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6195: Vodou and Creole in Alabama (fwd)

From: Karioka9@cs.com

               Deeper Knowledge Defines the Line Between Religion
               and Mental Illness 

                The Huntsville Times, 12/10/00

               A few months into my psychiatric training I went to the
               emergency room to see Mr. X, an agitated, terrified man
               from north Birmingham. His chief complaint: A dog had
               warned him his neighbor was actually a "boko" plotting
               to capture half his soul (he called it his "ti bon ange") and
               seal it up in a bottle.

               Talking dog? Classic auditory hallucination. Soul theft?
               Bizarre paranoid delusion. Boko? Ti bon ange? We call
               such made-up words "neologisms" - evidence of severe
               psychotic illness. Luckily, I talked to my boss before
               blitzing Mr. X with Haldol. More gently than I deserved,
               I got my first lecture on cross-cultural psychiatry. Both
               my patient and I, my boss advised, needed to calm
               ourselves. Mr. X was badly frightened but hardly crazy,
               and strange as his concerns appeared, they were
               ordinary religious issues in his community.

               Instead of Haldol, Mr. X got a mild sedative and a talk
               with a social worker. For me, my boss prescribed a field

               The Lucky Lyric, a converted theater in north
               Birmingham, sold what you might call a boutique line of
               religious supplies. What Lewter's is to hardware, the
               Lucky Lyric was to voodoo. For every human longing,
               apparently, you could buy a charm icon, or fluorescent

               Need healing, love or money? Are bokos (sorcerers)
               pursuing your soul? Want to interpret the thoughts of
               animals? The Lucky Lyric would like to help.

               Let's fix our terminology: "Vodou," an African word for
               spirit, is the correct name for this religion. It is the
               spiritual heritage for millions of Afro-Creole people,
               assembled from remnants of their horrid and glorious
               history. Perhaps this season's spirituality makes me feel I
               can't end the year without telling you something about

               Probably most of what you know is wrong. Vodou does
               not deal with devil worship or pins in dolls.

               It began in West Africa, where for centuries people have
               worshiped the high god (Bonday or Bon Dieu), their
               ancestors, twins and dozens of minor spirits called "lwa"
               (pronounced el-wa). In vodou belief everyone has two
               soul-parts. The "gros bon ange," or big angel, is present
               throughout life, while the "ti bon ange," or little angel, can
               drift from the body during sleep or inattention and be
               snatched away.

               In vodou rituals, the lwa are invited to take possession
               of worshipers' ti bon ange, sending them into ecstatic
               trances wherein they perform cures, give advice and
               take on the personalities of the possessing lwa. Spirit
               possession is a desirable state, and vodou rituals invoke
               it through feasting, dancing and animal sacrifice.

               On the other hand, if a boko seizes your ti bon ange and
               corks it into a bottle, he can make you a zombie,
               deprived of will-power and unable to die, doomed
               eternally to be the boko's slave. For Afro-Caribs, there
               is no worse fate.

               Scarcely a decade after Columbus reached Haiti in
               1492, the Spanish began raiding West Africa to furnish
               Caribbean islands with slave labor. Some 15 million
               Africans were shipped to what became Haiti, the
               Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

               In the New World, the slaves' Catholic masters tried to
               exterminate their religion, forcibly baptizing them into
               Catholicism and outlawing vodou ceremonies. But
               vodou went underground, cloaked in Catholic
               camouflage. The lwa metamorphosed into patron saints;
               the crucifix acquired its own vodou symbolism; even the
               eucharistic body and blood of Jesus became a surrogate
               for vodou ritual sacrifice.

               Cherished as a link with the lost ancestral home of
               Africa, vodou became the social glue of the Caribbean.
               Today, Afro-Caribbean immigrants in New Orleans,
               rural South Carolina and north Birmingham practice a
               form of vodou.

               But you cannot study it as I did at the Lucky Lyric. Like
               July's tomatoes, your first kiss and my term as a
               community columnist, the Lucky Lyric has passed away.

               Huntsville psychiatrist Alice Chenault is one of The
               Times' community columnists for 2000.