Monday, September 17, 2012

Goddesses in the Dust: The Veiled Prophet

Unearthing the divine feminine, one archetype at a time...
The founders of the Grand Krewe of Osiris in Memphis, Tennessee, whose 1954 King and Queen Osiris XVI Robert Heard, Jr. and Isis XVI Marion Canale King Woodall are shown here,  are also thought to be members of the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophet 
If this looks creepy to you, raise your hand.

When I first moved to this part of the Midwest some years ago, I had no idea that customs, such as the debutante ball, continued. Our city's version, known as the Veiled Prophet, is held in December, but every July 4th the organization sponsors a fair, drawing over a million people to its annual fireworks display, one of the largest in the country. The Veiled Prophet organization does charitable work to enhance civic life, but its strange origins and traditions die hard, and there are folks who take this thing very, very seriously. 

I mean, look at these guys.

This definitely falls under the category of things that make you go hmmm? 

While I was researching the origin of the Veiled Prophet I came across a book written by a woman named Lucy Ferriss. Back in 1972 she was 'presented to society' at the VP ball. Self described as a 'reluctant debutante' her book, Unveiling the Prophet, tells the story of how a militant organization called ACTION protested the event. This was the Vietnam War era, and a debutante ball for rich girls must have seemed deplorable in a city with overcrowded government housing projects and a country in which violent protests were breaking out on college campuses. It also must have seemed pretty outdated with women in the rest of the country burning their bras and fighting for equal rights. 
ACTION leader Percy Scott demonstrating outside the 1972 Veiled Prophet Ball
At the 1972 VP ball that Ferriss attended, an ACTION protestor and civil rights activist named Gena Scott broke into the event and - in a move worthy of cinematic action heroines - slid down a cable into the auditorium and tore off the veil of that year's 'prophet'. Being unmasked from what Ferriss referred to as his "eerily Klan-like costume" was apparently a big deal, as the whole point is maintaining the secrecy of his identity. 

According to historian Thomas M. Spencer, the Veiled Prophet organization was founded in 1870 to boost participation in a local agriculture and mechanical fair held in October. After a general strike in 1877 when railroad wages were cut, Spencer states the ball and parade were developed as more of a "show of power than a gesture of healing." 

The businessmen who concocted the organization back in the 19th century based it on a poem by Thomas Moore, the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, whose main character wore a veil to either cover up his beauty or ugliness, depending on the version. The founders' explanation for the veil was to assure the focus of the group's deeds remain with the organization as a whole and not on any one member. A New Orleans native named Charles Slayback, whose background was in grain sales, contributed many of the ideas for the Mardi Gras-styled affair. After the protests in the 1970s the VP's annual parade was moved to the 4th of July in an apparent attempt to transform the organization's identity from elitist to serving everyone. 

Strangely, an early Veiled Prophet parade was themed the "Festival of Ceres," Ceres being the Roman name for Demeter, the Greek Goddess of agricultureAs readers of my blog probably know, Demeter is the mother of the Goddess Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, and her consort Pluto, or Hades, is known both as the God of Wealth and King of the Underworld. An organization that revolves around wealthy men, secrecy and a young woman who is chosen as the Queen of Love and Beauty bases its origins on not only a Middle Eastern-styled poem but mythological archetypes, and has powerful overtones of ancient Greek mystery cults. 

As with all things anachronistic, this annual spectacle will undoubtedly continue to polarize people into two camps: those who love the ritual, and those who wonder why in the 21st century women would agree to don a ball gown

and bow very deeply in front of a man wearing a veil.

So if you think this looks like fun, then come on down to the VP ball, strap on a feather headdress, grab your closest Prophet of Khorassan and party like it's 1899!
Photo credits: Google images, Osiris, Ladue News, St. Louis Today, Life magazine, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Guest of a Guest

15 comments:

  1. That opening sentence was spot on, Amanda!

    'At the 1972 VP ball that Ferriss attended, an ACTION protestor and civil rights activist named Gena Scott broke into the event and - in a move worthy of cinematic action heroines - slid down a cable into the auditorium and tore off the veil of that year's 'prophet'.'

    So, when this sort of thing happens in fiction, you shake your head side to side and go, okay. But in life?!

    And may I just say your last sentence trumps your first. You are one of a kind, my dear!

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    1. while debutante balls are not my thing, i would have paid money to see that women slide down the cable and unmask the dude with the veil. now THAT'S entertainment.

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  2. I'm not sure whether I would bow to a veiled prophet but the thought of wearing a ball gown sounds kind of romantic. I still dream of going to one of the masked balls they have every year in Venice for Carnevale. There's a part of me that adores the mysterious.

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  3. heh. you really wind it up with a very sweet and sarcastic punch.

    i spend a moment wondering on ceremony and ritual in general and how it is too often used to veil that which is practiced. the ball gown is a carrot. the servitude is the method. what lies behind it all? i can only (with shivers) guess. i'm a little suspicious of all ceremony unless utterly stripped.

    it is too convenient for organizations to become corrupt. i wonder if it is possible for them to exist otherwise.

    i'm suspicious of convenient evolutions (making things more palatable) of organizations such as this also. ha! apparently i am very suspicious.

    and now i just wanna ask, really? really truly? this shit still goes on? ;)

    xo
    erin

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    1. erin, it is the origin of this whole thing and the way it has morphed into this modern version that interests me too. not only does this shit still go on (yes - really - i am shaking my head too) but the fact that shrouded within a presentable layer of civic duty is concealed an aging paradigm that men run the show and women serve as pretty props. it was fascinating to learn the ritual appears to base some of its origin in Greek mystery cults, and made me wonder how something as powerful as these ancient cults - meant to assist both men and women towards a profoundly spiritual understanding of themselves - would find its way into this dubious modern form.

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  4. This a good reminder that Americans have some really weird customs. I find the whole white debutante thing disturbing. It's not just the ball grown.

    Congratulation on finishing the first draft of your novel! I was hoping you would have blogged about it. Maybe later? Good luck with revisions.

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    1. thanks, sarah. i have my stack of post it notes and colored pens at the ready for round two :)

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  5. The whole process leaves me feeling blah. Not something that happens often with me. But this has no appeal to me at all.

    Sorry I cannot get enthusiastic about it.

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  6. I have been to such an event only once, for me it was more than enough:)

    Blog about life and travelling
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    1. as i told erin, yes - really. and i live in the midwest. i can't vouch for how much more prevalent this tradition is south of the mason-dixon line.

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  8. Wow, this whole thing is so interesting for me because I´ve never seen in my country. Thanks for sharing your culture, I really enjoy reading your posts, Amanda.

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    1. haha!! that's funny, mina - but i can't take credit for it being my culture either!

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  9. So bizarre and yet so familiar a theme to many cultures with the white dresses (vestal virgins) and men of power with fancy headdresses. But this does beg the question "what for?"

    Love your peeks into all the underworlds.

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  10. Really is spooky! I wonder if the germ in us that loves ritual and ceremony is easy to tempt into frenzy. We love to be included, to belong, even to the exclusion of outsiders. If we have a key to a secret mystery, all the better. It's fascinating, Amanda!

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