Blue Men and the Pink Line

He loves his social media. His public persona is way over the top, and he is addicted to himself. All news about him has to be good news, which is why he says that journalists are the enemy. He uses the government to line his pockets and the pockets of his family. His daughter is a fashion designer. He is a macho fuck who has no respect for women’s rights. He adores Vladimir Putin.

He is Ramzan Kadyrov, ruler-for-life of Chechnya, an autonomous region in Russia. Like his bearish idol Vladimir Putin, the cubbish Kadyrov loves himself so much, he probably masturbates while gazing at his own image – or maybe he jerks off to a glossy of his favorite Russian strongman shirtless on a horse. Like Vladimir, Ramzan is into the martial arts. Vladimir expresses affection for his boy Ramzan, calling the younger man his son.

There are differences between Vlad and Lad. Putin is Christian, Kadyrov is Muslim. Kadyrov softens his tough-as-nails image by posing on Instagram with cuddly animals, including a kitten, his own beloved cat that ran away (go figure), and a lamb.

Like Putin, Kadyrov has ordered the assassination of his enemies. He formed his own army, the Kadyrovsky (Followers of Kadyrov) to intimidate, beat, and kill anyone who gets in his way. He allows the abduction and forced marriage of girls to older men. Lately, his favorite target is Gay men. Perhaps Kadyrov’s obsession with herding Gay men into concentration camps is to mask his other obsession: a fangirl infatuation with Steven Seagal and muscular American sports figures and as well as with the burly Putin.

When Kadyrov began rounding men-loving men up, placing them in secret detention centers for torture, then using them to squeeze money from their relatives, Russian journalists Elena Milashina and her colleague Irina Gordienko called him out.

Kadyrov lost his shit when this happened. Everyone in Chechnya knows he is a sociopath, but they are supposed to keep it to themselves. Milashina fled Russia because the Kadyrovsky thugs are by no means limited to Chechnya – they will hunt her down anywhere within the Russian border. Milashina could not appeal to the Russian government for help. Putin approved of his boy’s round-up of “blue” men (in Russian, “blue” or “goluboi” means “Gay”), which happened right after an LGBT group requested permission to hold Pride events in various Russian regions.

But here is the most interesting thing: Milashina is not as afraid of Kadyrov as Kadyrov is afraid of her. The exposé on Kadyrov by Milashina and Gordienko in the Russian journal Novaya Gazeta scared him sufficiently to threaten the women with violence for speaking out.

Milashina isn’t having his bullshit. Instead of shutting up, she has succeeded in making the current wave of terrorism against blue men in Chechnya international news, which then inspired the free press to bring up other atrocities committed by Papa Bear Putin and his Chechen cub.

Milashina and Gordienko are part of women’s worldwide resistance to immature boys in men’s clothing. We see it in the Middle East as Arab women take up arms against ISIL, and those women are doubly effective because the brave men of ISIL fear that they cannot enter Paradise if they are killed by a woman. In America, women came together, spoke out against Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly at FOX News, and got them canned. In the world of art, women’s bravery was eloquently represented by the image of a girl standing up to the brass-balled Wall Street Bull in Manhattan. We even saw Girl Power in Columbus, Ohio when young Zea Bowling stood with her rainbow flag in front of a hate-mongering preacher during ComFest 2015.

Among all the pink pussy hats dotting the Women’s March last January were plenty of signs showing support for the LGBT community.

Milashina, Grodienko, Bowling, and many more of their ilk have drawn a pink line in the sand: Harm LGBT people, and you will be outed as the criminal you are. This makes sense, since violently homophobic men usually encompass a multitude of sins – they are also abusers of women, racists, religious bigots, and ethnocentric oafs. Kadyrov has been guilty of a multitude of sins for a very long time, and has committed them with casual impunity. But it only took two women accusing him of terrorizing men who love men to put him into full panic mode.

Kitten/lamb pics on Instagram won’t help him now.

White Power

In current American politics, White Power is the New Black.

Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King, wrote a letter in 1986 to Congress about KKK poster boy Jeff Sessions, who up until recently was a senator from Alabama. In her letter, King described Sessions as a racist who should never be let anywhere near a federal bench. Segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina kept the letter from reaching the public, effectively silencing King. Nevertheless, Sessions lost his bid.

That was in 1986, when racism was downtrending. In 2017, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to read aloud King’s recently discovered letter during Sessions’ confirmation hearing for US Attorney General, but was silenced by another senator, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who invoked an arcane rule to make her shut up and sit her ass down. The successful elevation of Sessions into the office of the Attorney General this year is proof that White Power is back, in full force and with Bible in hand.

White Power-plus-Christianity is an international phenomenon. Since the fall of the devoutly atheist Soviet Union, Russian Orthodox Christianity has returned to Russian politics with a vengeance and is crushing LGBT rights in that country. Coupled with a falling birthrate among “ethnic” Russians (another way of saying they are White), Putin has enraptured the White population with the promise of reasserting Orthodox Christian supremacy in a country that is increasingly becoming Muslim and Asian. There is little doubt that the love affair between Putin and the traitorous Man-Baby in the White House is premised upon shared values of Whiteness, cherished Crusader fantasies, and the need for a savior/dictator/father figure to take control, drive Queers back into the closet, shut down women’s reproductive rights, make the rich richer at the expense of everyone else, and shut down women like Coretta Scott King and Elizabeth Warren.

In America, an entrenched majority of White congresspeople has declared its craven subservience to the Man-Baby and his Russian daddy. A fairly large White minority in America is happy with the Man-Baby trampling the Constitution, just as long as he continues to wave the flag and pretend to love Jesus.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good.

This January, we witnessed the largest single protest America has ever seen. The Women’s March inspired over four million people to take to the streets. And the reason for such large numbers was the mobilization of White women who brought their daughters and male kinfolk with them. But unlike Tea Party rallies, The Whiteness of these women was not the unifying factor – race was irrelevant to them as they made common cause with anyone of any race or religious affiliation.

The sheer number of these White women, many who attended with their daughters and granddaughters, was astounding. Even more astounding was the difference between them and their Conservative sisters, who are so often quick to label Muslims as terrorists, undocumented workers as criminals, LGBT people as Hell-bound, and pussy-hats as inappropriate. There was no effort by White women in the Women’s March to flaunt their Whiteness. Rebel flags were not en vogue that day.

The ethic behind this strong White presence that did not have White Power as a guiding principle is the seasoned White notion of being colorblind, that race does not matter, that there is a moral imperative to ignore differences for the common good.

It is also the basis for that White comment that puts off so many Black people: “I don’t see you as Black.” Such a phrase is meant to be a compliment. But for all the good intentions, it nevertheless implies a disturbing erasure of identity. If a White person does not see a Black person as Black, is that Black person then seen as White by default? Is it really a compliment to not be Black? The statement sounds patronizing at best, and racist at worst.

The problem is not so much the hidden racism of well-meaning White women, but rather the paradoxes of talking about race to begin with. Columbus Queer activist-sage Sile Singleton once told me that racism was like a wet towel across the shoulders. You might be able to forget it for a while (a rather blessed form of temporary colorblindedness), but its clammy weight will eventually remind that it’s still there.

In the poem, “For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend,” the late great Lesbian wordcrafter Pat Parker wrote,

The first thing you do is to forget that i’m Black.
Second, you must never forget that i’m Black.

Parker’s words outline the care all of us must take in America’s racially-supercharged state: we must forget and never forget at the same time. The White allies in the Women’s March collectively succeeded in doing so, whether they came to the march with the White colorblindedness my own mother raised me with, or flat-out saying that Black Lives Matter.

Or displaying the rainbow and all that it implies.

Chapter 7: Ku

In the nineteenth century, three massive wooden images of the god Ku were shipped away from their home in Hawai‘i. One eventually returned, while the other two remained in Massachusetts and England. The three were united in 2010 for an exhibit at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu that ran during the latter half of the eight-month Season of Ku, the warmer, drier time of the year traditionally dedicated to farming, fishing, temple worship, and warfare.

The union of the three Ku marked an important moment in the history of the Hawaiian people. Arrival of the images was timed to coincide with the bicentennial commemorating the unification of the Islands by Kamehameha I as well as the second ‘Aha Kane Conference for Hawaiian men. But the presence of the three Ku together was not just an interesting addition to a momentous historical occasion. Having the two Ku standing with the third was an important moment in its own right. The images were fêted by museum staff and visitors alike, and the exhibit was a nexus for the revitalization of the Lahui (the Hawaiian people) as Hawaiians came from all over the Islands to greet them, chant their praises, sing to them, pray to them, dance for their pleasure, and leave them gifts. The veneration of Ku brought together Hawaiians of different, sometimes conflicting, political and religious views. It was a moment of communitas: the bonding that occurs when people undergo a collective leveling of status in a time of great uncertainty.

After the three Ku suffered degradation and loss of identity (as had the Hawaiian people), they came together to be honored as elders by Hawaiians and non-Hawaiian museum personnel alike. And just as Hawaiians willfully came together to see their exiled wooden elders, the two Ku chose to come home to Hawai‘i to see their children by virtue of the god’s mana (spiritual power and authority).


In pre-Christianized Hawaii of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, images such as the three Ku were part of a vast inter-island network of temples and priests. These images or ki‘i possessed great mana and were portals for the gods to commune with their people. Ki‘i were awakened and put to rest, depending upon whom they represented and what they were made to do. For example, a feathered ki‘i of the war god Kuka‘ilimoku (“Ku the Island-Snatcher”) was carried into battle, and his feathers would move if he were pleased. When the Season of Ku was over, ki‘i representing Ku were rendered inactive. A ki‘i of the god Lono atop of a pole was awakened and carried in procession around each island when the Makahiki, the New Year, began with the rising of the Pleiades in November. taxes were collected, war was forbidden, and temples were closed until the Season of Lono was through. The size and weathering of the three united Ku suggest they were set up outdoors on the grounds of a heiau (temple complex), unlike ki‘i that were kept inside or mobile images that were stored, then carried outside of the heiau on special occasions, such as Kuka‘ilimoku and Lono of the Makahiki.

The religious infrastructure that created and honored the ki‘i fell apart not long after the death of Kamehameha I in 1819. Soon after his death, his son Liholiho upset the social and spiritual order of his people when he publicly broke the kapu (regulation or restriction) regarding the separation of men and women during meals. Liholiho also declared that his government would no longer support temple worship of Hawaiian deities. Such radical change occurring in this time of great stress is not surprising. The Lahui had been hit by wave after wave of illnesses brought by visiting ships since 1792. At the same time, Hawaiians watched foreigners breaking kapu with no disastrous results. The efficacy of the gods in protecting the people and enforcing kapu was undone before their eyes. When Liholiho implemented his reforms, the people saw their highest ranking chiefs (who they honored as divine) renounce the religious system and many of the social restrictions that maintained the sacred status of the chiefly classes. Nevertheless, the one constant between the old order and the new was the reverence the Lahui held for their heavenly chiefs. That reverence is alive today; the remains of monarchs in Mauna ‘Ala, the Royal Cemetery in Honolulu, are regularly regaled with dancing, chanting, and gifts on important anniversaries, or when people simply want to visit with the blessed dead.

Despite the efforts of Liholiho and his mothers to put an end to temple worship and repeal many of the kapu, not everyone in 1819 was ready for such radical changes. Liholiho’s high-ranking cousin, Kekuaokalani, had been entrusted by Kamehameha I with Kamehameha’s Kuka‘ilimoku, the large feathered ki‘i (image) of the island-snatching god credited with the conquest of the islands. As caretaker of the war god, it was Kekuaokalani’s kuleana, his responsibility, to uphold the extensive temple infrastructure and kapu governing day-to-day life that Liholiho no longer enforced. Kekuaokalani refused to conform to the will of the young king, and the two sides fought. Backed by cannon and the aid of foreigners, Liholiho’s forces defeated the short-lived rebellion, killing Kekuaokalani and his wife Manono in the Battle of Kuamo‘o on the rocky lava fields of western Hawai‘i Island. In the following decade, nearly all of the wooden ki‘i of various deities that stood on the stone platforms of the heiau were destroyed as Hawaiians accepted Christianity, the religion formally brought to Hawai‘i by American missionaries soon after Liholiho’s reforms. The end of temple worship and much of the kapu system, the insurrection and fall of Kekuaokalani, and the first arrival of missionaries all occurred within a year after the death of Kamehameha I in 1819.

In the midst of such rapid change, the three large ki‘i of Ku managed to survive the turmoil, perhaps because of their association with Kamehameha. Despite his refusal to accept Christianity, Kamehameha and objects ascribed to him still carried the aura of sacredness even though temple worship had been abolished.

After successfully uniting the Islands, Kamehameha settled in Kamakahonu (“The Eye of the Turtle”) in the Kona District of Hawai‘i Island around 1812. “Kamakahonu was a fine cove,” wrote Hawaiian historian John Papa I‘i, with sandy beach and islets of pahoehoe (smooth black lava rock). Kamakahonu became the political center of Kamehameha’s unified kingdom, the place where he turned his attention from wars of conquest to peacetime governance. According to Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau, “Kamehameha at this time rebuilt the heiau of Ahu‘ena and made images for it” on the seaside site of an older temple. Kamehameha used the temple complex for meetings with his chiefs, and he set up his home next to it. I‘i says that Ahu‘ena was also where Kamehameha prepared Liholiho (Kamehameha II) to rule after him: “Whenever there was a meeting in the Ahuena [sic] house in the evening, the king instructed the heir carefully as how to do things, describing the lives of former rulers,” so that Liholiho might become a good sovereign and not follow those that disrespected commoners and lesser chiefs under them.

Kamehameha’s residence in Kamakahonu continued for a time to be regarded with awe after his death. But Kamakahonu did not remain the center of government for long. As happened with heiau across the Hawaiian Islands, Ahu‘ena’s association with the old beliefs led to its demise. Structures within its complex were destroyed sometime in 1819-1820. Ahu‘ena was transformed into a fort by John Adams Kuakini, governor of Hawai‘i Island and brother of co-regent Ka‘ahumanu. “The idols are all destroyed,” reported William Ellis in 1823, “excepting three, which are planted on the [sea] wall [of the fort], one at each end, and the other in the centre, where they stand like sentinels amidst the guns, as if designed, by their frightful appearance, to terrify an enemy.” This was after Ka‘ahumanu ordered ki‘i burned en masse in a tour of the islands in 1822. By 1836, the number of ki‘i at Ahu‘ena had dropped to two, and by 1844, none were left.

It is reasonable to assume that the three surviving Ku in Honolulu, Salem, and London stood together at Ahu‘ena, one of two places associated with Kamehameha that were recorded as having ki‘i in front of them for a few years after the end of temple worship. An 1844 visit to Ahu‘ena/Kuakini’s fort by Samuel Chenery Damon is especially telling: “We next inspected the Fort… The grinning and staring idols have all been removed. We found only a few chips of the last that was ‘cut down’ and ‘shipped off,’ a few years since,” indicating that the ki‘i had been taken elsewhere. Considering their conspicuous size and appearance (which would have made them easy targets for destruction), the temporary safety afforded ki‘i at the Ahu‘ena site associated with Kamehameha, and the rarity of other large wooden ki‘i anywhere in the world, the three Ku appear to have been the three ki‘i at Ahu‘ena that were not consigned to the fire during the years of the purge.

Stripped of their former relevance, the three Ku were taken from their home to assume the role of artificial curiosities in foreign lands. Disease continued to decimate the Hawaiian population, chiefs and commoners alike. By the end of the nineteenth century, American occupation ended Hawaiian sovereignty. The new overlords banned the Hawaiian language and other foundational cultural expressions in a systematic effort to effect indigenous erasure that extended well into the twentieth century. So far as the outside world was concerned, Hawaiians were cultural curiosities represented by images of hula girls, surfer boys, and kitschy tiki gods, tchotchkes that are still for sale in tourist shops throughout the islands. As the people were trivialized, so was Ku.

Ki‘i, not Tikis

The three Ku are housed in the British Museum in London, Britain; the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts; and the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. They are similar in size, each carved out of a single piece of ‘ulu or breadfruit wood and fashioned in what is called the Kona style. Their heads are as wide as their bodies, with large headdresses that taper down in braids behind each arm. Their stances are identical: feet apart, legs bent at the knee, torsos upright, arms to their sides, and hands held like claws in downward Cs. Chests are out and faces are set straight ahead, with grimacing open mouths, flared nostrils, and eyes without pupils or irises. They appear tense and alert.

Each is distinguishable from each other in important ways. Ku residing in London is deep brown and is the least damaged of the three. Many of the knobs that cover the lower three rows of his headdress are animal heads with open mouths. A large central knob on his forehead has the face of an animal, mouth closed. The braids of his headdress extend to his feet, and his eyes narrow into channels that continue down the braids. Long chisel marks are apparent on his thighs. Unlike his brothers, he has no wood between his claw-like feet. Ku residing in Salem is light brown. His headdress is slightly asymmetrical, and he is missing the front part of his left foot and the outer part of his right hand. His braids run to his hips, but they appear to have gone further down before they were broken off. His eyes also extend into his braids. His pectoral muscles are more rounded than his brothers. Ku residing in Honolulu is brown of different hues due to wear. Unlike the other two, his grimace has sharp angles in it. His braids originally ran down at least to his hands, but part of the braid from from his right hand down to his hip is gone. His eyes do not extend into his braids. The outer part of his left hand is missing. His genitalia were removed, and a portion of his left buttock was sliced off. His headdress has two rows with fishtail shapes in the lower row. The larger central shape on his forehead has the hourglass shape of a pewa, a patch or wedge used for repairing cracks in wood and gourd. He has the slimmest body of the three.

The situation that these ki‘i found themselves after the fall of state-sponsored temple worship was one in which their mana Ku (spiritual power and authority of Ku) became irrelevant to their new owners in foreign lands. They became symbolic of a dead culture and a dying race.

Homecoming: Preparation

The process of uniting the Ku began before the exhibit had been conceived. There had been a prior exhibit in 2003 and 2004, “E Ku Mau Mau — KU Everlasting,” featuring the one large Ku residing in the Bishop with works by Hawaiian cultural practitioners and contemporary artists. Like the exhibit of the three Ku that would happen six years later, “E Ku Mau Mau” was only open during months situated in the Season of Ku, thus setting the pace for what was to come. 2003 was also the year when public protocol for Ku and Lono were first implemented by the museum, including the annual ceremony marking the end of the Season of Ku and the beginning of the Season of Lono in which Ku is wrapped in white kapa cloth and, some time later, the ki‘i of Lono is led into Hawaiian Hall in procession, accompanied by chants and a public presentation.

In 2005, renovation began in Hawaiian Hall, the main gallery of the Bishop Museum. Staff members were considering what they could do to mark the reopening in 2009, and one suggestion was for the museum to host a union of the three Ku. But no one knew if such an event could occur. The task of coordinating between three institutions had been complicated by the possibility that, once the two other Ku arrived in Honolulu, repatriation of the ki‘i to Hawai‘i could become an issue – there were concerns that the museums loaning them might not get them back. Even raising the funds for such a project appeared impossible.

Noelle Kahanu, Project Director at the Bishop Museum, encountered the Ku housed in the British Museum for the first time in 2008. But she did not meet him in London. They met during a symposium on Polynesian cultural artifacts at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, France where he was on loan for an exhibition. In a presentation for the symposium, she spoke of the dream of seeing the three Ku together. She then learned from Lissant Bolton, curator of Oceanic Collections of the British Museum who was in the audience, that such a thing might be feasible. In 2010, that dream came true with the exhibit, E Ku Ana Ka Paia: Unification, Responsibility, and the Ku Images, which ran from June 5 until October 4.

Other obstacles had to be overcome before the exhibit could become a reality. There were concerns that uniting the ki‘i would summon the spiritual force of mana Ku in ways that could be potentially disastrous. Marques Hanalei Marzan, Cultural Resource Specialist at the Bishop Museum, recalled that some people cautioned against having the exhibit at all: “Many community groups said, ’You don’t know what you are bringing together.’” Kahanu summed up reasons for reluctance: “As living entities, these embodiments of Ku were still capable of engendering fear. Some Hawaiians wondered whose protocol would be followed, what (or who) might be awakened, and whether negative consequences might occur.” To address these concerns, consultants from the Hawaiian community determined appropriate dates and protocol for the exhibit. In addition, a delegation of community consultants and Bishop Museum staff travelled to London and Salem to greet the Ku and inform them of their journey.

The kuleana or responsibility placed upon the delegation was tremendous, but so was the potential for releasing mana Ku for the benefit of the people. Together they would meet with the Ku in Salem and London, welcome them when they arrived in Honolulu, say goodbye to them when the exhibit was over, and say a final farewell to them in their overseas residences. Many of the delegates had known Ku for years. They knew his kinolau (embodied physical manifestations) in the ‘ulu (breadfruit tree), niu (coconut tree), ‘io (hawk), ‘ilio (dog), pua‘a (pig), mano (shark), and puhi kauila (moray eel). They looked to Ku, whose name means “erect” in the sexual sense as well as “upright,” as the proper guide to Hawaiian manhood, not simply as a warrior but also as a loving mate and provider. The release of mana Ku could heal intergenerational scars from the traumas of near-extinction and cultural erasure that exacerbate higher rates of unemployment, prison, and substance abuse among Hawaiian men. By design, the exhibit also took place at the same time as ‘Aha Kane (Men’s Gathering”), a conference in which 500 Hawaiian men met to reaffirm Hawaiian values of masculinity.

The consultants and museum staff thought it important that members of the Hawaiian community be allowed to meet Ku on their own terms – no distinctions of rank or organization would prevent any Hawaiian from approaching and honoring the god. According to Marzan, the role of the Bishop Museum was to facilitate, not mandate: “When we talked about bringing the Ku together, we decided that we would create an opportunity for people to engage with Ku rather than dictating how people would engage with the ki‘i.” But the mana generated by the three ki‘i in close proximity to each other was a serious issue, as was the mana generated as people engaged with Ku and invoked his presence. Details of the exhibit were prepared within a specifically Hawaiian spiritual-cultural context to prevent mana Ku from becoming destructive.

Such considerations, however, were not unusual for Hawaiian cultural practitioners among the Bishop Museum staff. Marzan said the Bishop Museum has a long history of dealing appropriately with objects that have great mana. Not all the kapu or restrictions associated with pre-Contact Hawai‘i disappeared from Hawaiian culture after temple worship were discontinued. Protocol survived concerning kapu that dealt with the mana inherent in the bodies (living and deceased) of the ali‘i nui, the highest ranks of chiefs, as well as objects that belonged to them. “In the past, kupuna [elders, ancestors] such as Mary Kawena Pukui did protocols to release the kapu so that certain things belonging to the chiefs [in the Bishop Museum] could be handled without having to adhere to strict kapu laws,” said Marzan. The protocol used by the delegation and museum staff was likewise fashioned to treat the ki‘i with courtesy and goodwill so that mana Ku would be benign for staff and for the visitors that invoked it. In the setting of the Bishop Museum, an institution run according to Western standards of curation, the three Ku occupied a liminal space, an intersection of the sacred and the secular. Those Hawaiians who entered that liminal space to honor Ku made the space sacred all the more; they united in their shared ancestry, trauma, aloha, and joy in an extended moment of communitas for the duration of the exhibit.

Greeting the Ku in Their Respective Overseas Residences

Two weeks before the exhibit was to open, the delegation left Honolulu to meet with the Ku in Salem and London. Staff members at the Peabody Essex Museum were eager to learn more and understand the protocol associated with the god. The delegation offered ho‘okupu and oli (chants), introduced themselves to the ki‘i, told Ku that he was going home but that it was not a permanent move, and expressed the wish that he not feel uncomfortable during the journey. Marzan was pleased with this first encounter: “I didn’t feel any hewa [wrong, impropriety, evil],” he said.

When the delegation arrived in London, they conducted protocol with the same intentions of working with staff and greeting the ki‘i. There was some sadness during that first encounter in the British Museum’s storehouses. When the delegation saw Ku, whose name means “upright,” he was lying down in an open crate. Personnel from Peabody and British Museums travelled with the Ku as they flew to Hawai‘i. The delegation did not see the ki‘i again until they were brought to the Bishop Museum from Honolulu International Airport.

Arrival at the Bishop Museum

Upon landing in Honolulu, Kahanu sent out the message: “The ‘io has landed.” The crates containing the two Ku were taken directly to Hawaiian Hall. Staff members from Peabody Essex and British Museums were invited to an initial welcoming, along with Bishop staff, community consultants, and members of the delegation. The three Ku were set up next to each other in the middle of the hall’s ground floor: Ku from the Bishop Museum to the left, Ku from the Peabody Essex Museum to the right, and Ku from the British Museum in the middle. As had the earlier exhibits of Ku during 2003 and 2004, the adjacent display room featured contemporary Ku-inspired art as well as traditional objects associated with Ku, such as weapons and fishhooks. The opening ceremony of the exhibit included a procession from the outside of the museum to the Ku within as oli were chanted by cultural practitioners from the museum and the community. Ho‘okupu were offered in the form of material gifts (such as lei and bundles wrapped in ki leaves) and in the performance of hula and oli.

Two weeks after the exhibit opened, the Hawaiian men’s conference ‘Aha Kane 2010 began with a private ceremony greeting the three ki‘i at the bishop Museum from 5:30 until 7:30 am, well before public viewing hours at 9 am. For the duration of the ceremony, only men associated with the conference (and some male museum staff) were permitted in Hawaiian Hall as oli, ha‘a (haka or martial chants in unison with choreographed movement) and ho‘okupu were presented to Ku.

Performances and gifts from Hawaiians for the ki‘i continued throughout the time allotted for the exhibit. “Members of the community presented chants and offerings that were appropriate to showing respect for Ku and invoking his presence, calling his names, offering him fish, ‘awa, and other sustenance,” said Marzan, who witnessed many of the dances, chants, and offerings brought in by Hawaiian cultural groups such as halau (hula schools), pa (lua or Hawaiian martial arts groups), Hawaiian language immersion schools, and civic groups. Ho‘okupu were left in front of the ki‘i, and at the end of each day, the offerings were placed in a specially prepared pit on the museum grounds. Marzan was impressed by the ways that the Hawaiian community honored the gathered Ku. “It was heartening that so many groups wanted to do protocol,” he recalled. “60-70,000 people came to the exhibit. Lots of Hawaiian families and charter schools… Over and over again, people who came to see the Ku said, ‘I saw in the newspapers this was happening, and I just had to go.’” There was some concern over threats by different Hawaiian groups to picket or physically prevent the ki‘i from leaving, but nothing ever came of them. “There was an understanding,” said Marzan.

Ku and David Kalama

During the exhibit, artist and filmmaker David Kalama stood with the three ki‘i for 54 days, making sketches of them while observing the interaction between images and visitors. Kalama recalled seeing some people who visited the exhibit frequently, including a woman who brought fragrant awapuhi (ginger blossom) lei as ho‘okupu. Like Marzan, he was impressed by the aloha that Hawaiian visitors (perhaps “pilgrims” might be a better word) brought to Ku.

The 54 days of his visits were not always consecutive. He observed his own kapu with the ki‘i and would not visit them on the ‘Ole Ku (“not Ku”) phases of the moon. “Unlike many Hawaiians, I’m not a Christian. And though I am not a worshiper of Ku in the temple sense of what was done two hundred years ago, I am still very much a believer in Hawaiian tradition,” he said. For Kalama, the exhibit was “one of the most significant events in recent history – a marker point” that was substantial and unsettling. “When the Ku were united, the world shifted,” he said, and that shift was not always welcomed. Among those who did not want the exhibit to take place were Christians who saw the ki‘i as unholy reminders of Hawai‘i’s pagan past. Nevertheless, Kalama recalled seeing Hawaiians he knew were Christians at the exhibit. Just as there were no public demonstrations against the exhibit to keep the Ku in Hawai‘i, there were none openly criticizing the museum for allowing veneration of a pre-Christian god. As Marzan had said, “There was an understanding,” and the breadth of that understanding made it possible for the Hawaiian people to gather in Ku’s presence and put aside divisions (religious or otherwise) in favor of communing with their kupuna or ancestors, including those kupuna who crafted and honored such ki‘i.

His time with the Ku and his many sketches of them had him pondering about where the art form of carving was going before temple worship was discontinued. In the past, ki‘i were produced on a regular basis, utilized for spiritual purposes, and discarded in due time if the ki‘i no longer fulfilled their functions. Kalama observed an important difference in one ki‘i as opposed to the other two:

As a temple image, the back was not apparently deemed as important. But the British Museum piece has a fully developed head, a fully developed headdress and an almost fully developed bodyform— sculpture in the round. Was this the beginning of yet another movement? What would [the carver’s] next sculpture look like?

Kalama was also able to share some of his art as a filmmaker with the three ki‘i. A video of the Islands he had made for Hawaiian Hall played in front of the Ku on a large wall screen, allowing them to see more of Hawai‘i than just the interior of the museum.

Saying Goodbye

When the exhibit’s time was up, protocol for saying goodbye was conducted with Bishop staff and community groups. For Marques Marzan, the tone was not one of mourning but fond farewell and aloha. Marzan said that the basic message for the two departing Ku was, “We know you have to go back to your respective institutions, but we await your return home.” Not everyone, however, was able to say goodbye without expressing sorrow. “When the day came to take the two Ku down and return them to to Peabody Essex Museum and the British Museum,” Kahanu recalled, “I did not participate in the physical work. Instead, I watched from the first floor, and then the second… it was my job that day to weep, to ‘uwe, to cry for those who could not, to bear witness, to remember. Not a time goes by when I look upon our Ku and experience a profound sense of loss.” A delegation greeted the Ku before their departure from Honolulu, and a delegation travelled back to the museums to do final protocol. At the Peabody Essex Museum, there was also a public presentation with a question-and-answer session. The general public was welcome, which included members of the Hawaiian community in Massachusetts. Final protocol in London did not include a public presentation. As before, the delegation’s last view of the Ku was seeing him flat in a crate rather than standing tall. The delegation left a ho‘okupu at each institution: a fish carved from red stone.

Marzan said that not only were people transformed by the exhibit, but also the ki‘i were affected. “When somebody’s been away from Hawai‘i for so long, their memories are locked in time,” he said. “When they come back, they see how Hawai‘i is transformed. The ki‘i saw Hawai‘i when they were created, and now they saw Hawai‘i today. Hopefully, the good intentions of the people who honored them during the exhibit were the same as when the ki‘i were honored in the past, or that the goodwill was more than expected.” A second transformation had also occurred: after nearly two centuries being regarded as relics of the past, the ki‘i residing in the Peabody Essex and the British Museums were once again honored by Hawaiians in the land of their creation. They returned as beloved ambassadors of their people rather than as refugees from a people who rejected them.

Noelle Kahanu and the Will of the God

When Kahanu initiated the process of bringing the ki‘i together, she did not want the exhibit to be a display of artifacts. The project was indigenized, with an eye towards Hawaiian community concerns and fostering the goodwill of the ki‘i as well as following standard museum procedures for artifact loans. What was done in the Ku exhibits of 2003, 2004, and 2010 should be seen not only as the Hawaiian contribution to the indigenous curation movement (which had been going on for a few years prior) but also as a continuation of what Mary Kawena Pukui and perhaps other Hawaiians at the Bishop Museum had been doing, decades before the indigenous curation movement began. Commitment to the Lahui has been part of the museum’s purpose from its inception. It was founded in honor of a Hawaiian, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop who, along with her husband (museum founder Charles Reed Bishop), is venerated on important anniversaries with oli, hula, and ho‘okupu in the museum and in front of the Kamehameha crypt in Mauna ‘Ala, the Royal Mausoleum wherein lie their remains. As heirs to Pukui’s legacy of cultural sensitivity towards objects of great mana, Bishop Museum staff treat ki‘i akua, images of the gods, with special courtesy: they are given malo or loincloths when needed, not to conform to puritanical sensibilities of observers, but for the personal dignity and comfort of the images themselves. It is to the credit of the Peabody and British Museums that they allowed that same courtesy to be extended to the Ku in the Bishop Museum’s charge during the Honolulu exhibit.

The relationship with the ki‘i goes both ways. Kahanu holds that Ku himself was instrumental in making the exhibit possible, especially after so many obstacles to the exhibit (community opposition, museums’ reluctance and red tape, lack of funding) all inexplicably fell away:

[T]o me, … they [the Kū images] chose to come. In other words, there’s only so much people can do to make something happen. And at some point there is a higher plane of involvement…. [Y]ou put your words out there…and at some point they’re engaged, they hear the call, they decide that they want to be here, and then they facilitate the process of ultimately getting here. That’s my only explanation.

As with Marzan, Kahanu understood that the ki‘i were both observer and observed and during the exhibit. “What was more important?” she asks in an essay she co-wrote with German scholar Philipp Schorch. “That these images were seen by more than 70000 people, or that they saw 70000 people?”

Only through active participation of Ku was this exhibition able to take place. People were fundamental to the process, but in the end, they were mere agents of Ku’s will. E Ku Ana Ka Paia was a ‘temporary’ exhibition, and yet its impacts were extraordinarily profound and far lasting, spawning discussions of cultural identity, political sovereignty, family, and community responsibility, and the role of museums in fostering cross-cultural dialogue.

Kahanu understands the Ku (and other precious Hawaiian objects that are overseas) as sojourners, leaving their home and eventually returning, all the while strengthening the bonds between museums and between peoples. She called for reevaluation of curation, inter-museum relationships, and kuleana (responsibility) that comes with stewardship of a people’s treasures:

Inspired by the success of this exhibition, and because some of the most important of Hawaiian cultural treasures continue to reside in Europe, we would ask of these institutions: Are there no alternative models and constructs beyond European exhibitions of Oceanic ‘art’ or ‘artifacts’? … How might we collaboratively work together to ensure that the journeys of these treasures continue, thus (re)connecting histories with contemporary legacies and (re)awakening hibernating relationships and shifting genealogies?

Re-Membering Hawaiian Masculinity, Critiquing Western Heteropatriarchy

During the E Ku Ana Ka Paia exhibit, the three Ku were dressed in malo made for them by Hawaiian female artisans. Had they been left unclothed, onlookers could have seen that the Ku currently residing in the Bishop Museum had been emasculated. For cultural practitioner Keone Nunes, artist and educator Carl Pao, and scholar Ty Kawika Tengan, emasculation did not stop with the ki‘i.

Keone Nunes, a Hawaiian activist, kumu hula (hula instructor), and kakau (tattoo) artist in the traditional way, had been petitioning the Bishop Museum for years to re-member the Ku image with appropriate genitalia, but to no avail. Bringing together the three Ku, two of them with manhood intact, was an opportunity for Nunes to not only call for restoring the genitalia on the ki‘i residing in Honolulu, but also to address issues of cultural emasculation caused by imposition of Western models upon the Hawaiian people. He sees the removal of Ku’s sex organs as desecration, a disruption of mana Ku that is directly, not figuratively, connected to problems affecting Hawaiian men since the coming of the missionaries. Uniting the three Ku marked a new beginning for him, particularly because of the ki‘i’s status as internationally recognizable representations of Hawaiian culture:

Out of all the things associated with Hawai‘i artistically, many people have been drawn to the Kū images not only for their size and rarity, but their stylization… If you go just about anywhere, there’s a tiki bar influenced by it, which gives us an idea and realization of the breadth and scope of these statues, not only for Hawaiians, but for the world. I don’t agree with the caricatures, but realize that they are iconic.

Nunes described the impression the three ku left on him and the Lahui:

I don’t know of any exhibit that has had that much of an impact on people… I was actually one of the few people that had the opportunity to see them before they arrived. I knew the impact they had on me, and that the impact on Hawai‘i would be ten-fold. There’s nothing that can rectify the atrocities that any indigenous peoples have suffered. But bringing them back signifies what is pono, what is appropriate, and who we are as Hawai‘i now.

Artist and teacher Carl Pao expressed similar sentiments about re-membering the Bishop Museum’s Ku and the masculinity of Hawaiian men and doing so on Hawaiian, not Christian or secular American, terms. “The Bishop exhibit of the three Kū has been a huge influence and inspiration for my ongoing efforts to remasculate and to re-member,” he said. He expressed his thoughts in PEWA II: Remasculation, an installation he produced in the summer of 2014. In his Artist Statement for PEWA II, Pao says, “Remasculation began nearly twenty years ago as I decided to teach myself how to carve ki‘i kupuna kane [images of male ancestors]. I started to notice that the majority of them did not have any genitalia… This act of emasculation most likely occurred as the kapu system was being replaced by Christian values and was performed as a way to remove the mana from these ki‘i.”

Pao’s exhibit featured several ule (penises), including burnt ule on a barbeque grill. In the center of the room stood a large four-feet-tall wooden ule, scarred and cracked, with light-colored pewa (bowtie/hourglass-shaped binders) set in the cracks to heal the trauma that the severed member had endured. A press release for the exhibition reads, “Testament to the ability to overturn censorship in an act of reclamation, a carved wooden phallus stands ready, waiting for re-attachment to ki‘i that have been deprived of their spirit and force for so long.” One wall was covered with a quote from Ty Kawika Tengan of the University of Hawai‘i Manoa:

As men re-member the mana of Ku, they too will be upright members of the community ready to rebuild the lahui. Performances of Indigenous masculinities enact both the possibilities and limits of decolonization…Bodies figure centrally in the gendered work of decolonization, for it is there that alternative forms of being and acting – in the Hawaiian case, those based on ea (sovereignty, life, breath), mo‘okuauhau (genealogy), and mana (spiritual power and authority) – are re-membered. However, a failure to critique Indigenous masculinities enables the perpetuation of settler heteropatriarchy and ultimately constrains the possibilities of Indigenous freedom and sovereign expression.

The wall opposite the Tengan quote featured a large, brown, two-dimensional Ku with no genitalia, which Pao said is a nod “given to the kiʻi at the Bishop Museum and to the countless that continue to be replicated emasculated,” that is, all the tiki-gods and cartoon-like graphics that are still for sale in gift shops and quickie-marts. Anyone who walked into the exhibit space could play “Rub the Ule on the Ku” by donning a red, bra-shaped blinder and attempting to place an ule made of red felt on the Ku’s groin. When asked about the humorous elements of the installation, Pao said the following:

The humor is the bait and hook. For whatever reasons, adults find a way to become humorous next to a nearly four foot tall penis. Are they uncomfortable? Why? If they are willing to investigate further as to why a large penis is in the center of a room, they will understand the ule as being a symbol of loss. By acknowledging this past loss, the opportunity to build and grow is in their future. In the present is their pewa, repairing the hurt and loss.

Re-membering the male role does not required subjugation of the female. “This is not just about the masculine, but also the feminine,” added Pao. “Balance needs to be achieved to be in a healthy state. Kū is our male essence and Hina [Goddess of the moon and femininity] our female essence. We are made up of both. To be pono [proper, good, harmonious] is to find and be in balance with the two. This then flows into other aspects of your life and eventually, your relationship with all things.”

For scholar-activist Ty Tengan, re-membering means reclaiming pre-Contact Hawaiian sensibilities in a contemporary context, and rejecting settler heteropatriarchy (hegemonic discourse first introduced by American missionaries, then imposed by American imperialism, which includes fundamentalist homophobic and misogynist understandings of gender and sexuality from multiple Christian denominations). The process has been gradual, but over time, non-heteronormative identities, including contemporary manifestations of the traditional Hawaiian mahu (transwomen in a Hawaiian cultural context) and the aikane (a homoerotic-romantic relationship between the chiefs and certain younger men of lower status), are reclaimed, thus opening doors of inclusion for LGBT Hawaiians despite consternation from some members of the overwhelmingly Christian Hawaiian population.

Ku and Communitas

Communitas, the social glue that binds people together in love and respect when they find themselves in a situation of great anxiety and deprived of status, must be understood within the cultural contexts in which it is generated. With the Ku exhibit, communitas was generated by means of indigenous practices within museum spaces, practices that evoked a visceral response in many Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian participants and observers. The results of communitas have the potential to significantly impact intellectual discourse within and outside of Hawaiian Studies. Kahanu’s understanding of agency and curation expands community membership to include what science classifies as inanimate objects, and joins the efforts of indigenous peoples worldwide who seek to influence the way their cultural treasures are treated, even if those treasures are half the world away. Counter-narratives presented by Pao and Tengan reject settler heteropatriarchal superiority and violence imposed on the Hawaiian community, paving the way for others to do the same. They move in solidarity with those non-Hawaiians within Western academic discourse who seek to break the chains of pervasive misogyny and homophobia that inspire men to engage in domestic violence, public brawls, gang warfare, terrorism, and nation-to-nation acts of mass violence.

The union of the three Ku in 2010 brought the movement for restoration of Hawaiian identity into poignant focus. The exile of the ki‘i in the nineteenth century (and their state of limbo as curiosities devoid of almost all cultural context) parallel the near-extinction of the Lahui as a people. “They [the ki‘i] survived the overthrow of their religion, they survived colonialism, war and destruction, they survived ignorance, racism and marginalism,” said Kahanu in a letter to the Peabody Museum, and her statement applies to the Lahui just as it does to the ki‘i. When Hawaiians came to the museum and honored the ki‘i, they reaffirmed the bond they have with each other as well as Ku in his threefold manifestation. In this context, the definition of communitas as “humankindness” must be modified to include beings that are neither physiologically human nor alive in the scientific biological sense. Having the three ki‘i in the formal yet welcoming space of the Bishop Museum allowed Hawaiians to demonstrate, in the ki‘i’s presence, the cultural prosperity that has been generated in abundance during the latest Hawaiian Renaissance. And if Ku could return, so could Hawaiian sovereignty. “The return of the two Ku images that departed Hawai‘i over 150 years ago leads us to reconsider the place of Hawaiian men in society today,” says Tengan in the exhibit’s pamphlet. “Kanaka [Hawaiian] men are active, awake, and energetic. The task of nation building is at hand, and Ku is presiding.”

Tremendous damage has indeed been done since Contact, but Hawaiians are still here and are quite capable of charting a course for their future by looking to their kupuna, their ancestors and elders, including the three ki‘i. “I consider the three Ku to be kupuna,” affirmed Marzan. Kalama said something similar about them: “I think the main idea for me of the whole experience, and all the varied individual experiences, is that these were family members, returning from far off lands for a visit.” Their arrival in the Bishop Museum was not simply as beloved reminders of Hawai‘i’s past, but also as elders of consequence possessing real power. It was their status as living beings that triggered the concern expressed by by Hawaiian cultural practitioners as to how the three would react, and inspired the outpouring of aloha in performances of hula danced for them, oli chanted for their pleasure, and ho‘okupu brought to them to enjoy.

Ku also resisted Western secular categories concerning gender, identity, and even singularity. Marzan, for example, shifted effortlessly between singular and plural when he spoke of Ku-as-akua (god) and the three Ku-as-ki‘i, and he did not give each ki‘i any names to distinguish one from another. “I didn’t put a distinction to the three,” he said. They were he. In terms of gender, the ki‘i are indeed “he” and masculine, and elements of the protocol used when approaching them made distinctions between women and men. In a letter to the respective museums that held the two Ku outside of Hawai‘i, Kahanu makes reference to gendered divisions in labor and protocol for the ki‘i: “Were you to seriously consider this request, women would prepare wauke [paper mulberry] and pound kapa [barkcloth] for his malo [loincloth], men would craft chants in his honor,” she says. But Ku-based masculinity in the Hawaiian context is seen as something that both men and women share. As lua master and artisan Umi Kai said in the exhibit’s pamphlet, “These images represent Ku in its Akua form and Ku as the masculine part of every man and woman,” once again undermining non-Hawaiian heteropatriarchy.

Communitas is marked by the falling away of barriers between people. In the case of the E Ku Ana Ka Paia exhibit, barriers between the living/the dead, animate/inanimate, indigenous curation/mainstream museology, and Hawaiian/Hawaiian fell away, making room for the Lahui to further reclaim their identity and nation, and in turn to extend aloha to the many non-Hawaiians on the Islands and in distant lands that hold the Lahui dear to their non-Hawaiian hearts.

Chapter 6: Pat Tillman

Military culture holds honor in high esteem. But honor can be problematic. For those who have seen the contradictions of war, weaknesses of the average warrior, and ethical compromises made by those in charge, honor may appear to be more of an ideal, perhaps an impossible one, rather than a reality.

Nevertheless, honor (imperfect though it may be) is what holds a military force together. And it was honor that brought Pat Tillman, an athletic young American born in 1976, to the rugged terrain of rural Afghanistan where he died at the hand of a fellow soldier in 2004.

9/11, the Invasion of Afghanistan, and the Invasion of Iraq

On September 11, 2001, nine months after George W. Bush took office as president of the United States, the Pentagon in Washington and the World Trade Center in New York were attacked by civilian planes that were hijacked by members of al Qaeda, a militant group operating in Afghanistan. Afghan leaders of the Taliban, an extreme Fundamentalist Muslim group in Afghanistan that controlled much of the war-torn nation, refused to turn over Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda associates who masterminded the attack, so the President ordered the invasion of Afghanistan. The world rallied behind America after the 9/11 attacks, and the invasion was accepted by the international community as a reasonable response. For a brief time, most of the world was united with America against the terrorists, including countries that were considered America’s enemies.

The 9/11 attacks inspired Tillman to join the military, despite his recent marriage and a multi-million dollar contract to play professional football. In an interview he gave on September 12, 2001, he said, “My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying my life on the line like that… I have a great deal of respect for those that have and what the flag stands for.” He and his brother Kevin were ready to fight terrorists in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world. But their plans were put on hold by a second American invasion.

On September 12, 2002, one day after the first anniversary of the al Qaeda attacks, President Bush appeared before the United Nations and proposed an invasion of Iraq, a country that the USA (under his father, former president George H.W. Bush) attacked with an international coalition in 1991 after Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, invaded neighboring Kuwait. Americans were initially against Bush, Jr.’s proposal, so a campaign was launched to convince the public that military occupation of Iraq was vital for national security. Spokespeople for the administration, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Vice President Dick Cheney, joined the President in proclaiming that there was evidence of viable weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, that such weapons were still being produced, and that Saddam Hussein was in league with al Qaeda, thus linking Hussein to the 9/11 attacks on US soil. Since 9/11, the government ordered heightened security in airports, increased militarization of local law enforcement to fight potential terrorists at home, and issued vague national alerts warning of imminent attacks. All these things added to the anxiety lingering from 9/11, and by January 2003, a majority of Congress accepted the administration’s argument that Hussein’s regime was an immediate threat to national security.

Not everyone agreed. The international consensus that backed the liberation of Kuwait and invasion of Afghanistan was not as forthcoming the second time around. Critics of the administration pointed out that the Iraqi government had complied with the United Nation’s demands to dismantle its WMD program. Hussein was no ally of al Qaeda, neither was he involved in the 9/11 attacks. Weapons inspectors confirmed that Hussein was acting in good faith in order to prevent a US invasion of his country. In addition, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki told Congress in February 2003 that occupying Iraq meant a commitment of around 400,000 troops, as opposed to Rumsfeld’s estimate of 75,000 troops.

Despite evidence against the administration’s position, American forces invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003. Less than two months later on May 1, a triumphant President Bush arrived by fighter jet on the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier off the San Diego coast. After a quick change from a flight suit to a business suit and tie, he stepped up to a podium with a large banner with MISSION ACCOMPLISHED in large, white letters over an American flag in the background. “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” he declared. “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

But Coalition forces had not prevailed. The American occupation could not provide the one thing that Hussein, for all of his thuggery, had given the Iraqi people: the semblance of an orderly society. What was promoted as the liberation of the Iraqi people quickly deteriorated due to multiple problems, including American planes that dropped bombs on their own troops and on their allies, and US combat troops that failed to transition into effective peacekeepers once territory was occupied. It did not take long before sectarian fighting between Muslim factions increased, the rights of women and LGBT people were severely curtailed, and Christians were targeted for harassment and extortion for supposedly being allied with the Americans. At the same time, Hussein’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison remained in operation, and became the site for the abuse and torture of prisoners, this time at the hands of Americans. Two years prior, the Bush administration authorized torture, a policy that was given the sanitized name of enhanced interrogation, which in turn led to greater resentment against coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Honor and Propaganda

Tailoring, erasing, and falsifying the facts is a common practice of American administrations and military leaders with regards to news from the battlefield, especially if American involvement in the conflict is unpopular. As had been done with the supposed threat of WMDs, false or misleading news reports were released, in this case to convince the American public that operations in Iraq were going according to plan. Military officials created two high-profile heroic narratives that would rally support for the war effort. The first concerned the dramatic rescue of Jessica Lynch, an Army private who was injured and then captured when her convoy had been ambushed by Iraqi troops. Lynch was portrayed as a warrior who fought her assailants until she ran out of ammunition, and then was shot, stabbed, tortured, and raped. But Lynch did not fight back with rifle blazing (her weapon jammed); she was not shot, stabbed, tortured, or raped; and her captives left the Iraqi hospital where she was treated two days before her rescue. The absence of enemy troops did not prevent military authorities from staging a grand rescue with at least five armored vehicles, a helicopter, and a media team that was set up on the grounds of the hospital before the rescue took place, even though there were no insurgents to fight. In fact, hospital officials tried unsuccessfully to return Lynch to American authorities a few days prior, but were unable to do so because sentries at the nearby American base fired warning shots at the ambulance as it approached, forcing it to turn back.

The Lynch media production is an example of false communitas because it claimed to be something it was not, in this case with live footage to portray the event as a daring rescue of a young (20 years of age), attractive, and physically abused female soldier by military personnel who risked their lives to bring her back. The Defense Department did not stop with Lynch; it created a second fictional story around the death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman, a young (27 years of age), attractive professional football player who gave up a career in sports to fight in the War on Terror. Instead of detailing the circumstances concerning how he died by fratricide, his narrative was transformed into a stirring tale of Tillman sacrificing his life for freedom as he charged headlong into enemy fire.

The creation of patriotic battlefield death narratives to support the war effort is nothing new in American history – the story of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth in the first days of the Civil War is one such example. Elmsworth was young (24 years of age), handsome, charismatic, and a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. He was shot and killed by a Confederate sympathizer on May 24, 1861 after removing a large Confederate flag from atop of the Marshall House, an inn in Alexandria, Virginia, the day after Virginia seceded. Strictly speaking, Ellsworth never actually fought in a battle during the War Between the States, but that did not stop the Lincoln Administration from making him into the first Union martyr. The slain colonel was laid out in state in the White House and then New York City, and “Avenge Ellsworth!” became a Union battle cry. His face was featured on stationery, envelopes, memorial lithographs, and sheet music with patriotic songs written in his honor. Private Francis Brownell, the soldier who killed innkeeper James Jackson (the man who killed Ellsworth), was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor as a consequence of popular devotion to Ellsworth rather than anything exceptional on Brownell’s part, other than shooting Jackson, the belligerent civilian who ran the Marshall House.

There are many such Ellsworths and Brownells scattered throughout the annals of American military history whose stories became grist for the mills of propaganda. But the Lynch and Tillman patriotic narratives stand out as especially egregious for short-sighted disregard for facts that were bound to come forth. In Tillman’s case, the temptation to refashion him into a martyr was apparently too strong to resist, despite sharp criticism of the Lynch narrative for doing just that. As one Pentagon official put it, Tillman’s death was a steak dinner presented on a garbage can cover – Tillman was attractive in just about every way except for the cause of his death. Officials decided to concentrate solely on the steak and hide the cover, and Tillman’s fame as an athlete was highlighted for further dramatic effect. A press release from the White House soon after Tillman died stated that he was an “inspiration on and off the football field” who made “’the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror.” Four days after he died on April 22, 2004, a Silver Star was prepared for him for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States. Typically, the process for awarding a Silver Star requires a thorough review that could take months or even years, but apparently there was no time to waste. Below is the official citation for the Silver Star given to Tillman:

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, 9 July 1918 (amended by act of 25 July 1963), has awarded the SILVER STAR to


for gallantry in action on 22 April 2004 against an armed enemy while serving as a Rifle Team Leader in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Corporal Tillman put himself in the line of devastating enemy fire as he maneuvered his Fire Team to a covered position from which they could effectively employ their weapons on known enemy positions. While mortally wounded, his audacious leadership and courageous example under fire inspired his men to fight with great risk to their own personal safety, resulting in the enemy’s withdrawal and his platoon’s safe passage from the ambush kill zone. Corporal Tillman’s personal courage, tactical expertise, and professional competence directly contributed to this platoon’s overall success and survival. Through his distinctive accomplishments, Corporal Tillman reflected great credit upon himself, the 75th Ranger Regiment, and the United States Army.

This was not the first time Tillman made national news. When he gave up a 3.5 million dollar contract with the Phoenix Cardinals football team in 2002 to join the Army and undergo Ranger training after the 9/11 attacks, he became the America’s most famous recruit. What did not attract media attention were the reasons why Pat Tillman and his brother Kevin were not happy with their first deployment in Iraq. It did not get them what they wanted: direct engagement with the enemy. In addition, the Tillmans were critical of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Russell Baer, a fellow soldier that the brothers had befriended, described a conversation he had with the Tillman brothers while deployed in Iraq: “We were outside of (a city in southern Iraq) watching as bombs were dropping on the town. We were at an old air base, me, Kevin and Pat, we weren’t in the fight right then. We were talking. And Pat said, ‘You know, this war is so f— illegal.’ And we all said, ‘Yeah.’ That’s who he was. He totally was against Bush.” After further Ranger training, the brothers got what they wanted. They and Baer were sent to Afghanistan.

In his pursuit of battlefield honor, Tillman’s ethics differed from Victor Turner’s commitment as a conscientious objector not to fight – Tillman felt honor-bound to fulfill his commitment to fight regardless of his own ethical qualms concerning his leaders. Ironically, Turner and Tillman were similar in one way: during the last few moments of Tillman’s life, he was faced with the dilemma of having to defend himself against Americans who were trying to kill him or being killed by them. Having trained so hard and travelled so far to test himself in battle (and he did engage in a firefight with the enemy just before his own people began firing at him), Tillman died because he refused to fight back.

The Death of Pat Tillman

Pat Tillman, his brother Kevin, and Russell Baer were members of the Black Sheep (Second Platoon, Alpha Company, Second Ranger Battalion), a unit formed to conduct rapid operations by just a few troops in unsecured territory. When a military vehicle had broken down during one such operation in a high-risk location, the platoon was ordered to split into two groups so that at least part of the convoy could report to its designated destination on time, leaving the other to escort the broken vehicle by a different route to Mana, the rendezvous point. Pat and Baer were in the first group, and Kevin was in the second.

Miles away in Forward Operating Base Salerno, the decision was made to have the Rangers tow the disabled vehicle rather than destroy it. The disabled vehicle, transported on a civilian truck by an Afghan local, might slow down the convoy and keep it from its pre-planned destination on time. The split was ordered so that at least some of the men could reach the appointed destination at the appointed hour, despite strong objections from the platoon leader Lieutenant David Uthlaut. More concerned with a narrative of successful missions done on time rather than recognizing the gritty day-to-day realities of conducting military operations, their commanding officer decided to risk the lives of the platoon. Stan Goff, author of “The Fog of Fame,” describes the logic that informed the decision:

The context for everything that happened after Pat’s death requires this Pentagon propaganda-emphasis be center stage. Some people already understand this. What is not well understood is that this propaganda-emphasis likely played a central role in creating the conditions for Pat’s death in the first place… The decision to split the Blacksheep [sic] Platoon on April 22 was forced on a platoon leader who stated to his superiors that splitting the platoon in this terrain would require a half-assed preparation cycle and potentially create a dangerous break in inter-platoon communications. This directive was designed with one purpose in mind: to be able to state that the platoon had reached their “target” on time. A timeline (a bureaucratic checklist) drove this decision — not the intelligence.

Here is a general outline of the events after the platoon split that led to Tillman’s death: when the alternate route to Mana proved impassable, Series Two (the name given to the second group that lagged behind with the disabled vehicle) doubled back and took the same route as Series One, leaving Series Two vulnerable to attack. Series Two came under fire from insurgents while driving through the bottom of a narrow canyon between two high rock walls. The deafening noise of the ambush was exacerbated by return fire from Series Two, which reacted without knowing exactly where the attack had originated. Members of Series One heard the noise and Pat Tillman, along with an Afghan soldier named Sayed Farhad and Private First Class Bryan O’Neil, went to aid Series Two from a point near the road. Once in position, they began firing at those who attacked the convoy, but the three men were in turn attacked by members of Series Two. Farhad was killed first when Sergeant Greg Baker, in charge of the leading armed vehicle of Series Two, saw an Afghan shooting a weapon and took the Afghan out, even though Farhad was in battle dress uniform of the allied Afghan Military Forces. Following Baker’s lead, other men in the vehicle opened fire. Hundreds of bullets flew around Tillman and O’Neal, who hunkered behind some low boulders. Tillman released a smoke grenade, a sign that they were on the same side, and there was a brief lull in the attack. Tillman stood up, waved his hand (palm open and turned outward) in front of his face and chest, and shouted for them to stop. Firing resumed soon after Tillman released the smoke grenade. He was shot in the chest initially, and body armor kept him alive, but not for long. The shock of bullets striking the body armor on his chest took his legs out from under him. He was killed by three bullets in a tight cluster to the forehead while yelling, “I’m Pat Tillman! Cease fire! I’m Pat fucking Tillman!” Tillman and Farhad were not the only men hit by Series Two; platoon leader Uthlaut received grenade shrapnel in his face before the two men were killed, and radio operator Jade Lane caught a bullet to the knee soon after. Uthlaut and Lane were in the small settlement where Series One had stopped and (unlike Farhad, Tillman, and O’Neal) were not actually targeted individually as hostiles – such was the unfocused barrage of retaliatory fire from Series Two, which nearly took out one of its own vehicles.

Kevin Tillman was in the back of Series Two, so he did not see what happened to his brother. After Pat was killed, Kevin was separated from the rest of the men, then he and Baer were sent home with his brother’s body. An initial evaluation of the incident by Captain Richard Scott found evidence of fratricide and negligence on the part of the Series Two personnel, particularly on the part of Staff Sergeant Baker, the leader of Series Two who had killed Farhad and initiated the sequence of events that led to Tillman’s death. Scott recommended that further investigation should be done to determine criminal intent. The Scott report was rejected (Army officials told Mary Tillman, Pat’s mother, the report did not exist), and a new narrative was created that described how Pat had died from enemy fire, despite testimony stating the contrary from the men who were there. When sent back home, those men were initially ordered to say nothing or to lie. Kevin was told the false narrative, and he believed it.

Going Against the Script

Pat Tillman’s funeral was a private affair, but it was followed by a memorial service in his hometown of San José, California, that was broadcast live on Entertainment and Sports Broadcasting Network (ESPN). The event was an American sports-warfare spectacular, and the false narrative of his death was broadcast live for the nation to consume. “He made the call,” said Navy SEAL Steve White, one of Tillman’s friends who spoke during the memorial service. “He dismounted his troops, taking the fight to the enemy, uphill, to seize the tactical high ground from the enemy. This gave his brothers and the downed vehicle time to move off that target. He directly saved their lives with that move. Pat sacrificed himself so his brothers could live.” Arizona Senator John McCain, an Air Force veteran who was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, also gave a eulogy. “To all of you who loved Pat, and were loved by him,” McCain said from the flag-bedecked stage, “he will never be so far from you that you cannot feel his love. And you will see him again, when a loving God reunites us all with the loved ones who preceded us in death. Take care of each other until then, as Pat would want you to. May God bless him. And may God bless us all.”

Richard Tillman, Pat’s youngest brother, also gave a eulogy, but he was having none of McCain’s or anyone else’s talk of God. He also doubted the official version of his brother’s death: “I remember not believing the story of him running up a mountain, screaming his head off,” he said in an interview with Richard took the stage wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. After being handed a glass of Guinness beer, he gave his tribute to his brother: “Thanks for coming… Pat’s a fucking champion and he always will be. Just make no mistake, he’d want me to say this. He’s not with God. He’s fucking dead. He’s not religious so, thanks for your thoughts, but he’s fucking dead.”

As a secular humanist who supported LGBT rights, Pat Tillman was far from a God-fearing, unquestioning patriot. Others who spoke at the memorial mentioned that Pat had read the Bible, Book of Mormon, Qur’an, The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and David Henry Thoreau. He also had a progressive attitude concerning issues of gender and sexuality. His friend Alex Garwood described how Pat, when participating in a baptism as one of two godfathers for Garwood’s son Adam, showed up dressed as a woman to fulfill the role of godmother, and Coach Lyle Setencich said that Pat had asked him, “Could you coach gays?” The coach answered that not only would he coach gay players, he already had done so, raising Pat’s admiration of him even higher. Pat was fascinated by the ways that homosexuality and gender variance appeared to be both normalized and condemned in Afghan society. Minutes before Tillman’s platoon left in two convoys and less than two hours before he was killed, he showed Jade Lane an entry from a small notebook and read aloud to Lane about “how Afghani men acted effeminate, which he thought was because the lack of females in their everyday lives kind of pushed them into a more feminine state of mind.” Considering his fascination with the sexuality of, and the performance of gender by, Afghan men, one might even venture that Pat would not have been categorically against attending a circuit party if asked. Perhaps he would have been happy to join thousands of shirtless muscle boys for the four-day White Party in his home state of California during Easter weekend in 2001 (Straight people regularly attend the White Party). This event was some five months before 9/11, and it included a performance by Power infiniti and Kitty Meow during an event called the Military Ball. I am not sure how Pat would have felt about seeing military camouflage outfits in every color of the rainbow being accessorized by intoxicated revelers in the performance of communal dance (and by Power and Kitty onstage), but there is little doubt in my mind that Pat would have been intrigued by the White Party, Power’s gender-blending performance, and the shenanigans of the crowd.

Senator McCain, however, had no doubt that Pat was something other than he was. McCain had apparently failed to consult with Pat’s family about Pat’s views on religion, perhaps because McCain assumed that American heroes were intrinsically concerned with God and the afterlife, as is expressed in the adage, “There are no atheists in foxholes” (in the heat of combat, everyone prays).

Despite orders to prevent public access to the facts concerning Tillman’s death, the military could not hide the fratricide for long, and notified the Tillman family that Pat had been killed by his fellow soldiers over a month later. This was the third official version of his death they had received in the course of five weeks. The first was when his mother Mary Tillman had been notified in person by a soldier that Pat had been shot in the head while getting out of a vehicle during an ambush. Eleven days later, the second, more heroic, version was repeated during the ESPN-covered memorial service. Even with the third version that admitted fratricide, Mary did not get the full story because all the Army would give her were reports absolving the Army of negligence, reports that replaced the first report written by Captain Scott immediately after Pat had been killed.

Mary Tillman learned about the Scott investigation from her son Kevin, who had talked with Scott about it in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when Scott was Kevin’s company commander. Eventually, she did get a copy of the Scott investigation. There was also a report from the field hospital to which Pat’s body was taken that cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was performed two hours after he had died, then his body was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit for further CPR. Why this was done to a dead body when the deceased’s head was mostly blown off became clear to Mary in retrospect. This was the military protocol at that time: if a soldier died in combat, especially if there is suspicion of fratricide, clothing and body armor were left intact for further investigation. If the soldier survived and in need of treatment, however, clothing and body armor were treated as biohazards; they were removed and destroyed. Officially noting that CPR was performed was justification for destroying Pat’s uniform and body armor, thus erasing evidence of fratricide.

Due to pressure from the Tillman family and their supporters, there were six more investigations conducted by the military after the first one by Scott was rejected and seemingly erased from existence. Each consecutive investigation insisted there was no intention to deceive. The Tillman family’s refusal to accept the various investigations done to appease them eventually resulted in a Congressional hearing in which the Tillmans were invited to testify, along with members of Pat Tillman’s Black Sheep platoon and top officials in the Armed Forces and Bush Administration. During the hearing,Kevin Tillman testified before Congress about the initial story he had been told:

The facts of this case clearly show Pat and the Afghan soldier were killed by fellow members of his platoon… and they [officials] knew this immediately. Revealing that Pat’s death was a fratricide would have been yet another political disaster during a month already swollen with political disasters… An alternative narrative had to be constructed. Crucial evidence was destroyed, including Pat’s uniform, equipment and notebook. The autopsy was not done according to regulation and the field hospital report was falsified. An initial investigation completed with eight to 10 days before testimony could be changed or manipulated, and which hit disturbingly close to the mark, disappeared into thin air and was conveniently replaced by another investigation… This freshly manufactured narrative was then distributed to the American public. And we believe the strategy had the intended effect: It shifted the focus from the grotesque torture at Abu Ghraib and a downward spiral of an illegal act of aggression to a great American who died a hero’s death… After the truth of Pat’s death was partially revealed, Pat was no longer of use as a sales asset, and became strictly the Army’s problem. They were now left with the task of briefing our family and answering our questions. With any luck, our family would sink quietly into our grief and the whole unsavory episode would be swept under the rug. However, they miscalculated our family’s reaction.

A report made by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2008 (“Misleading Information from the Battlefield: The Tillman and Lynch Episodes”) on the Congressional hearing describes what happened when members of the House of Representatives tried to determine just how far up the chain of command the deception ran:

The purpose of the investigation has been to determine what the top officials at the White House and the Defense Department knew about Corporal Tillman’s fratricide, when they knew this, and what they did with their knowledge… on the key issue of what senior officials knew, the investigation was frustrated by a near universal lack of recall. The Committee interviewed several senior officials at the White House… Not a single one could recall when he learned about the fratricide or what he did in response.

Among the officials who could not recall was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The committee’s report does not call him a liar per se, but presents a strong case suggesting his words did not ring true because of Rumsfeld’s keen interest in Pat Tillman from the moment he learned that Tillman enlisted:

Secretary Rumsfeld took a personal interest in Pat Tillman’s enlistment in the U.S. Army Rangers in 2002. Just after Corporal Tillman enlisted, Secretary Rumsfeld sent him a personal note commending him for his “proud and patriotic” decision. Around the same time, Secretary Rumsfeld wrote a “snowflake” memorandum to the Secretary of the Army, noting that Corporal Tillman “sound[s] like he is world-class” and saying, “We might want to keep our eye on him.” Testifying before the Committee, Secretary Rumsfeld said he had no recollection of when he learned about the fratricide or what he did in response. He testified, “I don’t recall when I was told and I don’t recall who told me.”

Mary Tillman’s research revealed five main deficiencies: incompetency of the those in command who valued a broken vehicle and adherence to schedule over the lives of Pat Tillman and his fellows, lack of military professionalism in the actions of the American soldiers who attacked and killed her son, attempts by officials to create a false image of Pat Tillman and his death for the purposes of supporting an increasingly unpopular war, destruction of evidence and coercion of soldiers deployed with Pat Tillman to erase the facts surrounding Tillman’s death, and active resistance from higher command against attempts to bring those facts to light. But the fruits of her research came with a brutal price: “You try to picture, How did my child die? and it keeps changing. It’s like Pat has died seven times in my head,” she said. “You think you’re losing your mind for months. They attached themselves to his virtue and then threw him under the bus. They had no regard for him as a person. He’d hate to be used for a lie.” If honor is measured on such things as refraining from panic, acting with bravery, and defending one’s team, Pat’s last moments alive were truly honorable, a stark contrast to the behavior displayed by the Rangers who opened fire on him, the indifference of the superior officer who put them into the situation that led to Pat’s death, and the repeated pattern of deceit that went all the way up to high-ranking officials in the Bush Administration.

As his family pressed for details of his death and the consequential cover-up, some military officials continued to treat the Tillmans with thinly veiled disrespect for not accepting the narratives they generated. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich (the officer responsible for the second investigation after Scott’s report was rejected) criticized the Tillmans for not buying his version. “Nobody is satisfied with the answers in that family that they’ve been given,” he said when called to testify before Brigadier General Gary Jones in yet another investigation, six days after George W. Bush won a second term as president. According to Kauzlarich, the Tillman’s tenacity must have been due to their lack of faith: “Those that are Christians can come to terms with faith and the fact there is an afterlife, heaven, or whatnot.” Since the Tillmans were not Christian, Kauzlarich did not believe they would ever be satisfied because they took no solace in the mercy of the Christian God. And he did not stop there – he repeated his theological ruminations in the country’s leading sports media outlet. “There’s been numerous unfortunate cases of fratricide, and the parents have basically said, OK, it was an unfortunate accident,” he said during an ESPN interview in 2006. “And they let it go. So, this is—I don’t know, these people have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs. … So when you die, I mean there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die what is there to go to? Nothing. You’re worm dirt.” When asked if that was most likely the reason for the investigation “dragging on,” Kauzlarich agreed. “You know what,” he said, “I don’t think anything will make them [the Tillmans] happy.”

In an interview with, Mary Tillman responded to Kauzlarich’s musings: “Well, this guy makes disparaging remarks about the fact that we’re not Christians, and the reason that we can’t put Pat to rest is because we’re not Christians,” Mary said in an interview with “Oh, it has nothing to do with the fact that this whole thing is shady. But it is because we are not Christians.” Mary said that the family was spiritual, but that they did not hold to any organized religion. What the Tillmans did hold was a bond with Pat that was strong enough to bring his parents, Mary and the elder Patrick Tillman together (they were divorced) with Marie, Pat’s wife, and his brothers Kevin and Richard to suffer through constant repetition of the details of Pat Junior’s death in order to determine the facts, seek justice, and to stand in solidarity with other families that Mary had met whose stories of loved ones killed in action were falsified. For her part, Mary Tillman joined the board of the Patrick McCaffrey Foundation for homeless veterans. A California native, Patrick McCaffrey was in Iraq to train Iraqis in civil defense. After the revelation of torture done against Iraqis by Americans in Abu Ghraib, McCaffrey’s concerns for his own safety and fear of retaliation were ignored by his superiors, and in June he and Andre Tyson were killed by men they were training. The Army initially told his mother that her son and Tyson were killed by insurgents in an ambush. It took officials nine months to tell McCaffrey’s mother the real story.

Anti-Communitas and the Military

Communitas plays into the production of the Tillman counter-narrative in a couple of ways. Tillman had undergone Ranger training, which is an initiation designed to bond candidates as well as train them in small-unit combat tactics. The US military places tremendous stock in initiations that isolate candidates from society, then level them so that previous distinctions based on income, education, race, or ethnicity are of little to no importance. The degree of severity in these initiations increases the status conferred upon graduates. Regular Army, Navy, and Air Force training are understood to be the least severe (with the Air Force perceived as the least of the least), Marine training more intense, and special units such as Green Beret (Army), Paratrooper (Army), SEAL (Navy), Pararescue (Air Force), Reconnaissance (Marine), and Ranger (two programs: one open to all services, and the other for the Army’s 75th Regiment only) are even more grueling. Each of the academies for officers at West Point (Army), Annapolis (Navy), and Colorado Springs (Air Force) is likewise designed to create a communal bond through shared suffering, and the sense of honor that such bonding engenders in the context of an American warrior ethic.

Honor is an essential feature of military communitas – perhaps the essential feature. It signifies a cluster of virtues as well as perhaps a few vices, depending on how one distinguishes vice from virtue: honesty, bravery, duty, discipline, aggression, obedience, pride, vanity, grace under pressure, compassion for the downtrodden, mercy for the defeated, self-sacrifice, willingness to kill, and zeal to engage in vendetta against anyone who attacks the nation or one’s fellow warriors. Honor is a personal quality, one that is beyond the reach of public opinion, but it is also one’s reputation and is therefore in the public sphere. In addition, honor is a group possession: the actions of one or more members can bring honor or dishonor upon the team.

In joining a team with other warriors to engage in mass violence upon command, the combat fighter is the epitome of honor in the military because that fighter faces the greatest prospect of dying in the performance of duty. Initiation-generated communitas in the training of elite forces such as the Rangers bonds recruits in a siblinghood of honor, and it is the ultimate source for the most important feature of any military: group cohesion. But initiation-generated communitas can be used in ways that favor only a bond between the initiated, or it can manipulated to serve unethical purposes, two things that Pat Tillman assiduously resisted. The reason Tillman underwent Ranger training was to ensure he would engage the enemy at some point and help eliminate a danger to his people. But it would be wrong to say that “his people” were limited to Americans – it included innocent Afghan civilians. Nevertheless, the bond he appeared to have felt more than anything else during his deployment in Afghanistan was with a few SEALs and with his fellow Rangers, mostly younger men that looked up to him, and to whom he tried to impart a higher sense of ethics and comportment than the prevalent negative performance of cheap machismo that he saw around him. Deployment was his chance to transform his fellows for the better, an initiation of sorts that could generate its own communitas in the shared liminality of the combat zone. O’Neal (the young man he sought to protect in the last moments of his life) and Baer were two such comrades.

Pat Tillman could not prevent those his superiors from hiding their own hand in his death, nor could he stop them from distorting the details of his death as they created a patriotic caricature of him for public consumption, awarded him a medal based on a fictional account of his death, and consistently impeded any open inquiry concerning the ruse once it was discovered. As if to prove that the communitas generated by initiation can be subverted, some of the top military personnel responsible for permitting or perhaps even ordering layers of deception were themselves Rangers who acted in direct contradiction of Roger’s Ranger’s Standing Orders, Number 4:

Tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is an army depending on us for correct information. You can lie all you please when you tell other folks about the Rangers, but don’t never lie to a Ranger or officer.

This would likewise apply to the Rangers with whom Tillman served who knew how he died, but were ordered to be silent or to outright lie. Destroy the sense of honor that communitas in the military engenders, and the bond unravels. The communitas shared by the men of his Black Sheep squadron prior to his death was given a serious blow with the knowledge that some of their fellows had killed Pat Tillman, then undermined further when forced to lie to Kevin Tillman and the world, and even further trounced by official investigations that pitted them against each other as blame was sought at the lower levels of of the military hierarchy so that those at the top could remain unsullied. Just as the shared suffering and united front presented by the Tillman family eloquently bespeaks of communitas and honor regained, the traumatic event collectively experienced by the Black Sheep with Tillman’s death transformed into anti-communitas, exacerbated by relentless engagement in dishonorable conduct by their superiors. I do not intend to say that those men who killed Farhad and Tillman committed a criminal act. I have been assured by more than one person who has seen combat that fratricide is an expected byproduct of war, especially with troops that have never seen combat before, such as a significant number of men in Series Two when Pat was gunned down. I leave any determination of dishonor among the Black Sheep to those who witnessed the event firsthand. Dishonor associated with putting the Black Sheep in that situation to begin with, however, is another matter, as are the ways in which Pat’s death was handled afterwards.

In addition, the behavior of the Black Sheep that fired on Farhad and Tillman reflects serious flaws in their training and deployment. The lack of self-control in a time of danger was bad enough, but what was even worse was the utter disregard for Afghan civilians as the men fired at just about anything, including their own convoy and a village that showed no sign of insurgents. One might wonder whether Baker, his superiors, or the American media expressed any real concern for American troops firing into a village or for Farhad’s death, which is treated as incidental in almost every account of the firefight. We hear nothing about the loss of Farhad with regards to his family.

What is most damning is that the Army could have refused to release the details of Tillman’s death since the Black Sheep were a special operations team. Instead, officials told a series of lies in order to turn Tillman into a hero for propaganda purposes. The end result of such dishonorable conduct from those in command was a blow to the team that Pat Tillman loved, and to whom he demonstrated his commitment to that love, right up to the moment when one of his fellows killed him. But perhaps the vindication of his name, along with details of malfeasance from those in charge, could create a new bond among his fellow Rangers on the ground, one that vindicates their team (including Pat) as men who suffered, together, from the incompetence of superiors who were supposed to look out for them.

War, Sports, Human Sacrifice, and Grand Spectacle

“Pat Tillman was an inspiration on and off the football field, as with all who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror. His family is in the thoughts and prayers of President and Mrs. Bush,” said Taylor Gross, a spokesman for the White House, soon after Tillman’s death was reported in the media. But what exactly are the implications of ultimate sacrifice in this context?

The link between war, sports, and human sacrifice has precedent in two notable civilizations: ancient Romans and the Mexica, also known as Aztecs. In the capital cities of both empires were huge structures built for sports: the Colosseum and Circus Maximus in Rome and the Grand Ball Court in Tenochtitlan where Mexico City now stands. These edifices were spaces for athletic competitions that were martial, spiritual, and brutal forms of entertainment. The competitions were also related to human sacrifice, itself a form of entertainment. Roman gladiator contests were originally conducted as munera or “obligations.” When a great man died, warrior-slaves were killed or would fight to the death in his honor, a custom closely linked to patriotism, the health of the state, and fear of divine punishment. For the Mexica, ball court contests were part of an intricate cosmology dictating that warfare and blood sacrifice were necessary to keep the universe functioning.

One similarity between Roman and the Mexica civilizations was the expendability of warriors and athletes in the production of fictionalized communitas. Fans of the Colosseum and the Grand Ball Court were treated with narratives of manufactured heroes who were given honor for their entertainment value rather than valor on the battlefield. In Rome, gladiator-slaves fought and killed each other in mock battles (sometimes based on history and myth), and some became superstars. In the Grand Ball Court in Tenochtitlan, the game of ulama (played with a solid rubber ball about 10 inches in diameter that moved at speeds that could seriously injure or kill a player) might be followed by the bloody sacrifice of one or more team members, a ritual that guaranteed the victim an exalted afterlife. As honored as gladiators and athletes were in Rome and Tenochtitlan, they were expendable as props for gripping cosmic narratives enacted for the pleasure, inspiration, and horror of the populace.

Warfare and sacrifice are also intrinsically linked in American society. The text of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” implicitly refers to that link: “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” A more explicit link is revealed in his letter, written on November 21, 1864, to a Mrs. Bixby on the death of her son in battle: “I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” With the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the link between American football (performed in massive stadiums in every major city) and the military was made all the more strong in the Pentagon’s zeal to convince Americans to support the war effort by blending sports with military pomp and splendor. Tributes to the military became regular pre-game and halftime fare for both collegiate and professional football, especially during major events such as the annual Super Bowl. Versions of this tribute include bringing home a serviceperson stationed overseas, unbeknownst to the family, and staging a tearful reunion on the football field for all to see and consume as a poignant part of the sports/war spectacle.

In human sacrifice conducted by Mexica priests, premium was placed on providing the best possible victim: a brave warrior or ulama ball court athlete. Personal beauty could also be a factor. In an annual sacrifice to the god Tezcatlipoca, a handsome young man would live a life of luxury for a year as he represented the god, then taken to have his heart cut out with all due pomp and ceremony, and his skin removed for another to wear. In the American understanding of ultimate sacrifice, Tillman (much like Ellsworth before him) was perfect in ways that the Mexica would certainly understand: good-looking, well-built, brave, and a proven athlete in professional football, the country’s most martial of sports. And like the ulama athletes and captive warriors of Meso-America who were sacrificed so that the sun would keep burning, the fictionalized ultimate sacrifice of Tillman is situated in a larger cosmic narrative of good versus evil, a just God versus the dark forces of freedom’s enemies, a narrative that was first disrupted by the profanity-laden tribute to Pat Tillman as a secular humanist by his brother Richard, then completely undermined by the news of fratricide.

There is nothing inherently wrong with connecting sacrifice to honor or to any virtue. To give up something in order to contribute to the higher good is laudable. But in those instances where sacrifice of one’s body is connected with sports and warfare, sacrifice becomes attractive as a powerful commodity to bond the public to the team. Sacrifice invokes communitas and breaks down barriers between athletes/soldiers as they honor a fallen comrade, which in turn stirs strong emotions in team supporters. This has been especially true for men with regards to war, who then become inspired to engage in similar acts that could lead to their deaths so that they may share in the glory that their team possesses.

The teams in the gladiatorial games competed in violent contests that mimicked war without its reality – after all, gladiators were mostly from the despised slave caste. Nevertheless, this mimicry generated great social power in that it allowed spectators the chance to see for themselves from the safety of the stands at least one reality of war: bloodshed. By mimicking war with no cost in blood from the spectators, the games were false communitas, and by treating human lives as expendable, the games were anti-communitas. To a lesser extent, the same can be said about the relationship between fans and football players who risk serious injury (including permanent brain damage), a situation that is mitigated somewhat by the handsome salaries available to players. For the Mexica, however, there is another factor in the sports/warfare collusion, and that is paranoia. The rationale for sacrifice (and sacrifice permeated Aztec society in small as well as grand acts) was to keep the sun burning and preserve all life. Anti-communitas expressed as disregard for human life by the Mexica elite who ordered bloody spectacles was mitigated by the belief that athlete/warrior sacrifice guaranteed a wonderful afterlife for the victim, which in contemporary America is codified under the quasi-theological rationale that our warriors sacrifice themselves on the Altar of Freedom, also implying a glorious reward in the afterlife. This is why Richard Tillman’s assertion of his brother’s nontheist beliefs was met with incredulity and consternation because it undermined Pat Tillman’s suitability as an appropriately spiritual blood offering, even before details of fratricide were revealed.

Pat Tillman regarded his prowess in football as insignificant compared to the demands of honor placed upon him by the 9/11 attacks. The general public, however, was astounded by his decision – the distinction between football hero and war hero was not as stark to them. Rather than Warrior Tillman eclipsing Athlete Tillman, his stature was magnified by both. Add to this the increase in paranoia instilled in the American public by the Bush Administration concerning terrorism in order to invade Iraq (as well as the temptation for any administration to promote heroic narratives for the war effort, whether those narratives are based on fact or not), and it is not surprising that Tillman’s body, draped in the shroud of a warrior-martyr, was placed squarely on the Altar of Freedom.

Nevertheless, the fictional, patriotic image of Pat Tillman as a sacrificial offering to inspire support for the war was a temporary phenomenon, thanks to his family. Pat Tillman continues to inspire admiration, regardless of the details concerning his death. The Pat Tillman Foundation gives scholarships to veterans, an annual race is dedicated to him, and there is a bronze statue of him in football gear in front of the Cardinals Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. But he is no longer a recruiting tool for the US military, unless we count those women and men who are inspired by the counter-narrative of an intellectual, ethical, nonreligious hero whose vision was not limited to his immediate tribe, and whose family’s counter-narrative stands as an indictment against an abusive president, vice president, and secretary of defense.

In addition to the counter-narratives generated by Tillman and his family, there is a counter-narrative that is critical of invoking the image of battlefield casualties as human sacrifice to any god, government, or ideal. Losing one’s life for a good cause is not necessarily a bad thing. Framing death in combat as martyrdom to further the war effort, be it factual in the case of Elmer Ellsworth or fictitious in the case of Pat Tillman, smacks of dishonorable manipulation of the dead for propaganda. Perhaps the story of Pat Tillman can help put that powerful, communitas-invoking, and abused Altar of Freedom metaphor to rest.

Chapter 5: Power Infiniti

Since the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, Gay men have danced together in large numbers without fear of incarceration. Love of communal dancing led to the circuit, a series of weekend-long parties that privilege muscular, masculine beauty. Within the circuit is a handful of male performance artists in semi-drag who dance and lip-sync for the duration of a song. These entertainers often have backup dancers and exotic costumes, but the most important thing they bring to the stage is fierceness.

One of the best compliments in American LGBT folk­ speech is to be called “fierce.” One may have a fierce body, fierce haircut, fierce tattoo, fierce sense of humor, or fierce attitude. A drag king or queen in a eye-catching outfit may be fierce. DJs who get the crowd jumping are fierce. People who dance well are fierce. Those who are the life of the party are fierce. Fierceness is power. It is not, however, destructive power or deadly force—it is not savage, violent, ferocious, or terrible. Taken from the wordplay of African American Gay men in the ballroom scene, fierceness is often expressed as charismatic authority that demands admiration.

Power Infiniti (Dale Wilson) has been a performance artist since 1994. He and his fellow performance artists are unlikely superstars in the circuit world. They tend to be dark-skinned and slender rather than the typical light-skinned (before tanning), muscular Anglo or Hispanic circuit god that garners so much attention on and off the dance floor. In addition, performance artists flaunt femininity as well as masculinity in costume, makeup and choreography. They purposely situate themselves in a social limbo – physically fit but not muscle-bound, and androgynously feminine but not as feminine as a traditional drag queen.

That ambiguity is the beauty of the performance artist. The circuit scene is infamous for body fascists, attractive snobs who judge those around them on physical appearance and masculine demeanor – body fascism may also include racial bias. Such snobbery, ubiquitous in the Gay male community, is also found in the circuit milieu, and it creates tremendous anxiety for participants obsessed with having the right physique, face, and butchness. Performance artists undermine that anxiety by claiming for themselves the coin of the realm, favorable attention, without conforming to the dictates of body fascism, race, or butchness.

Roots of Fierceness: A Short History of Drag

The existence of Gay communities in history is often difficult to ascertain, due to moral censure of same-sex erotic-romantic love that not only discouraged such communities but also inspired scholars and legal authorities to erase any traces of it from the past. Nevertheless, evidence of Gay communities can be found in late seventeenth-early eighteenth century British police records concerning molly houses, secret places where mollies (slang for feminine males and men who desired sex with other men) would drink, sing, dance, and have sex. Some of the male participants would also dress as women. Molly houses were performance spaces, not only for cross-dressing but also for mock weddings and childbirths. Authorities shut the molly houses down in the early eighteenth century.

The late nineteenth-early twentieth century saw the rise of female impersonators in America, such as Julian Eltinge and Bert Savoy, both of whom were featured plying their craft in movies. Playing to the prejudices of his era, Eltinge portrayed himself as a masculine Straight man when not onstage. Savoy, however, did not. He was flamboyantly effeminate in his mannerisms, and he used camp (exaggerated dramatic presentation) as a vehicle for humor. Nationally famous for his comedy, his last words were uttered in 1923 while walking on a Long Island beach during a thunderstorm. “Ain’t Miss God cutting up something awful?” he exclaimed, just before being struck by a lightning bolt.

Eltinge and Savoy were public faces of a Gay underground culture that was emerging in New York City. Drag balls, gala events for cross-dressing males that can be traced back to the late nineteenth century, were gaining popularity. One particular drag ball in Harlem, called “the Hamilton Lodge Ball” or “Faggot’s Ball,” drew large numbers of onlookers and participants. These events featured not only drag but also acted as venues where people of the same sex could dance together as couples. Drag balls coincided with the pansy craze, a time when nightclubs featuring males in drag became a popular urban phenomenon, especially during prohibition. Authorities began shutting down drag balls and pansy clubs after Prohibition ended. Drag performances went underground until the 1950s when some bars in San Francisco (the Black Cat and Finocchio’s for men, Mona’s for women) banded together to change the city’s restrictive laws concerning drag.


The circuit began within a couple of years after the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, which occurred one month before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. In the first hours of June 28, the police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. The Stonewall Inn was a dive bar that featured watered-down drinks, a jukebox, and a dance floor. Gender- and orientation-variant people went there to cruise and dance. A flashing light was set up to let folks know when the police were coming (the bar had no liquor license, and cross-dressing was illegal), so the owners of the bar regularly paid the police to leave the bar alone, or at least give them a heads-up if a raid were to commence. That night, however, there was no warning. Males wearing feminine makeup had no time to wipe it off, and the officers forcibly escorted them and any females in men’s clothing to a paddy wagon outside of the club. A crowd gathered in front of Stonewall during the raid. Things got out of hand when those under arrest refused to cooperate, and bystanders began throwing things at the police, who ran back into the club until reinforcements arrived. For three days, the streets in Greenwich Village were the setting for confrontations between riot police and protesters, including chorus lines of drag queens putting on impromptu performances taunting the officers, then running away. When things settled down, New York City officials decided to quit enforcing laws forbidding cross-dressing and men dancing with men. Labeled the “Stonewall Riots,” the insurrection was marked by some violence (most of it against the protesters by police) but without fatalities, which could be attributed in part to protesters’ use of humor and dance rather than deadly force in their performance of resistance.

With Gay Liberation came fundraiser dances, which became so popular for Gay men that large clubs opened to cater to their desires. It was also the birth of DJ culture, including sound systems geared for the dance floor, lights that flashed to the pulse of the beat, and techniques for mixing one song into the next without a pause so that participants would stay on the dance floor. The epicenter of this subculture was Manhattan in the cooler months of the year, and Fire Island (a barrier island off the coast of Long Island) in the summer, as Gay men migrated from one to the other in what became known as the circuit. Men who made the seasonal pilgrimage were called “circuit queens.” The subculture of dancing, shirtless men in venues with state-of-the-art sound systems and DJ equipment was easily exportable, and its prefered genre of music, disco, went with it across the USA and around the globe. The Manhattan-Fire Island circuit spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Along with the rise of disco, drag culture (including the Imperial Court started by Sarria) continued to expand throughout the country.

The “Disco Sucks” Movement

Disco music had gained tremendous attention in the mid- to late ‘70s. But the genre was considered antithetical to rock music and Straight masculinity due to its association with the Gay male community and the influence of LGBT artists such as Sylvester and the Village People. ­On July 12, 1979 (three weeks after the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising), Chicago radio personality Steve Dahl supervised a Disco Demolition rally at Chicago’s Comiskey Park during a baseball double­header between the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago White Sox. Already having positioned himself as an anti-disco warrior, Dahl appeared on the field dressed in paramilitary gear, then proceeded to burn several thousand disco albums that fans had brought in exchange for reduced admission. The album­-burning excited the overwhelmingly White male teenage spectators into a frenzy as they poured onto the field, ripped up the turf, set fires, and started fights while chanting, “Disco sucks!”

Disco Demolition was an excellent example of anti-communitas, and the publicity stunt succeeded in marginalizing the LGBT community from the mainstream, marking the end of the brief disco era that allowed people of different orientations and gender expression to gather together on the dance floor. Mel Cheren, founder of West End Records, explains the backlash:

The music market is largely a zero­-sum game, so as disco rose, everything else had to fall… Rock had defined two generations of white middle-class straight baby-­boomers, particularly guys. It spoke to them and for them, and now it was in danger of being relegated to a niche market itself by a new style dominated by black musicians and Gay promoters, producers, and tastemakers… Beneath the bitter complaints that disco was mindless, hedonistic, repetitive, pounding — exactly what critics had said about rock itself in its early years — there was this deeper complaint: disco was black and Hispanic. Disco was mindless and gay. Disco sucked.

But the disco sound was alive and well in Gay men’s clubs well into the ‘80s and beyond. DJs kept disco going with their own remixes (edited versions of songs) as well as new songs such as Jimmy Ruffin’s “Hold On (To My Love),” released in 1980, and Viola Wills’ cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “If You Could Read My Mind,” which remained staples in Gay male venues and circuit parties for the next two decades.

Disco’s Revenge and the Ballroom Scene

Two of the most important Gay DJs during the late 1970s were Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, friends who got their start playing records in the Continental Baths, a Gay men’s bathhouse in Manhattan. Levan was famous for his diva personality, boldness in music selection, and the incredible sound system he had set up in the Paradise Garage, the Manhattan nightclub in which he was the resident DJ (his music was called “the Garage sound”). For his part, Knuckles moved to Chicago, where he gained fame in a venue called the Warehouse for what became known as house music (named after the Warehouse but, in terms of its musical elements, originated with other Chicago DJs besides Knuckles, including Ron Hardy and the Hot Mix 5), which featured strong electronic beats and basslines.

Another facet of house music was the way in which it brought people from different backgrounds, races, gender expression, and orientations together. Knuckles described the Warehouse as “church for people who have fallen from grace,” and house music as “disco’s revenge.” He attributed the power of the music to the ways in which it invokes a spiritual experience for participants on the dance floor when social barriers between them fall, an experience that easily falls under the category of communitas:

For me, it’s definitely like church… Because, when you’ve got three thousand people in front of you, that’s three thousand different personalities. And when those three thousand personalities become one personality, it’s the most amazing thing. It’s like that in church. By the time the preacher gets everything going, or that choir gets everything going, at one particular point, when things start peaking, that whole room becomes one, and that’s the most amazing thing about it.

Meanwhile, the Manhattan/Fire Island circuit continued into the 1980s. Two large private clubs in Manhattan were prominent: the aforementioned Paradise Garage (a dancer’s club catering to a diverse crowd, primarily African American and Hispanic) and the Saint (a place to be seen, to find beautiful and predominantly White men, do drugs, dance, and have sex in its balcony).

From inner city drag during the 1980s came ballroom (or ball) culture, which featured underground communities that participated in balls: drag contests for realness (males passing as women, lower-class people passing as members of the upper class, contests for expressing masculinity and femininity by anyone of whatever gender or orientation). Each contestant typically belongs to a house: a group of competitors under a mother or father. House names are often taken from the world of fashion, such as the House of Dior and House of Blahnik. The emphasis on high fashion, however, does not restrain participants from calling each other “bitch,” “whore,” or “cunt” (to call something or someone “cunty” is a compliment in the ball community). Especially prominent are emcees (masters of ceremony) who maintain a running monologue-chant that may be peppered with obscenities during the proceedings.

There are several important structural and functional similarities between ballroom and Candomblé communities: within both are houses (casas) with a mother or father in charge. Both take in the dispossessed, especially people of color and those that are gender/orientation variant. Both involve dramatic performance of empowered identities, and both come out of communities descended from African slaves. Even more striking is the emphasis on the festive in song and dance as well as the subversion and reinforcement of gender. But the differences are even more profound, at least in terms of ideology. There is the sense of life and death in the sacred production of axé, while realness in the ballroom scene is a high form of outrageous play and not holiness per se. Still, Candomblé Ketu does have the orixá Exu, God of the Crossroads, who loves outrageous play and can be as entertaining and obscene as any ballroom emcee.

AIDS and the Rebirth of the Circuit

The onslaught of AIDS brought the scene to a standstill. So many men who were members of the Saint were stricken with the new plague that it was called the “the Saint disease.” Both the Saint and the Paradise Garage closed by the late 1980s. The ballroom scene likewise suffered: “The balls in 1981 and 1982 had a lot of diversity,” remembered Kevin Omni Burrus of the House of Omni. “There were many heterosexual males and females that attended the balls. This was probably due to it being the pre-HIV/AIDS era. And to be in the company with the kids [ball competitors] was legendary. The ball kids were the ones who could dress, party and turn it. The atmosphere was so different when we had a great mixture. You had the Latins, the Asians, the Caucasians. You had variety… Prior to HIV/AIDS, there was much more freedom and acceptance in the air.” Like the Disco Demolition, AIDS had created a rift between Straight and Gay communities.

The Gay male dance community slowly recovered. Fundraiser parties were thrown in various cities to raise money for HIV/AIDS research and charities. In the 1990s, the success of different medications and the prevalence of steroids to counter the body-wasting effects of HIV/AIDS led to an abundance of not just well-built men but also men (both HIV+ and HIV-) with bodybuilder physiques. Some of the fundraisers grew in size, and parties were added in a yearly calendar that took circuit boys to venues from coast to coast. The circuit generated its own set of DJs superstars, favorite divas (female singers such as Marsha Wash, Jeanie Tracey, Debra Cox, Ultra Naté, Peppa Mashé, Inaya Day, and Kristine W), light technicians, party producers, and performance artists.

Along with the resurrection of the circuit came the return of ballroom culture, which gained international attention when Malcolm McLaren and the Bootzilla Orchestra released “Deep in Vogue” in 1989, and the pop singer Madonna incorporated ballroom icons in the video for her hit song, “Vogue” in 1990. Since that time, the ball scene has attracted an international audience, and ball houses have sprung up across the United States and beyond.

The ball scene is a counter-cultural movement that has made a strong impression on the African American community, particularly the African American Queer community. From Black Queers (who make up a sizeable percentage of LGBT entertainers), ball terminology has made its way into the LGBT community. The push for excellence in the performance of realness has made it possible for ball competitors to do well as entertainers in the circuit, which like the ball scene, is seen as a counter-culture in most of the country. The ball scene is also transgressive; one important feature of competitions is shade (doing or saying something that denigrates another person, often obliquely) and reading (criticizing someone). The competitiveness of a ball often leads to shade being thrown from one house against another as they vie for status.

Circuit Maximus

As a result of AIDS/HIV activism and better treatment for the ill, the circuit was on the rise in the 1990s, as were steroids and drugs associated with dancing. Men who attended these parties set themselves apart from the general Gay male population. Circuiteers had their own music, specifically tailored to the dance floor with beats per minute (BPM) between 120-130, and sold by the DJs in the scene on compact discs in clubs and at events. Circuit queens were meticulous about their looks – the majority of them were physically fit, and a sizable minority (25-45 percent) were noticeably muscular. Costuming could be elaborate, depending on the party, but the typical dance floor uniform was a pair of jeans and a tank top or form-fitting T-shirt that was removed during the course of the evening. The best men’s accessory for a circuit party was a muscular physique. Circuiteers had their drugs of choice to enhance the dance experience, each with its own girl-name: Stacey (MDMA), Katie (ketamine), Gina (GHB), and Tina (crystal methamphetamine).

The goal of the circuit experience was multiple sensory overload that was centered on dancing. An astute DJ could literally move large numbers of participants onto the dance floor and keep them there for hours. Being in that mass of bodies (described often as a “sea of men”), all moving to the same beat in a large, dark venue with flashing, multicolored lights, was intoxicating all by itself. Given the appropriate dosage, the four girlfriends (Stacey, Katie, Gina, and Tina) could enhance perception of movement, music, and lights as well as loosen inhibitions. Dance floor etiquette had some basic rules, such as not touching anyone who did not want to be touched and (typically) not having actual sex. But it was not unusual for men to form lines of bodies back-to-front against each other (“the caterpillar”) to maximize sensual contact, or for men to have their hands down each other’s pants when the party was going strong.

Circuit boys lived for these weekend-long dance events, usually travelling together in tight-knit groups of friends. Although a circuit party did not usually have competitions per se (Hotlanta and IML were exceptions), the parties were, and still are, arenas for competition. Walking into an event is exhilarating but also terrifying – everyone is watching each other, and not always with benign intent. The most attractive men can be brutal in their disdain for anyone they feel was not of their calibre, proof of Georg Simmel’s observation that vanity is the need for others in order to despise them. This is one major reason why people travel in packs and use the girlfriends – egos are on the line. When snubbed by the object of one’s desires, a crowded dance floor can feel like the loneliest place on earth. The so-called A-List participants are not immune to intimidation. They also risk having their hopes crushed when swimming in the circles of the elect, and everyone knows that looks do not last forever. A flaw in character or being messy when improperly dosed can bring down even the mighty. To ease tensions, it is also not unusual for participants to engage in hilarious behavior. Since positive attention is the coin of the realm, such antics are especially important in helping uptight people relax, laugh at themselves and each other, and have fun.

The greatest pleasure of all occurs when the DJ packs the dance floor, raises the energy of the crowd, and brings everyone to a shared state of sensory overload that shatters barriers between them. Participants become one body-mind, a phenomenon that I call transcendent solidarity. It is a communitas moment, a respite from all the judgment, anxiety, and arrogance that alienate people. In the social engineering that circuit party promoters, sound engineers, set designers, light technicians, and DJs are adept, a properly executed performance artist show is one means for generating transcendental solidarity.

Miami, EDM, and the Circuit

Chicago and New York were not the only centers of dance music and Gay male festive culture. Miami has been internationally famous as a focal point for electronic dance music (EDM) since the 1980s, and has had circuit parties since the early 1990s. Miami is the home of the Winter Music Conference (WMC), a week-long gathering of EDM and house music industry people since 1985. Miami is also the home of Ultra, a massive EDM festival that started in 1999 (Ultra draws 100,000-150,000 people), and El Festival de la Calle Ocho, a Cuban-inspired Latin American street party in its Little Havana neighborhood that attracts over one million people.

One reason for the city’s centrality in the dance music scene is its history as a crossroads between mainstream America and Latin America, particularly Cuba. “Miami has always had its own distinct sound which was based heavily on the clave or Afro-Cuban rhythms,” said Ray Kirk of WMC. “This sound became dominant in a lot of the ‘90s house vibes being created by MURK [a Miami underground house music team made up of Oscar G and Robert Falcon] and Gay DJs Abel [Aguilera], Peter Rauhofer, Danny Tenaglia and Junior Vasquez.” When Cuban refugees fled their country after Fidel Castro took over, Miami benefited from the culture the refugees brought with them, including rhythms used in Cuban folk music and Santería-Lukumí, African Cuban religion based heavily on Yoruba spiritual praxes. “The clave sound has existed here for decades,” said Kirk, “in the Afro-Cuban jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s, in the ‘70s labels like TK Disco that brought this sound to the clubs and discotheques, and in the ‘80s Miami’s freestyle sound used the clave as its base, which of course segued into the ‘90s house scene and the Yemaya Y Ochun!! Party.”

There has also been a thriving Gay male club scene. “Clubs such Warsaw [Theatre] and Paragon in the early ‘90s ushered in a period of unadulterated fun and debauchery with the Sunday T-Dance at Warsaw and foam parties at Amnesia, – the heyday as I like to call it,” recounted Kirk. When Warsaw Theatre and Paragon closed, “the boys were jonesing for a new megaclub and Salvation was the answer. The vibe [at Salvation] was your typical circuit vibe: hot shirtless sweaty men high on a bump of K [ketamine] and banging circuit and tribal house music.”

Miami and Kitty Meow

To understand the story of Power Infiniti, it is best to start with his mentor and friend, Kitty Meow. Born Shawn Palacious in Nassau, the Bahamas, Palacious moved to the USA for boarding school. While in fashion school around 1991, he began hitting the Miami club scene. “I was not fully formed yet,” Palacious said about the early days, referring to his eventual transformation into Kitty Meow. He became a club kid (a dance club attendee who dresses up in eye-catching outfits and makeup). His fashion sense and training in design caught the attention of party promoters, including Suzanne Barsch, who introduced New York and Hollywood celebrities to Miami nightlife.

Palacious was approached to compete in Miami’s ballroom scene: “I didn’t want to at first because I did not belong to a ballroom house,” he said. “With encouragement from my friends, I didn’t say I was affiliated with a house, but rather to a temple: the Temple of Kitty Meow,” and she took “Kitty Meow” as her performance name. Kitty became known in both the club scene and the ball scene in Miami. When a new mega-club called Paragon opened in South Beach, Miami under promoter Mike Mazon, Kitty participated in the extravagant opening: “There were a hundred people in costume along the road in front of Paragon. The police had to close the road due to the crush of people trying to get in.” With her connections with Suzanne Barsch and the nationally famous Paragon nightclub (a connection she kept alive when Paragon closed, then reopened as Level), Kitty became a Miami celebrity and was hired to perform at major circuit parties in the USA, such as Palm Springs White Party and Miami’s own White Party. But she did not perform in traditional drag: “I never felt right impersonating a real girl. I just feel more comfortable in semi-drag.”

Kitty also became part of a jet-set that travelled to major cities in the USA and Europe, and she became friends with Kevin Aviance, another person of color who performed in semi-drag, had associations with the ball and circuit communities, and had formed her own troupe: The Cunties. Kevin was particularly affiliated with DJ Junior Vasquez (who had residencies in various Manhattan clubs such as Twilo and Sound Factory). For her part, Kitty was closely associated with South Beach clubs Paragon, Salvation, and Level, and with DJ Abel Aguilera. It was while working with Salvation after Paragon closed that Power Infiniti caught Kitty’s eye.

Miami and Power Infiniti

Dale Wilson was born in Scarborough, Tobago. His parents were of Caribbean descent: his mother was Trinidadian and his father Jamaican. Soon after his birth, they moved to New York City, then to Miami, Florida. Growing up was not easy for young Dale. His father was physically abusive to his mother, brother, and himself. Small of stature, he learned to defend himself outside of the home with such robustness that his friends called him Power. His mother insisted on sending her boys to private school, a financial burden to which her husband did not always contribute. At the age of nineteen, he moved in with his boss from work after being displaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Liberated from the strident anti-LGBT conditioning he received from his Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing, he was dazzled by Miami’s vibrant Gay male club scene, which included circuit culture. He remembered standing on Ocean Drive in Miami’s South Beach, making a vow to himself that he would “conquer the city.”

While in Miami, he joined the ballroom scene and learned the art of fierceness: “My connection with the Ballroom scene started a couple years after coming out, with me taking notice of the children of the House of Xxcentrika serving drama on the dance floor,” he said in a 2007 interview:

A ball thrown by diva Jo-Jo Infiniti,, who really opened up the ballroom scene in Florida, was the first time I got to see underground talent up close. These kids were doing things that, if displayed on any stage at any circuit party, would make the boys and girls of clubland gag [watch the performance in amazement]. I soon opened up my own house, the House of Righteous Shade, and went head-to-head in ballroom competitions with other Florida houses, like the House of Lords, House of Xxcentrika, and (at the time) our archrivals, the House of Infiniti.

As Dale Wilson became Power Infiniti, she left the ballroom scene when she decided to make it as a performer in Miami. “After a few years, I wanted to make my mark on the club scene, including the circuit,” she said. “I left my House [and competition in the Ballroom scene] in ‘97. My friendship with Jo-Jo Infiniti, however, remained solid and as a result, I eventually became a member of the House of Infiniti. I’ve been an Infiniti ever since, which is why my full name is Power Infiniti.” Power’s time in the ball scene honed her skills, especially in terms of confidence that fierceness entails:

When a ballroom competitor switches to the circuit, the need for drama and shade is greatly reduced. The things the kids do for a ballroom contest are so much more amazing than what we do during a circuit performance because the ballroom crowd is a tough crowd to please. If you want 10’s across the board [approval from the judges and crowd], you’d better be able to turn it or you will get chopped [disqualified] and told to sit down.

The skills that hPower learned as a ballroom competitor (especially the confidence that comes with fierceness) were crucial in getting her renown, especially her experience in the competitive category known as bizarre. This category is the most creative of all categories – “bizarre” means going beyond gender realness and into the realm of sci-fi-like fantasy. “I started as a club kid, then learned the art of traditional drag, But the need to be bizarre and different helped morph me into the image people see today.” She took the costuming and makeup she had learned in the ball scene and worked it into choreographed routines, which meant that her expression of bizarre (which in ball competition might include elaborate costumes that do not lend themselves easily to exuberant dance moves) was expressed in form-fitting, sensual clothing. Like Kitty Meow and Kevin Aviance, Power became a ballroom-circuit hybrid, just as the drag aspects of her costuming blended feminine and masculine elements.

Before Dale entered the circuit scene as a performance artist, he was a drag queen in South Beach, a role that he felt never quite fit him but was necessary for him at that point to make it in the Gay male club scene. “I had to make a decision,” he said, “either to get a boyfriend or do drag. The men I wanted were not into queens. So I chose career over love.” But like Kitty Meow, Power Infiniti was never really comfortable presenting himself as totally feminine; the sensuous androgyny of circuit performance was more his style.

Salvation and Abel

The rise of the circuit in the late 1990s coincided with the increasingly vibrant Miami party scene. Power described the energy of those days: “The Miami club scene from 1997 to 2002 can be described with two words: ‘bigger’ and ‘better.’ There was just more of everything. More boys, bigger venues, bigger parties, bigger shows, more decadence, more of a mix between Straight and Gay, and more time to party, since the 5 am closing time wasn’t enforced back then.” In the midst of the flourishing scene, Salvation nightclub gained prominence as a destination for circuit boys, not only during the major circuit events such as the White Party on American Thanksgiving weekend and the Winter Party in early March, but every Saturday night. It was a space that Power remembered well:

Salvation was appropriately called ‘The World’s Only Weekly Circuit Party.’ Salvation was located on Miami Beach, tucked away on West Avenue and 17th Street. It was a huge multi-story venue. Downstairs was the main room. Huge dance floor and stage. In the four corners of the dance floor were huge speakers with platforms in front of the them where the go-go gods [muscular dancersl] would hype the energy. Upstairs would open on busier weekends. We would hold the crowd in a separate room at the beginning of the night and then open the main doors around 11 or 12 to a show. From there the party took off. We would then time another show to be put on right at the peak of the night’s energy, and after that one final one around close of the night.

One reason for Salvation’s popularity, Power said, was the crowd it drew:
The crowd at Salvation was beautiful, energetic, and music-driven. At that time, most of the gay population lived on or around South Beach, so we had our core locals that were faithful to Salvation every week. They took the time to dress fashion forward but not too dressy, as most ended up with shirts off anyways. They knew their music. They knew their divas. There was such excitement around Saturday nights every week. It was the place to see and be seen.

Salvation was also the residence of DJ Abel Aguilera, a Miami native and Cuban American who gained a following for himself by playing and remixing songs with a strong Latin flavor to them. Not only was DJ Abel popular in Miami – he had a following all over the USA wherever circuit events were held. “Abel was the captain of the ship and took us on a musical Journey every week,” said Power. “Now people usually pay big ticket prices to hear him when he comes to their city or circuit party event. We had him every week. Add to that the South Beach boys: seven hundred to a thousand of the hottest bodies moving and partying on the dance floor, hands in the air, living for the vibe.” The combination of Latin-infused music, large venue, and a large number of regular clientele put Salvation on the map for circuiteers from Los Angeles to London and from Toronto to São Paulo.

The circuit world in the late twentieth-early twenty-first century was centered around the cult of the DJ, which even today is different from the craven DJ adoration of the Straight EDM crowd. At Ultra, Miami’s massive EDM festival for example, the mostly Straight audience typically faces a superstar DJ for the entire set, which might go for an hour or less. In the circuit, a DJ might play music for six hours or longer, and the crowd is more concerned with flirting, dancing, and romancing than fixating on whoever was in the DJ booth. According to Abel, “The DJ takes you on a journey – I lift you up, we reach a peak, then I bring you down at the end of the set.” The journey is a shared adventure for all, even as flirting, joking, and throwing shade went on between participants. The job of a good DJ is to provide an epic soundtrack for dance floor drama.

Due to the intimacy of the circuit community, most anyone can get to know at least one famous DJ, and DJs knew the limits of their power. The first rule is to keep the pulse of the music going as not to throw off participants in their performance of communal dance. Circuit venues have dance boxes and stages, not only for go-go dancers but also for participants to show off their moves. When Power signed on as performance artist, he knew his role was to work with DJ Abel, not compete with him. Each of the three shows for an evening at Salvation was the length of a song that the performance artist chose in advance. It was then up to the performance artist to choreograph the show with costumes, dancers, and props, and up to the DJ to fit the song into the evening’s musical flow. Although the performance artist was the star while the song played, Power recognized that the DJ was the star for the night:

I always looked at myself as the accessory to the night, not the main feature. That role went to Abel. I have always believed that the most legendary clubs are clubs where the music comes first, and Abel was the Dj-producer that drove the feeling and energy, every week, to hundreds of fans. I always collaborated with him when doing my shows because the shows and the music had to marry perfectly to add to the night. A show can accentuate a musical journey if both the Dj and the performer work together. If not, a show can take away from a night just as easily.

Abel Aguilera played music for radio and clubs before he got into the circuit scene. “My first circuit break was White Party ‘90 at Paragon,” he said, noting that the nightclub Paragon had opened some eight months earlier. Miami’s White Party is held on American Thanksgiving weekend, and is one of the longest running HIV/AIDS benefits in the USA, and Abel’s debut opened the door to many more events across the nation. He also made his mark on the dance music charts, producing and remixing songs with his characteristic Latin flair. Abel attracted both the circuit crowd and the ballroom children, including the House of Infiniti to which Power belonged. “The Infinitis used to follow me,” Abel said. “I saw something in Power that drew my attention,” so he pushed to have Power as a professional performer each week at Salvation. But their relationship began earlier, when Abel was a DJ at Paragon. Abel invited Power and others in the ballroom scene to perform onstage during his sets – this was not a paid gig, but it got them in the club free of charge. Power remembered how important it was for him to get recognition from people in the club world:

Abel helped me out when nobody else would. When I first came into the South Beach scene, people treated me like Texas dirt, noonch kapoonch [unimportant]. One week, I went to Paragon and patiently stood at door. The doorman looked right through me as if I was invisible, even as he opened the velvet rope to let others in. Feeling humiliated, I walked away. Afterwards, I spoke with Abel and asked him if me and some of the ballroom kids could go to the club and turn it out onstage as he DJ’ed. Abel put us on the guestlist, and the next week that same doorman had no choice but to open the rope and let us prance in. I never forgot how Abel gave me life that night.

Abel and Power have a close relationship forged from years of working together. When Abel talks about Power, he switches genders; sometimes he refers to Power as feminine, sometimes as masculine, depending on whether he is talking about Power the onstage performer or Power offstage. During the course of a conversation Abel and I had in July 2016, he described how the two of them collaborated on a performance for Salvation or a major circuit event. “Unless we used a classic, the performances were done with cutting-edge songs. Whatever remixes I was working on were available to her [Power].” Abel recalled Power having a penchant for excellence: “Sometimes she would pay for backup dancers out of her own pocket, just for the show.” But what struck Abel was the nature of Power the performance artist: “He wasn’t like your typical drag queen. He’s not a drag queen – he’s a performance artist.”

Kitty Meow, Kevin Aviance, Flava

Like drag queens, performance artists would lip-sync to a popular dance hit onstage. Unlike drag queens, however, there was no banter, no tipping, and the artist would leave the stage right after the song was finished, so there was no break in the groove that the DJ had worked so hard to create. Typically, these performances (called “hot spots”) were a welcome break for the sweating masses on a packed dance floor, who were free to keep moving to the beat as the show went on. When Power entered the Miami scene, Kitty Meow had already made his mark as a performance artist, and the two became friends, along with a third performance artist diva, Flava (who gained fame in Los Angeles), and Kevin Aviance (who became a club icon while working with DJ Junior Vasquez). All four performance artist adopted a similar semi-drag look:

Long before there was an official circuit scene, there were performers that were using androgyny [shaved heads, semi-drag]. Much respect has to be given to my sister Kitty Meow; though not alone in her styling because Kevin Aviance would also perform quite androgynous from time to time, she did in fact help to pioneer the circuit scene. So I would have to say in the Circuit scene, it pretty much started with Kitty Meow.

None of the four performance artists mentioned in this chapter is White/Anglo, and only Flava (Mark Martinez) is not African American. Each of them made it in a world where the majority of American participants, promoters, and DJs are not people of color. Of the four, two of them (Power and Kitty) are children of immigrants. And although he grew up in the USA, Power was not a citizen until 2016.

Dance Floor Spirituality

As a space in which Gay men and their allies can dance, flirt, and get intoxicated for over the course of a weekend, circuit parties can sometimes take on a sense of the sacred. Hours of sonically-driven movement for participants in altered states can generate transcendent solidarity, a synchronization of the collective body-mind of the dance floor crowd in which everyone is simultaneously performer and observer. Circuiteers who report the feeling of joy that arises at such moments often describe it in spiritual terms, as a return to the dawn of spiritual impulses among members of our species untold millennia ago. Such descriptions are similar to those coming from aficionados of deep house music pioneered by DJs such as Frankie Knuckles and his “church for people who have fallen from grace.” And deep house music sometimes dovetails with the circuit sound; both favor soulful women’s vocals and the occasional remixes of Gospel-inspired songs such as “Rise Up (Put Your Faith in Jesus”), “This Joy,” “He Is the Joy” as well as various praise-songs to Yoruba deities such as Eshu, Shango, and Oshun. That same spiritual resonance can be seen in the name of the club, Salvation. Like the Saint in Manhattan, the effect of Salvation on the Gay male dance community was so pronounced that Salvation parties continued to be thrown in Miami and in Europe, just as Saint parties have been thrown in Manhattan, long after both clubs shut their doors.

Despite the significant differences between a circuit party and a Spirit-filled church service or traditional African ceremony, I have heard men with an Evangelist Christian background say that going to a circuit party is like going to church. The same is true for Lorenzo Cardim de Almeida, a member of the Candomblé community who was born in Bahia and moved to Washington, DC. He went to his first circuit party in 1999 (DC’s Cherry Party):

I felt like I was in a trance, like I would at a festa. It was spiritual. When you go to a festa, with the music, singing, the drums, the clapping, everybody’s energy is focused on the same place. It puts you into something that is bigger than yourself. The same thing when I go to a circuit party, with the music, the beat, everybody dancing. When I’m dancing in the circuit, I feel like I’m not in my body any more. As simply as I can say it, it’s a religious experience when you combine the music, drums, and beat… After a circuit party, I feel the same way as I would if I were coming back from a Candomblé ceremony. I have an energy that I can’t fake.

But the much-desired pleasure of transcendent solidarity can be demolished by body fascism and clique-ish behavior. This is where performance artists can make a difference. Echoing the sentiments of DJ Frankie Knuckles, Power feels that his art form has a spiritual dimension to it:

When I perform, my attitude is this: “If I feel it, yo’ ass is gonna feel it too.” Performance art is definitely spiritual. I feel like I’m taking you to church, so to speak. If someone is truly passionate about the message or the energy that they are giving, you can’t help but feel it, much like a preacher who catches the spirit when he speaks and the rest of the church catches it with him. It’s no different.

I witnessed one such performance by Power in 2003 that had a strong religious dimension built into it:

I was performing for Fireball, Chicago’s now dismantled circuit party, and I decided to do a song called “Children of the World” because of the message of the song, which was all about unity. The producers of my event had access to a gospel choir and the rest, as they say, was history. The crowd gagged when, in the middle of the show, walking down the middle of the dance floor was a fully-robed Gospel choir! They joined me onstage, and the choir, coupled with an incredible cast of hot, near-naked dancers representing different races and religions, made for an amazing show.

To fully appreciate the rich interplay between religious symbolism, homoerotic-romantic attraction between men, and the pulse of house music (“Children of the World” is a deep house song) for that particular moment in circuit history, it is worth looking back at the mystics of Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote of union with Allah, which he compared to homoerotic-romantic love between men. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was obsessed with kissing Jesus on the mouth, and Saint John of the Cross compared his soul’s love for Jesus to a woman sneaking out of the house to meet her lover. Chaitanya was so enamored with the spiritual-erotic love that Radha had for Krishna that he sought to become her and feel her desire – the list goes on. It is therefore fitting that, as mystics utilize erotic language to describe the transcendent joy of experiencing God, circuit DJs and performance artists utilize songs with religious content to enhance the sensual experience of dance floor communitas, when all the barriers imposed by body fascism, status, race, and anything else that divides the Gay male community fall away.

But spirituality need not be limited to a religious context. One of the perennial songs in the circuit from 1997 to 2003 was “High” by the Lighthouse Family (François K Vocal 12”). When “High” was released in 1997, it was not originally a dance tune. But the lyrics resonated with the dance floor experience, especially that of the drug-addled circuit: the refrain was “One day we’re gonna fly so high.” François K’s deep house remix added a strong beat and a sassy piano background/solo to it – his version took the circuit by storm. When “High” came on, circuiteers would seek out their loved ones or friends and dance with their arms around each other – it evoked affection rather than erotic sensuality, and in doing so, represented a different facet of ecstatic dance.

One of Power’s most poignant memories was when he and Kitty Meow performed this song in 1999. “One show in Salvation, we took a chance on an oldie but goodie, a beautiful come-together song: ‘High’ by the Lighthouse Family. Abel was spinning that night. We didn’t know how the crowd would react.” Circuit queens are infamous for rejecting songs that are deemed out of date, and “High” had been out for a couple of years. “But the feeling in the room when that song was performed was one of love and unity. The show was a collaboration between myself and Kitty [Meow]. We had beautiful costuming – that’s all I can remember of the show.” But he clearly remembered the crowd. “There were hands in the air, people singing along and crying.”

The differences between the “Children of the World” performance in Chicago and the “High” performance in Miami’s Salvation are significant. The Chicago show had overt religious referents embedded in it, while there were no such referents in the Salvation show. The reaction of the crowd in each was also different, as was the moment in history: during the Chicago show in 2003, the crowd was dumbfounded, watching intently as Power, the choir, and the dancers fiercely undermined the propaganda against the LGBT community spread by extremist Conservative Christians and encouraged by the Bush administration (Gay men were intrinsically anti-American and should never openly serve in the military) as it prepared America for the Iraq invasion one month later. I saw no people in the crowd who were dancing, singing, or waving their arms (they did express their pleasure at the end of the performance, however). The “High” crowd in 1999, on the other hand, was participatory throughout the performance, waving their arms in the air and singing along. Nevertheless, both events reflected the spiritual ecstasy of transcendent solidarity. Perhaps Lorenzo Cardim de Almeida is correct in his proposal that the combination of rhythm and dancing in itself can trigger something profoundly spiritual when people of diverse religious backgrounds come together, even when they are horny, cracked out, and obsessed with physical beauty.

Decline, Steady-State, and an International Tour

The circuit scene began a slow decline after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The administration of George W. Bush linked terrorism to the recreational drug trade, and a false report linking MDMA to permanent brain damage was used to shut down raves (the Straight equivalent of a circuit party, but more underground and with a younger constituency) as well as the availability of the drug. The substances that were easiest to obtain, GHB and crystal methamphetamine, were also the most potentially harmful. Even before 9/11, fallout from circuiteers requiring hospitalization or even dying from GHB overdose brought unwanted attention to the events, and crystal meth addiction became a serious concern of the LGBT community, especially for Gay men who were engaging in “crystal sex,” orgiastic marathons that could go on for 24 hours or longer, resulting in a spike in HIV/AIDS seroconversion. In addition to these problems, there was less disposable income to spend on circuit parties as the economy worsened prior to 2008. By 2006, the number of events plummeted.

As well as pushing the nation into two wars and escalating the war on drugs, the Bush Administration also encouraged unprecedented attacks on the Gay male community. Men’s sites online for erotic picture-sharing were threatened with lawsuits based on loosely interpreted laws against pornography, and the movement against marriage equality (a key plank in Bush’s 2004 platform for re-election) often featured advertisements with two men kissing or holding hands, sometimes contrasted with pictures of male soldiers on the battlefield. The message was simple: Gay men were the antithesis of the brave American warrior. At the same time, other social factors were coming into play. Treatments for HIV/AIDS were improving dramatically, and the urgency of fundraising that fueled many of the circuit events diminished.

The result of all these changes was a circuit community that was no longer large enough to generate its own music or an extensive calendar of events. Nevertheless, the scene did not die. The White Party-Palm Springs, White Party Miami, Winter Party, Gay Disney events, Pines Party, Alegria (in multiple cities), Splash, Halloween New Orleans, and Black Party New York survived. In addition, there are new events since 2005: Demence in Brussels, Song Kran in Bangkok, and Circuit Festival in Barcelona. DJs such as Abel are still performing to large crowds, and performance artists such as Power Infiniti are still hitting the stage.

DJ Power Infiniti

I started Djing in 2003 i made my dj debut at twist. It has been a mainstay in the Miami gay scene. Residency at liquid in tampa as of 2017 as well as special performances around the country. People appreciated the music i used when i turned people oue\t on stage. No dj forced me to perform a song i didnt like, so becoming Dj power infiniti was a progression from my work as a pa. Always invisioned meself as a dj, i just didnt know how. Drag queen Connie casserole was an inspiration Dj Drew tribe got me started during house parties in ft lauder 2003 im trinidadian with a jamaican father percussion and rhythm are in myblood. When people hear me im always percussion driven abel rauhofer and paulo playing yhose tribal cunty beats once a month queen of the night tampa open mike somebody gave me a chance this is my way to pay it forward. A lot of performers do not feel the need to perform every single pa in their own local communities inspired future pas.

Chapter 4: Aninha

Mãe Aninha, a priestess in Bahia, Brazil who made her mark on Brazilian society in the first decades of the twentieth century, was born in 1869 from parents captured in West Africa and sold in Brazil. Raised in a society where “African” was equated with “primitive” and dark skin was a deemed unattractive, Aninha expressed pride that both her parents were of African descent. Bahia at the end of the nineteenth century was also the site of a growing pro-African religious movement, spearheaded by people who promoted Yoruba spiritual culture (the Yoruba are a West African ethnic group found primarily in Nigeria and Benin). Aninha joined the movement and, by the time of her death in 1938, she was one of its most renowned leaders, gathering around her people from across Bahia’s racial spectrum and social strata.

“When you don’t have a dog, hunt with a cat,” Aninha wrote to her spiritual daughter Agripina. Aninha was very successful at hunting with cats, that is, finding novel ways to reach her goals. Details of her life make up a counter-narrative against the social forces of her time that caricaturized her as being too dark, too African, and too heathen for the dominant Luso-Catholic hegemony. Her story is situated in a larger movement of former slaves and their descendants to establish colonies of their respective ethnic groups in Brazil by means of Candomblé: religious communities with traditions originating in West and Central Africa. Candomblé denominations rely on sacred power and authority known as axé and share certain practices that revolve around that sacred power: ritualized seating of a god’s axé in consecrated objects; the use of plants and animals in order to facilitate communication with the spirit world and increase axé; immediate two-way communication with deities through divination, conducted by a competent specialist with sufficient axé; drumming, singing, and dancing that generate enough axé to summon forth spiritual beings in the bodies of mediums; independent congregations led by one person with enough axé and training to act as parent to an extended sacred family; initiations that give individuals axé and link them to gods that exist outside of and within them; and a strong ethic of privacy to preserve axé and prevent the means for acquiring it from falling into the wrong hands.

Central to Aninha’s strategy for transforming Candomblé from an outlaw community to a national treasure was to highlight the Yoruba purity of her community, despite the fact that Candomblé’s Africanness (condemned by Brazilian authorities for being non-Roman Catholic and non-Western) was what inspired its persecution in the first place. As scholar and Candomblé priest Júlio Braga told me, purity signifies power. Some academics have written that Aninha’s assertion was a strategic power play to situate her congregation in a position of dominance over other congregations in the eyes of scholars that sought authentic African culture in Brazil. I do not dispute that interpretation, but I propose a different take: purity also refers to carefully conducted means of connecting with the blessed dead in order to access axé, and axé supersedes and informs societal power. Her claim to Yoruba purity was more than a move to establish dominance – it also referred to fidelity to a complex system in which spiritual power, including dangerous power, is generated, insulated, conducted, and released.

A major challenge in writing about Aninha’s narrative is the premium placed on privacy. Unlike Julian of Norwich, who wrote down her intimate spiritual experiences, or Sharada Devi, whose details concerning her marriage and widowhood are essential features of her deification, stories about Aninha’s rise to her status as a pivotal figure in the history of Candomblé do not reveal many personal aspects of her life. In terms of axé, privacy can be likened to the insulation used in power cables to keep electricity from being released inappropriately, thus preventing power drains that render the cables ineffective, or power surges that cause damage and even death. Intimate details, be they of an individual or congregation are, like ritual knowledge, not for public display. But there are enough clues in Aninha’s biography to outline the dynamics of axé in the production of spiritual and political power as she set up her own Yoruba-based Candomblé community and created, by the example of her own life, a counter-narrative against racism and anti-African sentiment.

In order to fully understand the impact of Aninha on Brazilian culture, her story is situated between less elaborate narratives of other remarkable priestesses: Iyá Nassô, Marcelina, Júlia, and Pulchéria before her, and Stella after her. Aninha can be seen as a mid-point, the fulcrum between the origins of African Brazilian religion as an underground movement and its current status (along with other African-based denominations such as Vodun and Santería-Lukumí) as a world religion.

Candomblé in Bahia

The forced migration of Africans in Brazil, especially those in the region around the port city of Salvador in the state of Bahia, is a very different history than that of Africans in the USA, the land of my birth. In Brazil, Various ethnic groups (including the Gbe from what are now Togo and Benin, the Angola, the Congo, and the aforementioned Yoruba from Benin and Nigeria) preserved their identities among the general population. Slaves bought their freedom from their masters, then joined with others of the same ethnicity to form Candomblé congregations, which functioned as independent yet interconnected micro-colonies implanted among the African Brazilian population.

These African communities functioned as colonies tend to function: outposts of transplanted culture that interact with the host culture in which they are placed, yet resist assimilation within the physical boundaries of the colony proper. But Africa is not a single people – to be African means belonging to a particular ethnicity or blend of ethnicities in one’s region of origin. Since at least the end of the nineteenth century when scholarship on Candomblé began, each casa (“house”) of Candomblé has enjoyed a degree of independence from any central authority, yet interacts with casas of similar ethnic origin, thus reinforcing cultural conformity essential to the casa’s reputation as being true to a particular people’s heritage and thus genuinely African. Casas of the same general origin are said to belong to the same nacão or nation, the most prominent nations being Candomblé Jeje (with Gbe linguistic-cultural roots), Candomblé Angola, Candomblé Congo (Angola and Congo casas have been conflated under the term “Bantu”), and Candomblé Nagô (Yoruba). There is also a degree of fluidity as to what constitutes a nation. Among Yoruba-identified Candomblé houses, for example, subgroups named after various Yoruba populations in West Africa such as Ijexá, Oyo, and Ketu have been considered separate nations, or alternatively as branches of an overarching Yoruba nation.

Aninha was initiated into a casa classified as Candomblé Ketu, a nation that took its name from a small Yoruba principality in Benin situated between the larger Yoruba Kingdom of Oyo, to which Ketu gave tribute, and the warlike Gbe Kingdom of Dahomey. Caught up in conflicts between Oyo and Dahomey, many Yoruba were captured and sold to European slavers at the end of the eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth century, religious leaders of Yoruba heritage established their own communities in Salvador. Their dedication to keeping Yoruba-based spirituality and culture alive in Bahia played a major role in the creation of a multi-ethnic and diasporic African population with access to dual citizenship as natives of the Brazilian state and as spiritual citizens of the Candomblé nation to which they belong.

Planting Axé in Brazil

Before discussing Aninha’s narrative, it is important to understand the history of the Ketu Nation. After being taken from Yorubaland between the end of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, a sufficient number of Yoruba slaves had earned their freedom to form their own communities in Bahia. Some were inspired to return to Africa and fetch material and intangible aspects of Yoruba spiritual culture. Freed members of the community travelled back and forth from Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, to the Yoruba-dominated city of Lagos and other places in what are now Benin and Nigeria, thus reinvigorating the spiritual connection between the Yoruba in Africa and the early Ketu Nation in Bahia(and not just Ketu or Yoruba casas; ethnically Gbe casas of the early Jeje Nation were doing the same thing, and possibly at an earlier date, creating religious communities as models upon which the Yoruba designed their own). Those pilgrims returned with songs, ritual paraphernalia, rites, and ritual specialists, ensuring that Yoruba-infused axé firmly took root in Brazil. By the end of the nineteenth century, their zeal in maintaining the link between Yoruba populations in two continents gave some Ketu casas the reputation of being authentically African.

Besides acting as colonies, each congregation functioned as a spiritual power plant that utilized Africa, both a physical location and the non-physical home of holy ancestors, as an important source of axé. Bahian axé-generating power plants were not identical to their precursors in Africa – they could not be. Africans in Brazil lived in a Luso-Catholic hegemony; replication of their respective spiritual cultures was impossible without serious adjustments. Veneration of the gods in Yoruba Brazilian communities shifted from a tradition of geographically localized sects dedicated to one particular orixá (Yoruba term for a set of deified mythical ancestors) to a pantheon with many orixás coexisting in the same casa. And ethnically-based religions in West Africa were not static: this consolidation may have originated (or occurred concurrently) in pan-Yoruba temples in the cosmopolitan port cities of West Africa that the Yoruba Brazilian pilgrims visited. The ethnic roots in Brazil were not limited to Yoruba tradition and orixás; influences from other ethnicities such as the Congo, Angola, and the aforementioned Gbe were also integrated under the veneer of Luso-Catholic veneration of popular saints.

The Fall of the Malê and the Rise of Candomblé

Aninha was initiated into Casa Branca, a famous house of Candomblé Ketu that is one of the earliest known casas on record. The history of Casa Branca began with a woman who is remembered by her title, Iyá (“Mother” in Yoruba) Nassô. We know nothing of the circumstances of her capture and enslavement, only that she most likely arrived in Bahia sometime around the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century during a period when Yoruba people were shipped to Brazil as hostilities raged between the Oyo Kingdom and the Dahomey Kingdom.

The early nineteenth century was a turbulent time for Salvador. Bahia won a war for independence from Portugal in 1823, and the revolutionary army accepted free Africans and some runaway slaves as soldiers. This troubled plantation owners; they feared that arming slaves, even temporarily, would lead to further instability, and insurrection did indeed follow. Revolts by African Muslims of different ethnicities culminated in the Malê (Muslim) revolt in 1835. After the 1835 rebellion was crushed, Muslim communities in Bahia disappeared or went underground as leaders were executed, and those accused of being Muslims were exiled to West Africa.

Among the African Brazilian population, a different kind of revolution was underway in the Candomblé casas. As mentioned earlier, congregations based on specific ethnicities formed, each with its own pantheon, rituals, and sacred language. In addition, gods were associated with Catholic saints, which allowed Candomblé practitioners to discreetly venerate their deities in a socially acceptable form. For instance, a member of the Ketu Nation could worship Oxossi, the orixá of hunting whose symbol is a bow and arrow, by venerating an image of Saint Sebastian pierced with arrows. Candomblé nations further camouflaged their heresy with the trappings associated with irmandades: lay sisterhoods and brotherhoods for the common people.

Iyá Nassô (known as Francisca da Silva according to official records) became a free woman and built her religious community in Salvador, Bahia some years before the last major Malê revolt in 1835. Her casa was associated with a church and irmandades in Barroquinha, a neighborhood heavily populated by African slaves and freed persons. Soon after the 1835 Malê revolt, Iyá Nassô left Bahia for West Africa with two of her sons, who had been arrested for allegedly participating in the 1835 Malê Revolt. Her slave Marcelina and Marcelina’s daughter Magdalena accompanied them. Iyá Nassô freed Marcelina, her spiritual daughter and successor, just before leaving Bahia, and then remained in West Africa for the rest of her life. Marcelina returned to Bahia with two children and a babalawô named Bamboxê Obitikó after seven years. Upon her return, Marcelina bought slaves of her own and founded Ilê Iyá Nassô (the House of Mother Nassô, popularly known as Casa Branca or Engenho Velho) in honor of her spiritual mother and former owner.

Marcelina continued the work that had been interrupted by the Malê revolt of 1835 and the arrest of Iyá Nassô’s sons. One way that Marcelina was able to do so was by being astute in the ways of finance. Originally a slave herself, Marcelina bought slaves, let her slaves earn their freedom, then incorporated at least some them into her casa. This was not simply a strategy for economic sustainability and growth – it was also a means of using the institution of slavery for the benefit of her Yoruba colony. Freed slaves could be incorporated into the religious hierarchy, somewhat similar to how African slaves were incorporated into the Roman Catholic community, but presumably of their own free will and with better chances for advancement.

Unlike the Muslim community, which time and again revolted against Luso-Catholic hegemony, Candomblé practitioners outwardly conformed and did not challenge the authority of church and state. They brought no holy book with them from Africa and had no desire to create one for themselves, so there was no rival scripture for religious authorities to destroy. But the one exquisitely African thing they did not hide was the pulse of ritual drums, an essential feature in the production of axé. Complex rhythms designed to summon gods and send mediums into dance-trance also summoned authorities that raided casas, arrested Candomblé leaders, and confiscated property (including the offending drums) well into the twentieth century. Still, the popularity of Candomblé grew, especially Casa Branca with its strong Yoruba roots, which in turn led to growing pains. Disputes arose within Casa Branca over succession, and two important factions within Casa Branca split from the mother temple: Terreiro do Gantois when Marcelina died, and Aninha’s house, Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá (“House of Axé Sustained by Afonjá”), when Marcelina’s successor died some years later.

Extending the Axé

Another definition of axé is “blessing,” and the term is used as such in the benediction, “Axé pra você” (“Axé to you”). As sources of axé, one of the functions of Candomblé casas is to generate blessings for the larger community through public festivals. Much preparatory work goes into preparations to inspire the orixás to appear in the dancing body-minds of initiated mediums. Members of the local community as well as other houses of the same nation are welcome to attend the event. A properly conducted festa demonstrates to other casas that the host congregation is well versed in appropriate conduct, and may also function as an invitation to potential congregants.

When the slave trade was abolished, there was no longer a flow of West and Central Africans into Brazil, and each generation of African descendants became more assimilated into the Luso-Catholic culture of their surroundings. But for those who longed for the traditions of their ancestors, the sound of the drums was a call to come home to those pockets of Africa that existed right in their midst. The drums also summoned European Brazilian elite who found the axé of Candomblé casas irresistible. Despite pressure to stay away from what was considered primitive and possibly Satanic, members of high society frequented the houses of Candomblé for the music, dancing, drama, courtly etiquette, and supernatural benefits those casas offered.

Each Candomblé house has one ruler, a mother or father whose word is law. New houses are formed when a member decides to become a ruler of a separate community, and has sufficient axé to do so, such as Maria Júlia da Conceição Nazaré who left Casa Branca. Mãe Júlia was passed over as leader when Marcelina died, so she founded Terreiro do Gantois. The casa grew in prestige under her and her daughter Pulquéria’s leadership as members of the upper as well as lower classes came to share in its axé. Further renown came to the House of Gantois when Raimundo Nina Rodrigues, a Portuguese Brazilian doctor of forensic medicine, was initiated into the congregation as an ogã by Pulchéria. Nina was investigating the reasons why Blacks, so numerous in the lowest classes of society, remained uncivilized and prone to criminal behavior – he was a superior, enlightened White man among people who he imagined were not far from being savages. But power relations were reversed when he became the spiritual son of Pulchéria. Within the precincts of the colony, the White scholar became the unversed child of the sophisticated Black priestess, his superior.

When looking at the results of Nina’s scholarship, which includes racist and elitist discourse, it is tempting to understand his initiation in cynical terms, that his participation in the casa was solely a means for him to gain access for his research. Nina spoke the language of social evolution that was current in his time: humans were all basically the same regardless of race, but cultures were not, neither were religions. Because of their culture, Blacks were not yet a civilized people. In addition, he held that Candomblé was inferior to Roman Catholicism. But there was something else going on in his discourse. In the latter years of his research, Nina describes Candomblé from two positions: that of a White scholar fluent in the racist and ethnocentric language of his people, and that of a cosmopolitan ethnographer/child of the gods who was respectful of the the community that let him in. Perhaps he used the White racist academic perspective strategically so that his work would be taken seriously – perhaps he was genuinely conflicted – as he oscillated between conflicting paradigms. Either way, his work became the basis for treating academic inquiry into African Brazilian cultural forms as legitimate and valuable. In his book, Os Africanos no Brasil (“The Africans of Brazil”), he calls for an end to police harassment of the casas and argues that African Brazilian culture is an integral part of Brazilian national identity. If we frame the shift in his scholarship in terms of axé, contact with people like Pulchéria caused a profound shift within his head, the site of his own orixá, that contradicted his racist mindset to the point where he could even go as far as to submit to the requirements and restrictions of initiation and join the Ketu Nation. But details of the relationship between the White son and his Black mother are few and far between. As with Iyá Nassô and Marcelina, private details are not for public scrutiny.

Aninha’s Ascendancy

By the early twentieth century, Aninha was among the elite of powerful Ketu priestesses, but she was an anomaly – she was the only one who did not have a blood kinship connection with the mother who initiated her. Aninha was not of Yoruba descent – her parents were Gurunsi, a people who today live in the region around Northern Ghana/Southern Burkina Faso.

Aninha claimed that her casa was even more authentically Yoruba, thus more African, than any other casa. “My sect is pure Yoruba,” she said, but her claim to cultural purity is a curious one. As mentioned earlier, Candomblé Ketu does not have purely Yoruba roots. In addition to having no Yoruba ancestry by blood, Aninha continued to honor her Gurunsi heritage in her supposedly pure Yoruba casa – she had a shrine dedicated to Yá, a Gurunsi river goddess, on the grounds of Axé Opô Afonjá, and in this shrine she honored other Gurunsi deities as well. But Yoruba purity in the context of Candomblé is not simply a matter of knowing the right language, performing the right ritual conduct, and owning the right paraphernalia – one must be initiated into a spiritual lineage that allows the axé of the casa’s ancestors, including deified Yoruba ancestors such as the orixás, to empower the rites. Aninha’s shrine to Yá was one such source of axé – it was a physical manifestation of her link with her blood kin and their spiritual power. Through her initiation as a priestess in the Ketu Nation, Aninha also had access to the axé of her adopted Yoruba ancestors and gods in ways that she could not with her parents’ ethnicity, due to the absence of a Gurunsi Candomblé colony in Brazil that she could access. If she wanted pure and strong African means of generating and controlling axé (“African” signifying fidelity to an unbroken link to prior generations versed in sophisticated spiritual praxes originating in Africa), she had to find them in an ethnic source other than that of her birthright.

Communitas, Parties, and Privacy

At the root of Candomblé Ketu is a set of spiritual technologies that demand significant training, material culture, and dedication. These technologies regularly generate normative and invocative communitas through rituals and festas (celebratory events). The gods love a good party, and Candomblé festas are just that: sacred parties with drumming, singing, and dancing to coax the gods to appear in the persons of mediums who go into trance and become divine. These ceremonies are the public face of a casa. More significant than festas, however, is the production of axé behind closed doors. Although axé is everywhere, it is stronger in certain things than others, and may be generated through carefully conducted rites that help devotees realize themselves as omo orixá (“filhos de santo” or “children of the gods”). Members belonging to a Ketu casa undergo various initiations to bond with specific orixás and to prepare them for the role they will play in their Candomblé family as medium, elder sister, knife-wielder, drummer, patron, priestess, or priest. Initiation includes a liminal state of isolation, purification, and reduction of status. But no matter the aspired status, the first initiation has one thing in common: it includes rites designed to link devotees to their orixás for the first time. The mother or father in charge of the initiation observes the proper precautions to mitigate the danger initiates face as their heads are bonded to their gods. Purity is a significant concern, much as it would be in an operating theater during surgery. The bodies of initiates (especially their heads) are protected from the elements, and their minds are secluded from the regular goings-on of everyday life to prevent pollution by the distractions of the outside world during this time of spiritual vulnerability. Should an initiation be done wrong, or should an initiate’s head be bonded with the wrong orixá, the result could be catastrophic.

No initiation is free from risk. Powerful beings are invoked, and potentially deadly forces are summoned. The rites engender anxiety and demand caution, conforming to the death-liminality-rebirth model of normative communitas that Victor Turner discusses in The Ritual Process when he describes initiation as separation, seclusion, elimination of status, exposure the danger, transformation, and reincorporation.

Beyond the magico-religious context of Candomblé initiation, and generation of normative communitas that Aninha experienced in the course of attaining the rank of priestess, her narrative indicates conditions for communitas to arise on another, non-initiatory level when she and her followers left Casa Branca to form a separate community due to a dispute over succession that involved Bamboxê (the holy man who accompanied Marcelina from West Africa). Abandoning the security of a respectable casa would compromise whatever status they had in the Ketu Nation and place them in a liminal situation until their new community, Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá, was sufficiently acknowledged as a legitimate and self-sustaining casa.

Aninha’s initiation into Casa Branca is likewise controversial. Stories about Aninha relate that she went through her first initiation twice, in two different locations by two different authorities, but under the auspices of Casa Branca. The first was done before she was seventeen years old by Marcelina in the house of Marcelina’s successor, Maria Júlia Figueiredo de Oxum, not in Casa Branca proper. Aninha then had a second initiation, this time in Casa Branca, as a child of Xangô-as-Afonjá (“Afonja” is a Nupe, not Yoruba, name for the Xango, the god of thunder). Scholar Vivaldo da Costa Lima suggests that further inquiry into the double initiation is inappropriate; the subject is among “things that one should not speak of.”

The double initiation is one of a series of dramatic events in Aninha’s hagiography: the initiation of high-ranking Brazilian men (including author Jorge Amado, two high-ranking government ministers, and journalist-scholar Édison Carneiro) into Opô Afonjá, a special ritual that Aninha did on behalf of Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas after he was in a car accident, a private meeting between Aninha and Vargas that led to a decree decriminalizing Candomblé, and giving Édison Carneiro refuge in a shrine in Opô Afonjá so that he could evade Vargas’ secret police. But details of these events are scant and difficult to verify, so it is tempting to classify them among “things one should not speak of” in terms of rigorous scholarship. Establishing their basis in fact, however, is not as important for the purposes of this chapter as how they function as narrative devices. The double initiation in separate locations indicates that Aninha was not like other initiates, that something more than the standard practice of one initiation in Casa Branca was deemed necessary. To make her vulnerable to spiritual danger, twice, indicates tension concerning her standing in the community and before the gods. As to whether double initiation was due to her Gurunsi heritage, one cannot be certain, but the story suggests that she was not easily situated within the hierarchy of Casa Branca, which could have been a factor in her choice to leave. When she did leave Casa Branca and set up her own community, her new casa was dedicated to Xangô, a deified Yoruba king as well as god of thunder, under his Nupe identity, Afonjá (which was the aspect of Xangô that was bonded with Aninha’s head in her second initiation). “Afonjá” can also be seen as a nod to Xangô’s non-Yoruba mother (she was said to have been Nupe), much as Aninha’s birth-parents were not Yoruba.

Stories of Aninha’s encounters with President Vargas certify the strength of her axé despite whatever possible aberrancies in her blood lineage, her split from Casa Branca, or other factors to which we are not privy. And once she had left Casa Branca, she would have had to establish herself as a person of consequence. The (apparently) successful ritual she did for Vargas after he suffered a car accident, her closed-door meeting with the President to pass a law ending official oppression of Candomblé, and hiding Carneiro from Vargas’ secret police – all three stories illustrate the breadth of her axé in both political and spiritual realms.

Martiniano de Bonfim and Nagô Purity

Aninha welcomed learned women and men into her community, including people from the African Brazilian population who were fluent in Yoruba language and culture. One Yoruba holy man in particular was crucial in establishing Aninha’s claim that her house was more authentically Yoruba than any other: Martiniano de Bonfim, a Brazilian-Nigerian babalawô or member of the Ifá priesthood and a scholar in his own right. Bonfim, who grew up in Bahia and in Lagos, Nigeria, spoke Yoruba (and English), and was intimately familiar with Yoruba culture and religion.

The proper conditions for generating axé include the participation of both men and women of significant spiritual authority. None of the four major Ketu houses (Casa Branca, Terreiro do Gantois, Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá, and Terreiro de Alaketu) was founded by its priestess alone. Baba (“Father”) Asika was the male companion of Iya Nassô when she founded her casa in Barroquinho, and Bamboxê returned with Marcelina to help her found Casa Branca. Mãe Júlia created Casa de Gantois with Baba Adéta Okanlele. Otampê Ojaró had Baba Laji, who she married and with whom she founded Terreiro de Alaketu. Aninha worked with Bamboxê when she left Casa Branca as well as Nigeria-born Joachim Viera da Silva, and she saw fit to enlist the expertise of Bonfim as she made Opô Afonjá even more “pure Yoruba.”

Bonfim and his father before him (who was brought to Bahia from West Africa as a slave) were among those Yoruba Brazilians who travelled from Bahia to Lagos, Nigeria well before Nina began his research. Infusion of Yoruba culture, language, and religion from those trans-Atlantic sojourners made Candomblé houses such as those of the Ketu Nation attractive to scholars searching for Yoruba/African authenticity in Brazil. On the basis of that authenticity (and ethnocentrism in what Nina saw as the greater sophistication of Yoruba culture over other African cultures in Brazil), scholars gave Casa Blanca, Casa de Gantois, and Île Axé Opô Afonjá significant international fame as bastions of Africa in Brazil. But what scholars may interpret as Ketu leaders’ preoccupation with cultural authenticity in opposition to the Luso-Catholic hegemony may also be seen as fidelity to the sacred dead. This fidelity is different from keeping strict adherence to what had been done in the past for its own sake, utilizing African cultures a means to resist oppression, or performing for the sake of scholars that make pronouncements on which house is the most African.

Aninha subsumed (but did not abandon) her Gurunsi heritage within the strong Yoruba-Gbe cultural context of Casa Branca, then went beyond what she learned there. The collaborative efforts of Aninha and Bonfim at further Yoruba-izing her own house, Ilê Opô Afonjá, included the introduction of the Twelve Ministers of Xangô as a functioning corps in Opô Afonjá. Upon his authority as a Bahian African versed in Yoruba culture, Bonfim set up this exclusive brotherhood in Aninha’s casa, obliging high-ranking men that accepted a prestigious title among the Twelve to serve Xangô, the deified monarch of Oyo, and Aninha, the woman who consecrated them to Xangô’s service. “My sect is pure Yoruba like Engenho Velho [Casa Branca],” she said to American scholar Donald Pierson. “But I have revived a grand part of African tradition that Engenho Velho has forgotten. Have they a ceremony for the Twelve Ministers of Xangô? No! But I have!”

According to Nicolau Parés, “the institution of the twelve ministers… was inspired by the political organization of the Oyo Kingdom” and is based on important men in Yoruba collective memory and traditional culture. Nevertheless, the institution “was a rather creative adaptation that found no counterpart in Yorubaland” despite Aninha’s suggestion that Casa Branca had “forgotten” the institution. In terms of what can be verified academically, the origin of (what is now) the tradition of the Twelve Ministers ultimately lies in Bonfim as its creator rather than its discoverer. In terms of axé, however, the real value of the Twelve Ministers of Xangô ultimately comes down to whether the institution strengthens the connection between Opô Afonjá and its ancestors. The titles assigned to each of the twelve ministers were taken from important kings and ministers of the Oyo Kingdom, thus keeping those names alive, all in the name of Oyo’s renowned god-king and the master of Opô Afonjá. In this way at the very least, creation of “the Twelve Ministers of Xangô” augments the link between the living and the blessed dead.

The implementation of the Twelve also shows a degree of independence of New Africa in Bahia from Continental Africa concerning Yoruba spiritual culture. As Parés points out in his work on the Yoruba-ization of the Ketu Nation, West Africa did not remain static in its expression of indigenous spiritual culture. With the conversion of so many Yoruba in Continental Africa to Islam and Christianity, the connection between devotees on both sides of the Atlantic to the orixás is important not only to the Yoruba Nation in Brazil, but also to West African congregations that face pressure from proselytization, and are reinvigorated by the financial and moral support from the flow of pilgrims as well as sending their own pilgrims to Brazil.

The Second African Brazilian Congress

Bonfim publicly revealed the institution of the Twelve Ministers of Xangô during the Second African Brazilian Congress spearheaded by Édison Carneiro, a scholar, journalist, activist on behalf of African Brazilians and, according to Aninha’s narrative, fugitive from Vargas’ secret police who sought refuge in her terreiro. The Second African Brazilian Congress was a groundbreaking academic conference that sought to legitimize the African Brazilian community as a positive cultural force. Unlike the First African Brazilian Congress, which took place in the city of Fortaleza to the north and was concerned more with social theory and reform rather than the pervasive cultural manifestations of African Brazilian folk, the Second Congress was held in Bahia and became a showcase for music and dancing, capoeira (African Brazilian martial arts), and Candomblé of various nations. Included among the casas visited by the delegates were Casa Gantois, Terreiro do Alaketu, Casa Branca, and Opô Afonjá. In addition, Martiniano de Bonfim, a man whose knowledge was great but who lacked official academic credentials, was chosen to be the honorary president of the conference.

Carneiro describes the encounter between the delegates and Aninha: “On the following day, Sunday, we were able to meet her in person. The reception exceeded expectations – instead of a simple priestess who approved of the Congress, we encountered an intelligent woman who followed and comprehended our proposals, who read our treatises and loved our work.”

Aninha held a festa in Opô Afonjá for conference participants. In addition, she prepared a paper on sacred foods. Lima discusses the work that Aninha wrote for the delegates:

Aninha honored a promise she had made to Carneiro and prepared a small work on African cooking… with the title, “A Note on African Cuisine.” The “Note” is a short list of twenty-five kinds of dishes, all with Yoruba names (with the exception of “farofa”). Descriptions – for those dishes that had them – were extremely simple, with short references to the appearance or to basic ingredients that were utilized. There was no other information, however, about the “way to prepare” much less their possible ritual use in Candomblé… The African dishes listed by Aninha were one and all sacred dishes offered in the obrigações [required offerings] to the orixás, each orixá with a preference for certain foods, always associated with the orixá’s myths and complex symbolic prescription. In this way, Aninha fulfilled Carneiro’s request to the extreme limit of what could be permitted: a quasi-synoptic list of African dishes, without relating them in any way to the sacrifices and votive offerings to the orixás.

Aninha’s gesture of measured support for the Congress reveals the premium placed on privacy with regards to anything directly associated with generating axé. If Aninha’s preoccupation with Yoruba/African purity were only a strategy for winning the support of scholars, she would have included much more about Yoruba spiritual culture and cuisine in order to impress them with the extent that her praxis was Yoruba-ized. Instead, as Lima points out, the paper she wrote indicates a concern not to discuss anything involving ritual context that could compromise restrictions on information relevant to the flow of axé.

Aninha and Bonfim, the dark-skinned children of West African slaves, were given respect during the Second Congress for the very qualities which should have trapped them in the bottom rungs of society. The movement that was started by founding figures such as Iyá Nassô and continued by Marcelina, Júlia, Pulchéria and their counterparts in other Candomblé nations was lifted to another level.

The Death of Mãe Aninha

One notable detail of Aninha’s limited biography concerns the manner of her passing, which includes surprisingly personal details. One such detail relates that Aninha wanted her last moments to be in the shrine of Yá, the Gurunsi river goddess. At the moment of her death, Lima tells us, Aninha preferred to symbolically return to the Gurunsi homeland of her parents. Although this once again can be seen as compromising her dedication to Yoruba purity, it supports the hypothesis that “Yoruba purity” was either code for, or secondary to, maintaining a strong African ancestral connection, even if in Aninha’s case it were not a Yoruba one. Her desire to die in the shrine of Yá reflects the primary importance of honoring the blessed dead in her praxis, be those holy beings Gurunsi or (adopted) Yoruba, as as an indispensable prerequisite for generating, preserving, restricting, and distributing axé.

Stella de Oxossi

Until the last decades of the twentieth century, scholars portrayed Candomblé as syncretistic, a hybrid of African elements with Luso-Catholic folk traditions in which orixás were linked to the saints, and Catholic mass was incorporated as one of the rites associated with initiations. Even Aninha appeared to have Catholicized her casa, calling it the “Center of the Holy Cross of the Axé Sustained by Afonjá” (“Centro Santa Cruz do Axé do Opô Afonjá”), having images of Catholic saints on site, and holding Catholic mass on the terreiro grounds during special occasions.

This shifted significantly in 1983 when Maria Stella de Azevedo Santos (Mãe Stella de Oxossi), Aninha’s successor through the latter part of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century, took Aninha’s claim to Yoruba purity even further. During the Second World Conference on Orixá Tradition and Culture, Stella declared that Candomblé was neither syncretistic nor a species of Brazilian folklore (she also told me that Candomblé was a world religion in its own right). Along with Olga de Alaketu (mother of Terreiro do Alaketu at the time) and other important figures in Candomblé, Stella announced that her community would no longer incorporate Catholic saints or include Catholic religious services as part of the initiations of her congregation. Opô Afonjá, she said, was not a place for Christian worship in any form. This did not mean that Christians could no longer be members of her community – all were welcome. However, Catholic rituals and paraphernalia had no place in the space of her terreiro, reflecting a sentiment of Aninha concerning differences from Catholicism in theology and practice: “Just as the Catholics have images of their saints, we have some things to remember our orixás,” Aninha said to Pierson. “But we do not adore images made by human hands as they do. We adore nature.”

“She is my idol,” said Stella of Aninha. Stella’s work on behalf of environmental protection is a logical (albeit non-traditional) extension of Aninha’s description of Candomblé as a religion that worships nature, not images of Catholic saints, which lost their place of honor in Opô Afonjá when Stella stripped them of significance. But Stella did bring one new image to the casa in 2010. As part of the commemoration of centennial of the house, she had a metal bust of Aninha set up on the grounds of her terreiro.

Stella’s desire to further focus the praxis of Ilé Opô Afonjá strictly on its West African sources is the latest iteration of the colonizing project begun by Iyá Nassô, and then given increased visibility and official legitimacy by Aninha after she successfully made the transition from Casa Branca to Opô Afonjá. The result of their efforts is a spiritual counter-narrative challenging not only racism, anti-African sentiment, homophobia, and the tyranny of scholarly opinion, but also the imposition of anything Christian and other unwanted manifestations of the overarching Brazilian national hegemony on the spiritual affairs of their African colonies in Brazil.

In terms of axé, it may be argued that the dismissal of all things non-African in origin ruptures the connection with ancestors who had made room for Catholic saints, caboclos, and prêtos velhos (spirits of elderly African Brazilian slaves), and such an argument is not without merit. However, given that the contingencies of the past dictated certain assimilationist strategies as means for survival, cancelling those strategies and streamlining the spirits as to permit only those who are directly linked to African ancestral ethnicities (along with greater sophistication in Yoruba language among the faithful due to availability of Yoruba classes and continued pilgrimages across the Atlantic) would augment Aninha’s bold moves in her day to strengthen the lines of spiritual power to herself and her house, thus fostering an even stronger link to the blessed dead (which today include Aninha and Bonfim among their number) and enhancing the production of communitas-through-axé as new devotees undergo initiation and join the Ketu Nation.

Chapter 3: Sarada Devi

In 1859, a five-year-old village girl named Saradamani Mukhopadhyaya was married to Gadadhar Chattopadhyay, a twenty-three-year-old Hindu priest known today as Ramakrishna Paramhansa and worshipped as an incarnation of God. Saradamani would see her husband for brief visits until she moved in with him at his temple near Kolkata, India when she was eighteen or nineteen. She was in the background during their lives together, nearly invisible to the outside world due to the Hindu custom of purdah, the sequestering of wives from public view. When he died, she was expected to cut off her hair, dress herself in plain white clothing, and nevermore adorn herself with jewelry. The rest of her life would be served out in penance for remaining alive after her man had died.

I have a colorized photograph of Sarada Devi, the name by which Saradamani is popularly known. She sits, legs crossed, in a white sari with thin red trim on its border. Her hair is long and loose over one shoulder, and she wears a thick gold bracelet on each wrist. The original black-and-white photograph was taken years after the death of her husband. But the sari, hair, and bangles in my picture carry the same message: she was not a widow.

After her husband died, Sarada claimed that Ramakrishna told her that she was not a widow because he was not actually dead – after all, he was God. She kept her hair long, wore a thin red trim on her sari, and continued to wear her gold bracelets. Initially, she was criticized for not following protocol. But eventually, she gained renown as a guru and a living goddess.

In other pictures of Sarada Devi, her head is covered, so her hair is not fully visible. She appears at times to be wearing a solid white sari with no apparent trim. But whenever her forearms are visible, she is consistently wearing thick, rope-styled bangles that appear to be the same ones in the image given to me.

For the purposes of this chapter, I will focus primarily on narratives, written by contemporaries of Sarada Devi, that are accepted by religious communities dedicated to furthering the teachings of Sarada and her husband. Those stories have have shaped and sustained an international community of devotees for over a century. Those same stories describe Sarada as a woman who derived power from her relationship with her husband and his companions, and who transformed reality by declaring an act of truth concerning her non-widowhood. The narrative of Sarada, the humble wife, is intertwined with the counter-narrative of Sarada, the Living Goddess who did as she saw fit.

I love the hagiographies of Shri Ma (Holy Mother, a title given to Sarada Devi by her devotees) that reveal the Deity hidden within the maternal figure of a simple Bengali villager. I also respect the work of scholars who try to find the woman behind the goddess, who situate Sarada as an oppressed wife trapped within the social realities of nineteenth century Bengal. But I seek neither woman nor Goddess. I want to understand the power of her gold bracelets, and how they contributed to a counter-narrative that continues to trouble and bless those who are drawn to her.

The Madman’s Religion(s)

We will first examine Ramakrishna’s religious expression and the spiritual currents of nineteenth-century Bengal that inform it, then explore Sarada’s narrative within those currents in search of a counter-narrative, beginning with her marriage as a child bride and ending with her life as a spiritual leader of her God-husband’s growing community.

The official story of Ramakrishna is that of a holy man whose bizarre behavior gained him notoriety, then acceptance, as a God-intoxicated saint and an incarnation of God/Goddess in his own right. During the course of his search for Brahman, the Universal Principle that informs reality, Ramakrishna engaged in different practices that were considered extreme, such as eating filth, worshipping a cat, behaving as a monkey, and dressing as a woman. He was primarily devoted to Kali, the fanged, skull bedecked, scantily clothed, buxom goddess with long, thick, loose hair. Kali was also the focus of Ramakrishna’s duties as the chief priest in the Dakshineshwar Kali Temple near Kolkata, India. But devotion to (and identification with) Kali was not his only means of spiritual expression. Another important practice for Ramakrishna and his disciples was Vaishnava kirtan: singing, dancing, and trance during services dedicated to Krishna. Kirtan comes out of the Bhakti (devotional) tradition attributed to a sixteenth century Bengali saint, Chaitanya, who was especially devoted to Krishna, the blue, boyish, seductive flute-playing avatar of Vishnu.

Bengal in the days of Chaitanya was a fertile place for multi-religious devotion. Ascetics roamed the region, practicing austerities and preaching the scandalous secrets of Tantra in which rules restricting sexual activity and consumption of forbidden things (such as meat, wine, and filth) were symbolically or actually broken in order to find God in everything. Muslims had been in Bengal for centuries, and with Islam came Sufi singing and dancing in sama rituals that invoked the many names and attributes of Allah, preached universal brotherhood, understood trance as a means for annihilation of the soul as it merged with Allah, and claimed madness as a sign of devotion to God-as-Beloved. In the article, “Sufism (Bengali)” in the Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature, Visvanath Chatterjee describes the influence of Sufism on Bengali literature and religious culture:

The sufi [sic] doctrine reached Bengali literature mostly through some of the Muslim writers of Bengal… There appeared a number of Muslim writers who wrote Vaishnava lyrics in Bengali… The impact of sufi doctrine in Bengali was not limited to the sphere of poetry. It touched the lives of the people and influenced the “sadhana” of religious men… It is small wonder, therefore, that the sufi [sic] element can be traced even in the Bengali school of Vaishnavism. It may be seen in the faith and practice of the greatest devotee and religious leader, Sri Chaitanya (1486-1533). One of Chaitanya’s close associates, Haridas, was a sufi before he embraced the Vaishnava faith… What is even more remarkable is the fact that the impact of the sufi doctrine is found even in the great religious classic, Krishnada’s Chaitanya-charitamrita (Nectar of the life of Chaitanya, c. 1585), the standard biography of Chaitanya and a landmark in Bengali literature.

Chaitanya’s call for the removal of caste distinctions between his followers and his acceptance of Buddhist and Muslim devotees were scandalous in the eyes of orthodox Hindus, but were in accordance with Sufis’ notion of universal brotherhood and tolerance of other faiths. The Sufi counter-narrative of Lover and Beloved, understood as wine-like intoxication and allegorically represented in certain sex acts (extramarital affairs between men and women, sex between men), is similar in some ways Buddhist-Hindu Tantra in the celebration of the forbidden. Chaitanya’s bhakti has its own forbidden sexual side in celebrating the erotic dalliances of Krishna with female cowherders, especially with Krishna’s favorite, Radha. Chaitanya saw himself as the union between Krishna and Radha. He dressed as both Radha and Krishna so he could do women’s and men’s devotion, and crossdressing also aided his (and his companions’) efforts to take on the role of Radha in their adoration of and lust for Krishna. Ramakrishna continued the tradition – like Chaitanya, Ramakrishna was both god and goddess – and even dressed at various times as a woman:

In order to obtain [Radha’s] grace, Sri Ramakrishna requested Mathur [the temple proprietor] to get him a woman’s dress and jewelry… Mathur got him a Benarasi sari, a gauzy dupatta, a gharara and a choli. Sri Ramakrishna admired the clothes, dressed himself as a woman in the sari, gave a coy look, minced his steps and fanned himself with a chamara. Much to the amusement of the people, Ramakrishna behaved as a woman, combed the hair of other women, gathered flowers, wore anklets and went about like a wealthy matron joining the other women when he entered the temple. Mathur, who was on the side reserved for men, was not able to recognize Sri Ramakrishna.
His identification with the feminine extended into his notion of himself as a mother to his disciples. He was even known to breast-feed some of his male followers.

Considering that Bengal had been a testing ground for interreligious exchange for centuries before Ramakrishna, his eclectic approach to the quest for transcendence (which included brief conversions to Christianity and Islam) is not so surprising. Not only did he become a woman, he also accepted a few female disciples and appears to have initiated one of them as sannyasini (nun). That same openness to different traditions and breaking from tradition is apparent in the work of Ramakrishna’s chief disciple, Vivekananda, who presented his master’s teachings as friendly to all religions and spread the word of Ramakrishna to Europe and America. Vivekananda also encouraged women to join the movement, and he was an important ally of Sarada, promoting her as the Universal Mother and the bedrock of the Ramakrishna movement. Nevertheless, recognition of Sarada as the Universal Mother is contingent on Ramakrishna as her guru, just as recognizing the validity of Julian of Norwich’s theology depended on Jesus as its source. But Julian is most certainly not Jesus, even as she sought to suffer as he had suffered. Sarada, on the other hand, was known to temporarily become her husband, and like Ramakrishna, Sarada was a mortal who is Kali, the Universal Goddess. Nevertheless, there are some important distinctions between wife and husband. Unlike her husband, she did not have to change genders in order to act as the Mother’s handmaid, to understand Radha’s feminine longing for Krishna, or to become Kali, neither did Sarada crossdress.

The Madman’s Wife

Official accounts of Ramakrishna’s ventures into cross-dressing are framed as expressions of his devotion to the multiple forms of Brahman, the Eternal One manifested in all gods. Likewise, the catatonic states that hit him were mystical moments when he merged with Brahman. If these states were symptoms of a mental disorder, it was a divinely mandated one. The blessings of such sacred insanity notwithstanding, his family was not always happy with his antics, and considered his marriage to Sarada a means to bring him back to mundane reality.

Sarada was betrothed to Ramakrishna when she was five and he was twenty-two. Both of them were Bengals of the Brahmin caste (the priestly and technically the highest status) but from poor families, so gold jewelry was borrowed for the wedding ceremony. Afterwards, the groom’s family tried to remove the precious items from the little girl, who wept and resisted their attempts. Her husband suggested said that they wait until his child-bride was asleep, then remove the ornaments.

At the time of their marriage (1859), Ramakrishna was the chief priest of the Dakshineswar Temple, a position with a measure of financial security and social standing for him and his household. Dakshineshwar Temple is a large complex beside the Ganges River. Within the complex is a large, nine-domed Kali temple in the center, with smaller temples to the west (with steps leading down to the Ganges River) and to the north of the Kali temple. The complex was built by Rani Rasmani, a wealthy, low-caste widow. Rasmani was a champion of the poor and powerless – she was especially famous for defending the rights of fishers on the stretch of the Ganges beside which the temple complex sat. But because of her caste, none of the local brahmins would consecrate the temple complex. Ramakrishna’s brother Ramakumar came up with a solution: dedicate the grounds to a brahmin. Rasmani then asked Ramakumar to bless the complex and become Kali’s priest in the main temple. Initially, Ramakrishna was like the other brahmins who would not work with Rasmani because of her low caste. But he came around to the open-mindedness of his brother, at least enough to function as the chief priest in her temple complex when Ramakumar died. For her part, Rasmani stood with Ramakrishna when patrons of the temple wanted to dismiss him because they thought he was too crazy to function as its priest.

When Sarada was around eighteen years of age, she travelled to his temple to see for herself whether her husband was insane. Ramakrishna welcomed her warmly, and she stayed with him for eight months, secure in the knowledge that he was not crazy. This marked the beginning of their married life together. During these eight months, Ramakrishna and Sarada worked out their relationship. She assured him she would never try to tempt him to have sex, and she was allowed to be physically close to him. He performed Sodasi Puja, formally worshipping her as the Universal Mother, within weeks of her arrival. But the closeness they shared at the beginning of their lives together was also the sisterly intimacy of female devotees: “I was in the state of the handmaiden for a long time,” he said. “I used to dress in women’s clothing and wear jewelry and a scarf… If I didn’t do this, how could’ve I brought my wife and lived with her for eight months? The two of us were Handmaids of the Mother!”

Ramakrishna may have regarded Sarada as a fellow handmaid, but his identification with the feminine did not require that he give up the privileges he had as a man in eighteenth century Bengal society, neither did he liberate Sarada from the restrictions imposed upon her as a Brahmin wife. His acknowledgment of Sarada’s divine motherhood did not keep him from expecting that she follow the strict taboos of purdah, the Hindu tradition of wife-sequestering. She refrained from showing her face in public or associating with men other than her kinfolk – and she was not upset at having to do so. Despite Sarada’s desire to be in his presence, spending time with Sarada after those initial eight months (unless she was serving him food or occasionally rubbing oil on his body before his bath) was not a priority for Ramakrishna, who was focused on his male disciples. When she was at Dakshineswar, Sarada was restricted to a small area in a building on the temple grounds. According to Swami Nikhilananda,

[Sarada lived] in a small room in the northern side of the temple compound, called the Nahabat, from where she could get a view of the room in which the Master lived… In later days the Holy Mother would, while recounting the experiences of her early days, tell her nieces, “You won’t be able to live in such a room even for a day.”

Sarada’s life with Ramakrishna was not at all what a wife should expect from her spouse. Not every husband would worship his wife as the Supreme Goddess, then ignore her when in the ubiquitous presence of his disciples, all the while refusing to have sex with her and eliminating her chance to bear children of her own. Ramakrishna praised his wife for making herself invisible to the outside world, and the praise was not flattering. “I was extremely concerned about her when she first came here,” he said. “She came from the country and did not know about the ways of city life. I thought people would criticize her movements and we should all be hurt. But she is so wonderful that she has hidden herself completely from view.” Sarada would go out to the Ganges to bathe, and to the courtyard to converse with other women, but only when she would not be observed by the general public. Much of her time at Dakshineswar Temple was spent in in the Nahabat, cooking for her husband and his disciples, and watching them sing and dance through a small hole in the bamboo barrier that cut her off from the daily goings-on of the temple. She also had problems with some of the people who surrounded her husband. Nevertheless, she recounted those days fondly:

Mother: You have seen the Nahabat. Have you not? I used to stay in the lower room of that Nahabat. Under the stairs I cooked.

Sister Sudhira: Even now, the stairs on the front side are walled over with matting. Under the stairs there is a hearth. And the baskets of the fisherwomen are left there in that same verandah of yours… Well, Mother, how could you live in that room? Did you not have problems?

Mother: The problem was only regarding the morning ablutions and bath. The want of proper toilet arrangements was another. It affected my health. And those fisherwomen were my companions. They came to bathe in the Ganga, and keeping their baskets in the verandah, would get into the water. How much they used to chat with me!… I used to hear the fishermen sing while catching fish at night. How many devotees used to come to the Master! How much singing! … The Holy Mother looked at Yogin-Ma and said, “How blissful it was then, Yogin!” Saying this, she became a little absent-minded. Yogin-Ma now remarked, “What an intense bliss it was – can it be described in words? The soul is thrilled to think of it even today.”

For all the joys of conversations with fisherwomen and the songs of fishermen, there would also be the smell of fish from the baskets left on her veranda. But the conversation also shows what little regard Sarada had for caste – as a Brahmin woman, she had no problem with calling low-caste fisherwomen her companions, the same fisherwomen (and fishermen) who benefited from the compassion shown on them by the Widow Rasmani who built the temple complex that became Sarada and Ramakrishna’s home.

Sarada stayed in the background while Ramakrishna was alive, performing her own religious devotions in private. But Ramakrishna found time to prepare her to continue his work after he died by teaching her mantras and spiritual disciplines. In time, she also took on some of his divine madness. Yogin-Ma, a female disciple of Ramakrishna and dear companion of Sarada, gave this account of the time Sarada experienced samadhi:

A few days after I had become acquainted with the Mother, she said to me, “Please tell him that I would like to experience a little of spiritual ecstasy. I don’t find him alone to speak about this matter myself.” …The next morning when I went to his room the Master was seated alone on his bed. After saluting him I informed him of the Mother’s request. He listened without replying and became grave. When he was in such a serious mood, no one dared utter a word. So I left the room after sitting there quietly for a while. Returning to the Nahabat, I found the Mother seated for her daily worship. I opened the door a little and peeped in and found her laughing. Now she was laughing, and now weeping. Tears were streaming from her eyes. After a while she gradually became still. I knew she was in Samadhi. So I closed the door and came away. After a long while I again went to her room. She asked me, “Are you just returning from the Master’s room?” I said, “How is it, Mother, that you say you never experience high spiritual moods?” An abashed Mother began to smile.

This story not only illustrates the spiritual connection between husband and wife, it also shows how Sarada was at times so isolated from her husband that she had to ask Yogin-Ma to speak to him for her.

For much of the time when they were together, Sarada was Ramakrishna’s servant and was considered as such by his disciples. One might be tempted to say that Sarada’s story is that of a woman who had no identity that was not assigned to her by her husband, be it as his cook, his nurse, his student, her (Ramakrishna’s feminine persona) intimate female friend, and his Divine Mother. After those first eight months, he appears to have been distant from her, except when she was feeding him or when he was ill, until he was in the terminal stages of throat cancer.

Ramakrishna’s Saraswati

One identity, however, was her own. “Sarada” is one of the names of the goddess Saraswati, patroness of learning and music, who is portrayed wearing gold jewelry from head to foot. The following quote from the Holy Mother describes Ramakrishna as a caring husband: “He used to say [about me], ‘Her name is Sarada. She is Saraswati… That is why she loves to adorn herself.’ He had told Hriday, ‘See how much money is there in your box. Have a pair of nice gold armlets made for her.’” As a saint who had renounced kamini-kanchan, “women and gold,” he could not touch money because it caused him physical pain. But Ramakrishna embraced both femininity and gold jewelry in the person of his wife and in his own spiritual practice:

He divined her [Sarada’s] liking to wear ornaments and spent three hundred rupees to have a pair of bracelets made for her… Yogin-Ma, describing her appearance in those early days, says: “She wore a piece of cloth with broad red borders and put vermilion at the parting of her hair. Her thick black tresses almost touched her knees. She wore a gold necklace, a big nose ling [sic], earrings and bracelets. Most of these were what Mathur Babu made for the Master when he practised spiritual disciplines assuming the role of a handmaid of the Divine Mother.”

By acknowledging her as Sarada/Saraswati, Ramakrishna recognized her as his true wife and as an individual worthy of respect. He knew the bangles would make her happy, so he got them for her, perhaps to also make up for the sorrow she felt as a child when her bridal splendor was taken from her. In many ways, her personhood and the love her husband had for her were encapsulated in her gold bracelets.

His Death, Her Limbo and Rebirth

Sarada lost her husband in 1886 when she was thirty-two years old. Accounts describe how she had prepared herself to live as a proper Bengali Brahmin widow with shaved head, a plain white sari, and no jewelry. But Ramakrishna stopped her:

The Master’s demise brought about a drastic change in the Holy Mother’s life. She reacted to his passing with extreme fortitude, exclaiming, “O Mother Kali! Have you left me!” She shed no tears, though her heart was heavy with the sorrow of separation. Soon after the cremation, she was removing her gold bracelets and tearing off the red border of her wearing cloth in order to be dressed in the pattern of a Hindu widow. Immediately she had a vision of the Master, telling her, “What are you doing? I have not gone away. I have only passed from one room to another.” …All through life she wore her bracelets and a thin-bordered cloth in acceptance of the assurance of her experience that her Lord and Master is the Eternal Being, who never dies.

The second black-and-white photograph ever taken of Sarada Devi, the one that my own colorized picture is based on, shows her with long hair, but not so long that it almost reached her knees. There is a border on her sari (presumably red); it is very thin, not broad at all. Her bracelets, however, are thick and attractive with a twisting rope pattern. They are the only visible signs of feminine luxury in her apparel.

For about a year after Ramakrishna died, Sarada and some of Ramakrishna’s disciples went on pilgrimage. The year following her pilgrimage was very difficult for her. Money her husband had set aside for her welfare was denied her, and her reputation suffered because she did not follow the rules for a Bengali Brahmin widow, which may have led her to stop wearing her gold bangles for a time. She was destitute and had no one to look out for her on a consistent basis. But these times were also liberating because she was without status as wife or mother. She had no responsibilities for looking after either husband or offspring. As a liminal being, neither this nor that, she could rewrite who she was. No longer was she confined to the Nahabat. Ramakrishna’s mother had already passed away, so there was no mother-in-law to demand she behave in accordance with all the rules of widowhood. Since she had no biological children, there would be no pressure for her to conform for their sake when they sought a spouse.

Eventually, things changed in her favor:

Ramlal, Sri Ramakrishna’s nephew, who was legally her guardian, left her in utter neglect. It is said that he even positively contributed to her sufferings… To add to the misery that neglect and loneliness caused, she became the butt of criticism of the village die-hards who vilified her as a “merry widow” because she put on a red bordered cloth which custom strictly prohibited for widows. In the midst of these depressing influences, there were two factors that sustained her. One was the sympathy and support she got from Prasannamayi, an aged lady of the Laha family and a friend of Sri Ramakrishna when he was the boy Gadadhar of Kamarpukur. The other was the vision of the Great Master which she got now and then in difficult situations and the mood of spiritual exaltation in which she lived.

Like Sarada, Prasannamayi Laha was a widow. Unlike Sarada, Prasannamayi was wealthy. Just as the rich widow Rani Rasmani aided Ramakrishna, Prasannamayi helped Sarada out financially and encouraged her to live with her husband’s ascetic male followers:

[Sarada Devi:] After the Master’s passing away, I was at Kamarpukur. I was to come here to Calcutta, but many people began to object, “Oh dear, will you go and stay among those youthful boys!” …So I asked many people. Some began to say, “Certainly you can go. They are all your disciples.” I merely listened. There was an old widow (Prasannamayi of the Lahas) in our village. People used to respect her as a wise and pious person. Later I went and asked her opinion. She replied, “Why, you may certainly go. They are your disciples, like your own children. What is there in this to ask? Of course you can go.” Hearing that all approved of my moving to Calcutta.

Vivekananda, Ramakrishna’s heir apparent, enthusiastically supported notions of women’s equality that he had heard about from Western-influenced Hindu movements, then saw for himself when he met progressive women in Britain and America. Encouraged by Vivekananda, the disciples accepted Sarada as their mother, and her status shifted from improper widow to Shri Ma (Holy Mother, also a title of Kali). She became something new in the spiritual universe of Bengal: a married woman (with a deceased husband, yet not a widow) and Goddess incarnate who rejected restrictions placed upon women of her status.

A Theology of Truth

At the beginning of this chapter, I described Sarada’s declaration against her widowhood as an act invoking spiritual power that could transform reality. Some explanation is in order.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, there are stories of satyakriya or act of truth, a declaration of fact that can cause the physical world to transform according to the wishes of the person who makes the declaration: a hunter invokes the truth to capture a nymph, a king to regain his plucked-out eyes, a queen to cross a river by foot, a quail to turn back a forest fire, a fish to make it rain, a dragon to curse a false monk, a cow to turn a man into a donkey, a woman tending oxen to ease the pains of childbirth of an elephant, a mother to cure her son from poison, a wife to cure her husband from leprosy, and a low-caste female sex worker to make the Ganges River flow backward. Although this action technically involves recitation of a special prayer or charm, many of the stories have the person performing the act by simply stating their truth.

There are differences between the act of truth as satyakriya and Sarada’s eventual success after declaring that she was not a widow. She is not depicted as reciting a prayer or charm to change the social reality of her presumed widowhood. Also, when an act of truth is performed, transformation of reality is immediate, while recognition of her marriage as unaffected by the mortal death of her immortal God-husband took months of living in abject poverty and community censure before she was acknowledged as wife rather than widow. In this sense, Sarada’s declaration presaged Mohandas Gandhi’s spiritual-political strategy of satyagraha, which Gandhi describes as follows: “Satyagraha is literally holding on to Truth and it means, therefore, Truth-force.” Like satyakriya, Gandhi sees satyagraha as irresistible, but unlike satyakriya, it is not immediate: “It [satyagraha] proceeds on the assumption of the ultimate triumph of truth [my emphasis].”

Whether we situate Sarada’s declaration as satyakriya or a harbinger of Gandhi’s satyagraha, the details of her narrative reflect the power of truth as a spiritual force in Hindu theology. Sarada’s act of truth is connected to her experience of communitas when she lost status, then established new status for herself based on Ramakrishna’s own communitas as a divine madman, unfettered by societal restrictions that got in his way as he sought the bliss of Brahman, then extended that bliss to his wife and his disciples.

A Theology of Burning

Despite support from the progressive Vivekananda, Sarada lived in the area around Kolkata, not Chicago or London. There was only so far she could go in her feminine declaration of independence. In addition to toning down her non-widow appearance, Sarada performed the panchatapa, a severe purification ritual in which the devotee sits outdoors surrounded by four fires and exposed to the sun all day. She did this for seven days to demonstrate that she was not just a worldly, immoral woman:

Convinced that her husband was not dead but was ever present, “she always wore bangles and red-bordered sārī’”… Yet she was concerned to live up to the culturally sanctioned image of an ascetic widow. Hence she performed the fire ritual of Paṅcatapā for seven days during which she sat within a circle of lighted mounds of cow dung cakes [ghuṅṭé] doing japa [silent repetition of sacred words] while enduring the heat further accentuated by blazing sun above. She undertook this penance [vrata] with a view to avoiding the most notorious stigma for a widow: “Why, she eats, drinks, and lives just like any other person.”

The Panchatapa was a poignant echo of a time that, not so long before, pious widows were expected to kill themselves. Before it was outlawed by the British Raj, sati (the custom of a widow throwing herself, or being thrown, on her husband’s funeral pyre) was practiced in Bengal and other places in India. Bengal, in fact, is prominent in nineteenth century accounts of sati, especially between the years of 1815-1817, because so many immolations occurred there. Sati was officially banned in British-controlled India in 1829, less than sixty years before Ramakrishna died, but the practice continued into the twentieth century. Panchatapa as penance chosen by Sarada can be seen as her symbolic expression of sati: a ritualized death-and-cremation ceremony from which she emerged purified.

Being burned alive is a continuing theme in Sarada’s life after Ramakrishna. When sinful or suffering people touched her feet (a traditional sign of reverence), she said she felt as if she were on fire: “There are some people whose very touch creates a burning sensation in the body. It is so painful. Therefore I wash my hands and feet after they touch me,” she said. She also indicated that the sensation never really went away: “I am burning day and night with the pain and misery of others,” she said, as if by staying alive she were constantly undergoing sati. The years of her ascendancy as the venerable Holy Mother should have been easier than the time she lived as a servant unto her husband, but they are not portrayed as such. She burned constantly, and her interminable suffering plays the same role as the Panchatapa: it shows that she was no merry widow.

The phenomenon of her incessant pain has theological significance beyond appeasing cultural mores concerning widowhood. “Sri Ramakrishna used to say that all sorts of people would come with their ailments, afflictions, sins and troubles and touch him, and all those things would take refuge in his body,” she said. “It is true, my child; it may be the same case with me.” Suffering is what she, her husband, and indeed all holy people are supposed to do for the benefit of others:

One day at the Koalpara monastery, as a distinguished devotee went to salute the Mother, he said to me, “Since touching her feet in salutation causes much suffering to the Mother, we should rather avoid it.” The Mother heard this and said, “No, my child, we are here for this purpose only. If we do not accept others’ sins and sorrows and digest them, who else will? Who else will bear the responsibility for sinners and sufferers?.”

Sarada was also constantly worrying about her mentally disturbed and abusive niece, Radha. Her attachment to Radha, she said, was something Ramakrishna ordered her to do to keep her tethered to this world. Otherwise, she would have quickly passed away out of grief for having lost him, once again echoing the theme of sati and the widow who willingly dies once her husband is dead:

One evening, after talking about diverse matters, the Holy Mother said, “Look, I suppose everybody says that I am restless with the thought of Radhu, that I am inordinately attached to her. If this little attachment were not there, do you know, this body could not have survived after the Master’s passing away. It is for his work that he has generated this attachment for Radhu and detained this body. When my mind withdraws from her, this body will not remain anymore.”

Counter-Narrative: The Laughing Mother

Intermingled with stories about Sarada’s suffering are moments of laughter and jesting, much like humorous stories of Ramakrishna who was renowned for his sense of humor. In Sarada’s discourse, however, she was not portrayed as particularly humorous before she was publicly recognized as Holy Mother, while Ramakrishna is characterized as a jester since childhood.

Humor and laughter are regular features in Hindu stories about the goddesses and gods. Elephant-headed Ganesh holds a special place in the hearts of Hindus for the merriment he brings. Krishna is likewise mischievous – his exploits are meant to elicit laughter. When Ganesh’s mother Parvati, the gentle side of the bloodthirsty Kali, was teased for wanting to marry ash-covered, bull-riding Shiva, she laughed at the suggestion she was being foolish. One might imagine that Parvati’s laughter would resonate with the lived experience of Sarada, who was initially unsure about the wisdom of marrying a divine madman.

Stories of Sarada-as-guru reveal a teacher with an appreciation for comedy, even during sacred ritual:

On the day of the Vijaya Dasami, when the image [of Durga] was being taken away on a boat for immersion in the Ganga, Dr.Kanjilal had danced, gesticulated, and made faces at the image like a child, that had sent all roaring with laughter. One Brahmacharin, who held puritanical views, was much annoyed at those gestures and postures. The Mother was watching the whole scene from her residence and enjoying it. Later I told the Mother about the critical reaction of the Brahmacharin. She said, “No, no! It is perfectly all right. The Goddess has to be entertained in every way through music, fun and frolic.

She had a wry sense of humor that bordered on impropriety:

When a devotee jestingly wondered what would happen if the temple of the goddess of Kamarpukur (meaning Ramakrishna‟s home) were gutted in fire, she yelled: “Fine— fine! That would then be a cremation ground [śmaśan] just as the Master would have preferred.” She then burst into a peal of laughter [aṭṭahāsi]: “Hah, hah, hah!” The unsuspecting devotee stared at her struck dumb.

She was also not above teasing strangers:

The Mother was then seated on one side of the verandah, while Golap-Ma [her disciple] and others sat on the other. Seeing Golap-Ma, who appeared older and possessed an imposing personality, one of the visitors mistook her for the Holy Mother and saluted her. As she was about to say something, Golap-Ma saw the mistake and said, “There sits the Holy Mother.” Seeing the simple appearance of the Holy Mother, she thought that the “Holy Mother” (actually Golap-Ma) was just making fun. But when Golap-Ma repeated what she had said, the woman went towards the Holy Mother to salute her. The Mother too smilingly said, “No, no. She indeed is the Holy Mother!”‘ The woman was now in a fix! Golap-Ma and the Mother, both were pointing to each other saying-”There! She is the Holy Mother!” We were watching all this fun.

Sarada and Spiritual Independence

After the hard months that followed the death of her husband and her refusal to follow all the restrictions assigned widows, Sarada became her own spiritual authority. She worshipped an image of herself as well as an image of her husband, and performed the role of guru according to her own rules without seeking the approval of others. She also told young widows that they could follow her example and disregard restrictions placed upon them. When asked about her unorthodox behavior, her typical response was either that Ramakrishna appeared to her and told her to do so, or that he never told her not to. As with Julian of Norwich, no one could gainsay the Holy Mother since she was the lone witness to her visions. She would also explain any social conventions that she broke as the result of her desire a good mother who disregarded trifling details when serving her family: “I can do everything for the welfare of my children.”

She initiated hundreds, perhaps thousands of people upon request, which inspired her disciple Visweswaranda to correct her:

“Mother, you give initiation to so many people, but you never enquire about them. You don’t even give a thought about what is happening to them. A Guru keeps a keen eye on his disciple, seeing whether he is developing spiritually. It would be better if you did not give initiation to so many people. You should initiate only as many as you can keep touch with.” The Mother replied, “But the Master never forbade me to do so. He explained so many things to me. Could he not have told me something about this as well? I entrust the Master with their responsibility. I pray to him every day, ‘Please look after them wherever they may be.’ Besides, do you know that the Master himself taught me these Mantras [sacred words or syllables given to devotees as part of their initiation]? He gave me Mantras possessing great power.”

Among the followers of Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi is considered the Holy Mother of all, unable to turn away anyone who seeks her maternal care. There are, however, accounts of Sarada turning people away, requiring some of them not to touch her, and then complaining about a few of them when they left:

During the noon time a hot-headed man had come to the Holy Mother and created a row. Referring to this, she said, “The Master did not let anybody know of my existence. He protected me always with infinite care. Now the thing has gone to the other extreme; they are advertising me as if by a beat of drum in a market-place… Why should they always bother me about initiation?”

Sufism and the Samadhi of the Holy Mother

Song, dance, and trance during kirtan played significant roles in the spiritual expression of Ramakrishna and his disciples. Since many of Sarada’s spiritual practices originated with her husband, she in turn perpetuated that same Sufi-Hindu chain of communitas with the joy inherent in her worship. But Sarada was not known for actively participating in kirtan. There are stories about her singing, but I could find none that describes her ever dancing. Nevertheless, avidly watching her man and his disciples reveling in the holy dance is in itself is participation in kirtan, albeit passive. To discount kirtan from the spirituality of Sarada Devi would be the same as saying that a wheelchair-bound devotee at a spirit-filled Evangelical church cannot participate in the service. One account has Ramakrishna telling her not to sing and dance in a secular fashion, but such an admonition need not have applied to spiritual expression. She may have refrained from dancing after he died due to health issues she incurred when she lived in the Nahabat.

Sarada shared with Ramakrishna a love for devotional music. Husband and wife could enter trance when they listened to it. But Ramakrishna would also enter samadhi when confronted with a potentially erotic situation with women, which occurred when the Bhairavi Brahmani attempted to initiate him into Tantra sexual practice, when he was enticed by female sex workers (in one instance, by a room full of them), and when he was lying in bed with his young wife. These kinds of triggers are not found in the stories about Sarada Devi, but she had her own peculiarities. More than one account of her in trance has her weeping and laughing (as she did when Yogin-Ma had informed Ramakrishna that Sarada wanted to experience samadhi) or just laughing:

One night somebody began to play on the flute. At the sound of the flute, the Mother entered into a high spiritual mood, and she laughed every now and then… After a long while the Mother came back to the normal state.

Sarada also held to one of Sufism’s basic tenets (and a central doctrine of Rabi’a, a female Sufi from Bazra) that is shared with Bhakti Hinduism: the utter dependency of the soul on the Beloved, as seen in another conversation with Visweswarananda in The Gospel of the Holy Mother:

Another day at Jayrambati I asked the Mother, “How can one realize God?-through worship, Japa or meditation?”
Mother: By none of these.
Disciple: Then how?
Mother: God is realized only through His grace.

The Fruits of Communitas

Victor Turner was inspired to come up with communitas after he was a conscientious objector during World War II. For Julian of Norwich, communitas can be found in her experience of becoming sick unto death as a means to understand the suffering of Christ. In Sarada Devi’s narrative, it is situated in her liminal status after the death of Ramakrishna. Sarada came out of the ordeal reborn and, with the help of widows around her, redefined the role of widowhood for her followers.

The community of believers under Ramakrishna’s leadership suffered at his passing – initially, they had no funding to establish an organization in his name. Once they were able to pull themselves out of poverty, they were then in a position to aid Sarada, but the obstacle of her status as a young widow was a serious one. It was the efforts of fellow widow Prasannamayi Laha that got her the approval of the people around her to move in with the male devotees.

Widows such as Laha played an important role in helping Sarada become an icon. As mentioned earlier, Rasmani rejected the restrictions placed upon a lower-caste woman in order to build Ramakrishna and Sarada’s first home together, and Laha rejected the condemnation sent Sarada’s way. In addition to Rasmani and Laha, there was Ramakrishna’s devotee, Shyamasundari Mitra. While he was alive, Ramakrishna praised the Widow Mitra, who wore gold bangles and red trim because she considered herself married to Lord Krishna after her husband died. This example would have given Sarada a clear precedent for her own decision to continue to wear her gold bangles, although Sarada did something different: she did not replace her own mortal husband with a divine one as Shyamasundari had done.

Among the disciples that Ramakrishna left behind were the close female companions of Sarada, all of them without husbands: Gauri Ma, Yogin Ma, and Golap Ma. All three were upper-caste (Gauri and Golap were Brahmins;Yogin Ma was Kayastha, an upper level of the Kshatriya caste), and all three had chosen Ramakrishna as their guru in the latter years of his life (Gauri in 1882, Yogin in 1883, and Golap in 1885; Ramakrishna died in 1886). All three were fiercely loyal to Sarada and independent of mortal men. Yogin had been married as a child bride at seven, but left her husband years later with their daughter in tow after he proved unfaithful. Golap devoted herself to Ramakrishna and Sarada after the death of her daughter (her husband and son had died before that point). Nevertheless, these bold women were not feminists in the Western sense. Gauri, Yogin, and Golap were able to achieve a degree of independence from patriarchal authority (and a measure of respect from that same authority) by renouncing the world, dedicating themselves to masculine gods and to their dead guru, and dedicating themselves to the Universal Goddess and to Sarada, the Holy Mother.

Gauri was crucial to creating and preserving the legacy of the Holy Mother by setting up institutions in Sarada’s name. The personal details of Gauri’s life reveal a woman who kept her own counsel. Sent to a school founded by an Anglican bishop for upper-class Brahmin girls, Mridani (Gauri’s name at birth) accepted the Hindu religion of her mother but rejected attempts to marry her off at thirteen. She left home, traveled throughout India dressed as a male ascetic, and settled down for three years as a disciple of Ramakrishna, who initiated her as a sannyasini (nun) and gave her the name of “Gauri Ananda.” He then commissioned her to serve the women of India, and she did so by founding a school for women and girls as well as a nunnery and a home for widows after he died. Gauri opened the Sri Sri Saradeswari (Holy Holy Divine Lady Sarada) Ashram and Free Girls’ School. in 1894, less than ten years after Sarada had been abandoned and reduced to nought.

The initiation of Gauri as sannyasini by Ramakrishna appears to be a bone of contention between Belur Math (headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission) and Gauri’s Saradeswari Ashram. Belur Math does not recognize Gauri as a nun in the Ramakrishna Order. In 1954, Belur Math founded Sri Sarada Math, a convent of the Ramakrishna Order for nuns initiated by monks of the Ramakrishna Order – nuns at Sarada Math shave their heads and dress in clothing the same orange color as the monks. Nuns at Saradeswari Ashram, however, trace their lineage in an all-female line going back to Sarada Devi and Gauri-Ma; they keep their hair long, wear bangles, and dress in light red saris with a dark red trim.

Compassion for Young Widows

A major concern for Sarada and her companions was the situation faced by young widows. Sarada was critical of restrictions, as seen in the following conversation with her disciple Susheela Mazumdar:

Disciple: Mother, I have been surprised to find young widows here taking fish. In our part of the country it is prohibited by society.

Mother: Do you know what this is? This is but local and regional custom. In our part, young widows are allowed to take fish and wear bordered saris and jewellery.They naturally harbour these desires. If they are restricted from eating fish, they will take it stealthily.

The Holy Mother dismissed the customs for widows as no longer applicable to young women in the area in which she lived, completely ignoring her own situation as a young widow when she was criticized for not following the rules. Perhaps she felt that, after she successfully challenged the status quo (along with the precedent set by the Widow Mitra and perhaps others), they were not applicable to any young widow since then. Most likely, though, she was once again flouting convention at will (and in this case, rewriting it) because “I can do everything for the welfare of my children.”

The companions of Sarada appear to have felt the same way. The following conversation with Kshirobdala Roy, a low-caste woman who was married at ten and widowed at fifteen, illustrates the disapproval Gauri and Golap (herself a widow) had for social conventions forcing young women into a life of penance:

Golap-Ma said, “Though she is a mere child, she has spoiled her health by fasting and practising other austerities.” Gauri-Ma said, “Dear, why have you cut off your hair?” I said, “Widows in our part of the country do not grow their hair.” She replied, “Without hair one’s eyesight deteriorates. Since you have dedicated your body to Sri Krishna, how does your hair belong to you, dear?” …But the Mother said, “You have done well. Keeping one’s hair gives rise to a feeling of fashionableness to some extent; for one has to take care of it. So what you have done is right. You have overcome the craze for luxuriant locks, and you have also come here. You have now achieved that for which you lived so austerely. Now, I say, don’t indulge in such austerities any longer.

Why did Sarada not extend that same freedom to older widows? When reading her interactions with the women who came to hear her advice, two things stand out. The first was her insistence that the spiritual path was the best thing anyone, man or woman, married or not, could choose. She saw marriage as a bad bargain and held disdain for women who bore lots of children. Such fecundity indicated lack of discipline resulting in being bound even tighter to the worries of this world; more children meant less time for devotion and meditation. Those who were advanced in years should set their minds on God, so an older widow renouncing worldly things was exactly what older people should do. Sarada did not appear to believe that widows should remarry, which makes sense since Sarada was critical of marriage to begin with.

The second thing was that she took care not to criticize the austerities people had already undertaken. What she found objectionable was forcing a young woman to submit to restrictions without having been able to enjoy the world in modest ways, a situation with which Sarada was intimately familiar. This also explains the necessity for Sarada to undergo the Panchatapa, and why her narrative describes her in a constant state of suffering for the good of humanity. She could only advance her agenda of compassion for young widows if she were taken seriously as a holy woman. Like Julian of Norwich, Sarada’s voluntary suffering gave her spiritual authority.

Nevertheless, she did not give up her fabulous gold bracelets, the physical evidence of her husband’s affection. In that one act of rebellion, Ramakrishna’s beloved Saraswati would have her way. Perhaps the bangles on her wrist gave young widows hope that all was not lost with the death of a husband, that a widow still had personhood.

Expanding the Mother’s Embrace: Queer Resonance

When Jeffrey Kripal published Kali’s Child, a psychoanalysis of Ramakrishna’s sexual orientation, many Hindu leaders accused Kripal of calling Ramakrishna “gay,” and they strongly condemned Kripal’s analysis. What Kripal had actually done was to analyse the discourse on Ramakrishna and postulate that the texts portrayed Ramakrishna as a man who felt same-sex attraction. For Kripal’s critics, that was the same thing as associating Ramakrishna with the worldwide gay liberation movement with its drag queens, leathermen in buttless chaps, and topless lesbians – and many conservative Hindus were having none of it.

The reality of the twenty-first century is, however, that various facets of the LGBT community are emerging across the globe, that the LGBT community is denied basic rights in many countries, and that LGBT people are demanding equality, just like women and members of the lower castes have been doing in India in the last few decades. The spiritual descendants of Ramakrishna and Sarada have worked to end caste discrimination and establish equality for women. It is well within the spirit of reform that, in the twenty-first century, they include the LGBT community as well. The problem lies in how to do so in India, a country that is so conservative in matters of sexuality and gender. One solution is the generation of a new counter-narrative that does not seek to queer Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, or their followers as its goal, but rather to highlight elements in their stories with which Queer people can resonate. Jeffrey Kripal claims in his book, Kali’s Child, that cross-dressing for Ramakrishna was an aspect of his homoerotic-romantic desires. But it does not function that way in the official narratives about him. He crossdresses to become Radha and Kali’s handmaid so that he can achieve spiritual transcendence. A similar phenomenon arises with Ramakrishna’s female initiate Gauri, who crossdressed as a male ascetic, although in her case it may have been more for protection than identifying as a man.

The crossdressing stories about Ramakrishna (and perhaps Gauri as well), can be seen as examples of spiritual transgender identities, which make sense within a theology that sees God as beyond feminine and masculine, and whose powerful and popular male gods, Vishnu and Shiva, transform from male to female at various times. In different legends, Vishnu transforms himself into the irresistible seductress Mohini, one time to save the world from demons, another time to seduce Shiva, and a third time to sexually reward a hero who was to be sacrificed the next day. There is also a legend of Shiva being transformed into a woman by Parvati as he pleasured her, and one where he becomes Radha when Parvati becomes Krishna, providing an example of a goddess becoming male as well.

When Vishnu, Shiva, and Parvati take on transgender identities, sexual attraction (including same-sex erotic-romantic attraction), is found in some of the legends. Feminine/female Mohini is a seductress, but when she changes back to masculine/male Vishnu right at the moment Shiva is attempting to make love to her/him, Shiva does not stop, neither does the love-play between Shiva and Parvati cease when Shiva becomes female. Such spiritual transgender identities for mortals, however, are asexual. Ramakrishna-as-Radha may be physically aroused at the thought of Krishna, but the pleasure resulting from such play is samadhi, the ecstasy of the soul merging with God, not same-sex love-making. This is also true with Gauri: whether she dressed like a man because she felt masculine or because she simply wanted to avoid being harassed, there is no evidence of doing so in order to attract a mortal lover of either sex or gender.

That being said, crossdressing was nevertheless scandalous in nineteenth century Bengal (and in Ramakrishna’s case, humorous to the point of appearing campy). Sarada did not seem to have a problem with her husband’s history of crossdressing, nor did she criticize Gauri for dressing like a man. In fact, Sarada found it admirable in Gauri’s case:

After the initiation was over, Annapurna’s mother began to talk about the girl and said, “She is not an ordinary girl. After reading about Sri Ramakrishna, she became eager for practising spiritual austerities. She cut her long hair, dressed herself as a man and set out on a pilgrimage.” …The Mother heard these words in silence and then remarked: “Ah! What devotion!”

From Sarada Devi’s narrative emerges a counter-narrative for inclusion of not only all people, regardless of caste, but also the LGBT community. Although the narratives of Ramakrishna, Sarada, and their disciples are devoid of same-sex orientation and transgender identities as understood in Western discourse, there are nevertheless plenty of stories that resonate with India’s increasingly visible lesbian, gay male, bisexual, and transgender people because those narratives suggest, overtly or covertly, same-sex orientation and transgender identities. One could argue that Ramakrishna’s spiritual transgender identities as Radha, Kali’s handmaiden, and Kali herself do not have to signify that he felt he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. They can, however, be means for attracting transpeople to his salvific message, and his homoerotic attachment to his disciples can inspire openly-Gay men to follow him, just s they are. Likewise, the stories about Gauri-Ma as an independent woman who was not afraid to dress as a man and who championed women’s causes would attract lesbians and transmen. Sarada’s acceptance of her husband’s (and Gauri’s) gender-bending ways could inspire LGBT people to seek refuge in her, and inspire others to accept the Holy Mother’s LGBT children, just as they are, and furthering her legacy as Mother of all people.

Chapter 2: Julian of Norwich

Her proper name is lost to us. Known as Dame Julian of Norwich, she was an anchoress, a woman who took a vow of seclusion to pray for the community and give spiritual advice to those who sought her counsel, and she is associated with Saint Julian’s Church in Norwich, England. Julian composed two texts concerning visions of Jesus that she had when she was sick unto death. Among the insights she gathered was an understanding of grace, the willingness of God to extend undeserved favor. For Julian, grace becomes more than just favor extended to us despite our shortcomings. Grace transforms our tendency to sin from the source of our damnation into a reason for God to love us even more. “Grace works our dreadful failing into bountiful and endless solace,” she writes, “and grace works our shameful falling into high-rising honor, and grace works our sorrowful dying into holy, blissful life.”

Within the context of Roman Catholic doctrine, Julian’s theology of grace subverts the authority of the Church right in the heart of its presumed power to ensure salvation. One of the most important functions of priests is to administer the sacrament of confession (or in today’s Church, reconciliation). Sinners need to have their sins forgiven lest they suffer eternal damnation, and Jesus (who is God Almighty in human form) gave the Church exclusive power to forgive sins. But Julian’s revelations are not of a vengeful God. They posit Jesus as our mother, not our judge. Jesus does not forgive our sins; because of grace, there is nothing to forgive. Rather than threatening all of humanity with the dreaded prospect of burning forever if we do not repent, Jesus gave Julian good news for all of humanity: all shall be well.

The Sixteen Showings

According to a narrative she generated herself, she asked God to strike her with a painful illness so that she could experience something of Christ’s suffering on the cross. God granted her wish on May 8, 1373. On the sixth day of her infirmity (Friday, May 13), all hope was lost. A priest held a crucifix before her so that it would be the last thing she would see in this world. The crucifix came alive and bled before her eyes, and she experienced fifteen showings or visions of Jesus from approximately 4 to 9 am, which were as follows:

His head crowned with thorns
Discoloring of his face
Jesus is God, almighty wisdom, all love, all-doing
The scourging of his body
The Devil is overcome by Christ’s suffering
God thanks her, he is like a master who throws a feast for his servants
Christians are kept securely in God’s love, in woe as well as well-being
The last pains of Christ, his dying
The Trinity approves of Christ’s suffering as a preamble to joy
Jesus’ heart is cloven in two
A vision of his mother
The Lord is most worthy
Humanity is excellent as God’s work, and sin is a source of honor
Jesus is “ground of our beseeking,” prayer and trust
Mortals will be removed from pain and woe, fulfilled in joy and bliss in Heaven

During the five hours when the fifteen showings took place, Julian felt no pain. Following the fifteenth showing, however, the pain came back and left her “barren and dry.” A priest came to her and asked her how she was. She told him that she had been hallucinating, and he laughed heartily. Then she told him she had seen the crucifix bleeding, and he became serious and reverent – this caused her to feel shame that she had doubted the visions. Afterwards, the Devil visited her in her sleep, which she recounted to the people who were watching over her. After that point, all the pains of her illness disappeared. The last showing occurred the following night on Saturday:

The showings were not hallucinations. If she trusts in them, she shall not be overcome.

After the sixteenth showing, the Devil attacked her once more but was unable to harm her. He left her at dawn, Sunday morning.

These visions involve three kinds of perception: actual sight, ghostly or spirit-sight, and contemplative insight. Five of the visions deal with Julian actually seeing Jesus’ body. She watched blood flow from the crown of thorns on his head and from the scourging he received. She also saw him becoming desiccated, shriveled, and darkened as if he had been on the cross for seven days. She saw his mother and other visions with ghostly or spirit-sight, and she has moments of insight concerning the relationship between God, sin, and humanity during and after the visions. Contrary to Medieval Church doctrine that fixates on the evils of sin and the torments of Hell, the theme of her visions is one of joyful tidings arising from sorrow: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” Jesus tells her.

From the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, there was a surge of texts written by Western European mystics, some of whom probably influenced Julian (although she does not say which ones). These accounts created a quandary for the Roman Catholic Church, the dominant religious institution in Western Europe: if true, they were proof that the God represented by the Church was real and active in the world. Some of the mystics became Catholic saints (Catherine of Siena, Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila), their revelations were assimilated into official Church discourse and interpreted according to official guidelines. However, anyone who could communicate directly with God was a potential competitor for the souls of humanity and could only be allowed to relay their visions and insights if they were no threat to the power structure – Catherine, Bernard, John, and Teresa were no exceptions.

This is not surprising. Much of the mystic tradition of the Middle Ages does indeed undermine fundamentalist religious institutions despite frequent declarations of obedience to those institutions by mystics. For the recipients of revelations who wanted their experiences to live on after them, it was necessary for them to couch their writings in non-confrontational language that at the very least gave the appearance of conformity. Such is the case for the two texts attributed to Julian of Norwich, whose existence was threatened once again when the English Crown rejected Roman Catholic authority. Her assurances that she was a faithful child of the Roman Catholic Church (as well as her controversial theological statements) led to exile of the texts in France for two centuries.

There are only a handful of pre-eighteenth century manuscripts from which the long and short versions of Julian’s visions (the two texts attributed to her) are derived. It is generally assumed that the short text was produced not long after her visions had taken place, while the long text was written after years of contemplation, although this assumption has yet to be established as fact. Until the seventeenth century, copies of the long text were hand-written, presumably by English nuns who lived in exile in two convents, one in what is known as the Paris convent (whose nuns produced the text known as the Paris manuscript) and the other in Cambrai, Northern France (Cambrai manuscript). For this chapter, I use The Shewings of Julian of Norwich edited by Georgia Ronan Crampton (1994), based on a handwritten copy of the long text attributed to Anne Clementine Cary (1615-1671), founder of the Paris convent.

Interaction Between Christian Mysticism and Islamic Sufism

Julian’s discourse in her two surviving texts has been described as having roots in the proliferation of Christian mysticism in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, which in turn is grounded in neoplatonic thought wedded with Christian discourse in works such as those of Pseudo-Dionysus in the fifth or sixth century CE. Pseudo-Dionysus is, in fact, considered a major source for many Medieval Christian mystics. His understanding of God-as-Trinity that transcends human understanding, and connects to all creation through love, echoes throughout Western European mystic discourse.

Pseudo-Dionysus is also famous for being a liar. He called himself “Dionysus the Areopagite,” a man who was a companion to Paul in the Bible, which would have situated him in first century Athens. But evidence places him centuries later in Syria, hence the reason he is called pseudo (false) Dionysus. This falsehood, however, allowed gullible theologians from the eighth century on to treat him as a valid source of Christian tradition because they thought he was with Paul. Pseudo-Dionysus’ theology comes out of the early anchorite movement in the fourth century CE, which arose in the deserts stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia as men (and presumably women) separated themselves from society to seek God within. Islamic conquerors and missionaries spreading out from southern Arabia encountered anchorites and monks in the seventh and eighth centuries, which also marks the beginning of the Sufi movement in Islam, a powerful counter-narrative that complements (and also subverts) the Allah-as-Ruler imperial discourse with experientially based Allah-as-Lover intimacy. The Qur’an informs us that “God is nearer to you than your jugular vein” – early Sufis (who often removed themselves from society to contemplate Allah in holy poverty and isolation, much as the anchorites did) took such verses as signs that the Almighty-as-Beloved was as much immanent within themselves as the majesty of Allah-as-Lord was above them.

Like Roman Catholicism and the Western mystics, Orthodox Islam had (and still has) an ongoing love-hate relationship with Sufism. On the one hand, Sufi devotion to the names of Allah (an echo of Pseudo-Dionysus’ Neoplatonic fascination with the names of God as ideals that link the Creator with his creation) and preference for lived experience of the Divine encourage the faithful to constantly remember God, an important principle in standard Islamic discourse. Realizing the presence of Allah in the world confirms the validity of Muhammad’s own experience as God’s Messenger. On the other hand, lived experience of the Divine can lead members of the community to take on prophetic authority that belongs to Muhammad alone. Even worse: the presence of Allah within the heart of the faithful may inspire some of them to identify themselves with God. According to Sufi theology, eliminating all traces of selfishness can lead the lover of Allah to discover, as the Sufi mystic Al-Hallaj claimed, that nothing remains within oneself but Allah. “An al-Haqq” (“I am The Real,” in other words, “I am God”) declared Al-Hallaj, a statement that tradition says led to his execution by crucifixion.

Despite conflicts between Sufis and Muslim authorities, Sufism spread with Islam across North Africa, south into West Africa, and east into South-Central Asia. The most important Sufi treatises that survive today were written from the tenth to thirteenth centuries. Their production coincided with the Golden Age of Islam, which in turn influenced Western Europeans when they traded with Muslims, made pilgrimage to Christian sites in Muslim-held territories, and fought Muslims during the Crusades (1095-1291 CE). As Western European armies clashed with Muslim defenders over the formerly Christian Holy Land, a wealth of cultural exchange occurred. Muslim treatises on philosophy, medicine, and mathematics flowed into Western Christendom. Certain principles of orthodox Muslim theology appeared in Christian discourse, and the Sufi counter-narrative (God is our Beloved, and the best means for encountering the Divine is within ourselves) followed. But the discourse of Medieval Christian mystics is silent concerning the influence of the early Sufis who arose after Dionysus. For its part, discourse in the Sufi mystic tradition typically does not directly acknowledge its own roots in early Christian mysticism.

Norwich in the Fourteenth Century

Aspects of Islamic culture were not the only thing to arrive at England’s shores in the Middle Ages. The Black Death (also known as the Great Mortality) hit Norwich in 1349. Julian was a child when that first wave of the plague came through, and she witnessed the devastation of an illness that could kill its victims in a matter of three to seven days. Between a third and half the population died as further waves came through in the next twenty years as the English population witnessed with horror the bloody hemorrhaging and vomiting, discoloration of the skin, dark pustules that would break open and emit a foul smell, and extreme thirst of the afflicted.

Along with the Black Plague, Norwich was inflicted with a second calamity. The city was the seat of Bishop Henry Despenser, also known as episcopus martius (“the fighting bishop”) for preaching war against the French and championing what was called the Norwich Crusade. The official reason for fighting the French was the Great Schism, a time when two men declared themselves pope and split Western European Christendom. The French government supported Clement VII in Avignon, while the English Crown supported Urban VII in Rome. Despenser sold indulgences, spiritual certificates that reduced a person’s time in the temporary section of Hell called Purgatory, in order to fund his crusade. The Great Schism, the Church’s inability to do anything to prevent or mitigate the plague, and the excesses of Despenser’s war inspired some English Christians to criticize the clergy. This in turn resulted in persecution of critics, which included anyone who had a Bible in English rather than the official Church version in Latin. John Wyclef, who had translated the Bible into English without Church permission, led a group called the Lollards, people who openly questioned Church authority and doctrine. Their name was given to them by their opponents – “lollard” is a derogatory term referring to somebody who was shiftless and lazy, but the followers of Wyclef adopted “lollard” as a badge of pride. In 1401, Lollard persecution began in earnest when William Sawtrey was burned at the stake, and more would follow.


According to Julian’s accounts, there were witnesses by her sickbed who occasionally heard her interacting with someone, even though those witnesses could not see what she saw. Julian belonged to a community that was steeped in Church doctrine concerning miracles and divine visitation, so her witnesses had reason to believe her when she told them what she saw in her liminal state because she was one step away from eternity. When she wrote down her visions, it is plausible that there were people (including at least one member of the clergy) who could vouch for the fact that she had been in a situation where such things were possible or even expected. The validity of her revelations was also aided in the way they were temporally located in a liminal period during a Friday and Saturday, then resolved at dawn on Sunday, replicating the passion and resurrection of Christ commemorated every year from Good Friday through Easter Sunday.

In these revelations, Christ tells her that he is anxious to please his children, and even waits upon their pleasure. Instead of Bishop Despenser’s martial Christ the King, leading his followers to war against French infidels during intra-European crusades, Julian’s Jesus is a gentle, even indulgent nurturer who washes humanity with his blood. She also portrays Jesus as a mother who feeds his children with that same blood. “Are you well pleased that I suffered for you?” he asks her. “Yes, good Lord, thank you,” she responded. “If you are pleased, I am pleased,” he said. “If I could suffer more, I would suffer more.”

Jesus, Satan, and the Black Death

In the first part of the showings, a priest holds a crucifix before her eyes: “I have brought you the image of your maker and Savior. Look thereupon and be comforted,” he tells her. Then crucifix becomes animated. Blood flows copiously from Jesus’ forehead from wearing a crown of thorns. Further in her visions, she sees blood from the scourging Jesus receives that turns into a flood, cleansing souls in this world and in the depths of Hell. He becomes desiccated and withered, as if he had been on the cross for days. His face and body darken in color (“the face more brown than the body”), like a dry board when it is scorched. After he appears to be “seven nights dead, continually dying,” Jesus says, “I thirst.”

Julian’s description of Jesus on the cross would resonate at a time when the entire community had experienced the Great Mortality. In Jesus’ suffering are details resembling what she must have seen when the Black Death visited Norwich. Hemorrhaging blood, discolored flesh, excruciating suffering that could last a week, and unquenchable thirst would have been symptoms with which she and her readers were familiar.

The Black Death is referenced again when the Devil assaults Julian on the day after she experienced her revelations. Like Jesus, the Fiend has marks of the plague: he emits a foul stench and his discolored body is covered with sores. But Satan does not appear to feel suffering as Jesus had. Like the martial Jesus of Despenser, the Devil is anti-communitas incarnate. Satan wears the trappings of the Black Death without feeling its effects. He is gleeful, smiling through white teeth, unlike the pitiful figure of Christ who progressively suffers and shrivels. The plague represents not only the shared suffering of Jesus with his children, but it is also the garb of humanity’s greatest foe who, like the disease he so proudly accessorizes, would bring ruin to humankind. For all of his efforts, however, the Fiend cannot harm her, once again a reflection on Julian’s lived experience as a survivor after the devastation of the Black Death.

When the plague spread throughout Western Europe, nobody was spared due to station in life, be it peasant, nobility, or clergy. All were leveled in the face of calamity. The communal experience was that of extreme anti-structure as massive death and uncertainty unravelled social bonds. Rebirth eventually came about as societies rebuilt themselves, presenting an opportunity for the generation of communitas that official Roman Catholic discourse was ill equipped to produce because the official narrative was insufficiently flexible. From a Biblical perspective, plagues were seen as God’s scourge against un-Godly people. The fact that the just, pious, and compassionate died alongside the cruel, blasphemous, and callous undermined the Church’s credibility concerning God’s justice, which was further damaged by the conflict between two popes, each condemning the other to Hell, when there should be just one. By volunteering to become deathly ill, then linking the shared plague experience to the crucifixion by portraying Jesus as similar to those who suffered from the Black Death (and her visions to her own deathly illness), Julian’s counter-narrative embraces and sanctifies the terror that everyone suffered during the time of the Great Mortality.


Between Julian’s sorrowful account of Jesus’ body hemorrhaging, then becoming desiccated, there is an odd moment of levity as Jesus scorns the Devil in her presence, which makes her “laugh mightily” and causes the people in her room to laugh along with her. Her laughter marks a significant difference from her account and typical religious discourse. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus laugh, and Julian adds that she did not see him laughing during the course of the showings. Nevertheless, she says that Jesus intended for her to laugh, so there is no impertinence in her amusement over the defeat of the Adversary. Laughter is mentioned once more in the next chapter, where she likens Jesus to a nobleman who entertains his guests, “filling the house with laughter and joy.”

Julian’s laughter is the at the heart of her counter-narrative. She laughs in the presence of Christ and he approves, a definitely un-Scriptural turn of events. The Bible has one outstanding scenario in which a woman laughs, but that laughter creates tension, not joy. Sarah, wife of the patriarch Abraham, overhears God telling her husband that she would become pregnant and bear him a son. Sarah was well past menopause, so she chuckles to herself about the absurd notion that she and her husband could have sex in her old age. “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure [with my husband], who is also old?” God calls her out for laughing. She denies it out of fear: “I did not laugh,” she protests. “No, but you did,” God responds. Just before this divine visit, Abraham laughs when God revealed Sarah’s upcoming pregnancy to him in private – God says nothing about Abraham’s laughter.

Sarah’s laughter is an expression of her doubt. In the Bible entire, laughter is rarely described in a positive sense, at least not in this world: “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth,” warns the author of Ecclesiastes (7:3-4, KJV).

Within this context, Julian’s account of her laughter and Jesus’ approval of it borders on disrespect, even heresy, since there is no Biblical precedent for a woman laughing in the presence of Christ. This would be especially troublesome for religious authorities at a time when the Catholic Church in England was worried about the Lollards taking liberties with the Bible. On the other hand, perhaps some of the faithful, especially women, were happy to see a woman’s mirth made sacred after dealing with the human toll from the plague and Despenser’s pointless crusade against the French.

Julian’s Double Vision

Julian sometimes describes herself as having a kind of double vision: she witnesses what Jesus was showing her while still aware of the people around her. Her visitors by her sickbed laugh with her when she laughs at the Devil. When she sees, feels, and smells the Devil attack her near the end of her revelations, she asks her visitors if they could smell his stench.

Having witnesses to vouch for at least a portion of the content of her showings might explain why Julian was initially able to get away with the audacious things she says in her two texts, such as describing a Christ who is concerned with loving his mortal children, not damning them. She hints that, once God has redeemed all of humanity from the misery of sin (which she says is worse than the sufferings in Hell), that Satan will be unable to fulfill his desire to lead God’s children astray, implying universal salvation.

The Universe in a Nutshell, the Divine in a Human Soul

At one point, Julian sees the universe.

He showed me a little thing the size of a hazelnut in the palm of my hand, and it was round as a ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding and thought, What may this be? And the answer was, It is all that is made. I marvelled how it could survive, for I thought it might suddenly perish. I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall last, for God loves it, and so all things have their being in the love of God.

Two things are remarkable about this passage. The first is that Julian is not simply given insight into God’s perspective. She is given the stature of the Almighty in relation to all that is – she looks upon the universe from God’s perspective, as if, in fact, she were God. This ghostly vision resonates with her later statements about how God dwells within the souls of the sinful. Within the human heart, says Julian, is the soul, and God lives within the soul, which is as vast as the universe (an inversion of the vastness of the Creator and the smallness of the mortal soul typically understood in Western Christian discourse) in which God also dwells. We are not simply the image of God – we are God’s dwelling-place. Jesus is found in our bodily image as well: “It was the image and likeness of our foul mortal body wherein our fair bright blessed Lord is hidden.” This in turn gives context to her vision of holding the universe in the palm of her hand – she not only takes on the perspective of God, but also the grandeur of her own soul, which in itself is difficult to understand: “And thus I saw with complete certainty that it is easier for us to come to the knowing of God than to know our own soul.” She also says that the soul itself does not assent to sin (“For in every soul that shall be saved is a Godly will that never assented to sin and never shall,” which is consistent with the soul being the dwelling-place of God), although she stops just short of saying that all souls shall be saved, which would place her revelations squarely in the realm of heresy. Given the time and place in which she lived, she could not overtly claim unqualified universal salvation without endangering her person and her texts.

The Parable of the Servant

Julian did not consider anger an attribute of God, regardless what evils we commit in this world: “For I saw no manner of wrath in God, neither for a short time or for long, for truly from my perspective, if God were even a little angry with us, we would never have life, nor place, nor being.” This is in line with her understanding of grace (“He loves us endlessly, and we sin constantly”): sin is something humanity cannot avoid because God has ordained it so, and from this thought she takes comfort. “I shall do nothing but sin,” she wrote, “and my sin shall not interfere with his goodness.”

To further illustrate the notion that sin does not anger God, and even more controversial, that God has no need to forgive us for sin, Julian recounts a ghostly vision of a master and servant that took her two decades to figure out. The master sends his ragtag manservant on a mission. In the manservant’s haste to serve his master, he runs to do the master’s bidding, only to fall and severely injure himself. The servant, blinded with pain, cannot find anyone to help him in such a bad state and feels that he suffers alone. All the while, however, the master knows the condition of his beloved servant and will reward the poor man for all the suffering he had to endure. At no point does the master blame the servant, even though the servant is unable to accomplish the task the master had sent him to do. In fact, the master rejoices in the knowledge that he will reward the servant even more because of the servant’s fall.

After two decades of contemplation, Julian has one more revelation: the master is God, and the servant is Jesus, Adam, and all of humanity. “For in the sight of God, all of humanity is one man,” she says, “and one man is all of humanity.” The physical fall of the servant is enacted in every human life, first with the fall of Adam, then with the crucifixion of Christ, and continuously with the sins of every single person that has or ever will live. But sin is humanity’s glory, for by sin, God rewards human beings even more than had sin not occurred. In turn, humanity is God’s glory: “We are His bliss, we are His reward, we are His honor, we are His crown.”

The story of master and servant, situated in her fourteenth revelation, puts into perspective the vacillation between joy and sorrow (“now the one, now the other, diverse times, I suppose about twenty times”) that Julian experienced in the Seventh Revelation: “And in the same time of joy I might have said with Saint Paul, ‘Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ,’ and the and in suffering I might have said with Peter, ‘Lord, save me, I perish,’” she says. She learns that God wills for His lovers to have both moments of comfort in His presence and loneliness when they perceive only His absence, and that sin “is not ever the cause” of such loneliness. “God wills that we know He keeps us safe in woe and well.”

Not only does God keep us safe in woe and well, says Julian in the eightieth of the eighty-six chapters in the long text, Jesus suffers with us when we suffer. When we are alienated from him due to sin, despair, or lack of effort, He suffers alone just as we feel that we suffer alone. The parallel suffering of soul and Savior is obliquely confirmed in the traditional duration of the crucifixion and death of Jesus and the recorded duration of Julian’s encounter with death, both occurring from Friday until Sunday morning. His crucifixion takes on the temporal dimensions of her own suffering.

Julian’s Shewings and Sufi Theology

The Sufi masters of the ninth through the thirteenth centuries generated a counter-narrative that is, to this day, the source of tension between their spiritual descendants and fundamentalist Muslims. Rather than understanding Allah as master, Sufis see Allah as Beloved, as an intimate companion. Union with Allah arises through annihilation of the nafs (the self, which by nature is inclined to do wrong as it forgets Allah) so that only God remains. The Qur’an states, “We [Allah] are closer to him [humankind] than [his] jugular vein,” which Sufis claim supports the notion of God as Beloved, and that if we remove the veil of our sinful nature (fana, the passing away), the Beloved shines through. In addition to Sufi reverence for Jesus as the perfect spiritual master (perhaps the nearest thing to an overt connection with the desert anchorites of seventh and eighth century Christianity), Sufi discourse and Islamic doctrine in general also tend to see Allah in everything and the source of all, including other religions.

It is unlikely that, along with medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and other imports coming into Western Europe from the Muslim world during the time of the Crusades, Sufism did not also make its mark on Western European thought. The question is, To what extent? The answer may not be found in direct evidence. Just as Pseudo-Dionysus hid the origins of his mystic thought in a fictitious identity that placed him at the feet of Saint Paul of Tarsus in the first century CE, and just as Sufi discourse does not acknowledge arising from contact between Muslims and Christian anchorites, so would the roots of Medieval Christian mysticism in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries be purged of anything that would link it directly to Muslim theology, such as the theology of Sufis, counter-narrative to orthodox Islam though it be. In all three cases, survival of the mystic and the message depended upon the mystic’s ability to convince religious authorities that neither mystic nor message contradicted the official interpretation of Scripture or undermined the prevailing power structure. It is permissible, for example, to be Christian or Jewish in a Muslim society. It is not permissible, however, for a Muslim to convert to any other religion, nor should a proper Muslim look to any other source for inspiration than the Qur’an or Hadith (traditions concerning the life, behavior, and wisdom of Muhammad). For mystics in Medieval Western Europe, acknowledgment of anything Muslim was unthinkable – indeed, any such links were most likely lost early on – even as elements of Sufi theology made their way throughout Western Christendom.

Sufis portray Jesus as the epitome of humility and love. He is called Ruhu’llah, the Spirit of God born of a virgin and unlike any other person in history, including Muhammad. Jesus is a perfect exemplar of a human so close to Allah that Allah shines through – there is not much of a leap from Sufi discourse on Jesus as perfect master to Jesus as Incarnation. Nevertheless, the leap is not made in Sufism to Jesus as the Second person of the Trinity, something that is crucial to Julian’s theology. But she concurs with Sufi discourse on God as Beloved when she says that the Trinity is “our everlasting lover.” The Qur’anic notion of God’s nearness (“Allah is nearer to you than your jugular vein”), is pushed even further by Julian: God is nearer to us than our own soul. Her theology of sin as the source of human nobility (“Also God showed that sin shall be no shame but is a source of honor for humanity.”) is in line with the Sufi concept of nuzul wa su’ud (descent and ascent, falling in sin, then rising to greater spiritual heights as a consequence).

In addition, there is at least one theological link between Julian and Rabi‘a, a Sufi saint born in Bazra who is said to have lived in the eighth century, and whose stories were popularized by the Sufi writer Attar in the twelfth century. According to Attar, “Someone asked her [Rabi’ah], ‘If a person commits many sins and repents, will (God) accept him?’ She replied, “How can anyone repent unless his Lord gives him repentance and accepts him?’” A second story is like unto the first: a man said to Rabi‘a, “I have sinned much and rebelled against God. If I repent will God accept my repentance?” “No,” she answered. “But if He turns towards you, you will turn towards Him.” Julian makes a similar point that she turns to God because He causes her to do so, rather than an independent act of will. “I am the ground of your seeking,” Jesus tells her. “First, it is my will that you have it [the desire to seek God], and since I make you want it, and since I make you seek it and you seek it, how should it be that you should not have that which you seek?”

Nevertheless, Julian was not a Sufi. She constantly asserts Jesus’ role as the Second Person of the Trinity, and the importance of His identity as God the Son is crucial in understanding him as Mother, as strange as it may seem, because his motherhood is contingent upon his crucifixion, as is her theology concerning grace. In his humanity and servitude to his Father, Christ becomes humanity’s nurturer (hence mother) as he washes humankind with his blood, and feeds humanity with his body and blood in the sacrament of communion. For Julian, Jesus is the focus of her devotion: “I am it, I am it,” he says to her, “I am it that is highest, I am it that you love, I am it that you favor, I am it that you serve, I am it that you long for, I am it that you desire, I am it that you intend, I am it that is all, I am that which the Holy Church preaches and teaches you, I am that showed me here to you.”

Julian’s discourse also differs from Sufi discourse in that she is not preoccupied with transgressive sexual behavior. Sufis such as Rumi compare the love of Allah with adultery and same-sex love between men. Drunkenness and insanity are also themes for Sufis, but Julian does not refer to either as analogies for the experience of the Divine. She regrets, in fact, telling the priest she had been hallucinating when she comes back to full consciousness after the first fifteen visions, neither does she talk about fana, her selfhood passing away so that God shines through.

Survival of the Woman

In terms of the positive message she presents in her texts, Julian stands in stark contrast with Church leadership in the days of her position as anchoress. The bishop of Norwich, Henry Despenser, preached war against the French for siding with the wrong pope, and condemned those in his own country who questioned Church authority and sought to read the Bible for themselves in their native tongue.

In order to understand how Julian was able to not only survive but gain a following, we must understand the narrative into which her life had been placed. By taking a vow as an anchoress, she made herself physically and visibly dependent upon the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, she gained a degree of independence as a woman not bound in marriage to a mortal man, and as somebody whose life choice immersed her in grace and did so in a very public fashion. Prior to her vocation as an anchoress, her wish to suffer unto death so that she could experience the suffering of Christ, and her survival after her wish was granted, placed her among the elite spiritual masters of her faith – she had what was no doubt considered a miraculous recovery by those around her. This made her a powerful exemplar for an institution that venerated saints who, through their narratives of lived experience and contemplation, validated Church doctrine and authority.

When she wrote about her visions, Julian’s theology was validated in the same way Jesus’ message was validated: through extreme suffering in service to humanity. The Church held (and holds today) that the followers of Jesus should imitate him. But there are boundaries as to how close one may identify with Jesus (Paul’s statement in Galatians 2:20, “Not I, but Christ in me” notwithstanding). There is but one Christ, and He is without equal. But mystics since the sixth century CE have troubled that bright line between Jesus and those who love him. By suffering as Jesus did, and by having visions in that state of suffering (as if her illness elevated her above ordinary humanity, including Church leaders who were not privy to revelations such as hers), Julian generates a new Gospel, a new Scripture that she alone has the authority to interpret. In presenting new revelations to the world, she eliminates the role of the institution as the sole interpreter of all legitimate revelation.

Granted, she declared her obedience to the Church time and again: “And now I yield to my mother Holy Church as a simple child ought to do,” she says, but does so right after contradicting Church doctrine concerning God’s anger and God’s forgiveness (“[B]etween God and our soul is neither anger nor forgiveness in His sight.”). On topics the Jews, she points out that official Roman Catholic discourse clashes with what Jesus himself has revealed to her, or chose not to reveal to her. In her declaration of obedience to the Church, Julian followed the ancient mystic tradition started by early mystics such as Pseudo-Dionysus and continued by their Muslim and Christian spiritual descendants: she lied.

In addition to questioning Church doctrine, she presents an alternate version concerning the details of the crucifixion itself. These things are the heart of the risk Julian took: by treating her showings as if they were Scripture (in English, no less!), she presented a message with elements founded in neither the Bible nor the traditions of Roman Catholic official discourse. She probably survived because she neither directly confronted Church authority nor squarely contradicted Church doctrine with the inconvenient truths of her new Gospel. “These revelations were shown to a simple, uneducated creature,” she says of herself, much as Teresa of Avila declares herself ignorant, when such is not the case for either woman. For mystics under the scrutiny of institutions that were prepared to torture and kill anyone perceived to oppose them, professions of inferiority were necessary for survival.

Much of what Julian said was not original – she was not the first mystic to consider Jesus a motherly figure. But her emphasis on a feminine presence in the Trinity is accompanied by the declaration of God’s love as irresistible. She states that our sinful nature is the source of our honor, that the soul is the home of God and, in its most intimate core, unsullied by sin. “For in man is God, and God is in all,” she says. This in turn suggests that eternal Hell is not for mortal sinners, regardless of what sins they commit. Jesus told her, “All is well, and all is well, and all manner of things will be well,” implying universal salvation rather than condemnation and the invocation of fear. It is a wonder Julian was not executed. It is likewise no wonder she has yet to be recognized as a saint in the contemporary Roman Catholic Church.

Survival of the Texts

Since their production, Julian’s short text and long text were in danger of being destroyed for heresy, first by the Catholic Church for being too populist, then by the Protestant movement for being too Catholic. During Julian’s lifetime, it is reasonable to assume that her community loved her, and that she had no enemies powerful enough to turn her words against her, at least not powerful enough to ensure her demise. After Henry VIII’s reforms in the sixteenth century and the continuation of those reforms by his daughter Elizabeth I, Julian’s works were preserved by nuns in two exiled English convents across the channel in Cambrai and Paris during Elizabeth’s reign. Julian’s counter-narrative was painstakingly copied by hand, then published for the first time in 1670 by Hugh Cressy, who was chaplain to the nuns in the Paris convent sometime between 1651-1653. There the convents remained for a period of some two hundred years until the French Revolution drove them back to England. Of the long text, two early hand-written manuscripts (pre-eighteenth century) exist: the Paris manuscript (sixteenth century) in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and the Sloane manuscript (written in the seventeenth century and used in this chapter) in the British Museum.

In the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Julian and her visions gained greater notoriety than ever before. Julian is still not in the official Communion of Saints of the Roman Catholic Church despite her rising popularity, but she is treated as a saint by the Church of England.

Communitas of Mystics, of the Sick, of Sinners

In terms of communitas, Julian’s narrative follows the death-liminality-rebirth model of initiation That Victor Turner outlined in The Ritual Process. Like Turner during his time with the bomb squad, she faced grave physical danger when she was ill. Unlike Turner, however, she wrote about the experience.

Turner sees communitas as placing people betwixt and between in a state of liminality in which they bond to one another. Julian was suspended between life and death for the course of the visions. As an anchoress, she was also in a liminal space between the church and the outside world – physically and socially. Her accounts of her visions give her readers the insights she harvested from her near-death experience. But with whom did she bond as a result of her liminal experience? To which oppressed group, exactly, did she belong?

An obvious answer is that she was a Medieval woman in a world in which women were inferior to men. But there is no indication that she felt her womanhood shackled her, or that being female was oppressive to her. Julian was not in a position where she could discuss oppression of women and be assured that her texts would survive. She does, however, play a tried and true game of power by attributing her visions and insights to the (masculine/male) Almighty, much the same as male religious figures (Jesus himself, Paul, Muhammad, the Mormon President, the list goes on) attribute their authority to something or someone greater than themselves, thus reserving that power for themselves as exclusive spokesmen. Her humility notwithstanding, the bottom line is this: When Julian speaks for Jesus, she assumes Jesus’ authority as his spokeswoman. She does not, however, claim exclusivity. Julian acknowledged her lesser status as fact, not as an injustice: “I am a woman, ignorant, weak and frail,” she says in her short text. At face value, the group with which she expressly identified was those people to whom she gave her visions: her fellow Christians, fellow sinners who need the assurance that all will be well. But the parallels she makes between Jesus, the Plague, and her own illness suggest that the oppressed group was her fellow survivors of the Black Death.

Besides plague survivors, Julian also belongs with the collective of mystics, Muslim and Christian, who sought God-as-Beloved and risked censure, and even death, once they revealed that, not only did God communicated directly with them, God told them things that contradicted official discourse. Like Julian, mystics have had to lie, to erase, to reduce themselves so that the wheels of orthodoxy could pass over them without crushing them or erasing their counter-narratives. And that same universalist perspective concerning God’s grace moved her to write things that could have been written by Muslim and Christian mystics alike: “Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well: love was His meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did He show you? Love. Why did He show it to you? For love.”

Hunting With Cats: Communitas and Counter-Narrative

Chapter 1: Edith, Victor, and Communitas

Communitas is a slippery subject to define, but the conditions that lead to it are fairly simple to outline: removal from ordinary life, loss of status, and emergence from the ordeal transformed. Victor Turner, the anthropologist who introduced the term to his discipline, calls communitas “humankindness,” while his wife, anthropologist Edith Turner, says it is “almost beyond definition, with almost endless variations… it has to do with the sense felt by a group of people when their life together takes on full meaning” (Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy). Neither definition is easy to pin down because communitas is grounded in personal experience. I find it difficult to distinguish it from everyday solidarity in any way other than the intensity of the event. Communitas is solidarity amplified into ecstasy, which in turn can lead to higher states of awareness that can undermine the status quo in whatever situation one finds oneself. The best way I can describe it from my own experience is this: communitas is more than an experience; it is power capable of shattering barriers that separate me from others. And it is communitas as a generator of socially controversial, yet highly ethical and potentially transformative, counter-narratives that fascinates me.

This book gives the narratives of seven subjects in seven different cultural contexts, how communitas arose in each case, and how communitas is the basis for counter-narratives that challenge basic assumptions in each culture. The first of the seven is Victor Turner himself, as told by Edith Turner, and how he came up with communitas in the first place.

Box Bashing and Bomb Defusing

In Victor Turner’s classic, The Ritual Process (1969), communitas is typically linked to loss of status and exposure to danger, ominous mystery, or unmitigated joy while being set apart from normal societal rules. Whether through danger and shared humiliation, or pleasure and shared hilarity, the common theme of communitas is anti-structure: “Communitas,” Turner says, “breaks in through the interstices of structure, in liminality; at the edges of structure, in marginality; and from beneath structure, in inferiority.”

He does not, however, mention what initially brought him to the concept of communitas. The Ritual Process situates communitas in rituals that he observed while doing fieldwork among the Ndembu people in Zambia. One gets the impression that this fieldwork inspired him to conceive of communitas, and that he then postulated it as a factor in rituals of initiation, accounts of utopian societies, production of festivals, and the rise of countercultural movements such as the hippies of the 1960s. But Edith Turner says that his lived experience as a conscientious objector was the trigger that inspired his concept of communitas, an experience that occurred years before he, Edith, and their children travelled to Zambia.

The history of warfare in Britain includes an ongoing process of conscription, and resistance to conscription, that goes back centuries. Mandatory participation for men to engage in warfare existed in one form or another, such as obligations related to clan allegiance or the right of local officials to compel membership in a militia, since post-Roman occupation Britain. Objection to participation in war because of one’s religious principles appears in eighteenth century discourse when Quaker men resisted military service based on their denomination’s theological principles. The contemporary conscientious objection movement (which included those who objected on grounds other than religious ones) began in earnest when formal conscription went into effect with World War I. It was at this time the nickname “conchie” for “conscientious objector” became popular, and the Non-Combatant Corps (NCC) became known as the “No Courage Corps.” Harsh stories of imprisonment, isolation, threats of execution, and occasionally fatal attacks on conchies during World War I, and of the bravery of some of conchie medics and ambulance drivers on the battlefield, made things less toxic for conchies during World War II. Nevertheless, when Victor Turner and other men like him in refused to pick up weapons in defense of their country, they were considered cowards and traitors by much of the general public, despite the legal recognition of membership in the Non-Combatant Corps as an acceptable alternative for men whose convictions compelled them not to fight.

Conviction to (and being convicted for) holding fast to an unpopular ethical stance bonded Victor Turner and his fellow conchies, and one result of their bond was manifested in their zest for working together. They functioned so well as a team while box bashing (loading boxes onto trucks) that they surpassed the expectations of their overseers and undermined the reputation of conchies as shiftless dodgers. Even more: they enjoyed the work because they were together in the doing. That experience of affection for his fellows inspired Victor Turner to formulate the concept of communitas. We can outline their experience as conchies in terms of death-liminality-rebirth initiation that bonded the men: once Victor Turner and his fellows declared themselves conscientious objectors, they fell from whatever pre-war status they had. They were then in a liminal state in the NCC, neither incarcerated nor free, neither soldier nor civilian (conchies had their own uniform). The men formed a bond, and that solidarity made their unit function extremely well and worthy of praise, contradicting the negative reputation of conchies. After the war, their experience was preserved in the writings of Edith Turner after Victor passed away.

When Victor Turner wrote about Ndembu initiations, he had at least one encounter with communitas that resonated with what he saw in the Ndembu cultural context. But there are significant differences: his NCC experience existed within a radically different cultural context – that of British conscientious objectors during World War II – and was not designed in advance to precipitate a transformation. That particular cultural context was the frame in which their experience of communitas would take. It did not result in the participants emerging from their liminal state with new social status (except perhaps within the conchies’ own social circle) as would occur with an initiation, neither did they transcend the barriers between them because of the shared pleasure of the carnivalesque. Rather, their solidarity resulted from the power of shared conviction, and their conviction-based solidarity created an unexpected and, from the standpoint of the British military, unwanted counter-narrative. From NCC solidarity came the experiential basis for the concept of communitas, Victor Turner’s scholarly counter-narrative to the structuralist anthropology of his day, a concept elastic enough for him to extend to initiations, ideologies, festivals, and social disruptions worldwide, but presented as a result of his ethnographic research on mid-twentieth century Ndembu rather than his own experience within the cultural context of his own people.

“Communitas can only be communicated through stories,” says Edith Turner. Apparently, the story of her husband’s experience as a conchie, and the importance of that experience to his research, was one that he was not ready to tell when he submitted the concept of communitas to the academic community in The Ritual Process. Perhaps he did not mention it due to the stigma of having been a conscientious objector. But it could have been a strategic decision to appeal to the fascination of Western anthropologists concerning The Other, and reluctance to speak from personal experience as a fellow human being rather than from the scholarly detachment an ethnographer observing the Ndembu. Edith Turner, however, has proven time and again that she has no such reluctance. Victor ’s reticence notwithstanding, Edith refers to her husband’s bonding with his NCC comrades as a pivotal event that shaped his understanding of communitas.

Even then, there is one important detail that Edith Turner treats as incidental. She only briefly mentions Victor’s time working in bomb disposal, although that was what he was doing when she first laid eyes on him: “I looked at this new stocky dark-haired character: he was wearing a badge depicting a red bomb. Vic was on the bomb disposal unit of the non-combatant corps, and was helping military personnel to dig up unexploded bombs.” The dedication the conchies had to each other in executing the dangerous task of bomb disposal earned them praise from observers, but this praise went against the popular narrative even more so than box bashing: Unlike our brave soldiers, non-combatants are cowards. Those involved with ordnance disposal generated a powerful counter-narrative starring the brave conchies that some officials saw as being at odds with the war effort, so the conchies were removed from the terrible magic that comes with walking together with military personnel on the border of their shared mortality. It should be noted that, by doing so, the British military did not attempt to prevent communitas from happening; rather, the goal was to limit the transformative power of communitas, to restrict it to military personnel so that the public’s admiration was focused solely on the troops rather than on conscientious objectors and troops working together. I suspect that Victor’s experience in bomb disposal also played a role in shaping the ways he conceived of communitas, especially when he links communitas to drama and danger. Unlike the ritualized and normalized communitas of Ndembu initiation, Victor’s time as a conchie highlights transgressive, anti-structural elements that communitas can have as the basis for a counter-narrative, while, for example, the Ndembu initiation for boys is performed within the formal life-narrative expected of a man from that society.

Communitas can be utilized to support the status quo rather than point out alternatives or structural flaws, and it can be generated (or as Edith Turner says, “prostituted”) to fuel the production of unwarranted mass violence. Edith describes moments when people wielding deadly force are devoid of compassion for the weak, a state that she calls “anticommunitas.” This includes normative communitas in the training of military personnel that rejects the Geneva Conventions, spontaneous communitas that incites riots and massacres, and ideological communitas that triggers acts of terrorism in the name of some imagined future utopia. The potential for shattering the barriers between people can be curtailed and narrowed to only a few, and it appears all too easy for those few to use the magic of their solidarity to denigrate those outside of their circle instead of inspiring those within the circle to act for the benefit of all. The counter-narrative implicit in any movement toward universal compassion might die on the vine before leaving a lasting imprint on an individual, group, or society. Examples in which the power of communitas goes awry often feature situations where men (but often not exclusively men) behave badly against a segment of humanity. Most likely there were people at the Nuremberg rallies in Nazi Germany that experienced communitas when they expressed love for their people after the difficult days following World War I, and that bond would then grease the wheels of the German war machine. The same could be true for the pro-Hutu rallies before the massacres of Tutsis in Rwanda, the salvific ecstasy of a Gospel choir during a church service when the preacher announces that Gay people are going to Hell, the brotherhood felt by teenage boys before they turn their bodies into walking timebombs for the love of Allah, or the camaraderie of men smoking crystal methamphetamine and having hours-long sessions of unprotected sex with each other, resulting in transmission of HIV and crippling addiction. Communitas can also result in a temporary, shallow bond that encompasses a limited view of who is worthy of compassion rather than breaking barriers between us. In the case of sports, the same bond that unites male fans can, if a greater awareness does not accompany it, turn men loyal to different teams against each other and inspire them to riot in the streets. In addition, the trappings of communitas are constantly imitated but not actualized. Edith talks about false communitas: real communitas is immediate, engaging, and personal – it builds trust – while false communitas has only the echo of the real thing without these essential elements, such as the ever-present examples of false bonhomie in televised commercials encouraging people to purchase anything from cars to phone sex.

The above examples show that communitas can be negated or counterfeited by an us-against-them attitude, reckless disregard for one’s own welfare and the welfare of others, and cynical manipulation of people’s emotions in advertising. There is something horrifying about the possibility that our deepest bonds of trust can be enlisted by terrorists and armies of conquest – such perversion of the power implicit in communitas appears to be easy to spot and condemn by any principled person. But it would be a mistake to assume that there is any expression of communitas, regardless of how benign it may seem, that is above criticism on ethical grounds. Even in examples where there is no enemy, callousness, or phony solidarity, one person’s communitas-drenched moment can be another person’s ethical disaster. Edith Turner’s example of an Iñupiat community praying together for favorable whale-hunting weather conditions might be repulsive to animal rights activists who believe that whaling is an immoral activity, just as Victor’s ethics as a conscientious objector during a time when his country was under attack could be framed as naive, selfish, or even dangerous by those who put their lives on the line to stop Nazi Germany.

False communitas, shallow communitas, and anticommunitas can lead to calamity. But I suspect that there is no experience of communitas that is not limited in its ability to empower humankindness. Those who experience it, and those to whom the experience is told, have their own limitations in terms of perception, empathy, and understanding. It is for this reason that we recognize an ethical mandate to establish goodwill with those engaging in communitas-generating forms that we find problematic. Each expression of communitas should be appreciated for its own strengths. After doing so, we may evaluate them for any negative features that lead to our extinction (survival of humanity being one bond we all have in common), but only after we can point out positive features that contribute to mutual and sustainable prosperity. It makes us stronger when we appreciate many such expressions from multiple cultural contexts – in turn, we are better able to see the ethical limitations of our own envisioned moral universe.

Hunting With Cats examines counter-narratives generated by the experiences of Victor Turner, anthropologist; Julian of Norwich, Christian mystic; Sarada Devi, wife of the Hindu god-saint Ramakrishna; Aninha, African Brazilian priestess; Power Infiniti, performance artist in the circuit, large-scale dance parties for Gay men; Pat Tillman, professional football player who became an Army Ranger; and Ku, Hawaiian god of industry, war, agriculture, fishing, and masculinity, whose large temple images were removed from, then briefly returned to, Hawai‘i. These beings (mortal or otherwise) abandoned power or had it taken away, only to have it returned to them by members of their respective communities who believed in them. None in this book truly acted alone. The experiences of Victor Turner were not in isolation – he was with others in the same situation – and the condemnation they faced as conchies was mitigated by conchies during World War I who arguably suffered greater condemnation and abuse for their sake. In addition, the importance of Victor’s experiences as a conscientious objector would not have survived without Edith. Julian of Norwich was one of many mystics whose spiritual pedigree goes back to the first Sufis and early Christian neo-Platonists before the Sufis, and there were dedicated nuns and priests who kept her writings alive over the centuries. Sarada Devi’s legacy was preserved by communities dedicated to her husband, the Hindu god-saint Ramakrishna, and those same communities were dedicated to her as a goddess in her own right (including a community of women who belonged to an order she had co-founded); her fellow widows helped her survive some particularly rough times. Performance artist Power Infiniti was preceded by cross-dressing insurgents who started the Stonewall Uprising; he was also supported by DJs, party promoters, and a fan base of circuit boys. Ku’s three large images (the only ones of their kind to survive) were created by artisans in a vibrant Pacific Island nation whose people faced physical and cultural extinction, then rebounded and brought the images together in the land of their creation after two of the images had been exiled for over a century. In addition to those who helped each of the seven, we must also acknowledge the untold number of people who tried and failed where the seven succeeded, and all the times that each community was marginalized and left statusless, but communitas did not arise or was not preserved in the collective memory.

Communitas counter-narratives are worth preserving because of their rarity, because they redeem the suffering that came before, because they can help us understand each other in the present day, and because they remind us of the power and creativity of each one of us when empowered by those who love us. While community is essential, communitas and counter-narrative are nevertheless grounded in the individual, “the basic unaccommodated human being” who experiences something radically different from the norm of social structures. Turner himself says so when he describes communitas as “a relationship between concrete, historical, idiosyncratic individuals.” The seven subjects in this book acted independently of community, even as they were helped by people within that community. There is a saying in Brazil: “If you don’t have a dog, hunt with a cat.” The seven went outside of convention – they hunted with cats and tapped into something profoundly and universally communal, something worth sharing. Because he took on the despised identity of a conscientious objector during World War II, Victor Turner was able to change the course of cultural anthropology. Despite great personal risk, Julian of Norwich did not keep her visions and controversial theological perspectives to herself. Sarada Devi did not accept her assigned role as a Hindu widow, and helped others like herself to resist. Mãe Aninha broke from the safety of an established house of African worship to found her own house, then helped legitimize all houses of African worship (and African culture in general) in Brazil. Power Infiniti demonstrated by example that a slim male immigrant dressing and behaving in a quasi-feminine manner can demand respect from a dance floor filled with macho, muscular Gay men. Pat Tillman did not want to be used as a propaganda tool; when his wishes were not honored, his family refused to go along with official and patently false narratives of his death, then stood in solidarity with families who were denied the facts surrounding their loved ones who were killed in action. Two of Ku’s three massive statues, shipped away from Hawai‘i and preserved from a purge of such images that occurred with conversion to Christianity, came together with the third image despite obstacle after obstacle put in their paths, giving Hawaiians (and Hawaiian men in particular) new resolve in their quest for sovereignty.

Communitas and Disagreement

The seven subjects of this book were chosen from hundreds of possible candidates that came to mind when I began putting it together. My criteria reflect my training as an anthropologist and a folklorist: I collected seven examples that were as different as possible in context, ideology, and ethics, but with enough documentation to access a confirmable narrative, and with evidence of a counter-narrative that originated in the experience of communitas. The seven in this book are from Britain, Brazil, India, the USA, and occupied Hawai‘i, and include different religions, genders, orientations, secular perspectives, and festive culture. In addition, one of the seven appears as three wooden bodies.

Although communitas may arise in any situation that generates humankindness, it cannot be understood outside of the cultural context in which it arises, and different cultural contexts may clash in ideology, ethics, and the ways that power is defined. In terms of theology and power, Julian of Norwich’s understanding of Christian grace is not commensurate with Sarada Devi’s act of cosmic truth that framed her as an incarnation of The Great Mother. The same can be said for Aninha’s praxis in Yoruba-based ritual to generate spiritual power known as axé – it is profoundly different from the mana generated by the god Ku in his three images. The ethics of a warrior’s honor, grounded in the willingness to take the lives of the enemy, that guided Pat Tillman are antithetical to the strength of conviction that guided Victor Turner when he refused to take the lives of others, even in self-defense. And the hedonistic ethos of fierceness that allows Power Infiniti to go onstage and win over thousands of shirtless, intoxicated, dancing men cannot be compared to the gravitas implicit in any of the previous six – conceptually. But being antithetical does not render them mutually unintelligible. Some of the greatest pleasures of being human are experiences that demonstrate time and again that each of us is a human being, but none of us (either as individuals or as groups) represent humanity. We can feel kinship as we recognize difference and see the greater “me” in the grand scope of “us,” but only if we acknowledge and appreciate not just our diversity but also our disagreements. One way of doing so is to recognize the experience of communitas in situations that we personally might find repugnant or immoral. Understanding communitas in others’ terms gives us something to initially bring us together with real affection for each other before we then commence to argue for our particular viewpoint.

In addition, we cannot leave out the power of joy in communitas counter-narratives in breaking down the barriers between us. We can laugh with Julian as she laughed merrily at Satan, much to the amusement of Jesus. We see ourselves standing with Sarada as she enjoyed watching her husband and his male devotees dance in the ecstasy of samadhi (an ecstasy she experienced for herself). Moving together, in fact, is an important feature of the other five counter-narratives: Aninha would have danced in the festive public rituals that summon the gods into the dancing body-minds of her spiritual children – we imagine ourselves in the barracão as she moves to the pulse of the drums, yet keeps a watchful eye on her children immersed in divine trance. In 2010, we envision Hawaiians dancing before the three united images of Ku. As solemn as hula and choreographed moves of Hawaiian martial arts may be, there is joy in the doing, just as warriors such as Pat Tillman have the potential for joy when they march together in formation, and the joy shining from Victor Turner and his fellow conchies when box bashing – our mind’s eye can take us there. Besides the common experience of joy-in-movement, the counter-narratives in each example create spaces for transcendence of difference without erasure of difference. These counter-narratives do something better than just making allowances for coexistence: they encourage appreciation of difference, perhaps even a desire for it.

In addition to the pleasure that comes with appreciation concerning things about which we do not agree, it is vitally important that we further examine communitas in its multiple settings as a means for our continued survival as a species, which first and foremost requires us to forswear warfare whenever possible. We must recognize that the business of large-scale violence depends heavily upon the production of communitas to promote group cohesion necessary for an effective fighting force, and then identify those elements in any form of communitas that powers the impulse for war (and war’s sibling, terrorism) that go beyond using any military fighting force strictly for protection. We are quickly approaching major environmental crises in the first decades of the twenty-first century, and war distracts us from addressing those crises. War, in fact, accelerates their arrival and exacerbates their impact. In other words, war is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Even if we never fight another major battle, the next few decades will get progressively more catastrophic for all advanced life on Earth. The things that foment war – misogyny, homophobia, ethnophobia, racism, lack of education, religious bigotry, and grossly unequal distribution of wealth – divide us before war is declared; they feed the impulse to engage in mass violence and will leave us unprepared for the challenges to come. An important first step would be to reduce those things while redefining entertainment, ethics, justice, masculinity, and spirituality to preclude warfare as an acceptable option. That step requires new stories, new myths, new histories in the form of communitas-generated counter-narratives that suggest viable alternatives.

Communitas and Ethical Compromise

Realizing the potential that communitas has in saving our species is ethically lofty, but it should also be pointed out that, in each of the seven examples, certain ethical principles were compromised. Julian of Norwich’s writings survived because she was willing to say that she followed the Church without question, even though her theological conclusions contradicted Church doctrine and she treated her visions as equal (if not superior) to the Gospels. Sarada Devi had no regard for the rigors demanded by her husband before he initiated his disciples; she initiated hundreds or even thousands of people at whim in Ramakrishna’s name, a feature in her narrative that may still today aggravate the friction between her own order of nuns and the order of male leaders of Ramakrishna’s monastic movement. Aninha claimed traditional West African spiritual legitimacy for her Brazilian congregation by means of an exclusive royal society (complete with traditional rituals initiating its members) that had no apparent precedent in West Africa. Power Infiniti performed for an outlaw community that did illegal drugs as a matter of course, and his training in fierceness came from another transgressive community that valued shade (spreading negativity about another person) as an art form. The Native Hawaiians who performed for the pleasure of the god Ku (as represented by three statues in Honolulu’s Bishop Museum) and brought him gifts were predominantly Christian, and those same statues may have been recipients of human sacrifice when they were created. Pat Tillman was still willing to fight in the US military, even after he determined for himself that the leaders of his country were engaging in illegal actions overseas, and despite the Army offering him an honorable way out of the war zone. And although Victor Turner and his fellow conchies were not actually killing anyone, their excellent performance of box bashing aided the British war effort to destroy the Axis forces, including the mass slaughter of German military personnel and civilians.

It is all too easy for us to look to our heroes as uncompromising when it comes to ethics. But the reality of the situation on the ground (which is a major focus of these narratives and their counter-narratives) is much more messy, giving us all the more reason to empathize with others and resonate with their experiences, even when we may find their ideologies problematic or even reprehensible.

Applied Communitas

A reason for writing this book is to take the concept of communitas from theoretical rumination to practical application. Beyond its utility as a means for appreciation of difference, communitas can be mapped in various cultural contexts to determine what patterns may emerge, particularly to identify specifics in those patterns that have been warped in the service of false communitas, shallow communitas, and anti-communitas so that we might develop means to prevent or minimize socially harmful phenomena. In addition, it should be possible to begin work on applied communitas as a means for a) recognizing when communitas occurs, b) generating counter-narratives that can effect meaningful change, c) bringing together counter-narratives on the same topic to understand the range of potential solutions to social problems, d) using counter-narratives to underscore the importance of diversity in establishing bonds of affection between groups that hold antithetical beliefs, and e) developing new means for generating communitas (or at least recognizing them when they occur) for the benefit of humanity.

Hunting With Cats is a journey that begins in Oxford, England where Edith met Victor during World War II, then goes 260 kilometers northeast (and 600 years back in time) to Medieval Norwich near the British coast. From there, we traverse a quarter of the globe east and 500 years forward to nineteenth century Bengal, half the world west to the bustling port of Bahia, Brazil in the early twentieth century, north to South Beach in Miami, Florida in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, half the globe again to the mountains of Afghanistan, only to backtrack to California in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Our final stop is Honolulu in 2010. It is my sincere hope that these pilgrimages will be useful in developing a program for applied communitas or its equivalent, and that we discover we are more united when we express mutual appreciation of our differences than when we limit ourselves to our similarities.

My Second Amendment Friend’s Response to the Pulse Massacre

While we were talking, Joe Smith was loading bullets into a magazine for his assault weapon. But he doesn’t call it an assault weapon. Joe’s prefered term is modern sporting rifle.

We were discussing the mass murder of Gay men and their allies that happened during Latin Night at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Soon after the massacre, there was a gun rights organisation that offered free shooting lessons to the LGBT community. Joe thought it was a great idea and asked me if I felt the same.

I told him that I had no problem with people using firearms to defend themselves. However, the timing of the offer immediately after the massacre struck me as inappropriate. People were shook up already; they didn’t need their fears stoked by those who assume that the dead in Orlando would have survived if they had all packed heat. The Queer community does not seek safety behind the barrel of a gun, and I believe we are stronger for it, despite all the threats and violence sent our way.

Joe feared that we would be perceived as easy targets.

Let me say something about Joe: he is a devout Catholic, has a PhD, and teaches at a Catholic university. He fully supports the LGBT community. Having served time as a Marine in Iraq, Joe is respectful to Muslims, women, and damn near everyone he meets. I’m sure there are people he doesn’t respect – I’ve just never met them, just as I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like Joe.

As a devout gun enthusiast, Joe does not feel that he should give up his rights to not just handguns and traditional hunting rifles but also weapons of war, and he lives in a state where such weapons are legal. He claims that guns are not simply possessions – gun ownership is a lifestyle, and assault weapon owners such as himself constitute a culture that deserves as much respect as the LGBT community.

I asked him how he could consider an AR 15, a weapon modeled after the M-16 military rifle that I used when I went through Marine Corps boot camp, to be a “modern sporting rifle.” How could any hunter feel that a semiautomatic rifle, (a weapon that could be quickly converted into an automatic rifle with some small modifications) with 30 rounds or more ready to fire in a matter of seconds, is something one should use to shoot deer?

Joe’s answer was telling. In a heartbeat, he went from hunting animals to shooting humans. He felt that he and other members of his culture should have the right to defend themselves against evil people. But, I asked, how is an AR 15 better for home defense than a reliable pistol with a max of ten rounds? Did he feel that a mob would attack him? His answer was that the liberty of the nation was at stake. “You never know,” he said, implying that the civilian population of America must be forever ready to fight against its own government.

The truth was out! As I suspected, the real issue was never about hunting. His modern sporting rifle was actually a weapon of war after all, and he knew it. But there was an even deeper reason: Joe simply wanted such weapons and didn’t like the idea of being denied them. Along with an ingrained sense of distrust of the government he had served overseas, he had a profound sense of entitlement that included having access to weapons designed to mow down dozens of his fellows because, well, you never know.

I told Joe that his reasoning struck me as paranoid. He did not get angry. I have no doubt he heard similar critiques plenty of times before I gave him my version of it.

I am honored to have Joe as my friend. He is intelligent, funny, and caring. He also gives me a glimpse into a mindset that I find harmful to the basic underpinnings of democracy and reason. Without him, I would be deprived of somebody who fiercely defends a position that I condemn, yet can argue that position with grace, humor, and respect.

I feel that weapons of war should be limited to active duty military personnel. But if there is any civilian I would trust with a weapon of war, it would be Joe.