Serving the Spirits:

Food Mandalas & Radical Faeries

by John Dabel

The spiritual dimensions of food have been clear to me since my childhood in Italy. Even today, Catholic Saints' days are honored with traditional foods of all kinds. Food preparation and service is as much a meditation on Spirit as any other of my more 'orthodox' spiritual practices. Cooking is a daily act of transubstantiation, putting me in direct contact with the world of Spirit, if only I have the focus of mind to perceive it. Since living at the Nomenus Radical Faerie Sanctuary, I've been fortunate to explore, far more deeply, the relationship between food and spirituality.


Much of my spiritual development is the direct result of learning how to cook. Some of my earliest memories include picking nettles with my father's sister, a local folk-healer in the south of England. Her teachings about the nettles rambled from the spiritual to the practice, how the nettle 'got its power,' how to use nettles in bread making. My aunt exposed me to the myriad ways plants have been used and she laid the groundwork for my later interest in hoodoo.


"Hoodoo," an American term originating in the 19th century for African-American folk magic, consists of a large body of African folk-magic, Native American botanical knowledge and European folklore. Although most of its adherents are black, contrary to popular opinion, it has always been practiced by both blacks and non-blacks in America. Hoodoo, in turn, drew me to Vodou. Vodou (and the related terms Vodun, Vaudoux and Voodoo, etc.) are names for a complex of religious practices rooted in the Caribbean country of Haiti. Vodou has spread from Haiti over the past four hundred years establing itself in the U.S. Vodou and hoodoo exists along side a much larger religious experience that includes Santaría, Macumba and numerous other manifestations of Afro-diasporic spirituality.


Oddly enough, Vodou provided me the framework to better understand the Radical Faerie Movement. UCLA Professor of African and Diaspora Literature and Folklore, Donald Cosentino, has noted certain stylistic parallels between the ceremonies of Vodou and the Voguing Balls of Diaspora gay youth in Manhattan. Could there be a thread of contiguous experience flowing through each, with certain parallels existing between the social, political and religious dynamics that fostered each? Can these parallels be seen in the Radical Faerie Movement too and can these parallels be used to gauge the future development the Faeries? One parallel, for example, can already be seen between Vodou and the Radical Faerie in the development of spiritual practices evolving beyond their original introduction via another spiritual tradition.


The Radical Faerie Movement, with its mèlange of spiritual practices, grassroots politics and counter-culture values, is a couple of decades old at this point. The antecedents of the movement, however, date much further back... How far back is often the subject of much debate. It is not as 'either-or' an answer as gay essentialists or social-constructionists would like to believe. It is probably closer to a blend of many factors. However, I think a more salient question to explore is how the Radical Faerie Movement is developing today and what will the impact be, generations from now, for Western Queer culture and spirituality? Parallels to other cultures may hold some answers.


A community's relationship to food, cooking and eating is one place to find answers. A daily necessity and marker of a community's rhythms, the production, preparation and consumption of food holds many valuable insights into the vibrancy of a community and the ways it is developing. A valuable question to ask is, How does an oppressed group, coming from a wide array of cultural and spiritual perspectives, meet on common grounds to address the spiritual needs of daily life and its cycles?


Both Vodou and Radical Faerie spirituality have evolved because the question has been answered, in part, by the organic inclusiveness of disparate beliefs and practices rather than the dogmatic imposition of one belief or practice to the exclusion of another.


Vodou owes an incredible amount to the ancestors of present day Benin and Togo, forcibly relocated by the French, as part of the horrors of the Slave Trade. Vodou was and is today, however, created by individuals drawn from many different cultures, not all West African. Vodou incorporates influences as diverse indigenous Caribbean religious cosmology and practice, Roman Catholic and Masonic symbolism, text and iconography, the Italian 'commedia dell'Arte' of the 1600's and contemporary Western pop culture. It has never been codified in writing or possessed a national institutional structure--a unified priesthood, a mother church, a seminary, a hymnal, or a hierarchy. While Vodou is considered by the Haitians themselves (predominantly rural Haitians) to be the national religion, the practice of Vodou is highly variable from one area to the next. Variations in practice exist even in the same Haitian town. Vodou continues to evolve today, as it has for the past three hundred years. In this environment of spiritual mèlange, Vodou has drawn many into its practice.


A manifestation of the mèlange can be seen in the spiritual art of Vodou. Vodou's material culture is highly ornamented, with ritual flags, drums, libation bottles and wall murals being some of the best examples. Another is the veve, ritual drawings that are used to invoke the spirits. When traced on the ground, in corn flour, brick dust, powdered bark, ashes and even coffee grounds, the geometrical motifs, objects or animals can, at times, cover fairly large areas of a ritual area. While there are certainly West African influences, the veves also influenced by contact with indigenous populations in the Caribbean. Navaho sand-paintings bear some relationship to vévés, and I would venture to guess that both practices can be traced to common roots. Other influences can be seen in Napoleonic military and Masonic hermetic symbolism. Through the drawing of the veve, Maya Deren points out, "...communication between worlds is established and the traffic of energies and forces between them is set up. It is at this point of intersection that the food for the lwa (spirits) is placed; and here also that they emerge to act upon the material world."


Over several years now, I have incorporated the idea of the vévé into numerous Radical Faerie rituals. Originally the drawings served as my contribution to the greater mèlange of contributions that make up Radical Faerie ritual, where the dynamic whole is greater than the sum of its hodge-podge parts. Slowly the inherent spectacle of my work drew the interest of others, with a few people joining me in my drawings. If people asked me about the drawings I would answer with vague references to the many cultures around the world who 'draw on the ground,' hoping people would explore the possibilities of the 'practice' rather than trying to emulate a particular culture's 'style.'


In the summer of 1998, I invited participants of a gathering on the West Coast to join me in the making of a large ground drawing. We used about a half dozen ground food products to make the designs, such as flour, coffee, ground paprika, clove and turmeric, with the colors of the food products a reflection of the many cultures that draw on the ground. The 'food mandala,' as the ritual was to be named, was part of a larger community feast that was scheduled for that evening. My intent was to gather everybody around the finished drawing before the meal and walk everyone, hand-in-hand, through the drawing, invoking the power of the feast through the intentional destruction of the work. The 'mandala project' was a great success, much talked about at the gathering.


But, what is of interest to me today is not the project itself or even my role in the works, per se. It is the power of inspiration and further exploration by others that I find engaging. When I brought the 'food mandala' to another gathering on the East Coast, the project morphed into something new. Faeries, feeling 'limited' by the use of ground flour, coffee and spices, began incorporating Easter candy, basil leaves and Chinese joss sticks into the work. A spontaneous Vision Circle formed around the 'mandala,' with Faeries moving back and forth between the circle and the ongoing drawing. The final 'destruction' of the mandala became the metaphor for invoking the various visions of the Circle. In my pursuit of the relationship between ritual and food, I found I had inadvertently inspired a way for Radical Faeries to relate not only to the earth and food, but also to each other, our senses and our bodies, our hopes and dreams.


The 'food mandalas' have started to take on a different tone now, incorporating elements, such as camp, kitsch and the Heart Circle, one associated more with Radical Faerie spirituality. I think this evolution of spontaneous spiritual expressions is just one of many elements Radical Faerie spirituality shares with Vodou and may allow us to find a framework to gauge the evolution of a new spiritual tradition. How ground drawings evolve and become something which we can point to as an expression of Radical Faerie spiritual practice is left to be seen. At a recent gathering I found ritual ground drawings in both cornmeal and chalk made by Faeries who, on their own, had decided to incorporate them in their personal rituals.


Will Radical Faeries develop a recognizable iconographic symbolism a hundred years from now? Will our symbolic language be used to invoke the spirit of Harry Hay, who, perhaps two hundred years from now, may well take on the power of a deity, in the same way that people become saints and saints become gods over time? Will the practice of holding hands before a group meal (with moments of silent contemplation, a go-round of names and the ubiquitous "Tonight's meal is..."), familiar to the Radical Faeries, evolve to include ritual drawings before important communal feasts? How will the element of music and song be incorporated? In a spiritual community, like Vodou or the Radical Faeries, that seeks to include rather than exclude the possibilities for something new is only limited by the collective imagination of the group.



Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, ed. Donald J. Cosentino, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995.

Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, McPherson & Company, 1953.