Tuesday, December 27, 2011

interview with Szmeralda Shanel, priestess and founder of the Iseum of Black Isis

Szmeralda Shanel
Dear Readers: Thanks for coming by and I wish you all a festive and fruitful holiday season, whatever you celebrate this time of year. This blog has been on hold for several months now due to school obligations (still holding down a 4.0 baby, YEAH) but I will be posting several interviews and things during the winter break so please come back again over the next few weeks.

In this latest installment of a series of interviews with black pagan-ish types (check the archives to the right for previous entries) I am very happy to present Szmeralda Shanel, teaching artist, expressive arts therapist, Tarot reader and founder/priestess of the Iseum of Black Isis, based in Oakland, CA.
Can you tell us a bit about your spiritual path? 
I am a priestess of the Dark Mother Auset ordained with the Fellowship of Isis and the Temple of Isis. I am a Mami Wata devotee. I practice Hoodoo. I am a Feri initiate. My spiritual work and practices are ecstatic/shamanic. My spiritual path is one of creativity and sacred arts. 
Can you talk about this belief system, and the Fellowship of Isis, for any of my readers who may have no knowledge of it? 
I'm not sure that I have a belief "system." I serve the Dark Mother, whose origins are in Africa. I believe that all Goddess and Gods are sons, daughters, and various expressions of the Dark Mother. I know her as Auset because she is SHE of 10,000 names and that is how she revealed herself to me. One of her manifestations/faces is as Mami Wata. Mami sits on my head, she is my ancestral guardian spirit.
Hoodoo is how I "do" magic. As an African American with roots in the southern states, this is the magical tradition I inherited and practice . 
Feri is my heart song, the wild dance of my life down a spiraling road of mystery, ecstasy, magic, beauty, love and sometimes chaos. Feri shapes and colors my experiences of the road. Like SHE, Feri is dark and bright. A starlit path. 
The Fellowship of Isis is a multi-faith, multi-cultural, multi-racial, international spiritual organization dedicated to promoting the awareness of The Goddess. The Fellowship of Isis has over 24,000 members in nearly a hundred countries. I love the Fellowship of Isis because of its inclusiveness and freedom. I also love the diversity you find in The Fellowship of Isis, there are Pagans, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, all different kinds of folks from different places. We all honor Goddess, this is the one thing members always share in common. How one honors The Goddess is up to each individual. The principles of the Fellowship of Isis can be found in its manifesto 

How did you first get on this path?
I've always been very spiritual. I come from a family of folk who have always been deeply connected to spirit. My mother and I dream true (have pre-cognitive dreams). Dreams and seeings have always been important in my family, we take them seriously, pay close attention to them, discuss them etc.
My paternal grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher; my brothers and I spent our summers down south with him and my grandma. In their church I witnessed hands on healing, anointing ceremonies, holy ghost possessions and all kinds of wonder working. So spirit has been very present in my life all my life. 
Like most Black folks in America, I was raised a Christian and in my family as in many Black families magic, visions and signs were all considered gifts from God and therefore worked just fine within the tradition of Christianity. Still, for a variety of reasons I found the Christian tradition too oppressive for my spirit and I eventually dropped out of church.
When I was sixteen my mother got me a deck of Tarot cards for Christmas. It was through the Tarot that I found or rather the Goddess made herself known to me. Sixteen years later I continue to serve her.
Which deities do you worship/work with?
The Star Goddess/Dark Mother in her various faces and expressions (including her male/god faces) but primarily as Isis/Auset and Mami Wata. I have a relationship with many of the Orisha, I also work with my ancestors, the Fae and various spirit teachers/guides.  While I work primarily with Gods/Goddesses of Africa and the diaspora , I also have relationships with European, Native American and Asian deities. If a Goddess/God shows up in my life I pay attention. I would add that I don't "worship" deities; I would say I  "work with" or " have a relationship with" them.
Was your choice to join this spiritual tradition related to your ancestry at all? Meaning, did it have appeal to you as a person of African ancestry?
I don't know that my choice to join any spiritual tradition [was] related to my  African ancestry but I do know that all of my spiritual choices/inheritances find their roots in Africa. What I mean is I didn't go looking for Africa, she found me and reminded me that she's always been with me. 
What was your religious background growing (if any)?
Christianity and Hoodoo -- which is a folk magic tradition not a religion (and the folks working it in my family did not call it Hoodoo of course).
What are the spiritual benefits you have found from following this path?
I have found too many things to name, but here are some.  Spiritual gifts and talents, the ability to see what others may not, magic that works, flashes of insight.  And with these gifts I've been able to help myself as well as others. Joy. A deep sense of strength and inner power. A very real connection to others and the world around me. An understanding of my life's path/destiny.  A fierce community of wisdom and love that celebrates me when I accomplish great things, challenges me when I'm being lazy, stubborn or lying to myself and stands with me when I'm afraid, hurt or uncertain. Beauty.
Tell me about the Iseum of Black Isis. What made you want to start it, when did you found it, what services do you offer?
The Iseum of Black Isis is a Fellowship of Isis Iseum dedicated to Goddess Spirituality and Sacred Arts. I was ordained with The Fellowship of Isis in 2006. After taking a year to get comfortable in my new priestess role I decided to found the Iseum of Black Isis in 2007.  In the Fellowship of Isis one chooses a vocation before being ordained, my vocation is as an artist healer, a priestess of sacred arts. I started the Iseum to deepen my work as a priestess of sacred arts, and to offer services to the community. The Iseum of Black Isis offers priestess training, spiritual counseling, rites of passage ceremonies and ritual/workshops.
Are most of the people who go to your temple members of the Fellowship of Isis or do they practice in other traditions as well?
People don't really "go" to the Iseum, it's more that we go to people. We lead rituals or workshops at conferences or festivals. 

The priestesses who lead public ceremonies and workshops with the Iseum are other Black women that I've met on my spiritual path. These priestesses are all members of the Iseum and The Fellowship of Isis. They are all ordained priestesses but they are not all ordained with the Fellowship of Isis, some of them are but some are ordained or initiated in other spiritual traditions.

There are also students in the Iseum taking the priestess training correspondence course, most of my current students are also folks who are initiated or ordained in other traditions.

Though the public priestesses in the Iseum are all African American we are not exclusive. All are welcome. And while the Iseum is dedicated to Black Isis we honor all Goddesses.
Most of the people that I’ve interviewed for this blog have been solitary practitioners, who either prefer to practice alone or who would like community but haven’t found any. What are the advantages of belonging to a spiritual community such as your temple?
Even though the Iseum of Black Isis is a community I would say that most of us still practice for the most part solitary. We are all members of other communities outside of the Iseum and "visit" or "serve" communities at various times. But most of us do a lot of our work alone.
It is really nice to have a group of sisters to work with though, to just pick up the phone like "Hey y'all, we need to get together and....."  And then we get together and magic happens.
After participating in many circles and being  one of the only brown faces in the space, I gotta say there is something very special and powerful about standing in a circle of Black women.  You can just do the work, and not deal with all the other shit that often  comes with being "other" in a space.
What are your holy days, daily rituals?
So back when I first started this work I tried to get on the whole wheel deal, you know the eight Sabbats that many Pagans celebrate, but that's not really my way. Sometimes if something formal is happening that I want to attend or if I am feeling particularly connected to one of the traditional  Pagan holidays at the time I'll do something but if not I won't.
Really for me the holy days are about connecting with my community -- and some of my community is Pagan but a lot of my community is not -- my family and many of my friends for example. So with my holy days being about community if I'm not going to participate in or lead a large formal ritual, my holy days are your basic traditional American-style holidays.
I do Christmas with presents and food and lights, that's my winter holiday. In February I usually do something special with Brighid because I love her. Come springtime I dye eggs, share chocolate, eat a l'il ham or lamb and celebrate spring with everyone else, usually at Easter.

I love Beltane and sometimes I do something. Summer Solstice is nice but my big summer celebration is usually spent  with my people eating barbeque and watching fireworks on the 4th of July. 
I love Halloween and that's what I call it. The Iseum of Black Isis also does an ancestor feast usually in October too. In November I do Thanksgiving with friends and family, that's my harvest festival. 
There are other holy days during the year but they are usually to honor ancestors, teachers, etc. and these honoring ceremonies happen on the person's birth or death day. 
There are also certain holy days that are reserved for honoring specific Goddesses/Gods.
I do have a daily practice, it changes but always consists of a breathing/focusing/cleansing kind of meditation, lighting a candle at my main altar and saying a prayer to the Goddess, honoring my animal teachers at their altar and honoring my ancestors at the ancestor altar. This is my daily practice -- honestly I don't do it everyday, but I really really try to.
Do you consider yourself to be under the pagan umbrella? Why or why not?
I'm not a big fan of labels but I do understand why in communicating with each other we sometimes need them, so to answer your question -- if the person using the term Pagan means  "one who follows a spiritual tradition other than Christianity, Judaism or Islam" sure why not. But if the person using the term Pagan means "one who follows one of the pre-Christian spiritual traditions of Europe," nope.
Do you have any advice, resources, books, general advice, for people who are considering this path? 
Read a lot. Communicate with many people. Balance knowledge with intuition. Pray. Develop a daily practice. Ask questions. Never give away your power. Teachers are great but they are not infallible.  Honor your ancestors.

Some of my favorite books: 

Mami Wata vol. I and II -- Mama Zogbe
The Great Cosmic Mother -- Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor
Dark Mother -- Lucia Birnbaum
Fifty Years in the Feri Tradition -- Cora Anderson
Jambalaya -- Luisah Teish
The Healing Wisdom of Africa -- Malidoma Some
Opening to Spirit
-- Carolene Shola Arewa
Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic -- Cat Yronwode
Hoodoo Rootwork Correspondence Course -- Cat Yronwode
Sticks Stones Roots and Bones -- Stephanie Rose Bird
The Big Book of Soul -- Stephanie Rose Bird
African American Folk Healing -- Stephanie Mitchem
Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition -- Yvonne P. Chireau
Tell My Horse -- Zora Neale Hurston (Vodou)
Mules and Men -- Zora Neale Hurston (Hoodoo)
Singing the Soul Back Home -- Caitlin Matthews
Woman in the Shaman's Body -- Barbara Tedlock
The White Wand -- Anaar
Shades of Faith: Minority Voices in Paganism -- Crystal Blanton
Dream-Singers: The African American Way with Dreams -- Anthony Shafton

1 comment:

  1. I am truly enjoying reading your interviews and finding other like minded African Americans :-)