Indigenous Religions

Introducing Spirit/Dance – Social Justice And Reconstructed Spiritual Practices, Part 1 (Joshua Hall)

The following is the first of a three-part series.

This project was provoked by the almost nonexistent pushback from the Democratic liberal establishment to the (2020) exoneration of Kyle Rittenhouse, despite his acknowledged killing of two Black Lives Matters protesters against the police murder of George Floyd. It builds on three prior articles arguing for the revival of ancient Dionysian practice, Haitian Vodou, and Indigenous South American shamanism to empower leftist revolution.

In essence, I propose an assemblage of spiritual practices that are accessible today for the neo-colonized 99% of the global population, by synthesizing and reconstructing three democratic, lower-SES, Indigenous religions, all of which share a militant defiance of their respective tyrannical plutocracies. To avoid cultural appropriation, I center these reconstructed spiritual practices on the figure of the “mage,” a psychosocial healer loosely analogous to a shaman.

And the mage’s signature activity, “magic,” I redefine naturalistically as free interpersonal performative action, practiced using two theoretical disciplines (philosophy and psychology) and two practical disciplines chosen by each mage. More precisely, Spirit/Dance channels the “spirits” of dead ancestors, historical figures, legendary heroes, mythical beings, and fictional characters, into the three ultimate objectives of “mindfulness” for psyches/souls, “liberation” for mindful bodies, and “social justice” for liberated communities, indirectly empowering long-term revolution.

Though long engaged in social justice activism, including through a recent paper that exhorts fellow academics to create their own local chapters of the Birmingham Philosophy Guild, the aftermath of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial convinced me that more must be done, immediately, to repair our world.[1] My first effort in this vein was to propose the creation of a militant wing of each Philosophy Guild chapter, whose focus would be armed resistance to right-wing injustice, including protecting social justice protesters against armed, right-wing counter-protestors and police and government brutality.[2]

Given the numerous obstacles to realizing that strategy in the present moment, however, it seemed prudent to also pursue an alternative that might be more approachable and actionable for everyday folks, thus indirectly empowering revolution in the long term, by fostering comportments and habits more open thereto.

In this spirit, it might be helpful to approach Spirit/Dance via the history of leftist revolutionary theory, most of whose theorists can be divided into two interpretive camps (oversimplifying for reasons of space). While one camp advocates for immediate, militant transformation (as in Mao Zedong’s On Guerrilla Warfare), the other camp settles for a slow, hypothetical result to be achieved by indefinite generations of liberal arts education (as in Kant’s famous essay, “What is Enlightenment?”).[3] As has been observed ad nauseum, however, there are numerous problems with both of these camps.

Regarding the first camp, most times when revolution seems desirable are not times in which it seems practically achievable. Thus, “now or never” usually reduces to the sad latter. As for the second camp, those who are liberally educated mostly end up taking the bribes of our capitalist hierarchs, abandoning their youthful ambitions for mass liberation. Put in W. E. B. Du Bois’ memorable terms, the “talented tenth,” from one colonized space to the next, betray those whom he exhorts them to uplift, preferring the mythical Atalanta’s golden apple to bread and wine for all.[4] Moreover, at least according to those dismissed as “cynics,” this result has been deliberately engineered by the creators and shapers of today’s Germanic/Global Northern university (including the arguably proto-Nazi German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte).[5]

In the context of this repetitively disappointing dichotomy, Spirit/Dance’s method, like that of the militants, is significantly radical, more intuitive for the non-academic majority, and aspiringly transformative for every stratum of society. But like the liberals’ method, Spirit/Dance’s is gradual, calibrated to transgenerational historical time, and indirect enough not to threaten the powers that be (thus giving it a fighting chance to bypass the enemy’s well-defended front). Admittedly, in sharing these strengths of both camps, Spirit/Dance also inherits their weaknesses.

Like the militants, spirit-dancers face the enormous rhetorical challenge of helping academically educated folks overcome their (arguably economic privilege-based) reluctance to embrace its radicality, but without their advantage of immediate and viscerally liberating change. And like the liberals, spirit-dancers require the exceptional patience to sustain massive investments of time, energy, money, etc. into an endeavor whose intended results may initially seem non-revolutionary, but without their advantage of avoiding of potential regression, obscurantism, impracticality, and counterproductivity (financial, professional, and interpersonal). Seen otherwise, however, these challenges for Spirit/Dance can be reframed as what is most distinctive and promising therein. To wit, this assemblage of spiritual practices blends and balances militant zeal with liberal patience, militant meaningfulness with liberal pacifism, and militant selflessness with liberal cunning.

Redeploying Research

On this note of liberal educational cunning, and in part to reassure readers that Spirit/Dance possesses a legitimate academic basis (or at least that its river is fed by several academic streams), I now turn to a summary of my three prior peer-reviewed articles, each based on a different marginalized global religious tradition which Spirit/Dance channels, synthesizes, and reconstructs. One is from Eurasia (the Dionysian Mysteries), another from Africa and the Caribbean (Haitian Vodou), and one is from South America (Indigenous American Shamanism), so jointly they extend to most of the globe. The result is an assemblage of reconstructed spiritual practices, born out of the needs of the vulnerable and disempowered from across global history, but reformulated to be more accessible for the majority of Global Northerners, who help form the neo-colonized 99% of the globe today. The goal is to inculcate intergenerationally the comportments, habits, and virtues that can help empower leftist revolution.

Of the three main global religious traditions on which Spirit/Dance draws, I have published the most about the one closest to my own predominantly Indo-European ancestry, namely the Dionysus Mysteries (which scholars have shown to be intimately connected to the Hindu sect of Shivaism).[6] This Indo-European focus is intended, in part, to honor the current Dalai Lama’s advice to Westerners to dig for buried spiritual treasures in our own traditions, rather than rushing abroad to forage for those resources in unfamiliar traditions (such as his own Tibetan Buddhism).[7]

To summarize the results of my previous research on the Dionysian Mysteries, I have attempted to show how (1) since Nietzsche’s pivotal writings, most scholars and writers have ignored or suppressed Dionysus’s androgyny and his advo­cacy for women, queer people, the poor, foreigners, the city, democracy, and peace; (2) a marginalized line of scholarship recovers Euripides’ figuration of Dionysus’ (and Shiva’s) political progressiveness along exactly theses axes of gender, race, class, nationality, etc.; and (3) numerous attempted wars of liberation in Ancient Rome were fought under the banner of Dionysus, including the slave revolt of Spartacus, whose paramour was a priestess of the god, preaching that Spartacus was divinely chosen by him for a mission of liberation.[8]

The main point here for Spirit/Dance is that there is a major political dimension to the Dionysian (and Shaivite) tradition that has been suppressed in Western history. This is vividly illustrated by the fact that, during ancient Athens’ largest annual Dionysian festival, a standing reward was offered for anyone who brought to the city the decapitated head of a tyrant. Despite this rich political history of social justice revolution, many popular figures in the Global North that were originally derived from Dionysus have been censoriously stripped of that inheritance and its associated political valence. For example, the name of Irish playwright J. M. Barrie’s titular character, “Peter Pan” is an intentional allusion to “Pan,” the closest Roman equivalent (albeit also significantly watered-down politically) to the Greek “Dionysus.”

The most important contribution from the Dionysian Mysteries to Spirit/Dance is the positing of dance as central to its spiritual practices, more specifically that a community healer should not only be a dancer, but also incorporate one or more literal or figurative kinds of dancing into their healing work. In short, certain kinds of dance are inherently healing, and a community healer should heal through dance.

Though an argument could be made for simply filling the spiritual vacuum of leftist revolutionism with a revival of the Dionysian Mysteries alone, numerous considerations caution otherwise. First, there would be a constant risk of ethnocentrism and alienating an (increasing) majority of Global Northern potential revolutionaries who do not identify with any European spiritual tradition. Many of these allies are understandably weary of the tendency, pervasive among academy-inspired political movements, to look to an idealized model of the ancient Greeks as a template for today.

Second, and relatedly, the pioneering work of the crypto-Marxist and atheist Christian philosopher Ernst Bloch reminds us that nostalgia is never adequate for a communist future, in part for the simple reason that no era has ever been unilaterally virtuous enough to make it worthy of resurrection. Finally, and most importantly, there are crucial pieces of the puzzle of leftist revolution that are either absent from or marginalized by the Dionysian tradition, as evidenced in part by the fact that the global revolution has still not happened. Thus, turning to global supplements is both unavoidable and desirable.

First among these alternatives, and the closest thing to a tradition that could be defensibly and feasibly rehabilitated and expanded in the Global North today, is Haitian Vodou (formerly “voodoo” in Anglophone discourse). This fitness is due in part to the fact that Vodou is the youngest of these three traditions, and maintains a place in post-industrial nations today (along with other Neo-African religions of the Caribbean such as Cuban Santeria and Brazilian Candomblé). Perhaps the primary strengths of Vodou, for Spirit/Dance, are that it was created by a highly diverse, majority-BIPOC community, and that is unique among the world’s religions in having directly empowered the only successful slave revolution in a modern nation-state.[9] I will now summarize the three main conclusion of my prior research on Vodou.

Starting with the past, what has become known as “Vodou” was originally a loose assortment of West and Central African spiritual traditions and practices, the dominant tradition (called “Rada”) being more conformist and quietest, and the most marginalized tradition (called “Petwo”) being the most militant and playing an outsized role in Haiti’s war of independence. Turning to the present, in the Haitian Diaspora, Vodou’s political dimensions have been mostly suppressed, through marketing the religion as a benign source of self-help, with scant open embracing of Petwo’s defiance (despite constant rumors of secret practices thereof). And looking to the future, by augmenting the hints of Petwo in the most satirical tradition (called “Gede”) today, the revolutionary power of Vodou can be reanimated, particularly through dance.

Dance’s central importance is reflected in Vodou and other Neo-African religions’ complex philosophy of psychology. According to the latter, the psyche consists of two main parts (in Vodou, the “little good angel” and the “big good angel”), the former representing mere conscious awareness or wakefulness, and the latter representing the individual personality. Crucially, during the danced performance of ritual possessions, the dancer’s personality (or big good angel) is temporarily replaced by the big good angel of a particular spirit (called a lwa).

This is possible because the lwa’s big good angel once belonged to a now-deceased human, but now roams free. So, too, does the dancer’s big good angel roam free during the possession, and potentially after the dancer’s death as well, when they may become a lwa themself. Precisely because possession involves reembodying a part of the psyche of dead relatives and legendary ancestors, Vodou’s dancing empowers interpersonal healing (especially in Rada dances), sociopolitical militancy (especially in Petwo dances), and satirical preparation thereof (in Gede).

The most important contribution from Vodou to Spirit/Dance is the positing of the community healer’s dance as necessarily channeling an indefinite number of spirits into an improvisational community performance. In short, the dance of healing involves, not just one dancing healer, but indefinitely many figurative fellow-dancers. Each seeming solo is, in truth, an ensemble. This is one reason why the dancer’s openness to spontaneity and creative adaptation in healing is essential.

And the piece of the puzzle of leftist revolution that Vodou supplies, absent or minimized in the Dionysian Mysteries (at least as we perceive them today), is that the dance of healing is not merely danced alongside other spiritual practices, but also danced in preparation for the revolution. In Vodou’s case, this is achieved through its self-presentation as a supplement to Christianity, rather than a pagan competitor thereof. As every scholar of Vodou emphasizes, the consensus among practitioners is that one can only “serve the spirits” (the proper term in Haiti for “Vodou”) if one is also a “good Catholic.”[10]

Whether deliberate or no, this avowedly supplementary nature of Vodou allows its defiant spirit to inhabit the same bodies in Haiti as its submissive spirit-spirit of Catholicism (qua colonizing religion). For the same reason, I articulate Spirit/Dance here as “an assemblage of spiritual practices” (rather than as a “religion”), trying to avoid alienating readers who may be invested in other, less progressive traditions.

Perhaps if Vodou were not so heavily racially stigmatized in white America, especially as a religion that was born from chattel slavery, and then instigated a Black political revolution, I would have already understood Vodou prior to this research. And if so, perhaps I would have based Spirit/Dance on Vodou alone, without needing recourse to other global religious traditions. The political reality being what it is, though, I was first inspired to this project by the spiritual traditions of the peoples against whom my ancestors perpetuated genocide (rather than slavery).

This third tradition for Spirit/Dance, after the Dionysian Mysteries and Haitian Vodou, is Indigenous (South) American shamanism, one of the central roots of the diluted, homogenized, and popularized phenomenon that Global Northerners refer to with the catchall “shamanism.” As I have explored elsewhere, the dominant tendency in Western history, epitomized by historian of religion Mircea Eliade and controversial U.S. author Carlos Castaneda, is to abstract away from the histories, concrete practices, and community enmeshments of various spiritual leaders, including the Siberian tribal practitioners from whom the word “shaman” is derived. This yields the figure of a transhistorical psychosocial healer which theorists analogize to Western poets and philosophers.[11]

Against this tendency, I argued that any Global Northerner who insists on labeling themselves a “shaman” should, at the very least, ground their bodily-material transformative linguistic practices in the practices and environments of their own communities, and in pursuit of social justice for all. More precisely, within “linguistic practices” here I explicitly include the nonverbal languages of bodily comportment, fashion, and dance; and within “social justice,” I emphasize (a) political sovereignty, (b) ecological justice, and (c) adequate social welfare for Indigenous peoples worldwide. Moreover, it seems strongly preferable not to use the culturally specific term “shaman,” and instead opt for one that is loosely analogous thereto.

Having previously resolved to leave the matter there, I was inspired to return to this issue by an autoethnography called The Falling Sky, written by Davi Kopenawa, a living shaman of the Yanomami people in Brazil.[12] To summarize his account, Yanomami shamans ingest a hallucinogenic substance, namely yãkoana powder derived from the sap of local trees, to generate visions of “spirits” (as the translator renders the Yanomami word xapiri).

Kopenawa’s descriptions of these spirits suggest a cross between the Euro-American concept of “fairies” and “angels” (the latter, Kopenawa writes, being what “the missionaries call” the xapiri) (208).[13] Crucially for both the Yanomami and Spirit/Dance, the spirits’ entire being, as well as their communications with the shamans, consists of elaborate dances. Moreover, since Kopenawa also compares these spirits to images from television, movies, photographs, etc., their dances can also be the figurative dances of lines and shapes of color across an electronic screen, or mental images frolicking in fields of the imagination.

Since Kopenawa’s book is the only major text in the present article that I have not previously explored, I will now flesh out his account with a few more excerpts. I begin with his first description of this shamanic dancing work.

My wife’s father, the great man of our Watorikɨ house at the foot of the Mountain of the Wind, had made me drink the powder that the shamans extract from the yãkoana hi tree. Under the effects of its power, I saw the spirits of the kopena wasps come down to me. They told me: “We are by your side and will protect you. This is why you will take the name Kopenawa!” It is so. This name comes from the wasp spirits who absorbed the blood spilled by Arowë, a great warrior of the beginning of time. My father-in-law made their images come down and gave them to me with his breath of life. Then I was able to see them dance for the first time (19).

As with the kopena wasps, many other animal species possess spirits, according to Yanomami, as do other natural phenomena. “The sun and moon,” for example, “possess images that only the shamans can bring down and make dance,” Kopenawa explains. “They have a human appearance, like us, but the white people cannot know them” (29). According to Yanomami oral history, the first ever shaman was the son of their creator god, Omama, who instructed his son in the shamanic art, in part, as follows: “Hold up the sky so it does not fall apart” (32). Kopenawa updates this warning as the imperative to avert a global climate catastrophe, to which he has dedicated his life. “Following on from” this mythical first shaman, Kopenawa claims, “many of our elders became shamans,” and “He taught them to make the spirits dance” (33).

Joshua M. Hall, clinical ethicist at UAB Medical Center (fourth-largest hospital in the U.S.), earned his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, and served as a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University. His research focuses various historical and geographical lenses on philosophy’s boundaries, particularly the intersection of aesthetics, psychology and social justice. This includes sixty-five peer-reviewed journal articles (including in The Pluralist, Philosophy and Literature, and Oxford University’s Essays in Criticism), ten anthology chapters, and coediting (with Sarah Tyson) Philosophy Imprisoned: The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration.

[1] See Joshua M. Hall, “Dionysus Lyseus Reborn: The Revolutionary Philosophy Chorus,” in Philosophy Today 66(1): 2022, 57-74. More precisely, the justice system exonerated and praised as a hero a white teenager who killed three unarmed protesters, and the Democratic party accepting that verdict as a functioning justice system.

[2] See Joshua M. Hall, “Guerrilla Warrior-Mages: Tiqqun and Magic: The Gathering,” Philosophy Today 67(3) (forthcoming).

[3] See Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” Kant: Political Writings ed. and trans. H. S. Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[4] See W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Modern Library, 2003).

[5] See Hans Sluga, Heidegger’s Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[6] For more, see Alain Daniélou, God of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shive and Dionysus, reprint edition (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1992).

[7] See Tenzin Gyatso, The Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings, trans. Thupten Jinpa (New York: Wisdom, 2005).

[8] See Joshua M. Hall, “Pregnant Materialist Natural Law: Bloch and Spartacus’ Priestess of Dionysus,” Idealistic Studies 52(2): 2022, 111-132.

[9] For more on how Vodou helped catalyze Haiti’s war of independence, see Joshua M. Hall, “Tornadic Black Angels: Vodou, Dance, Revolution,” Journal of Black Studies:

[10] See, for example, Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[11] See Joshua M. Hall, “A Critique of Philosophical Shamanism,” in The Pluralist 16(3): 2022, 87-106.

[12] Davi Kopenawa & Bruce Albert, The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, trans. Nicholas Elliott & Alison Dundy (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2013).

[13] The translator elaborates on the xapiri in an endnote, as follows: “Any existing being has an ‘image’ (utupë) from the original times, an image which shamans can ‘call,’ ‘bring down,’ and ‘make dance’ as an ‘auxiliary spirit’ (xapiri a). These primordial image-beings (‘spirits’) are described as miniscule humanoids, wearing extremely bright, colorful feather ornaments, and body paint. Among the eastern Yanomami, the word for ‘spirits’ (plur. xapiri pë) also refers to shamans (xapiri t ë pë). Practicing shamanism is referred to as xapiripruu). These expressions refer to the fact that, during the shamanic trance, the shaman identifies with the ‘auxiliary spirits’ he is calling” (490n3).

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