|AFRICAN RELIGION syncretism |
tue, 23 Jun 1992 16:53:42
et idcirco vocatum est nomen eius Babel
quia ibi confusum est labium universae terrae
et inde dispersit eos Dominus super faciem cunctarum regionum
[gen.11,v.9; biblia sacra vulgata]
Therefore is the name of it called Babel
because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth:
and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad
upon the face of all the earth.
Many people seem to confuse the Voodoun of Haiti with that of
Santeria from Cuba. There seems to be a general misconception that
in fact "Voodoo" implies all of black african religion, and is
synonymous with black magic, sorcery and witchcraft. It does not.
Beside the fanatical practice of christian "religious politics"
which have grossly misinterpreted african customs in comparison
with their european traditions and morality, the cinematographic
industry has also capitalized on the "aura" of fear and deception
inherited by the ignorance and prejudices of the alleged civilized
Muslim, and European mercenary that has enjoyed a good profit from
their slave trade.
While it seems likely that the Haitian vodun cult began to take
definite form between 1750 and 1790 in Haiti, a full explanation
of its origin cannot be given. The "Code Noir" of the French
Catholic, prescribed baptism and instruction in the Catholic church
for all slaves. it provided that assemblies of slaves for purposes
other than Catholic worship were illegal, and masters would be
punished for permitting such gatherings, as they could be
interpreted as plots or revolts. However it was impossible to
prevent all slave assemblages and secret reunions during the night
occurred frequently. Evidence of what happened at these nocturnal
conclaves is found in "L`Essai sur l`Esclavage et Observations sur
l`Etat Present des Colonies" published by an anonymous author about
[see also "Religious Rites of the Caribbean" by George E. Simpson
"The word Voodoo or Vaudoux is from the Creole French "Vaudoux",
a negro sorcerer, probably originally a dialectic form of the
French, Vaudois, a Waldensian. It is the name given to certain
magical practices, by the french to superstitions and secret rites
prevailing among negroes of the West Indies, and more particularly
in the Republic of Haiti". [Encyclopedia Britannica 11th ed.]
In the origin of the Voodoo Cult, Newbell Niles Puckett writes:
"Most of the Negroes speak of conjuration as "hoodoo"- the Negro
version of the familiar "voodoo or voudou" Some writers would
derive the term from the followers of Peter Valdo, the Waldenses,
or Vaudois (vaudois, a witch) of France-a sect later spreading into
Hayti;(author`s spelling)....being derived from vo (to inspire
fear) of the Ewe-speaking peoples and signifying a god --one who
inspires fear. Vodu is not the name of an especial deity, but
applied by the natives to any god.
..this vodu cult, with its adoration of the snake god was carried
to Hayti by slaves from Ardra and Whydah, where the faith still
remains today. In 1724 the Dahomies invaded Ardra and subjugated
it; three years later Whydah was conquered by the same foe. This
period is beyond question that in Hayti first received the vodu of
the Africans. Thousands of negroes from these serpent worshiping
tribes were at this time sold into slavery.....They bore with them
their cult of the snake. At the same period Ewe speaking slaves
were taken to Louisiana. In 1809 because of war between France and
Spain some of these Haytian planters with their slaves fled from
Cuba, where they had sought refuge during the Haytian revolution,
to New Orleans and made their residence there. Such were the
principle sources of the voodoo religion in the U.S."
["the magic and folk beliefs of the southern negro": by
Shockingly, in the prodigious work; "Encyclopedia of Religion and
Ethics" by James Hastings Voodoun is explained thus:
"Voodoo is devil-worship and fetishism brought from the Gold Coast
Its chief sacrifice is a girl child, referred to by the initiates
as "the goat without horns" When a child is not available, a white
kid (goat) takes its place. Excepting at the great semi-annual
festival when the `goat` is drugged, killed and eaten, black dogs,
cocks and hens are cruelly sacrificed by being slashed so that
their bowels fall out. There is a regular priesthood to intimidate
and rob the devotees...."
It is no wonder, that with this ignorant bias prejudice the term
Voodoo has haunted our society with imagery of horror and disgust.
Yet the French expose still, a different side.
Their studies reveal that the term vo-du is drawn from the language
of the Fons.
"The word Voodoo itself is spelled sometimes as vo-dou or vo-du.
The prefix "vo" means "introspection" and the suffix "du" means
"into the unknown". Consequently, the rituals form the sum total
of this introspection; that is, they are studied accomplishments
that proceed from psychological information.
The Voodoo rites, derived from the supernatural, proceed from the
influence of the sun....
the entire Voodoo cult turns is the revelation that the principle
attribute of solar magic is the post or pole that supports the
center of the roof of the structure known as the peristyle of the
oum`phor, the Voodoo temple.
The peristyle is the covered gallery of thatch or corrugated iron
adjoining the holy of holies or oum`phor proper.
This roof is supported by a wooden centerpost, called the
poteaumitan which means to the initiates "solar support"..
This post is an architectural representation of the chief Voodoo
god Legba. The wood of the post represents Mercury, the offspring
of the sun. Mercury is at the same time the staff of Legba. Upon
this staff the two serpents of the oum`phor must normally mount so
as to be harmonized or be reunited by Mercury. This poteaumitan is
usually decorated with a spiral band of various colors symbolizing
not only the colors of the rainbow but also of the serpent gods
DAMBAHLAH and AIDA WEDO.
Near this post is kept the symbol of the moon, the Voodoo goddess
ERZULIE. This lunar symbol- a model boat- is suspended in the air
from the ceiling to complete the significance of the planetary
origin of the rites.
In the practice of Voodoo magic, a lighted candle is often
substituted for the post and the boat is represented by ritual
[Secrets of Voodoo by Milo Rigaud]
Other tribes beside the Fons that contributed to Voodo pantheon
were the Nago, the Ibo, Congo, Dahomean, Senegalese, Haoussars,
Capalaou, Mandinga, Mondongue, Angolese, Lybian, Etheopian and the
Though popularity has voted the "Divine Horsemen" by Maya Deren as
a good source, we cannot ignore the clarity and succinct work of
Milo Rigaud in his book "Secrets of Voodoo" a frenchman who lived
in Haiti for thirty years. Mr Rigaud demonstrates that Voodoo, far
from being a primitive cult, is a real religion with striking
beauty and theological purpose.
The Haitian Voodooist, Her-Ra-Ma-El points out in his book "The
Daemons of the Voodoo Cult" that indisputably the sources of the
african religion lie in the Ethiopian-Egyptian-Assyrian
civilizations where from Voodoo has sunk its roots.
The word >lois< which means >laws< in French. The lois (laws of
creation)create the >Loas< (animistic spirits) in visible
manifestations such as plants, animals and men, but chiefly
ancestors, because Voodoo is essentially a cult of ancestor
The African, believing that the >manes< (souls) of the dead
reascend to the heavens, identified them with the stars. For this
reason Her-Ra-Ma-El states; "The beliefs about the soul and about
death have naturally given rise to the Cult of the Dead, which in
turn leads to the deification of human souls. Souls thus defined
or as it were, canonized after death used to be called daemons by
the ancient Greek."
In the Voodoun cult however, the french language is mixed with the
African (Creole), while in the Santeria it is purely of Yoruban
A comparison of a prayer to Eleggua should convince us of this.
Grande Ai-Zan, salue Legba! Great Ai-Zan salute Legba!
A l`heu qu`il e Now silver breaks rock
M`a pe mande coument nous I am asking how you are?
Salue` Legba Salute Legba.
Ai-Zan vie, vie, Ai-Zan, old one, old one,
Vie Legba Old Legba
Creoles sonde mirori Legba Creoles, sound Legba`s mirror.
Legba vie`, vie`. Legba, old one, old one,
Creoles, sonde miroi Ati Bon Creoles, sound Ati Bon Legba`s
Iba`ra`go ago mo juba Homage to the relative of the Club.
Give way, I pay homage
Omode koni`ko sh`iba`go Child who teaches the doctrine of
ago mo juba Elegba, Eshu paying homage homage to the club,
l`ona. Make way, I pay homage to the Owner
of Vital Force,
Eshu is the one who owns the road.
The purity of the Santeria practitioners of both the predominance
of the Yoruba culture and the language make it easy for a Nigerian
to understand and feel comfortable with Santeria than alien in
In Santeria the idea of divinity is not termed "loa" or identified
as laws but rather is called Osha or Orisha or Santo or Dioses.
The principles of Osha and Orisha are more in tune with ancient
Egyptian theology though it does not dismiss ancestral worship. Yet
the ancestors and the dead are kept quite distinctly apart from the
gods. In fact substantiate two different cults.
While many a oum`phor is splattered with coagulated blood the "ile"
in which the Santero honors his/her gods is usually immaculately
clean, (following egyptian tradition and "magickal balance")
displaying sometimes gaudy soup tureens in a break front dining
room cabinet, as the house of their god-otanes rather than govis
where souls are sequestered, or tortured into submission.
In short there is >no< comparison between Voodoun and Santeria
other than their common African origin that can be easily
In the initiatory level the secret rites of initiation demand
certain substances that are found wanting in the Voodoun rites thus
a great gap is stretched between Voodounist and Santero/Santeras.
The house or temple is usually called "ile" meaning ground,
house,or "ile Osha" meaning house of god. There are no center posts
nor elaborate veves which are designs on the floor made of a white
powder not unlike the East Indian tradition drawn today. These
designs called veves in Voodoo are made in a oum`phor, according
to the rite, out of wheat flour, corn meal, Guinea flour (wood
ashes), powdered leaves (patchouli) red brick powder, rice powder
(face powder) and even gunpowder, powdered charcoal, bark or roots.
In Santeria, following Yoruba tradition, usually made of powdered
calx. This calx was derived in Africa from the natural limestone
deposits which were a residue of limestone a rock formed by
accumulation of organic remains of shells and coral consisting
mainly of Calcium Carbonate (CaCo3) though also containing
magnesium carbonate. It is commonly referred to as Chalk (calx) by
both ancient and modern writers and it is the formation of the
Cretaceous system composed for the most part of the minute shells
of the Foraminifera.
These signs are usually traced on the floor by the Santero for only
special occasions, if seldom, and not at all as profusely found in
In ancient Babylon it was called "Usurtu" and in Cuba as in Africa
it is called Efun" or "Fun" meaning "white". Whitewash, a common
use for painting walls (whiting) is of this substance and along
with lime they substituted the African calx which they mixed with
powdered talcum, or powdered patchouli leaves for ritual effect.
White is an extremely important color in the Lukumi. Gunpowder is
seldom used if at all as it is an insult to certain gods and is
reserved for the Palo preoccupations.
Many Haitians have becomes Santeros, and they can. But Santeros
cannot once they are initiated into Santo (Kariosha) become
Voodooists. The same thing for Palo. Many people may have been
"scratched" Palero/a and then been initiated, but according to the
elders once you have been initiated Santo you cannot "scratch" into
a Palo conviction. It is considered sacrilegious!
Even in far away Brasil or Bahia the names of the gods are
adulterated to the Portuguese language.
Obatala becomes Oxala
Shango, Xango and is identified with St John the Baptist and St
Oshun and Oya become identified with St. Catherine and St. Barbara
Ogun with St, George etc.
In Brasil there seems to be four distinct movements, Candomble of
Bahia and the northeast, Spiritism of Rio and the more advanced
urban centers; Umbanda in the urban centers not influenced by Bahia
and Quimbanda a form of black magic that is practiced clandestinely
Besides a list of recognizable Yoruba gods there also exists in the
pantheon Preto Velho, Preta Velha (Old black man, Old black woman)
who are really not gods but represent in the Umbandaist statues as
an old but wise african spirit of an old man or woman who return
to counsel human beings and intervene modestly in their affairs.
They give them names like Pai Jose or Pai Miguel or any of a
hundred african or Portuguese names. Yet Pure Candomble admits no
They also include Tupa. In Itubera, Senhor Valter`s terrerio used
this Indian name to designate the supreme spirit.
Also an Insian chieftan of the Tupininkuin tribe of northern
Brasil, called Tupinamba who is believed to return in spirit to
guide Umbandists in Bahia. Brothers of Tupinamba include Itubaraja,
Iara, and Ibara.
Another indian chief, named >Ubiraja<, lamed in a hunting accident
is known to have mounted mediums both in Long Beach, California and
Valenca, Brasil. This Ubiraja once told the Long Beach terrerio
that he had been dead for about four hundred years and that he
regularly visited spiritist centers as far away as Morocco.
Thus Voodoo is indigenous of Haiti, Santeria of Cubans and Macumba
One might presume that these African Religions are a small "cult"
of sorts but this Old Religion is more of a phenomenal religious
revival than it is not.
More than 80 million African and New World peoples participate in
or are closely familiar with this religion. The number is
increasing at a very rapid pace rather than declining. Yet the
claim that the gods, from a comparatively small religious faith,
particularly one stemming from a non-literate tradition, flourishes
in spite of the overwhelming dominance of such large global
religions such as Islam and Christianity jars our expectations.
In Brazil alone, the religious groupings have more than 30 million
adherents, and are spreading rapidly to Uruguay and Argentina,
where there are scarcely any African descendants. The same is true
of Santeria cults in Cuba (see Barnet 1968;80).
For instance 100,000 Umbanda congregations have emerged in Brazil`s
southernmost state settled largely by Polish, Italian, and German
immigrants. This religion also moves along with Haitian and Cuban
populations to New York, New Jersey, Florida, California,
Pennsylvania, Indiana and Texas. (Brown, ch.4and M.Drewal, ch.9)
Participation in Santeria, is believed to be stronger since the
Cuban Revolution than Roman Catholicism and it is specially strong
in North America, where it also serves as a support system for
newcomers. (Hageman 1972:15) In fact, Miami police are briefed so
as not to misinterpret some of the sacrificial rites of Cuban-
American Devotees with those of perverted neurotic cultist fad
(Wall Street Journal, oct 18 1984)
Even now the issue of Santeria is harangued with animal rights from
Hialeah to the Supreme Court and has the Conservative National
Association of Evangelicals, joined with the liberal Americans
United for Separation of Church and State and the usually
isolationist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the
American Jewish Congress, along with a host of other mainstream
taking sides with that of Santeria.
I personally know of Santeria initiations taking place in Spain,
Portugal and France as well as Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
Finally, Caribbean and West African religious practices are
spreading to a growing body of English speaking North Americans,
and these new devotees hold ceremonies and have produced, after
instruction by CUBAN adherents, a theological treatise on African
Deities. (M.Drewal, ch.9).
Santeria/Lukumi is not really "just" a Polytheistic religion. It
is in fact a remarkable example of HENOTHEISM. Each individual has
a "personal" god. Not one of his/her choosing, but rather one that
has chosen you. Without the exclusion of others. In fact one can
extend this observation by identifying Santeria/Lukumi as a
KATHENOTHEISM since sometimes the worship of a god may be
independent of the rest without denying the other`s existence.
A good example of this is seen on the midnight of the 16th of
December which is the "eve" of the day of Babalu where regardless
of the personal preference many Santeros/Santeras and lay people
who are believers will dedicate that day to Babalu and hold special
homage without including any other god in the festivities. The same
example is found on Dec 3 midnight as December 4 is dedicated to
In Santeria, the tradition is that when anyone is born, each is
chosen by a god as "her/his ward. This is called the "god on the
head, (ori). It is usually deciphered by a genuinely initiated
elder through the oracles of either the "dilogun" which are shells
or by Ifa which uses an "ekuele" or kola nuts. With the Christian
influence it has been commonly called one`s guardian angel. When
an individual reaches a point to be initiated, this is the god to
whom the person is initiated to and primarily serves.
Once initiated, that individual has formed an alliance with the god
on their head and through the ritual of the Ita on the fourth day
of initiation a second god is realized, as well as a "familiar" god
who may favor the individual in service sometimes more than the god
one is originally consecrated to. Of course this "familiar" can be
the god on your head or the secondary one but usually it is more
commonly found in yet another entity that shares the same favor as
the god of the head. There can be found to have more than one of
these "familiars" in an Ita. This Ita will decide the limits of
permission an individual has at her/his disposal to act in the gods
For example, the Babalawo, (father of secrets) is nothing more than
the "virgin" priest of Orunmila and cannot function as other
initiates can. His sole occupation should be the reading of the
kola nuts, or the ekuele (a divining chain) which in turn no other
initiate can do. He has sole possession of the Ifa divining tray,
but yet a Babalawo cannot initiate anybody, other than to Ifa.
In fact he can`t even
divine the Ita such a special juxtaposition in an initiation.
Usually a Babalawo is married to a Santera, as women cannot be
Babalawos, he then can function his influence through her.
Consequently as it may seem obvious, there has been a tremendous
riff between Babalawos and Santeros for a long time.
Perhaps the lack of information of the Lukumi religion may extend
from the fact that it is a mystery religion., that is to say, its
secrets are imparted only to the initiate, not the profane. Little
of its secrets are divulged when allusion is made to them though
sometimes the initiates will tend to mislead the readers so as to
keep the purity unadulterated. The only way to learn these secrets
is by merit and by actual practice to deter those pretenders that
would prostitute a sacred thing for the sake of self
Consequently, when a person is initiated, there seems to be a
unity, a natural link, where with certain knowledge one can
acknowledge the other with a simple telephone call where a
santero/santera can easily verify the authenticity of a celebrant.
So you see Bekki, "There ARE more things in heaven and earth, than
are deamt in our philosophy."
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