Endtime Healing

An interview with Michael Ortiz Hill

When I travelled through California in June 2005, Erik Davis (author of TechGnosis) and his partner Jennifer Dumpert were kind enough to host my brief stay in San Francisco. Knowing part of my purpose there was to attend the Association for the Study of Dreams international conference in Berkeley, Erik indulged my fascinations by excavating his most interesting dream-related books. This was to be my first introduction to the work of James Hillman, whose Pan & the Nightmare I’d been desperately but vainly seeking all year; Erik’s copy of The Dream & the Underworld hit me with shock and familiarity.

An even greater impact exploded from the pages of a book by someone I’d never encountered before: Dreaming the End of the World by Michael Ortiz Hill, a penetrating, patient study of the mythical aspects of the Bomb, and nuclear holocaust as a dream experience. It stunned me that two of my foremost obsessions for the previous decade — dreams and eschatology — had been bound together in a tome that had completely escaped me for that entire period. I found Michael on the web, and was intrigued to find that since writing Dreaming the End of the World, he’d been initiated as a healer among the Bantu people of Zimbabwe (the subject of Gathering In the Names, a powerful tale of initiation co-authored with his spiritual twin, Mandaza Kandemwa). I was also excited to find that he lived in California, and contacted him about doing an interview. He was immediately receptive and enthused, so the next week I flew to Burbank, and — after a satisfyingly Lynchian bout of confusion driving along Mulholland Drive — found myself at his little house in the hills around Topanga. We discussed our mutual passion for Norman O. Brown’s work, and settled in his small garden to talk further. The trickling fountain seemed to struggle in the afternoon heat. Occasionally struggling with his multiple sclerosis, Michael nevertheless exuded an inner steadiness borne of great passions tempered by a warm, hard-won humility. He seemed far more oppressed by the state of American politics than by his body’s ailments.

One of the things that grabbed me about Dreaming the End of the World was the revelation of the personal roots of the book in the acknowledgements. Could you talk about that?

The bomb drops on Nagasaki, 9 August 1945

Well, I come from a very particular generation after World War II. I was born twelve years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and at elementary school — I don’t know if this was true in the UK — as the duck and cover generation, the school would have bomb drills where we’d all go under the desks, and cover our heads. Altogether absurd — as if this is going to protect anyone from a nuclear exchange!

One of my early memories is the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Bomb, as I write in the book, was effectively a member of my family. My family is from Santa Fe, New Mexico. My mother tells a story of wandering on my grandfather’s ranch, looking at Los Alamos during the mid forties, early forties, and telling her nephew, ‘That’s where Santa Claus is preparing Christmas for us all’ — because these lights were starting to appear. My grandma on my father’s side of the family is from Alamagordo, New Mexico (my father grew up in Alamagordo, which is just south of where the first atomic bomb was exploded). She was working on the switchboards for Bell Telephone when the electromagnetic pulse snuffed out all the electricity.

This was the secret test…

Yeah, it’s when they blew up the first atomic bomb at the Trinity site, maybe fifty miles from Alamagordo. So I grew up hearing about it. I did not anticipate I would live into adulthood. This book was in fact written after the horror of the Reagan administration, where he was amping up the manufacture of nuclear arms in order to defeat the Russians in the arms race. And in fact I looked for cyanide… if it became my fatherly duty to poison my daughter. She was a kid, then five, eight years old. It was a very particular time.

What about the dream aspect of apocalypse? You draw a distinction, though not necessarily a sharp one, between the reality and the dream of it. When did the dream aspect start to impress itself upon you?

I had so many apocalyptic dreams, especially as a young child, and I was beginning to look at the patterns in dreams. And ultimately the patterns between dreamers. So I was really trying to get a sense of what is what I call The Country of Apocalypse. The substratum, the imagined, dreamt apocalypse that people are carrying now. Because I knew that my own concerns were not personal at all. In fact, they were archetypal.

When did you start collecting other peoples dreams, with a view to this? I assume it started as an informal process.

It wasn’t exactly informal. I don’t know when I came by the idea of the book. It was in the mid eighties — and again, this is a time of Ronald Reagan. I started looking at how the people who manufactured the Bomb, and the culture at large, looked at the Bomb. How did they imagine what they were doing? What was that about? What I found was that there were two primary images of the Bomb. One is the Messiah. Many very intelligent people, including Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called Father of the Atomic Bomb, regarded the Bomb as: it’s going to end war as we know it. This horrible weapon, it’s really going to abolish war. And after the war, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was huge enthusiasm for nuclear energy bringing a new age of prosperity, bringing inexhaustible energy, effectively. It was regarded as clean, god knows how. Dear George W. Bush made a comment to that effect earlier this week — amazingly enough. So, between abolishing war and bringing in this era of prosperity, we have the Messiah and the Age of the Messiah. So that’s one angle.

The other image of the Bomb, of course, is quite the opposite. It is the Beast: it is voracious, it is unstoppable, proliferating, it will devour the world and end the world, and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop it.

Those are two primary images within the culture of the Bomb — obviously rather contrary. I was interested, how does this play itself out in peoples dreams? And people do have Bomb dreams, without a question, that one could simply call spiritually transcendent. They’re remarkable, remarkable dreams. And I’ve had them, as well: dreams that are effectively ecstatic.

The technology, the explosive power of the Bomb itself, is unique in history. Do you have a sense of this image from the material world overlaying a long-standing archetype?

The thing about the Messiah and the Beast is, it goes so far back. One does speak, of course, of the Book of Revelation, the New Testament and all of that. But the thing about the Book of Revelation is it goes back really to the beginning in ancient Sumer, where you had culture hero Marduk — who was, effectively, the Messiah — establishing the sacred city of Babylon by the slaying of Tiamat, who was the goddess of chaos. This is the beginning of the very first city state, effectively. You have the circumstance where you have human civilization up and against nature and the natural world. And it gets translated through the Book of Revelation, ultimately, and then of course the Manhattan Project and the invention of the Bomb. These same images, the Messiah, this transformation of world civilization, and the Beast, it goes way back. Mythologically, our way of imagining, perceiving the Bomb and Apocalypse actually goes back to the foundation of civilization, which is to say urban civilization.

Saint Michaels fight against the dragon, woodcut by Albrecht Drer (1498)

So you took a view of the image of the Bomb being a confluence of these two images. Not just that some people saw a Messiah aspect, some people saw a Beast aspect, but also that some people see both, almost an alchemical union. You see that as a unique point in the history of archetypes?

I think it is. But the circumstance really is that for most people, those images are very much split. And this is because we began very early to make war on the natural world — and we continue.

I was talking with a friend of mine, saying fifty years from now, people are not going to think of George Bush Junior and Senior in terms of the war in Iraq; they’re going to going to remember them as the presidents who said there’s no substantial scientific evidence about global warming. That’s going to be their legacy. The war on nature moves unabated, and very few people are even willing to recognise it’s happening — beyond the dilemmas of economy and progress.

There was an article I read on the web where the guy was bemoaning the lack of cultural, artistic responses to issues like global warming.1 I think he was comparing the situation to AIDS, and the body of theatre and art in response to AIDS. Whereas our culture’s imaginal response to this vast issue of ecological collapse — I guess his sense was that this is maybe too big to get a handle on. What struck me in your book was that you had a continuum from nuclear apocalypse to ecological apocalypse, in terms of how we’re dreaming these things. What’s your sense of how we’re envisioning ecological problems, and from your experience of dreams do you think this is a fruitful place to start if we’re having problems as a culture creating an image of it?

People are dreaming it — ecological apocalypse — that’s quite clear. Part of the issue with that is that the mushroom cloud is a compelling and, one might say, charismatic image. And global warming… what did T.S. Eliot say? Not with a bang, but with a whimper. The quiet decimation of the biosphere. And it is quiet, it’s exceedingly quiet.


It’s diffuse. I spent a good portion of my childhood in this area, a watershed seventy miles away from here. And if you’re from this area, if you’ve any awareness whatsoever, you can see the decimation of birdlife. It’s just obscene. But I was one of those kids who lived for birds — and does anyone notice, apart from ornithologists? These are things that move very quietly.

I assume the associated images from dreams, they may be multiple, they may be landscapes rather than singular images. What are the aspects of the Country of Apocalypse that you feel relate to ecological issues?

Very good question. In my mind, I mix dream and not-dream. I’m professionally a registered nurse, and the core of my work was working with cancer and death and dying, which I spent twenty-five years doing. There’s a statistic that I have in Dreaming the End of the World that says the Environmental Protection Agency was claiming that in 1973 your average American citizen was producing about 100 pounds of toxic waste per year, which increased over twenty years to 50,000 pounds per person per year. Now concretely, of course, anybody who’s worked in oncology knows what this is. Constantly, constantly dealing with people — some of them quite young, often in their twenties, certainly thirties, forties, sometimes younger than their twenties — with cancer, with metastatic cancer. This is a profound reality, and nightmare. I mean, civilization poisoning the Earth and poisoning itself for the sake of its fantasies of affluence.

Honestly, I don’t know if this answers your question in the least — it’s been a long time since I was collecting apocalyptic dreams. In the book there’s a chapter on the poisoning of the Earth, and the poisoned landscape, and the simultaneous poisoning of the self. What does that mean? If Hades is the archetype behind certain apocalyptic dreams, what is it that this poisoning is calling us down to, and towards? It’s a very good question that you’re asking. And I don’t know. I really don’t know.

I rewrote the book after the end of the Cold War, and included the stuff on ecological apocalypse because it was quite clear that it was going to continue. And the motifs around ecological apocalypse — obviously, the conquering of nature — are continuous with the Bomb.

What seemed to be the driving idea through the book was seeing quite a sophisticated relationship between the dream apocalypse and the reality of actual apocalypse. Because you’d mentioned Norman O. Brown, I assumed that if this wasn’t something you’d taken from Brown, that he’d at least influenced you a lot. There’s a section or two of Brown’s Love’s Body that really grapple with the problems of literalism. There’s a point where he’s talking about not taking the Apocalypse in a literal sense, and says wryly: ‘A mistake here could prove quite costly.’ What are your thoughts on how you came to your non-literalist perspective, and the literalism that abounds today, whether from monotheism or elsewhere?

One part of my crazy history was that I did spend a few months as a teenager as an evangelical Christian — in which I was very literal, needless to say, about apocalypse. And the horror, and heartbreak, and absurdity of it. Literal, and enthusiastic about it, because apocalypse is a story! It is a story of the Second Coming of Christ and the redemption of the world. James Joyce said, ‘History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake,’ and we are in the nightmare of history. And of course that engages the longing for apocalypse.

In this new edition I look at the parallelism between the apocalyptic Muslim culture, fundamentalism, and of course apocalyptic Christianity, and where they meet. This is the horror, and terror of bringing together two radically literalized traditions that believe in redemption through apocalypse

Through literal apocalypse.

Literal apocalypse, of course. This is Christian fundamentalism, inclusive, obviously, of George W. Bush. And one of the great ironies of recent history which very few people know about, or don’t even think about, if they know about it, I include in the new preface. The seminal book on American, literalized, apocalyptic — nonsense? we can say bullshit — is Hal Lindsey’s book The Late Great Planet Earth. It was written in the early seventies, and is his reading of contemporary history as the preamble to the coming of Christ and the Apocalypse — it is a playing out of the prophetic books, obviously the Book of Revelation, certain prophecies in the Old Testament. Very literal, saying this is the end, this is the end of days. Now, the irony/horror of this is that Lindsey’s book was published in Egypt, in Arabic, back in the late eighties, and it took off like wildfire. Effectively, Islamic fundamentalists took Christian fundamentalists, and translated into an Islamic idiom — the Antichrist of course being associated with America and Israel.

There is an apocalyptic tradition in Islam, that goes back practically to the time of the Prophet — not really, it’s a couple of centuries after the Prophet.2 But it’d been latent up until the late 1980s and, with very direct influence from lunatic apocalyptic Christianity, the edge of Islamic fundamentalism picked up the same story.

What can one possibly say? What can one say when the President of the United States, who we all know is the most powerful man in the world, this is his core constituency, this is who he speaks to. This is the man with his finger on the button, as they say. The literalism is dangerous, and at the very least is, one could simply say blasphemous. It is such a travesty. There is profundity in both Islam and Christianity, there is profundity in these worlds. I was in the Muslim world in the week of September 11th, and was received very graciously by Muslim people.

Where was this?

It was Mount Sinai in Egypt. The Bedouins were exquisite. I came back from Egypt having been in Africa the previous couple of months, and I knew the America I was returning to was not the America I had left. And I knew, specifically, the Muslim people were endangered in this country, and that I should stand by them. I was taken under the wing of a wonderful Iranian midget named Bazad. I was meditating at the chapel of the hospital I work at, and he was doing the fatiha — it was Ramadan, fatiha is the prostration one does in the direction of Mecca. And I came to him and said, ‘All I pray about is peace between Islam and the West. Teach me how to pray as a Muslim.’ And he did. And I had an alliance. And I found myself thinking of the Bantu proverb, one’s relationship with God is best measured by one’s relationship with one’s enemy.

I was doing a rite of initiation in Zimbabwe, initiating a group of people, when September 11th happened. And we folded it into the rite of initiation because, I said, ‘Now is the time.’ I was initiating into the peacemaking tradition of the Bantu people, and I said, ‘This is the time for the peacemaker to step forth.’ We had a plane ticket to fly up to Sinai. I went with my African twin, Mandaza, my wife, his wife, and little Michael Kadikedike, my African godson, to Mount Sinai.

So how did your connection to Africa form? This is a much larger aspect of your work than your apocalyptic dreaming research?

Well, the thing about apocalyptic dreams is, the subtitle of the book is Apocalypse as a Rite of Passage, and I started seeing what are really cross-cultural, archetypal rites of initiation in the dream life of people dreaming of apocalypse. And the trajectory is, of course, the death and rebirth of the world, and the death and rebirth of the self.

So, what happened was that in 1992 Los Angeles burned. There were race riots after a black motorist was beaten to a pulp by local policemen, and the policemen were acquitted, so people took to the streets, there was a riot. And during the riot, a good friend of ours was dying of cancer. We went to her house, and we’re holding a vigil at her bedside. During the riots, she did die, and the next morning they took the corpse away. I was drinking wine with our people, and a helicopter flew over, and there was smoke in the air from the riots and I just broke down weeping. And I said, ‘The next work I will do will be about interracial healing.’ I am biracial, I’m a biracial whiteboy-Mexican. I was raised by my mother’s family, which is Mexican; my father was disowned for marrying a Mexican. And so I grew up in the chaos of race in America.

I started looking at black people’s dreams about white people. I was going to do a single volume, I thought at the time: black people’s dreams about white people, white people’s dreams about black people, looking at the patterns the way I did in Dreaming the End of the World. But early on I started seeing that in African-American dreams, their essential images of white people were the same as how Bantu people saw white people since the Portuguese turned up in the late 1400s. So I knew I had to find a dream-teller in Africa and talk.

Anyway, a lot of mysterious things happened, including my own dreams, and I ended up in Zimbabwe four years later. I was recognised by Mandaza Kandemwa and his wife Simakuhle. Both of them had dreamt me in anticipation. And I was taken into the medicine tradition of the people there. So I became nganga,3 I was initiated as nganga. I’ve returned every year to continue my initiation. And it’s hard to explain it, in a nutshell!

Mandaza and I are called mapatya, which in the Shona language means twin brother. When I first met him, I was introduced as nganga from America, a healer from America, and he said, ‘Do you tell dreams?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And I also read the cards, and I showed him my tarot deck. He took me into his place, his spirit house, with his wife. We spent about three hours looking at the cards, and came to the obstacle card in a classic Celtic Cross reading with him, and it was the Knight of Wands. And I knew the Knight of Wands well — a young man with some kind of bluster, on the edge, you know? He’s the first on his block, so to speak; given to egotism but very fearless. And this was the obstacle card. For myself, when I was being prepared to be initiated in Zimbabwe, it was effectively the Knight of Wands that had to be crushed. I’d gone through a few months of that crushing. My heart broke when I saw this as the obstacle, because Mandaza clearly carried tremendous responsibility as a tribal medicine man. He said, ‘I know this spirit very well. I can cast spirits out of other people, but I can’t cast them out of myself. Could you heal me?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ [laughs] I said I’d have to pray about it. Among other things I thought, ‘What is going to reawaken the Knight of Wands in me?’ To have travelled across the world after years of preparation, and this extraordinary medicine man wants me to heal him! It was quite clear — I did dream it, I looked at the cards, I prayed about it — and the next morning I began to do healing with him.

The book by Michael and Mandaza about their mutual initiation

So we ended up in a reciprocal engagement that was really about initiating one another. Ultimately in the Zambezi, in Matusadona near Victoria Falls, I did ritual work with him, and I identified his spirit with the spirit of the river. And he was trance possessed for the first time. The spirits took his body, and for four or five hours he did ritual work on me — he completed my initiation. Meaning: the way it’s understood in African spirituality is that spirits come through and possess somebody’s body, and that spirit will do ritual.

Honest to God, I thought I’d driven him crazy! I’d never seen anyone trance possessed for more than half an hour, and I didn’t know how I was going to explain to his wife at home. He threw me in the river at the end of this event — immersion in water is an essential rite of the Bantu people. I came out of the water and wept in his arms. And I said, ‘Nothing cures the arrogance of a young man except time.’ That was when we started calling each other mapatya, twin brother.

The Shona people are facing their own apocalypse right now: a HIV rate of 30%, a third of the population threatened with starvation. Not to mention the lunatic dictator running the country. Things are falling apart.

Given your mythological perspective, and your personal relationship to Africa, how does this inform your view of the general relationship of the West to Africa? What relevance might this have to solving the practical problems involved?

You’re talking to a man who’s more or less terminally hopeless! [laughs]

That’s something you feel characterizes you, or is it something you’ve come to through your experience of Africa’s realities?

Well, a third of the African people, a third of the continent, was taken into slavery. A third. I’m not making this statistic up. The transatlantic slave trade took a third of the people away from Africa. These are wounds that have cut so deep. And the history of colonialism, and of course you know the UK and Zimbabwe have their own thing, and there’s apartheid in Zimbabwe and South Africa, et cetera. There is the wound of colonialism and racism, and simple cultural obliviousness. I mean, African people are literally and figuratively off the map of the Western mind and imagination. And are expendable. Everybody knows that. Rwanda: how many, eight hundred thousand killed? Expendable. Nobody’s mourning.

But the question in my mind, at least as you ask it, is the sickness of soul among European people. We’re forever busy civilizing the savages. If you’re an American, or a Brit, if you’re Tony Blair, the savages du jour are Iraqi, I guess. The shadow of it is extreme. When I was going through my medical crisis this fall, I spent a couple of weeks in a Benedictine monastery and another convent in Santa Barbara here, and it was actually wonderful, they were exceedingly sweet. I shook my fist: ‘Surely, the redemption of your soul relies on looking at what you have wrought?’ And I came to the obvious conclusion that some will but most won’t. For the same reason that very few Americans are going to look at Vietnam for example. Dear God, you know? That was a genocidal war. How many Americans even imagine this? Or how many Israelis are really going to look at what the foundation of the state of Israel has meant? How many Palestinians are gonna receive what killing Israeli civilians has meant? How many American leftists are going to imagine what, in fact, communism has been? I don’t know what one says about that. I’m no longer on a high horse about it. And I don’t know what to say. We could well destroy this planet. We’re completely inured in our fantasies of innocence. It could come to that.

Short of shaking people up on street corners, what the fuck do you do? Really?

Has the emphasis in Africa of a spiritual relationship to ancestors fed into your perspective on how we might clear the way for something better? What’s your experience of this?

These are hot topics! [laughs] Of course every generation wants to imagine they’re reinventing themselves.

Especially when you’ve rebelled against your family background, for very good reasons. Maybe I’m getting at, if we have such a toxic culture, and rebelling against your family background is so common, frequently justified, how can we come back to relating to ancestors in a spiritual way?

Boy, I could talk quite a long time about this! [laughs] OK, in African culture, healing the ancestors is really fundamental to the activity of initiation. It’s fundamental.

Unbeknownst to me, my ancestors on my father’s side did hold slaves, in North Carolina. And my sister, a Catholic hermit, is kind of a passionate, disciplined genealogist, studying our line, and she dug up some of the papers from 1807 of this fellow William Halbert deeding the slaves to his beloved wife, children, whatever. Negroes and other stock is how he put it in his will.

I didn’t know anything about this. I was nganga, I’d been initiated before I found out. My initiation as nganga was very much about the ancestral line, and Mandaza’s understanding was that there was a certain fork in the road, where some had taken the wrong path. So the ritual work was going back to that fork. The second time I was initiated in Zimbabwe, I had been in the country less than twenty-four hours and I was sleeping at Mandaza’s house when I had just a bloody racial dream. I was in southern California, and there was a black thug who was under the employ of a white mafiosa-type guy. He was coming at me, we were both squaring off with crowbars. I was saying, ‘Listen brother, I don’t have any problem with black folks, we don’t have to do this.’ This guy wasn’t interested in my liberal sentiments at all. So we went at it with crowbars! Just a bloody dream. I woke up in Africa, and my African family is around me. [laughs] I went to Mandaza and I said, ‘What the hell was that about?’ And he said, ‘That was a great workout!’ I said, ‘You know, I’d just as soon work out in a gym.’ He said, ‘No problem. I understand this dream perfectly. This spirit was a spirit of a slave. You must remember that when I was being initiated, I had many dreams like this because my ancestors had slaves as well. I know exactly what to do.’ So we went around back and he gave me a pinch of snuff — which I happened to know was termite shit, because I was with him when the ancestors told him, ‘That one! If you don’t get that herb, you’re in big trouble.’ So we pulled over and got it. His snuff that cuts through all obstacles is termite shit.

What are its properties?

I work with the snuff ritually, and it’s for real. I’m a registered nurse, you understand; I wouldn’t presume that if someone looked at it pharmacologically that it would necessarily be anything. But what do I know?

Anyway, I took the termite snuff and snuffed it, and Mandaza got a fly whisk and put it in some blessed water and flipped it at my back. And for probably five seconds, ten seconds, I don’t know how long it was, I was this slave that was being whipped. My wrists were bound, I was enraged, and I was humiliated, and I was powerless. And then [snaps fingers] gone. Mandaza laughed and said, ‘That one now is going back to his village, and he will be a great warrior in protecting the village.’

Half an hour later I’m hanging out with a Shona friend of mine, who’s recovering from malaria, and a Tonga tribesman — the Tonga are a people from north of the Zambezi watershed — this Tonga man was really quite ill. He’s shooting the shit with me. He doesn’t speak very good English, but I could pick it up. He was saying, ‘You Americans, you like the rhinoceroses, don’t you?’ He takes American hunters to kill rhinoceroses, and he says he wants to kill a rhinoceros himself because then he can buy a mini-van for his ranch workers.

I’m like: I’m in the presence of evil, and I’m being initiated as nganga. I pulled out my tarot cards and read them for the Shona guy, and said a prayer in the Shona language. This Tonga guy didn’t know I was nganga, and he said, ‘You are nganga?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m Mandaza’s twin brother. And the spirits are telling me that I’m to do a healing with you.’ So I went to the water, and I prayed in the traditional fashion. I said, ‘Help me here.’ I mean, I hated this guy. I would have gladly killed him for taking the fucking rhinoceroses, you know? I couldn’t do a healing with someone I just hate. I came back and I was singing, I was chanting, and I was trance possessed by Chapungu, the black eagle, a very fierce warrior spirit. I sat down and asked him what happened when he became ill, and he said he was driving from the northern part of the country and his car flipped over three times. He bringing some sable skins for the black market; and from then on he was quite ill. I said, ‘You are an uninitiated warrior. You wield the gun, but you do not know what a gun is. Some of the ancestors come forth as animals, and the rhinoceros is especially holy. To kill a rhinoceros would be like killing you own grandfather.’ And he started weeping. He said, ‘I didn’t know.’

Mandaza and I went to do an initiation a couple of days later, and we were driving back after nightfall, and three rhinoceroses crossed the road. Mandaza, who is in his fifties, had never seen one before, and there they were! We got home and this Tonga guy greeted us as we drove up, and I asked him how he was doing. He said, ‘Very fit!’ It was my first healing with an African.

The thing about ancestors that’s really important is, in Zimbabwe, the word that’s usually translated as ancestors is midzimu, and it’s not genealogical. Some are genealogical, but the water spirits are ancestors, Mandlovu the elephant is an ancestor, a midzimu. The understanding is that there is an invisible field parallel to this one. In the West we tend to personalise the so-called unconscious, whereas in Africa, that parallel world is in fact environmental. It’s a field of relationship. It’s not about worshipping the ancestors; one enters into a reciprocal relationship. One serves the ancestors and is available to them on behalf of the world.

The refreshing thing about African culture is that it’s not narcissistic. It’s got other flaws, it suffers from paranoia in a big way, but the spiritual tradition is effectively: How do I make myself available so spirit can come through me on behalf of the world? That’s just fundamental to the whole African way of understanding. And to me that’s its gift to the West.

The West has set itself separate and above the most basic tenets of hundreds of thousands of years of healing tradition on this planet — which is to say it has placed itself beyond the reach of the ancestors. We split things down and then split them again and again. Body split from mind, self from community, community from the natural world and all of it split from the felt presence of Spirit.

I write these bitter words at the hospital itself, in a cancer ward, at 3am. I have a brief break as my patients sleep. Already I distrust the bitterness; too simple, too much certainty, and thus untrustworthy. Yes, one must rage against the organized loveliness of any institution, but there are other stories. I confess that part of my commitment to the hospital is that it confounds me, regularly undoes me, shows me the superficiality of my thinking and my loving.

Michael Ortiz Hill, Gathering in the Names


  • Ortiz Hill, Michael, Dreaming the End of the World: Apocalypse as a Rite of Passage. Spring Publications, 1994.
  • Blues Song at the Edge of Chaos. Elik Press, 2003. Online version: http://www.michaelortizhill.com/blues_song.html
  • Ortiz Hill, Michael & Kandemwa, Mandaza Augustine, Gathering in the Names: A Journey into the Land of African Gods. Spring Journal, 2002.
  • The Village of the Water Spirits: The Dreams of African Americans. Spring Publications, 2006.
  • Ortiz Hill, Michael & Metzger, Deena, Meeting Sacred Illness. Elik Press, 2006. Online version: http://www.michaelortizhill.com/meeting_sacred.html