West Carribbean Myths

 

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With the expansive diversity that encompasses the Haitian and Cuban communities, the religions that have emerged produce a wonderful variety of rituals, beliefs, and myths. Santeria and Vadeu are among the most prevalent of religions. The former gets its basis from a mixture of Greek gods, Catholic saints, and African legends. The latter produces a complex system of chants, sorcery, and deities that have originated from Haiti.

 

The Essence

In both religions, the gods that are experienced need to feel comfortable after traveling to their earthen destinies, and material restitution in the form of foods, drinks, music, and dances have to be offered to the deities for their troubles. The beauty of these experiences is that it is often somewhat difficult to determine where the religion exists discretely from the magic. Possession, the connection between the devotees of the religion and the gods that they worship, is an essential force in outwardly showing that one is favored of the gods that they are honoring.  When one is ‘possessed’ by a god, he willingly allows the god to ride him, therefore, becoming a vessel where the god can express its thoughts and desires. Traditionally, in Santeria a person will have both a mother and father spirit guide, or African power, that is transferred down through patriarchal lineage. Women can participate in ceremonies and can become the ele’gu’n of the paternal orishas, and if married they are solely seen as donors of children and never totally assimilated into their new home.  Although females can be seen as glorified bystanders, their true essence shines in the form of the deities that are shared with their masculine counterparts. In Santeria orishas can be male, female, or adrogynous. On another spectrum, Lwas in Vadeu prefer to inhabit primarily female occupants, although both men and women can join the ounfo preisthood. Vadeu religion focuses mainly on a supreme being with a congregation of spiritual powers, ancestors, and other earthen beings including animals, humans and the nonliving.

The Legends

There are thousands of gods in both Santeria and Vadeu, but there are just a handful that have gained the notoriety to have celebrated fables and idols among the mass of dedicated followers. In Vadeu some of the first Lwas to be saluted are Legba, Agwe’, Lasiren, Zaka, Danbala, Bawon Samdi, Ezili Freda, Ogu, Marasa Twins, and Ezili Danto. In Santeria the orishas known as the Siete Potencias: Obatala, Eleggua, Shango, Yemaya’, Oshu’n, Ogu’n, and Oy’a,  empower the santero or santera and are able to ride them as a ‘horse’. Ifa, also known as Orula, is a great deity although it does not initially ride the santero’s mind.

Legba: is known as the remover of barriers and is the translator between other gods and humans. His presence is requested before any other gods can be summoned. His form is a crutched elderly male dressed in old clothes smoking a pipe. The Catholic saint that is parrallel to him would be Saint Peter, as he has great strength despite his fragile appearance.

Origins: Ashe’ was in the beginning and became Olodumare who became Olofi. This Olofi formed Obatala’, the first orisha. Olofi visited earth on a daily basis, since there was no separation of heaven and earth back then. He designed mankind out of mud but did not give them heads. Obatala’ decided to finish what Olofi started and gave mankind heads, and this is why he has is considered the keeper of heads. Obatala’ split himself in two in order to replenish the earth with more like him, and became both male : Oddudu’a and female: Yemmu. They had four children to begin with Olokun of the sea, Aggay’u of the mountains and volcanoes, and sun, Orishaoko of the harvest, and Babalu’ Aye’ of the swamps and diseases. These first four orishas became lords over their birth rights.

Agwe’: Protector of the seas and whose moniker is Admiral Agwe’. He shares his duties with Lasiren and his insignia is often miniature boats with blue or green oars and occasionally tridents like those of the Greek god Poseidon. His is seen as Saint Ulrich holding a fish.

Shango’: Historically, the creation of Shango can possibly be traced back to the fourth king of the Yorubas, and he seems to be the most popular orisha among Santeria followers.  There are hundreds of myths of his creation including his possible birth coming from been sent forth by Olofi in a ball of fire with Yemaya’ adopting him. He is known as the lord of thunder and is also known as the only orisha who had ever sampled death. His legends are also attached to a much older deity Jakuta.

Lasiren:  a god who is also a mermaid seductress. She brings forth luck and wealth from the depths of the sea. Another name that becomes her is Ezili of the Waters. She is seen synonymously as equal to Our Lady of Charity, a Cuban saint.

The Incestual Relations:

Oddudu’a noticed that his wife Yemmu was acting as a woman smitten over their son Ogun, who was lord of iron. While he went off, Oddudu’a placed his enchanted rooster O’sun in the home to guard against any improper affairs. O’sun did not come back to tell his master anything, but after a while Oddudu’a noticed his son Eleggua seemed distraught. After speaking with him Eleggua exposed that his brother and mother were indeed doing horrible relations with each other when his father was not around. Oddudu’a  faked an outing and caught his son and wife in the act. Oddudu’a banished his son to be a slave of giving the knowledge of ironmaking to humans and he cursed his wife’s womb so that the next male child that she had would be buried alive. His baby son Shango was sent to live with a paternal aunt, and the enchanted rooster was sent to serve Eleggu’a and only receive what was thrown at him for food as recompense in his punishment for not forth telling the incest that Yemmu’ and Ogun were to partake in.

Danbala: water spirit who is married to the rainbow Ayida Wedo, is also a patriarchal snake deity. His color is white and he able to give riches and direct people to assets. His symbol is usually drawn in cornmeal near ceremonies. He is represented as St. Patrick stepping on serpents, or as the prophet Moses holding the ten commandments.

Shango’’s loathe of O’gun: Oddudu’a visited Shango religiously although he had banished him in order to prevent another mother-son incestuous relationship from occurring. When Shango became a young adult he swore to avenge his father by stealing O’gun’s wife  Oya’ ,the queen of storms and cemetery entrances, from him. He succeeded due to  Oya being unable to withstand his perfect masculine build. Since then Shango and Ogun have been mortal enemies and Oya has never returned to her husband.

Zaka: Or Azaka ,is the ruler over the land and agriculture. He is fondly known as ‘Papa’ or ‘Cousin’. Saint Isidore is his image of reference and is seen through chromolithographs.

Shango’s Three Women: Shango loves women as he has three to share in his world. His legal wife is Obba who offers him undying devotion while Oshun, the equal to Aphrodites, gives him pleasure he requires, and O’ya, his brothers’ wife, is the one who accompanies him in war as she is a great fighter.

Bawon Samdi: means Baron Saturday, and he is over the ambivalent, mischievous spirits who arrive late for ceremonies. They are greeted with happiness because they bring the fun. He is also affectionately known as ‘Papa Guede’ as his activities and those of his spirit family are restrained to the underworld. He does not have a Catholic idol as a representation due to the ominous nature of his ruling. His followers are usually seen wearing black and purple and surround themselves with sepulcher images.

He is married to the mother of Gedes spirits, Grand Brigitte, and celebrations are normally held around November 1st -2nd for Day of the Dead festivals.

Malady on  Earth: At a feast in Ile-Ife the other Orishas laughed at a lamed but powerful Orisha Shopona because he looked funny while trying to dance. In his anger he unleashed all sorts of plagues that could only be contained by Obatal’a among the Orishas. It wreaked havoc  on the world and Shopona became so distraught over what he had done to the humans that he changed his name to Babalu’ Aye and spent the rest of his days curing ailments and diseases that he had caused in a moment of anger. This fable taught the Africans not to make fun of the handicaps of others.

Marasa Twins: Also known as Sacred Twins, they are sometimes depicted as triplets because of the fertility that is perceived with the birth of multiples. This deity is saluted after Legba in ceremonies , and the importance of children are observed with their arrival. Marasa vary in cultures, but portrayal is most often of the twins Saint Cosmos and Damian with their father being Saint Nicholas and mother being Saint Claire.

Oshu’n of Cuba: Oshun saw that her children were being taken to a far- away land called Cuba, and in order to be with them she decided to move there also. Because there would be those who were not like her, of lighter skin and straighter hair, she asked of her sister Yemaya to help her fit in better so that all the Cuban inhabitants could feel a connection to her. This wish was granted and her hair became straighter and her skin lightened, so she moved to Cuba and became their Orisha leader.

Ezili Freda: The goddess of love, sensuality, and luxury is represented as a mulatto Mistress Erzuli.  Her favorite brand of perfume is said to be Anais-Anais, color is pink and white, and the visual image of her is of Mater Dolorosa with pierced heart.

 

Ezili Danto: Another version of Ezilo is of a dark skinned laborer whose colors are blue, red, or multicolors. Her devotion is to her daughter Anais, and she is seen as the Madonna. Some ounfo have altars depicting her as Our lady of Mount Carmel or Mater Salvatoris. She has scratches on her cheeks to show the struggle between her egos.

The Coconut: Prince Obi lived in lavish luxury amongst palm trees and the endless skies. He became vain and only wanted to entertain the wealthiest and most powerful in his kingdom. His brother Elleggua disguised himself and attempted to enter his brothers castle as a pauper, to which Obi turned him away in disgust. Feeling as though this was unjust  of his brother to treat not treat all his subjects equally, he reported this behavior to their father Obatala. Obatala in disguise attempted to gain entry and was denied. Upon revealing himself to Obi, his father cursed him and made him become one of the meekest of their kind, to be used instead of worshipped as before. He made Obi to wear inwardly the stark white cloths that he had so cherished while his outer appearance revealed dirty brown rags to symbolize his humility.

Ogu: Ruler of the mythical world in Santeria and of a warrior in Vadeu, depiction always includes a cigar and a blacksmith tool. His color is red with a cutlass or machete close by.

Olofi’s Depart: After his creation was complete, Olofi lived in harmony with the Orishas and humanity until he was constantly hounded to give up more of himself to the point of physical anguish, especially after being splashed with diarrhea after nestling a human child. In order to give himself space he left earth and created a separate haven for himself to dwell. Only Eleggua and Obatala know exactly where his home is because he doesn’t want to be irritated anymore with ungodly issues. He gave the orishas everything they needed to live and to assist mankind.

 

The Shadows

There is always a gray area to religion where beliefs and rituals can lead to darker meanings of the unprincipled. The same remains true in Santeria and Vadeu. Folklore access the mind to half man-wolf concoctions, as well as possessions that are not always so willing. The werewolf and vampire phenomena have reached worldwide and could possibly be a mental barrier to explain away the atrocities of primal human nature.

The more interesting, due to the defenselessness of the horse, come from the idea of zombies. Whether under control of the sorcerer while alive or dead, the zombie strikes fear into most West Caribbean believers as well as many other parts of the world due to the popularity of the topic in Western horror films.  Santeria and Vadeu both share equal tribulations with zombification, and fabrications may ensue. In Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World, the character Pauline Bonaparte, seems incarnate in the smoothness of a marbled statue, becoming a zombie of Soliman’s imagination.  From page 160, the excerpt ‘This statue, yellow in the light of the lantern, was the corpse of Pauline Bonaparte, a corpse newly stiffened, recently stripped of breath and sight, which perhaps there was time to bring back to life’ shows the state of Soliman’s psyche as he massages the cold stone after believing that he had seen one of the statues of the palace move.  After this experience Soliman becomes insane.  Another sighting of a zombie within the same novel was that of Corneille Beille, the Arch Bishop to King Henri Christophe, seen after the King had summoned him to death within the tombed walls of his palace. In this novel, magical realism through Vadeu is translated to bring forth a visual manifestation of how intertwined religion and magic can be.

One of the most recognizable stories of zombification comes from Haiti, in the 1909 death of Marie M.  There are many versions to this true life story, and most confirm that she was a light skinned or white female of a well to do family, who was desired by a darker skinned man. Whether at the hands of a grandmother or by poison from a Vadeu specialist, she was buried after thought to be dead. Her body was later removed and another corpse was placed in its stead. After many sightings of her, it was discovered that the young girl indeed was alive. A Haitian physician by the name of Arthur Holly claimed to have treated the female and blamed her disposition on Vadeu.  Some accounts state that after the female was found she became insane after not being able to cope with her encounter.  This tale brings to light that most stories and fables have some truth behind them, but usually, after being orally distributed many times, any story can easily become embellished.

Works Cited

  1. Canizares, Raul. Cuban Santeria. Walking with the Night. Rochester,Vermont: Destiny Books,
  2. Print
  3. Carpentier, Alejo. The Kingdom of This World. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Print
  4. Matibag, Eugenio. Afro-Cuban Religious Experience. Clutural Reflections in Narrative.

Gainesville:University Press of Florida, 1996. Print

4.Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel. Afro-Carribbean Religions. An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural, and Sacred Traditions. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010. Print

  1. Olmos, Margarite Fernandez and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. Creole Religions of the Caribbean. An

             Introduction  from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University

Press,2003.Print

  1. Olmos, Margarite Fernandenz and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santeria,

Obeah, and the Caribbean. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1999. Print

Tamuriel L. Dillard

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