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Saint-Mery on Voodoo c. 1772-80

To: alt.religion.orisha,alt.lucky.w,soc.culture.haiti
From: Kevin Filan 
Subject: Saint-Mery on Voodoo c. 1772-80 (part 1)
Date: Mon, 25 Sep 2000 04:15:46 GMT

I recently picked up a rare volume on Ebay entitled "Voodoos and
Obeahs: Phases of West Indian Witchcraft" by Joseph L. Williams,
S.J.. (New York: Dial Press, 1932).  While Williams frequently
missed the point, he was an excellent chronicler and obviously
did extensive research on the subject.  The book includes many
fascinating and historically valuable excerpts and I recomment
it very highly to anyone who can find it.

What follows was taken by Williams from a 1797 account by Moreau
de Saint-Mery, a barrister and Magistrate from 1772-80.    This
appears on pp. 62-69 of Williams.

I note that the ceremony he describes seems to owe a great deal
to contemporaneous accounts of "witch's sabbaths."  I suspect
Saint-Mery was repeating rumor from the Europeans, embellished
with their own preconceptions and expectations,  rather than
speaking as an eyewitness.  While there are many suggestive
details, there is also a considerable need for several grains of

* * * * *
But it is not merely as a dance that Voodoo deserves
consideration, or at least it is accompanied by circumstances
which ranks it among those institutions where superstition and
bizarre practices have a considerable part.

According to the Negro Aradas, who are the real devotees of
Voodoo in the colony, and who keep up its principles and rules,
Voodoo signifies an all powerful and supernatural being on whom
depends whatever goes on in the world.  But this being is the
non-poisonous serpent, or a kind of adder, and it is under its
auspices that all those assemble who profess the same doctrine.
Knowledge of the past, realization of the present, foreknowledge
of the future, all pertain to this adder, which, however, agrees
to communicate its power, and make known its wishes only through
the medium of a high priest whom its devotees select, and even
more so through that of the Negress, whom the love of the other
has raised to the rank of high priestess.

These two ministers who claim themselves inspired by their god,
or in whom the gift of inspiration is really manifested for the
devotees bear the pompous names of King and Queen, orthe
despotic ones of master and mistress, or finally the touching
titles of papa and mama.
 They are, for life, the chiefs of the grand family of Voodoo,
they have the right to the limitless respect of those who
compose it.
 it is they who determine if the adder approves of the candidate
the society, it is they who prescribe the obligations, the
duties which he must fulfill; it is they who receive the gifts
and presents which the god expects as a just homage; to disobey
them, to resist them, is to resist God himself, and exposes one
to the greatest misfortunes.

This system of domination on one side, and of blind obedience on
the other, once well established, they meet at fixed intervals
at gatherings where King and Queen Voodoo preside, according to
those usages which they may have brought from Africa, and to
which Creole customs have added many variants and traits which
disclose European ideas; for example, the scarf or the rich belt
which the Queen wears in this assembly, and which she sometimes

The reunion for the true Voodoo, that which has least lost its
primitive purity, never takes place except secretly, when the
night raises its shadows, and in a secure place, and under cover
from every profane eye.  There each initiated puts on a pair of
sandals nad fastens around the body a more or less considerable
number of red handkerchiefs or at least of handkerchiefs in
which this color is strongly predominant.  The Voodoo King has
more beautiful handkerchiefs, and in greater numbers, and one
which is entirely red and which he binds around his brow is his
crown.  A girdle, usually blue, puts the finishing touch to
display his striking dignity  The Queen, clad with a simple
luxury, shows also her predilection for the color red, which is
most frequently that of her sash or belt..

The King and Queen take their place at one end of the room near
a kind of altar on which is a box where the serpent is kept and
where each member can see it through the bars.

When they have made sure that no busy-body has gained admission
to the enclosure, they begin the ceremony with the adorations of
the adder, by protestations to be faithful to its cult and
submissive to whatever it may prescribe.  With hands placed in
those of the King and Queen, they renew the promist of secrecy
which is the foundation of the association, and it is
accompanied by everything horrible that delirium has been able
to devise to make it more impressive.

When the devotees of Voodoo are thus disposed ot receive the
impressions which the King and Queen desire to make them feel,
they finally take the affectionate tone of compassionate father
and mother, boasting to them of the good-fortune, which is
attached to whoever is devoted to the Voodoo; they urge them to
confidence in it, and to give proof of this by following their
advice as to the way they are to conduct themselves in the most
important circumstances.

Then the crowd scatters, and each according to his needs, and
following the order of seniority in the sect, come to implore
the Voodoo.  For the most part they ask of it talent to direct
the mind of their masters; but this is not enough.  One asks for
more money, anoer he gift to please an unresponsive one; this
one wishes to recall a faithless mistress; this one desires a
speedy cure or a long life.  After these, an old hag comes to
conjure the god to end the disdain of him whose happy youth she
wishes to captivate.  A maid solicits eternal love, or she
repeats the malediction with which hate inspires her against a
preferred rival.  There is no passion which does not utter a
vow, and even a crime does not always disguise those who have
for object its success.

At each of these invocations the Voodoo King is wrapped in
thought; the spirit is working in him.  All of a sudden he takes
the box wherein the adder is, places it on the ground and makes
the Voodoo Queen stand upon it.  As soon as the sacred ark is
under her feet, the new pythoness is possessed by the god.  She
shivers, her entire body is in a convulsive state, and the
oracle speaks by her lips.  At times she flatters and promises
happiness, again she inveighs and breaks out in reproaches; and
according to her heart's desire, or her own interests, or her
caprice, she dictates as obligatory without appeal whatever it
pleases her to prescribe, in the name of the adder, to the
imbecile crowd which opposes not even the smallest doubt to the
monstrous absurdity, and which only knows to obey all that is
despotically prescribed.

After all the questions have received some sort of an ambiguous
answer from the oracle, they form a circle, and the adder is
replaced upon the altar.  This is the time when they bring to it
a tribute, which each one has tried to make most worthy of it,
and which they place in a covered hat, that a jealous curiosity
may not cause anyone to blush.  The King and Queen promise to
make this acceptable to it.  It is by the profits of these
offerings that they pay the expenses of the assembly, that they
obtain help from members absent or present, who are in need, or
from whom the society expects something for its glory and
renown.  Suggestions are made, measures are determined, actions
are prescribed which the Voodoo Queen always declares to be the
will of god, and which have not as invariably good order and
public tranquility as an object.  A new oath, as execrable as
the first, engages each one to silence as regards all that has
passed, to give assistance to whatever has been determined, and
sometimes a vessel wherein is the blood of a goat, still warm,
goes to seal on the lips of the congregation the promise to
suffer death rather than reveal anything, and even to inflict it
on anyone who forgets that he is thus solemnly bound to secrecy.

After that there begins the dance of the Voodoo
*to be continued*

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From: Kevin Filan 
Newsgroups: alt.religion.orisha,alt.lucky.w,soc.culture.haiti
Subject: Saint-Mery on Voodoo c. 1772-80 (part 2)
Date: Mon, 25 Sep 2000 04:19:59 GMT
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More Saint-Mery on Voodoo in Haiti 1772-80; this passage
describes the dancing and initiations.  Again, there are many
suggestive details combined with what sounds like nonsense.  I
note with particular interest the reference to "Don Pedro" and
wonder if this is not the origin of what became known as the
Petro services. I also note that the "disgusting prostitituion"
he describes sounds more like people who are ridden being led
into the djevo, not like an orgy.

* * * *

If there is a candidate to be received, it is with his admission
that the ceremony begins.  The Voodoo King traces a large circle
with some substance that blackens, and places therein the one
who wishes to be initiated, and in his hands he puts a packet of
herbs, horse-hair, pieces of horn, and also other disgusting
objects.  Tapping him lightly, then, on the head with a little
wooden wand, he intones an African chant which those who
surround the circle repeat in chorus; then the candidate begins
to tremble and to dance; this is what is termed to "make
Voodoo."  If by mischance the excess of his transport makes him
leave the circle, the chant ceases at once, the Voodoo King and
Queen turn their backs on him to avert misfortune.  The dancer
recovers himself, reenters the circle, begins anew, drinks and
finally becomes convulsive.  Whereupon the Voodoo King orders
him to stop by tapping him lightly on the head with his wand, or
stirring stick, or even with a blow of the voodooistic whip if
he judges it fitting.  He is conducted to the altar to take the
oath, and from that moment he belongs to the sect.

The ceremonial finished, the King places his hand or his foot on
the box wherein is the adder, and soon he becomes agitated.
This condition he communicates to the Queen, and by her the
commotion is spread around, and each one goes into contortions
in which the upper part of the body, the head and the shoulders
seem to be dislocated themselves.  The Queen above all is a prey
to the most violent agitations; she goes from time to time to
seek new frenzy from the Voodoo serpent; she shakes the box, and
the little bells with which it is decorated produces the effect
of a fool's bauble.  The delirium increases.  It is even further
aroused by the use of spiritous liquors in which the
intoxication of their imagination the devotees do not spare, and
which in turn keeps them up.  Fainting fits, swoonings follow
for some, and a kind of madness for others; but with them all
there is a nervous trembling, which they seem unable to control.
 They ceaselessly whirl around.  And ifnally it comes about that
in this sort of bacchanalia, they tear their clothes and bite
their own flesh; others who become senseless and fall to the
floor are carried, without interrupting the dance, to a nearby
room, where in the darkness a disgusting prostitution holds the
most horrible sway. Finally weariness puts an end to those
demoralizing scenes, but for a renewal of which they have taken
good care to fix a time in advance.

It is most natural to believe that Voodoo owes its origin to the
serpent cult, to which are particularly addicted the inhabitants
of Juida (Whydah), who it is said originally come from the
Kingdom of Ardra, of the same Slave Coast, and when one has read
to what an extreme these Africans carry the superstition for
this animal, it is easy to recognize in it what I am about to

What is unquestionably true and at the same time most remarkable
in Voodoo, is that sort of magnetismi which prompts those who
are assembled to dance to insensibility.   The prepossession in
this regard is so strong that even the Whites found spying on
the mysteries of this sect, and touched by one of the members
who have discovered them, are sometimes set to dancing, and have
agreed to pay the Queen Voodoo, to put an end to this
punishment.  Nevertheless, I cannot refrain from remarking that
never has any man of the constabulary, who has sworn to fight
Voodoo, felt the power which forces one to dance, and whi has
doubtlessly preserved the dancers themselves from the necessity
of taking flight.

Without doubt, to assuage the fears which this mysterious cult
of Voodoo causes in the Colony, they pretend to dance it in
public, to the sound of drums and with the clapping of hands;
they even have it follow a repast where they eat nothing but
poultry.  But I can afffirm that this is nothing more nor less
than a scheme to escape the vigilance of the magistrates, and
the beater to assure the success of those dark conventicles
which are not a place of amusement and pleasure, but rather a
school where feeble souls go to deliver themselves to a
domination which a thousand circumstances can render baneful.

One cannot believe to what an excess extends the dependence in
which the Chiefs of the Voodoo hold the other members of the
sect.  There sot one f the latter who would not choose anything
in preference to the misfortune with which he is threatened if
he does not go regularly to the assemblies, if he does not
blindly obey whatever the Voodoo commands him.  One has seen
that the fear of it has been sufficiently aroused to deprive
them of the use of reason, and those who, in a fit of frenzy,
have uttered shrieks, shun the gaze of men, and excite pity.  In
a word, nothing is more dangerous, by all accounts, than this
cult of Voodoo, founded on this extravagent idea; but of which
one can make a truly terrible force where the "ministers of
being" whom they have honored with the name, know and can do

Who will believe that Voodoo gives place to something further,
which also goes by the name of dance? In 1768 a negro of
Petit-Goave, of Spanish origin, abusing the crdulity of the
negroes by superstitious practices, gave them an idea of a
dance, analogous to that of the Voodoo, but where the movements
are more hurried.  To make it even more effective the Negroes
place in the rum, which they drink while dancing, well-crushed
gunpowder.  One as seen this dance called Dance to Don Pedro,
induce death on the Negroes; and the spectators themselves,
electrified by the spectacle of this convulsive exercise, share
the drunkenness of the actors, and hasten by their chant, and a
quickened neasure a crisis whihc is in some way common to them.
It has been necessary to forbid dancing Don Pedro under grave
penalty, but sometimes ineffectually.

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From: Kevin Filan 
Newsgroups: soc.culture.haiti,alt.lucky.w,alt.religion.orisha
Subject: Re: Saint-Mery on Voodoo c. 1772-80 (part 1)
Date: Tue, 26 Sep 2000 02:13:24 GMT
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In article <>, (LA KAT47) wrote:
> >Saint-Mery on Voodoo c. 1772-80 (part 1)
> >From: Kevin Filan
> May I ask what your purpose is in posting these tracts regarding
> If it
> is to educate, it is outdated and misleading, in my opinion.

These excerpts were interesting, IMO, because they
provide us with information regarding Vodou practices
in the late 18th century.  While I am aware that they
contain numerous inaccuracies (and I said as much in
my introduction), I also noted several interesting things.
It appears that Vodouisants were using *pakets* at
that time, much as they do today; the excerpts also
provide a possible lead into the origins of the Petwo rites.

Saint-Mery was not an ideal witness; he obviously had
some prejudices and preconceptions.  Nevertheless, it
appears that he saw at least some actual Vodou rituals,
although he misunderstood them.

> If it
> is to educate, it is outdated and misleading, in my opinion.)

There are certainly differences between Vodou practice
today and Vodou practice in the late 18th century; there
also appear to be a couple of very interesting similarities.

> I too have read
> books written by people who honestly have not witnessed a true
ceremony but
> have been told about them or were present at a staged ceremony.

Seabrook comes to mind immediately; so does another
author whose name escapes me at present but who
stated that cannibalism was a regular and accepted
practice among Haitians.  In both cases, the reader is
left to sort through the dross for the occasional diamond.
These people occasionally witnessed and described things
which a modern reader with some knowledge of Vodou might
find interesting, despite the voluminous nonsense which
surrounds these observations.

> In early
> times, Vodou was not permitted so the ceremonies were held in secret
> certainly not devulged to outsiders in their true form.  Often a
> sincerity was judged and descriptions given to satisfy their
> notions.

I am aware of that.  Like I said, I found Saint-Mery
interesting because it's difficult to find ANY eyewitness
information regarding the Vodou in its earliest form.

Ideally, there would be eyewitness accounts of 18th c.
Vodou written down by practitioners, which were free of
the inaccuracies and misreadings inserted by folks like
Saint-Mery,  Alas, we don't seem to have anything of the
sort available... and so we have to make do with what
we've got.  A distorted mirror may be better than no
mirror at all.

> Another factor is, that Vodou, like any living religion, is
alive and
> flexible, growing with the times.  Today's version is not the same as
that of
> some seventy years before.  I repeat my question, what is your aim

See above.  I'm interested in the history of Vodou, and
the ways it has remained constant even as it has changed.

> LaKat~

Kevin Filan

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