On the Obeah Tradition: An Interview With Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold

Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold is an anthropologist, psychologist, and author of several works of occult lore, including Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary:

Of all the Living Traditions, Obeah has remained the most elusive. Whilst Vodou and Santeria have had both academic and occult treatment in tomes widely available to the seeker, Obeah has stayed uncompromisingly rooted as a sorcerous tradition veiled in obscurity. In Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary, Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold teases open this Caribbean mystery and reveals a crooked path into the hidden world of Papa Bones and Sasabonsam with a short monograph concerning the history of this incoherent cult and the ways in which power is bestowed upon and wielded by the Obeahman.

The text includes the Kabalistic Banquette of Lemegeton, the Hypostasis of Abysina Clarissa and the Green Beasts, a Kabalistic Mass for Anima Sola Mayanet, a Call to Papa Bones, a Call to Spirit Guides, a Call to Anima Sola Abysina Clarissa, the Missale Ezekiel Sasabonson or the Conjuration of the Shadow-Self, and the Ritual Reptilica de Anansi, and offers insights into the Obeahman’s special relationship with the spirits of wood, water, and bone.


Aonie Anfa: Thanks for your time. You are a very well-respected occult author and I really wanted to highlight your upcoming book Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary.Your research is very spot on and valuable to the modern occult and scholarly communities. Could you also give a brief explanation of the research trail and how you were led to Obeah?

Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold: Thank you, you are very welcome. With Obeah it sort of fell in my lap through meeting an Obeahman from Trinidad in Oslo, Norway some 20 years ago. I had heard of Obeah before, of course, thanks to ethnographic accounts and the spread of the term through Crowley’s Liber Al. It stirred some curiosity within me, but until I met the man who eventually passed on the obiya to me, I had no greater illusion of finding the Real Deal. It appeared to me to be to obscure and secretive and not really an option for a Scandinavian seeker. As fate would have it, this path did enter my life and made a great difference in how I perceived magic and the occult. This is only natural, because the (i)obiya(/i) is a spiritual seed of sorcery that insist on ‘growth or death’, it is a power that when attained, we tend in order for it to grow and blossom. Failing this and the fiery tests of spirit will bring death to the seed and what was passed will cease to be. The obiya is a forest power. It is also a sorcerous gift and somehow different from genuine ‘witchcraft’ that is focused on transmission through blood, while obiya is transmitted by through breath and spirit. Hence you can find the ‘witch-blood’ in vessels void of understanding its own blood, as you are born with it, but it is not like this with a sorcerous transmission as you have to receive it. There is great truth in a saying like “A witch is born, a sorcerer is made” and because of this a sorcerer can strictly speaking be ‘unmade’, while a witch cannot really be ‘unborn’ as such. This power can be lost, either by intent or negligence. This was quite clear with my initiator that when he passed the obiya to me, he renounced these powers to work as a shepherd for his community. For him, the possession of the obiya was temporal, but for me it took another format and gave birth to what is more in concord with what we might call ‘legacy’. Initially, I was doubtful to his idea of obiya being a temporal power. At that state of development, a power given remained with you for all time, but the effects of his actions told me otherwise. Over the years I have come to appreciate this as a way of the obiya to protect itself, hence we have people in the world that received the obiya at some time – but lost it. I believe that once it is lost it can never be taken back.

So my research has been largely personal as a student of one man only. I have read whatever little material in existence about Obeah and measure its worth against the tutoring I received and thus discarded much that was written. This being said, I am perfectly aware that the varieties of Obeah are many, but the common denominators are still in place no matter the tradition of Obeah: it is a pragmatic methodology of sorcery and thaumaturgy that rest in the possession of a spirit gift related to powers of the forest, hence any Obeahman or woman should be capable of understanding and summon forth the indwelling spirits in the greenwood where he or she lives.

AA: Your book on Palo, “Palo Mayombe: The Garden of Blood & Bones” is one of my most valuable resources at this point in my own journey. Would it be possible to speak a bit of your lineage and personal praxis in Palo? The book also helped to shed light on a path that is still considered by many to be on the maligned outskirts of African Traditional Religions.

NDMF: To be honest, I didn’t thought it was possible to write a book about Palo without breaking oath, when I started to assemble the various tratados and materials for the book, I realized that it would be possible to present Palo Mayombe from within its metaphysical structure and thus reveal its beauty. It was exactly the misrepresentations of Palo Mayombe as ‘the dark side of Santeria’ and the horrible condition of material available in English that encourage me to go in front of my prendas and state my wish of making this book and allow my minkisi to aid the process. I was prepared for the worst, but seeing how celebrated the book became, I am grateful to spirit for allowing me to be the messenger and artist of this book.

My rama is Culumba Batalla Vence Guerra, but mediated with Changani. I was later adopted into other ramas, but this brillumba was my birth. As for Palo, it is in truth a very private praxis. I do have a muna Nzo, but my minkis are apparently very restrictive with admittance, which is in truth in conformity with my own sentiments. I prefer to work Palo within the reins of a limited sodality of warriors and not to have an open muna Nzo. My personal praxis is focused on stability and healing, I prefer to work in the shadows.

AA: What do you think are some constructive ways that the Palo community could improve? There has been recent violence in Brazil within the ATRs in an unrelated tradition. Do you wish to speak a bit about that?

NDMF: Palo Mayombe has been misrepresented and misunderstood for a long time – and of course this has do something with the community. The misrepresentation of Palo as some dark, vile and violent cult has, over the years, drawn power hungry, quarrelsome and violent individuals as well as good people to make part of the community. However, those with the loudest voices have often been those who are most quarrelsome and seduced by hatred and violence, hence they have continued the misrepresentation. Personally, I had a ten year break from the Palo community because of all fights, death threats and bickering, but have after the publication of Palo Mayombe I began to participate a bit more and what I see is a positive change, a general wish for mutual acceptance and common clarifications. I see a greater dialogue between ramas and a more stoic attitude replacing the fervent aggression prominent some fifteen years ago. I believe the improvement is in the making. Still, I feel it is important that each muna Nzo maintain some limits between one another as we in ordinary life differentiate between, family, friends and acquaintances.

As for the religious violence in Brazil, I presume you refer to the Pentecostal aggression on terreiros of Candomblé? If so, this is truly a source for concern seeing how rigid the Pentecostal movement is here and how much focus they give on Satan compared to how little attention they give to God and Love. I think we are back to the idea of community. Brazil have been for many years the backyard of the Roman Catholic Church, a faith brought by the Portuguese colonizers. However, as in other countries it always “ruled” from top to bottom. Pentecostalism used to be small, inexpressive even, as it used to be the religion of poor people (mainly powerless servants) with Christian inclinations Thou, from the nineties Pentecostalism has experienced growth because they started playing the game, the devilish cards of our material world: marketing. As they acquired several radio and TV stations, they were offering help and partnership in private business as well, as long the newcomers were accepting to convert. It is and was a ruthless, aggressive entry on the big “market of religions in Brazil” and with this the Roman Catholic Church started losing the flock of medium class educated sheep to Pentecostalism. Partially, the fact that our society as a whole is built over money power and scapegoating and the majority of people still agree with this backward way of seeing things, this religion had fertile soil to grow. It got worst recently when the Pentecostals discovered a way of bringing the Dark Age back… politics! With this powerful tool they want to ban and make impossible the life of any other tradition or religion that is not their own. But even with the most recent attempts of creating a theocracy, freedom of religion and cult is an irrevocable constitutional law, meaning, unbreakable, so at the end of the day they only manage to bring some paranoia, noise and irritation, because of their rigid dichotomy between good and evil, Satan and God and invites a worldview that is very black and white where any shade of grey is ‘satanic’. Such simplified world view works as an easy compass for people who have problems with the faculty of reflection and thus it all becomes very dangerous as some see what the ‘others’ are doing as evil and worthy of persecution and condemnation. So it is more a nuance, than any real threat.

AA: How important a role do you think Art plays in the development of spirituality? How do you think they aid each other? I’m looking forward to your Obeah book that Kyle Fite is illustrating. I bought a small piece from him recently. I also have seen a resurgence of some truly inspired liturgical poetry and music, like Edger Kerval’s project, EMME YA. I feel that this is how divinity communicates to those of us who are right-brained or creatively driven. What artists or poets do you feel were integral to your own personal development or gnosis?

NDMF: I think for many ‘the art of life’ is sufficient and thus it is enough to tend to some spiritual keys and anchors to make sense of their world and reap benefits from life and be happy. For me Art is important, because it is a way for me to digest my constant praxis. If it is in poetry, painting, photo, film, song, symphony, scene, theatre or writ is less important. These are all the results of digesting our experiences and giving them a temporal form, writing is a way of giving form to my digestion of what I have done so far – but at every closing of a horizon a new dawn raises… And I think this is important, the divine artist can never succumb to ever being finished with anything, because it is always about closing and beginning cycles, now and forever…

I think Art is what happens when the pilgrim touches the vein of the prophetic. But the ‘prophetic’ is about receiving something from the beyond, which is often confused with ‘the within’ – and it is a difference between receiving the sum of your essence in a perceived merging with cosmos and creation and the messages coming when cosmos and creation merges with you… There is a difference in language there, mediated between loosing yourself and holding on to yourself. When we touch the ‘godhead’ and establish a language, this language is art, be it on celluloid, ink or paint. It is about a vision being born by touching the divine. This is the basic symmetry involved, but as the godhead can manifest in plurality of forms – as illustrated by the kabalah and its sephiras – I think some touches fields more distant from the godhead than others. As we are all sons and daughters of God, our artistic interpretation of this merging can be closer or more distant from the godhood as it can be more personal and more material. Some occult artists paint their own psycho-spiritual make up; others paint, voice or bleeds more cosmic dimensions. The artist who brings forth a vision of his own merging with the divine will have a limited field of expression, while the one that looses him or herself in the merging with the divine will manifest tangents of a more cosmic dimension. I feel there are too many people occupied with initiations, degrees and also many are overtly occupied with ‘creating their own occult system’ – a supposition I find a bit odd and if we analyzes the premises quite limited. We have too many priests and masters, priestesses and magi, everyone seems to want to be the king and queen of whatever faith they are involved in – and I question what purpose this actually serves seeing that many get lost in the important work on Self. Perhaps it’s just about seeing the growth of inspiring art around us to judge how real this picture might be, or if what we see speaks of a condition where we have mere pretenders claiming mastery because they have problems submitting and humbling themselves to real masters or gurus; I don’t know really, I have never had any problems submitting myself to teachers and masters and for me the landscape of mysteries just gets wider and wider the more knowledge I am gaining – and this makes me humble, if not in awe, with everything in the world of mysteries.

My own artistic influences are many, but I would highlight Henry Miller and Charles Baudelaire in terms of writing, the neo Platonists and renaissance thinkers such as Ficino, Agrippa and Bruno in terms of philosophy, Dreyer, Bresson, Herzog, Lynch when it comes to movies and Odd Nerdrum, LaTour and Vermeer when it comes to art, in general symbolism, surrealism and romanticism capture in unique ways their part of the mystery that resonates with me. But it is quite pointless to list up names like this, I appreciate so many artists really, because every moment can inspire if we allow it to inspire us, it is about approaching the world with interest and as such I perhaps feel more close to the beatniks than anything else. It is about the experience of the human journey and the crossroads of inspirations in the meetings we make, it be with friends, foes, strangers, nature, books, movies or art. In this scope Kyle Fite, who you mention, is someone who is touching realms and gives the impression a form beyond his limited self in a wave of expansions. I am grateful to count a visionary like this amongst my friends. Kyle is a refreshing air in the solipsist theosophist air of modern occultism.

But I must say that at the end of the day what inspires me the most is Nature and Love. I mean in Nature we do find the prime impulse of all art, it can take the shape of Giger’s alien eggs modeled on the datura seed caps, or the way the light falls through a crack in the mountain and inspires the contemplative air in la tour’s paintings. In Love we find the mirror that shines back on us in concord and correction as we experience temporal perfection and alignment. So for sure, my greatest inspiration currently is my wife, because any artist is in need of its muse.

The Art of Truth is about taking the pulse of time, of the world, in measured steps, because in this we replicate the dynamic between pole and landscape, no matter how crooked or straight, no matter how wild or plain the relationship is when it is still or in motion. So, basically, what I am saying is that true art can only be born when love is in the equation, because the godhead is Love. And I see this in all artists I feel affinity with, it is all about love, love lost, love held, love recognized or love in the waiting… I do see our world as a bed of rose petals and honey, but of course those who have been denied this will wage salty vinegar wars on the honey and try to trash the sweetness of others, so I feel affinity with Art that somehow retains this memory, it be painted in pink or black strokes.

AA: How do you personally balance the spiritual with the pragmatic? Many of the ATRs deal heavily in Spirit and work with a person’s emotions, it seems, more than Will. Sometimes, I feel this can this can lead to a dulling of the senses over time from such an influx of energy. How do you keep from burning out? Does your role as a scholar aid you when the priesthood does not?

NDMF: This is a question I am very happy with and I think the answer lies in my academic choices. Any occultist would choose C.G. Jung as leading the defence of his discourse. I never did this, on the contrary, besides ‘The Red Book’, I find him very flawed. For some reason B. F. Skinner caught my attention, a radical behaviourist with a love for Robert Frost. Consequently I specialized in behaviourism. I think this inclination paired with Foucault’s critical approach, saved me from entering into this sentimental domain of becoming lost in spiritual experience and ensured that I managed to have my feet in the ground. And it is true, people struggle more with sentiments and emotions than their Will. I think this is natural, because we need to make sense of sentiments and emotions before we know our will, because this Great Journey we all undertake is a journey we all undertake as spiritual beings in search for our purpose and destiny.

At some point you cease doing magic and you become aware of your boundaries, because you have become what you have done. You have brought the acceptance of the ever repeating and ever changing oroborous into your life and in doing this you sense, know and acknowledge the compass of the winds. Because for me it seems that many people confuses the ‘will’ for a ‘temporal desire’. The will is the force of endurance that forces us to pursue our destiny, when our force of endurance turns into lies, deceit and rubbish Fate tells us that we should change our course.

For me, spirituality is pragmatic; it is about recognizing lines of energy so I know how to deal with it and for me I don’t make any separation between my spiritual and mundane life. Faith is not something I practice and develop in a place set aside. For me there is nothing profane per se, although our perspectives can be profane, hence there is no need to go to a separate sanctuary when we have realized that we are a sanctuary of flesh in a living temple of divine wisdom, if we just open our eyes for this reality. In other words I live a life with spirits constantly, which reduces the need for ceremony and increases the awareness of being. I do have physical buildings for my Egbe Ifa, my hounfor and terreiro of Quimbanda and tend to them when need be, but basically when you live an inspirited life, the balance between all planes balance themselves out quite beautifully.

You bring up the issue of right brain vs. left brain and we need to use both. Any spiritual pilgrim need to measure his or her experiences by analyzing them in critical and mindful ways in order to avoid sentimentalism and an emotive rule of one’s spirituality. Personally I feel sentimentalism and occultism is a dangerous field and I get weary whenever people exclaim with pathos: i.e. “but I feel…” – because sure, feelings are the avenue that provides us the sensorial input we need to make sense of our inner and outer worlds. but we need to bring the intellect into the equation. I believe my academic background rooted in behaviorism, critical theory and post modern philosophy have been a aid for me in not drifting off in whatever pseudo heaven of weird and wicked spirit bubbles and instead I have developed a healthy skepticism to the phenomena’s appearing in the world, they be material or spiritual. Facts never speak for themselves, we always give them a voice and it is important to be aware of the origin of this voice and how this voice was shaped and made so we are constantly aware of what is going on in the field and with us as adventurers in a given field or realm.



Aonie Anfa

Counter-culture diva, spider lady, literary junkie, and a student of the strange and esoteric.

2 Comments on "On the Obeah Tradition: An Interview With Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold"

  1. Cyprus Mulch | Oct 22, 2013 at 3:17 pm |

    Thanks for posting this fascinating interview!

  2. Antediluviancurrent | Oct 22, 2013 at 3:52 pm |

    Frisvold is doing some great pioneer work. His books are academically solid, yet esoterically very practical. His books on Exu, Pomba Gira and the notorious Palo Mayombe are absolute pearls on my shelf.

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