Between August and October 2018, we had the immense pleasure of having a back-and-forth correspondence with Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold. This was the final interview conducted before we took down the Covenant Magazine in order to revamp and relaunch. With the new site now up, and everything rolled out, the time has come to publish this conversation.
Originally Norwegian born, Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold has been a resident of Brazil for over 15 years. A traveler through various traditions and spiritual legacies, Frisvold focuses his energy upon the wisdom found in African and Afro-derived traditions along with what is generally defined as traditional witchcraft in Europe. Over the years he has deeply involved himself with several streams of this wisdom, such as traditional Ifá, Haitian Vodou, Palo Mayombe, Quimbanda and a rich knowledge of witchcraft from diligent commitment and involvement with various recensions of the ‘witches’ way.’ His experiential knowledge is what sets him apart from the mere ethnologist as a living, breathing practitioner. He allows the Westerner a glimpse into these seemingly alien belief systems and traces their origins to lineages that are all singularly extra-human.
Without further ado, we present to you a small insight in to the mind of one of the modern world’s most important occultists.
Greetings Nicholaj! Once again, thank you for agreeing to this interview. We are admirers of your writing, and we’re excited about the chance to ask a few questions.
At the start of most of your books (with extremely notable examples in Exu and Pomba Gira) you often give a detailed anthropological look at the geographical region and the cultural influences on the practice you are going to be speaking on. You often explore etymology, socioeconomic impact, even immigration in how it has come to a fertile ground for the birth of that spiritual tradition. I’d like to start by doing the same thing for yourself. What are the conditions – ancestrally, geographically, and finally spiritually – that gave way to your own being?
That was perceptive of you, and in truth, I do believe that in order to truly understand a phenomena we need to analyse it from any possible angel, whereas geography, language and history along with aesthetics and art are amongst those avenues that will lead to an understanding of the phenomena as more than just in reference to oneself and one’s own culture and believes. We are all a conglomerate of multiple influences and in terms of ancestry it is quite Nordic for the most part. I have been able to trace my ancestry back to around 800 to the dukes of Fyrisvellir at Uppsala on one side; but on the other there is French, Italian and African ancestry to be found through migration and marriage. Geographically I was born in Norway, lived in Sweden for some time and from age of 15 travelled a lot around the world finding myself chronically restless in Scandinavia until I visited Brazil 16 years ago and finally found the place where it was surprisingly easy to allow myself to root.
Spiritually I will have to say that, looking back, I was somehow always on the search for the quintessence of magic, which led me to investigate and get involved in traditional forms of cult and faith and it was with African faiths, especially Ifá and vodou that I found the quintessence which is also reflected in true witchcraft of land, legacy and blood, a natural and pragmatic spiritual philosophy that don’t make a distinction between the sacred and profane but lifts everything into a field of understanding through the interaction of polarities and nuances. In short, I consider myself as a pragmatic traditionalist that accepts the post-modern reality which translates into always having a secure foundation and the axis in order, but the landscape of experience of observation will always be like my opinions, fluid, dynamic and mutable.
That juxtaposition you present above reminds me of an interesting point brought up by the American author Tamara Siuda in her simply titled, but utterly excellent work “Haitian Vodou”. She reminds the reader that in order to fully understand the diasporic faiths, the European and North American reader must be ready to fully abandon and restructure potentially subliminal influences, personal conjecture, and privilege. I want to ask you what tenets of your faith- your thought process- were most altered in your work with the African/Afro-Latino systems, and in those early, nascent days of work, was there any part of yourself that had to be “immolated”?
Such total abandon is impossible – and I am not sure if it is even desirable to do so – I would advocate a great self-awareness in this case, to realize where you are coming from, what culture you are a product of and from this gain clarity in the same/other dichotomy exercised in your culture. I think if we erase a thinking of hierarchy in terms of better/worse evolved/primitive we enter a field of realized difference where we can enter a culture on its own premises aware of all the bias we bring to this culture by personal history, geography and cultural difference. In this regard and given my personal involvement uncritical cultural appropriation and mindless eclecticism annoys me as much as any other person that committed themselves to truly know and understand these faiths alien to the culture of ones upbringing. In my own case I never felt the occidental culture were particularly evolved, and certainly studying philosophy and anthropology do help one to see that the western world with its primitive ideas of issues like punishment, crime and illness do not reflect a very advanced culture.
For me it came natural from an early age to focus on how all things were connected and so any culture or faith that aims towards reductionisms and simplification tended to annoy me. Hence with African faiths I found a philosophy and a way of thinking that resonated with my rebellious attitude towards formalism and reductionism. I of course had periods were I tried to conform to ideologies but I always ended up an enfant terrible when I tried to seek conformism. It follows that for me it was largely a homecoming, the arrival to a world view that made sense.
That’s very interesting, and no doubt an answer that will be met with a variety of responses, as the societal climate these days is to be extremely critical of anything that at all attempts to “appropriate” or use a facet of culture not intrinsically one’s own. Let us pay this extremely limiting way of thought no heed and continue to move forward boldly. In your personal work, is there a particular psycopompos figure that has guided you as the paths twist? When it comes to such a prevelent and permeating archetype, do you find syncresis from past spiritual work/systems important or dangerous when approaching a new one?
Oh, I am not advocating uncritical appropriation, I am just stating that an absolute veil free condition is not really a possibility, hence building awareness, respect and purpose as parts of a greater critical thinking becomes more viable, important and interesting. But sure, let’s move on.
As for the psychopomomp, the go between and mediator in the crossroad of change I must point the finger and say ‘the devil’, this challenging force connected to destiny that we are confronted with at every moment of choice. This guardian of the crossroad of possibility, the lord of the silver key that has taken on a myriad of names, but the mystery is more profound than this as I believe the guardian of the crossroad and your inner daimon must be in resonance and in rapport for true guidance of the spirit host attached to make themselves heard and felt. Even if I can see commonalities between a given force in its different cultural expressions, this must be taken seriously as culture, geography, the legacy of a people informs a cult, deities and ideas in unique and powerful ways that we should respect.
Personally I make a distinction between synthesis and syncretism. Synthesis is a fusion caused by the ethereal, by spirit, it is about matters of resonance and bond moving in proximity with one another moved by magical laws and not imposed upon by shallow, uncritical syncretism based on subjective perception of similitude and difference.
This suppleness that your mentioning- a suggestion that through reasoning and contemplation, a more holistic look at magic and philosophy is possible- reminds me of a passage from your book, Craft Of The Untamed, with which you permission I will quote here-
“The witch is bound to no dogma. This makes them a threat to a Christianity established on doctrine. The witch insists everything in creation has its place. The church insisted on two contrary substances in God and the Devil. The witch strives for synthesis.”
From this point, I want to know your thought on the opposite end of the spectrum- away from synthesis. Many occult teachings, particularly those of the left hand path, have in recent years preached very austere, singular doctrines, which seem to adhere to one fixed set of laws, with little room for the wider, more chaotic approach you advocate. Can you speak to me about this a little?
I am not sure I understand the question completely, but if you are questioning the binary relationship of good and evil in relation to ‘the left hand path’ and its focus on self-becoming I have to say that this is in truth at the heart of the ideal of a ‘person becoming magic’. As we start out understanding the world we see it as a binary, night is different from day and so forth, but at some point the shades of grey should appear and reveal that a simple binary of our experience of the world is too simplistic. Nothing is just good or just evil, it depends on perspective, personal history and placement. I wouldn’t say I endorse chaos, but I think it is vital to understand that nature is not as kind and predictable as we would like her to be. Hence I am more occupied with the complexities involved in the journey towards self-affirmation. And I must say that the older I get, the more experienced I get the wider the landscape tend to grow, but at the same time in this widening of the landscape it also gets more easy to see and realize yourself.
Perhaps the idea of the world inherited in tantric teachings is clarifying. In tantric sects the world is seen as a web that is ruled by dharma, a great cosmic law, in this web we are all subject to a personal dharma, our personal law, which I believe is revealed through astrology for instance, pointing out our potential and basic essence at birth, our blue print, that is acting within a wider web of possibilities. And I don’t see this in a static way; I see potential acted upon entering into a rhythm of repetition and difference. This translated into teachings and lessons and if we take these lessons we can also be more agile in the world.
The world appears less chaotic and with the increased awareness of the rhythm of the world we can enter into understanding and manipulation of these ‘laws’ and at the same time increase our self-awareness. For me the goal is to be the master of one’s own life, to be vibrantly self-aware, but I don’t think we can achieve this truthfully if we are too immersed in defining the other from the same, rather we need to look for how the web is constructed and what makes part where and how.
You recently announced a 5-day intensive initiatic workshop in to Quimbanda teachings in Brazil, which to the outsider reads as a very fascinating and curious thing. Is this your first time opening your experience in these subjects to the outsider? When did you decide you wanted to pass on your knowledge on the subjects?
We decided that it is better to train well a select few that witnessing all the mess people do due to lack of access. We have of course initiated and trained people in the past, but this is first time gathering a group in this way. So let’s see what comes from this. When it comes to living traditions, like Quimbanda, I have found people to be quite dogmatic and opinionated in defining the right way of doing things. For me that is to do religion, and I am not doing that. When it comes to living traditions, it be Quimbanda, Orisa, Ifá, Palo and so forth there are of course pillars and elements that must be observed, but taking care of the necessary factors we are left with a host of options with the aim of making what we do effective.
It has been two years since the release of “Ifa: A Forest Of Mystery”, and thusly likely enough time for you to get a sense of how the book has been received, not just in writing, but also in its great systemic and linguistic complexity (from the likely viewpoint of the majority of its readership). What are your takeaways in the time since launch, and how has the book been digested compared to the perhaps more (for lack of a better word) accessible and fluid nature of “Pomba Gira” and “Exu”?
This book is the book I am most content with actually. It is a book tying together the philosophy and theology found at the foundation of what constitutes a tradition to be alive. The book has been received with gratitude amongst practitioners, which was truly great to see. I mean, a ‘foreigner’ setting out to present a tradition as rich as Ifá in 400 pages would easily gone to a bad place, but it didn’t, it was a work of love and patience and it is reflected in the reception. So, contrary to Exu and Pomba Gira no voices of dissent have crossed me as far as I have seen at least, not that I really keep much track on what people say and mean about what I am doing thou.
I think by this point I have a little bit of an idea what influences and interests you from the sphere of psychology, spirit, and mythology, but could you enlighten myself and our readers as to what stokes your fire from the world of art? What painters, bands, musicians, and poets do you find yourself drawn to in recent months?
As you are posing this question I have Daniel Melingo on in the background, but with music I am quite diverse. I was brought up on Birthday Party, Psychic TV, Fields of Nephilim, Marc Almond, David Bowie, David Sylvian, Tuxedomoon and all these new wave and dark wave movements in music, currently I do listen to a lot of dark country and cabaret, but I also liked the latest album of The Nationals as much as Rhiannas Anti…. so I am more of a mood listener I think. In general I think music is denigrating lately, it is getting harder and harder to discover good music, like Rykarda Parasol and Chelsea Wolff, so I try to support artists like this so they can keep on making good music…
As for poets, Baudelaire and the Romantic Movement will always stand out, but so does Chares Bukowski, Sylvia Plath, Wanda Coleman and Rumi. Currently I am rereading Faulkner, and is simultaneously reading Livingstone’s book about Ingmar Bergman, Al-Alim’s Jinn Sorcery, Cotnoir’s Poetry of Matter and Leitão’s Biblioteca Valencia.
Why don’t we close with you telling us what is on the horizon for Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold?
We, me and my wife, have plans of arranging more workshops, events and such like in our grange. This might also involve me returning to more therapeutic work. I still have a few books up my sleeve, but will try my hand on prose and novels again – after all poetry and novels was what I started out writing, so that will be nice, a return to storytelling. But there is also another book with Scarlet Imprint on the horizon, which will be announced on the upcoming solstice…