EXPLORING THE OUTER EDGES OF SOCIETY AND MIND

The Master Key – L.W. de Laurence and the Mysterious Influence of One Human Mind

Posted in > SUPERNATURAL LIVING IN THE AMERICAN MARKETPLACE by David on June 25, 2020

“STUDENTS of history find a continuous chain of reference to the mysterious influence of one human mind over that of others.”

– William Walker Atkinson, from Practical Mental Influence & Mental Fascination (Advanced Thought Publishing Co., Chicago, IL, 1908)

The late 19th and early 20th Century was a vibrant time for the city of Chicago. No less for the fact that this period saw the flowering of an American occult renaissance with one of the most robust blooms growing from the heart of the Second City itself.

In a 2012 American Academy of Religions pre-conference event called Mapping the Occult City – Magick and Esotericism in the Urban Utopia, hosted Phoenix Rising Digital Academy and DePaul University, the history of Chicago’s esoteric publishing houses provided an interesting focus for a number of areas related to the city’s occult history. (1) Throughout the panel presentations, and in the featured presentation of occultist, artist and initiate Michael Bertiaux, themes continued to arise which flowed perfectly along the channels dug by tenacious turn of the century occult entrepreneurs.

The Occult Gospel — Theosophy, New Thought, Spiritualism

A prominent feature of Chicago’s esoteric involvement was its central role in publishing Theosophical, New Thought, Spiritualism and standard Western esoteric works through early 20th century publishers including Advanced Thought Publishing Co., Arcane Book Concern, and Yogi Publishing Society, Sydney Flowers’ Psychic Research and New Thought Publishing Company, Hack & Anderson, and De Laurence, Scott and Company . Even the great jazzman Herman Blount(Sun Ra) spent time passing out tracts of his poetry and utopian Afro-Futurist philosophy on the El (Chicago’s sub-way system.) (2)

The city with broad shoulders supported a sphere of publishers that spread a diverse, cosmopolitan and amorphous occult gospel to the globe. De Laurence, Scott and Company, was one of the most successful. A mail order shop, and publishing house, run by Lauren De Laurence, their catalog directly influenced the development of religious sects as far away as Nigeria and Ghana.

De Laurence’s Catalog of Books for Mystics: Together with a Complete “cabinet” of Materials Accessory to the Pursuit of Mystic Study as it was known,provided books, incense, magical novelties and curios to eager customers around the world. It was especially popular in the Southern United States and Caribbean, where it developed a central role in supplying Hoodoo and Obeah practitioners with the material and textual components of their practice.

Caribbean Witch-craft and High Science

In Jamaica, the name De Laurence has become literally synomous with witchcraft and black magic:

De Laurence: sb dial, also attrib; <De Laurence, a Chicago publisher of books on occult subjects, banned from Jamaica. Witch-craft; loosely, obeah.

– from the Dictionary of Jamaican English, by Frederic Gomes Cassidy, R. B. Le Page (University of West Indies Press, 2002)

People who practice “De Laurence” or “High Science,” are treated with suspicion, and even today the practice remains secretive. An article in the Jamaican Star highlights the kind of stories that circulate regarding De Laurence:

“Lottery scammers in Montego Bay, St James, are digging deep into their pockets to pay local ‘witch doctors’ to protect them against evil forces rumoured to be plaguing their colleagues.

Some scammers are said to be paying as much as $600,000 to get rid of DeLaurence spells, THE STAR has learnt.

The streets of Montego Bay are buzzing with talk that the scammers, who have made millions from conning persons out of their money, are now being haunted or even killed by duppies and spells said to have been ‘sent’ by those affected by their operations.

Some scammers are said to be having thousands of dollars mysteriously becoming ablaze in their pockets, short spells of insanity and having visitations from ‘foreign duppies’ (foreign ghosts or spirits.)

In one report from a resident, a scammer is said to have fainted after people complimented him for travelling around with a “pretty white girl” (a type of duppy or ghost) on the back of his motorcycle. The scammer, however, had no knowledge that the girl was riding around with him.

One witch doctor with whom THE STAR spoke on the condition of anonymity said the scammers have been paying between $200,000 and $600,000 to protect them against the spells.

“Mi work wid de majority a dem man deh. Some top man inna de scam link mi fi mi ‘seal dem up’. Anywhere mi deh, dem find mi,” he said. He further said that the price of the job varied according to the type of seal the scammers were seeking.

“All $500,000 or so they have to pay sometimes because you have different seals. You have the seven seals and then the 21 seals, so it vary.”

After explaining the process where coffins, bottles, jewellery and fire were used to perform the rituals for the clients, he noted that the affected men did not hesitate to fork out the cash when he named his price.” (3)

Another article from Go Local Jamaica helps to further flesh out De Laurence’s Caribbean facade:

“The many grim De Laurence stories come mainly from rural areas. Some say that their clothes have been shredded to bits even while hanging in the wardrobe. Others speak of stone throwing attacks on their houses, with no view of the stone thrower. And others speak of rain falling only on a particular house in a district.

Some strange stories speak of rain falling on one particular house.

Even recently in the Media, there was a report of a house in the Corporate Area on fire, and the witnesses which included neighbours and the fire brigade unit which rushed to the scene, could not offer an explanation as to how the fire started. The house on fire had no stove, no lamp and no electrical connection. And no one was at home at the time. Some speculated a “high science”connection.

The rationale for strange acts such as these were usually one of the following:

(1) The victim had offended someone and the person offended consulted De Laurence to take revenge.

(2) The victim owed De Laurence money. And according to some, if you owed De Laurence money, you could just place it in an envelope and address it. It would go through the postal system without any chance of being tampered with and go directly to its destination.” (4)

All of this due to a mail order catalog from Chicago. If you read carefully you’ll notice that De Laurence has become deeply associated with what hints at extortion practices, assassination and small scale terrorism.

These associations were strong enough that the De Laurence Catalog, as well as De Laurence related products, were outlawed in Jamaica. The official Jamaican Customs Department prohibition declares a ban on: “All publications of De Laurence, Scott and Company of Chicago in the United States of America relating to divination, magic, cultism or supernatural arts.” (5)

Advertisement for one of L.W. De Laurence’s most influential books (Image courtesy of The West Tennessee Museum of Southern Hoodoo History)

In his work, Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, Owen Davies points out that the ban has long been seen as “a cynical attempt by the British to limit the influence of unionism and the American black empowerment movement.” Even after Jamaica declared independence in 1962, and in light of subsequent socialist governments, the ban remains in place.

Speculation on the political importance of “High Science” becomes solidified when we realize that one of Jamaica’s most powerful examples of radical politics, Marcus Garvey, was himself heavily influenced by the New Thought and Mind Science ideas that were promoted in some of the more popular publications in the De Laurence Catalog. Garvey’s Pan-Africanism was touched by a mystical strain and mythological importance garnered from tapping into the cultural movements initiated, supported and propagandized by publishing company’s such as the Yogi Publication Societyand De Laurence, Scott and Company.

Politics and the Occult

A core moment in the political history of the country is openly rooted in the potential of applied occultism, and “ the general belief that it (is) possible for an individual to exert some weird uncanny power over the minds of other persons, which would influence the latter for good or evil,” and that“accompanying belief that certain individuals are possessed of some mental power which bends even “things” and circumstances to its might.” This is not some superstitious belief in magic, but a very astute understanding of political power and charismatic influence, heightened by the areas struggles with colonial powers and the fractured cultural identity left by the ravages of the slave trade.

Mind Science, New Thought and late 19th century practical occultism all lie at the base of the success literature that has become central to 20th century business culture. The same practical philosophy which influences entrepreneurial enthusiasm in the United States can have a drastically different effect if it finds itself in a new cultural setting, and under a alternate motivations.

Techniques for personal empowerment, intermixing with strong, community-based traditions, and a social mythology that indicates an acceptable outlet for violence in cases of retribution and revenge via magic, spirit attack, etc., can be a menacing idea for unpopular governments. Timothy Knab’s work, A War Of Witches: A Journey Into The Underworld Of The Contemporary Aztecs (Harper San Francisco, 1995), outlines a similar situation in Northern Mexico in which Aztec traditions of dream work and attack sorcery played a large part in local violence which arose due to political tension among local landowners and foreign businessmen. (6)

De Laurence’s influence on traditional Obeah practices begins to become more visible in the 1930’s, a volatile time political period for the Caribbean. Garvey’s Pan-Africanism was bringing a wider geopolitical relevance to Afro-Carribean traditions, which formed a key component in bridging the gaps between the old and new world. In the 18th century, when similar pressures were being put on traditional practice through the British colonial presence, we see a similar importance, both positive and negative, placed on Obeah.

“The practice of Obeah influenced by De Laurence became very prevalent during the 1930s in Jamaica. Numerous instances are documented where it was believed that De Laurence was “set on” persons in order to inflict harm on them. However, as the practice was considered to be a branch of Obeah, it was illegal to practice it here as Obeah was outlawed from 1760.

Nevertheless, this did not curtail the number of De Laurence-related incidents and many persons were imprisoned as a result. It is possible that, it was the increase in the number of court cases of this nature that led to the British authorities implementing further legislation which banned the importing, publishing, selling, distributing and reproducing of all De Laurence publications relating to divination, magic, occultism, supernatural arts or other esoteric subjects as they were classified as being “instruments of Obeah”. Persons found to be in breach of this new legislation were sentenced to flogging and/or up to one year imprisonment.

There are aspects of the practice of Obeah, and by extension, De Laurence that still remain a mystery to this day. However, what is certain is that despite its illegality, the practice of Obeah is still common in Jamaica, making it an integral part of our heritage.”

– De Laurence in Jamaica (7)

In 1910 Reverend Drew Ali would form the Moorish Science Temple around the publication of the Circle 7 Koran, which encapsulated teachings from Levi H. Dowling’s 1908 publication The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the anonymous Rosicrucian book Unto Thee I Grant, and, as he was traveling between New York and Chicago at the time, we can only imagine what other occult influences may have crept in. Mitch Horowitz in his study of American mystical traditions, Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation (Bantam Books, 2009), shows how effective the air of mystery and secrecy around the Circle 7 Koran was in allowing a largely derivative work to function as a powerful anchor for political and religious action. Just like in Jamaica with Obeah and the governing powers, the Moorish Science Temple drew the attention of the FBI during WWII. (8)

Fears that the group were involved in collaborating with the Japanese government, though unfounded, were heightened by the strong self identification, unity and organization demonstrated by the Moorish Science Temple followers. They also had been issuing passports that identified their carrier as a Moor, and not a citizen of the United States, which caused some concern.

Anyone familiar with the publications that De Laurence, Atkinson and other esoteric publishing outfits were putting out will recognize that the social responsibility, self determination and Will which form the focus of these works are perfectly mirrored in Ali and Garvey’s organization of the people. They also both draw on the Orientalist mythologies that allow these occult ideas to escape Orthodox criticisms by placing them outside of the authority of mainstream experts.

A Popular Catalog with Profound Results

The works associated with Chicago publishers of practical occultism find their way into many of the Afro-Latin traditions in one way or another, and reprints of many of their more popular titles (or at least the titles that were available in De Laurence editions) are still currently available in Botanica’s in Spanish language editions put out by different publishers. De Laurence’s Chicago occult publishing peer William Walker Atkinson has even found a central place in the teachings of the Circulo de Estudos Ramacharaca (Ramachandran Study Circle.) The group, named after one of his pseudonyms, Swami Ramacharaka, study what they call the “True Superior, Consecrated Science, and Spiritualism.” (9)

It is amazing to see that these niche publishing companies were able to produce practical results in the kind of cultural exchange that would later be central to the social engineering pursued by US International Cooperation Administration. The Chile Project, pursued by the USICA in the 1950’s, sought to influence Chilean economic development through a graduate exchange program with the University of Chicago. (10) It took 20 years for the effort, with established backing, to take effect. De Laurence was able to achieve an influence on the culture through a popular catalog of occult curios in approximately the same time span.

Stephan Palmie, Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, highlights the influence of the DeLaurence Company in his book Wizards and Scientists – Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition (Duke University Press, 2002), saying:

“I have long thought that a solid business history of the Chicago-based DeLaurence Company – the major, if not the sole, purveyor of Western occult literature to the Caribbean in the early twentieth century – would provide a key tot the region’s religious history more revealing, perhaps, than the outmoded West African ethnography usually adduced for similar purposes. In the hands of a competent “scientist,” the pages of compendia of Western magic such as the Petit Albert or the Six and Seventh Books of Moses begin to vibrate with ostensibly weird, but morally acute, and wholly contemporary resonances, As in the case of the Bible in the hands of a Rastaman, it is a move back from text to life, comparable to those performed by contemporary African revisionists who pore over colonial ethnographies in search of an African past yet to be enacted. And is is a move comparable to those of Renaissance systematizers similarly in search of a future in an eclectically constructed past.” (11)

With such a powerful presence in the world, we might ask who was this mighty occultist, and what was this company, that wields so much sway through such subtle means. Michael Nowicki, who hosts the website Rosicrucian Salon, gives us some clues by describing his experience visiting the offices of the De Laurence Company in the 1960’s:

“I became so intrigued by the mental image in my mind of their company I couldn’t resist taking a train ride to downtown Wabash Avenue and seeing it for myself. I had visions of a large dark showroom with candles burning everywhere, incense smoke drifting across the room with swamis, mystics and masters floating around the room with their shopping carts full of strange goods.

Instead of that I found the store was on the 2nd floor of an old building. Instead of a turban wearing mystic greeting me at the door I found a short fat bald man chomping on a cigar and reading a horse racing paper! He looked up at me and using his cleverly hidden psychic powers read my mind and said “no store sales, catalog mail order only”.

What I did see behind him was a medium size storeroom lined with metal warehouse shelves holding the inventory of their huge catalog, all in a space about 20 by 30 feet.”

De Laurence himself passed away in 1936, years before Nowicki visited the office of the De Laurence Company. The De Laurence Company catalog continued to have a profound effect on the development of popular traditions in the Americas after his death, despite being little more than a small office, with an obviously disinterested manager.

The mystique of the mail order catalog had been built on salesmanship, marketing and at times bold and disingenuous advertising copy. Once it was established the process of mystification was largely mechanical, and could be maintained by anyone who could keep up the facade.

The Grand Master

During his life time De Laurence faced difficulties with the authorities due to some of his more lax business and initiatory practices. In 1912 he was under investigation for, as one newspaper article from the time put it, “evidence now in the hands of the government tends to show that De Laurence sent improper literature and forbidden medicine through the mails.” (12)

Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 11.03.12 AM

Two occult Orders under his leadership, the Order of the Black Rose, and the Order of the White Willow, were closed by the police during the investigation which began when one of his students/initiates went to the police complaining about his practices. She claimed that after going through the “weighing in” process, which involved stripping in a mirrored closet, De Laurence remarked something to the effect that she was “too fat to be an angel.” The address listed for the Order of the Black Rose (3340 South Michigan Avenue) in the article is now a nondescript building on the campus of IIT, the original building apparently having been torn down in the 1960’s or 70’s.

De Laurence, booked for mail fraud (Chicago Daily News, 1912)

The photographer Rik Garrett, whose past projects include Occult Chicago and the Occult Guide websites, found articles detailing De Laurence’s troubles with the authorities in 1915 which continued the police investigation into his activities. (13) This time two former employees, who had traveled from Nigeria to meet the “Great Master,” were disappointed to discover a savvy, and somewhat unscrupulous, businessman, who was making $.95 a curio on selling $.05 candles for $1.00 to their impoverished African communities. Although the newspaper articles paint him in a less than favorable light, Owen Davies points out that trial records show a more complex picture of the man, who seems to have truly believed in what he was selling, if not necessarily the terms or promises he made when he sold it.

As a publisher De Laurence worked within the margins of copyright law. In the same way that he saw opportunity in $.05 candles, he found that scouting for out of copyright books on esoteric subjects was another profitable venture. This was especially true if they had been originally issued in a foreign country such as England, which further complicated questions of copyright, yet provided no barriers in terms of translation.

Catherine Yronwode, of the Lucky Mojo Curio Company, points out that De Laurence, and it should also be noted William Walker Atkinson who also published many of the same books in U.S. editions, played a large part in popularizing the Golden Dawn system of magic and the various systems that emerged from it:

“Among the Golden Dawn authors whom De Laurence ripped off shamelessly, the foremost were S.L. Macgregor Mathers (who translated portions of Von Rosenroth’s German translation of Hebrew Kabbalistic texts into English) and Arthur Edward Waite, who translated magical texts from Latin and French originals (e.g. “The Book of Black Magic and Pacts”), and also wrote many original works, including “The Key to the Tarot,” which De Laurence issued with his own name on as author!

At some point around WW I, De Laurence was either threatened by the Golden Dawn authors in question or the copyright law changed, for on later books he affixed the actual English authors’ names to the works, although he may have cheated them out of royalties. Eventually, as the list of titles by the original Golden Dawn authors played out, De Laurence hired ghostwriters who were associated with other occult orders to produce new works under his name.

For instance, I have been told on good repute that several of the circa 1920s books De Laurence claimed as his own were written by Charles Stansfield Jones a.k.a. Frater Achad, a disciple of Aleister Crowley, the latter a former member of the Golden Dawn.” (14)

Whatever his motivations, De Laurence was putting the initiatory traditions of England’s social elite into the hands of society’s dispossessed. In addition to this the Orders that he initiated and which were under investigation in 1912, were open to all regardless of race. In the article from 1912 detailing the fraud investigation, this is one of the key points drawn out to shock the reader:

“The police raided De Laurence’s ‘temple’ at 3340 Michigan Avenue yesterday after the story told by Mrs. Augusta Muerie, who escaped from the ‘temple.’

De Laurence, his wife and a gang of negroes, Indians and white women were arrested.

The chief deity of the temple was found to be a regular cigar store Indian, before which De Laurence worshiped and forced his followers to worship.”

Beyond the racist concerns apparent in the report it also seems that the authorities and media were less than impressed with De Laurence innovative use of a stock statue in his house of worship. However, De Laurence isn’t alone in courting mystery with mundane materials. As Mariano Tomatis relates, another mysterious 20th century locale has made effective use of dull decoration, and Tomatis should know, since he helped design the museum dedicated to the location, Rennes le Chateau:

“Just as in novels and movies, the alternate versions of the history of Rennes-le-Château describe its priest Bérenger Saunière as a member of secret societies, a wizard of old Egyptian cults, and the area is full of hidden tombs, chests full of treasures and clues on their trail, all linked through complex geometries, anagrams, and mysterious inscriptions. All the characters involved show a double personality: the public and the esoteric one. The esoteric side is one which cannot be found in official biographies, but only through a reinterpretation of the clues found somewhere in the area surrounding Rennes-le-Château (e.g. Nicolas Poussin and Pope John XXIII, but even Jean Cocteau and Jesus Christ).” (15)

Many of the clues left a Rennes Le Chateau itself are in the form of statuary and other decorative effects that came from a catalog put out by a sculptural firm that was popular at the time, called Giscard in Toulouse, which provided similar services to a number of other churches. During the finishing stages of Sauniere’s restoration of the Church of St. Mary-Magdalene in Rennes-le-Chateau, he used them almost exclusively to outfit the building.

Despite their common origin, when assembled at that specific place, and attended by the devotion of those active in accentuating the mythology, these everyday objects become resonant with mystery. Tomatis relates this effect to an ‘infinite game,’ in which cultural phenomena such as Rennes le Chateau become focal points for alternate histories which subvert dominant cultural narratives. As we can see, such a process is not isolated to rural naivete, but happens with equal strength in atmospheres of urbanity.

This is heightened by the aesthetics of the phenomena, and the De Laurence Company mastered the use of well crafted imagery, as can be seen from a 1941 edition of The Master Key.

Good design work can go a long way in lending credibility. Since he was republishing the work of some of the best popular occultists, the material in the books themselves was only heightened through De Laurence’s brilliant marketing. One can imagine, however, that presented in a contemporary paperback the De Laurence publications might not have had the same effect in fomenting the development of Pan-African mysticism, Black Nationalism, Afro-Carribean traditions and changing the way traditional practices were performed in Nigeria and Ghana.

Yet in the end figures such as De Laurence have achieved an invisibility in the historic memory that obfuscates any strange influences that they still exert on culture. In our digital age, all we find are ghostly traces of the vast occult publishing system that developed around the turn of the 19th century. In some ways the well crafted veneer that helped De Laurence and his peers achieve their mystique has put them today into the category of curiosity, even if under the surface their direct influence still ebbs and flows in the veins of our collective cultural experience.

For those who would scoff at contemporary, diluted versions of the practical occultism or “New Psychology,” popularized by the prolific output of figures like William Walker Atkinson and Lauren W. De Laurence, it would be good to remember that their ideas have had a widespread, and often unnoticed effect on our contemporary culture. Although the allegedly ancient truths of popular books like The Secret by Rhonda Byrnes may seem dubious, their lineage lies in mail order mysteries that changed the face of global society, and deeply affected the racially charged geo-political climate of the 20th century.

If one wants proof of the curio catalog’s promise to teach powerful secrets of “the mysterious influence of one human mind over that of others,” it seems that affecting the fate of nations from a small office in Chicago isn’t a bad start.

Additional Reading:

Through Mediums Never Before Considered – Psychotronics, Spiritual Services and the Analog Internet

They Will Not Have to Tell Me, I Will Know – Sheriff J.E. McTeer and the Succession of a Spiritual Worker

Hidden Pathways to Everyday Magic – Supernatural Living in the American Marketplace

For Our Readers That Shop by Mail – Fast Cash Money Oil and the Old Farmer’s Almanac

Seeds Sprout in Darkness – Mail Order Magick, Death Row and the Initiation of Damien Echols

Occult Science, Civil Rights and the Sears Roebuck Catalog – Is Consumer Capitalism a Master Key to Diversity?

Footnotes:

(1) https://occultcity.wordpress.com
(2) https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/collex/exhibits/sounds-tomorrows-world/
(3) http://old.jamaica-star.com/thestar/20090116/news/news1.html
(4) https://web.archive.org/web/20130115121425/http://www.golocaljamaica.com/readarticle.php?ArticleID=1520
(5) https://www.jacustoms.gov.jm/service/prohibited-items
(6) http://www.chasclifton.com/reviews/witchwar.html
(7) https://web.archive.org/web/20130218063238/https://www.expeditionjamaica.com/topics/culture-and-religion/item/8-de-laurence-in-jamaica
(8) http://www.themoorishsciencetempleofamerica.org
(9) https://web.archive.org/web/20180719063151/http://www.ramacharaca.com.br/index_1.htm
(10) https://books.google.com/books?id=-oJq_Rpcs_AC&pg=PA303&lpg=PA303&dq=%22Chile+Project,%22+international+cooperation&source=bl&ots=0RKm5Sdxza&sig=gLMwm-5ea7EyoOsTM7282xr24uw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=QM7EULydEu7C0AH054GoCA&ved=0CEYQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=%22Chile%20Project%2C%22%20international%20cooperation&f=false
(11) Stephan Palmie, Wizards and Scientists – Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition, p. 205 (Duke University Press, 2002)
(12) https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045487/1912-11-13/ed-1/seq-8/
(13) http://occultchicago.blogspot.com/2012/04/order-of-black-rose-1915.html
(14) http://www.luckymojo.com/esoteric/religion/african/diasporic/caribbeanhinduorishaoccult.html
(15) http://www.marianotomatis.it/blog.php?post=blog/20110623&section=english


Special thanks to Tony Kail and the West Tennessee Museum of Southern Hoodoo for the image of the advertisement for de Laurence’s Great Book of Magical Art. Visit the museum’s website for more information on the cultural history of hoodoo and folk practices in the Memphis and Mississippi Delta region. https://memphishoodoo.wixsite.com/museum

This is an updated version of an article was originally published on The Daily Grail website in 2012

Occult Science, Civil Rights & the Sears Roebuck Catalog – Is Consumer Capitalism a Master Key to Diversity?

Posted in > SUPERNATURAL LIVING IN THE AMERICAN MARKETPLACE by David on October 17, 2018

“In the era of Jim Crow, race was everything. And for black Americans, most of whom were rural farmers, access to goods on an equal basis as whites in faraway cities at reasonable prices was a godsend. And that’s what the catalog was.”

– Louis Hyman, Director, Institute for Workplace Studies, Cornell University

Sears recent bankruptcy announcement has lead to some nostalgic media on the company’s influence over the years – including an opportunity for historian Louis Hyman to present his fascinating research on the role of consumer capitalism in providing an atmosphere conducive to empowering the civil rights movement.
delaurence-catalog-1938-1939-occult_1_ec3f260fa7c110a830a8148578811378

In an NPR interview that aired on October 17th, 2018 Hyman details how the Sears Catalog provided a way for minority groups to circumvent the white power structure and access the global economy via mail order. What struck me most was how familiar this process is – having seen the exact same dynamic at play with mail order pioneer, L.W. de Laurence and the famed De Laurence’s Catalogue of Books for Mystics: Together with a Complete “cabinet” of Materials Accessory to the Pursuit of Mystic Study!

Talking with NPR host Mary Louise Kelly, Hyman detailed how local authorities and business interests went to great lengths in their attempts to stop individuals from accessing the freedoms offered by Sears mail order service. Public bonfires of the catalog, as well as more direct harassment when folks came in to post their orders, were used to dissuade buyers from skirting past the social strictures put in place by the power structure.

For the de Laurence Catalogue, which, in addition to it’s psychic and occult supplies, offered what today would be called personal success training and professional development to marginalized individuals and groups, authorities in the Caribbean went to far as to ban the catalog entirely:

De Laurence: sb dial, also attrib; <De Laurence, a Chicago publisher of books on occult subjects, banned from Jamaica. Witch-craft; loosely, obeah.

– from the Dictionary of Jamaican English, by Frederic Gomes Cassidy, R. B. Le Page (University of West Indies Press, 2002)

As I’ve examined in a previous article – historian Owen Davies, in his work Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, points out that the ban has long been seen as “a cynical attempt by the British to limit the influence of unionism and the American black empowerment movement.” Even after Jamaica declared independence in 1962, and in light of subsequent socialist governments, the ban remains in place.

delaurence-catalog-1938-1939-occult_1_ec3f260fa7c110a830a8148578811378_3Speculation on the political importance of “High Science” becomes solidified when we realize that one of Jamaica’s most powerful examples of radical politics, Marcus Garvey, was himself heavily influenced by the New Thought and Mind Science ideas that were promoted in some of the more popular publications in the De Laurence Catalog. Garvey’s Pan-Africanism was touched by a mystical strain and mythological importance garnered from tapping into the cultural movements initiated, supported and propagandized by publishing company’s such as the Yogi Publication Society and De Laurence, Scott and Company.

According to Hyman, just as de Laurence did with his own catalog, R.W. Sears “published instructions in the catalog – how to simply give the requirements to the postman so you didn’t have to go through the store. And in a lot of places, the post office was also the general store, so it was pretty complicated to even get your order submitted to the catalog. But they found lots of ways to do this for rural African-Americans as well as immigrants, people who didn’t even speak English. They had all kinds of clerks available to take your order in nearly any tongue.” Even the focus on native language marketing that Hyman points on regarding Sears can be found in de Laurence’s practice of hiring immigrants from Africa to help facilitate his sales on the continent.

delaurence-catalog-1938-1939-occult_1_ec3f260fa7c110a830a8148578811378_2Based on his analysis, Hyman points to the neutral, market building mechanisms of consumer capitalism as one of the driving forces behind the similarities we see between these two very different pioneers of the mail order format – and also a driving force in the cultural changes that their catalogs subtly supported during one of America’s most troubling periods of social history. This same process is at play in the emergence and growth of Saint Death’s devotional tradition around the globe – as Santa Muerte continues to fill out her role as one of the fastest growing spiritual practices in the world.

What many see as crass commercialization of Santa Muerte’s tradition can also be analyzed as a surprising and subtle tool for cultural integration and communication. The semi-independent economies developed through more informal structures such as the Sears Catalog are now trillion dollar opportunities. According to the most recent Multi-Cultural Economy Report put out by the University of Georgia Selig Center for Economic Growth, “African American buying power in the United States will rise to $1.54 trillion by 2022,” and the numbers for Latin American and Hispanic buying power are not far behind.

One of the phrases popularized by Santa Muerte’s devotees is that in death, all are equal – and it seems that for a true consumer capitalist, if the money’s green it’s good to spend no matter who you get it from. While the errors of unchecked capitalism can be easily debated by experts, it may be that in some small way and in certain situations – consumer capitalism is a master key to diversity.

Another subject for future study!

Until then:

For Louis Hyman’s appearance on NPR’s All Things Considered check out – How The Sears Catalog Was Revolutionary In The Jim Crow Era

For more on the surprising cultural life of the de Laurence Catalogue check out – L.W. de Laurence and the Mysterious Influence of One Human Mind – originally published at The Daily Grail in 2012.

For more on the role of consumer capitalism in the growth of Santa Muerte’s devotional tradition, check out – Selling Holy Death – From Grim Reaper to Skeletal Virgin, A Brief Look at Commercializing an Emerging Iconography

Also Note – the De Laurence Company brand is still in business if you’re looking for any ‘Materials Accessory to the Pursuit of Mystic Study’: http://www.delaurencecompany.com/

*UGA Selig Center numbers are found in the Forbes Magazine article  – Amazon Poaching Diverse Sellers from Ebay

Images of the de Laurence Catalog are courtesy of a completed Ebay auction.

 

 

 

 

 

Saint Death, Queen of Witches — Exploring Popular Occultism and the Emergent Iconography of Santa Muerte

Posted in > BLACK CADILLAC REVIEW by David on October 19, 2017

Cowardly defamers, here I stand. I walk with the elf. Let their courage fall, their hairs stand on end, and let terror and fear reign them. – from the Invocation of Don Diego Duende

The Magical Powers of the Holy Death, published in English by Jaguar Books’ Cali Casa imprint, and available in Spanish from Ediciones S.M., has what at first glance seems to be a very odd addition — an invocation to Don Diego Elf. Mentioning an ‘elf’ in regard to Santa Muerte’s magical powers may appear out of place when so much of the news surrounding her presence relates to urban issues of criminality and drug trafficking. Yet this invocation speaks to her lingering lineage as a powerful figure associated with curanderismo, brujeria and other traditions of practical faith.

Don Diego Duende” opens a vision for us to understand traditional practices where “elves” and other elemental spirits often intermix with the residual shades of the dead to heal, help, harm, protect and teach those who seek empowerment from and communion with the invisible realms of nature. As we investigate these ties we also discover a series of incredible correspondences related to la Nina Blanca, illuminating some of the hidden corners of her contemporary emergence.

Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary

Let’s take a slight detour as we begin our journey towards understanding Santa Muerte’s relationship with Don Diego Duende, and look at some insights gained from Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold, a scholar and practitioner, in his book Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary. Obeah is a Carribean folk practice whose core focus is on developing relationships with, and mastery over, spirits and psychic residues as a necessary step in spiritual work.

Frisvold mentions ‘duende’ in connection with the Anima Sola, a popular intermediary that aids the practitioner seeking to work with a specific class of wandering spirits. Standing within the fires of purgatory, wrapped in broken chains, we see an iconographic image suggesting her existence in the purging fires of Hell is one that she herself has chosen, and as such when called upon she has the ability to help mediate communication with wandering spirits who, for whatever reason, remain tied to the physical plane.

The details that Frisvold supplies are important to note if we are to understand the ties between Santa Muerte and the elves:

“Anima Sola is the leader of the Douen and the messenger-daughter of Papa Bones…Douen is derived from the Latin duende, synonymous with goblins and brownies in Northern Europe, whilst in Iberia and South America the category aslo encompasses fairies and any green short-grown spirit.

(…)Whe also find the icon of Anima Sola in Palo Mayombe where she is known, amongst many names, as Mayanet Viento Malo — a bitter hot wind of destruction. Anima Sola is also used to depict the Vodou myste Marinette Pie Cheche and Marienette Ge Rouge. Marienette is considered one of the more dangerous Lwa and is intimately connected to the woods, the domain of Papa Bois/Gran Bwa as is the nkisi Mayanet.”

Although Santa Muerte has become well known through her growing urban presence, and news reports and media deal with the developing religious aspects of her cult, most anthropological reports from the 20th century demonstrate her role as a powerful patron sought out in the practice of curanderismo and brujeria. The rural roots of these traditions provides one element to explain why. when discussed in connection with ‘magical powers’, she still holds associations with nature spirits even as her role expands most visibly in cities and urban areas across the Americas.

In looking at Obeah we are also reminded that in folk practices such as curanderismo and brujeria, familiar spirits often act as the means of accomplishing spiritual work and following the models set out in European grimoire rituals these spirits are often controlled by invoking the intercession of a higher or more powerful spirit — la Madrina being seen as one of the most powerful to work with in this regard as she is literally the spiritual embodiment of death itself.

Regarding Anima Sola, Frisvold goes on to say:

“From this we see a theme taking shape; Anima Sola is the Moon’s dead daughter that serves as a messenger between worlds. She is a spirit of torment, a hot bitter wind that can literally drag you to Hell. Hell must be understood as a metaphor for otherness, and the woods are where we find these gates and portals to otherness. Hence she is the messenger for the Lord of Darkness, the fire that cast a white shadow in the night and transforms in agonizing ways. Hence she is also the patron of the mystery of loup garou/werewolves. Sympathy with Santisima Muerte can also be seen.”

Fittingly, an Invocation to the Lone Soul appears later in The Magical Powers of the Holy Death, and as we explore these references we are drawn beyond religious devotion towards seeing Santa Muerte as a figure related not only with miraculous intercession, but with initiatory experiences as well. This provides a fascinating hint at a potential role that has been obscured by her popularization over the past decade.

It also gives us a deeper understanding of why, as her public facing devotional tradition has grown, so many people have such direct encounters with her presence — including visionary dreams, apparitional appearances and prophetic messages. Unlike many popular saints she is not merely an intermediary, but a figure that has long been given a central place in the mysteries of folk magic — both as an agent of action and as a tutelary spirit.

The Great Book

In exploring references to the Caribbean practice of Obeah we are given a more nuanced look at how popular press books such as The Magical Powers of Most Holy Death can act as conduits for serious practice despite their facade of cheap print and mass production. What Frisvold explains regarding Anima Sola represents oral traditions that are encapsulated in The Magical Powers with a short prayer and a brief explanation of the potential dangers of working with her.

Obeah, curanderismo and brujeria all share a common relationship between urban and rural influences — drawing from grimoire practice, metaphysical structures from the New Thought/Mind Science movement, Kardecian spiritism, traditional plant lore and traditional teachings in order to form a loose knit system based on practical results rather than strict orthodoxy.

These practices do not exist in isolation, and with an eye towards any applicable elements that might be available they often accumulate influences from all levels of culture. These associations are tried, tested and passed on by practitioners whose integration of spiritual work with their daily lives brings a level of understanding that can’t be fully encompassed through information quickly accessed in a text. We must remember that historical accuracy, continuity and other such concerns are largely academic and unrelated to the living reality of these traditions.

Obeah is unique among the Afro-Caribbean traditions in that, for many practitioners, L.W. De Laurence’s early 20th century mail-order magic tome The Great Book of Magical Art, Hindu Magic and East Indian Occultism has become a central reference book. In advertising blurbs from the De Laurence Company it is described it as, “a most full and complete system of Occult Philosophy: Natural, Celestial and Ceremonial Magic: Conjurations of Spirits, etc.” A recent edition, published under the title The Obeah Bible, gives an adequate description of the actual contents of the book and its relation to Caribbean magic:

The Obeah Bible was originally published as The Great Book of Magical Art, Hindu Magic and East Indian Occultism in 1898 by L.W. De Laurence. This text is taken from the 1915 edition.

Despite the title, the text has little to do with Hinduism — many of the “Hindu” words were fabricated and pasted into the text, of which much is an adapted version of Francis Barrett’s 1801 occult work, The Magus (which was itself a compilation of earlier European occult works, including those by Cornelius Agrippa and Pietro D’Abano.)

The Great Book became an influential text in the practice of certain African-derived magic systems including Hoodoo, Voodoo and Obeah. Some has even gone as far as to call Obeah “a form of magic based on a mail-order catalogue,” referring to De Laurence’s primary sales technique.

The Great Book, along with all other books published by the De Laurence Company,, remain banned in Jamaica due to strong associations with Obeah practice. This has earned The Great Book its nickname, The Obeah Bible.”

Although the book itself is an amalgam of plagiarized sections from Francis Barrett’s 19th century grimoire manual, The Magus, along with a hodge podge of psychical research, folklore, theosophical speculation, simplified yoga practices, dream work and other diverse offerings, this compendium of information, when accessed with intention and belief, becomes a powerful focus for practice.

Saint Death and the Occult Science

While it may not be cohesive in a scholarly sense, by giving access to such a broad spectrum of information, it is certainly practicable in terms of providing a wide base of material which a serious student of the ‘occult sciences’ can work from. The inclusion of instructions on visionary breath work and other physical practices also provides a basis for the practitioner to access the information on a more integral level that goes beyond intellectual speculation or conceptualization.

Books such as The Magical Powers of Holy Death brings the tradition of these potent pop grimoires into the 21st century, although it contains nowhere near the over 600 hundred pages of dense material found in The Great Book, this manual for practical work with Santa Muerte opens with lines reminiscent of de Laurence.

From The Magical Powers:

“If you do decide to initiate this cult, pray so that your feelings are always oriented towards a place that will allow you to develop your intelligence, spiritual growth, and find your mission to live according to the cosmic plans.

(…)never forget that you reap what you sow. Hence he who sows harm, reaps harm.”

From The Great Book:

“The writer will hereby inform the student that whatever the desires are which have prompted him in the pursuit of a knowledge of occultism and the invisible forces of nature, so he will reap, for ‘like always attracts like.

41kkfog3VNL._SX223_BO1,204,203,200_In the English edition of The Magical Powers of Holy Death the last pages have advertisements for Lewis de Claremont’s Legends of Incense, Herb and Oil Magic and Godfrey Selig’s Secrets of the Psalms, books that fall within a category of popular works, such as De Laurence’s Great Book, that have been used throughout the 20th century in American folk magic.

Although the legitimacy of these sources may seem doubtful from an academic standpoint, when it comes to actual folk practice oral tradition more than the written text itself acts as a key that unlocks the mysteries of these areas. The text merely form a touch point that can be sparked by anecdote, intention and personal instruction, and even the most unassuming written material can become a coercive channel for empowerment.

A passage from The Great Book serves to illustrate the divergence of intellectual speculation and practical ability, saying that:

“Those who in the true sense deserve the appellation of ‘Adepts’…are not the speculative philosophers or elaborations of cosmogonies. The real adepts are often remarkably deficient in philosophical and even general information.

The writer has found among them individuals who would be deemed exceedingly ignorant if judged by our Western standard of education; men, for instance, who had not the haziest knowledge of geography, and to whom even the history of their own country was in a great measure a sealed book.

Yet these men were the custodians of secrets for which many an intellectual giant would readily exchange twenty years of his life, secrets which so far have successfully baffled the researches of the best Western thinkers and experimenters, and which not only enabled the possessor to suspend or defy the ordinary ‘laws of nature,’ but to triumph over time and space with an ease and readiness which the Greeks hardly dared to attribute to their Olympian gods.”

Whatever spiritual agency sits behind Santa Muerte’s iconographic image has long been initiating solitary practitioners into the arts of magic. More than scholarship or historical accuracy — the transmission of active, working spiritual power is essential in traditions of practical faith, whether this power is passed from teacher to student, adept to apprentice or given by a spiritual agent whose domain is situated in the thin veil between reality and imagination.

The Queen of Elphame

What many have mistaken for ‘new age’ developments in Santa Muerte’s popular cult – such as color correspondences outside of the traditional white, red and black and other innovations along these lines – can actually be traced to common themes stretching back to late 19th century and early 20th century popular occultism which pre-dates the formalization of the New Age movement in the late 1970’s. When we look at the historical setting of something like the Invocation to Don Diego Duende we are drawn even further back in time, where, to take just one example, we find figures similar to the Anima Sola and Santa Muerte, as Frisvold defines them, within Scottish and European witchcraft trials.

In his doctoral dissertation, The Meaning of Elf and Elves in Medieval England, Alaric Timothy Peter Hall says that:

“The evidence of the Scottish witchcraft trials consolidates the medieval comparisons. It shows the existence of narratives like those recorded in medieval texts widely in society, and how they could be part of dynamic interactions with people’s constructions of reality. The trials also suggest continuity in English-speaking culture of beliefs concerning ælfe. Despite the prominence of female elves and fairies in Middle English literature and its high medieval comparanda, and although a Queen of Elphen or a similar otherworldly female is prominent in the trial-evidence, the trials show clearly that male elvis existed in Scottish belief… The Scottish witchcraft trials also attest to the use of stories of elvis and fareis in cunning-folks’ constructions and presentations of their powers and processes of healing. These provide a context for understanding aspects of the meanings of ylfig — for seeing alfe not only as sources of harm in Anglo-Saxon culture, but also as sources of power. ”

Traditions of folk healing have long been associated with developing relationships with the ‘other’ realm of elemental and independent spirits. In his book Song of the Cosmos: An Introduction to Traditional Cosmology, scholar Arthur Versluis details how the spirits called ‘elves’ and ‘elementals’ are traditionally seen as participating in a ‘horizontal’ cosmological relationship rather than a vertical one. What this means in practice is that when one wants something done in the material realm, it is easier and more efficient to work with these spirits than it is to work with ‘angelic’ or ‘celestial’ spirits whose function is to draw the practitioner upwards beyond earthly concerns.

Here we should remember the often repeated statement that Santa Muerte will give what other saints will not. As Versluis points out:

“…we may speak of the following genera of subhuman and extrahuman realms: first, there are the extra-human beings like the asuras (fallen angels)…then there are the subhuman stations like the elementals, who are the forces inherent in Creation itself, the subtle beings of fire, air, earth and water, metal and wood, the naids, dryads, and so forth of whom Agrippa spoke. And there are the peripheral stations like those of the ghosts and pretas, the goblins and hags, the beings who bear a direct relation to the human realm, being an ‘outgrowth’ of it, a kind of ‘horizontalising’ of human aspirations toward the divine, often the result of violence, of revenge, of anything which creates a single-minded intentionality.”

What we commonly know as ‘fairies’ or ‘elves’ present a complex group of spiritual beings that are said, in a Christianized magical context, to exist ‘between the gardens’ of Heaven and Hell or the material world and the transcendent. In some references the lines between ‘fairy’ and ‘spirit of the dead’ are hazy at best — and as related in Robert Kirk’s 17th century treatise, The Secret Common-Wealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, some traditional folklore held that certain of the spirits associated with fairies were in fact the spirits of those who died prior to and during the great flood mentioned in the Book of Genesis — including spirits of the mysterious nephilim, who were the fruit of the union between the ‘sons of god’ and the ‘daughters of men’.

It is interesting to see that Versluis highlights the marginality of these ‘extra-human’ species when describing their position in the natural order:

“…there is an indefinitude of other ‘stations’ which do not correspond exactly to the human median position, stations of being which are removed from the Axis in various degrees and which for the individual human-being represent sub-human or extra-human states: they lack the axiality, or the centrality which characterizes the human possibilities. Among these certainly we may count the ‘hungry ghosts’ or pretas of Buddhist tradition, the asuras of the Vedic and Buddhist tradition, the jinn of Islamic tradition and the faery of Celtic tradition, as well as the giants, dwarves, elves and other beings of various cultures, beings now supposed to be mythological.”

As queen of the boundaries and margins between life and death it only makes sense to find some hints of Santa Muerte’s relationship to ‘elves’ or duende carrying forward from her ties to traditional practices such as curanderismo and brujeria which still retain some working knowledge of ‘fairies’ as more than Victorian fantasy. Santa Muerte’s position as the keeper of the gates of death acts in like manner to the Lone Soul whose position within the fires of purgatory allows her to mediate between the practitioner and residual spirits bound to the material plane. If we continue to trace the textual hints we find that this median role goes deeper still.

Santa Muerte and the Witches Sabbath

Despite the temptation to seek ancient Meso-American roots for her tradition, as we look closely at the clues it becomes more and more evident that in addition to Aztec and Mayan sources, Santa Muerte has been able to centralize liminal practices from Europe, Africa and the Americas into a surprising and fluid system of practical faith. Unexpected continuities are abundant once we begin to analyze what we see of her today in light of European traditions associated with female initiatory spirits.

Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, provides us with a further explanation of the role of ‘elves’ as teachers of traditional magic in his article, The Wild Hunt and the Witches’ Sabbath, from the Journal of Folklore. In it he mentions that:

“It is also worth emphasizing that in many parts of early modern Europe, cunning folk (under their various different names) claimed to have gained their magical knowledge from local land spirits (again under many names and in different forms), who were sometimes mixed with dead humans.”

It is important to pay close attention to the fact that when approaching Santa Muerte we are greeted with an amalgamation of beliefs and practices that serve to clothe miraculous occurrences and influences within the lives of those who approach her for her favors as a powerful healer, love magician and protectoress.

Saint Death has become a popular figure in the narrative of the miraculous in many people’s lives, and this intimate role allows her great latitude when it comes to embodying the needs of the moment. Although Santa Muerte’s iconography is specific to her, the particular role she plays as a potent female spirit bears striking similarities to female spirits associated with the dead across many different cultures.

When looking at similarities across cultures and across traditions it is important to remember we are fleshing out potentials rather than making any bold claims of historical continuity. These cross comparisons provide insights into how certain confluences of experience, symbolism and intention interact at an imaginal level.

Professor Hutton’s article weaves further threads to help us understand the connecting lines between Frisvold’s explanation of the Anima Sola as “the Moon’s dead daughter that serves as a messenger between worlds,” the ‘Queen of Elphen’ found in witchcraft trials, and Santa Muerte’s role as an initiatory spirit in Meso-American folk practice. Speaking of European legends of ‘the Wild Hunt,’ Hutton explains that:

“The modern concept of the Hunt is primarily a conflation of two different kinds of nocturnal procession or cavalcade. One was composed mainly of female spirits and traveled about, often visiting human homes to bless them if the inhabitants were clean and hospitable. Living people frequently claimed to have joined it, sometimes explicitly in spirit form while their bodies remained in their beds. In many areas it was believed to be led by a supernatural female, whom clerical writers tended to call Diana or Herodias, but who was also known as Holda, Abundia, Satia, Percht, and by other local names. The other sort of procession was mostly or wholly made up of dead human beings, and was rarely regarded as attractive or benevolent.”

Those familiar with Charles Leland’s 19th century book Aradia: A Gospel of Witches, which purports to be based on traditional Italian folk practices, will recognize the figures of Diana and Herodias, as these names are central in the ‘witch cult’ that he outlines in his book. Yet such a tie merely brings us back to the fact that as a folklorist Leland played fast and loose with his influences, intermixing traditional Afro-American beliefs, European folk magic, New Thought/Mind Science, and various other strands to make up for what he felt was a degeneration of the source material he gained from traditional practitioners (For more on Leland, see: Alchemical Invocation of the Vox Populi — Charles Leland’s Aradia and the Creation of Witchcraft.)

This intermixing, however, follows the way in which traditional practical spirituality has always been passed on outside of orthodox controls. As we can see with the amalgamation of beliefs associated with Santa Muerte, diversity of this sort only serves the continuing growth of her appeal as a miracle worker and in no way challenges the efficacy of the practices associated with her.

It is also pertinent to look more closely at what Leland was doing with Aradia in order to discover additional intriguing connections. Outlining the book in an article for the Correspondences Journal titled, An Elusive Roebuck, Luciferianism and Paganism in Robert Cochrane’s Witchcraft, Ethan Doyle White mentions that Leland:

“…had been collecting folk tales and traditions in Tuscany for several years when his informant, Magdalena, allegedly brought him this text, the gospel of a secretive cult of witches, before promptly disappearing. Scholars have debated whether the text represents the genuine teachings of a religious group or a fictitious creation of either Magdalena or Leland; it seeems most likely that it contains some genuinely folkloric components but is nonetheless a late nineteenth-century creation.

Certainly, no other trace of this Tuscan witch religion has ever been found. The theology contained within Aradia mixes the figure of Lucifer, here described as ‘the god of the Sun and the Moon, the god of Light, who was so proud of his beauty, and who for his pride was driven from Paradise,’ the the Classical pagan deity of Diana, asserting that they had a child, the titular Aradia, who is sent to Earth to combat the Roman Catholic Church and aristocracy, teaching the peasants magic in order to do so.”

What a strange thing to find that Leland’s admittedly artificial arrangement of folklore would lead to a figure such as Aradia who provides those on the social margins with miraculous patronage, teaches the art of magic, combats the Roman Catholic Church and leads those struggling against the social elite. What White doesn’t mention is that Leland was active in the revolutionary movements within Europe and was an active propagandist for social equality during the Civil War in the United States — even as a folklorist he used his work to espouse the social ideals that he felt were important for the progress of society.

In a parallel light, it should be noted that the reason for the legal censure in Jamaica of De Laurence Company books associated with Obeah is that Obeah has long been tied to revolutionary activity and pan-African traditionalism throughout the history of the country, whether it was under colonial rule or socialist regimes. By carrying the potential for a radical reassessment of personal power and reconnecting the people with their traditional roots Obeah became seen by authorities as a seed of social unrest best left infertile.

Santa Muerte’s growing role as a centralizing figure among society’s dispossessed takes on a different light when seen in relation to the similarities she shares with these parallel traditions. Her role as a figurehead providing a neutral territory for the unification of a diverse array of socially marginal groups, including neutral ground between devotees among law enforcement and so-called ‘criminals’, certainly adds fuel to the fires of mistrust that has religious and government officials nervous when monitoring her growing faith base throughout the Americas.

She Remains in the Shadows

Folk Catholicism is quite capable of accounting for many aspects of her devotional tradition without turning to Aztec or Mayan history, so too apparent innovations such as the Invocation of Don Diego Duende find their roots within the realms of traditional practice that are not tied, as some might claim, to ‘new age’ inventions or commodification. With Leland’s Aradia or De Laurence’s Great Book, we see how the effective quality of these sources exists beyond their questionable providence, just as Santa Muerte’s efficacy exists even when her tradition is presented in the form of mass market books and her iconography is drawn from popular imagery.

In briefly tracing these correspondences it becomes clear that the mysteries surrounding Santa Muerte are not easily codified or contained within a simplistic schema of narco-cult, mass market commodity or folk saint, and despite her fast growing popularity she remains as hidden in the shadows of contemporary spirituality.

While we have focused on The Magical Powers of Holy Death as a source text, no assumption should be made that this represents the ‘true’ nature of Santa Muerte’s cult practices, merely a series of hints and allusions that give further evidence for something that remains outside the realm of conceptual speculation.

Following the subtle trail of Don Diego Duende into the realms of the Witch-Queen as far as we have, we still find ourselves far from understanding la Santisima’s most esoteric secrets, secrets she jealously reserves for her most beloved devotees.

For more on Santa Muerte and the sanctification of death in the Americas visit SKELETONSAINT.COM