Originally published on November 1, 2014
Happy All Saints Day to All!
All Saints Day, November the 1st, is the day which marks the beginning of the Ghede season in Haitian Vodou. It is also the time where devotion to our ancestral spirits is at it’s peak. In the Catholic Church, November is the month of Souls, a time when we pray diligently for the dearly departed, those who have fallen asleep in the peace of Christ, and those who have not. To that end, each day of November, my household offers the rosary for our ancestors, those who we can name, and not name, those remember and those forgotten, those called and not called. Although during this month we will feed our ancestors, we will make additional services to them, and we will work with them, we also want to pray for their spiritual elevation, and we can do this, in part, through the Holy Rosary.
Today we offered the Luminous Mysteries at the altar of the ancestors. The Luminous mysteries for those of you that are not Catholic [or lapsed a little] are an addition to the rosary that came from His Holiness, Pope St. John Paul II. As I was reflecting on the mysteries here though, the last bead of the first decade struck me. You see in the first decade we are reflecting upon the Baptism of Our Lord by St. John the Baptist and the institution of this as a Holy Sacrement of the Church. The meditation of the 10th bead however is the most interesting: “The Divine Trinity is manifested: The voice of the Father is heard as the spirit [in the form of a dove] descends upon the Sun.”
The theology of the Holy Trinity was not created by the Catholic Church, far from it. The trinity finds it’s roots in the African traditions. One of the most classic examples is found in the Yoruba people who define the Holy Trinity as Oloddumare, God the Great Archetect who created all things in the Universe, He is the manifestation most like “The Father” in Catholicism. Then there is Olofin, the part of God who is closest to the Earth and who is experienced as God manifested in Ifa, who is most akin to God the Son, Jesus. There there is Olorun, the part of God that encircles all things, the Holy Spirit if you like. Haitian Culture has no problem in accepting the tri-nature of God, although in Haitian Vodou we talk less about that and rather insetad focus more on the generic “Bondye” or “Gran Met”, while realising that these are actually two different manifestations of God, just not needing to define it so much. But while I’ve always shared with my students the theology of the trinity of God, I never stopped to think about its manifestation in scripture.
We know that Jesus spent time in Africa and Egypt and that while in those areas it is most likely that he experienced certain religious instructions of at least saw the practices of the Priests of the African religions. Although a jew, is this where the doctorine of the Holy Trinity found its roots in Christianity? Is this Father, Son and Holy Spirit actually just a direct take from an African religious tradition transported directly to the Christian Faith? If the moment of the Baptism of Christ is the first manifestation of the Holy Trinity, then is it not likely that it was a manifestation designed to pass on a piece of theology God wanted us to embrace and more fully understand?
I mentioned above that in Haitian Vodou the concept of the trinity is not lost. God the Father, the part of God that is most abstract to humanity, that is furthest away from us is known as Gran Met, the Great Master, and sometimes as the Grand Archetect, a term most likely taken from the Freemasons. The part of God that is closest to the Earth and encirles the Earth is Bondye, that part of God that we experience most often as the Divine Spark manifested within the Lwa and within each of us, what we call Fos, or what the Yoruba call, Ache, and then there is the God who is closest to manifestation, and this is where it gets complicated as for some Haitian Vodouwizan that is Jesus Christ, while for others this is another manifestiation of the Divine, and for some is the manifestation of O’dan. Neither is right nor wrong, it simple will depend on the house and the theology that has been passed down through that house.
This knowledge of the trinity is the knowledge of God, and is the foundation of theology. This is also why I do not beleive in removing the Catholic elements from Haitian Vodou. You see, I do not beleive that the Catholic elements are there to fill somethingthat was missing when the slaves brought their religions from Africa, and I do not believe that it was added to “hide” Vodou from the slave owners. Rather, I believe, and certainly everything I have learned seems to coincide, that when the African people were introduced to the Bible, they were not been given new information. It is believed after all that Moses himself was a Hounon, a Priest of the Spirit Odan who in Haiti is now often served as a part of Danballa, the serpent Spirit, and his tales were not new to Africa, after all, he travelled through African soil, it is there that he met God, and it is there that he learnd his magic. The same is true for many of the prophets of the Books of the Law, these people were already a part of African tales, their theology already present in African religion, except while the Christians had lost the magic that those early priets and saints carried, the African people had also maintained the magic. In the BIble, and in the theology of the Catholic Church they saw their stories, their history, and they simple reclaimed it for themselves. What did not fit with thier history they did not embrace, because it did not matter. In Haiti, the reclamation became Haitian Vodou.
November is the month of the Ancestors and the Ghede … and in this month I think we really should reflect as a community on what makes Haitian Vodou Haitian. It is the ancestors of Ayiti, those who fought and died for her freedom, those spirits who made the trip with the slaves across the transatlantic, those spirits that were found on the Haitian soil and all those who became ancestral spirits as a part of the process. It is their wisdom which brought together the rites of the Dahomey, Yoruba, Allada, Djoumba, Congo, and all those others, together with the reclamation of thier history found in Catholicism that gave us Vodou, and to change it, to reject the Catholic now because of some preconceived notion of oppression I think is a disservice to our ancestors.
Kwa sou Kwa!