Saturday, July 30, 2011

Samedi: The Ghede at the Palace

Though the vast majority of Americans – or at least the ones I’ve chatted with on the subject – believe that all Haitians are steeped to their necks in Voudon, a few souls in that country might disagree.  The story goes that the Duvalier dictators used their people’s devotion to the lwa against their enemies, making their guards and police a virtual secret society.  This is true to some degree.  This behavior on the part of their leaders did not stop upper class Haitians from looking down on Voudon as something akin to ignorant superstition.  In fact before the Duvalier regime, most Haitian leaders very much distanced themselves from the spiritual beliefs of the populace.

The curious thing is that these people, who look down their noses as Voudon, are usually practicing it themselves.  They will have discreet niches in their homes, ostensibly in devotion to Catholic saints, which are actually altars to the lwa.  How similar this behavior is to that of slaves before the revolution probably doesn’t even bare mentioning.  The hypocrisy of it, however, is lost on no one and has led to an oft told tale of a virtual uprising of the Ghede.

It is said that a certain President of Haiti was particularly vocal about his rejection of Voudon and he encouraged his people to follow his lead.  Along with this, his regime was corrupt in the extreme and people only blocks from his palatial palace were literally starving.  One evening, under a blood red sky, a mass possession fell upon the populace of Port-au-Prince with hundreds of people mounted by Ghede lwa.  The Ghede marched through the streets to the Presidential palace with Baron Samedi, Baron Cemetere and Maman Brigitte in the lead.  Those not possessed stood in awe, and followed the procession to see what would happen.

The Ghede mounted the steps of the palace, waving the President’s guards aside as if they had no fear of their weapons.  And of course, they did not; weren’t they dead already?  The mob pounded on the palace door and demanded that the President come out and meet them. 

In abject terror, the President appeared on the balcony above.  “Who are you?” he cried.  “What do you want?”

“We are the Ghede,” Baron Samedi replied.  “We want the people fed and we want your devotion.  Give us money and call me your Lord.”

The President protested against these demands but the Baron promised that his Ghede would break down the doors and wreak havoc in the palace.  At last the President, terrified beyond reason, rained money down upon the people and vowed to honor Voudon and most of all the Ghede from that day forward.

The Ghede, pleased and pacified, left the palace and their horses to return to their home in the cemeteries.

It is probably safe to say that the story is apocryphal but it is instructive nonetheless.  When Voudon is threatened, it is the lwa of the Dead who champion it and they can champion the sincerely devoted individual, too.

Header: Ghede lwa from Mambo Sallie Ann Glassman’s “Wall of Voodoo” in New Orleans


Timmy! said...

I find that organized religion and hypocrisy usually go hand in hand, Pauline.

I also like that the skeletons in ths painting at the header have penis bones. That's pretty funny.

Pauline said...

Those skeletons kind of rock. We'll have to stop by and give them a shout next time we're in NOLA.