by: Gina Athena Ulysse on January 12th, 2012 | 1 Comment »
Vodun practitioners from all over the African Diaspora traveled to Benin (formerly Dahomey), the birthplace of the religion, this week to participate in what is known as International Voodoo Day. This January 10 festival of prayers, libations, sacrifices and other rituals is the most important Vodun gathering in the world.
As a Haitian-American, I can’t help reflect on this most African part of our heritage in the New World especially as it is continually maligned by those whose knowledge is restricted to popular images that favor the macabre. Those of us who recognize and respect Vodou’s complexity know we must defend it because the religion remains trapped in stereotypes making it extremely difficult to dispel geopolitically driven myths too entrenched in the spectacular.
Growing up as a child in Haiti, I had no concept of what is referred to as “Voodoo” in the U.S. In fact, the more appropriate word, Vodou, was not part of my vocabulary. The tradition that some members of my family followed was known as “serving the spirits.” Even that phrase was not something we actively used, since our actual engagement was rooted more in daily practice than naming. Serving meant living in a world where the sacred and secular were blurred. So it was commonplace to see adults pour libations of water and coffee three times onto the ground upon awakening in the morning before even speaking to one another. Or sometimes they rushed to the outhouse, I would learn later, to expunge bad dreams that should not be spoken in order to deflect their mal-intention and prevent entry into the home. These and other very conscious acts of psychic repulsion taught me that serving the spirits was foremost about communion and protection.
In times of trouble, spirits made appearances to offer counseling. It’s not surprising then that granmoun and zanset, the Kréyol words for elders and ancestors, are also interchangeably used for lwas, or spirits. They are called upon to administer healing only when all other approaches have been exhausted. Their very presence often ordered a chaotic situation because out of respect, adults must defer to spirits. And when they did not, there were consequences. In that sense, sèvitès, those who turned to the spirits, did so with a sense of surrender akin perhaps to encounters between dwarves and giants, or Lilliputians among the Brobdingnags.
To be sure, like any other religion, Vodou has its extremities. There are secret societies that have their own system of governance with ritual practices and sacrifices that border the surreal.
To me, the spirit world was always one full of wonder. I have my personal favorites. Ogou, the spirit of the warrior — represented by lithographs of Saint Jacques — brandishes a machete or a sword like an expert marksman. If someone needs a bodyguard, they can count on Ogou. He rules over power. Some say he can even reverse poison. He loves women. We can honor him by wearing red and offering rice with beans, or yams. Gédé is the spirit of life and death, the ultimate trickster who makes adults blush with his chorus of expletives too worldly for schoolgirl ears. Ironically or not, he’s the protector of all children. Rum and hot peppers are two of his favorites. Ezili Freda is the pretty one. She prefers lace, perfumes and gold. Her specialty is affairs of the heart. She’s honored with cleanliness, fresh linens, rich foods and white or pink clothes and accessories. Dantò, her counterpart, is pictured as The Black Madonna of Częstochowa and bears two scars on her right cheek. She cannot speak because her tongue had been cut off to discipline her. She has an affinity for knives and her favorite colors are red and blue.
The deference to the power that spirits have over mortals comes from the simple fact that to serve is to respond to a call to carry on a legacy, because one’s relationship to the spirit world is also part of familial inheritance. Along with the land on which they reside in natural resting places, or repozwas, spirits are conveyed from generation to generation. Through oral history, family members share the songs, rituals and knowledge of their spirits’ particular likes and dislikes. One family member is selected to take charge of spiritual obligations. Not just anyone is chosen because spirits are quite finicky. They require a steady force in their intermediary, someone capable of humility and willing to be of service. The select do not always oblige for all sorts of reasons: outward rejection of what is often an enormous social and financial responsibility, migration that defrays the personal ties, or perhaps religious conversion. Among the ones who do serve, some choose the path of initiation and others do not. To serve is to enter into a symbiotic relationship with the lwa in which demands can be made that will be reciprocated with promises. In return for their work, spirits expect recognition with visible acts of acknowledgment like depositing a favorite item on the altar, feedings and pilgrimages.
Annually, many sèvitès commit to making long treks to sacred sites all across the country to pay debts, strengthen their faith or ask for favors. Whether it is under the waterfall of Saut D’eau in Mirebalais or a clearing in a venerable forest, spirits visit the offering devotees and bestow benediction in moments of rapture.
In my early teens, in the aftermath of migration and bombarded with narrow and negative views of Haiti, I vividly recall deciding to go back there only when the political situation changed. I ended up pursuing a degree in anthropology for the same reason and in the process became too cognizant of the ways Vodou, as an African-based cultural heritage, was under siege. By the time I made my first return, missionaries proliferated and provided social services neglected by the compromised and combative state. Conversion to Protestantism was de rigueur. We were not immune.
My family’s connection to the spirits, which was always tenuous, had practically disappeared as various parcels of land had been sold off and were now inhabited by strangers or newcomers to Port-au-Prince. The diasporic ties that bind continued to fray. No one cared as the stigma had taken hold. This was most evident in the neglected peristyle or temple that was once revered as sacred space where community gathered. When a cousin boldly stated “bagay sa yo pa a la mode ankò” (or “such things are no longer in style”), he was echoing a broader sentiment. Many among the young see serving as old fashioned. The spiritual uprooting of the last three decades was exacerbated by the devastating earthquake nearly two years ago that also fractured so many temples. That was a sign of things to come. Ours eventually crumbled as the last of the stalwarts converted.
As Haiti returns to the mainstream media today to mark the second anniversary of the earthquake, let’s remember the spirits.
Gina Athena Ulysse is Associate Professor of Anthropology, African- American Studies and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. Born in Haiti, she has lived in the United States for the last thirty years. A poet/performance/multimedia artist, as well as anthropologist, she earned her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 1999. She is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica (Chicago 2008). Follow Gina on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ginaathena.
(Crossposted from the Huffington Post)