Spirited Things, 8



Moral Ritual Communication among Haitian Descent Groups

Karen Richman



Possession Terminology



Dance, Ethnography, and Possession



The Individual, Nature, and Possession



Interdependence and Possession



Spirits, Ancestors, and Transnational Affliction



Rhetorical Biases of Researchers




Possession Terminology


p. 208 messages from spirits

"Spirits may not only speak but also sing, mime, or dance out ... a communicative role ... in ... {spirit-}possession (... Sered 1994; Crapazano and Garrison 1977)."

"the Haitian principle of communication with spirits for the benefit of the group, including the person who momentarily "has" the lwa {as guest occupying the body} [, ... is implied in] the latter expression ... "so and so has a lwa (in her head)"".

Sered 1994 = Susan Sered : Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister : Religions Dominated by Women. Oxford Univ Pr.

Crapazano & Garrison 1977 = Vincent Crapazano & Vivian Garrison (edd.) : Case Studies in Spirit Possession. NY : Wiley.

p. 209 spirits' dancing; warnings from spirits

"Spirits, who are called lwa ..., make themselves known to members of their descent groups by "speaking" (pale) or "dancing in/through the head" (danse nan te`t) of select members. ... Through speech and gestures, lwa ... bless, warn, protect, cajole, and chastise others (K. Brown 1991). ...

Several survivors in Le'ogane, the epicenter of the seismic shocks, told me that the lwa came to warn their community of a massive cataclysm. The spirits communicted these messages in the dreams and "heads" -- {spirit-}possession performance -- of certain persons. Several people I spoke to ... credited their survival to spirits' alerts".

Brown 1991 = Karen McCarthy Brown : Mama Lola : a Vodou Preistess ... . Berkeley : Univ of CA Pr.

{Le'ogane is the only site in Haiti whereof I had personal acquaintance with residents therein : both author Michael Bertiaux (whom I met personally in Chicago in the late 1960s to early 1970s) and a man from it (whose religion he described as of Liberian provience) confined in an insane asylum (in C., GA) along with me (in the 1980s). This is one involvement of mine with earthquake-spirits; another is to be found in the etymon of Aztec 'earthquake', /ollin/ < */ORyIn/ : for the only river-valley wherein I ever resided (within sight, from my city-block, of the river) was that of the ORINoco (residence wherein would seem to have been prognosticated by the name ORoNoco of the tribe occupying the state of my nativity, VA).}


Dance, Ethnography, and Possession


pp. 210-1 Derek; Dunham; Daniel

p. 210

"Professional women dancers who went to Haiti to study and record ritual dance wrote the canonical texts for this ... .

Maya Deren's Divine Horsemen : The Living Gods of Haiti ([1953] ...) is ... Lauded ... as "the first intimate study of the cult" (Gold 1991:226), which covers "the golden age of Haitian (... Vodou) tourism" (Plummer 1990), Deren's text is ... well known".

p. 211

"The late Katherine Dunham was, like her mentor, Maya Deren,

a dancer who became an ethnographer (Ramsey 2000).

{Martha Beckwith, interested in hula, could also be accounted as an instance of this.}

Dunham's (1969) account of ... Haitian Vodou ..., Bourguinon (1970:1133) notes ... is "... full of clairvoyance and telepathy, ectoplasms and haunted places, and ... zombies ... ."

A recent contribution to this ethnographic genre {of dance-mysticism} that uses Haitian religion ... is Yvonne Daniel's ... (2005)."

"(Deren was Jewish; Dunham and Daniels were African American)".

Gold 1991 = Herbert Gold : Best Nightmare on Earth : a Life in Haiti. NY : Touchstone.

Plummer 1990 = Brenda Plummer : "The Golden Age of Tourism ... in Haitian Cultural ... Affairs, 1934-1971". CIMARRO`N 2.3:49.63.

Ramsey 2000 = Kate Ramsey : "Melville Herskovits, Katherine Dunham, and ... African Diaspora Dance Anthropology". In :- Lisa Doolittle & Anne Flynn (editrices) : Dancing Bodies, Living Histories. Banff (AB). pp. 196-216.

Dunham 1969 = Katharine Dunham : Island Possessed. Univ of Chicago Pr.

Bourguinon 1970 = Erika Bourguinon : "Review of Island Possessed ...". AMER ANTHROPOLOGIST 72:1132-3.

Daniel 2005 = Yvonne Daniel : Dancing Wisdom : Embodied Knowledge in Haitian Vodou, Cuban Yoruba, and Brazilian Candomble`. Urbana : Univ of IL Pr.

pp. 212-3 Hurston

p. 212

"In Mules and Men ([1935] ...) ..., Hurston provides a detailed account of her initiation as a hoodoo "worker" in New Orleans under the tutelage of a formidable specialist named Turner. ... ([1935] ...:208-12) ...

Obviously aware that her own psychic journey is of little import, Hurston relegates her dissociative {N.B. : "psychic experiences" are always associative, for they associate us with divine beings : whereas lack of "psychic experiences" is dissociative, for it must dissociate us from the world of divine beings} experience to a single passing reference to "five psychic experiences" (209).

{Traditionally, spiritual experiences have been considered the most basically important aspect of any genuine religion, her reason for not describing her own "psychic experiences" is likely to have something quite different from imagining them "of little import". In fact, any person known to have undergone "psychic experiences" then was (and as yet is, in many countries) liable to be involuntarily confined in an "insane asylum", and there secretly killed by the "psychiatrists".}

This ... her entre'e into the secret powers of conjure is followed by an account of a series of instances of her mentor demonstrating how to put her newfound powers to work ... on behalf of clients who come seeking therapy for their ... relationships.

Cheryl Wall (1989) interprets Hurston's ... burden ... . ... .

p. 213

Wall asserts that Hurston ... in her first novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God ([1937] ...) ... gives voice to a female protagonist who then becomes a model for subsequent protagonists, including Avey Johnson in Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow (1983)."

Hurston 1935 = Zorah Neale Hurston : Mules and Men. Philadelphia : J.B. Lippincott Co. (reprinted 1968 Bloomington : IN Univ Pr; reprinted 1990 NY : Harper Perennial)

Wall 1989 = Cheryl Wall : "Zorah Neale Hurston's Strategies of Narration ...". BLACK AMERICAN LITERATURE FORUM 23.4:661-80.


The Individual, Nature, and Possession


p. 214 paths (epithets) of major deities

"researchers viewing Haitian cosmology through a lens of foregrounding abstract individualism and universality wrongly {?!} concluded from evidence of widespread worship of Ogou that all of the devotees were worshipping one and the same Ogou as opposed to distinct spirits who share the same name." {A similar quaestion may arise in any religion whatsoever : to what extent are membres of a divine category (e.g., mal>aki^m / angeloi) the same or different?}

{The various "forms" or "paths" of each deity are named by various epithets which may or may not be distinct personalities, and/or which or may not be distinct activities of the "same" or of different" deities. The praeternatural/supernatural consciousnesses involved may merge or may differentiate according to practical requirements of shifting circumstances, with no permanent qualities other than a permamently versatile capacity for further shifting. This active capacity is a natural concommitant of ongoing telepathizing, which must continuously vary any distinctions and any similarities. [written Dec 2014]}

p. 214 Is abstract "self-knowledge" even possible?

"since all person are free {how and why?} and equivalent {really?}, any person (and ultimately the researcher her- or himself)

can have access to any spirit; and

{Of course, any such access must be limited by the willingness of such spirit for being thus accessed.}

there are no ontological barriers preventing communication.

{what about epistemological barriers, and what about limitations in the nature of pragmatism or of practicability?}

This communication is then focused inwardly on self-knowledge rather than communal interaction."

{Wrong! The result of such communication can only be knowledge of the other communicant (rather than knowledge in-and-of one's self); though such a result may, of course, include what the other communicant may think of or about one's self, and may transmit to the other communicant whatever one may think of or about that communicant.}

{That pure "self-knowledge" can even potentially at all exist is pure conjecture, not based on actual observation. Actually, because nothing can be meaningfully described in terms of itself (such description being, at best, the merest of tautologies), no pure "self-knowledge" (in isolation from comparison and/or contrast with, or in regard to, others) can at all be possible, nor imaginable. [written Dec 2014]}

p. 214 false valuations brought about by capitalism

"capitalist culture ... allows all human labor to be reduced to the same essence in order for their different labor to be exchanged for varying quantities {of} a uniform quality -- money.

{One of the outcomes of this is a false valuation (i.e., gross devaluation) of social ethics when attempted to be put (by the hypocritical strictures of capitalism) into monetary terms. Because capitalists will not spend on ethics, they claim (unilaterally) that social (i.e., socialist) ethics are worthless.}

This "magical" {feignedly pious, but actually greed-based} transformation is the basis of commodity fetishism (Marx 1977:165)."

{In other words, under capitalism religious devotion is replaced for greed for material possessions, material commodities supplanting genuine fetishes (religious articles, such as religious statuettes and religious medallions).}

Marx 1977 = Karl Marx : Capital. Vol. 1. Transl. by B. Fowkes. NY : Vintage.

p. 215 the hypocritical capitalist trick of blaming worker-victims for their being exploited

"describes a system that professes equivalence at the same time as it

{"professes aequivalence" by praetending that there exist adequate safeguards for the rights of workers (which rights never legally exist in any adequate sense, under capitalism)}

creates and dehumanizes others and

{"creates others" in the sense of creating oppositions in social, oikonomic, and other value-interests; "dehumanizes" in the sense of depriving of organically (crucially) needed rights and privileges}

blames victims who fail at self-reliance.

{Because victims of capitalism cannot, perforce, be "self-reliant" when deprived (by ploutokrats) of ownership of the material means-of-production, this "blame" (by capitalists against workers) is, of course, the sheerest of hypocrisy.}

p. 215 extent of control by deities of physical forces

"Ritual discourse, mainly in song texts, and visual imagery {such as, in paintings and in statues} often compare spirits to aspects or forces of nature, linking, for example, Danbala Wedo {Aido-hu-edo}'s energy with that of a water snake and Ogou's anger with thunder.

It does not follow, however, that Danbala is an actual snake

{As can be exemplified by AmerIndian shamanry, deities may in dreams sometime assume a therianthrope or a therian form (and when so, will explain then and there that they are deities guised as an animal).

or that Ogou in fact controls storms.

Such deities may routinely control the weather in dreams; but only exceptionally (mainly to rescue persons in danger of being killed) will their energetic forms manifest in the material world.}

This "denotive" reduction of Haitians' analogical classification ... continues ..., despite the correction first tendered by Gerald Murray (1980). ...

The powers of the lwa are ... {insofar as the waking, material universe is concerned} primarily confined to ... protecting the health and labor power of members of descent groups to whom they belong.

Yet they are also distinct from the ancestors, who are worshipped in their own right and

{These alleged "ancestors" are more likely actually to be former guardian-angels (or spirit-guides) of the actual ancestors in quaestion.}

whose primary role, by virtue of their proximity to the other world, is to mediate relations between members of cognatic descent groups and their inherited lwa."

{Because the actual ancestors were, while they were alive, unable to mediate affairs between mortals and deities, they would surely also be incapable after death. The entities successfully doing mediating are likely to be, instead, former guardian-angels (or spirit-guides).}

Murray 1980 = Gerald Murray : "... Voodoo ... of Haitian Peasant Ritual". In :- Eric Ross (ed.) : Beyond the Myths of Culture. NY : Academic. pp. 295-321.

{As experienced by AmerIndian (and other) shamans, something of the nominal authority of deities may be indirectly praesent involved with ordinary animals (and with plants), and in weather-phainomena, in the waking-world, but only in an attentuated spirit-guise, usually located in the close vicinity of the phainomena in quaestion.}


Paul Christopher Johnson (ed.) : Spirited Things : the Work of "Possession" in Afro-Atlantic Religions. Univ of Chicago Pr, 2014.