Questions you’ve asked on Things You’ve Read: ceromancy (& a bit more on scams + “one true way”ers)

One more while I’m on about it, which has been lingering in my file of “questions to eventually get around to answering on the blog.”

Q: I read that reading vigil candle glass is not true ceromancy and not true divination, that reading wax from candles is not traditional ceromancy, and that spirits have to be invoked for it to be true divination (like tarot and cowrie shells). But you describe reading vigil candles as a type of ceromancy meaning it’s divination.

A:  I don’t know where you read that, but assuming it’s not coming across differently than it was meant in its original context, and assuming that the writer claims to know anything about hoodoo and is not just applying their tradition’s particular definition to the entire world, what you have there is some revisionist hoodoo history, and some pretty ethnocentric and ignorant revisionist history at that.  These “one true way”ers are usually quite defensive about the one particular way they were taught because they were only taught one particular way. What I mean is that they did not absorb principles and patterns naturally, but they had a single teacher, usually fairly recently, who “one true way”ed them.  I would tread carefully with this person and take their “teachings” with a grain of salt, as they seem to be of the school of “everyone who does it differently from me is a fake and/or newbie.” The sad thing is that people who present their methods this way, with this level of protest and defensiveness, who feel the need to label others with the newbie or fraud brand, are usually giving themselves away as converts, trend-followers, or else victims of cult-of-personality teaching.

First of all, ceromancy means divination with wax.  Ceromancy is the reading of the wax, and by extension, of the process of the wax burning itself (the way I’m using it, that includes behavior and signs of wax, flame, herbs, smoke, and glass during and after the burning).  The word comes from the Greek keros (wax) + manteia (divination), and there is more than one way to do it. In Renaissance Europe it was probably done by dripping wax into water and reading the patterns. Probably others call what I’m calling ceromancy by other names, like pyromancy (divination with fire), or perhaps even scrying (“scry” comes from the now-slightly-archaic “descry” meaning “to discern,” and that sense of the word probably comes into English from Latin “describere” [to describe] probably via Old French [“descrier,” to publish]). So in fact, since reading the burning and remains of glass-encased vigil candles combines more than one type of substance and element, there probably isn’t one single “old word” for it. I just picked ceromancy since without the wax, none of the rest can happen anyway.

Divination is as old as human beings, probably. Divination with fire is probably as old as fire, and different cultures will have their own methods, depending in part on available resources and technology (if your light source is pitch-covered torches, your methods will differ from those of a person — or culture — whose light source is paraffin candles). Reading signs from candles as they burn is quite traditional in hoodoo. Reading signs from candle glass is as old as glass-encased candles, which admittedly are not as old as wax or fire, but it’s certainly a valid practice in conjure. To say otherwise is blazingly ignorant, or else troll-ish and they’re just trying to get a rise out of somebody.

Finally, in the bit about spirits being invoked, there is an interrelated knot of issues and assumptions in there that would take a while to untangle and are beyond the scope of this post. The person who told you that seems to not understand how we work with spirits in hoodoo and is instead importing some concepts from another tradition into their pronouncements about hoodoo practice.  Not all of the spirits involved in hoodoo will be anthropomorphic entities with names. In fact, if they articulate it at all, many workers will talk about the spirits of the roots and the spirit of a certain herb or type of water and such in conjure (there are plenty of very good workers out there who may not be very good at, or have time for or interest in, articulating the theory behind everything in plain English – not everybody is a writer, and not everybody is a teacher; that doesn’t mean they therefore aren’t a good worker — so my point is that not everybody articulates this stuff the same way, but you can definitely trace the concept behind the work in your studies).  The mention of cowrie shells is a clue in this direction, that they’ve been “one true way”ed from a non-hoodoo starting place that they think gives them authority in pronouncements on conjure. Cowrie shells are a big deal in some traditions, particularly some of the African diaspora, and are part of some venerable methods of divination. But that does not mean that all traditions that can be linked to the African diaspora have the same vocabulary, methods, spirits, deities, holy objects, taboos, etc.  *Culture and geography matter.* They matter a lot. Similarly, I’m not knocking tarot cards. I read with cards every single day. But your old time worker was probably more likely to read with a regular deck of playing cards back in the day – and without chanting the Golden Dawn invocation of IAO over them first, too, the irreverent scandal! But one of the main problems here is that it’s ridiculous to say there are no spirits involved in setting a glass-encased candle and then reading the signs from that candle – that statement betrays a complete lack of understanding about light setting in hoodoo.

But this is me being somewhat generous and assuming you haven’t just stumbled upon some site that is giving what appears to be “how to not get scammed” advice but which is really a vehicle for proclaiming that their website’s font, or their timeline for finishing readings, or their particular list of spell names, is legit and everything else is fake. If elsewhere your source talks about gypsies, the pyramids, the estate of a voodoo priestess or shaman, or tells you have they have a grimoire or book of shadows with “real” hoodoo teachings in it, then you can feel fairly confident that you have busted a fake, or at least a moron. Otherwise, assuming that this stuff isn’t reading differently out of context, you are just getting lessons from somebody who is applying standards from one culture or tradition to a different culture or tradition. This doesn’t make them a fake, necessarily, but it probably does make them a little ignorant and a lot arrogant.  Look, not everybody has a graduate degree in comparative religion. Most people don’t – that’s why I always tell people they should be highly suspicious of anyone who claims to be a Supreme Initiated Award-Winning Master of a lot of different traditions.  (Having been associated with more than one house or temple in voodoo is not a big deal, nor is having moved from Wicca to ceremonial magic. But being an expert in voodoo AND gypsy magic AND hoodoo AND Lukumi AND ceremonial magic AND wicca etc etc, however, is a warning sign, as is having won some non-existent “annual spellcaster’s award.”) But if they don’t actually have a genuine grasp of a wide variety of world folk magic practices throughout history, and they start making sweeping pronouncements about what is and isn’t legit, you should probably just ignore them.

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