A rose by any other name

Babalon & Pomba Gira

In my own journey to Babalon I came across Pomba Gira (or she came across me), a vivacious gypsy slashed with lipstick, trailing cigarette smoke and promises of witchcraft. My heart skipped a beat, as it should, as it must. Who was this beguiling beauty in red, the devil’s mistress who like all lovers seemed so immediately familiar and yet so impossibly other?

The thought occurred to me that perhaps there was a living cult of Babalon secreted away in Brazil. That Europe had not lost the love goddess, she had simply turned on her heels and left for the New World. If Pasadena, then why not Sao Paulo? If the jungle could engorge cities and civilisations and opera houses, then why not Babalon under an assumed name, wearing a feathered mask, darting glances from behind a fan? Brazil, offered that mixing bowl of blood to me, the abandon of Carneval, the collision of Catholicism with Congo and a wild strain of still recognisable European witchcraft.

Both Babalon and Pomba Gira are concerned with human sexuality, both are clothed in diabolic imagery, both exhibit strong female red energy, both came demanding roses and respect. Perhaps this was not a fork in the road for me, but a crossroads. Could Pomba Gira answer some of the questions I had as I sought for the Beloved?

Pomba Gira by Enoque Zedro, for Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold's  Pomba Gira and the Quimbanda of Mbùmba Nzila

Pomba Gira by Enoque Zedro, for Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold's Pomba Gira and the Quimbanda of Mbùmba Nzila

I dutifully tracked down the Antonio Alves Texeira book, still one of the few available on Pomba Gira in English (though that is something which Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold has now rectified). I performed workings, and sought connection to the spirit. The similarities between the two were welcome to me, as I was working with a goddess in a culture hostile to her force and form, and with a barely articulated cult. This can be a lonely and difficult experience. The combination of isolation and longing seems to be the honest motivation behind many Western students’ careless confusion of spirits.

With Babalon, the sense of loss can seem insurmountable. This is always true on the path of the lover. Without the support of a functioning cult or a body of work, many look to what is superficially similar, and can be careless in understanding the inner truth. There is little reliable information out there, and few devotees who dare to truly work with Her or understand the level of commitment that is required. As devotees we are often very much on our own, but this too is a strength, if we can embrace the challenge it represents rather than clinging to the safety of cult speak or making sloppy approximations. Both are errors which I recognise that I have made.

In the West we have been prone to treating goddesses as psychological constructs, and smudging the lines of kohl or chalk to suit our own designs. This too is a genuine attempt by a secular and disconnected culture to find a way back to magick. The revival of the grimoire tradition shows that an awareness is returning to magicians that the spirits are real and through trafficking with them, the world can be re-enchanted. It is inevitable given this history that our approach to the spirits of Quimbanda will often be coloured by what we must honestly acknowledge as our inexperience. We are still finding our way.

Naturally I sought out practitioners who were working with Pomba Gira, and the universe placed them in my path. All were fraudulent, and this in itself is an appropriate warning to give. We should not be so eager to dance that we allow ourselves to be indiscriminately swept up in another’s scheme, simply because it is clothed in a pretty red dress. My intention was to witness a living cult working with the demonised aspects of sexuality, something utterly absent in the West. That seemed a better approach than making cult to the Magdalene, who was the patroness of a nearby church. Seeking to pull a concealed fragment of the Beloved free from the collapsing wreckage of Christianity would for me be futile. I am not a recovering Christian, apart from in the sense that we all are. Besides, the decay had set in, the heresy was no longer vital.

In my research it had rapidly become clear that the Western understanding of Babalon was dominated by the skewed perspective of Crowley to the detriment of Kelley and Dee and the Johns (both Parsons and of Patmos); perhaps Quimbanda had better answers. Though wary of spiritual tourism, I even considered making the trip to Brazil to seek out a Terreiro and initiation. The workings I had found in Texeira had a direct honesty and a simplicity which profoundly touched me. So I did what I could, as honestly as I could.

In the West we have lost much of our folk magic, and Quimbanda can help us regain a context in which we can rediscover an authentic spellcraft of our own. I did not find this in Wicca, which seemed too reliant on the least sympathetic elements of Solomonic magic, and Nuit cut and pasted from The Book of the Law as a generic ‘Goddess.’ This seemed particularly ironic given that Crowley’s Nuit does not display any of the Egyptian cult characteristics but is rather Babalon in blue eye shadow. Despite the oblique references to Isis in Liber AL, with her hieroglyphic name ‘heart and tongue’ (1:32) , and spelt out by the capitals ‘Infinite Space, Infinite Stars’ (1:22), in truth we find a rather more carnally coloured manifestation. The stellar weft of Crowley’s Nuit is clearly shot through with Babalon’s DNA. In Liber AL 1:61 we read:

I who am all pleasure, and purple and drunkenness of the innermost senses, desire you, put on the wings, arouse the coiled splendor within you, Come unto me!

What I find intriguing is that the purple and drunkenness are clearly drawn from the descriptions in Revelation 17 of the Great Whore, as are the exhortations to wear jewels and exceed the nations of the earth. A detailed exegesis reveals yet more traces of Revelation in the text, but neither my work, nor that of Babalon relies on the affirmation of Crowley. The line quoted here also made part of the original Charge of the Goddess. Thus even Wicca can be seen to be drawing on and celebrating the energy of Babalon, however obliquely. This in part explains the shock of recognition that those from a witchcraft tradition undergo when they read The Red Goddess, but I digress.

The suggestions in Texeira, along with Maya Deren and my wider reading beyond the Western tradition, helped me towards formulating my own spellcraft rather than simply the strictures of ritual magic that formed my core practice at that point. This has served me well and has been subsequently built upon with what I have learned through personal revelation and work. Throughout this I never mistook one lady for the other. Those who have read my polemic ‘All goddesses are not one goddess’ will understand my position on this matter. Even without cult contact or initiation, Pomba Gira aided me in my own path to Babalon and I am sure will do so for others.

It seems very fitting that Pomba Gira returned swirling her skirts as we prepared The Red Goddess for publication in her third limitless incarnation. Delays conspired to bring the books on Babalon and Pomba Gira forth cusping on each other, and this is no mistake. Both texts can be considered as complimentary, though wildly divergent, and it is in this way that we must consider the relationship of Babalon and Pomba Gira. They are distinct, but not set in antagonism.

Quimbanda has a wealth of experience that we can draw from as devotees of Babalon. I might mention the crises that the devotee faces in the pitfalls of obsession and passion which so often engulf the would-be lover of Babalon. These dangers are clearly spelt out in Brazil. The male devotee in Quimbanda is counselled humility, something often sorely lacking in men when they approach Babalon, especially if they style themselves after Crowley and seek to dominate and constrain her flowering.

The female devotee must also look into her heart if she is to avoid what in witchcraft is colloquially referred to as ‘high priestess disease.’ With Babalon this can lead to trying to fuck everybody into enlightenment, simply burning out by running constant current through an unprepared body, or vaingloriously deciding you are the one and only avatar of the divine. If your life is becoming a succession of sexual train wrecks, you will need to reassess, as I have.

Though we have possession and mediumship in the West they have been made taboo, first by scripture and then by science. In the fascinating Place of Enchantment by Alex Owen the schism between spiritualism and magic is discussed and this makes valuable reading. Spiritualism has not been developed and has fallen out of vogue since the table tapping and planchette mania. The parasitic television mediums are the last unpleasant vestige of this social role, perma-tanned necromancers whose connection is made through the ghosting away of credit card details from the grieving bereaved. Our current generation of pagans, witches and magicians will have to re-conquest the oracular connection which was severed by John on Patmos, and buried with scorn in the catacombs of Ephesus. Our role now is to experience possession and give voice to both the divine and the dead. This is sacred work. We can certainly avoid some of the obvious mistakes in this process by learning from Quimbanda and Quimbandeiros.

The question is for us, how do we approach this cult with respect? Frisvold in his first book on the subject, Kiumbanda (Chadezoad 2006) , which is superseded by his latest book, Pomba Gira and the Quimbanda of Mbùmba Nzila (Scarlet Imprint 2011), was direct in his criticisms of clumsy syncretism, stating:

It is not enough simply to be fascinated with these cults, while lacking real knowledge of the language, culture, history and the land, which gave birth to the spirits of Kimbanda and Kiumbanda. Fascination can be a mark that you are being called by spirit, though a desire for plaster statues, tridents and trappings can be to mistake an aesthetic appeal for a genuine connection. You would be wise to keep your work more private than seeking approval for it on the shifting digital shores of fashion, or the back eddies of subculture. We already see many crass attempts to co-opt these spirits which do a great disservice to them and their lineage.

The need for spatial context is essential, as we have written ourselves on witchcraft, the connection to the land and the spirit of place is needed to ground and manifest magic, otherwise we are engaged in spurious imagineering, which cannot have lasting results. One of the most important projects of modern pagan witchcraft is to engage with ecology, as we are the guardians of the landscape, plants and fauna which house the spirits we seek congress with. Some elements and specific spirits in Quimbanda do have a connection back to European witchcraft, and for this reason can readily accept us. However, we must not ignore that they have been much changed by their time in Congo and Brazil. In our pursuit of these spirits we must not neglect either the ground that we stand on, or that they are now rooted in.

Vital too is the issue of culture and language. Quimbanda, as an operative magical system, is rooted in the community. To give an example from my own personal journey into magic, I read all of the classic texts on Vodou, looking for technology that we had lost in the West, but came to the conclusion that the tradition could not be field stripped. As I did not live in a community, whether Bristol or Brixton, it made no sense to appropriate their culture and invest what was essentially a pragmatic tradition with an artificial exoticism to spice up my own attempts at spiritual re-orientation.

Far worse would be to pay up for a round trip to a Haitian initiation supermarket as many Westerners choose to. This is not what Maya Deren underwent. Neither is this to deny that Westerners cannot achieve meaningful initiation into the diaspora cults, individuals such as Nicholaj Frisvold or Stephen Grasso are a testament to this. We also now have botanicas springing up that genuinely serve their communities. Though the diaspora religions are syncretic and adaptable, that should not be confused with the idea that they are lacking cultural context.

In particular with Quimbanda, we encounter the importance of ancestry, which is so neglected in the West. Without this firmly understood, any notion of working with Pomba Gira or Exu is meaningless. Again, I would unhesitatingly recommend Frisvold’s Palo Mayombe: The Garden of Blood and Bones (Scarlet Imprint 2011) for an understanding of the African and Congolese traditions of ancestry and the Misa Espiritual as a practice to carefully note. Babalon has a markedly different relationship to ancestry, as her concern is with the distillation of the blood of the Saints, rather than their bones.

Frisvold contextualises these ideas for those of us who are of European extraction by examining the similarities the African ideas bear to the Greek tradition. The work of Jake Stratton-Kent, most notably Geosophia, also looks at reforging this ancestral connection in the West through rehabilitating the maligned art of necromancy and tracing the line from Goes through the Graeco-Egyptian Magical Papyri and into the grimoire tradition. The modern magical revival needs to deeply consider this.

These ideas have atrophied in our media culture, which adorns itself with skulls and memento mori whilst denying our elders death with dignity and meaning. The current magical revival, which has brought to light (and print) so much of our own hidden heritage, can repay the debt and reforge the connection to our ancestors by honouring the dead, and the dying. We can learn here from the examples of Africa, Greece and the diaspora. Buying unknown bones on the internet rather than respectfully visiting and caring for our local graveyard or relatives, exemplifies the current state of spiritual confusion we exist in.

In Kiumbanda, Frisvold explicitly criticised Thelemic attempts, however well-meaning, to turn Babalon into Pomba Gira and Exu into the Great Beast. His rebuttal is concise, and I am in complete agreement:

Exu and Pomba Gira were born on Brazilian soil amongst practitioners of the Art from Europe and Africa; to mix Thelemic gnosis, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the legions of Exu is downright absurd. This view from within the cult must be respected. We cannot expect our magical tradition in the West to be given credence if we make such hasty aproximations. Magic requires more precision than this. The Thelemic understanding of Babalon can be painfully limited. I know that this will be a bruising statement for some, but I am also sure that the confusion of Babalon and Pomba Gira comes from the honest reasons listed earlier. We are trying to make sense of our fractured identity, but simply creating a collage based on superficial understanding will not lead us forward.

We have also been starved of good information about Pomba Gira, and to that end I want to now outline the differences between Pomba Gira and Babalon through point and counterpoint, as I understand them:

  • Pomba Gira is perhaps most properly described as a legion of the dead, she is a collective name for a class of spirits who form distinct lines under particular Queens.
  • Babalon is a distinct Goddess in and of herself. She is annihilation. Though she can manifest in different forms (for example Astaroth, in our goetic work) and there are certainly sympathetic spirits, such as Madimi who grace us with their presence, there is no equivalence to the lines we find in Quimbanda.
  • Pomba Gira was human once, as evinced by Maria Padilha and Maria Mulambo whose stories are retold in the cult.
  • Babalon is not a particular woman or women, though she has clearly come through goddesses such as Inanna/Ishtar/Astarte, which I explore in The Red Goddess. More properly, she is a force whose form is manifesting in all women, and all men.
  • Pomba Gira exists in relation to a King, she is a Queen without a crown who seeks to enslave Exu with her seductive powers. This is a mirror to the inequality of social gender relations with a proposed solution in a particularly Hispanic chivalry.
  • Babalon is crowned, and does not need a man to crown her. The relationship with Beast, Dragon and Antichrist is very different to that of Pomba Gira and Exu.
  • Pomba Gira has a social function, as solace for the broken hearted. She operates within an existing cultural framework where she seeks to ameliorate the suffering of her devotees. She is the woman of the streets and the scorned mistress.
  • Babalon destroys the social fabric with that most dangerous of all things, Love. She brings with her the full force of revolution and revelation. Babalon is present in the whore and the Empress, we would do well to see her in all female beings.
  • Pomba Giras are spirits concerned with human love and relationships.
  • Babalon is a goddess of Love and War, the bedchamber and the battlefield.
  • Pomba Gira is approached in a cult of possession which draws not simply on European spiritism as Kardec proposed, but on an African mediumship tradition.
  • This can at times be both prophetic and eschatological but is not always so.
  • Babalon requires to be embodied. Her lineage here clearly comes from the prophetic rites at Ephesus where the priestess was Mystery. This is a Western tradition of possession work. There is no seal on the prophetess. Her pronouncements are revelatory and necessarily eschatological and apocalyptic. Her cult will come through the bodies of her devotees.
  • Pomba Gira accepts (amongst other offerings) thornless red roses.
  • Babalon desires everything and would appreciate the thorns left on her roses, and a drop or two of your blood, if you please.
  • Pomba Gira is orientated to the North.
  • Babalon comes from the East, but is heading West.
  • Pomba Gira favours convolvulus, ipomea and the solanum as visionary plants.
  • Babalon mixes wine with hashish, henbane, mandrake, poppy, rue, datura, takes mdma, dmt, lsd, ayahuasca et al. She is Alkahest, the universal solvent. Her vision is a truly psychedelic one.

Working with both Pomba Gira and Babalon is possible, but these differences should be clearly kept in mind. There are many parallels and my hope is that this small essay has helped to draw them more clearly for devotees and aspirants on both sides and enable them to understand each other better.

My wish is that by providing experience of my own work with Babalon in The Red Goddess and by publishing the work of Dr Frisvold in Pomba Gira and the Quimbanda of Mbumba Nzila that these cults will both continue to flourish and bear roses whose beauty and scent will provoke our divine intoxication.