Friday, March 16, 2007

Haiti Gives New Recognition to Vodou

Haiti Gives New Recognition to Vodou

It has no written scripture, is an amalgam of African, native, and colonial influences--and defines Haitian faith and culture
Kathie Klarreich,
Christian Science Monitor

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (April 6)--A young man, forlorn about his love life, stands in his shorts in front of the cross of Bawon Samdi, who in Vodou tradition heads the family of spirits of the cemetery. A Vodou priest, using herbal mixtures and chicken feathers, performs a ritual to cleanse the man's body and spirit. When the service is complete, the young man changes clothes, pays the priest, and heads home.

For many in the West and in upper Haitian society, Vodou--also spelled Voodoo, Vodoun, and Voudou--evokes a Hollywood stereotype of black magic and dolls stuck with pins.

But for Vodou supporters, what was once an underground practice dating back to slave days is finally being acknowledged as a bona fide religion and recognized for its role in defining Haitian culture. Vodou, which has no written scriptural text, is an amalgam of beliefs taken from African, native, and the colonial cultures that shaped modern Haiti.

The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in Haiti have a long history of trying to discourage Vodou, seeing aspects of the faith as incompatible with their basic tenets. These include the worship of many spiritual beings, or lwa; a belief in possession; the use spells and incantations for good and, in some cases, for evil; and the use of animal sacrifices for some ceremonies.

Culture minister Jean Robert Vaval is among those working to improve Vodou's image. He recently helped arrange an exhibit of sequined Vodou banners and mock altars at the Musee d'Art Haitien in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

"We have maintained our heritage through Vodou," Mr. Vaval said. "We were brought over here from Africa, from tribes that no longer exist. We got all mixed up into one people. From that point on we created, and a great source of our inspiration has been Vodou."

The Culture Ministry's float for this year's Carnival paid homage to a 1794 Vodou ceremony that led to the country's independence from France 10 years later in a rebellion led by a former slave.

For practitioners, or Vodouisans, Vodou rituals are part of a philosophy that ties individuals to society, their community, and the environment.

Although there are no official statistics, the conventional wisdom is that the country is 80 percent Roman Catholic, 15 percent Protestant--and 100 percent Vodou.

"Vodou provides, like all world religions, a profound spirituality," says Leslie Desmangles, professor of religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "It is a very strong, cohesive social force within the community, and the community extends beyond the visual community to include the spiritual world."

In a country overwhelmed by poverty, political instability, and poor health care, oungans and mambos--Vodou priests and priestesses--are consulted on everything from fertility to serious illness to property disputes and even politics.

"There has never been a Haitian president who hasn't used Vodou to promote his program on the Haitian people," says Desmangles. "Every president has used it to maintain power through theological language."

Former dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, president from 1957 until his death in 1971, was notorious for his use of Vodou. Loyal clergy reputedly performed rituals to protect his personal paramilitary force, the Tonton Macoutes, from retribution as they terrorized the Haitian populace.

In contrast, former President Jean Bertrand Aristide was the first Haitian president to formally invite Vodou oungans and mambos to the National Palace during his 1991-95 administration, recognizing the role they play in shaping Haitian society.

"Vodou is a manifestation of our lives," says musician Wilfrid "Tido" Lavaud. "It is part of our culture and influences everything--from the way we talk, to how we eat, to the colors we use in our paintings and the rhythms we include in our songs."

Vodou is so entwined in Haiti's culture that it is practically impossible to separate the two, say supporters. Traditional Haitian dancers in bright costumes often are accompanied by drummers who pound out African-style rhythms to honor ancestors and specific spirits. Walking down the street, one sees veves--traditional designs meant to invoke a Vodou spirit--in buildings and windows.

In Haitian painting, green is often a tribute to Simbi, patron spirit of rain and drinking water, while pink is a reference to Erzulie, the patron of love.

"We are a people with a tremendous amount of imagination," says Pradel Henriquez, the Culture Ministry's director of artistic and literary creation. "Haitians are not profoundly happy, but they want to live their lives to the fullest."

Related Features

Background on Vodou
Vodoun Culture
U.S. State Department Report on Religion in Haiti
Voodoo: From Medicine to Zombies

Friday, March 9, 2007

Zombie Nation

The drums echoed, deafeningly with a strange chant for background noise. I had woken up soaked in sweat. My body sought for oxygen - the air in the room was so stale it felt sticky. The overhead fan helped the mosquitoes suck my blood. I jumped out of bed. Induced by a dry, strong drum-beat, I had been called.
All of the Cap-Haitien streets were still dark. I slid down alleys and gutters. The old Spanish and French houses put me in the midst of an old Corto Maltese comic book. After walking for minutes that felt like hours, I got to the door of a hounfour (a voodoo temple). The place was a shack divided into many rooms, known as peristiles. From the main one (poteau-mitam), where entities - that is, loas, or orishas, spirits that are the manifold manifestations of God - would appear, a thick smoke wafted out. People clad in red and black sang a song that gave me the creeps. It had the same melody as an old lullaby my mother would sing to me a s a child.
When I came to my senses, all attendants looked towards the entrance. Guess what. They were looking at me, the only white man in the ceremony. On the walls hung images of saints, side by side with cabalistic symbols known as "vévé". The strong smell of rum prevailed over the session. All of a sudden, I realize the Houngan (priest) was about to commence a sacrifice. Two terrified goats shivered in their place. I heard a dry thump: a machete had severed the poor animals' heads. The following day, I woke up in fright. What happened to me?
Perky as can be, Christian asked me where I had been. He said that in the dark of the morning he had gone to the bathroom and realized my bed was empty. As I washed my face, another surprise. Two black and red ribbons circled my neck. Had I gone partying with Romário? What a night. What a nightmare. What really terrified me was my late-afternoon encounter with a bokor (witch). The freakish figure asked, with a devilish look, what I'd really learned from the previous night's ceremony. I shook to the core: what could that man with a chicken in his hands know about me?

At the Miami airport lounge, I gladly meet Christian Cravo, my partner in other adventures, already with a stein of beer in his hand. It was just the beginning of an extraordinary journey. In all my roamings across the planet, never had I felt my spirit rise in such a manner. My pseudo-knowledge, courtesy of the movie industry, added to a few institutional texts of voodoo, made me increasingly confused. The whole thing seemed like a massive con. Voodoo was always more than zombies and impaled wax figurines. So I went into a restless research of Haitian history, trying to decipher this enigmatic country.
Heat and filth welcomed us to Port au Prince, Haiti's capital city. Our goal was to two of this people's religious parties and pilgrimages. Haiti, the West's first independent black republic, is a synthesis of Africa. During the unfortunate times of the slave trade (mid-18th century) over 600 thousand people from several tribes were brought to this island. It was, then, the most prosperous nation in the Americas. Now, the UNO rates Haiti as the world's 7th or 8th worst economy. Upon leaving the beaten-up taxi, we caught a glimpse of the daily theft we would be subjected to. The smelly driver wanted 30 U.S. dollars for the trip to the hotel. At the reception desk, they didn't even glance at our passports: they wanted us to pay in advance for our stay. The room was tragic: the fan seemed bent on flying away from its spot on the ceiling and the towels sported a cesspool-brown color.
We were in a fucked up little nation - and, worse, with prices worthy of any rich country on Earth. A small-sized beer cost from 2 to 3 dollars: daily fare at the hotel with grimy towels went for 120. Christian had gotten into touch with the president of the Magnum photography agency, who had attended the religious festivals we were about to cover in the previous year and he named a guide for out first goal, the Saut D'Eau falls, hidden in the country's central mountains.
The road was nonexistent: it was more like traversing a lunar landscape and ending up in the pits of hell. At the village, we rented a house for a week. We slept on the beaten dirt floor, in a lean-to filled with bloodsucking bugs. There was no bottled water - we quenched out thirst with coconuts. Every morning we'd climb the four miles of the pilgrimage route. Thousands of Haitians daily put the pressure on the poor Brazilians: "blanc, d'argent"[the money, whitey!]. I tried to ignore the local racism, under which we were reduced to walking dollar signs.
On the way to the falls, the crowd drank rum and clairin, the evil local firewater that the more insane natives spike with gasoline and, in special cases of unadulterated dementia, with herbs and dead batteries. At the waterfall, thousands of thirsty voodoo brethren purified themselves in mad, frantic celebration. People left their underwear at the banks and entered the waterfall to dedicate their offerings of flowers, corn, candles and roots. A massive carnival. In Haiti, the devout are attracted to mountains, beaches and natural locations, for there do spirits dwell. Much like Catholics go to churches and Buddhists go to their temples, the faithful of voodoo believe that certain sites are bridges for the loas. The pantheon of voodoo is a mix of ancestral African religions and deities with Catholic saints.
At the third and most important day of the festival, scores of groups playing archaic musical instruments led the people going up and down the track to a state of grace. Every single individual was drunk. At the waters, every one of them wanted to drink the divine power contained in the liquid, to heal themselves with it, to keep some of it in bottles. Many pilgrims were characterizes as their protector saints with clothes and ancestral movements and gestures. People in blue clothes and colored bags were humbly representing the spirit of agriculture, Papa Zaka; others limped, incorporating Papa Legba, one of the most important loas, responsible for the link between the worlds of spirit and matter - and none other than the Eshu of Brazilian Candomble. Elegant, willing women impersonated the divine Erzulie Freda (Oshun). I tried to understand the collective trance. To no effect: there was no rational explanation, every single attendant was living for the moment.
At night, the reveling increased. The center of the village felt like the Serra Pelada holocaust: Haitians celebrated, fought, drank and fucked in sheer joy amidst the filth. I had lost over ten pounds. Christian looked like a turkey on terminal stages of TB. The shadows under our eyes could be seen miles off. We were on a diet of coconut, rice, beans and manioc. In the absence of everything else, what Haitian like the most is pork. They eat swine at lunch, dinner and breakfast. Arghhhhh.
Driven to the limit of our strength, we returned to Port au Prince and decided to head North for the second festival at Plain du Nord - the mudfest. In an airplane made in Serbia, we ran into Fernando, a Brazilian who works for the UNO's Worldwide Food Program and who told us the harsh reality of Haiti - the terrible lack of food, sanitation, hygiene and the
rampant dissemination of Aids (according to governmental data, around 300 thousand Haitians died of Aids in 1998 - between 100 and 150 people per day, in a population of 7 million souls). As we arrived at Cap-Haitien, Fernando suggested we go to the Cumier beach to relax. He'd finally have clean beds and decent meals to recover our health and self-esteem. After two days basking in the Caribbean sun, refreshed by Barceló rum and Prestige beer, we returned to the Haitian urban hell.
For several days we were out of touch with the rest of the world. The only calls we could get through were Morse code and heavily laced with noise. Blancs and people moved by curiosity started arriving for the Plain du Nord festival - people like fantastic Spanish photographer Cristina Rodero, who has been working on the theme of Haitian rituals for several years, and the maddened photographers Sato, from Japan, and Luís Alcalá del Olmo, from Puerto Rico, who told us that the Plain du Nord festival, sacred to the loas Ogum Ferré and Saint Jacques, took place in a square of mud.
One of the managers at the hotel described to me in details the amazing phenomenon of zombification. Its foundation lies in poisons and magic potions that gradually lead subjects to simultaneous fits of hypothermia, lung edema, nausea, low blood pressure and vomiting. When someone is turned into a zombie, they become mute and turn into a being with no personal will. Most of the time, their fate is slavery. Thus, they live in the fine line between malediction and death. The bokor's work and conjuring to turn a person into a zombie is decided in a court held in secret societies known generally as bizango.
In Haiti there is a power that operates beside the government. Secret societies are the political branch of the voodoo community and are responsible for protecting the people. Voodoo was used for political ends during the terror empire of François Duvalier, more commonly known as Pap Doc, who, during his 14 year rule (1957-71) over the country ordered the assassination, mutilation and zombification of thousands - using the black magic of these secret societies, many which he employed as personal guards (the fearsome Tonton Macoute). There are several groups across the country (many of which have been infiltrated by the Macoutes) whose names change from region to region (Couchon Gris - "Gray Pigs" - Primosa Canibais, Vinbrindigue, Sect Rouge, Zobop, Mandigue, etc.). To become a member of one such society, one must be invited and undergo initiation. Zombie dust is the societies' prerogative - those who violate their codes are punished with a spell and turned into an undead.
Most of the time, the condemned are removed from their tombs and their bodies are manipulated for the remainder of the quasi-lives. The poison includes dried and fresh leaves of six plants: aloe, guaiaco, pink cedar, bois ca-ca, amyris maritima and cadavre gaté. The vegetable solution is blended with clairin, human bones, ass shins and dog skulls. Additives are the bufo marinus frog and the fou fou fish (diodon hystrix), not to mention the pestilent sea frog - more commonly known as blowfish. These fish carry in their skin and liver a neurotoxin 500 times more potent than cyanide. Voodoo dust is popularly known as coup poudre. Other poisons include datura as an ingredient. Only after an intense learning session with the hotel manager did I learn, from other sources, that he was a member of a secret society in Cap-Haitien.
We went to see the festival. Upon arrival, we continued to the sacred site, pushed by the mob maddened by moonshine and rum. The so-called mud was an open cesspool. A group of young devils, led by someone called Bolo, is in charge of letting people in and out of the goo. The savagery is a slap in the face of human decency. Animals were meanly clubbed to death. The ebb and flow of pilgrims and the insanity of the musical groups sent many headfirst into the pit. Animal heads, blood, rum bottles, shit, food and guts of pigs and bulls were thrown as offerings into the filthy sanctuary. India felt like Vancouver next to that. I saw impressive scenes of people drinking the water and mindlessly eating the raw livers and remains of dead animals. A priest explained to me that in this square of mud lies the root of the Haitian people.
From atop a tree, I watched insanity and religion at their utmost. In their
colorful clothes and white dresses, people made sexual movements inside the pit. I was almost lynched when I caught on video a woman who had bitten off a chicken's head. The damned drunks yelled at me and seemed to want to get my gear. I was at the limit of survival - and sick and tired of watching such cruelty. At the behest of Luís Alcalá, who realized what things were headed, we left the pits of hell.
At Port au Prince, we went to visit Haiti's top three hounfours. Houngan Tété showed us all of the temple's rooms, with brilliant explanation of the loas' functions and their relationship with Catholic saints. The images in the temple were true works of art. With my friend Luís Alcalá, I was invited to a Petros ritual session -hardcore black magic. I was to witness voodoo in its purest form. At the end, Tété said that he knew many Brazilian women - most of them socialite and high-end call-girls - who went to Haiti to be initiated with the pomba-gira, that is, to be capable of subjugating any man. But twenty days' immersion into the gory Afro-Caribbean religion had been too much. Christian and I had nothing left to give. After this trip, all I hope is that my spirit remains in this body. Voodoo is not for sissies, fellas.
AGWÉ - voodoo loa; the spirit of the sea
BAGI - temple sanctuary, a secret room that houses the spirits' altar
BARON SAMEDI - voodoo loa; the lord and guardian of graveyards, represented by a large cross planted on the tomb of the first man buried there; an important bizango spirit.
BIZANGO - how secret societies are called; also implies the rite carried by the shampwel; its name derives from a Guinea Bissau tribe
CARREFOUR - crossroads; also a voodoo loa associated with both the bizango and the petro rites.
CHEVAL - horse; in voodoo jargon, the person who receives a spirit
CIANOSE - blue skin tone caused by oxygen deprivation
DJAB - Devil, evil force, baka
GRANS BWA - voodoo loa; the spirit of the forest
GUEDE - voodoo loa; the spirit of the dead
LEGBA - voodoo loa; the spirit of communication and of crossroads
LOUP GAROU - werewolf; the bizango roaming queen is supposed to be a loup garou.
MACOUTE - Haitian peasants' wicker backpack
MAMBO - voodoo priestess
MANGÉ MOUN - "to eat people", and euphemism for killing someone
OGUM - voodoo loa; the spirit of fire, war and iron
PAQUETS CONGO - a small sacred package that holds magic ingredients that protect against disease and evil; the closest thing there is to the notorious - and often misconstrued - voodoo doll
PETRO - a group of voodoo loas that derives from Congolese rites
PWIN - the magic force invoked to carry out the wishes of a witch or of the bizango society
REINE VOLTIGE - the roaming queen, known to be a werewolf; the four reines voltiges carry the sacred coffin during bizango processions.
SHANPWEL - a term used in reference to secret societies; misused as a synonym for bizango, but more properly applied to the bizango's members.
SOBO - voodoo loa; the spirit of thunder
TETRADOXIN - a neurotoxin found in blowfish and other animals, whose effect is to block nerve signals by stopping the transportation of sodium ions at cells
TONTON MACOUTE - literally, "uncle backpack"; the name given to the members of Papa Doc's personal guard
VÉVÉ - symbols drawn in flour or cinders, whose purpose is to invoke the loas; each spirit has its own vévé
VOODOO - theological principles and practices of traditional Haitian society
WANGA - an amulet used against selfish or evil purposes
ZOMBI ASTRAL - an aspect of the soul that can be transmogrified at the discretion of its possessor
ZOMBI CADAVRE - a flesh zombie, which can be made to work
ZOMBI SAVANE - a former zombie, someone who has gone to ground, became a zombie and later returned to life.
Source: A Serpente e o Arco-Íris, by Wade Davis (editora Jorge Zahar, 1980)

Passage of Darkness


By Wade Davis. Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press. 1988

Review by Bob Corbett March, 1990

In June, 1989 I attended a seminar in Port-au-Prince on zombification. During the discussion I raised the question to the 40 or so people in attendance, had any one of them every seen a zombie "bab pou bab," the Haitian equivalent of face to face. Everyone had. So I randomly questioned one person about her experience. It turned out it wasn't she herself who had seen the zombie, but her first cousin. The next person hadn't actually met a zombie, but his aunt had. Someone else's father, another's best friend and so on around the room. In the end not one single person was able to tell a tale of having actually, personally been face to face with a zombie.

Are there really zombies in Haiti? Wade Davis devotes two long sections to this question. He first looks at the popular views and then explores cases where there have been some attempts to carefully and more scientifically determine the status of suspected cases. His key candidate for zombiehood is Clairvius Narcisse. In spring, 1962 Narcisse "died" at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti. His death was verified by the hospital staff. 18 years later Narcisse turned up alive and well, and claimed to be an escaped zombie.

Having thus satisfied himself that it is likely there are zombies in Haiti, PASSAGE OF DARKNESS is Davis' fascinating and provocative attempt to explain how zombies are made.

The extraordinary thesis he puts forward is, as the subtitle tells us, an ethnobiological story. That is, on Davis' account, what makes zombies is the interplay between certain features of the culture of Haiti and the use of drugs. However, neither the cultural phenomena alone, nor the poisons alone can account for zombies. There are even larger historical issues at stake:

"Evidence suggests that zombification is a form of social sanction imposed by recognized corporate bodies--the poorly known and clandestine secret Bizango societies--as one means of maintaining order and control in local communities." (p. 3.)

The essence of Davis' claim is this:

  • there are zombies
  • however, there are actually very very few of them
  • they are created in part by a poisoned powder
  • however, they are created in part by the effects of the culture
  • zombies are created when a person first falls into a death-like trance which is both drug and culturally induced
  • then is revived and kept under the control of the houngan by the use of other drugs
  • zombies are created by Voodoo priests who are members of the Bizango secret societies
  • Bizango societies constitute a totally secret and hidden other government beneath the surface of Haitian society
  • zombification is not random nor for profit or personal vendetta
  • zombification is the ultimate punishment to someone who has seriously violated the law of the Bizango society

These ten propositions are the essence of his conclusions. They constitute a story which has not been widely discussed before Davis (though Davis himself cites the important ground work done by the Haitian anthropologist Michel Laguerre on the secret societies).

Some are clearer than others, so I'll elucidate a few of the less clear:

Davis claims there is a poisoned powder which causes the target person to fall into a death-like trance. It was to seek this drug that originally got Davis the assignment to track down the zombie poison. His sponsors reasoned that such a drug must exist, and if they could find it might have valuable pharmacological possibilities as an alternative to currently popular but unsafe anesthetics.
The great controversy which Davis' book has caused is mainly connected to his claim that the chemical tetrodotoxin, gotten from the puffer fish, is the primary active ingredient in this "zombie powder."
However, what seems to be universally missed by Davis' critics, or simply ignored, is his claim that the powder alone cannot adequately account for nor make a zombie. Davis describes the "set and setting" which is required for the powder to work. "...set, in these terms, is the individual's expectation of what the drug will do to him or her; setting is the environment--both physical and, in this case, social--in which the drug is taken." (p. 181.)
Thus the poison in the powder, which is a psycho-active drug (one whose effect is related to specific personal psychological factors), will have different effects depending on who one is, what one's socialization and expectations are. In the case of Haitian members of the Bizango sect, they have been socialized to recognize the possibility and process of zombification and are psychologically attuned to the appropriate effects of the drug, i.e. zombification.
Davis' book presents a strong hypothesis concerning the why of zombification. In a country so drastically poor as Haiti, with labor costs for farm hands only being about $1.00 a day, one cannot account for zombification on the grounds of seeking cheap labor. One might imagine zombification as a way to get at enemies, but the violence of Haiti's history suggests much simpler ways of solving that problem. Davis' hypothesis is perhaps attractive simply because it is so grand! He tells the story of a long history of secret societies stretching back into the earliest days of slavery. Escaped slaves, the maroons, living deep in the mountains, created an alternative society, more African than Western. These societies brought with them the remembered lore of Africa, including knowledge of the use of local poisons. The poisons were used as tools of social control within the maroon communities. After independence and the radical split between the life in the rural areas and the cities, these maroon social organizations became the secret Bizango societies, and zombification is, effectively, their death sentence for serious violations of the code of conduct required in Bizango.
Davis' thesis in PASSAGE OF DARKNESS is provocatively and persuasively argued. Unlike his more popular account, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, which I reviewed a few issues ago, Davis' argument is careful and measured. Gone is the Indiana Jones bravado of the earlier work; gone is the "I've done it all alone" arrogance. Davis' use of sources and his excellent bibliography are themselves alone worth the price of the book!
But the critics don't think too much of Davis' work. Nearly all reviewers of his two books have been quite cool towards them. More seriously, important figures in the scholarly circles of pharmacological literature have taken Davis to task. In an article in Science magazine, April 15, 1988 called: "Voodoo Science," William Booth reports on the widespread criticism which has been heaped on Davis.
Critics argue that Davis grossly exaggerated what he had found in the powder and that he had exaggerated, if not lied, about the chemically active properties of the powders he brought back.
Certainly Davis was indiscreet in celebrating his victory of discover before adequate scientific evidence was published to support his findings. However, two things must be said in Davis' defense.
First, he was very careful in PASSAGE OF DARKNESS to respond to Kao and Yasumoto's criticisms of him. In a footnote on p. 194 he answers their primary objection. Their objection was two fold. First, that Davis reported as evidence a "personal communication" from researcher Rivier, which Rivier now claims was never intended as an official opinion. Secondly, they charge that the sample didn't have enough tetrodotoxin to do anything to humans.
Davis certainly should not have reported the preliminary oral confirmation (which later turned out to be false), as scientific fact. This was an error without doubt. But, Davis argues in the text that to study the powder alone, to study the amounts of tetrodotoxin alone is a mistake. This for several reasons:
  1. These powders are made as magical portions by the houngans (Voodoo priests). They are not made according to any exact formula. Any given portion may not work. They do them by trial and error. Some are too strong and kill the victim outright. Others are too weak and have no effect. A few work. Davis is quite explicit about this: "All that the formula of the powder suggests is a means by which an individual might, under rare circumstances, be made to appear dead." (p. 181.)
  2. Davis devotes a huge portion of the book to argue the psychobiological hypothesis that the power/poison is only one ingredient, albeit a necessary part of zombification. Davis' critics completely ignore this whole thesis and pounce on the tetrodotoxin samples as the only issue to be considered.
  3. In response to the criticism of Yasumoto and Kao that in the infamous "sample D," the only one of his eight powders which contained tetrodotoxin, that the amount was insignificant, Davis replies:
    "Critically, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Of greater interest is the empirical observation that the bokor {houngans who are doing the zombification} recognize the toxicity of these fish {puffer fish} and include them in the powders, and that at certain times of the year these fish contain a toxin known to have induced apparent death."

My argument is not that Davis has indeed found the zombie poison. I don't know that one way or the other. But, the vehemence with which he has been attacked seems to belie something deeper going on. There are several hypotheses which suggest other explanations for the heat he has taken.

  • Davis puts forward a psychobiological hypothesis. The subtitle of the book is quite up front about this (The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombie). His critics are mainly biologists and pharmacologists. Ethnobiology is a suspicious field to them. The whole perspective of ethnobiology, as the name indicates, is that cultural factors, not merely biological ones, account for many responses to psychoactive drugs (drugs whose effects are tied to the psychological state of the subject). Thus it would seem that some of the critics' vehemence is related to their distrust of the entire field of science which Davis represents.
  • There is no question that Davis' popular book THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is an arrogant and aggravating book. Davis postures as the great explorer invading Haiti's secret societies in just a very few visits to Haiti. The whole story, as told in that book, stretches the credulity of most readers. What is especially suspicious as both books detail, but which the much more carefully documented PASSAGE OF DARKNESS makes so clear, is that virtually all that Davis claims can be learned from his impressive use of existing sources. Davis is, indeed, a masterful researcher. But, is he the intrepid explorer he presents himself to be? That is the question, and the source of aggravation to the more academic critics.
  • Davis greased the way toward the powders he received by paying informants and houngans alike. This raises two sorts of objections and hackles: first that such payments are unethical behavior, secondly, that he may well have been bilked, especially given the low levels of tetrodotoxin found in his samples.

Davis addresses these objections head on, even in somewhat angry terms.

"To be sure, it cost money, and there is an odd and unwarranted sense among some ethnographic fieldworkers that data obtained by financial remuneration is somehow tainted. This is, in general, an arrogant proposition, as it assumes that the informant has nothing better to do than provide free information to a foreign investigator. In Haiti, such an attitude is not only unjust but counterproductive, for within the Vodoun society to do something for nothing is generally seen as 'less a manifestation of generosity than as a sign of gullibility, is less a virtue than a weakness' (Murray). The Haitians themselves pay the bokor for his knowledge and powders, and so should the ethnobiologist." (p. 5.)
  • Lastly, any critic, perhaps especially myself, will find it hard to forgive Davis for allowing his text THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW to be used for the horrible movie of the same name. Davis, himself, decries the nonsensical and negative image of Haiti that previous zombie movies have given. The jacket cover of PASSAGE OF DARKNESS claims that "Davis demystifies one of the most exploited of folk beliefs, and one that has been used to denigrate an entire people and their religion." I've seen a few of these "denigrations," and, indeed, they are terrible. But it's hard to imagine that any of them hold a candle to the film version of THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW. Davis can argue that he didn't make the film, but only sold his book to Hollywood. But, if one is a lover of Haiti and wants to genuinely "demystify" her to the American public, then selling the film rights without any concern for the outcome of the film, doesn't seem like a very sincere way to do the job!

But none of these sources of aggravation have anything to do with the primary thesis of Davis' book. He presents an utterly fascinating hypothesis, clothed in brilliant research and challenges the reader to critical participation. At least one of his books should be read by all people seriously interested in Haiti. I think PASSAGE OF DARKNESS is far and away a better book that THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW Gone is the giant ego of the first person narrative, and the measured and careful development of the thesis is much clearer. His impressive use of sources and the gigantic and useful bibliography are thrown in for good measure. Read one of the Davis books and join the fray!



The secret societies of the Sanpwel are...
secret, but their existance and function is public
knowledge in Haiti, particularly in rural areas.

Sanpwel Soldier Sanpwel is not a Vodou religious phenomenon,
it is a secular organization affiliated with
Vodou, much as the Knights of Colombus
are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.
The confusion between Sanpwel and
Vodou is compounded by the fact that
high-ranking Houngans and Mambos
are often high-ranking Sanpwel members.

The Sanpwel functions as a law-enforcement
agency, and takes sanctions against people
who violate one or more of the "Seven
Conditions". These violations include disrespect
of parents or siblings, slander which deprives
someone of their livelihood, "stealing" a woman
(?), speaking ill of the Sanpwel, and other

Sanctions range from a kou le (French -
coup l'aire) which induces a mild illness,
to zombification. Parents often frighten
misbehaving children with stories about the
Sanpwel, but actually no sanctions are
ever undertaken without a meeting of the
higher-ranking society members and usually
members of the offender's family. It is not
an arbitrary and unfair exercise of authority.
Now, having said that, I should note that the
Sanpwel societies, like some Houngans and
Mambos, were in some measure corrupted
during the Duvalierist regimes.

It is difficult for me to say more, because as
a member of the Sanpwel I am sworn to
secrecy on certain topics, but I have said
some of what I am free to say, and I hope
it will shed some light.

Mambo Racine Sans Bout

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Wade Davis in the Himalayas of Nepal

Buddhism asks the fundamental question: What is life and what is the point of existence? Wade Davis goes on an anthropological and spiritual journey into the Himalayas of Nepal to learn the deepest lesson of Buddhist practice. Parts of this documentary feature H.H.Trulshik Rinpoche and Matthieu Ricard. A journey to the ancient Inca’s sacred Andean peaks, wayfinders in Polynesia, a spiritual odyssey in the Himalayas of Nepal and vanishing ice’s impact on Inuit life in the Arctic are all explored by Canada’s only National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis in the four-part documentary series “Light at The Edge of The World” airing weekly, beginning February 7, 2007 on the National Geographic Channel.

Profile Wade Davis.

“You know, the year that I was born, there were six thousand languages spoken on earth,” says anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis, at the beginning of the 90th Parallel’s four part series Light at the Edge of the World.

“And of the six thousand languages spoken on earth, fully half aren’t being taught to children, which means, that effectively, unless something changes, they’re dead.”
“Half of humanity’s repertoire will be lost in a generation or two…an unprecedented pace of change.
I don’t think this has to happen.”- Wade Davis

Of immovable objects I am the Himalayas….

Voodoo Death

Voodoo Death

In my book, I discuss several different aspects of Voodoo Death.

Spells, curses, black magic etc.

"It has been authoritatively related that on one of the South Sea Islands where voodooism is practiced, strong, healthy young natives died a few weeks after they had been told that a gum-tree image of themselves had been fashioned by a voodoo priest, thrust through with a sharpened twig and melted in a flame." (Yawger, 1936, p. 876, quoting Strecker and Appel)

"The witch doctor is the arbiter of life or death, for not only is the victim he selects led away to drink the ordeal, but so implicitly do the people believe in him that, when he says his patient will die, this invariably happens, as his friends at once begin to prepare his funeral, and instead of feeding the patient, they dig his grave and send to call his relatives to the obsequies. The medicine man has said he will die, so what is the use of wasting time and food on him." (Yawger, 1936, p. 876, quoting Weeks)


«Keep posted!»


"In Lasinsky's voyage around the world, there is an account of a religious sect in the Sandwich Islands, who abrogate to themselves the power of praying people to death. Whoever incurs their displeasure receives a notice that the homicidal litany is about to begin; and such is the effect of the imagination that the very notice is frequently sufficient, with these people, to produce the effect." (Yawger, 1936, p. 876, quoting Reid)


"Years ago, a medical periodical in India published an article entitled 'Killed by the Imagination'. In substance it stated: A celebrated physician, author of a work on the effects of the imagination, was permitted to try an astonishing experiment on a criminal who had been condemned to death. The prisoner, an assassin of distinguished rank, was advised that, in order that his family might be spared the further disgrace of a public hanging, permission had been obtained to bleed him to death within the prison walls. After being told 'Your dissolution will be gradual and free from pain', he willingly acquiesced to the plan. Full preparations having been made, he was blindfolded, led to a room and strapped onto a table near each corner of which was a vessel containing water, so contrived that it could drip gently into basins. The skin overlying the blood vessels of the four extremeties was then scratched, and the contents of the vessels were released. Hearing the flow of water, the prisoner believed that his blood was escaping; by degrees he became weaker and weaker, which, seemingly, was confirmed by the conversation of the physicians carried on in lower and lower tones. Finally, the silence was absolute except for the sound of the dripping water, and that too died out gradually. 'Although possessed of a strong constitution (the prisoner) fainted and died, without the loss of a drop of blood.'" (Yawger, 1936, p. 875) (See also the 'famous experiment in Montpellier' (Liek, 1933, p. 81).)

Magical influence upon and/or reversal of the Voodoo Death process

"Dr. S.M. Lambert of the Western Pacific Health Service of the Rockefeller Foundation wrote to me that on several occasions he had seen evidence of death from fear. In one case there was a startling recovery. At a Mission at Mona Mona in North Queensland were many native converts, but on the outskirts of the Mission was a group of non-converts including one Nebo, a famous witch doctor. The chief helper of the missionary was Rob, a native who had been converted. When Dr. Lambert arrived at the Mission he learned that Rob was in distress and that the missionary wanted him examined. Dr. Lambert made the examination, and found no fever, no complaints of pain, no symptoms or signs of disease. He was impressed, however, by the obvious indications that Rob was seriously ill and extemely weak.. From the missionary he learned that Rob had had a bone pointed at him by Nebo and was convinced that in consequence he must die. Thereupon Dr. Lambert and the missionary went for Nebo, threatened him sharply that his supply of food would be shut off if anything happened to Rob and that he and his people would be driven away from the Mission. At once Nebo agreed to go with them to see Rob. He leaned over Rob's bed and told the sick man that it was all a mistake, a mere joke - indeed, that he had not pointed a bone at him at all. The relief, Dr. Lambert testifies, was almost instantaneous; that evening Rob was back at work, quite happy again, and in full possession of his physical strength." (Cannon, 1957, p. 183)

"The importance of self-confidence for him who strives after the realization of supernatural acts has been duly stressed by Jhavery (p. 12f). This Autor distinguishes the following principal conditions as a "triple key" for "Attainment" (doubtless his translation of the word siddhi ); 1. An intense desire for the goal strived after; 2. An earnest and confident expectation that it will come to pass; 3. The persistent concentration of the will towards it. On p. 16 he considers Desire and Will as the two poles in the performer's mind which cause his "mentative energy" to succeed. They enable him to execute acts of magic which are white as well as black. Webster (p. 79ff.) discusses the importance of "imperative willing" as a condition for success in magic in primitive societies. Such will-power, when combined with an intense concentration of the mind upon the result wished for, creates "the faith that moves mountains" (Webster). The mere act of such "thinking" can sometimes suffice to create all kinds of afflictions for a victim, even his death." (Goudriaan, 1978, p. 247-248)

Important pathogenic factors involved in the Voodoo Death process

«Keep posted!»


Cannon, W., B. (1957). 'Voodoo' Death. Psychosomatic Medicine, 19(3), 182-190.

Goudriaan, T. (1978). Mâyâ Divine and Human: A study of magic and its religious foundations in Sanskrit texts, with particular attention to a fragment on Visnu's Mâyâ preserved in Bali. Delhi, Varanasi, Patna: Motilal Banarsidass.

Liek, E. (1933). Die Welt des Arztes: Aus 30 Jahren Praxis. Dresden: Carl Reißner Verlag.

Yawger, N. S. (1936). Emotions as the cause of rapid and sudden death. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 36, 875-879.

Monday, March 5, 2007


March 04, 2007

CONGRESSMAN YARMUTH'S EDITORIAL IN THE COURIER-JOURNAL FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH (reprinted in full and with permission of Congresman Yarmuth's office)

As we celebrate Black History Month this year, it is important that we examine the reasons for doing so. The most obvious answer is that February honors a group to whom our nation denied freedom, for nearly 300 years and continued to oppress with full legal support for another century after. Each February we honor African American history, not because it is black, but because it is rich-and because all too often it is ignored.

For example, Louisville is still home to three Tuskegee Airmen: Morris Washington, Alvin LaRue, and Julius Calloway. To truly understand the heroism and patriotism of these men, one must understand the time and conditions in which they found themselves.

Sixty five years ago, legally mandated bigotry permeated every aspect of civilian life. Opportunities for a black man or woman were few for the most superficial of reasons: the color of their skin. Lynchings were not uncommon, and legislation to criminalize these heinous and brutal acts were halted under the guise of States Rights and claims that you cannot legislate the hate in one's heart. (Martin Luther King famously exposed the flawed argument years later, pointing out "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me and I think that's pretty important.")

Still, when Congress demanded the formation of an all black Army Air Core unit in March of 1941, hundreds signed up to defend the country that oppressed them. Following the African-American military tradition that the Buffalo Soldiers began three generations prior, these brave volunteers, became the Tuskegee Airmen, and they did more than merely enlist. Ten months later, America found itself in the thralls of the Second World War and they prepared for action. But despite showing remarkable aptitude-96 was the lowest score among all their flight tests-a deep sense of racism blinded their commanders to the proper and necessary action, and the Airmen were initially left out of combat. But as the conflict wore on, necessity sent these dedicated and capable men of valor into the skies where they deftly completed mission after mission, giving America a vital advantage in our efforts to defeat the Axis powers.

In their legendary P-51 Mustangs, the Tuskegee Airmen astonished their doubters by prevailing against the Nazis, even though they frequently found themselves outnumbered and underequipped. Soon, the Airmen were known for their prowess rather than their race and inspired a legend that they had never lost a single man to enemy fire.

By the end of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen had flown more than 15,000 sorties on 1,500 missions and were awarded two Presidential Unit Citations, 744 Air Medals, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, several Bronze and Silver Stars, and most recently a Congressional Gold Medal.

Though officially recognized for their heroic accomplishments, the Airmen returned to a nation still paralyzed by racial hatred and faced two more decades of legalized segregation. The same rights for which they had fought and prevailed overseas, were denied to them at home.

Every citizen who enjoys the freedom that America offers owes a debt to these courageous men who chose to look past their own oppression and see the potential of their nation's greatness. We are ashamed of the treatment they received and hope to follow their example, building a society where racial bigotry can be found only in the annals of our history books.

Washington, LaRue, and Calloway are just three of the nearly forgotten heroes who show us why black history is important; not because they are black, but because without their contribution and thousands more like them, we would have faced a bleak future indeed.

This is why we so desperately need the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, and why I will personally donate $10,000 annually from my Congressional salary for its construction. The true value of Black History Month does not end on March 1. Black history is American history, world history, and a history that we all share. The impact of the light bulb filament (invented by Lewis Latimer, a black man), the literature of Zora Neale Hurston, or Allied victory does not heighten or diminish in February or any other month. There can be no doubt that the Tuskegee Airmen and countless others are American heroes all year round, but if not for Black History Month they may never have crossed our radar.

Maya Deren's Haitian Footage

Notes on Maya Deren's Haitian Footage.
© Moira Sullivan, 1998. See also "Maya Deren's Ethnographic Representation of Ritual and Myth in Haiti", Moira Sullivan, in Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, Bill Nichols, editor, 2001.

Picture shot by Maya Deren in Haiti ca 1950, courtesy of Boston University Mugar Library Special Collections

Maya Deren's original footage of 20,000 feet was shot in Haiti during trip in 1947, 1949 and 1954. It is stored at Anthology Film Archives in New City and occasionally featured in their film program. (You can request that the footage be projected at a fee). Additionally, all of Deren's films are archived here including outtakes from her films and some unfinished work.The Haiku project, Medusa and parts from Witches Cradle with Marcel Duchamp).

The documentary film Divine Horsemen, the Living Gods of Haiti by Teiji and Cherel Ito is an assembled film of some of the best parts of the footage with sound.added ( Parts are read from Deren's monograph Divine Horsemen.) It should be understand however that this is the Ito's editorial work since Deren insisted that a film was both a product of the camera and editing. Therefore, the Ito collaboration is a 'fiction' of the material. Donald Cosentino refers to Deren's 'surrealistic editing', an observation which can be attributed to the Ito assemblage. The film is a good introduction to Deren's footage.

History of Anthology Film Archives Acquisition of Deren's footage
In 1972, Anthology Film Archives received from Grove Press five cartons of films in various canisters of the work of Maya Deren in Haiti owned by Barney Rossett. A rudimentary description of the contents was as follows: "The entire set of Haitian reels is markedly similar and repetitious in content with few exceptions. For the most part the action involves Haitian people involved in Voudoun ritual and dancing. This includes mystical drawings made on the ground, the oft-repeated sacrifice of chickens or cocks and small goats, accompanied by seated drummers, There are several instances of apparent religious hysteria and about 400 feet of Mardi Gras parade." (notes by Anthology Film Archives, Linda Patton, 1972)
The physical conditions of the footage were in a state of deterioration with shrinkage and darkness and fading of the tonal quality due to aging. Some of the splices were old and need of repair. Anthology Film Archives restored the prints through reprinting and correction of the original splices.

The Making of the Ito Compilation Documentary

In 1973, Cherel Winnett and Teiji Ito requested to edit Deren's footage.Teiji Ito, (Maya Derens husband at the time of her death), was sound editor who had recorded music in Haiti which was to be used in the film.Cherel Winett, film editor, who had studied film at the San Francisco Art Institute made the documentary"Blueberry Summer". According to Anthology Film Arhives curator Jonas Mekas, they were advised not to work with the the footage because of its delicacy and age which would jeopardize the only existing material on Deren's work in Haiti. In an application for funding to edit Deren's footage in 1973, Mekas supervised the intended project, coordinated by "Mr. Teiji Ito and Ms. Cherel Winnett". One result of the completed project unfortunately is that some of the original footage can not be viewed in the original sequence as it was cut out of the material.
According to the budget appropriation, there was 18,000 feet or negative and positive (re)print. Half of the footage was requested to be optically treated with sound transfer and editing..
Parts of the introduction to Divine Horsemenwere quoted including Deren's reference that the plan for a film was somewhere among her belongings and her footage was kept in "a fire-proof box in her closet". One of the most frustrating setbacks of Deren's career was her failure to release the footage and she tried countless times to have it accepted for anthropological use--and denied because she was an outsider to the field. Ironically, Divine Horsemen is considered a classic study of Haitian Voudoun.
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, from the title of Deren's monograph, was released in 1977.

Editorial details

The Ito compilation which claims to contain footage 1947 to 1951 also includes material from 1954. There is some synchronization of sound to image such as birds chirping or their wings fluttering but the predominant focus is on the music of the ceremonies--in particular ceremonie caille(described below by Deren). The narrators were John Genke with Joan Pape reading a short description of the Agwe ceremony. Focus is on the different loa, or gods and goddesses in Voudoun ceremony including Legba, Ogun, Ghede, Erzulie, Damballah and Azacca and Agwe--with animation of the particular vevers.
Editorial inconsistencies with Deren's original material are the insertion of animation of the loa Damballah after the closeup of an individual under possession lasting into a minute of material from the Agwe ceremony; a long shot of a La-place (assistant) to the houngan (priest) Isnard in 1947 cracking a whip introducing the Boeuf Azacca ceremony in 1949; and footage from 1954 showing the Haitian boy Jacques doing the juba intercut with Mardi Gras material. Some use of corresponding movement is used such as Jacques and the baton twirlers and the pelvic movement of a woman possessed by Ghede with the pelvic movements of baton twirlers at Mardi-Gras. The films ends with a freeze frame of Ghede at the Mardi Gras. (all postproduction by the Ito's).

Boston University Mugar Library Special Collections, Home of the Maya Deren Collection

Marie Deren, Maya's mother, bequeathed her deceased daughter's papers , photographs and sound recordings to Boston University Mugar Library Special Collections which is the largest center for Deren researchers in the world. One interesting document to be found there is Deren's Guide to Haiti Film Catalogue, a shot description of 5400 ft of her best footage from Haiti. This inventory is the best record for understanding her footage. The film was divided into seventeen sections. The first eight reels were for the eight day ceremonie caille filmed in 1947; the next four reels were sections she refilmed of the ceremony in 1949; the last five reels were dance festivals and ceremonies, dates between 1949 and 1954.


Reel 1 Ceremonies, Yam, Legba and House

Reel 2 Ceremonies Ogoun and part of Azacca

Reel 3 Ceremonies Azacca continued

Reel 4 Ceremonies Azacca continued

Reel 5 Ceremonies Ghede

Reel 6 Filming ceremony

Reel 7 Filming ceremony

Reel 8 Filming ceremony

Reels IX through XII are marked from 1949

Reel 9 Aguet

Reel 10 Ghede

Reel 11 Dancing at Isnards, Dancing at House

Reel 12 Congo Dancing

Reels XIII through XVII are different aspects of Haitian culture/and or dance

Reel 13 Mardi Gras [footage of the festival and parade]

Reel 14 Rara [footage of Haitian dance festival in spring]

Reel 15 Walking [a pre-planned sequence of Haitian women walking to market]

Reel 16 Titon dancing-- Petro, Juba, Martinique [pre-planned sequence of Haitian dances]

Reel 17 Boeuf Azacca [part of a ceremony to the loa]








A description of the eight-day ceremony ceremonie caille in Divine Horsemen provides a background to this footage: "Sunday: Action de Grace; Monday Service for les Marassa [Divine twins] and les Morts (the collective dead]; in the evening, the coucher yam [ritual where yams are laid to sleep at night],late afternoon and evening,feasting of Legba, Loco, Ayizan, Damballah, Ayida, Erzulie and Agwe; and their escorts (these loa are considered to be on very good terms and amenable to being served together);Wednesday: Ogoun with a dance in the evening in his honor; Thursday: Azacca, or Erzulie, or perhaps one of the other loa; Thursday: Azacca, or Erzulie, or perhaps one of the other loa especially important to the hounfor; Friday: Ghede; Saturday, the Petro loa; Sunday: often a bapteme[baptism], followed by a reception; Monday: a personal loa perhaps a work loa such as Mounanchou. If possible, each loa is served on the day of the week sacred to him. The procedure is, usually,to perform the individual ceremony either in the mid-morning or in the late afternoon, while the rest of the day is devoted to the preparation of food,and in the evening, there is generally a danse de rejuissance in honor of the loa feasted that day. (Divine Horsemen, p. 212.)


Azacca =loa of agriculture

Ghede =loa of the Dead

Erzulie =loa of love

Agwe =loa of sea

Legba = loa of the crossroads

Damballah =ancient serpent loa

Ogoun = loa of war

Damballah and Ayida= supreme parents

Loco and Ayizan =priestly parents

Petro loa = nanchon (tribe) of loa of American origin

Rada loa = nanchon of loa of Dahomean origin


CBS Odyssey 303 B 305 306 Includes several ceremonies, including Agwe.

#306 600 ft 16mm silent . From 400 ft can labeled "Odyssey". Ceremony around poteau mitan.

[MD] A2978 Haiti Voudoun. Reel 1 of 2. Reel 2 of 2. A2977. Chicken and goat. 400'cans labeled CBS Odyssey. Chicken and goat offering to loa. Tuesday-Goats.

#305 outs 300 ft.

#303 A+B 300 ft [MD]: Titon, Juba, Martinique, Titon XV, XVII Azacca Boeuf.

#303B Walking. From XVI Walking.

PT. I - IV Haiti # 304 (Each 4325 ft=17.300 ft.) Ceremonie caille. Isnard Monday Yam and Legba, PM Agassou. Tuesday Maison. Wednesday Ogoun and Azacca. Agwe;--barque d'Agwe [raft of offerings to Agwé set to sea] ceremony on boat. Ghede, Congo ceremony.

PT V Haiti # 300 1825 ft Yam and Ghede, Mardi Gras.

PT VI Haiti #300 1825 ft., Haiti 1954 [MD]: Joe & Isnard. Ceremony, bull, Ghede,Mardi Gras, Indoor altar, outside drawing of vever. Jacques doing juba, home of Haitian family.

Part VII #302 1825 ft. Joe and Isnard [MD] :XIII, XIV Rada , XII-XIX Mardi Gras, XVI Walking.

A Maya Deren Film

Maya Deren (1917-1961)

Divine Horsemen 1947

Maya Deren takes us on a journey into the fascinating world of the Voudoun religion, whose devotees commune with the cosmic powers through invocation, offerings, song and dance. The Voudoun pantheon of deities, or loa, is witnessed as being living gods and goddesses, actually taking possession of their devotees. The soundtrack conveys the incantatory power of the ritual drumming and singing.

"Maya Deren first went to Haiti as an artist . . . but the manifestations of rapture that seized her, and transported her beyond the bounds of any art she had ever known."

Radio show honors Hurston

Radio show honors Hurston

Palm Beach Post Staff Columnist

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

February is Black History Month, but some events are still going on. The public radio station WQCS-FM 88.9 in Fort Pierce will broadcast a one-hour special on the Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston at noon on Friday and at 8 p.m. on Sunday.

The Life and Times of Zora Neale Hurston was produced at public radio station WFSU in Tallahassee and is hosted by actress Vanessa Williams.

More in Accent

Palm Beach Social Diary
Party photos, social calendar and more during the season
More Accent
Charm & Gal Friday
Columnists | Blog Squad
TV schedules | Movie listings

The program includes interviews with Hurston biographers, researchers and author Alice Walker who discovered Hurston's unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, as well as readings by actress Ruby Dee.

The station plans to complement the one-hour special with several five-minute, locally produced interviews about Hurston coordinated by Jill Roberts and Janie Gould this week at the 7:19 a.m. break on NPR's Morning


WFSU to air student's documentary on writer

Originally published March 5, 2007
WFSU to air student's audio documentary on writer Hurston
Print Email to a friend Subscribe

Florida State University student Aron Myers may have more in common with anthropologist, folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston than he realizes.

Hurston once said that research is formalized curiosity - poking and prying with a purpose - and that's just what Myers has been doing.


Myers produced a national radio documentary in local studios last year called "The Life and Times of Zora Neale Hurston," an hourlong biography and examination of one of the most notable writers of the Harlem Renaissance, which will air on radio station 88.9 WFSU-FM at 9 p.m. tonight.

Though he has worked on other audio documentaries in the past, this is Myers' first independent project. He is a doctoral student in FSU's English department, and it was at the urging of one of his professors that he decided to pursue the project.

Myers said he was in high school when he first heard of Hurston, a native of Eatonville who received little recognition for her works until years after her death.

"Like a lot of students, I read (Hurston's book) "Their Eyes Were Watching God," said Myers. "That was my first introduction to Zora Neale Hurston."

It wasn't until a few years later that, thanks to FSU folklore professor Jerrilyn McGregory, he came across the anthropologist/folklorist/novelist's writings again.

"I have wanted to bring (her story) to a national audience, given the cultural and historical significance of Hurston's life and work," he said.

"This documentary is my way of pushing Hurston's great legacy forward."

Actress Vanessa Williams, who can be seen starring on ABC's "Ugly Betty," lends her voice to the documentary, which features historians and biographers discussing the works of the celebrated writer.

Myers pitched the idea to Williams after hearing she was a Hurston fan and said the actress was eager to participate. She did her work for the documentary in Los Angeles.

"She did an amazing job," said Myers. "There were various emotions we wanted to capture with the narration, which Vanessa was able to deliver solely through the use of her voice."

Myers said Hurston's work inspired him to research his own roots with McGregory's guidance.

"Like Hurston did back in the '20s and '30s, I, too, went back to my hometown (Wewahitchka) to collect folktales and family stories," he said, "and I recently finished my first manuscript on rural, southern African Americans. If I achieve any level of success as a writer, I have these two women to thank."

Myers' program was funded by a grant from the Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation and is distributed by Public Radio International. For more information on this program, visit

Originally published March 5, 2007
WFSU to air student's audio documentary on writer Hurston
Print Email to a friend Subscribe

Florida State University student Aron Myers may have more in common with anthropologist, folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston than he realizes.

Hurston once said that research is formalized curiosity - poking and prying with a purpose - and that's just what Myers has been doing.


Myers produced a national radio documentary in local studios last year called "The Life and Times of Zora Neale Hurston," an hourlong biography and examination of one of the most notable writers of the Harlem Renaissance, which will air on radio station 88.9 WFSU-FM at 9 p.m. tonight.

Though he has worked on other audio documentaries in the past, this is Myers' first independent project. He is a doctoral student in FSU's English department, and it was at the urging of one of his professors that he decided to pursue the project.

Myers said he was in high school when he first heard of Hurston, a native of Eatonville who received little recognition for her works until years after her death.

"Like a lot of students, I read (Hurston's book) "Their Eyes Were Watching God," said Myers. "That was my first introduction to Zora Neale Hurston."

It wasn't until a few years later that, thanks to FSU folklore professor Jerrilyn McGregory, he came across the anthropologist/folklorist/novelist's writings again.

"I have wanted to bring (her story) to a national audience, given the cultural and historical significance of Hurston's life and work," he said.

"This documentary is my way of pushing Hurston's great legacy forward."

Actress Vanessa Williams, who can be seen starring on ABC's "Ugly Betty," lends her voice to the documentary, which features historians and biographers discussing the works of the celebrated writer.

Myers pitched the idea to Williams after hearing she was a Hurston fan and said the actress was eager to participate. She did her work for the documentary in Los Angeles.

"She did an amazing job," said Myers. "There were various emotions we wanted to capture with the narration, which Vanessa was able to deliver solely through the use of her voice."

Myers said Hurston's work inspired him to research his own roots with McGregory's guidance.

"Like Hurston did back in the '20s and '30s, I, too, went back to my hometown (Wewahitchka) to collect folktales and family stories," he said, "and I recently finished my first manuscript on rural, southern African Americans. If I achieve any level of success as a writer, I have these two women to thank."

Myers' program was funded by a grant from the Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation and is distributed by Public Radio International. For more information on this program, visit

Book Review

Reading Africa into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales

Written on March 5, 2007

Reading Africa into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales The literature often considered the most American is rooted not only in European and Western culture but also in African and American Creole cultures. Keith Cartwright places the literary texts of such noted authors as George Washington Cable, W.E.B. DuBois, Alex Haley, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Joel Chandler Harris, Herman Melville, Toni Morrison, and many others in the context of the history, spiritual traditions, folklore, music, linguistics, and politics out of which they were written.

Cartwright grounds his study of American writings in texts from the Senegambian/Old Mali region of Africa. Reading epics, fables, and gothic tales from the crossroads of this region and the American South, he reveals that America’s foundational African presence, along with a complex set of reactions to it, is an integral but unacknowledged source of the national culture, identity, and literature.

Trickster at the Crossroads

Trickster at the Crossroads

West Africa's God of Messages, Sex and Deceit

Originally appeared in Gnosis, Spring 1991

When we think of tricksters, we generally imagine folk characters and culture heroes, not gods. Tricksters either tend to be associated with animal spirits (such as Coyote), or are Promethean figures, archetypal "humans" who interact with and upset the world of the gods. But one of the world's greatest and most interesting trickster figures is not only a god, but a god of high metaphysical content. He is Eshu-Elegbara, one of the orisha, the West African deities that are worshiped in many related forms across African and the African diaspora in the New World.

While he embodies many obvious trickster elements — deceit, humor, lawlessness, sexuality — Eshu-Elegbara is also the god of communication and spiritual language. He is the gatekeeper between the realms of man and gods, the tangled lines of force that make up the cosmic interface, and his sign is the crossroads. In the figure of Eshu-Elegbara, the West African tradition makes a profound argument about the relationship among spiritual communication, divination, and the peculiar chaotic qualities of the trickster. But before we investigate Eshu-Elegbara's character, we must first place him in the general context of orisha worship.

Meet the Living Gods.

Th orisha, the gods of the Fon and Yoruba peoples of West Africa, are some of the most vital and intriguing beings ever to pass through the minds of men and women. The orisha are profoundly "living" gods, if by this we means archetypes, or constellations of images and forces, that actively permeate the psychic lives of living humans. On the simplest level they are alive because they are worshiped: orisha are prayed to, invoked, and ritually "fed" by many millions of people in both Africa and the Americas. Not only are the gods alive, but they are long-lived; unlike contemporary Neo-Pagan deities, which have basically been reconstructed from the inquisitional ashes of history, the orisha have been passed through countless generations of worshipers with little interruption.

More profoundly, the very nature of the orisha is to be alive in the most fundamental sense we know — though our own human lives. Though they possess godlike powers, the orisha are not transcendent beings, but are immanent in this life, bound up with ritual, practice, and human community. They are accessible to people, combining elements of both mythological characters and ancestral ghosts. Like both of these groups of entities, the orisha are composed of immaterial but idiosyncratic personalities that eat, drink, lie, and sleep with each other's mates. Though West African tradition does posit a central creator god, he/she is generally quite distant, and the orisha are, like us, left in a world they did not create, a world of nature and culture, of sex, war, rivers, thunder, magic, and divination. The orisha are regularly "fed" with animal blood, food, and gifts, and during rituals the gods frequently possess the bodies of the faithful. Their behavior draws from the full range of human experience, including sexuality, mockery, and intoxication.

That the orisha remain outside the scope of many Western students of esotericism and even polytheism is understandable, given the historical domination of Africans by the Europeans of the New World. Black Americans were forced to hide their deities or dress them up in Catholic garb, while whites cut themselves off from all but the most superficial appreciations of those African cultural values that managed to survive. To even graze the heart of the orisha, white Westerners must overcome two obstacles: the storehouse of Hollywood's cartoon representations we carry in our subconscious, and the more pernicious underlying Western prejudices against traditional African worship, which run the gamut from the denigration of blood sacrifice to the absurd notion that polyrhythm is somehow less sophisticated and more primitive than European musical forms.

But why bother? As one esotericist I spoke to put it, "Why be interested in these grotesque and parasitic deities?" One could answer that these gods are fascinating, vibrant, and unique, and serve as a window onto the spirit and culture of Africa and the black traditions that have had a major influence on New World culture. More to the point, however, they are not grotesque but rich in character; they are not parasites, but entities deeply and reciprocally bound up with the daily lives of their worshipers. When we look on West Africa, we must keep in mind that our "instinctive" sense that these alien practices are primitive, savage, and even demonic is the lingering afterimage of thoroughly European and colonialist images of tribal Others dancing in the hot jungles of sexuality, atavism, and perversion. Looking toward Africa, the first thing the West encounters is its own dark mirror.

The fact that people tend to simplify images of pre-colonialist Africa — for example, imagining simple villages where there were vast, cosmopolitan city-states replete with bureaucrats, poets, and sewer systems — is only one indication of the lingering tendency to see Africa as the repository of the primitive. Even when looking seriously at West African spiritual traditions, white Westerners run into two potential traps: the error of seeing such systems as purely traditional and not historically dynamic; and the temptation to idealize tribal peoples and project onto them some prelapsarian harmony with Nature, a condescending and overly romantic error rampant, for example, in the New Age embrace of Native American spirituality.

Because the West is such a text-oriented culture, there is an understandable tendency to equate civilization with the technology of writing, and the sort of reflective interior consciousness that that particular machine apparently constructs in human beings. West Africa did not possess writing as we now it, and the orisha disclose themselves not in books but in shrine, ritual, and memory. For today's text-oriented seeker, there are no great Yoruba books to commune with, no Gita or Genesis. Though the Yoruba system of divination, Ifa, compares to the I Ching in terms of complexity, strucutre, and poetic sublimity, few know about it outside the tradition, partly for the simple reason that the "writing" of Ifa is carried in the heads of the diviners, the babalawo.

But the images of West African spirituality that come most immediately to mind in Western culture are images of ritual possession. Though many esotericists have a sympathy for invocation and strong ritual, the performance of West African possession remains bracing, far different from the bloodless, "spiritualized" rituals of monotheisms, or from the almost literary rituals of modern, reconstructed Neo-Paganism. Possession by the orisha is a visceral fact. To the intensely exciting yet coolly controlled beating of drums, the possessed person (usually a dancer; in Haitian parlance, the "horse" who is to be "ridden") shakes, falls on the ground, rolls his or her eyes, perhaps froths at the mouth, and speaks in different voices. The particular orisha is recognized by his or her mannerisms, is costumed appropriately in ritual rooms, and proceeds to prophesy, dance, ask for food or booze, and if it's Eshu, may start pawing the ladies. I have attended Haitian voudun rituals, but even from photographs and film it is clear from the eyes of the possessed person that a qualitatively different order of consciousness and personality has momentarily annexed the everyday persona, which invariably recalls almost nothing of the experience.

In its rituals, the West African tradition has learned to plug people directly into the realm of archetypes, archetypes which are strengthened by interfacing with the "lower" traits of ordinary human personalities. One clue to the nature of this interchange lies in the fact that possession often seems to be triggered by the master drummer playing particular patterns within the complex web of polyrhythmic drumming. Haitians calls these jarring, rhythmically "dissonant" patterns cassés (or "breaks," a phrase used in a similar musical sense in today's hip-hop culture). Possession may result from the cognitive dissonance of the cassé, the alien beat that enters from another plane and shakes up up the rhythms of the everyday. In any case, possession is a magnificently strange act, a radically immanent embracing of spiritual being that is both magical (a worldly invocation of spirits) and religious (as a selfless release to godhead). Possession by the orisha concretizes spirit and ties it to the cycle of ancestors and blood and the rhythms of sex and family.

So too is blood sacrifice, the "feeding" of the orisha, an acute acknowledgement of the material dimension of spirit, of the fact that it is humans, not gods, that keep gods alive, and that our being is bound up with the excesses of mutual contract and exchange. Molly Ahye, an important scholar of Trinidadian dance as well as an orisha worshiper, speaks about how one "must have the blood, which is a life force, which spirit lives on. You think that spirit doesn't need sustenance, but spirit needs sustenance" (Ahye admitted, however, that she did not kill animals herself).

Even if we cannot accept possession or animal sacrifice, we err in seeing the orisha as being merely superstitious products of animism, or as folk heroes elevated to the level of gods. The orisha are highly evolved archetypal patterns, and they work out metaphysical problems in the heart of life. They form a network, a living and evolving system of forms and forces that from certain angles resonates deeply with the perennial philosophy of the West.

And at the interstices of this network is the Yoruba deity Eshu-Elegbara (or Eshu for short), perhaps the world's most sophisticated Trickster figure (a very similar figure, Legba, exists among the Fon in neighboring Benin). More than a well-hung culture hero (though he's that too), Eshu is a divine mediator of fate and information, a linguist, a crafty metaphysician. Eshu is a trickster not just because he fools people and creates chaos, but more profoundly because he's always escaping the codes of the he simultaneously reinforces. He gives the world the divination system of Ifa, but does not rule over its poetic prophecies, because he is always flowing through the cracks of fate. Eshu fully embodies the sophisticated metaphysics of West Africa, a metaphysics of change and communication, of the copulation between being and world, of the complex power of the crossroads. Eshu expresses a spiritual principle of connection, and the chaos and trickiness of exchange. That he is a god, with stories and moods and lusts, only shows that in the West African tradition, spiritual principles are most real when they're brought into the fabric of daily life, of the recognizably human patterns of money, family, sex, power, and language.

The Hermetic Linguist

Of all European pagan deities, Hermes is the one most closely aligned with Eshu. Like Hermes, Eshu is the divine messenger, and relays information between the gods and between humans and the gods. A small, very dark man, he walks with a large staff, and is often sucking on a pipe, candies, or his fingers. He the "roadmaker;" he "sets the affairs of the earth in order, so swift that he can be the messenger for many,...[and] can circle the earth in an instant."[1] Eshu's caprice, quickness, and agility of body and mind are all characteristics he shares with Hermes, perhaps reflecting the perennial spiritual characteristics of communication.

Because Eshu is the messenger, in orisha rituals (today performed from Nigeria to Rio to Montreal) one must "feed" or call him first, before any other gods are invoked. For the Fon people, the primacy of Eshu (whom they call Legba) comes about through his linguistic ability, his proficiency at communicating. In the beginning, Mawu, the female aspect of Mawu-Lisa, the androgynous high god of the Fon, gives her seven children different realms to rule—earth, sea, animals—and gives them a language separate from her own. But she allows Legba, her youngest and most spoiled child, to remain with her and to act as a relayer of information to her children.

So Legba knows all the languages known to his brothers, and he knows the language Mawu speaks, too. Legba is Mawu's linguist. If one of the brothers wishes to speak, he must give the message to Legba, for none knows any longer how to address himself to Mawu-Lisa. That is why Legba is everywhere.[2]

As the hermetic linguist, then, Legba knows the cosmic language as well as the earthly language. This is why humans must ritually acknowledge him before any other god. In our monotheisms, God's information is distant, except for the occasional prophet, and the rest of us are lost in babble and books. But Legba is always traversing that region of babble, and embodies the hope and the peril of a more open channel: hope, because he allows us to speak with the gods and for them to speak with us; and peril, because he tends to play tricks with the information he has, to keep us perpetually aware that he oversees the network of exchange. His nickname is Aflakete, which means "I have tricked you."[3]

In many tales, Legba both causes and solves a power play among the orisha, and he does so by conveying information. In one, Sagbata, the lord of earth, and Hevioso, the lord of sky, are perpetually besting one another, though Hevioso is generally agreed to be superior. Legba lies and tells Mawu that there is no water in the sky, which allows Hevioso to cut off the rain, causing a horrible draught. Then Legba goes to Sagbata and tells him to build a huge fire on earth, which he does. Mawu becomes afraid that the flames will burn even heaven, and she orders Hevioso to make it rain, reducing his prominence and tentatively reconciling the brothers. Among the tales of the Yoruba gods, Eshu similarly propels the narratives of jealousy and power by occupying certain privileged places where he gives ideas and information—not the whole story, but just enough to make the story happen. At one point, Shango the thunder god asks him, "Why don't you speak straightforwardly?" "I never do," Eshu responds. "I like to make people think." [4 ]

Perhaps the most famous Yoruba story about Eshu concerns two inseparable friends who swore undying fidelity to one another but neglect to acknowledge Eshu. These two friends work on adjacent fields. One day Eshu walks on the dividing line between their fields, wearing a cap that is black on one side and red (or white) on the other. He saunters between the fields, exchanging pleasantries with both men. Afterwards, the two friends got to talking about the man with the cap, and fall to violent quarreling about the color of the man's hat, calling each other blind and crazy. The neighbors gather about, and then Eshu arrives and stops the fight. The friends explain their disagreement, an Eshu shows them the two-sided hat—all this to chastise the friends for not putting him first in their doings. The lesson of the tale is obvious, but just as interesting is where it places the god. Moving along the seam between two different worldviews, he confuses communication, reveals the ambiguity of knowledge, and plays with perspective.

So Eshu is a master of exchange, or crossed purposes, of crossed speech. This is why his shrines are found both at crossroads and at the market, for he is master of such networks of desire. For example, he uses his magician's knowledge to make serpents that bite people on the way to the market, and then sells them the cure.[5]

The Fon have a wonderful way of imagining Legba's mastery of crossings. Mawu tells the gods that whoever can come before her and simultaneously play a gong, a bell, a drum, and a flute while dancing to their music would be chief of the gods. All the macho gods attempt and fail, but Legba succeeds, not just demonstrating his agility, but his ability to maintain a balance of crossed or contrary forms and forces (and incidentally providing a window into the unique genius of African music and rhythm). Legba dances not only to the beat of a different drummer, but to the beats of many different drummers at the same time.

As Robert Pelton writes in his excellent book, The Trickster in West Africa (the source of many of these tales), the Fon are "dazzled by [Legba's] metaphysically fancy footwork because they know that the pathways of new order that he opens always skirt the edges of chaos."[6] The creator of plots, the player of many instruments, the trickster Legba always risks unleashing a Pandora's box of powers. But it is only in risking such chaos that novelty is continually reborn, and the community is imagined to interact dynamically, rather than by some rigid structure. The potential for dynamic chaos is the metaphysical heart of the Trickster. There is a Yoruba prayer that goes:

Eshu, do not undo me,
Do not falsify the words of my mouth
Do not misguide the movements of my feet.
You who translate yesterday's words
Into novel utterances,
Do not undo me.[7]

Eshu can transform the past into "novel utterances" because he knows that the power of ambiguity and the multiplicity of perspectives can change the fixed into the free. New connections always create a new world, and Eshu/Legba puts creative chaos in the heart of tradition and shows what advantages can be taken of it. As Pelton states, this god "finds in all biological, social, and metaphysical walls doorways into a larger universe."[8]

Of all the lines that Legba transgresses, the most visible ones are sexual. He is young, small, and spry, and has a ravishing sexual appetite. When Mawu punishes him for some transgression by commanding that his penis remain always erect, he smiles and immediately begins groping the nearest female. In another episode, after tricking many suitors out of deflowering the daughter of a king, he has sex with the woman himself. The happy king commands that Legba may sleep with any woman he chooses, and names him "the intermediary between this world and the next. And that is why Legba everywhere dances in the manner of a man copulating."[9] His priests, the legbanos , even mimic copulation with wooden phalluses.[10]

Since the Fon insist on the primacy of humanity in all its aspects, we err in seeing in Legba's more human behavior the limits of his divinity. For sexuality expresses the trickster's need to always go beyond boundaries: new order is always created out of the partial collapse of a previous structure. More profoundly, copulation is the most fully experienced of connections, Legba's pet project everywhere. These two functions are deeply related, and Legba puts sex in the heart of spirituality, not as transcendent tantra, but as the more immanent principle of connection. Of course, Legba's sexual appetite causes just as much trouble as his propensity to tinker with data, as in the following:

We are singing for the sake of Eshu
He used his penis to make a bridge
Penis broke in two!
Travellers fell into the river.[11]

Eshu makes us recognize the fundamental relation between sex and the evolving, continually reconnecting cosmos. As Pelton writes, "He is the living copula, and his phallus symbolizes the real distinction between outside and inside, and the wild and the ordered."[12]

Garbling the Book of Fate

The Legba of the Fon cannot be correlated exactly with the Eshu of the Yoruba. For the Yoruba, Eshu can be a nastier, more malevolent being, though he still delights in contradictions, and, to a lesser extent, sex. Where there is confusion or arguments, he is there. The violence and lawlessness of Eshu's desire is demonstrated in an a tale related by Robert Farris Thompson about Eshu-Yangi, the father of all Eshu. (Like most orisha, Eshu exists in a countless multiplicity of individual aspects.) Eshu's mother offers him a bounty of fish and fowl, and Eshu eats it all, and, not sated, eats his mother as well. But Eshu's father — in this tale Orunmila, the god of divination — is ready for his hungry son when he came for papa with slavering jaws agape. Orunmila hacks Eshu into little bits, which fall all over the earth, becoming individual shards of laterite stone. Orunmila catches the remaining spirit of Eshu, and to placate his father, Eshu promises that all the stones will become Eshu's representatives. All Orunmila has to do is bless the stones, and they will do his mystic bidding. Eshu then coughs up his mother.

In this tale of cosmic give-and-take, reminiscent of the ancient Gnostic notion of the "shards" or "sparks" separated from the deity, Eshu demonstrates both his generosity and his caprice. For the Yoruba, Eshu is the god who has access to ashé (literally meaning "so be it"), the immanent (but morally neutral) power of creation which the supreme being gives to the earth, and which can be possessed by some people.

Eshu receives ashé when all the gods journey to the supreme god to find out who is the next most powerful. Each brings a huge sacrifice, carrying it on his or her head. But Eshu consults the oracle before he goes, and finds that all he needs to bring is a bright red feather set upright on his forehead. When the supreme being sees this he grants Eshu the power of ashé, because Eshu had shown his unwillingness to carry burdens, as well as his sensitivity to the power of information. (To this day, Eshu figurines often have a large phallic plume or nail on the head.) As Thompson says, Eshu shows us that one must "cultivate the art of recognizing significant communications...or else the lessons of the crossroads—the point where doors open or close, where persons have to make decisions that may forever effect their lives—will be lost."[13]

Of course, these moments of crisis, of significant communication, are oracular moments, and it is appropriate that Eshu has a subtle and complex relationship with the Yoruba (and, subsequently, Fon) system of divination, Ifa. The process of the divination itself is eerily similar to that of the I Ching: The babalawo, or diviner, quickly passes sixteen palm nuts between his hands, and depending on how many are left, he draws either a broken or solid line in powder. He (and the babalawo is always a he) draws two groups of four lines each to create one of 256 possible patterns. He then recites from memory the numerous verses associated with that odu, and he and his client will settle on those verses which seem relevant. (Like the hexagrams of the I Ching, the verses are often ambiguous and enigmatic.)

Because Eshu is the ties between cosmic pattern and daily life, it is obvious why he would be associated with divination. Like the kabbalistic Tree of Life, Ifa is described as having "roads," "pathways," or "courses," resonant linkages of images and meanings — obviously Eshu's bag.[14] For the Fon, whose system of Fa divination is very similar to the Yoruba's Ifa, Fa is destiny, the pattern of the day, the individual and the cosmos. Each person has an individual Fa, just as each person has an individual Legba. Because Legba is the only god who knows the "alphabet of Mawu," he is "sent by Mawu to bring to each individual his Fa, for it is necessary that a man should know the writing which Mawu has used to create him."[15]

Sometime before Ifa existed, a Yoruba myth goes, a declining human race had stopped sacrificing to their gods, and the gods were hungry. So Eshu decided to give humans something that would make them want to live. He journeyed to a palm tree, and there the monkeys gave him sixteen palm nuts and told him to go around the world so that he might hear "sixteen saying in each of the sixteen places." He did so, and then gave the knowledge to men through Ifa, the "sixteen places" being the sixteen primary odu and the sixteen palm nuts. This myth again demonstrate the reciprocal relationship between man and gods; it is said that without Eshu, the gods would always go hungry, for he tricks men into disastrous defiance so that they will then need to sacrifice to win back the gods' favor. But it also emphasizes Eshu's character as a mediator and a speedy messenger, who places himself between different perspectives and collects messages.

Legba's relationship with Fa, and Eshu's with Ifa, shows an extremely subtle and lively understanding of divination and destiny. Eshu gives the world Ifa, and on the babalawo 's divining tray, twin Eshu statues stare out at each other (again, like Hermes, Eshu is linked to twins). But he is not Ifa's master. In one Fon tale, Fa, the god of divination and fate, sneaks into Legba's home and sleeps with his wife. Legba asks her why and she says that his penis wasn't big enough for her. Challenged, Legba eats an enormous amount of food and swears to have sex with her until she tires, all the while calling out "the path of destiny is large, large like a large penis."[16] Legba then made Fa stay in the house, while Legba takes his wife and hits the road, vowing that he will always be first, and will always be ready to fuck.

As Pelton writes, "Fa keeps a certain dominion over destiny, or inner space, but Legba's elasticity gives him mastery over destiny's paths...Legba can roam as he chooses, going in and out to bring men to their destiny, but never ceasing to widen the path for them."[17] By knowing the whole system, Eshu can escape, slipping through the cracks of fate. Eshu's Ifa odu is the seventeenth, the first one outside the system.[18]

Why is Eshu/Legba linked to divination? Because, paradoxically, freedom is tied to divination, if only for the simple fact that oracles must always be interpreted, its messages decoded. As Eshu makes abundantly clear, such decodings are always ambiguous and partial. The literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose Signifying Monkey uses Eshu to establish a model of African-American textual analysis, says that at the crossroads "there is no direct access, or contact, with truth or meaning, because Eshu governs understanding." And Eshu is a tricky governor, whose pathways of information are always surrounded by the mud of ambiguity.

New Wordly Wisdom

When the orisha were smuggled to the New World on slave ships, they changed their character as the concrete situations of their followers changed. Mixed together, cut off from traditional structures, surrounded by Christianity and the whip, New World Africans now had different spiritual needs. The world's most vibrant form of syncretism emerged, where Catholic saints and the orisha blended into one another, and the worldly wisdom of West Africa continued disguised in song, drum, and celebration. Eshu himself went through many changes, and while different geographical groups of African descendents took him in opposite directions, all of his varied faces nonetheless further extend his peculiar multivalent being.

In Brazil, Exu — as his name is written in Portuguese — become a darker being. In condomble, Brazilian orisha worship, Exu rules over sexual intercourse and is still served before any other god is invoked. But this is not so much to open up a divine communications channel as to placate the irascible deity and make sure that he does not spread confusion.

Eshu's emphasis on trickery and vengeance made him an ideal orisha for slaves, who imagined him as the saint of revenge against the whites. Under these conditions, his more malevolent aspects were emphasized, as his various aspects were multiplied to cover a range of nasty magical acts. In umbanda, the urban, highly eclectic revision of condomble that relies heavily on nineteenth-century spiritualism, Exu quite simply becomes the devil.

In Haiti, where the orisha are known as the loa and the practice is known as voudun, Legba went through other drastic changes. He is still lord of the crossroads, the grand chemin, whose channel between earth and the gods is contained in the ritual house's peristyle, or poteau-Legba. The crossroads is seen in Legba's vévé (a complex cosmic diagram drawn with white flour that represents the loa). But in Haiti Legba has become an old, withered peasant, bent and crippled on his cane. In her superb Divine Horsemen, the American avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren tells how terrible and twisted the possessions performed by Legba are. In Haiti Deren describes a Legba who comes full circle, like the answer to the riddle of the sphinx, no longer the virile child of the morning but the impotent old man of evening. He is still the omniscient observer — as one Haitian told Deren, "We do no see him, he sees us. All those who say the truth, he is there, he hears. All those who speak evil, He is there, he listens."[19] But his omniscience has become the knowledge of death.

As with Brazil, the Haitian Legba is known for his magic. One prayer goes "Sondé miroir, O Legba," which means literally "fathom the mirror" and figuratively "uncover the secrets."[20] As with most Haitian loa, Legba has two main aspects: a Rada and a Petro, the Petro being darker and more frightening. Legba's Petro aspect is called Carrefour, the crossroads, and he is lord of black magic, linked to Ghédé and Baron Samedi, the fearsome baddies of death and the grave. Legba's sacrifice is a white cock whose neck is twisted; Carrefour gets a black cock who is set on fire and allowed to run around in agony. While Legba's vévé emphasizes the four distinct cardinal points of the metaphysical axis, Carrefour's emphasizes all the wayward points in between. But Carrefour's magic is for man to use, to ward of demons or run the risks of invoking and using them. Wisely, the West African tradition puts the onus on man, not some transcendent deity; as Deren points out, it is man who makes magic, not the loa.

In Haiti and Cuba, Legba is not the devil, but is syncretized with other saints, particularly St. Anthony, St. Lazarus (who is old and walks with a cane), and, sometimes St. Peter, the gate-keeper. Again, these correspondences are not fixed in stone, but seem to mutate as the context of the world changes. This ability to adapt shows the deeply pragmatic wisdom of orisha worship, for, as esotericists know, all great magicians are revisionists, not classicists. But for all his different aspects, forms, and Christian names, some followers of the orisha insist on the central unity of the Trickster figure. Molly Ahye insists there is no difference between Haiti's Legba and the Trinidadian/Brazilian Eshu:

Eshu is Legba, Eshu-Elegbara. Legba is a contraction. Eshu is the connection, the spiritual connection between man and divinity....Eshu is a mirror of us. He embodies all the forces, positive and negative. Eshu is the one who guards the secrets. He has the power to manipulate man or to free man, because there is so much of man in him. You are linked to him by your humanness and he plays on that. And you are linked to him by your divine spirit and he tests that...How do you know you're good and righteous if you haven't passed through the fire? What is the force that will test you through that fire? Even is that thing has to bear your weight — infamous, evil, whatever — that is the thing that gives you the opportunity to test yourself. That is what Eshu does.[21]

A Little Legba in Us All

As is probably apparent, I feel that in Eshu/Legba we meet one of the world's most impressive gods. His lawlessness and tricks not only keep us on our toes, but point us towards the most creative components of destiny, the free zones of fate. In him, the Trickster becomes a kind of metaphysical principle. While never losing touch with the ground, he wanders perpetually, in search of information or sex. For Pelton, Legba embodies Jung's synchronicity, and for Henry Louis Gates, he is the Logos. But Eshu is also the being of the network, of the immanent language of connection.

The orisha are not frozen, static patterns of tradition, nor do they exhibit the more reactionary tendencies found in overly transcendent, patriarchal models of spirit. As a result, these "living" gods are able to continually come to terms with the world as it is for people now. The character of Papa La Bas in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo is no less real a Legba than the ones in anthropology books, or the one Robert Johnson met and sang about in Mississippi. In his book Count Zero , science fiction writer William Gibson put the orisha in the heart of cyberspace, his computer-generated astral data plane, and it worked far better than any hoary Egyptian deity or Irish fairy would have. Gibson, who tossed in those gods when he was bored with his book and happened to open a National Geographic article on voodoo, told me in an interview that he felt "real lucky, because it seemed to me that the original African religious impulse really lends itself much more to a computer world than anything in Western religion...It almost seems as though those religions are dealing with artificial intelligence.". Gibson also pointed out how similar vévés are to printed circuits.

While Gibson was talking about fiction, what he's saying demonstrates the contemporary appeal of the orisha to folks who may not willing to kill cock with their bare hands. And of all the orisha, Eshu hints at the most profound, and relevant, connections: between networks and truth, magic and perspective, messages and sex. Of all the orisha, he is the one that speaks most to non-devotees, because he is about the very process that we go through in order to hear him: the process of communication.


[1] John Pemberton, cited in Robert Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980), p. 136.

[2] Ibid., p.73.

[3] Ibid., p.72.

[4] Migene Gonzalez-Wippler,Tales of the Orisha (New York: Original Publications, 1985), p.45.

[5] Pelton, p. 153.

[6] Ibid., p.126.

[7] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 35.

[8] Pelton, p.119.

[9] Ibid., p. 87.

[10] Roger Bastide, The African Religions of Brazil (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 252.

[11] Pelton, p. 131.

[12] Ibid., p. 130.

[13] Robert Farris Thompson, The Flash of the Spirit (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), p. 19.

[14] Gates, p.24.

[15] Ibid., p. 27.

[16] Pelton, p.126.

[17] Ibid., p.119.

[18] Gates, p. 38

[19] Maya Deren, The Divine Horsemen (New York: McPherson & Co., 1953), p. 98.

[20] Ibid., p.34.

[21] Molly Ahye, private interview with Katherine Ramsey, February 7, 1990.