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6262: An alternate insight into Vodou (fwd)

From: Guy Antoine <GuyAntoine@windowsonhaiti.com>

>From Windows on Haiti, http://windowsonhaiti.com/w98501.htm

This essay was read at the American Museum of Natural History,
New York City, Nov. 15, 1998.

Wisdom and Beauty in Haitian Vodou
Marie-José Alcide Saint-Lot, Ph.D.

The spiritual splendor we are plunged into through this fascinating
exhibit defies and calls into question the sordid and negative image
imprinted on Haiti's 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 Haiti's popular
religion, after 15 years of research in that field, I am in a position
to affirm that it represents a positive force. Let's 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 people's life!
While the rich are comfortably enjoying themselves
The poor people have to roam about the streets.

2) Hail Legba, Ayizan!
Don't you hear money is almighty
Don't you see how things have changed.

3) Vanity, Vanity, Vanity,
if you're rich, they'll let you in
if you're poor, you'll have to stay out
to watch them.

Besides its good judgment on the people's reality, Vodou
offers an orientation, a vision of life. Along with a strong
faith in the Divine, it prescribes a dynamic approach of
man's 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!
Africa's 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
We're moving step by step
to reverse our situation

Vodou's practical wisdom can be seen in its direct participation
in the people's 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 Haiti's independence. At this ceremony, the
Vodou priest Boukman launched a prayer that was a powerful
call for action.

The white men's god orders crimes
Our God wants good deeds ...
Throw away the images of the white men's 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 they'll 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, isn't 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, Vodou's 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 worshipper's 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 Grotowsky's 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.

It's 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.

Marie José Alcide Saint-Lot, Ph.D.
Communication - Arts et Culture
P.O. Box 15132
Pétion-Ville, Haiti (W.I.)

Dr. Marie-José 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.

Copyright © 1998 Saint-Lot