jeudi 18 septembre 2008

The Phenomenology of Voodoo (Part 5)


It is also revealed in a very convincing manner in the structure of the voodoo priesthood which is divided into four priestly classes, each one in charge of one compartment of reality. It these are, first of all, the divin’s whose specialty is divination. They are also called Papalowa and they occupy the first rank in the classification of the Afro-Haitian priesthood. The papalowa “interprets mysteries of life and brings messages from the god” (Cf, Senghor, 1946). He knows the future, explores hidden intentious, shows the meaning of the past. He takes an individual under his care from birth to death and is consulted at the time of marriages, sickness, departure on a voyage and when someone dies. His art comes to him through a special initiation (the highest one in voodoo) which is called: “la prise des yeux”.

It makes him able to scrutinize the invisible world where country forces are in conflict with each other. The most common forms of divination are those which can be done with water, the earthenware jar, corn, the calal-ash, the cartomancy and the stick with circular notches. All of this is done under the supervision of the Lowa Agoé. During the entire divination session, the priest must smoke the pipe or a able to develop fully and to reach out to an efficiency that will last (Cf. Zahan, 1963: 33). For this reason one also smokes before littering any important word, before a wish or a blessing.

The second kind of priest in the order of importance is the Bóko who is the great manipulator of the mystical properties of leaves and herbs. He works under the direction of the lowa loko. Concerned with the health of the group, he is a master in the art of prescribing infusions, macerations and baths required for the recovery of physical and supernatural well being. What happens is that the “Mana” of the Lowa circulates in a definite category of vegetation which must be picked “living” at certain moments and according to a set liturgy. There exists a whole list of sacred herbs which are associated with certain lowas where are supposed to dwell in them. In effect, a cultic hymn celebrates the religious herb as saving. Also a Haitian myth tells how a hero who has been killed is transformed into a plant.

The third kind of priesthood is that of sèvitè-Ghédé upon which METRAUX has insisted a great deal. The voodoo thanatology is a highly elaborated sector of thought. The complicated way people deal with the mortal remains, the extreme caution with which everyone prepares for his own death shows that one arrives here at the climax of the numinous situation about which Rudolphe Otto has spoken (Cf. Caseneuve, 1967:131). But if there does exist a voodoo prophylaxis against impure and dangerous supernatural powers which is the abandoning of the normal human condition nevertheless, death is not presented as a shipwreck in emergence to another life. It is lived in terms of an excarnation. All of the practices relating to a world of beyond the tomb witness to this belief. This ministry comes under the jurisdiction of the sèvitè-Ghédé, the ritual he works up is very closely associated to the Govi (the cultic pot) and to water. This is an extremely rich symbolism when and the pot remind one of heaven (cf. Zahan, 1966: 4).
The fourth class of priest that of the Houngan, constitutes the lowest form of priesthood. It puts into a privileged relationship with the Lowa an initiate who has been entrusted with a specific sector supervised by a god protector for the benefit of his devotee. The analysis just made suggests to us the following conclusions:
The divine is in charge of the world of Men. The Boko takes charge of the world of nature (the bush). The sèvitè-Ghédé has predicted in the domain of the Dead. The Houngan is connected with the Lwa in a more general way. In this perspective in which the social is the reflexion of the mystical, we can say that the four priesthoods correspond to the four compartments of the world which are completely different. But the delegate god, legba, supervising each sector, helps to relate all the various parts in order to bring about unity and communication.


When this inquiry into the voodoo had been initiated, we had been asking if that reality so much disparaged by so-called “civilized people” conveyed a morning which could be profitable for the Caribbean man.

The voodoo appears to us first of all as a reality which is rooted in a context having many different sides to it of which the principal are the following:
A) Political (the white power of the 18th century, the bourgeois power today);
B) Economics (the seeking of profit yesterday as well as today on the part of a dominant minority);
C) Social (class-struggle aggravated by the racial struggle in the 18th century and today a class-society which is still keeping distances and separation);
D) Psychological (during the colonial time a reaction of rejection of the establishment on the part of the slaves and today adjustment of the masses to their situation of forgotten people;
E) Cultural (an instrument of expression of the masses, the subjected people within the broad society).
In the 21st century, nothing has really changed in the human relations as they have been lived in the Antilles. The servile condition has simply been transposed into a proletarian condition.

Voodoo has appeared to us as a religious reality. Many foreign and native missionaries yesterday as well as today have denied the religious condition of the voodoo but without sufficiently examining it. Now days a more evolved hernemeutics permits one to go beyond the appearances, to ship away the structures in order to make a better and more adequate diagnosis. Up until now the ground for the evaluation of the Black realities had come from the western world. Today a more honest approach attempts to refer Black realities to a Black name work.

It little matters what are the original forms in which the voodooist expresses his relations to the invisible. Where there is any kind of prayer and worship, there is indeed religion. Where there is any kind of prayer and worship, there is indeed religion. Where there is sacrifice by which contact is sought with superior spirits principally when this element is as finally conceived as in the voodoo cult. There is indeed religion. Where the priest is submitted to the invisible powers rather than imposing his will on them, one can, without hesitation, acknowledge that he is dealing with a religion.

Voodoo satisfies fully all of those criteria. Nut if it is referred to as antireligious action which tries to manipulate the divine, let us state right away that this kind of magic does not belong to the voodoo. MAUSS (1966: 11) points out that where prayer can be found, there is no place for witchcraft. Tempels (1949: 31) notes, in addition, that what the European calls magic is for the black man nothing else than the harnessing of the supernatural forces put at the disposition of man by God for the reinforcement of human life. Durkheim along with caseneave gives the same idea of religion. As for J.B. Pratt, he defines it a;

Altitude toward the power or powers which people conceive as having ultimate control over their interests and destinies.

If then, in a psychosociological perspective, the voodoo religion appears as the expression of the racial and cultural resistance of a group whose significant and vital cultural emphasis is religion, here we must acknowledge the rule adjustment plays for an oppressed class of people within a hostile society. But, on a more theological level, it religious nucleus presents a striking coherence.
The four different categories of priests in our inquiry suggest, in a system where social life is a reflection of a mystical thought, four divisions of reality. These are man, nature, the dead and the Gods. They are in constant relationship although a certain priority of the gods, who appears as the supernatural vassals of the Grand mèt, the absolute source of life, is verified. Therefore the voodoo cosmology shows itself as one where “the real” is completely wrapped up within a supernatural network. Besides, in the voodoo context, human personality grows perfect when in the process of divinization.

The intense search for going beyond the human condition has made the voodoo a messianism and it is not surprising that it has been the very root from which sprang up the slave revolt in 1791 which culminated in the Haitian independence in 1804. Voodoo today has been domesticated and commercialized. Should it happen that it finds again a less compromised voodoo clergy it will not be an opium any more. Rather it will be a help for liberation once again and with it, once again, “1791” may well recur.


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1 Comment:

Johan Sebastian Vah said...

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