I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

A Shallow Glimpse Into a Deep Pantheneon - a Bookish Look Into the World of Haitian Voudou

by Jimmy Trash
May 16, 2012
To start this article, I must wave a very obvious disclaimer:  Obviously someone who has read literature about Hell’s Angels is NOT a Hell’s Angel, no matter how extensively they have studied, and this is actually the OPPOSITE of the proper way to become an Angel; likewise a scholar who can quote the bible better than any God Fearing Appalachian cannot attest to the same ecstasy of handling a poisonous snake to solidify their faith.  So I would like to admit now, I am nothing but a white Australian who has read obsessively about the Haitian voudou tradition and listened to a lot of blues music.  My understanding, fascination and admiration are mainly that of an outsider, syphoning the tradition through a crass understanding of Jodorowsky shamanism, Jungian mythology literature and a perverse love of exoticism.

So please, I’m going to say a lot of things I learned out of books or from my own imagination in this essay with very little hinge on first hand experience. Forgive me.

However, this still makes sense in my understanding of Voudou.

This is because all of the actions within a Voudou ceremony are similar to the description of Sympathetic Magic in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, as well as in the work of Jung, which is to say there is no guessing as to the meaning.  The sensuous love goddess Erzulie is brought delectable sweets – dances for the politician-warrior Ogoun are violent and include sabres – Sex and Death Loa Ghede puffs a cigar and guzzles a potent spiced rum undrinkable to unpossessed humans.  All these actions are felt inherently in the archetype and universal knowledge that is somehow shared between all humans of all cultures.  

That is not to say Voudou is without cabalistic qualities – these are hidden in the sacred geometry of the vévé, the symbol of the loa that is trying to be contacted, traced with corn or talc or gunpowder on the floor of the Oum’phor, the temple. A Cabalistic nature is also found within the impossibly complex drum rhythms, each loa having its own drums, instruments and rhythms, and in the immaculate layout of the temple.

It makes sense that there should be Cabalistic qualities in Voudou; it is claimed the most important prop of a ceremony, the giant post you will see in the middle of every video of this collection, called the poteau-mitan, is meant to symbolically represent the staff of Moses, understanding that the religion has its roots in the Assyrian tradition, and one account I read even claimed Solomon to be their founder. More importantly, the porteau-mitan is the link between the heavens and hell, the home of Legba, the crossroads loa, and also represents the sacred geometry of Dambhalah, the serpent and Grand Architect of the universe.  It is this pole the loa descend to communicate with their worshippers.

The most beautiful and enduring quality of voudou that has made it such an attraction to me is its reason for survival and ability to flourish during the times of Haitian enslavement.  It was a trick of slave owners to mix Africans of different tribes to try to prevent camaraderie, communication and also to squash out traditional customs.  Voudou, and historically, polytheistic religions in general, gather ideas and Gods and add them to the already intricate pantheon.  In a greater sense, the collection of this knowledge of archetypes, psychology and stories, forges an intensely wise and creative culture.  In the Haitian tradition the origins of the loas (and therefore the people) are also remembered, so each loa can be invoked as a different personality trait and function depending on which African origin it is being “served” through.  For example, Erzulie Fréda Dahomey, the Rada aspect of Erzulie, is the spirit of love, beauty, jewelry, dancing, luxury, and flowers.   However, in her Petro nation aspect as Erzulie Dantor she is often depicted as a scarred and buxom black woman, holding a child protectively in her arms. She is a particularly fierce protector of women and children. She is often identified with lesbian women.  Rada and Petro signify different coasts where the origins of the dances, beats, etc came from, namely Dahomean and American origin.

Now a quick look at the very special footage of this collection:

The collection starts like any Voudou ritual, with a salute to Legba to open up the gateway to the heavens so that the loa, or spirits of relatives from the swampy abyss may descend.  Its also a nice start with this chuckling psychopomp.  
In this video you can clearly the the Houngan (male priest) and Mamba’s (female priest) Asson, which they are shaking loudly but as a non essential part of the rhythm – that is because this instrument acts a lot more like a wand for the Houngan and is used to control the travels of the loa.  All percussion instruments go through a ceremony and have to be treated properly to be of magical and ceremonial use.  As Papa Legba is fragile and with walking stick, the ceremony is quite reserved.

The second video starts to get fun. This is a dance for Ghede, the Baron Samedi of Live And Let Die. From the first second you will see a possessed girl who has possibly had ashes blown in her face.  This, along with drinking a toxically strong rum are some of the tests to see if a Hounsis (member) is really possessed. If they are, they should be able to withstand the act. Also straight away you notice the colour change – black and purple for the loa of sex and death.  

The third video is Erzulie Dantor, the Black Madonna who was passed into Voudou culture from the Polish soldiers in Haiti after they sided with the slaves and fought the French.  The Haitians were impressed by their level of conviction and accepted both her and the Poles.  You will see beautiful acts of sisterhood in this video.

In the fourth video things start to get really exciting.  This is a ceremony for Orgou Ferraile, a double hit of violence.  The Orgou Family became more popular in recent times as a political loa, using the same tactics of a war god as to squash political opponents. It is also in the “fire” rite, so this performance is especially heated.  The magic in which the blades do not injure one another is absolutely dazzling.  You also get a good look at the offerings on the the table as well before all mayhem breaks loose.

The fifth video is a civilised but intense ceremony for Dhambalah, the great snake. Margot Anne Kelly wrote the poetic line, “Damballah is the first law of thermodynamics, and is the Biblical wisdom and is the law of time and is everything that is now and has been before and will be again in a new way, in a changed form, in a timeless time.”  Dhambalah is the mythical Ouroboros that symbolises the cyclic nature of time and seems to poke its head in every ancient culture across the world. In this video at the very end you see the wordless snake (as he is too great and would destroy humanity with his words) entering the body of a hounsis.

The sixth video is a mystery to me.  I’d guess it’s for the ocean loa Agweh, who requires the animal sacrifice and water. So please if any higher experts could lend a hand I’d love to know!

Singer/organist/writer Jimmy Trash is an Australian born musician, journalist, dj and herald of low-brow art and psychedelic culture through his own festival, Trashfest, and many other mediums. He is available for shamanistic healing, bacchanalian instruction and nerdy weird music exchanges.