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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
The Curator has never got over it.