Miami. Lastly, I want to thank the work and legacy of the late Rev. Velvet Rieth of New Orleans. As a Wiccan priestess, cop’s wife and caring mother she taught beside me for years and worked to make her community a safe place from predators and criminals.
DN: What’s your opinion on the importance and relevance of spirituality, magick these days? It is currently enjoying widespread popularity.
TK: It is an interesting time to be alive. In 2017 there are few religious ‘mysteries’ out there that have yet to be spoken of. The Internet is a double-edged sword full of great information that some people may have never learned of without the Web and then it is also a place where myths and conspiracies are allowed a field to play in. I think that we need to take the time and learn about each other and each other’s spiritual traditions. I think that we have a lot to learn about each other and that education combined with human interaction is how we began to tear down misunderstandings and hate. Someone recently asked me “How do you get people to talk to you about their traditions?”
We begin by treating each other like humans. When I interview someone who is a root worker, they aren’t ‘Ms. Jones’ the root worker. They are ‘Ms.Jones’ who happens to be a root worker. The biggest hindrance to understanding someone else’s spiritual path I believe lies in how you look at other human beings. If you view someone according to the title they wear versus what kind of human being they are, you will never connect with them. You have to care about people to open yourself to learning.
DN: You’ve written books aimed at law enforcement and first responders who might be dealing with cults and “marginalized” religions like Santeria, voodoo, Ifa, or even Santa Muerte cults. Would you please share some advice and/or safety tips for readers who might be interested in seeking out of trying these practices?
TK: After almost 30 years of researching various religious cultures it has become so apparent that it is not a religion that is the danger as it is those who wield it. Back in the 80’s mainstream media depicted coercive groups as being strictly Eastern based, pseudo-Satanic and race oriented. In 2017 we have seen every sort of spiritual tradition in the world appropriated by egomaniacs and destructive leaders. From Christianity to Islam, manipulative leaders and destructive cults come in numerous forms. Regardless of your spiritual path, it is important that we all remember that every spiritual, magical and even political group has the potential to become ‘cultic’ in nature. In 1989 many Americans felt that the biggest threat to physical safety and personal freedoms was Satanism. And there was a time where I felt the same. But the truth is after all these years I would dare say that I am far more afraid of a group of violent drug traffickers that rip off icons of spiritual traditions or a group of racist extremists using the Bible to endorse hate than I am of a group of 16 year olds listening to Slipknot in the local cemetery.
I think that we need to look at how a group allows thinking and criticism. I have talked with members of groups from African to Neo-Pagan backgrounds that have told stories of abuse and cruelty at the hands of clergy. I have sat with members of Christian churches and Buddhist communities that have shared horror stories about how they were emotionally and in some cases physically punished for questioning leadership. If a group or organization does not allow you to criticize or question their techniques or teachings, then I would be very skeptical.
There are many traditions that teach that a particular philosophy or teacher is the only way to spiritual fulfillment. However, when a particular leader or group claims that they are the sole way to spiritual fulfillment there stands a chance for manipulative behavior. Likewise when a group demands you break ties with friends or family and access to dissenting voices, this could also be a definite red flag.
I remember sitting with members of a particular religious community that were discussing among community leaders the issue of abuse and coercion in their community. One of the leaders was very adamant about wanting to address this for the sake of healing for the community and the protection of potential victims of abusers. Other members did not even want to acknowledge the reality of the issue as they believed talking about it would cast a bad light on the community. Until spiritual communities talk about the bad apples in their community and do something about them, we will continue to see abusers and manipulators. We are doing no one a favor by avoiding this subject. Lastly, I have great admiration for those brave individuals who have stood up and said “No More!” in their respected communities. They may have saved some lives.
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Tony Kail’s Amazon.com author page:
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