Go See the “Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti” Exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History!

Last Saturday, my boyfriend Daniel and I finally made good on our plans to check out the “Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti” exhibit at the Field Museum. The exhibit, which appears courtesy of the Canadian Museum of History, opened the week before Halloween and runs through April 26, 2015, so there’s more than ample time to visit Chicago and savor this exquisite collection of more than 300 sacred objects. More impressive still, none of these objects, including large-scale representations of the Lwa, reside behind plexiglass. Their energies are meant to be experienced directly, and considering that the majority of objects are artifacts from a “recently disbanded” (to quote the Field Museum’s website) Vodou secret society known as a Bizango, such a lack of a physical barrier is all the more remarkable.

 

Knowing this, I took the necessary spiritual precautions per my oluwo’s (to use the Yoruba term for “godfather”) injunctions. He told me during my Hand of Ifá initiation five years ago that I’m one of those empaths/spiritually sensitive people that spirits of a dubious moral nature like to “jump” if I’m not warded adequately. Knowing this, I have to be extra careful when traveling to places that have a tragic history (evidently, I brought a not-nice spirit back home with me after spending time in Jamestown, Virginia, in 2009 and I underwent a small-scale exorcism/major cleansing to rid myself of it) as well as to funeral homes, cemeteries, hospice centers, etc. I was even cautioned against standing on top of sewer and subway grates–even taking trash out to the dumpster is taboo for me because of the risk of encountering a potential spiritual predator when I’m not protected. (Yes, Virginia, there is a correlation between physical uncleanliness like sewers and garbage dumpsters and unclean spirits. The ancient Greeks understood this very well and they bequeathed the term miasma to us as a result.)

In the Yoruba view, these unwholesome spirits like to attack a vulnerable person just above her or his heels and climb up the legs. Hence the precautions I take involve using cascarilla (powdered eggshell made into a type of chalk; that’s the Cuban term for it–I can’t seem to remember the Yoruba term my oluwo or other babalawo use) to draw certain sigils on my calves. I also chalk up the soles of my feet and my heels for good measure.

Well, last Saturday morning before Dan and I headed out the house, I chalked myself up and I applied liberal amounts of St. Michael the Archangel essential oil to my vulnerable zones too (forehead, temples, nape of the neck, palms of my hands). I should reiterate that there was no sense of dread whatsoever; I’ve always been fond of the religion of Vodou because the African Diaspora Religion (ADR) I follow, Ifá, has many similarities. And while I’m not initiated to work with the Lwa, after receiving a dream of the Lwa Erzulie Dantor a little over a year ago, I consulted with a friend of mine who also happens to be a Mambo in a Haitian Vodou lineage and she advised me on an appropriate way of honoring Mama Dantor as a non-initiate. I will mention more about Mama Dantor further on.

What many ADRs have in common is some degree of connection with or strong influence by Freemasonry. While it’s clearly a legacy of colonialism in the West African countries from which religions like Vodou, Ifá, Candomblé, and Palo Mayombe sprang, that influence shows the value of an age-old, cross-cultural occult maxim: If it works for you, keep it. In Haitian Vodou, even the concept of “God” derives its nomenclature from Freemasonry: “He” is referred to as “Le Grand Mét,” the “Great Master,” a reference to the G.A.O.T.U. and each Masonic Lodge’s Worshipful Master, who represents, in microcosmic form, this Architect of All That Is. Also inspired by Freemasonry are the hierarchical systems, initiatory degrees, ceremonial salutes, and other symbol systems used in Haitian Vodou and other ADRs. A trained eye can find a plethora of Masonic symbolism in Vodou vévés–ceremonial sigils traced on the ground or floor of a temple or other space of religious worship where the Lwa will be honored; they are literally the “calling cards” to summon individual Lwa–alone, making for a fantastic visual mandala meditation, if nothing else.

Papa Legba to the left and a stylized symbol of "Le Grand Mét" on the wall at the Field Museum's Vodou exhibit. Life-sized Bizango Lwa, warrior spirits, appear in the background.

Papa Legba to the left and a stylized symbol of “Le Grand Mét” on the wall at the Field Museum’s Vodou exhibit. Life-sized Bizango Lwa, warrior spirits from a secret society, appear in the background.

Again, the fact that the overwhelming majority of the artifacts in this Field Museum exhibit were obtained from a Vodou secret society (Bizango) really underscores the connection with Freemasonry, since the Brotherhood is, by nature, a secret society itself.

My introduction to the concept of a Bizango sect within Haitian Vodou came courtesy of Wes Craven’s intelligent and at times gloriously creepy film adaptation of Wade Davis’ controversial anthropological text, The Serpent and the Rainbow. At the film’s outset, the secret society members, led by a bokor or sorcerer, march through the dilapidated streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, signaling their presence with the intimidating sounds of a cracking bullwhip and firecrackers. The secret society members are singled out visually by the tell-tale signs of red and black clothing and accoutrements.

Members of the nefarious secret society depicted in the film "The Serpent and the Rainbow," which are visually differentiated from other Vodou practitioners in the film by their trademark red and black ritual apparel.

Members of the nefarious secret society depicted in the film “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” which are visually differentiated from other Vodou practitioners in the film by their trademark red and black ritual apparel.

That’s actually accurate. The “Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti” exhibit contains wonderfully engaging clips of documentary films made by anthropologists observing actual Vodou practices in Haiti. One of those film clips, dating from the 1950s, shows the members of a Bizango society marching to their ritual site with sacrificial animals in tow. They’re singing, marching, and yes, the cracks of bullwhips by the Bizango’s oungan, or priest, punctuate the rhythm of human voices and feet stomping across the Haitian countryside.

Red and black are the prevalent colors. Unquestionably, the most spiritually and visually engaging living artifacts in the Vodou exhibit are the depictions of the Bizango “Warrior Lwa.” As with human warriors who have seen a lot of combat and lost limbs and their psychological well-being for it, many of the life-size Bizango figures clutch actual weapons like machetes and clubs; many are amputees. They exude a sense of holy rage, and many of them are spiritual warriors fighting against echoes of the past, of Haiti’s history of the evils of slavery and oppression of the common people. The Bizango cult members who formed these warrior Lwa images–and in African sensibility, the image of a thing is not just a representation, it’s the thing itself–had the sense to bind them in chains, knowing that the collective ashé of these pieces is so strong that the figures required physical restraint. Aside from chains and ropes, these black-and-red Lwa figures also feature mirrors as a predominant decorative motif, as mirrors are portals to the spirit world.

My favorite Bizango Lwa was not named, just described as a Female Warrior with her right breast cut off, just like an Amazon:

Female Lwa fight just as valiantly as their male counterparts.

Female Lwa fight just as valiantly as their male counterparts.

 And here is a pair of male warriors, given wings to assure that they move with supernatural speed:

Rén Bizango ak Zel is on the left and Agawou Gonde Bizango is on the right.

Rén Bizango ak Zel is on the left and Agawou Gonde Bizango is on the right.

The exhibit is comprehensive in its scope, and features the familiar Rada, Petwo, Simbi, and Gedé nations of Haitian Vodou Lwa, not just these Bizango Warriors. As always, my heart zeroed in on my favorite Lwa: Erzulie Dantor, the fierce Mother syncretized with Our Lady of Perpetual Help and The Madonna of Czechostowa, and Simbi Makaya, the Simbi spirit bearing symbols of clubs from a deck of cards on his fantastically elaborate sequined outfit because he is the patron of divination/clairvoyance:

 

Erzulie Dantor, the Lwa I honor in my home as a non-initiate ever since her name literally appeared to me in a strange dream a little over a year ago. A Mambo friend of mine instructed me to immediately begin propitiating her in my home.

Erzulie Dantor, the Lwa I honor in my home as a non-initiate ever since her name literally appeared to me in a strange dream a little over a year ago. A Mambo friend of mine instructed me to immediately begin propitiating her in my home.

 

Simbi Makaya in human form, though he is a Snake/Water spirit.

Simbi Makaya in human form, though he is a Snake/Water spirit. Note the symbol from the Suit of Clubs in his abdomen.

In all, Daniel and I marveled and I silently payed homage to the Lwa during our two-hour perusal of the objects in this stunning exhibit. I cannot encourage people enough to go see this outstanding, beautifully and intelligently presented exhibit. Anyone who has even the slightest of occult/Pagan interests and who lives in Chicago or has the opportunity to travel there before April 26 really needs to go experience the ineffably powerful, hauntingly beautiful energies of the Lwa face-to-face in this never-before-available-to-the-public showcase of a Haitian Bizango society’s treasures.

Just be sure to chalk up your feet and legs with cascarilla powder first. Don’t say I didn’t tell you. 😉

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