Ezili Spirits and Concepts of
Spirituality and Sexuality in African Religious
Every nation possesses socio-cultural, political, economic and religious markers which serve as a prism for the world to identify it. England is known for its law and monarchy, France for its aesthetic taste in fashion, America for its liberal capitalism and Tibet for its unadulterated Buddhist religious practices. The wonderful Caribbean country of Haiti is often known for its religious practice of Vodou (Vodun or Voodoo). “Vodun is the spiritual imperative and way of life of Haitians. It’s psychology, cosmology, philosophy, art and a healing way of life,” writes Marguerite Lauren aka Ezili Dantò, award-winning US-based Haitian playwright, performance poet, political and social commentator, author and human rights attorney. In her own words, she is dedicated to correcting media lies about Haiti.
On international geopolitics, attempts have been made by Western powers like the United States, France and Canada to portray Haiti as a failed state, unable to properly govern itself and wallowing in abject economic squalor as a result of its primitive religious practices. But the people of Haiti have been resolute and continue to be proud of their country and its vodun practices. These practices have even impacted Haitian socio-cultural and political history. Even for their elite class, vodun is still an indispensable ingredient of the political
It is within this historical and cultural context that two famous and powerful spirit sisters, Freda and Danto, exist. Freda is the spirit of love, beauty, gambling, dancing and luxury. She has three husbands, symbolically wearing three rings, yet she is known as Metres, or mistress, because she acts more like a mistress than a wife. Her sister Danto is dark-skinned, scarred, and is the patron of motherhood, single motherhood in particular. The fascination over their female sexuality and spirituality has made them the subject of numerous anthropological and theological studies, as well as researched in other academic disciplines. In fact, the popularity of these two Ezili sisters and the religous appeal of vodun in Haiti has attracted thousands of Haitian devotees and followers within and outside the diaspora to worship beneath a waterfall of Saut D’eau in central Haiti during the annual three day festival in mid-July.
The pilgrims go there to honor Ezili Freda, syncretized as the Virgin Mary or la vyej, as well as Danbala, the great serpentine lord of the waterfall, other lwas (spirits) and Ezili Danto. Legend has it that Haiti’s most celebrated patron saint, Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Ezili Danto), appeared on a palm tree in 1847 in the Palms Grove in Saut d’Eau and was integrated into Haiti’s vodun culture.
FROM AFRICAN VODUN TO HAITIAN VODOU
Haitian vodou is pretty much African vodun Enslaved Africans from the powerful, precolonial West African kingdom of Dahomey in the Republic of Benin brought the practice to Haiti. They were mostly Gbe-speaking people (Fon, Ewe, Aja and Guen/Mina) found in Benin, Togo and Ghana. There was also a sizable native African population from the Kongo, and the Bight Biafra (Yoruba, Igbo and Kalabari). The word “vodun,” corrupted by Euroasians as “voodoo,” emanated from the Fongbe (Fon language). It means “sacred energies.” The ancient Dahomeans had belief in multiple gods and spiritual possession.
These include: veneration of ancestors, use of rituals or objects to convey mystical protection, animal sacrifices to show respect for deity to gain its favor or to give thanks, deployment of spiritual medicines or objects meant to contain the essence or power of particular spirits, and ceremonial dances, often involving elaborate costumes and masks. It also utilizes ceremonial music and instruments such as drums or divination using the interpretation of physical activities, like tossing seed hulls or pulling a stone of a certain color from a tree. It also involves the association of colors, foods, plants and other items with specific loa (lwa) or spirit and the use of these items to pay tribute to the loa.
Some people often associate this ancient practice with evil as a result of ritual performances, which include the sacrifice of live animals. But vodun focuses on respect and peace; the religious leaders serve as community leaders, This awesome African religion was transplanted to Haiti, adapted to the sociological conditions of its milieu and borrowed features continually from the formally organized religions such as Protestantism and Catholicism to dodge the ever-present slave codes. providing guidance, settling disputes and frequently providing medical care in the form of folk medicine.
As Professor Beatrice Aguessy of the Institute of Development and Endogenous Exchanges
(IDEE) based in Cotonou explains, “Voodoo cure is of two kinds: healing and cleansing of an individual or an entire city. While healing could involve mineral, herbal and animal and
spiritual rituals, cleansing on the other hand passes through acknowledgement of a wrong
deed and subsequent appeasement of the relevant spirit(s) and the offended.” However, curses, witchcraft and spells designed to do harm fall into the category of “Bo”, with Bokono (sorcerers) in charge. It does not fall under vodun religious practices. In Benin, Togo, and Ghana vodun practice today has approximately 40 million devotees. Anthropologists refer to Benin as the “cradle of Voodoo”.
Vodun is their official religion with a national Vodun holiday on their calendar and as many as 60% of the people as followers. This awesome African religion was transplanted to Haiti, adapted to the sociological conditions of its milieu and borrowed features continually from the formally organized religions such as Protestantism and Catholicism to dodge the ever-present slave codes. Thus, the names of Catholic saints became the names of loa. In many cases, the loa’s role reflected that of the corresponding saint. For instance, Saint Peter who holds the key to the kingdom of Heaven corresponds to the loa, Papa Legba, the spirit world’s gatekeeper.
Catholic religious holidays became vodun holidays for the corresponding loa.
For instance, celebration for a family of spirits called the Gedes take place on All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. Christian crosses became symbols for the crossroads, which represents life-altering choices and steps in the spiritual path for followers of vodun. Catholic hymns and prayers became part of vodun services.
HAITIAN VODOU PANTHEONS
Haitian cosmology, just like the indigenous African one, has numerous lwa, or intermediary spiritual entities that remain intimately involved in the affairs of the living. The lwa and individuals who honor them are part of a unified family whose members are enmeshed
in a web of reciprocal relations. Vodou spirits have his or her distinctive personality (reflecting partly African origins and/or syncretism with Catholicism), and preside over particular
domains or aspects of social life. It is here where women’s relationships with men reﬂect the tensions of neglect, assaults and irresponsibility’s.
Atibon Papa Legba is the owner of the crossroads and the first Iwa to be saluted before a vodou ceremony can commence; Gede is the lord of death, life, humor and sexuality. Danbala and Ayida Wedo are the two cosmic snakes representing the essence of all life and creation (fertility) and the past and the continuity of generation(flexibility). Agwe is the lord of the seas while Ogou is the great deity representing the principles of defense, war and iron. Loko is a god of healing and Marasa Dosou Dosa represents the twins. Azaka is the deity of agriculture, and Ezilis, the Rada spirit, personifies different aspects of womanhood such as love, feminine beauty, coquetry, wealth, bravely, and good luck. Ezilis comprises several feminine spirits, including Lasyrenn, the mermaid, Ezili Danto, the hardworking and sometimes-angry mother
and Ezili Freda, who represents romantic love and erotic sexuality.
On ceremonial occasions, each of the lwa can be called down to “mount” an initiate like a horse and take possession of his or her body and mind temporarily. With a priest (houngan) or priestess (manbo) officiating, initiates make elaborate preparations of food, music, ritual consecrations, and animal sacrifices to arrange for the lwa to make his/her appearance.
EZILI SPIRITS AND CONCEPTS OF SPIRITUALITY AND SEXUALITY IN AFRICAN
Sexuality is central to human beings, especially women and men in Africa, as it influences our worldview as religio-cultural people. It influences the conception of the body-selves and our relationships with others and with God through our ancestors. Ab initio at birth and lasting a lifetime, sexuality is celebrated through rites of passage to mark each stage of development. This view is expressed within African worldview of the Supreme Being which is seen as a man and a woman. For example, God is known as Ataa Naa Nyonmo or Mawu-Lisa among the Ga and Gbe-speaking people of Ghana, Togo and Benin. Among the Ga people, Ataa is the female
and Naa is the male aspect of spiritual entity, Nyonmo.
Among the Gbe people (Fon, Ewe, Aja, Mina/Guen), Mawu is the female and Lisa being male. The union of these twins is the basis of the organisation of the universe. In the same vein, earth (land) is a woman and the sky (heaven) is a male, the two copulate to give birth. The Ezili spirits reflects the characteristics of Haitian women, the social strata within Haitian society and how they pull their various energies to traverse the vicissitudes of life in general to achieve spiritual, economic and socio-political success.
Ezili Dantò is the most popular of the Ezili sisters among the Haitians. She is associated with the masses of irrepressible and strong Haitian women. Thus, Dantò “is the symbol of the irreducible essence of that ancient Black mother, mother of all the races, who holds Haiti’s umbilical chord back to Africa, back to Anba Dlo, beneath the ocean and the waters,” said Lauren.
In tandem with syncretism, Ezili Dantò is represented by the image Mater Salvator (a Polish black virgin: Our Lady of Czestochowa). Her other names include Our Lady of Lourdes, Saint Barbara Africana and Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Ezili Dantò`s hair is draped with a gold edged blue veil, whilst holding a Christ-like child, a girl. This symbolizes her as a symbol of motherhood, a single mother who raises her own children with care.
She is the very incarnation of a physical beauty that men fnd irresistible and women find threatening She is a prism focusing light on the single mother and head of household.
Danto has terrible and uncontrollable anger but always makes an effort to cook real food for her children. Ezili Dantò has two parallel vertical marks “twa scars” on her right cheeks extolling the proudness of her African ancestry. The marks were actually inflicted on her with a dagger by her sister, Ezili Freda in retaliation to Dantò`s stabbing of her sister’s heart with a dagger during their ferocious battle to win the heart of Ogou Lwa.
Ezili Dantò is portrayed as a simple woman with everyday looks, presentable femininity with unquenchable taste in choosing several male lovers, but Ogou is her favorite among the lot and he fathered at least one or seven of her numerous children. She never married any of her sexual lovers, but her favorite among her lovers included Tijuan Petwo, her own son, Karen McCarthy Brown, an academic of Italian-American parentage writes in her scholarly work: “MAMA LOLA: A Vodun Priestess in Brooklyn.” This is also an attempt at stereotyping black Haitian women as immoral sex fiends. She frequents the marriages of the living. She is a fearless warrior, protective and responsive to the needs of her children, and when they are in trouble, she put everything aside to rush to their defense, even putting her own life in danger.
This was evident during the Haitian Revolution where she possessed the people with power to rebel, leading to Haiti`s independence. It is believed that to avoid the temptation of her telling Haitian fighters` secrets, her tongue was cut. Hence, when she possesses a person they cannot talk but make “dey dey dey” sounds. These limited sounds symbolically reflect Haitian womens’ ability to withstand suffering without complaining as they express their pain and anger. It represents the silence of women voices. Ezili Danto functions these days to bring hidden lives and hidden truths to the surface.
She also overlaps with this pattern of shifting gender roles by providing an accurate portrait of the forces that shape women’s lives in urban Haiti and in Haitian immigrant communities. It is here where women’s relationships with men reflect the tensions of neglect, assaults and irresponsibilities. Ezili Dantò is a symbol of bodily survival and resistance and is the protector of women who are suffering from abuses. She is a mother figure empowered by her sexuality, her fierceness, and her compassion. Women must re-imagine the feminist potential of this powerful mother figure for pointing the way toward freedom.
Ezili Fréda is from the Rada aspect of Erzulie. Despite being depicted as a Caucasian woman residing at the upper echelons of society, she still remains the Haitian African spirit of tender love and impeccable beauty with feisty taste in jewelry, romantic dancing, luxury, and flowers. She is so sweet, beautiful, desirably alluring and with a measured temperament, but she can lose her cool and become dangerous when in jealous competition with a competitor for a lover. This explains why she removed the dagger that her sister Ezili Dantò plunged in her heart and made “twa scars” on her face in revenge. In vodun syncretic iconography she is often identified with the Mater Dolorosa del Monte Calvario, Virgin Mary represented as sorrowing for the passion of Christ, with a jewel-encrusted sword plunged into her heart.
Her arms are crossed over her breasts, dripping with gold chains, and her fingers wear three wedding rings, one for each husband – Damballa, Agwe and Ogou. This portrayed her as a romantic woman who is willing to marry and share a bed with many men and lovers. Thus, she is an idealized vision of erotic and unchallengeable love that does not include children. She is the very incarnation of a physical beauty that men find irresistible and women find threatening. This reflects a contemporary situation among highly educated Haitian women where bigamy and barrenness may be indicative of a feminist response to social convention. Brown writes also that, “She is often addressed with the respectful title of a married woman of means…you always got to call her Mademoiselle.
Freda likes people to think she is a teenager.” On her head she wears a jeweled tiara, weighty
gold earrings and precious necklaces. Her symbol is a heart and her colors are pink, blue, white and gold. Her favorite sacrifices include jewelry, perfume, sweet cakes and liqueurs. She is indeed an upper class Haitian Creole woman, as scholar Brown narrates from Alourdes: “Poor people have no true love. They just have affiliations.” Thus, Freda is seen as a powerful healer and an object of desire. Her almost excessive dresses, jewelry and perfume signify wealth and represent a femininity defined by power and sexuality, not submissiveness or weakness. She is a “lavish” deity who doesn’t have to work, but can command the natural world to work for her.
Ezili Freda also loves young unmarried and even married men as her initiates; no woman is allowed to touch the man who is being initiated into her cult, or to enter the chamber set aside for Ezili Freda on the day consecrated to her. “Saturday is the night that male devotees who have married to her sleep alone and wait for Freda to come into their dreams,” Brown writes. On that appointed day, the institution of marriage is subordinated to the religious (and erotic) love bond between Ezili Freda and her male devotees. In this way, Freda does not only choose and set aside for herself young and handsome men and thus bar them from marriage, but succeeds in frequently choosing married men and thrusts herself between the woman and her happiness.
Married men get attached to her and get divorced from their wives, whilst unmarried men who attach themselves to her cult voluntarily are rendered incapable of marriage. This is so because she offers men the most bounteous and perfect love. But that love is transitory, full and overflowing beyond the capacity of men to keep. In this way, Ezili Freda’s love and her ability to be loved are flawed. She is unable to translate the dream of her desires into reality. But for the Haitians, Ezili Freda represents what is innocent and good and noble about love, as well as all that is unattainable or painful, even tragic about it. Yet, it is in both these sisters that we see not only women, but the face and duality of Haiti – both strong and powerful, yet beautiful to a
fault and seeking love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The writer, Kweku Darko Ankrah, is a journalist, blogger and a historian based in Accra, Ghana. He holds degrees in Journalism, LLB Law and is currently pursuing a Master of Philosop Degree from the Institute of African Studies (IAS), University of Ghana, Legon-Accra.