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#1106: Vodou, Dayan's HAITI, Simidor's humble opinion (fwd)


My most important insight this year about Vodou came not from my houngan 
contacts, nor from funny online mambos, but from the anthropologist George 
Simpson who had this to say in his article, "The Vodun Cult in Haiti," 
published in African Notes (Institute of African Studies, Univ. of Ibadan, 
Jan. 1966): 

"Moreau de Saint Mery, a French priest stationed in Haiti during the latter 
part of the eighteenth century, witnessed some of the rites which took place 
around 1790.  According to his accounts, the first part of the ceremony 
consisted of the officiant's interpretation of the wishes of the divinity, 
symbolized by a snake.  The dance followed this service, and included 
singing, fainting, intense nervous excitement and some rather violent 
NON-EXISTENT [emphasis mine].  Gradually a more or less standardized set of 
rites emerged.  During the next one hundred and fifty years the beliefs and 
rituals of the cult became more elaborate, the Catholic components increased, 
and regional differentiation developed."

In other words, the enslaved Africans kept their belief system clean of 
European influence up to the General Uprising of 1791.  Religious syncretism 
more likely developed between 1801 and 1860 (the pre-Concordat years), when 
the Pè Savann and an indigenous/renegade clergy ruled the land, "serving with 
both hands." 

Dayan is probably overstating her case in tying Vodou terminology too closely 
with slavery.  The vocabulary is certainly creole, but the experience it 
relates is more likely the remnant of feudal practices from the Dahomean 
kingdom, reinforced under the feudal rule of Toussaint, Christophe, Boyer, et 
al.  They are translations and remnants of the past, but of which past?  That 
language and its affects were current twenty years ago both in Haiti and for 
Haitians in the DR.  Unfortunately, anthropology and Vodou studies have not 
taken count of the dramatic changes since 1986.  As for the European and 
North American diaspora, it is a new reality where the power of Vodou is 
sought more as magic than as religion.

Daniel Simidor