On the margins of theology – VI

18 01 2010

The myth of Marie Laveau

“Voodoo” is a brand name in New Orleans. This past Halloween, right in front of the museum in City Park, there was a big “Voodoo” sign advertising a big concert at which performed such treasures of our American culture as Eminem. It also shows up, almost annoyingly, on many advertisements in the city. Tours of the French Quarter almost always end at St. Louis Cemetery no. 1, home of the tomb of famed “Voodoo Queen”, Marie Laveau, over which now looms one of the more crime-ridden housing projects in the city. (Really, don’t go to this cemetery by yourself, go in a group of at least five or six people. If you want to visit an authentic Louisiana cemetery without risking life and limb, go to St. Louis Cemetery no. 3 off of Esplanade in Mid-City, or to the cemeteries on Canal St.)
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Divine Horsemen – The Living Gods of Haiti

12 01 2010

Two excerpts from the Maya Deren film, shot in the 1950’s. Notice the rosary is said preceding the rites shown in the second excerpt.

Maya Deren observed in Haiti that people never asked if she believed in Voudou, but if she did Voudou. This reflects the sentiment that I read of another scholar who said that the point of Yoruba religion had little to do with what we would call faith or morals, but rather with the ways that supernatural forces can be invoked and manipulated.

Such a paradigm is useful in understanding such phenomena as rootwork, hoodoo, and folk Catholicism, often at the margins of various forms of Christianity. In this sense, there is no such thing as a “folk Catholic”, but rather a person who performs folk Catholic ritual. Catholics who believe in “folk Catholicism” do not perceive it as being all that different from “normal Catholicism” (if such a beast exists outside of the Internet and the American suburb). It is often not a matter of belief that separates these people from “regular” Catholics, but a matter of practice. “Folk Catholicism” only exists insofar as it works, and ceases to exist once it doesn’t work. To the outsider, it can seem to be an attempt to manipulate the divine. The common worshipper has enough “cognitive dissonance” to not perceive it that way.

(to be continued…)

More Maria Lionza

16 12 2009

More on faith and culture

5 11 2009


Rather than attempting to build Christianity upon the natural virtues of Inca religion in the Andes, the Jesuits in Juli had come to see Andean customs and beliefs as a serious hinderance to the faith of Christ. The sixteenth-century emphasis on the interior experience of Christianity, which created much higher standards for native converts than had existed in preceding centuries, meant that the Jesuit’s disillusionment with the native potential for Christian evangelization would be experienced throughout the Peruvian church. Eventually, the conviction that they native peoples were not truly “Christian” would lead to episcopal campaigns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to extirpate idolatry, as well as to modern notions that Andean peoples are “cryptopagans” even when they profess a belief in Christ.

Dr. Sabine Hyland wrote a book a few years back entitled, The Jesuit and the Incas, on one of the first mestizo clergy in Peru, Fr. Blas Valera. A son of one of the conquistadores and an Inca noblewoman, he was one of the first scholars to do a comparison of ancient Incan civilization with the European classical world, and created a world view quite favorable to the conquered empire. It was Fr. Valera’s contention that Inca religion was quite close to Christianity, down to an almost Christian idea of an incarnate God named Viracocha, and an absolute creator god named Illa Tecce. Valera wanted the Spanish clergy to begin to use these names for the Christian God and Jesus Christ, but to no avail. In the end, Fr. Valera was framed on charges of fornication and imprisoned by the Jesuit order for four years. Scholars now believe that he was really imprisoned for syncretic heresy. Only through the intervention of some influential Jesuits was he finally freed and sent to Spain, where he died in a pirate assault on Cadiz in 1597.
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Hino da Umbanda

3 11 2009

High John the Conqueror : African-American “folk saint”?

4 06 2009


From Bay Area botanica to Muddy Waters

The following is a translation of a prayer I found in a religious store in San Francisco:

In the name of God Almighty. Soul of John the Conqueror, who some call the Great John since you were a great lover and guardian of money, for this reason and because of the hours they are giving you, I ask that you put me in the heart of so-and-so and favored by my Guardian Angel, it be granted to me what I sincerely and of good faith ask you: that my fate and luck change and may the pains and torments of my life cease just as your punishment for your foolish actions and ambitions ceased in purgatory. To the Guardian Angel of so-and-so: do not give him/her tranquility until s/he is by my side.

At first glance, this is another prayer in the midst of many to “questionable” figures who may or may not have existed, such as Jesus Malverde, Maria Francia, or Juan Minero venerated in many places in Latin America. What is more interesting is that this man definitely falls into the category of an “anima sola“: a deceased person whose life was by no means virtuous but is miraculous nonetheless because of his suffering in Purgatory. It is one of the most interesting finds that I have encountered in my botanica hunts.

However, I have begun studying as well the religious traditions of African-Americans, and I have found a John the Conqueror there as well. Indeed, in “rootwork” or Hoodoo, John the Conqueror is a trickster figure who has great power. As it is explained on one website:

Who was John the Conqueror and what is the root named after him? Ethnographers, especially those influenced by Zora Neale Hurston, say that he was a black slave whose life — perhaps a real life that was embellished in the telling, perhaps a fictional life entirely imagined — was an inspiration to slaves who wanted to rebel against their masters but could not do so openly. John, said to be the son of an African king, was in captivity, but he never became subservient, and his cleverness at tricking his master supplied many a story with a pointed moral. If he was a real being, he soon acquired some of the characteristics of mythical trickster figures like the Native American Coyote, the African-American Bre’r Rabbit, and the West African deity known variously as Elegua, Legba, and Eshu. He gave — only to take away. He bet — and never lost. He played dumb — but he was never outsmarted. The reputation of High John is so great that, as recorded by the folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt in the 1930s, just reciting the words “John over John” and “John the Conqueror” is a powerful spell of magical protection against being hoodooed.

Like the Catholic binding prayer above, one of the uses of “John the Conqueror root” is for love spells. The blues musician Muddy Waters even wrote a song about it, an excerpt of which you can hear by clicking on this link.

How this tradition got to Mexico and ended up on a “prayer card” sold in a botanica is an interesting question, perhaps one we will never be able to answer. But if it is indeed an African tradition, it is interesting to see how it was incorporated into the Catholic ethos in Mexico and how it evolved in the Hoodoo tradition.

New Orleans Voodoo – Two contrasting videos

7 05 2009

One wonders how accurate this video is. I have yet to read a serious biography of Marie Laveau, mainly because I can’t afford it (sigh). Should we believe that the head of the New Orleans clergy and the chief Voudou priestess worked together in many ways? (Congo Square is about six blocks behind St. Louis Cathedral, almost in its shadow.) Perhaps our own ideas of acceptability when it comes to syncretism are different from those of “good Catholics” from back then. One thing is for sure: Marie Laveau was a fixture at the cathedral throughout her life, and no one tried to throw her out.

Of course, I picked this video because there is not a black person in it. I was recently at the St. Jude Shrine in New Orleans, which has a number of African-American parishioners. There was a woman who was doing something very interesting around the statue of St. Jude, probably something she made up, but it would look like “Voodoo” to anyone else looking on. The one thing about syncretic systems is that they are most authentic when people use them in the style of a bricoleur, that is, not self-consciously, systematically separating the “pagan” from the “Christian” elements. Indeed, it is middle class whites who often exploit syncretic systems, Indian shamanism, etc., in their own anti-Christian, neo-pagan quests for “real spirituality”. Marie Laveau or El Niño Fidencio would have never thought themselves anything but good Catholics when executing their “pagan” rituals. When outsiders arrive to take up their mantle, they more often than not miss that very important point.

More on the Cult of Maria Lionza

19 04 2009

Why apologetics might be bad for Catholicism (and other notes)

12 08 2008

The dialectic of the sacred permits all reversibilities; no “form” is exempt from degradation and decomposition, no “history” is final.  Not only can a community- consciously or unconsciously-  practice many religions. but the same individual can have an infinite variety of religious experiences, from the “highest” to the most undeveloped and aberrant… we frequently find the shamanic experience attempting to express itself through an ideology that is not always favorable to it.

-Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
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