Theology Thursday: Wisdom and Beauty in Haitian Vodou by Dr. Marie-Josť Alcide Saint-Lot
The spiritual splendor we are plunged into through this fascinating exhibit defies and calls into question the sordid and negative image imprinted on Haitiís traditional religion. The compelling feeling of ecstasy, piety, of profound communion with the beyond which pervades these masterpieces not only lifts the mind and vibrates the soul, but also suggests that such marvelous inspiration could not have come from a destructive power. What then explains the hostility towards Vodou?
The plight of Vodou in Haiti originates from the socio- economic conditions created by the colonizers to enrich themselves at the expense and to the detriment of the Negro slaves. As you know, political supremacy works hand in hand with cultural and spiritual supremacy. So, to insure their power, impose their values and establish their so-called superiority, the European rulers, from the 16th to the 19th century, made it their goal to strip the Blacks of their identity, of their humanity, undermine the African image and destroy African culture. Vodou as the religion of the slaves, the element of cohesion among them and their base of resistance, became a major target and suffered endless persecution. This persistent harassment had an impact which never totally disappeared. No wonder the media have been led to misrepresent Vodou as evil, barbaric, criminal.
Contrary to the degrading propaganda orchestrated against Haitiís popular religion, after 15 years of research in that field, I am in a position to affirm that it represents a positive force. Letís quickly glance at two of its essential characteristics: wisdom and beauty.
Philosophers refer to wisdom as the knowledge of the truth of reality in order to regulate life and make it harmonious. On these grounds, anyone who examines Vodou in good faith will find out that like all religions, it brings a ray of truth which illuminates all men. In other words, it is endowed with a world view as well as moral standards. Being oral tradition, so far it holds no sacred book. But its ideal and its teachings are clearly spread out through its songs and litanies.
In fact, Haitian Vodou provides a sharp insight into the living conditions of the masses and the balance of power between them and the dominant classes. It assesses the sufferings of the poor in very moving and articulate terms.
1) How hard, how sad is the poor peopleís life!
While the rich are comfortably enjoying themselves
The poor people have to roam about the streets.
2) Hail Legba, Ayizan!
Donít you hear money is almighty
Donít you see how things have changed.
3) Vanity, Vanity, vanity,
if youíre rich, theyíll let you in
if youíre poor, youíll have to stay out
to watch them.
Besides its good judgment on the peopleís reality, Vodou offers an orientation, a vision of life. Along with a strong faith in the Divine, it prescribes a dynamic approach of manís survival, a sense of hope, hope which resides not in a mute acceptance of his conditions, but in his courage to fight for change.
1) Go and announce it Angels!
Africaís children demand change.
2)Agasou, lend me your weapons.
I am already a man
I refuse to die without fighting
3)Lenba zaou, help us!
Today is their turn
Tomorrow will be ours
Weíre moving step by step
to reverse our situation
Vodouís practical wisdom can be seen in its direct participation in the peopleís struggle. The Vodou ceremony of the Bois-Caiman held on August 14, 1791, one of the most historical events in Haitian history, set the tone for the first slave revolt in Santo Domingo and paved the way for the successful 1804 revolution which proclaimed Haitiís independence. At this ceremony, the Vodou priest Boukman launched a prayer that was a powerful call for action.
The white menís god orders crimes
Our God wants good deeds ...
Throw away the images of the white menís god,
Listen to the Call for Liberty
that resonates in the hearts of all of us.
These Vodou words inaugurated the concept of the theology of liberation in Haiti and made a monumental impact. As a result, a firm commitment was reached right there and 9 days after, on August 23rd, the French were actually under attack. This sublime action, inspired by Vodou, left an indelible mark on Haiti and the entire world. In fact this year, UNESCO celebrating this revolt as a milestone in the history of mankind, designated August 23rd the international day of commemoration of slavery.
Clearly, Vodou confronted the colonizers with a philosophy much more humanistic than theirs: rejecting slavery as immoral and evil, it chose freedom for all and social cohesion as the highest good on earth.
Furthermore, Vodou lays down a moral guideline. Mainly it advocates righteousness as a guaranteed protection.
1) When I am right
My magic prevails.
2) They threaten to kill me
But theyíll succeed only if I am wrong.
3) Do not abuse. God punishes late
But he punishes severely.
In its daily practice, Vodou encourages social equality, equality between the sexes, cultural identity, the spirit of solidarity and brotherhood, which are all universal values vital to social equilibrium. In all Vodou stands for justice. Indeed, this is wisdom, isnít it?
Naturally, as all religions, Vodou has its own expression and its own perception of things, human and divine. Nevertheless, it shares many common points with all of them: the belief in the supernatural, ritual acts, communication with the invisible world, a clergy, a community of faithful, a code of ethics, spiritual sanctions, etc.
Without a doubt, Vodouís followers deviate often times and a lot of misdeeds have been committed in its name. But this is the case for all religions.
Vodou combines wisdom with beauty. It expresses its philosophy through a variety of artistic mediums and aesthetic elements. The divine world is pictured as one of marvels and fascination. Thus, no degree of glamour is excessive to represent the gods and worship them.
Spectacle matters a great deal: costumes, symbolic designs, colorful sacred objects, stage settings heighten the religious meaning of the rituals and embellish them.
In addition to that, music occupies a major place. The key instrument, the drum, accompanies the songs and at the same time plays a psychological role: it contributes to rouse the worshipperís spirits and leads to possession. As for the chorus, it is an element of spectacle, as well as an important structural feature: the rituals are shaped around it and as in Greek classical theater, its presence as a narrator or commentator or as a protagonist is felt throughout the activity.
Dance too holds a dominant position in Vodou. On the one hand dances act as spiritual stimuli, on the other, they gracefully reproduce the characters and actions of the Gods.
It is also worth pointing out the poetic nature of Vodou language. The marriage of simplicity, imagery and emotional power which characterizes a great number of Vodou songs imparts them with great beauty.
As a whole, the interweaving of music, dance and poetry give Vodou ceremonies the quality of an opera and an aesthetic value similar to that of a total theater,.
It is no surprise that Haitian artists, as well as foreign creators of different creeds sought the Vodou inspiration. The famous Polish director, Jerzy Grotowsky, studied and used Vodou techniques of performance. Moreover, these Vodou techniques were transmitted by Vodou masters who came from Haiti to work with the Grotowskyís institute in California. Katherine Dunham, Lavinia Williams, Charles More, three renowned American dancers extracted much of their repertory from Vodou. Right now again, the organizers of the exhibition of the Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou equally make a strong statement about the richness of the Afro-Haitian religion.
Itís obvious that Vodou bears the stamp of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Journalists, researchers, students interested in the ancestral heritage of Haiti would show integrity by turning to the source, to the matrix rather than confining themselves to narrow and hostile opinions. Theater artists, filmmakers, Hollywood producers might be fascinated in looking into the dramatic paradigms that Vodou provides for the professional stage: its ritualistic structures, its didactic element, its social and political awareness, its symbolism and the complex character of its Gods.
Ladies and Gentlemen, on the eve of the 21st century, mankind has considerably evolved. Today the world aims at becoming ONE global village. But I dare to say that if the peoples of the planet must reach a positive globalization, it will not be by degrading, rejecting or dominating one another, but by sharing in all due respect the treasures each of them has to offer.
Dr. Marie-Josť Alcide Saint-Lot is a scholar of Haitian popular culture. She holds an MFA in Theater from Brooklyn College and a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Theater at CUNY. This essay was read to an Educational Panel on Spirits in the Celluloid: Haiti, Hollywood, and the Mass Media, at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, Nov. 15, 1998, for the Exhibit of the Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou
Dr. Marie-Josť Alcide Saint-Lot
Thursday, June 22, 2006