American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World / Edition 1 available in Hardcover
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- University of North Texas Press
About the Author
Rod Davis is an award-winning journalist and magazine editor who has taught writing at the University of Texas at Austin and Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He is also the author of Corina’s Way, winner of the PEN/Southwest 2005 Best Fiction Award. A fifth-generation Texan, he has lived most of his life in Texas and the South, and is director of communications for The Texas A&M University System.
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Journey Into a Hidden World
By Rod Davis
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 1999 Rod Davis
All rights reserved.
At 1:00 A.M. the open air market along the Mississippi River edge of the French Quarter was still brightly lit, although the handful of people threading through the vegetable stands, bins of T-shirts, tables of tourist memorabilia and hanging clusters of garlic were mostly either vendors or drunks. My companions were neither. One was a Christian minister and voudou convert and the other was a middle-aged, middle-class woman whose week of initiation into the ancient West African religion was ending that night with her presentation to the marketplace, for prosperity, and to the Catholic Church, for the beneficence of God. They were both black, and I white, but all three of us had traveled a long road. It would be longer still, and before it was over I would taste the blood of sacrifice, feel the strange sluggish plasticity of another consciousness in my body. For my two friends, the way ahead was now one of discovered destiny and alliance with the powers of the universe, for they had accepted unto their lives the exiled African pantheon of spirits. In the ancient kingdom of the Yoruba people, an area roughly equivalent to what is now Nigeria, they are known as the orisha; in neighboring Benin (formerly the slaving kingdom of Dahomey) as the "vo-du," a word from the language of the Fon people.
Even in the wee hours of the Quarter we stood out. More natural to the habitat were the angst-ridden Tulane or University of New Orleans students outside the clubs on Decatur, sporting hang-dog forelocks or peroxide bobs, doing coke and Jagermeister shots, or the two men in black motorcycle vests, S&M chains and crotch-hugging leather shorts—remains of a culture that had collapsed of its own appetite, much as had the city around us. When the moon came up over New Orleans, decay and psychosis were as sweltering as the air, and, like the air, you had to breathe them. If Las Vegas is about corruption, and LA about power, and Miami about violence, New Orleans is about death; or, more specifically, one's attitude about death—that is, religion. It is a place to go off the deep end and find company. That was where I was, among the holy.
Both Gary and Lorraine were dressed in white. They'd driven up to the market, among the big trucks bringing in the next morning's produce, in Gary's blue Datsun, and gotten out like flashes of incandescence against the night sky. Gary was still in the colors of purity because, although initiated, he had not quite completed his year of apprenticeship. Lorraine was wrapped in white gown, lace, hat and heels because her year had just begun. Both had come to voudou, as had—until very recently—any U.S. black seeking the authentic African experience, through the Cuban form known as santeria. Worshipers of santeria refer to initiates as "yaguos," a Cuban adaptation of iyawo, a word from the Yoruba, West of Africa, which means both a mother and a child of the spirits. Thus Gary and Lorraine were both yaguos, although Gary was on the eve of becoming a full-fledged priest. Lorraine would be called "yaguo" by her friends in the voudou community for many months to come.
After a week of dancing, singing, sacrifices, readings and prayer from the priests who had been delivering her into the mysteries of santeria, the yaguo Lorraine was so high she could have floated, but the trip had to be strictly on foot. The idea was to "make the corners" of the market, which meant walking the oblong perimeter and pausing at each of the corners so that Gary could throw the four coconut divining shell fragments, known as obi, and ask the spirits of the market, such as Oya, goddess of the wind and the cemeteries, and Elegba, the divine trickster and lord of the crossroads, for good fortune and promise of success. I could sense white people staring all around us, and it made me feel bristly, but Gary and Lorraine let it roll off, as if the rest of the world didn't exist. A short but powerfully built man, Gary lent his arm to Lorraine as she teetered on her heels atop the concrete and asphalt. In her free hand she carried a horsetail whisk, an emblem of Obatala, the god of wisdom and organization.
At the first corner, they stopped. It had been raining, and Gary had to find a place without puddles. When he did, he took a bottle of Florida water, a sacred, lightly scented religious toilet water also used by many Catholics, from a paper sack and poured it on the glistening asphalt. He also threw out a few pieces of candy in cellophane wrappers, as offerings. Invoking the spirit of Elegba—to whom one must pray in order to reach any of the other African deities—Gary tossed the obi on the street. They fell two black, two white, which means two fell showing the white meat and the other two the dark husk: the configuration ejife, which means yes—a good omen for Lorraine.
But it wasn't the final cast. The prophecies which come from the obi, as in all the divination systems in Yoruba-based voudou, are binary—only yes and no questions can be answered, which requires a series of interrogatives; for example, "Will you have success?" If the answer is "yes," you may ask if the success is to come in business (yes/no), and if "yes," you may try to narrow to the type. A "no" answer requires that you expand or change the scope of the inquiry.
Before asking the next question, Gary bit a small segment from each piece of coconut—substituted in the New World for the kola nuts used in Africa—and spewed the mixture onto the ground, then threw the obi again, and poured water over the pieces. This time it was three black, one white. The next throw was two and two, and then three black, one white again. Gary said that the yaguo got affirmative answers to her requests, but that the final three/one configuration (etawa; a qualified yes) indicated that "her dead ancestors are talking. She's got to put something up (on her altar) when she gets home."
We advanced to the next corner. This was the first time Gary had escorted an initiate to the market and he was intent on observing all the protocol, just as had been observed for him in New York, where he had received his initiation as a child of Elegba. Gary's mother, the Reverend Lorita Honeycutt Mitchell, had seen to it that four of her six children were delivered into the power of the spirits since one of her twin boys, Andrew, had been saved from cancer through the intervention of the spirit in the form of St. Lazarus, who is paired in the world of voudou to the African deity Babalu Aye, the deity of catastrophic illnesses such as smallpox.
It was at the Reverend Mitchell's East New Orleans house—a modest shingle bungalow with a cow's tongue hanging from a hook on the front porch and a dead goat buried in the back yard—that the weeklong initiation of the yaguo Lorraine had been taking place, and where I had spent several days leading up to this night.
Gary, twenty-three, was Mitchell's eldest son, gifted in both prophecies and preaching, and what he was doing at the market was more than escorting a yaguo; he was taking the first steps toward bringing voudou back to the control of his family, the control of African Americans. In doing so he was joining what in the past few years has become a movement of spiritual reclamation pinioned in the South, where it started, but stretching across the country and presaging the most unexpected and intriguing religious renaissance in the United States in this century. It will certainly change the shape of American culture well into the next century, as population increases among the developing nations in which voudou variations may, by some estimates, involve up to fifty million adherents (Gert Chesi, Voodoo, 1979). Which is all the more remarkable when we remember that for half a millenium, as voudou spread to the New World via slave ships, virtually no effort was spared in the attempt to exterminate its presence, power and influence.
* * *
From about 1440 to about 1880, contract vessels delivered to Caribbean and Atlantic ports millions of hijacked Africans. The precise numbers have been raised and lowered over the years; 15 million enslaved humans delivered to the New World has generally been the accepted figure, though the total was revised down to 9.5 million (with an error range up to about 12 million) by Philip D. Curtin in The Atlantic Slave Trade in 1969. The most recent book on the subject, The Slave Trade, by historian Hugh Thomas, puts the total at 11.3 million delivered to the New World, with almost 2 million perishing in the infamous Middle Passage. Most of the survivors, about 4 million, went to Brazil, says Thomas, with 2.5 million sent to Cuba and about 4.1 million spread throughout the rest of the West Indies. Published estimates of slaves brought to North America before Congress outlawed the trade in 1808 have run from 400,000 to 600,000; Thomas puts the figure at 500,000, though that doesn't include the numbers from illegal slave trading, which he estimates at only about 5,000. The numbers, of course, are but approximations of the totality of the evil: "The attempt by many meticulous historians to decide figures to the last digit in a number is a vain one," Thomas concludes. "I am not even sure that is necessary."
The slaves, far from being a homogenous lot, represented numerous nations, cities, regions, languages, and so on, but almost all came from the western coast of Africa. As human beings, not chattel, they brought their cultures with them, including their ancestral religions—which were promptly outlawed. Various edicts, including the order of Pope Alexander II in 1493 and the infamous Code Noir of Louis XIV in 1685, precluded all but Christian worship, which often began with forced baptism aboard slave ships. Denied their own rituals, the slaves developed a method of dual worship—a combining process usually known as syncretization. Linking their deities (arrayed in a pantheon more than accidentally similar to Roman and Greek systems) to Catholic saints, slaves could pretend to pray to St. Barbara, for example, while really delivering their wishes to the vo-du thunder god, Songo (Anglicized as Shango; or Chango in Spanish), whose symbolic African colors of red and white and favored weapon, the double-headed axe, exactly matched the trappings of the Catholic ringer.
Having syncretized, voudou mutated—or evolved, depending on one's point of view—into a form with an unmistakable African core but mixed, in different regions, with a wide variety of other beliefs and faiths. From Brazil to New Orleans, transplanted voudou borrowed freely from native Indian cultures, European witchcraft, and other non-voudou African slave religions, for example the Kongo-based palo mayombe. And it co-opted precisely as much Catholicism as locally necessary to prevent the African content from being crushed by Europeans who at first merely scorned it, then, after voudou-inspired revolts beginning in 1791 led to the overthrow of the French on Santo Domingo and the founding of the Free Republic of Haiti in 1804, feared it as the single element that could precipitate their greatest fear: widespread, multi-centered, unstoppable slave revolts.
Today, as a generic term, voudou can be used to refer to almost any of the New World theologies emanating from the Yoruba religion and kingdoms. I have not intended its use here in a restrictive or purist sense. In different areas, voudou has different rituals and doctrines, running a sectarian range roughly comparable to that from Judaism through Protestantism to Catholicism. In Haiti, the religion metamorphosed into vodun or vaudoux; in Cuba, santeria; in Brazil, candomble; in Trinidad, Shango Baptist; in Mexico, curanderismo; in Jamaica, obeah. In the American South, it became voodoo and, in the most extreme caricature, hoodoo, the petty hexing (pins in dolls, love potions, etc.) which most people, black and white, confuse with the real thing. For the last several decades, another designation, orisha voudou, has been popularized by a group of African Americans seeking to de-syncretize voudou from Christianity and thus distinguish it from Cuban and Puerto Rican dominated santeria.
Throughout this book, I have avoided the orthographic form, "voodoo." The word in that spelling has come to signify centuries of racist falsities and perversions, not the least from Hollywood. Vodun, voudoun, vaudou, vaudoux, and vo-du are but some of numerous variations that seem less freighted with pejoration, but my preference is "voudou," the Creole-based spelling common in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Louisiana. New Orleans newspapers styled it "voudou," as in "Voudou Nonsense," from a fairly typical headline in The Daily Picayune, June 26, 1871, recounting a St. John's Eve celebration; or "The Birth of Voudouism in Louisiana," June 26, 1874 [see Appendix I for more complete accounts of media treatment of voudou]. The writer George Washington Cable also used the spelling in novels such as the The Grandissimes. My choice of this spelling is admittedly arbitrary, but I think it necessary to break the linguistic thought-lock emanating from the "voodoo" word picture. In addition, its etymology is distinctly American, befitting the scope of this book.
Some American practitioners, especially in santeria, avoid the problem by referring to "orisha worship." But others, myself included, think it is important to retain use of the word voudou itself. As an influential priest once told me, "The word will not go away. I wouldn't want it to go away. Keep in mind it has been maligned in the Western mind and Hollywood has given it a very ugly image and so nobody wants to be called vo-du, in the same way people didn't want to be called nigger ... (but) it's perfectly legitimate and I think that you should use it and the more current that it becomes in the American mind, then people will understand it better and it will become vindicated of all the ignorance and viciousness that Hollywood has imposed upon it."
Only in Africa did vo-du (orisha) worship retain its lineage, without the intervention of Christian slave masters, to the ancient court of the Egyptians and their reverence not for the single patriarch deity developed under Judaic tribes as Jahweh, but for the entire cluster of existence, from the stars and the moon to the fecundity of the earth mother herself. What a story, what a grand chronicle could be constructed of the migration of these great mythical powers to the glories of the New World, already ablaze with the Aztecs, the Inca, the Anasazi, the Cherokee, the Navajo, Hopi, Sioux, Apache, Iroquois! But it didn't happen that way. Not for any of the indigenous religions, and especially, unsparingly, not for the "dark continent" import.
The religious history of America—I would say the social history, too—became that of the Bible, and to a lesser extent, of the Torah. In the case of the Native American religions the substitution was simple. Genocide. A religion without a living people to practice it is just another footnote in a history textbook. African theology was a different matter—the slave population grew, instead of dwindled. Eliminating the slave religion, and replacing it with Christianity, required centuries of repressive laws, executions, maimings and brainwashing. But it worked. Which is why we were performing one of the most devout rituals of the voudou culture at the French Market under cover of night, instead of among throngs of well-wishers on a weekend afternoon, or on Sunday morning TV.
* * *
At the third corner, Gary ran into difficulty with the obi. He had to throw several times, because the numbers weren't coming up right. You try not to leave with a bad sign. The worst would be four black husks, meaning oyekun, or danger—stop—the strongest warning possible. I know because I got one of those several months later in Atlanta and only by sacrifice to Elegba and Ogun, the god of metal, did I avoid a potentially dangerous accident in a pounding thunderstorm. But Lorraine wasn't getting an oyekun. She was drawing the one/three combination, okana, which is basically a strong warning to seek further consultation. So you ask again until you isolate the negative elements, and then through further yes/no dialogue with the ancestors, whose voices are revealed via the obi, you establish the proper course.
As Gary did this, he prayed to Elegba in the Yoruba language and in Spanish chants he had learned from Cuban santeros. Though now facing a separatist revolt from the African-American orisha voudou revivalists, the Cubans, whose ancestors' brutal sugar plantations absorbed huge quantities of slaves, are generally credited with preserving the rituals of orisha voudou through the long centuries of bondage. It was Cubans who reintroduced the traditional, as opposed to ersatz, practice of the religion to the U.S. black community in the late 1950s in New York, where it remained relatively cloistered until the late 1970s or early 1980s.
I looked around as Gary and Lorraine studied the obi. The truckers were checking us out, and so were the club crowd and some of the vendors. You could tell we were doing something plenty weird, and that it involved a white man and two black people in some kind of odd costumery, and we weren't drunk, and it wasn't a party, and it had a method. That was probably the part that sent off the vibes—we had a purpose. That's always been the thing about voudou.
Excerpted from American Voudou by Rod Davis. Copyright © 1999 Rod Davis. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE: THE STREET,
1: Midnight Ritual,
2: Looking for Lorita,
3: The Gods and Their Ways,
4: Countertop Voudou,
5: Preacher to Priestess,
6: Jesus Out of Africa,
PART TWO: THE ROAD,
7: On the Hoodoo Trail,
8: Spirit Wars,
9: Two-Headed Men and Ghosts,
10: Elvis and Dr. King,
11: Kindred Spirits, Lingering Foes,
12: Crossing the Line,
PART THREE: THE WAY,
13: Africa in America,
14: The Day of the Living Dead,
15: The King and His Court,
16: Advice and Consent,
18: Exiles and Apostles,
20: Urban Herbs and Little Haiti,
21: Orisha Anew,
Appendix I: Voudou in the Media,
Appendix II: The Revolution Denied,
Glossary of Voudou Terms,