PantheaCon: Conjurers, Root Women, Voudou Queens, and Hoodoo Mamas

On Friday night at PantheaCon, at 9 PM, I had the great pleasure of attending and being of service to an amazing ritual offered by the Iseum of Black Isis, under the direction of High Priestess Szmeralda Shanel. Together with Luna Pantera, Nadirah Adeye, and Miz Dailey, she orchestrated a ritual that turned about a hundred women into a cosmic choir singing to the original Mother from whom all life comes. It was a profoundly beautiful auditory journey of reverence.

Let me start by saying how grateful I am to know these incredible women. In service of transparency, I ordained Szmeralda and Nadirah, and have been in a coven with Luna, so you might think me biased, but you would be, too, if you knew them. I owe each of them a great deal of thanks for their ongoing wisdom in my life as sisters in the Goddess and friends. I had attended this rite two years ago that also featured Lady Heaven of CAYA Coven, and I loved it. So when I heard they were doing it again, I asked if I could be of service in any humble way. At PCon, when you are performing ritual for so many strangers, people who may or may not know the habits of ritual in various Traditions, there can be a lot of "heavy lifting" to keep the ritual moving, keep on top of the energy flow, tend to the needs of others, etc. It helps to have an extra set of hands. So I was asked to be a sort of crowd tender for the rite, monitoring people coming and going, holding the songs.

I showed up just before the ritual, and I was already dressed for the Pomba Gira Devotional, where I would be drumming later. In red and black, I entered the room to find the....the priestesses had also chosen red and black to wear! We all laughed at the psychic coincidence, then they resumed prepping for the ritual. There was a large altar at the center, arrayed with colorful scarves at the directions, big bowls, bottled of water, and various sacra, rattles, instruments, and one biiiig machete. Before the ritual began, we all poured libations to our Ancestors, and then opened the doors.

The ritual itself felt like a combination between a neo-pagan rite and a bembe. In the beginning, at each direction, a priestess would call in various ancestresses: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nine Simone, Katherine Dunham, and others were among those honored. After this, the singing began.

Mother of All,
Dark Mother
First Mother
The Mother of Us All.

Mother of All,
Black Mother
First Mother
The Mother of Us All.

O hear us, O Mother
Your daughters sing for you,
Mother of All.

-Szmeralda Shanel, copyright 2012

And the music did not stop! We went all the way through this ritual singing various original songs and chants for Goddessses of the African diaspora. These songs were written by Szmeralda Shanel, and it was a joy to hear how swiftly the women in the room learned each one, layering in harmonies and, under the skillful direction of the priestesses, separating into call-and-response and overlapping verses and rounds. One of the most beautiful and reverent practices in many African-American and African diaspora spiritual practices that I have experienced are the rich harmonies and polyrhythms that characterize the ritual music, and the music of this rite followed in that tradition. The songs were not only delivered with love, they were delivered with musical precision, as these priestesses are experienced singers. The Goddesses were called in one at a time and sung for, bembe-fashion, with the priestesses leading the dancing and joyful movement that accompanied the singing. Among those called were Isis/Au Set, Oshun, Oya, Yemaya, Hathor/Sekhmet, Kali, and Mami Wata.

Each woman was welcome to come up at the beginning of the rite to pour libations for her own Ancestors at one of the 4 directions. Each woman received a handmade crown of red ribbon with a shell attached to it. I then saw women sporting their crowns for the entirety of the Con. All of the women in attendance crowned one another, acknowledging one another's sovereignty.

Because of the depth of the singing and the power the priestesses could feel running from each Goddess, I was directed to keep an eye out in case anyone caught the spirit and needed to be grounded. These priestesses are pros- at the very beginning they made a firm and loving statement that there would be no possessions in this rite, which I think helped set an appropriate tone so that people could enjoy going up to the edge of that feeling without actually having to deal with a full-on possession. There were a few moments when some of the women were very , very close, but I'd like to point out that many women in attendance were also experienced witches and priestesses, and they knew to keep themselves grounded. I hardly had to do any work, so that left me free to dance and bounce around the room, which was great fun.

The ritual culminated with a beautiful song that Szmeralda first taught me about 5 years ago, and which is one of my favorites at my own altar:

I am the Earth, Air, Fire and Water
The Priestess, the Queen, the Mother and Daughter

-Szmeralda Shanel, copyright 2012

This song, with its attending harmonies, rose in fervor to a towering height that capped the ritual and offered a pure burst of energy to the room. At the end of the ritual the priestesses were crowded with women who wanted to talk to them, asking about the songs, and congratulating them on their great work. The songs, by the way, are available on CD if you e-mail Szmeralda (at) yahoo (dot) com. It is also worth mentioning here that Szmeralda also has a wonderful correspondence course she offers through the Iseum.

Iseum of Black Isis, I salute you for a fantastic ritual!

I'd like to also add here that forever now when I think of these Goddesses, I will see in my mind your beautiful faces and graceful forms as you danced joyfully around the room, stirring the eternal dark depths of the universal cauldron with your divine magic. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for a wonderful working.