Inv. SDE/sa-99540


Experiment with the Magic Theatre carried out at the Surnateum's Secret Temple on 9 September 1994

The beating of the drums had stopped, but the silence that followed was still charged with a strange tension.
We were seated in a semicircle, facing the shaman and waiting for the experiment to continue. We were waiting for the Magic Theatre to be activated.
Although the shaman was a white man, he had been initiated into the art of magic in Africa and had pursued his studies in Europe, where he ultimately mastered the difficult technique of achieving conscious trance.
"You must not take any drugs", he had said, "because you won't be able to benefit from your journey."
Following an animated discussion on the use of conjuring techniques in shamanism, he offered to let us try the experiment. His plan was to stage a theatrical conjuring act in order to break through our system of rationality and prepare us for the genuine magical act of introspective trance.
The techniques were related to Yoruban/Fon vodun and specially modified for the Surnateum's Investigators.
While playing the ancient drums that he had lent us prior to the show, we had already smoothed out our differences and dissipated the tension built up from our everyday lives.
We were sitting on the ground, on the carpeted floor of the Surnateum's secret temple, listening to what was going to happen. It promised to be anything but ordinary!


The shaman was sitting on a cloth mat, surrounded by fetish bowls, divinatory objects, musical instruments and Nigerian coins.
In the subdued light thrown by the candles - the ambiance thus created did not leave any room for improvisation -  we genuinely felt as if we were different and somewhere else.
Having invoked the spirits of the earth, water, fire and air, as well as the spirits of the drum, he picked up some coins from the ground and held them up to the sky. He murmured an incantation to Eshu, the 'Trickster' of Yoruba myth, enjoining him not to disrupt the sesssion. When he lowered his hand, the money was gone…


He then placed a superb Babalawo opon (divinatory tray) in front of him, along with eight cowries (shells).
He asked a girl from our group to sit opposite him and he showed her a list of Yoruban gods.
"In Africa, the word 'god' does not have the same connotation as it does in our traditions," he said. "Its meaning has more to do with a sense of harmony and rhythm. This list is a series of names of African divinities - orishas. I would like you to connect with one of them. Remember the god's name and function. Do not say his name, for you alone will conjure it up."
He asked her to throw four of the cowries onto the opon. In Yoruban myth, these shells represent the eyes of Ifa; they can be open or closed, depending on which side is showing after they have fallen onto the tray.
After throwing the shells, three fell one way and one fell the other. The shaman arranged them in a square and next to each one he placed a second cowrie shell oriented the same way.
"When I turn my back," he said, "turn over one shell for each letter in the name of the god you want to invoke, starting with the cowrie in the lower left and moving clockwise."
He turned around and the girl turned over four shells.
The shaman turned around to face us again, swept the cowries from the tray and then covered the tray with flour (iyere okun) and, using palm nuts, quickly traced out a series of marks in the flour.
"You have invoked Ogun, the god of iron," he said. "He will help you triumph over your enemies, the scales of justice will tip in your favour."
He continued in this vein for a few minutes. The young sensitive could not believe it; she confirmed what he said.


"I offer you a small magical object in his name."
He placed a small cloth purse in front of the young lady. The purse was closed.
"But for it to be yours, of the eight objects I place before you fate must accord you the same one."
He picked up a copper chain and told us the story of the chain and the myth of creation. The adventure of Odudua, Eshu, the chameleon, the magic purse of creation and the fives objects it contained.
A special chain was used to select an amulet, in this case : a leopard's tooth. Fate alone seemed to have selected this object.
We were astonished to see that the purse contained an identical amulet.
"The gods are with you," he said with a smile. "You should thank them."


"The divinity to which I am linked is Shango, the god of thunder and lightning. Our method for thanking him is called pidan, or self-sacrifice."
Whereupon he did three things which I will quickly describe. He pierced his tongue with a long needle, he washed his hands in a highly concentrated acid and he bent a razor blade in half while holding it at the tips of his thumb and forefinger along its extremely sharp edges.
None of us had any desire to imitate him, although he offered to let us have a go.
He ended the session with a shamanic blessing.


The evening was over - or so we thought; we were at a loss for words.
But then the drums resumed their beat. And as we automatically sank back into the rhythm, it was at that moment that the real magic transported us to another universe.

The Curator has never got over it.