The room, a sunlit study in Sunset Park, was filled to capacity with bottles of oil and herbs. Altars of La Virgen de Guadalupe, Santa Muerte, and St. Cyprian each had a glass of water, for clarity. Not San Simón, though: next to his statue was a shot of Bacardi.
Sage leaves were burning inside an opalescent abalone shell when, after much hesitation, I finally blurted out the question that had been bothering me for months: “How do I get rid of an obsessive thought?”
Opposite me sat Khi Armand, a 28-year-old wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and two diamond-stud earrings. I found out about him when Catland advertised his pre-Valentine’s Day “Hoodoo Your Love” workshop. The Far Rockaway native is considered a root doctor, since he works in hoodoo, the African-American folk magic of the rural South. But he tends to describe himself as a “shaman,” since, a couple of years ago, he had what’s generally considered a shamanic experience. The name Khi (not his legal name) is short for Khiron, the wise Centaur and healer in the Herculean saga.
“Obsessive thoughts can be caused by spirit intrusions, an actual spirit that bothers you,” he explained to me.
He performed both a tarot reading and emotional healing. My first card — lucky me! — was “the ten of swords,” which is almost like a curse. “What we’re talking about here, we’re talking about the shadow, we’re talking about the parts of ourselves that we’ve put in the closet and we’re not gonna look at. This part of ourselves is sabotaging us all the time,” Armand continued.
“Have you ever felt beautiful?” he asked me after he revealed my next card, the Justice. His tone was soothing and friendly, not what you’d imagine from a soothsayer.
“Hardly, only by external validation,” was my answer.
Then, he revealed the Tower card. “This is about the shadow — something, some kind of structure that you built up needs to be torn apart,” he said. “There’s a structure in your life and in your heart that serves to decimate, so that something real and true about you, about your beauty and about your sense of self can rise from it.”
Armand got involved with earth-based spirituality as a teenager. He grew up as an Evangelical Christian and was very active at his church but, soon after he left home at the age of 16, he moved in with a woman in the East Village who was, in Armand’s own words, “very…unique.” She was wiccan, and, by teaching young Armand some spells, she made him acquainted with that form of neo-paganism or Earth-based spirituality. Soon, however, Armand got interested in the connection between Earth-based spirituality and gender, especially in the fact that, all over the world people identifiable as queer and gender-variant were priests, priestesses and shamans.
His mentor was a man named Eddy Gutierrez, who, after Armand graduated from Hampshire College in anthropology and couldn’t find a job, told him to make a mojo hand—a talisman in African American folk magic— with a particular set of ingredients. Those included bayleaf (“he puts bayleaf in everything,” said Armand), devil’s shoestring (helpful for tripping up competition), gravel root (one of the plants that’s called upon most for finding a job), salt (good for salary), and pyrite (fool’s gold, used for wealth and success). When Armand said he would have selected the exact same ingredients even if he had to make a mojo hand without outside help, Gutierrez suggested he started as a root worker as well.
Hoodoo is unlike Voodoo and Santeria, which are a syncretism of Catholicism and animistic and Aztec religions and where local deities can hide behind the facade of Catholic saints. Instead, Armand told me, it blends African-american lore and Southern Baptist tradition. Since Protestants have no saints, hoodoo retains a strong practical component. While Santeria and Voodoo are full-fledged religions, hoodoo is folk magic where the Bible plays a very important part. In fact, discovering hoodoo also allowed him to reconcile with Christianity: Armand, who identifies himself as queer, had walked away completely from Christianity. “It was like, ‘You are queer, you’re doing something wrong,’” he recalls. To this day, he uses the Bible for divinations, in front of a bath he is making or simply to give a client a piece of advice or to enjoy the more literary component of the scripture.
In fact, one of Armand’s favorite scriptures is one traditionally used by hoodoo root doctors for people who are under attack: Psalm 91. “In the world that I operate it, people try to kill people with magic,” explained Armand. “This is a protective psalm, there are psalms you use to hurt people.”
A couple of years ago, Armand experienced a “shaman sickness” known as “madness road.” While on a trip to Greece, he started experiencing symptoms of madness in Naxos, the island where Ariadne (lover of Theseus, sister of the Minotaur, mistress of the Labyrinth) was initiated to the Dyonisian mysteries. “When I returned to the States, everything in my life fell apart: I found myself living back at home with family and then a spirit showed up,” he recalled. “I never met her before but I knew her name, and I was split into multiple personalities and I did not know who my default self was.”
The condition lasted about a year, with ups and downs. “My livelihood was completely threatened and out of control, I was experiencing terrifying things. I was forced to look at things, very painful things about my life, about my past and wounds I had, and heal them.” Armand thinks it’s important to speak openly about such episodes, but they don’t need to be mythologized. “I don’t want it to be another thing where people are, ‘I wish I had that adventure, I wish I had that sense of purpose,’” he said.
Armand views the recent neopagan renaissance with a critical eye. “When people talk about gentrification, I am not only interested in gentrification of spaces, but also in gentrification of the mind. There’s nothing new under the sun.” He has seen neo-pagan sympathizers do some “stupid shit”: case in point, hipsters going to cemeteries and being like: “Let’s do a ritual,” “Yeah, let’s call on Horus, from the Egyptian pantheon for protection; maybe we should do it in the cemetery,” “And then have sex afterwards!”
He claims he saw a friend’s apartment burn down because he had disrespected some spirits: the friend and a companion had passed out after a ritual, leaving smoke from a Santa Muerte candle to billow throughout the apartment. “Guys, you should stop giving Santa Muerte candles because you’re not actually honoring her,” he had told them. “You’re just lighting a candle because you want a death spirit in your house, and she’s pissed. If you you want to work with her, get her an altar.” That night, Armand told me, the house burned down.
I asked Armand if I could take a photo of his beautifully decorated altar to Santa Muerte. “Sorry, I need to ask her” was his response. Apparently, the answer was no. An ancient Aztec deity, Santa Muerte is particularly beloved by LGBT people, sex workers, women, and everyone else who’s been rejected by the church. Of course, Catholics hate her. “She accepts everyone because we are all going to death, we all die. She’s the great equalizer,” said Armand.
His brief analysis of Santa Muerte made me realize that, in several religions, Death is a woman: Hecate in Ancient Greek tradition, Durga and Kali in Hindu mythology, Hel in Old Norse mythology, to name a few. “Maybe because birth is always a woman,” he offered. “Like a mother of the other side.”Next to Armand’s desk hangs a drawing portraying a curvaceous woman, similar to the sultry seductresses found in Milo Manara’s comics: that is his Pomba Gira, i. e. one of the two spirits that govern the soul according to Brazilian Quimbanda.
Armand is also a certified “macumbeiro,” a term used in Brazilian folklore and generally used in a derogatory way as it signified the dark arts. However, Armand pointed out, “macumbeiro” just means a practitioner of African magic. Macumbeiros practice the arts of quimbanda and believe that their souls are driven by two spirits, Exu (male) and Pomba Gira (female) who are said to be very good at causing obsession.“They’re our guts, our loins, that part of ourselves that we’re so busy to deny,” said Armand.
Armand isn’t comfortable with the term “black magic,” instead preferring “cursing” and “hexing.” And he won’t curse or hex just because someone is angry at someone else. “My goal is for healing,” he said. “Sometimes you have to break some things to heal things.”
Indeed, that’s just what Armand aims to do during our session. He describes my current condition as a “shoddy shack,” though it’s far less dramatic than I’m making it sound. In fact, I couldn’t even rationalize why I was suffering so much in the first place. I just couldn’t make sense of a mean joke I had twice been the victim of.
He visualized my “pain” in the solar plexus region and that’s exactly where I felt a burning sensation that rose up to my throat. He told me to address that sensation, asking why it was there in the first place, so that he could perform “the emotional cleaning.” That burning sensation, similar to normal heartburn, to me, expressed dread at the idea of facing the cause of the obsessive thought again.
“What would happen if you did?”
“I don’t want other people to know.”
“So what if they knew?”
“They would shut me out.”
“Now I want you to ask this sensation, ‘What are you afraid would happen if people shut me out?’”
“I don’t know.”
Apparently, my sense of self was too plugged into people’s perception of me. But the scenario wasn’t so dire. “None of these things mean your annihilation, but that part of you is afraid of your annihilation,” Armand said.
The burning sensation subsided, and a more moderate ache—like sore muscles after a run—took over.