(The author of this blog, probably age 11, divining for a client at an outdoor flea-market in South Africa in the late 90s. Clock the middle parting and regrettable dream-catcher necklace – a gift from a friend, honest!)
Readers of this blog who have listened to some of the interviews I have done will know that in addition to my work as a cultural anthropologist I have spent over two decades working as a diviner for clients as well.
I began reading Tarot cards for querents (an old-fashioned word for divination clients) in South Africa when I was about ten years old. My family was not really spiritually inclined at all, and I was raised without religion at home. From very early on, however, I was drawn to religion, and to occult and esoteric matters. From a young age I had a number of dreams, intimations and experiences which fuelled this interest. Although my parents did not have the personal expertise to explain these or to guide me directly, they were thankfully open-minded and accommodating enough to encourage me to do my own research and exploration. My maternal grandmother, who had a passing interest in things like astrology and other forms of divination Continue reading →
I realized that I forgot to post a link to the interview I did with Gordon White for his Rune Soup podcast a few months ago here on the blog. Gordon and I had some trouble finding a strong enough internet connection when I was in South Africa to do the interview and I eventually ended up having to sneak into an empty lecture theatre late at night at the University of Cape Town with the help of an old friend and plug my laptop into a stray Ethernet cable to get good enough wifi to proceed (my thanks to said friend for the help and for getting a bemused pizza guy to show up at one point halfway through the interview).
I was wafting around a second-hand clothing store when I was in Cape Town, South Africa in December last year when I came across a curious little volume hidden behind some piles of clothing and gaudy costume jewelry. The book’s single word title ‘Inyanga’ caught my eye. Inyanga is a technical term in isiZulu and isiXhosa for a particular kind of traditional healer or curer (more on the technical specifications or lack thereof of this designation later). Written by white South African writer and journalist Lilian Simon, Inyanga was published in 1993, one year before the abolition of Apartheid, and constitutes a kind-of memoir for prominent black South African traditional healer Sarah Mashele. From roughly the 1950s until the present (I have not been able to determine yet if she is still alive) Sarah Mashele worked full-time as a healer in and around Pretoria and Johannesburg – and in the formally blacks-only segregated urban neighbourhood of Soweto in particular – providing services to patients across the race, class and cultural spectrum. I just finished reading the book, and so I thought I would offer a review of it as well as some reflections on its contents and Simon and Mashele’s collaboration for interested readers. Continue reading →
A month or two ago I did an interview with Matthew O’Connell for his ‘Imperfect Buddha’ podcast, where I talked about doing research on Western esotericism as an anthropologist and scholar-practitioner, and about some of the more ‘fringe’ dimensions of global Tibetan Buddhism today. I ended up talking a lot about myself and not that much about the specific details of my research, and Matthew barely got a word in edgeways, but it is what it is. Many of the posts and articles on this blog get a mention. I no doubt said a lot of things that would benefit from further qualification and which I would probably take issue with if I heard myself saying them now. The thought of listening to my voice drone on for that long curdles my juices and fills me with acute horror though, so I’m can’t be sure – you’ll just have to listen to the interview yourselves and tell me how it makes you feel instead.
Shout out to Matt for arranging things, and thinking I was interesting enough to have on the show. Let me know what you think!
A friend of mine recently alerted me to the existence of a new TV show that is a spin-off from CBS’ popular crime-procedural series Criminal Minds. Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, which kicked off in March this year, presents us with the amazingly un-ironic spectacle of a Criminal Minds-style team of American profilers and crime experts gone global. This diverse (yet still deeply patriot) team is headed by series veteran Gary Sinise/Jack Garrett, and even has its own fucking jet, by means of which it flies, Team America-style around the world to save US citizens who’ve been so stupid as to actually travel outside of their own country. Continue reading →
When I was a kid growing up in pre- and post-Apartheid South Africa it wasn’t easy to study occultism.
To be sure, South Africa is a country filled with professional and semi-professional sorcerers, but it is also a nation whose white supremacist government for a long time directly funded a special ‘Occult-Related Crimes Unit’ attached to the national police force. This unit, which was founded in 1992 and which was supposedly officially disbanded/absorbed in 2006 (but which is in fact still operating in various capacities) was guided for the most part by the expertise and priorities of white, Afrikaner Christian investigators. Working under the auspices of the state, pastors with police training, criminology degrees and a measure of knowledge about local black South African ‘customs and traditions’ investigated South Africa’s dark and criminal occult underbelly. While the existence of witch-lynching and so-called ‘muthi killings’ – ritual murders conducted to ostensibly secure human parts for sale in criminal magical economies and use in rituals – served as the primary justification for state-spending on the Unit, the majority of the Unit’s time appears to have been spent on locating and routing out ‘cells’ of adult and teenage Satanists, and assisting especially young South Africans who had been afflicted by demons and other Satanic forces. Continue reading →
Recently, for laughs, a friend of mine shared this picture on Facebook:
It is a somewhat unique example of a certain type of advertisement that one commonly sees plastered on various public surfaces, handed out as flyers, or posted in classifieds sections all over South Africa. These notices, which advertise the services of various kinds of spiritual doctors, healers and ritual specialists – have become their own genre, and their curious English phrasings, frequent references to exotic materials and methods, and claims to provide such services as penile enlargement, vaginal tightening or the magical return of straying lovers are a regular source of amusement for non-customers and skeptics. Continue reading →
Since I’m just now launching this blog, I thought I would re-post links to my earlier Savage Minds blog essays for readers, with some additional comments.
This is the first piece I put out on the Savage Minds blog, and deals with the controversial Western Buddhist organization, the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). This was a modest piece on my part. Continue reading →
I started asking myself the other morning if I could remember when I really felt like I was going to become an academic. I was a precocious child – I was passionate from a young age about reading and learning, about conducting my own research into specialized subjects that interested me. But I found myself thinking just now about when exactly the point of no return might have been.
I am the son of a (now semi-retired) professional academic. When I was growing up, I would often visit my Dad’s office in the English Department at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa. My Dad worked for many decades as a professor there, and the university looms large in the city and my snap-shot memories of it. It is a tall, tan building that looks down somewhat imperiously onto the city from atop a small hill. Pushing up from the folds of land surrounding it, it exudes a quiet constancy. Yet despite its classic monastic-fortress on the hill feel, any firmness it might manage is ultimately lost to Durban’s humid haze, and the city’s trademark red sand has coated the building’s stonework altogether too thoroughly for it to maintain any illusion of celestial stateliness – ruddy-cheeked and dusty, the university’s brand of monasticism is less regal abbot, and more older, disheveled but dignified bachelor – tall, skinny and off to one side, a friend of the hosts at the mixer, pulling nervously at his collar. Continue reading →
When I was about 12 years old my Dad got worms. He got a lot of them, and it ended up being quite awkward. He didn’t get them in his guts, though, but in a washing machine.
I had forgotten all about this episode in my Dad’s and mine own life until just now, when I was talking to a friend of mine on Facebook, Austin Coppock, about animism and the difference between Continue reading →