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1: Midnight Ritual

Rod Davis University of North Texas Press ePub

1

MIDNIGHT RITUAL

At 1:00 A.M. the open air market along the Mississippi River edge of the French Quarter was still brightly lit, although the handful of people threading through the vegetable stands, bins of T-shirts, tables of tourist memorabilia and hanging clusters of garlic were mostly either vendors or drunks. My companions were neither. One was a Christian minister and voudou convert and the other was a middle-aged, middle-class woman whose week of initiation into the ancient West African religion was ending that night with her presentation to the marketplace, for prosperity, and to the Catholic Church, for the beneficence of God. They were both black, and I white, but all three of us had traveled a long road. It would be longer still, and before it was over I would taste the blood of sacrifice, feel the strange sluggish plasticity of another consciousness in my body. For my two friends, the way ahead was now one of discovered destiny and alliance with the powers of the universe, for they had accepted unto their lives the exiled African pantheon of spirits. In the ancient kingdom of the Yoruba people, an area roughly equivalent to what is now Nigeria, they are known as the orisha; in neighboring Benin (formerly the slaving kingdom of Dahomey) as the “vo-du,” a word from the language of the Fon people.

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Glossary of Voudou Terms

Rod Davis University of North Texas Press PDF

364 -

AMERICAN VOUDOU

Babalu Aye-or Babaluaye, or Babaluaiye; the orisha associated with illnesses and terrible diseases. Also known as Shokpona or

Sonponna. Syncretized with St. Lazarus and planet Saturn.

Bimbe-or bembe; ceremonial party.

Botanica-strictly speaking, a store selling herbs, but in practice a store which sells a variety of religious supplies and implements, including those for voudou or santeria.

Cowries-small seashells at one time used as monetary units in

West Africa. Sixteen are used in a form of Ifa divination. Known as the caracoles in santeria, where the sixteen-shell method is called the dilogun.

Creole-originally, New World born; subsequently has been widely used to mean of mixed African and European race.

Dambada-Wedo-or Damballa-Hwedo, Damballah-Wedo; serpent god entwining the earth. Mate of Aida-Wedo.

Ebo-sacrifice.

Egun-spirits of the dead ancestors.

Egungun"'-costumed figure representing the egun; also the name of the festival for the ancestors.

Elegba-also Esu, Eshu; powerful orisha considered the guardian of the crossroads of the Yoruba spirit world. Syncretized with st. Michael, st. Peter or St. Martin de Porres, and with the planet

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22: Amen

Rod Davis University of North Texas Press ePub

22

AMEN

I like ritual because it is a form of art—a contrivance of human thought in the attempt to reach the eternal and unknowable. Ritual lets us believe in things we can see and do, because the gods are too remote. Christians reach God through symbols: the cross, the saints, and especially the human form of God, which they call Jesus. The voudou worshiper has the orisha, the ancestors, and altars and a thousand kinds of talismans, herbs and objects of magic, all of which exist to make contact with eternity.

I like ritual, but I do not believe in it. Ritual is bureaucracy; ritual is control; ritual is exclusion. Even as it attempts to make knowable the unknowable, ritual confines, in the same way that criticism and categorization confine art. An artist who studies criticism, form and categories must break and defy them in order to create something new. Otherwise art is photocopying. What is a religion that does not create something new? What is a religion that is not alive through the people, instead of just in the rules? It is what Nietzche said it was—dead.

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Part Two: The Road

Rod Davis University of North Texas Press PDF

7

IN HER CLASSIC 1953 study of Haitian vodun, The Divine

Horsemen, Maya Deren wrote that what she had really witnessed was that which we see in every culture-the operation of a unifying myth. A myth, to Deren, was "the facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter."! I sought both the fiction and the matter of the American voudou legacy: spirit condensed into time and place, into persons, into something I could approach.

My task was somewhat more complicated than Deren's.

Haitian vodun is more or less openly practiced, and once Deren gained the confidence of the priests, she could be relatively certain that she was studying what she saw. The seeker of American voudou has no such security of observation. Rarely is anything that which it appears to be. I had certainly encountered that phenomenon in New Orleans, but that was but one city, one mutation. In the centuries of its repression in America, voudou had taken as many guises as necessary to survive. I would have little choice but to investigate all these paths: hoodoo, root medicine, spiritual healing, ju-ju, black magic, and dozens of other euphemisms and forms.

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16: Advice and Consent

Rod Davis University of North Texas Press ePub

16

ADVICE AND CONSENT

A few days later, I asked for my reading. As with Lorita, I’d been putting it off. The king agreed, pleased I’d finally come around, and set a time for that afternoon. I would follow a woman from Georgia who’d driven in especially. It all ran late, of course, but eventually one of the king’s daughters came to lead me back to the Afin. The Oba was in Iya Orite’s house—her own, now. From the outside the little two-bedroom looked like a trailer home that had taken root in stages; the interior was plain folks, too—paneled walls, sofas, big portraits of family on the walls, a few throw rugs, a TV.

Iya Orite was in the front room straightening book shelves and setting up an ironing board. Several village children had taken up spots near the kitchen in front of the TV, watching cartoons. Orite asked me to leave my shoes by the door—African custom. As I removed them, I saw the Oba in a wicker chair in the opposite corner. He greeted me with a big smile and motioned me over to one of two footstools separated by a straw mat he had laid out on the floor. We sat facing each other and without further small talk, as I was now a client, not an observer, he drew his opele, the babalawo’s divining chain, from a small pouch at his waist.

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