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Tuesday, November 10, 2015


Most West Indians of African descent are affiliated, at least nominally, with a historic Christian denomination or with one of the newer sects. In many areas of the West Indies, however, a number of hybrid religions have attracted large numbers of followers. In Haiti, virtually the entire population is in some way involved in vodou. In Jamaica, the Revivalist, Kumina, and Convince cults continuously attract a small number of adherents. Wherever such cults are found, some persons participate more or less regularly in both a Christian church and a cult, and in times of crisis many who ordinarily ignore the cults become involved in their healing or magical rituals.
This essay will concentrate on four types of syncretic religious cults found in the Caribbean region, which will be called the neo-African cults, the ancestral cults, the revivalist cults, and the religio-political cults. The experience of Caribbean blacks under the political, economic, and domestic conditions of slavery modified character in a stressful direction, and those who were most sensitive to the stress advanced innovative religious and secular systems to deal with their anxiety. The new religious institutions consisted of elements of African and European beliefs and practices, and, in some cases, parts of American Indian and South Asian religious traditions. A number of new religions arose from the interaction of three major variables: socioeconomic, psychological, and cultural. Contingent factors in the development of these hybrid religions include such ecological and demographic variables as the degree to which a group of people had been isolated physically and socially from other segments of the population and the proportion of the total population constituted by various ethnic and racial groups (Simpson, 1978). Successful religions spread, adapt, and persist after the conditions that gave rise to them have changed (or changed to some extent), and individuals are socialized into accepting the revised beliefs and procedures. When this happens, a religion acquires new meanings for its members, and it takes on new functions, the most universal of which is the satisfaction that comes from group activities.

Neo-African Cults

These cults developed during the early stages of cultural contact between persons of European and African origin, because members of the subordinate group could neither acquire the religion of the dominant group nor participate as comembers in the historic Christian denominations. The major cults of this type are Haitian vodou, Cuban Santería, and Trinidadian Shango. From the viewpoint of cultural content, these religions represent the most extensive blend of African and European traditions and rituals in the Caribbean region.

Haitian vodou

The African dances that were performed in the seventeenth century by slaves in the western part of the island of Hispaniola and the religious beliefs of the Fon, Siniga, Lemba, Yoruba, and other African peoples who had been brought to Hispaniola were combined with certain beliefs of European folk origin about Roman Catholic saints, and, as a result, the neo-African religion of vodou developed. As James G. Leyburn (1966) has noted, the period from 1780 to 1790, when the importation of slaves to Hispaniola was increasing, saw the emergence of vodou, with a gradual ascendancy of Fon ideas. Finding the rites useful for their cause, revolutionary leaders in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth century brought about further syntheses.
The supernatural phenomena of greatest importance in vodou are the lwa, also known as zanj, mistè, and other names. Many of these have names derived from old African gods, but other deities have names derived from African tribal or place names, names of Haitian origin, or names of Catholic saints; others have names of uncertain origin. The confusions and contradictions in the beliefs about these beings are due in part to contradictions in the Fon religious system that the Haitians adopted, and in part to the merging of the Fon system with that of the Yoruba (Courlander, 1960). But the endless variations in these and other beliefs concerning the ultimate reality are also the result of the absence of a hierarchy in the cult and of written documents. Erika Bourguignon (1980) suggests that variety and inconsistency in Haitian vodou have developed, and continue to develop, in part through the mechanism of altered states of consciousness, particularly in the forms of possession-trance and dreams. In Haiti, possession-trance is not highly stereotyped and prescribed. During possession-trance, cult leaders and members speak and act in the names of the spirits, behaving in ways that may modify the future performance of the ritual or the adherents’ perception of the spirits.
The grand lwa comprise both nature spirits and functional spirits that are of African origin. Prominent among the nature spirits are Dambala, the serpent spirit identified with the rainbow and associated with floods; Bade, spirit of the winds; Sogbo, a Fon spirit of thunder; Shango (Yor., Ṣango), the Yoruba spirit of thunder and lightning; and Agwé, spirit of the sea. The functional lwa include Legba, the Fon guardian of crossroads and all barriers; the Ogou (Yor., Ogun) family, spirits associated with war; Zaka, associated with crops and agriculture; Ezili, a sea goddess among the Fon, but transformed in Haiti into the personification of feminine grace and beauty; the members of the Gèdè family, the spirits of death; Adja, skilled in the fields of herbs and pharmacy; and Obatala (Yor., Ọbatala), the Yoruba divinity responsible for forming children in the womb (Herskovits, 1937b; Courlander, 1939; Simpson, 1945, 1978; M. Rigaud, 1953; Métraux, 1959).
The lwa are also identified with Catholic saints. Thus, Legba is often believed to be the same as Anthony the Hermit, but some say that he is Saint Peter, the keeper of the keys. Dambala is identified with Saint Patrick, on whose image serpents are depicted. Ogou Ferraille is equated with Saint James; while Ogou Balanjo, the healer, is associated with Saint Joseph, who is pictured holding a child whom he blesses with an upraised hand. Obatala becomes Saint Anne; and Ezili, who is believed to be the richest of all the spirits, is identified with Mater Dolorosa and is represented as richly clothed and bejeweled. The marassa, spirits of dead twins, are believed to be the twin saints Cosmas and Damian (Price-Mars, 1928; Herskovits, 1937a).
The relationship between vodou adherents and the lwa is thought to be a contractual one; if one is punctilious about offerings and ceremonies, the lwa will be generous with their aid. The lwa must be paid once or twice a year with an impressive ceremony, and small gifts must be presented frequently. …