Saturday, March 10, 2012

Samedi: The Ghede Revisited

Haiti is rich with dark myths and voodoo legends, including many frightening tales of the evil Ghede.  This lord of the dead is a tall man who wears a long black coat, black top hat, and dark glasses.  He is considered a powerful devil who constantly seeks the ruin of souls.

Ghede stands at the eternal crossroads through which all souls must pass upon death.  He has the power to resurrect the dead and to animate zombies.  One of his most frightening attributes is his ability enternally to torment the souls of corpses stolen by sorcerers.  Haitians believe that only prayer and holy ritual can save them from the clutches of Ghede.  ~ from Encyclopedia of Hell by Miriam Van Scott

First of all: say what!?

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s break this down a little bit.  In Haitian Voudon and New Orleans voodoo the Ghede (they are generally imagined as a group, not as a single entity) are nothing more frightening than the spirits of the dead.  They are led by a smaller group – usually of three but sometimes as many as seven – of gentlemen known as the Barons.  Baron Samedi is the most familiar and the most often addressed.  His wife is one of the few female Ghede, the powerful Maman Brigitte.  In New Orleans, Baron Samedi is considered the patron lwa of the city and its surrounding bayous.  For an extended but by no means complete list of the well known Haitian Ghede, click here.

There is nothing of the devil or demon in Ghede lore.  In fact the Ghede – though they usually go uninvited – are some of the most welcome guests when spirit possession occurs at the oumphor.  Their hard drinking, sense of humor and honesty are a welcome diversion from the sometimes more difficult lessons brought from Ginen by the lwa.  In fact, the only participant who will have nothing to do with the Ghede is usually a spirit and not a human; the beautiful Erzulie Freda Dahomey cannot abide the Ghede, as they remind her of aging and corruption.  She will complain that they are “chameau”: stinky.

The idea of torment and torture of a soul after death is alien to Haitian Voudon.  In this world view, souls retreat to the underwater haven of Ginen where, if offerings are made to them and they are strong enough to help the living, they might even become lwa themselves.  I won’t even cross the line into corpse thieving or zombies as I have no direct experience with either.  Such things do occur, but it is not the Ghede who are called upon for help with those matters.

In the end, Van Scott’s two paragraphs seem at the very least a misunderstanding of Voudon and voodoo.  At its worst, the entry is a another blatant attempt to demonize the gods/spirits of a religion that does not conform to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim world view.  When I was studying anthropology in school – back in the ‘80s children – we were stringently and frequently reminded that ethnocentrism was the bane of any serious study of man and man’s beliefs.  Van Scott’s book bares a 1998 copyright.  Evidently not everyone got the message.

Header:  Baron Samedi via Deities & Demons (see the sidebar)


Timmy! said...

Wow. I can see why that one bothered you, Pauline. That was a whole lot of misinformation there by Ms. Van Scott.

Cool painting, though.

Pauline said...

Misinformation is everywhere; we expect it from pundits and advertisers and politicians. At this point in history, that's they're job. But when it masquerades as "well researched" (two words that appear on the back of Ms. Van Scott's book) fact, it needs to be pointed out and called out. Thus, this post.

Prince of Pinkness said...

Second that, 'Wow'. A very fascinating introduction to the Ghede. I've also had a look at your other post on Ghede from 2010.

If you don't mind me asking, do you believe the Ghede lore has a factual / paranormal basis?

Lastly, it is too bad about ethnocentrism.. everything worthwhile seems to have its own impediments to overcome.. all good literature, art, music. Anyway, I'm rambling! ;p

Pauline said...

My Prince, you and I are very close in our ideas, I imagine.

All this is about belief I guess but that's where it goes off to the left... I don't think any of us can imagine what happens after death and so... well... some of this has to hitch itself to the paranormal.

All that said, I - personally - would never be afraid of the straight up Ghede.

But how do you know?