"Vodou Ceremony" by Andre Normil

A friend from the murky bayous of Louisiana asked me to write a post about Baron Samedi, for my Deities of the Underworld category.  I’m still writing it, but that post should really be published on a Saturday anyway.  First I had better explain an outline of the voodoo religion (and find some methods to protect myself in case anybody or anything thinks I am doing a libelous job with my explanation).

Voodoo is an intensely syncretic religion which came about as the new world was conquered by Europeans and re-peopled with African slaves.  The animist beliefs of the Yoruba, the Fon, and the Ewe (among with many other African groups) mixed together with Roman Catholicism and with the indigenous beliefs of the Native Americans to form a whole new faith.  Additionally the Celtic folk beliefs of Irish laborers seem to be involved in the simmering mix that is voodoo (along with Polish religious icons and goodness knows what else–the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a tumultuous and experimental time). Voodoo is most prevalent throughout the Caribbean, down the east coast of South America, and along the coasts of West Africa.  Like different stews, Haitian vodou has a subtly different flavor from Louisiana-style voodoo, which is quite different from Jamaica Obeia, which itself is only sort of similar to Brazilian Candomblé (and yet there are shared ingredients in all).

The top deity of voodoo is Bondye (or possibly Gran Met, who is Bondye’s wife… sister…mother…female incarnation?  I don’t know–ask your favorite voodoo priest).  The supreme god, however, has grown indifferent to the world he or she created.  The voodoo pantheon is thus built around powerful spirits known as loa who intercede with the creator on behalf of practitioners in the mortal realm.  One of the more intriguing concepts within voodoo is the relativist notion of propriety: a person’s moral nature depends on which loa that person serves.  A worshipper of the warrior-smith Ogou may have a different code of ethics than someone who venerates the ancestral fertility serpent Damballa.  There are wonderful and lovely loa in the Voodoo pantheon like Simbi Anpaka, the loa of plants, leaves, and poison, or Erzulie Dantor the fierce and buxom (and possibly lesbian) protector of single mothers and their children.

Each loa has associated colors and prefers certain specific sacrifices.  Damballa prefers the color white and likes a simple offering of a single egg.  Ougou loves rum and is represented by the colors green and black (as well as by his trademark sword).  Here is a list of popular loa. Additionally every loa is represented by a specific Vévé, a religious pictogram which serves as the loa’s representation in rituals.  Vévés are usually drawn on the floor with a powder such as cornmeal, red brick dust, or gunpowder (kids, do not try this at home).

The Vévé of Papa Legaba, Gatekeeper to the Spirit Realm

Loa are divided up into families who have differing realms of influence.    The Rada family represents morality, tradition, and ancestor worship.  The snaky Simbi family is associated with magic and water.  The Petro loa are fiery, impassioned and dangerous.  The family of spirits which embody fertility and death are the Guédé family.  The Guédé family of loa is powerful, scary and numerous.  Their leader is Baron Samedi.