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In ancient Greece, one of the most universally popular symbols was the gorgoneion, a symbolized head of a repulsive female figure with snakes for hair. Gorgoneion medallions and ornaments have been discovered from as far back as the 8th century BC (and some archaeologists even assert that the design dates back to 15 century Minoan Crete). The earliest Greek gorgoneions seem to have been apotropaic in nature—grotesque faces meant to ward off evil and malign influence. Homer makes several references to the gorgon’s head (in fact he only writes about the severed head—never about the whole gorgon). My favorite lines concerning the gruesome visage appear in the Odyssey, when Odysseus becomes overwhelmed by the horrors of the underworld and flees back to the world of life:
And I should have seen still other of them that are gone before, whom I would fain have seen- Theseus and Pirithous glorious children of the gods, but so many thousands of ghosts came round me and uttered such appalling cries, that I was panic stricken lest Proserpine should send up from the house of Hades the head of that awful monster Gorgon.
In Greco-Roman mythology the gorgon’s head (attached to a gorgon or not) could turn those looking at it into stone. The story of Perseus and Medusa (which we’ll cover in a different post) explains the gorgon’s origins and relates the circumstances of her beheading. When Perseus had won the princess, he presented the head to his father and Athena as a gift—thus the gorgon’s head was a symbol of divine magical power. Both Zeus and Athena were frequently portrayed wearing the ghastly head on their breastplates.
Although the motif began in Greece, it spread with Hellenic culture. Gorgon imagery was found on temples, clothing, statues, dishes, weapons, armor, and coins found across the Mediterranean region from Etruscan Italy all the way to the Black Sea coast. As Hellenic culture was subsumed by Rome, the image became even more popular–although the gorgon’s visage gradually changed into a more lovely shape as classical antiquity wore on.
In wealthy Roman households a gorgoneion was usually depicted next to the threshold to help guard the house against evil. The wild snake-wreathed faces are frequently found painted as murals or built into floors as mosaics.
Not only was the wild magical head a mainstay of classical decoration–the motif was subsequently adapted by Renaissance artists hoping to recapture the spirit of the classical world. Gilded gorgoneions appeared at Versailles and in the palaces and mansions of elite European aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Even contemporary designers and businesses make use of the image. The symbol of the Versace fashion house is a gorgon’s head.
It will probably not surprise you to know that much of the mythology of Finland and Lapland is concerned with impossible quests which ineluctably lead to destruction. Louhi was queen of the bleak realm of Pohjola as well as being a sorceress, a shapeshifter, and possibly a demigoddess. She possessed several daughters of ineffable loveliness. In order to win the hand of one of these beauties, a hero had to pass a test stipulated by Louhi. These tasks were always impossible or very nearly so. Additionally if a hero somehow seemed to be on the brink of accomplishing his quest, Louhi would use her sorcery to ensure that he failed.
My favorite of these myths concerns the hero Lemminkäinen, a warrior and shaman who fell in love with one of Louhi’s daughters. Louhi promised the maiden’s hand to Lemminkäinen only if the hero could bring back the lifeless body of the swan of Tuonela. Tuonela was the Finnish underworld, a magic haunted island ruled over by the dark god Tuoni. Getting there was no easy task and returning was much harder (several other stories about suitors seeking the daughters of Louhi involve Tuonela and its dreadful snares). The swan was a transcendent being which swam around the island of the dead singing.
After great travails Lemminkäinen made it to the underworld and he found the magic swan, but as he drew his arms to kill the bird, Louhi’s cruel guile became apparent. The swan began to sing a haunting song of divine beauty. The golden notes described life’s splendor and its heartache—the wordless music summarizing everything that people long for and care about in their journey from the cradle to the grave. The impossible sadness and magnificence of the song moved Lemminkäinen’s heart and he realized he could not kill the great bird. As Lemminkäinen faltered, he was spotted by the gods of the underworld. Infuriated that anyone should threaten the great swan, Tuoni’s blind son sent a poisonous watersnake to bite the suitor. Lemminkäinen tried to sing away the venom with a shaman spell but he knew no words of magic against watersnakes. The whirlpool of the river of death caught him and his body was ripped into pieces which sank among the underwater boulders.
Lemminkäinen did not return home and his aged mother began to worry about him. She went through the world seeking him in the dark forests of the south and in the lichen-shrouded wastes of the north. She spoke to bird and bear and deer and fish looking for her son. She questioned the yellow moon and the silver stars but they were indifferent. Finally she prostrated herself before the red sun as it set in the west and the sun god gave her the terrible answer that Lemminkäinen was lifeless, cut to bits in the black river of Tuonela. Broken with grief she went to the smith god Ilmarinen and begged him to make a huge dragging rake for her with a copper handle and steel tines. Then she went to the river and laboriously found the many waterlogged fragments of Lemminkäinen’s corpse. She pieced the shattered bones and torn sinews together and sang the most powerful songs of healing magic to reassemble the body, but still her son remained lifeless. All of her prayers and supplications and lamentations went unheeded by all gods and creatures save for one. A little bee landed in front of her and promised to help.
Furiously buzzing her wings, the tiny insect flew away up into the sky and then farther up to the vault of heaven. She crossed Orion’s shoulder and flew across the great bear’s tail. Finally she reached the heavenly abode of of Jumala, the Creator God, where he had crafted the universe. The bee flew through the immense palace until she found a golden vessel filled with healing honey. Then the little bee took a drop of the honey and flew down through the stars back to Lemminkäinen’s mother. Together they placed the honey on his tongue and color came back to his lifeless form. He struggled and shuddered and then gasped for air, waking from the world of death with its whirlpools and dark waters. But the swan’s haunting song was with him all of his days as was knowledge of what waits in the death’s dream isle at the end of the world.
And that’s how Lemminkäinen learned that Louhi’s daughter was an unsuitable bride.
Many of the stories and myths of Taoism center on the eight immortals, a group of ancient entities who mastered powerful magic to such an extent that they transcended mortality and rose to a state of near divinity. Zhang Guo Lao, the eccentric elderly potions master, is one of the eight immortals (and we have seen what an odd figure he is), but some of the others are even more peculiar. Probably the strangest member of the group is Lan Caihe, whose age and precise origin are unknown. In fact, the gender of Lan Caihe is unknown: S/he is sometimes depicted as a young girl or a cross-dressing boy or a strange genderless old person.
Lan Caihe is the patron saint of florists and minstrels (or maybe I should say “singing courtesans” since the musical lifestyle in classical China often bore some relation to the pleasure trade). His/her sacred emblem is the flower basket, a bamboo or wicker container born on a hoe-like handle filled with up with sacred flowers, herbs, and plants. Lan Caihe is also sometimes shown holding castanets, playing a flute, or riding a crane. Ambiguity and the reversal of expectations are trademarks of this immortal as is the power of unheeded prophecy. In addition to not having a fixed gender, Lan Caihe dons heavy winter clothes in summer but strips down to a flimsy barely-there shift to sleep in snowbanks in the winter. Sometime s/he is portrayed within a melting snowbank transforming into steam from quasi-divine magic.
While some of the eight immortals have lengthy or complicated creation stories (involving magic items or a lifetime of study) Lan Caihe’s apotheosis to immortality was quick and random. While playing music, drinking heavily, and otherwise entertaining at a bar, Lan Caihe got up to go to the bathroom. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he/she flew up to heaven on a crane letting a single shoe fall down (in some versions of the tale various other dubious garments joined the shoe). Despite having immense power and magic (and immortality), Lan Caihe is frequently portrayed dressed in a frayed blue dress and only one shoe, consorting with the lowest classes of society. I can think of few figures from any mythology more evocative of the socially constructed nature of identity than this gender-ambiguous immortal.
Liu Haichan was a high official during the tumultuous Five Dynasties era, a time of bloodshed and civil war at the beginning of the tenth century in China. He served the powerful warlord Liu Shouguang, who in 911 proclaimed himself emperor. Liu Haichan became the new emperor’s grand councilor–one of the most powerful positions in China. Shortly thereafter, a famous Taoist wizard visited Liu Haichan to discuss the mysteries of the Tao with the councilor. At the end of the meeting, the wizard requested ten eggs and ten coins which he adroitly stacked into a teetering pagoda on the grand councilor’s desk.
“This is precarious indeed!” exclaimed Liu Haichan.
“It is not as precarious as your current life” stated the wizard who snatched the ten coins from the pagoda and vanished, leaving a ruin of smashed eggs on the polished wood.
The interview caused Liu Haichan to carefully re-examine his situation. The next day he abandoned the wealth and power of his position and fled to a wooded mountaintop to live as a hermit. Since the new emperor was soon captured by an opposing army and executed, this proved to be a wise choice.
Like Zhang Guo Lao before him, Liu Haichan devoted himself to a life of alchemy, sorcery, and potions in the wilderness. He became strong in Taoist magic, and rose to head the Quanzhen school of Taoism. In the fullness of time he took the name Haichanzi (Master Sea Toad) and apotheosized to immortality.
Liu Haichan gained his distinctive sobriquet because he is usually pictured with a three-legged toad, Chan Chu, who today has outstripped the Taoist master in fame. Stories concerning this toad differ, but my favorite is that the toad was the reincarnated spirit of Liu Haichan’s father, a greedy petty official whose human life was spent squeezing peasants for money. One day Liu Haichan peered into a ruined well and saw the toad’s red eyes glowing in the filthy darkness. Recognizing something familiar about the creature, Liu Haichan dangled a string of money down the well. The greed of his previous life could not be left behind and the toad grabbed the coins with his mouth. Liu Haichan drew Chan Chu up from the slime and thereafter the two became inseparable.
Liu Hainchan was a popular subject for Ming and Ching era literati painters but Chan Chu, the three legged wealth toad, went on to find international success. The avaricious amphibian admirably suits today’s zeitgeist. Statues of the wealth toad can be found in businesses around the world. Usually Chan Chu is portrayed holding a coin in his mouth sitting on a pile of gold coins. Sometimes he is covered with jewels. You could probably buy a resin Chan Chu statue at your nearest Chinatown or online. If you choose to do so, Feng Shui enthusiasts advise you to place the statue near the cash register facing away from the door so that money comes in but does not leave. Never put a wealth toad statue in the bathroom: Chan Chu regards moist enclosed spaces with little fondness after his time in the well.
When I was young I received a copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which I loved. I memorized the characters and stories from the book and suddenly the world of art and poetry opened up to me. The book remains a delightful mythology primer for any child. However, later when I read actual Greco-Roman literature, I realized that D’Aulaire’s had left out a goddess of great importance to the Greco-Roman world (among other things…). The omission seems fitting however, for the missing goddess was Hecate, the goddess of magic, poison, night, thresholds, boundaries, and crossroads. The Oxford Classic Dictionary asserts that Hecate “is more at home on the fringes than in the center of Greek polytheism. Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition.” This seems correct. Even in classical passages which hold her in high esteem, Hecate seems to be an outsider among the gods. Her very name means “the distant one”.
Hecate may seem like a strange outsider in the Greek pantheon because she was an outsider in the Greek pantheon. Some scholars believe she was originally a Thracian moon goddess based, in turn, on an ancient and powerful Anatolian goddess. Unlike other outsider gods, who frequently worked their way into the Greek canon as animal demons, Hecate struck a chord with the Greeks and became a focus of their mystery cults. Additionally she had an influential worshipper early on in Greek culture: there are few if any references to Hecate before she appears in the works of Hesiod (a major source of Ionic thought who was active sometime between 750 and 650 BC). Yet in Hesiod’s Theogeny she is a major force of the universe. Perhaps this is because Hesiod’s father was reputedly from Aeolis (a region of Anatolia). It could be that Hesiod was honoring a local goddess, and his writings became instrumental to securing her place in the Greek canon (where she nonetheless remains an alien).
Hesiod wrote that Hecate was the only child of two Titans, Asteria (goddess of the stars) and Peres (god of might). Hesiod seems to have regarded her as beautiful and powerful. In Theogeny, he wrote,
For to this day, whenever any one of men on earth offers rich
sacrifices and prays for favour according to custom, he calls
upon Hecate. Great honour comes full easily to him whose prayers
the goddess receives favourably, and she bestows wealth upon him;
for the power surely is with her….
The son of Cronus did her no wrong nor took anything away of all that
was her portion among the former Titan gods: but she holds, as
the division was at the first from the beginning, privilege both
in earth, and in heaven, and in sea. Also, because she is an
only child, the goddess receives not less honour, but much more
still, for Zeus honours her.
Greek writers of the 5th century, maintained Hesiod’s respect for Hecate but they saw her in a darker light. Euripides writes about her as the patron deity of the sorceress Medea and quite a few of that baleful witch’s invocations are directly to Hecate.
Whatever Hecate’s origins in the near east and ancient Greece, Hecate had morphed from a moon goddess and protector of the young into underworld queen by the era of Alexander, and that is how she was subsequently worshipped by the Romans (who held her very dear). In Hellenic times and afterwards, Hecate is pictured as a triple goddess. Sometimes she has been portrayed with three young beautiful faces, but other times she is depicted as simultaneously being a maiden, a mother, and a crone (which seems to be how her contemporary worshippers see her). Likewise, in one or more of her six arms she always holds a torch. The other items vary between serpents, keys, daggers, ropes, herbs, and mystery charms. Speaking of serpents, she was occasionally portrayed with serpent legs or serpent limbs.
The snake was by no means the only creature affiliated with Hecate. Like many chthonic deities of the Mediterranean, she was associated with dogs (particularly black female dogs). She is said to have had two demon hounds which did her bidding (although it hardly seems important since she was a sorceress of matchless puissance). Additonally, dogs were sacrificed to her and eaten in her honor. Snakes, owls and other nocturnal creatures were variously seen as sacred to the goddess as was the red mullet, a blood-colored goatfish (which wealthy Romans kept in salt water pens to pamper and train as pets). In terms of botanical symbolism, all manner of poisons were her bailiwick and she was invoked by poisoner and victim alike. The yew, with its dark symbolism, was particularly sacred to Hecate, and her worshippers planted them around her temples and mystery cult sites.
As goddess of thresholds she was called on to help people through the two greatest thresholds. She was worshiped both as a midwife (some say the knife and rope in her hands were for tying umbilical cords) and as a sort of supernatural hospice nurse (some assert that her knife, rope, and herbs could be used to slip into the next realm). Like Athena and Diana, Hecate was a virgin goddess.
I mentioned Hecate’s contemporary worshipers earlier. Unlike the other Greek gods, who may still inspire artists, poets, and antiquarians but rarely elicit prayers, Hecate continues to have a worldwide following. Neopaganism has suited her admirably and she has even appeared in a number of hit TV shows. Her mysterious protean nature seems to appeal to the diffuse and highly-individualized practitioners of Wicca. One can only imagine how the surly and chauvinistic Hesiod would feel if told that his beloved Hecate had outlived his beloved Olympian Gods to be worshiped and called on as a feminist icon!
The Moche civilization was a culture which flourished between 100 and 800 AD in northern Peru. Although the Moche had sophisticated agricultural know-how and created elaborate irrigation canals to water their crops, their religious iconographs shows that their hearts belonged to the ocean. This seems to be literally true, their greatest god, Ai Apaec (AKA “the decapitator”) was a horrifying aquatic deity with the arms of a crab or an octopus [I desperately wanted to feature this deity in my Gods of the Underworld Category, but there is not much hard information about him. I'm still tagging this post to that category because...well, just look at him]. Ai Apaec thirsted for human blood and Moche religious ceremonies seem to have been based around human sacrifice. There is substantial archaeological evidence available about the Moche people and their civilization. Several large structures remain extant in the dry climate of Northern Peru. From these temples and graves, we can get a sense of Moche society.
One of the most important Moche sites is the Huaca del Sol (Shrine of the Sun) an adobe brick temple pyramid which is believed to have functioned as a royal palace, royal tombs, and as a temple. Although a substantial portion of the complex was destroyed by the Spanish, who mined it for gold, enough remained to provide archaeologists with a picture of Moche life. Additionally an untouched smaller temple the Huaco del Luna was discovered nearby. The conclusions drawn from studying these compounds were dramatic and horrifying. Archaeology magazine describes two excavations and their grisly discoveries:
Bourget and his team uncovered a sacrificial plaza with the remains of at least 70 individuals–representing several sacrifice events–embedded in the mud of the plaza, accompanied by almost as many ceramic statuettes of captives. It is the first archaeological evidence of large-scale sacrifice found at a Moche site and just one of many discoveries made in the last decade at the site.
In 1999, Verano began his own excavations of a plaza near that investigated by Bourget. He found two layers of human remains, one dating to A.D. 150 to 250 and the other to A.D. 500. In both deposits, as with Bourget’s, the individuals were young men at the time of death. They had multiple healed fractures to their ribs, shoulder blades, and arms suggesting regular participation in combat. They also had cut marks on their neck vertebrae indicating their throats had been slit. The remains Verano found differed from those in the sacrificial plaza found by Bourget in one important aspect: they appeared to have been deliberately defleshed, a ritual act possibly conducted so the cleaned bones could be hung from the pyramid as trophies–a familiar theme depicted in Moche art.
In 2006, Archaeologists were fortunate enough to discover an extremely well-preserved Moche mummy. Peru This Week outlined the discovery, writing, “The mummy, herself 1,500 years old, is of a woman in her 20s, believed to be an elite member of the Moche tribe. The skeleton of an adolescent girl offered in sacrifice was found with a rope still around its neck. The archaeologists from Peru and the US found the mummy at a site called El Brujo on the north coast near Trujillo. They have dated the mummy to about 450 AD.”
We know a great deal about Moche culture not merely from such rich archaeological finds but also from the vivid artistic skills of the Moche themselves. Not only were they accomplished painters, the Moche were among the world’s great ceramics makers. They crafted vessels which beautifully portrayed deer, birds, mollusks (like the spiny oyster), and other sea creatures. They also made many ceramic art objects portraying war, agriculture, economic activities, and copulation. Many of these Moche ceramics grace the world’s great museums: the expressive grace of the crafting speaks to a society which understood and revered beauty.
The decline and failure of Moche civilization is something of a mystery. The civilization reached an apogee early in the 6th century. Then the great communities of that era appear to have been wiped out by the climate change which affected civilizations worldwide. It seems like the horrible weather events of 535–536 played particular havoc with Moche society. However the Moche survived these upheavels and settlements have been discovered from the middle of the seventh century onward to 800 AD. The character of these latter communities is different from that of the golden age Moche civilizations. Fortifications were much in evidence and the trade and agricultural underpinnings of civilization seem to have been much reduced. Perhaps the Moche were involved in a series of internal battles among varying factions and elites.
Mayan cosmology, which shrinks neither from darkness and violence nor from beauty and heroism, features one of the most strange and transformative tales of the underworld. The story is found in the Popul Vuh, the most comprehensive remaining work of Mayan mythical literature (which was recorded in the Quiché language by a Domenican friar in 1701 AD). The most important and cohesive part of the Popul Vuh recounts how twin heroes, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, challenged the gods of the underworld to a multi-match ball tournament. Episodes from the story are recognizable in art from the golden age of the Classic Mayas (from 200-900 AD).
The story begins when Hun Hunahpu, the father to both twins, challenged the greedy and corrupt gods of Xibalba (the Mayan underworld) to a ball game. Mayan ball was a sort of high impact racquetball with scoring hoops (rather like rollerball). In important tournaments, the losers were sacrificed and their severed heads became permanent additions to the court. When Hun Hunahpu lost the ball game to the gods of the dark house, they ripped him apart and left his head impaled on a tree. However, Xquic, a lovely blood goddess of the underworld fell in love with the head of the brave and handsome Hun Hunahpu and became impregnated by his spit. She raised her twin sons, Hunahpu and Xbalanque hidden away from the eyes of the gods below, but when the two grew to manhood they inevitably found their father’s sports equipment. Learning of his downfall they set out to defeat the gods of Xibalba, whose malign influence was corrupting the world of life (also, by besting the gods at the sacred ball game, they hoped to restore life to their father).
After deliberately losing several ball matches in order to obtain a strategic advantage, the brothers were forced to take shelter in a dark house in Xibalba, which was filled with killer bats and with the horrifying bat gods, the Camazotz. To escape the bats, the brothers took refuge inside their blowguns, but Hunahpu, mistakenly believing that dawn had arrived, stuck his head out to look around. A Camazotz (or the Camazotz—their nature is unclear) promptly snipped Hunahpu’s head off with razor claws, and carried the bleeding head to the ceremonial ball court for use during the next day’s ball game.
Grieving for his dead brother, Xbalanque summoned the animals of the jungle and asked them to bring their favorite food. Many animals brought leaves or grubs or worthless carrion, but the coati brought a calabash gourd, which Xbalanque then fashioned into a surrogate head for his brother. During the ballgame, he managed to exchange the fake head for the real one and the brothers ultimately went on to win the tournament.
Enraged by the loss, the Xibalbans constructed a great oven in which they immolated the meddlesome twins. The deities of hell then ground the twins’ burned bones to dust and threw them in a river. However Xbalanque and Hunahpu were again one step ahead. They magically regenerated as a pair of catfish which gradually changed into boys. Amazed by this miracle, and not recognizing the now-transformed twins, the Xibalbans hired the orphans as magical entertainers. The twins performed increasingly spectacular magical miracles for the Xibalbans. They transformed into animals and burned buildings only to restore them perfectly unburned. Finally the two magicians were called to appear before One Death and Seven Death, the ranking rulers of Xibalba. The twins performed a spectacular magic show which culminated with Xbalanque sacrificing Hunahpu, only to have the latter emerge more powerful and vigorous then before. One Death and Seven Death applauded and demanded the twins put them through the same transformation. Naturally the twins sacrificed the rulers of Xibalba, but they did not restore them to life. They then revealed their true identities and began to slaughter their former tormentors. The forces of Xibalba surrendered utterly and begged for mercy.
The story ends with the twins granting clemency to the surviving gods of hell on the condition that the world of life no longer need worship them or present offerings to the underworld. The brothers then dug up their father’s remains and pieced them together. But their magical skills could not bring him fully back to life. Maimed and broken, he was left on the ball court where they found him. Some say he became maize and gave life to the world. Others say he became the fragile hope which lingers for all things lost and dead.
The brothers then left the underworld, but as they ascended to the world of the living, they found that it had become somehow diminished to them. Their mighty magical transformations had put the affairs of life behind them. The two kept climbing and transcended the world entirely. They are still visible as the sun and the moon. Their story is the Mayan story of the creation and how life was redeemed—at least for a time—from the greedy deities of the underworld.
Spring has not sprung in Brooklyn–not at all. However, as winter marches on and the days slowly become longer, the garden begins to beckon. Nature’s ancient power will not be denied. My garden may be ice and mud but, out there in the wider New York area, the very first flowers of the season have already come into bloom. Looking at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden bloom list reveals that the hellebores have just opened up (unless you are reading this at some later point, in which case its still a great link).
Hellebores are also called Lenten roses because they come into blossom so early. The name is a complete misnomer since they are actually part of the Ranunculaceae family along with buttercups and, um, ranunculuses. The plants are very beautiful. The pure white H. niger blooms even in the midst of frost and snow. Helleborus orientalis is widely grown for the many delicate colors of its flowers. Despite its ghastly name, Helleborus foetidus is known and loved for its pale green flowers which stand out prettily against its dark evergreen leaves. Do not, however, be taken in by the beauty of the hellebores: they contain a very potent toxin. Some species such as H. viridis contain compounds which cause ringing of the ears, confusion, thirst, a feeling of suffocation, swelling of the tongue and throat, slowing of the heart, and ultimately death from cardiac arrest. Even the virginal white Helleborus niger causes burning sensations, oral sores and terrifying gastritis when ingested so do not eat these plants!
Hellebores grow widely across Europe and the near east, however the greatest concentration of species can be found around the Balkans. Many myths and legends have come to be associated with the dangerous plants. The flowers were sacred to Hecate the underworld godess of magic, sorcery, and crossroads. This association with witchcraft and the underworld has made the hellebore the subject of much dark poetry.
In the absence of useful remedies, ancient Greek physicians treated psychological disorders with hellebore. It has been speculated that Alexander the Great may have died from hellebore which he was self-administering. Hellebore holds a further place in history as an early chemical warfare agent. During the Siege of Kirrha in 585 BC, the Greek besiegers poisoned the city’s water supply with hellebore. So many of the defenders were undone by the herb’s purgative effects that the city fell and the Greeks slaughtered all of the inhabitants.
Hmm, that got darker then I intended, my real point was to enjoy the first lovely blooms of the year. Spring is finally on its way!
Baron Samedi is the Voodoo loa of death, sex, and resurrection. Since those topics represent a substantial and universal chunk of human interests, he is the most instantly recognizable of voodoo spirits. The Baron wears a glossy top hat, a tailcoat, and sunglasses. He has cotton plugs in his nostrils in the fashion of a Haitian corpse—at least when he is not just wearing a skull as a face. The Baron’s name comes from his delight in partying on Saturdays and also has a rumored connection to Samhain, the Celtic festival of death and darkness. In fact, Baron Samedi seems to owe some of his features to the folk beliefs of Irish indentured servants who worked in the fields next to African slaves.
The Baron’s favorite colors are black, white, and purple. He is extremely fond of cigars, rum, peanuts, and black coffee (particularly the first two). Baron Samedi is noted for his obscenity and his debauchery. Frequently represented by phallic symbols he is rumored to attend orgies and seek all manner of congress. He delights in using a nasal voice to make fun of white people for being uptight—Eek!
The Baron is married to Maman Brigitte, a fair-haired, foul-mouthed white loa who seems to be associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid (Maman Brigitte even has emerald green eyes). A powerful death/fertility loa in her own right, Maman’s symbols are the black chicken and cemetery crosses. She is noted for dancing the suggestive but remarkably artistic banda dance and for rubbing red hot chili peppers on her…self. Although she is powerful, beautiful, and insatiable, her husband Baron Samedi still chases after pretty mortals.
Zora Neale Hurston recounts that when you make a request of Baron Samedi, you use a cow’s foot extended in place of your hand. When the Baron is ready to leave, he takes whatever he’s holding along with him. By substituting the cow foreleg, you don’t loose your arm! [Editor's note: this seemed like a somewhat trivial scholarly point but we decided to include it as a safety tip for motivated readers]
Baron Samedi is the leader of the Guédé loa—a spirit tribe who are masters of death magic. The lesser Guédé spirits dress like the Baron and share his licentious and rude manner. They help carry the dead to the next realm—sooner than anticipated with the right inducements or the wrong dealings.