Saturday, March 12, 2011

Samedi: Petitions on Paper

Writing down words that symbolize what we want from the Universe is an ancient practice that points to the power of literacy. There was a time when people who could write were looked upon as literal magicians, and that is still the case in some parts of the world. Given that the original practitioners of Haitian Voudon were slaves who were purposefully kept from learning how to read and write, it is not surprising that the tradition of oraisons, or written requests to the lwa, is still in common practice today.

Generally, an oraison takes the form of a Catholic prayer to an individual Saint. The prayers are either traditional to Voudon or transferred by hand from a prayer card to a piece of paper. Any paper is fine but pieces of brown bag are the favorite medium in New Orleans voodoo and hoodoo. The completed papers are then sewn into clothing or bedding for fulfillment of wishes. Generally a houngan or mambo will prepare the oraison to the specifications of a client in exchange for money. In Haiti, particularly at the famous (and recently restored) Iron Market in Port-au-Prince, ready-made oraisons can be purchased every day. Oraisons can also be made by voudonists themselves. This is a fairly common practice among root workers but in Haiti it is thought that, for the best result, a priestess or priest must create the petition and money should be exchanged.

Certain Saints are favored for oraisons, with their prayers having specific areas of expertise. Saint Expedite, of course, is called upon to hasten good fortune or quickly end trial. Saint Bartholomew is petitioned to heal illnesses, especially unseen disorders like nervous maladies and witchcraft, Saint Michael is called upon to keep people safe at sea, Saint Clare watches over the poor and Saint Radegund, a personal favorite of mine, protects from harm by others, either intentional or errant. Other Saints’ prayers are used as well, but these five are the most common in my experience.

As an example, here is one way I use a homemade oraison for a very modern purpose: keeping myself and my family safe while travelling in our vehicles. I tear a piece of brown bag into a relative square and then write a prayer to St. Radegund in black ink. Radegund was a Frankish princess that renounced her possessions and dedicated her life to serving God and the poor. She eventually became an anchorite, walled up in a small cell where she experienced Divine visions particularly of Purgatory. Here is the prayer:

Radegund, Baron Samedi, guardian of the cemetery,
You who have the power of going into purgatory,
Give my enemies something to do
So they may leave me alone.

Writing with intention – and sincere faith in Radegund and the Baron – is important. When you’re finished, fold the paper in half and the hide it somewhere in your car, boat, motorcycle, RV, airplane, etc. to protect you from accidents and mechanical failure. This particular prayer is unusual for calling on a specific lwa, Baron Samedi, as well as the Saint. This may indicate that Radegund is syncratized to some degree with the Baron’s wife Maman Brigitte. This is especially interesting to me as Maman Brigitte is not generally paired with any specific Saint in Haiti but I have seen her prayed to as Saint Brigit and even Saint Jeanne d’Arc in NOLA and elsewhere.

Something to think about while you consider the beautifully simple tradition of the oraison. Bon Samedi ~

Header: Medieval statue of Saint Radegund from Poitiers, France


Timmy! said...

Interesting, Pauline. As you know, Saint Jeanne d’Arc has been helpful to me in the past...

Pauline said...

Maman Brigitte's connection with St. Jeanne is puzzling on the surface. St. Jeanne was a very young woman when she was burned at the stake, while Maman Brigitte is thought of as an older lady. But she is also pictured, at least sometimes, as a corpse made out of charred bone. One has to imagine St. Jeanne similarly after her Passion. I'm just speculating on the connection, but it's worth a thought.

Either way, I'm devoted to both of them.