Comparing and Contrasting Vodou and Santeria in the Caribbean Term Paper

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Comparing and Contrasting Vodou and Santeria in the Caribbean

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Though, as shown in the works of comparative mythology, all religion is syncretic, the term is most appropriate to certain Afro-American traditions -- sometimes called Creole religions -- including Vodou, primarily practiced in Haiti, and Santeria, primarily practiced in Cuba. Cradled in the forced diaspora of Africans, these two traditions share similar histories, similar origins, similar pantheons, rituals, and beliefs, and serve similar needs; informed by entangled mythologies of ethnic African tribes and stirred in the pot with the religion of the masters, Catholicism, the two bear striking similarities and telling differences. Abducted from their homes, transported thousands of miles across the harrowing Middle Passage, put to work under the cruel plantation regime, African slaves brought with them nonetheless the traditions of their forefathers. Under the plantation system, those traditions were oppressed and became syncretic by two means: a) the pogroms of forced inter-mingling of African ethnicities perpetrated by slave masters in order to mitigate the risk of slaves becoming organized and b) the appropriation of Catholic elements used to disguise the pagan worship from the masters and church. Vodou and Santeria became, precisely as slave owners had feared, organized systems of resistance; not just the force of European ownership was resisted though, but primarily the force of European culture, which by institutionalized re-education was being forced upon the transplanted slave populations. Creole religions were a means by which slaves retained a national and traditional identity separate from that of their masters. In Haiti the local Creole religion -- Vodou -- served as a major catalyst around which armed revolt was organized, but throughout the Americas, Creole religion was the hidden soul of Africa, shielded from and beset on all sides by European oppression.

Term Paper on Comparing and Contrasting Vodou and Santeria in the Caribbean Assignment

Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert in their seminal work, Creole Religions of the Caribbean, identify twelve chief "shared characteristics of Creole religion" (p.9-11); the first is the eclectic combination of monotheism and polytheism expressed. Central to Vodou and Santeria is the belief in a supreme being and creator -- Olorun/Olodumar/Olofi in Santeria, Bondie, Bondye, or Gran Met in Vodou. An interesting point of correspondence with the Catholic tradition is the triumvirate nature of Santeria's supreme being: Olorun the creator, Olodumare the divine essence, and Olofi the indwelling of the divine in all creation; thought, word, and deed; father, son, and the holy ghost. But while the supreme being is important for having created the world, his chief characteristic in both traditions is an aloofness held from that creation such that men do not directly interact with him but rather work through intermediary gods -- the Orishas of Santeria and the Loa or Lwa of Vodou. The system is akin to the Catholic veneration of saints, who act as intermediaries and intercessors for men before god, and this shared heritage of mythological mechanics facilitated the adoption of Catholic elements to Creole traditions. The Catholic system of saints, who each have a portfolio of fields and locations of patronage, is reminiscent of the methodology of the Orishas and Loas. Yet, the Orishas and Loas are more akin to the pagan gods of pre-Christian Europe, who were gods in their own right -- often, as the Orishas and Loas, said to be born of or descended from more powerful gods -- and who represent more primal and intrinsic forces of nature. Gods of war, of agriculture, of intellectual spheres, of art, and many other fields exist in both classical and Creole traditions; in fact, an important similarity between Vodou and Santeria are specific Loas, serving specific portfolios, manifest under different names under the two traditions but otherwise correspondent. One example is Elegua of Santeria, Papa Legba in Vodou, the god of crossroads and decisions, who is a sort of radioman, a messenger, between men and the Orishas or Loas, without whose favor and permission communication would be impossible. As a god of thresholds, Elegua is also the protector of homes, and ritual representations of him -- a concrete or clay head set with cowrie shells in Santeria -- is placed near the front door of homes in Cuba and Haiti to ward the living area.

The monads of the Orishas and Loas are to be found in the lost religions of African tribalism; the Yoruba of the Gold Coast were the primary source but were supplemented by a variety of other tribal traditions including that of the Kongo, the Carabali, the Fon, and the Ewe. Haitian Vodou is also informed by the tribal totemism of the Arawak, natives of the island before the arrival of Europeans. Europeans practiced a policy of shuffling families and African ethnicities around to prevent the likelihood of congregation, to keep slave societies unstable and without a common base, and the process was a catalyst for the intermingling of once disparate traditions. Where the gods of the Yoruba and the Fon coincided it was possible for two ethnically alien slaves to worship together. Where there was no coincidence, gods were forgotten or discarded. So, the tribal gods of these people survived the Middle Passage only in part.

… a process of selection occurred in which the collective representations brought over from Africa were reoriented. Gods who protect agriculture were discarded or forgotten, for example. Why sacrifice for a bountiful harvest to benefit an exploitative slave master? (Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, p.34)

Other deities were recast from the perspective of a slave society: Chango, the Orisha of war, became associated with "exacting justice," perhaps because slaves saw the only means to justice -- i.e. deliverance from slavery -- to be through war. In all, however, the African pantheons -- which often were as extensive and convoluted as classical pantheons -- were much reduced in Creole religions, such that less than thirty Loas or Orishas remain of hundreds of African monads. This shared origin in the Yoruba culture, mixed with the cultures of various African tribes and finally redacted to conform to the slave's condition, is the basis for similarities in Vodou and Santeria.

A second source of parallelism between the Cuban and Haitian traditions is the influence of Catholicism. Catholicism was the only legal religion in the Caribbean after the European invasion, and slaves were forcibly baptized and inducted into its liturgy and rites. The practice of any sort of traditional, tribal religion was strictly outlawed, so it became necessary for slaves to incorporate Catholicism into their worship in order to give it at least the semblance of Christianity. Furthermore, the incorporation of Catholic elements gave slaves an avenue for upwards social mobility by tying them into, however loosely, the larger European culture. As has been mentioned this process of Catholic syncretism is primarily visible in the association of the Orishas and Loas with the saints of the Catholic system. Each Orisha or Loa is associated with a certain saint according to a conjunction in the portfolios, rites, or mythology surrounding the figures, with respect to local perceptions. Papa Legba, then, is syncretized in Haitian Vodou with St. Peter, for both hold the keys to a threshold between god and men. Yet, in Santeria, St. Peter is syncretized with Ogun, the god of war, perhaps because St. Peter is traditionally seen as having a violent and often rash nature. At the altar of Papa Legba in Haiti, or at the altar of Ogun in Cuba, one could expect to find statuettes of St. Peter as well as St. Peter's icons -- the keys of heaven -- and his likeness. While over the years, these syncretized elements have become innate to the practice -- such that St. Peter is just as fervently worshipped and entreated by practitioners of Vodou as Papa Legba is -- "at first the saints were no more than white masks covering the black faces of ancestral divinities" (Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, p.36).

The final linked aspect of the Vodou and Santeria pantheons is the system of ancestral worship. Ancestor spirits are remembered by rites, fetishes, and offerings and asked to aid living family members. The practice is more prevalent in Haiti. Haiti gained its independence much earlier than Cuba -- in 1791 -- and subsequently the economy shattered from a system of mega-plantations into the hands of countless peasant land-owners. By the 19th century, when slavery was just starting to enter a boom-phase in Cuba, Haitians owned private property and raised families of their own, privileges not common to slaves who were purposely separated from their families and ethnic groups. Perhaps for this reason the institution of ancestral worship became more widespread in Haiti, as a farmer of the late 19th century might entreat his own grandfather, who had once farmed the same land, for help with a good harvest.

Another line of shared characteristics in Creole religions is the system of rituals by which both Vodou and Santeria are practiced. Creole religion is

… centered on the principle of contact or mediation between humans and the spirit world, which is achieved… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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