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Ah Florida…sultry weather, orange groves, glistening beaches, pouting beauties, and palm trees…but also walking catfish, killer snakes, and now giant mollusks!  The semi-tropical peninsula is prey to wave after wave of exotic animal invaders.  The most-recent problem creatures are giant African snails, immense land snails that can grow up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) long. There are three extremely similar species of giant snails which come from West Africa: the giant African snail (Achatina fulica), the giant Ghana tiger snail (Achatina achatina), and the margies (Archachatina marginata).  Each snail has a brown swirly shell and grows to be about the size of an adult’s fist.

Archachatina marginata

The giant snails eat over 500 varieties of plants—including the majority of agricultural and ornamental species.  They also have a taste for stucco and siding so some Floridians now awaken to discover that huge mollusks are literally devouring their houses.  The snails are hermaphrodites and can lay up to 12000 eggs per year.  They can survive freezing temperatures.

Authorities continue to investigate how the snails got into the country but increasingly the evidence points to…voodoo.

In the Yoruba creation myth, the entire world was once water.  The god Obatala possessed a magic snail shell which contained earth. Acting on instructions from the supreme divinity Olódùmarè, Obatala cast this land upon the oceans, thus creating the continents.  Obatala then molded the land into men and beasts–but he possessed an artist’s temperament and thirst. As he crafted the Earth and its inhabitants he drank so much palm wine that his mental clarity became dulled and he made big parts of existence wrong.  Eventually he passed out altogether and his brother Oduduwa was left to finish the work and patch up the errors as best as he could.  Unfortunately big parts of humanity were assembled incorrectly and these flaws remain in evidence everywhere…

Obatala

Anyway a mainstay of Obatala worship is the sacrifice of snails (in memory of the primordial snail shell which contained the first earth).  Apparently one of Obatala’s worshippers illegally brought some giant African snails into Florida for religious reasons and they escaped from him.

So, to recap, a smuggler who worships a drunken deity brought giant hermaphrodite snails in to Florida as a religious devotion to his addled god.  Unfortunately the snails escaped and they are now eating people’s homes. Argh! What is wrong with us?  I’m going to go drink some palm wine…

Next time please just light a votive candle!

Eshu

Eshu is a deity worshiped in West Africa, the Caribbean, and South America (particularly Brazil).  To his followers, he is the god of choice and change.  He goes by many names, being known in different places (by people of different faiths) as Exu, Eleggua, Esu, Kalfu, Elegbara, Elegba, Legba, and Eleda.  The mayhem and creative tumult which accompanied the conquest and development of the new world spread his worship far beyond the lands of the Yoruba and the Gbe (the area around the gulf of Benin) where he was first venerated.  To the Yoruba he was a powerful and beautiful young man with magnificent endowments, however, his appearance varies from place to place.  In Louisiana, as “Papa Legba” he is a wise old black man with a staff (who loves toys).  In Haiti, as Kalfu, he frequently takes the form of red demon.  He is imagined as a red youth with a trident by Umbanda practitioners in Brazil.

Exu

Perhaps Eshu’s protean nature has been responsible for his success in many different religions and faiths.  These multifarious guises certainly suit his nature, for Eshu is a trickster and a shapeshifter.  When the Supreme Being, Olodumare, apportioned power to the respective gods and spirits, it* asked each one where they would go.  The various deities answered in accordance with their nature: one said “the air,” another answered “the sea,” some asked to be allowed into the human heart, while others clamored for battle and war.  Only Eshu had the intelligence and temerity to answer “I want to go wherever I will.”  His insightful answer meant that there is no place he is denied.  He speaks all languages of both gods and mortals and is free to break any rule.

Papa Legba kit--available online!

Eshu’s symbols are the crossroad, the gate, the key, the trident, and the door.  He is associated with the colors red and black.  Sometimes he is shown with a red feather or a nail in his forehead.  He is in charge of divine communication and must be called on first if one wishes to have contact with the numinous.  Eshu’s voodoo manifestation, Papa Legba is very specifically a gatekeeper to the spirit world.  In Brazilian Cantabile, Eleggua controls all doors and must be appeased so that he doesn’t open up your home to outsiders.  His fluid, omnipresent nature is most apparent in stories from the Yoruba and Gbe faiths of Africa.  To his African worshipers, he is the deity of traveling, fate, fortune (and misfortune), and of death.  His harsh lessons were one of the few true paths to illumination and positive spiritual transfiguration for the Yoruba and the Gbe.

My favorite story about Eshu illustrates his nature as clearly as it can be explained (and reveals a great truth about humankind).  Eshu painted half of his body black and half red.  Half of his garments were crimson, and half were pure black.  Thus attired, he walked down a street running through the lands of his followers.  Half of his people saw him as a powerful red deity, while the other half saw him as a beautiful black god.  Soon the worshipers were arguing about what they had seen, then they were fighting, and finally the machetes came out and they were killing each other.  Neighbors hacked apart former neighbors in a holy war about the nature of their god.

Appropriately the myth has two endings.  In one, Eshu returned to his followers and showed them what he had done.  His lesson was a harsh but effective way of teaching humans that their beliefs are dependent on their perspective.  His worshipers learned that failure to keep an open mind can lead to violence and tragedy.  In the second version of the myth, he looked down on the carnage he had caused and laughed at how easily humans are led astray.  Then he turned his back and went elsewhere, leaving his followers to their slaughter.

(*Olodumare, the supreme being of the Yoruba religion, stands beyond and above gender.)

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’s veve (the voodoo symbol which acts as a beacon to loa) is a cross on top of a catafalque with two standing coffins on either side.

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.

"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.

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