On Friday, February 26, the Museum will welcome Benjamin Hebblethwaite, Ph.D., as he leads a talk to accompany our current exhibition Haitian Flags from the Cargo Collection. The talk, Haitian Vodou Ceremonies, Songs, and Sacred Objects, is free and open to the public; click here to learn more.
With a background in French linguistics and a particular focus on song, Dr. Hebblethwaite brings a valuable perspective to our conversations about and appreciation for the Haitian flags. In anticipation of his visit, I recently caught up with Dr. Hebblethwaite to discuss Haitian art, culture, history, language, and religion, and also learn a bit more about what he will share during his talk at the Museum.
Emily Hanna: Your doctorate is in French linguistics, and you have researched and written about Haitian Creole, and in particular songs in this language. Could you discuss the relationship of language, song, and art in Haitian culture?
Ben Hebblethwaite: Haitian Creole is the sacred language of Haitian Vodou; like Arabic for Islam, or Hebrew for Judaism, Haitian Creole has that same relationship. Haitian Creole is the language of worship, songs, prayer, and of instruction for the religious system. The language and the religion are indistinguishable from one another – they are one in the same.
It becomes much more complicated because Haitian Creole is also the host of a very rich African tradition, drawing from dozens of African religions. Since Haitians were captured in many different parts of west and central Africa, they brought many cultures to create the fusion that is now Vodou. Many aspects of Vodou religion are deeply influenced by African languages – especially Kikongo – causing lay people and non-Vodouists to have trouble understanding the words. Therefore, Haitian Creole used in Vodou is a highly specialized language and, like the religion, it requires an initiation to be part of it and fully understand it. Haitian Creole speakers may be Protestant, for example, but Vodou has a specialized religious language that requires gradual acculturation to master its outer and inner meanings.
The Haitian Creole language is taught by the priests and priestesses to their initiates, as they become full-fledged members of Vodou community. The language is like the glue of the culture. Traditionally, Haitian Creole is an oral culture, and for many years relied on an unbroken succession of oral transmission to document and share its history. Because of this oral tradition, members of the Vodou community have strong memories, memorizing and passing on the many songs and ceremonies involved in the religion. Their use of language gives the culture life, meaning, and depth, allowing the culture to perpetuate across time. Since the 1950s, the culture has become increasingly textual, as literacy skills and books became more prevalent. Now, it is a dually oral and textual tradition, but the language and culture primarily live in the mouths of the people.
In terms of the art, you do find language emerge in Vèvè. Vèvè is a religious symbol or diagram used on Vodou flags to represent the spirits, or loa. Many Vèvè use letters, written in beadwork on the ceremonial flags or in a powdered form on the ground, to represent a loa’s name.
EH: Haitian Vodou flags, or drapo, are made by priests and priestesses, and they are more than just banners. Could you describe the spiritual function of the flags and their relationships to the spirits called loa?
BH: Vodou is an initiatory religion and, if you aren’t in it, you don’t have all the private and secret information that comes with it. As a non-initiate, I can give you my impressions. Ceremonies are divided it into Rites that recognize different loa and require special salutations. After roughly three hours of ritualizing and salutation of spirits, there is a sequence in the ceremony that involves the flags.
Two flags are displayed, which represent the two main spirits of the temple community. Every community has two major spirits that are protectors or patrons of the community and are honored with extra diligence. For instance, two typical loa groups represented on the flags could be Ogou – the spirit of war, metal and the military – and Ezili – the spirit of love, motherhood, and sexuality. Flag bearers, who have a special role and status in the community, create a processional with the flags. The flag bearers are led in the procession by Laplas, or the master of ceremonies, who holds a sword. The flags are carried in a quasi-militaristic form, first counter-clockwise around a center post. The centerpost is symbolic for a path or channel for the spirits to rise and descend into the lives of the worshippers. All loa are greeted with a salutation, a basic feature of Vodou ritual. The salutations are a dramatic and beautiful part of the ceremony.
Many have speculated on this military dimension of the Vodou culture. Vodou is a major inspiration for Haiti’s revolutionaries – the anti-Colonialist, anti-slavery, freedom fighters. Many Haitians fought the French colonizers from 1791-1803, with extreme violence. The Vodou religion provided troops to the Haitian battles, earning Haiti’s independence, although sacrificing half of the population. Since then, military culture has been deeply embedded in Vodou. In ceremonies, the Laplas carries a sword; Ogou – the war and military spirit – is commonly represented; and even the way the flags are displayed suggests a militaristic ceremony or parade.
The flags’ spiritual function is also a tactile one. After the parade and display of flags, members of the community are invited to touch the flagpole and touch the flags briefly. Touching in Vodou symbolizes affiliation; when touching a ritual object, the members of the community are empowered and part of the tradition.
EH: The presence of European and African symbols on the flags speaks to a lengthy and complex history among multiple cultures. Could you address this layering of symbols in Haitian flags?
BH: One of the main ideas here is the intersection of Roman Catholic saints and Vodou spirits on flags. For instance, representation of Ogou will take the form of a Catholic saint, typically that of Saint James (St. Jacques in French) on the flags. What you’ll see on the flag is the Catholic saint image drawn from a chromolithograph.
Historically, Vodouists were unable to practice their religion, so, as the theory goes, they concealed their religion with images of Catholicism. During the colonial period, they were forced to camouflage their African traditions, and substituting Catholic saints for the loas was one way to accomplish this. Since they could be killed for practicing their own religion, Vodouists used Catholic images instead, willfully concealing traces of any African influence.
Persecution of the Vodou religion continued well into the 20th century. In 1941, there was a huge movement led by the Haitian government, Catholics, and Protestants to eradicate the Vodou religion. Christians and members of the elite in Haiti always return to Vodou as the scapegoat for Haiti’s economic problems. Retention of Catholic symbolism has been part of ensuring respectability of the religion, giving Vodou a European coating to avoid persecution.
Additionally, the people who practice the Vodou religion have a xenophilic orientation. Throughout history, and even today, Americans and Europeans tend to hide in encampments or established religious ideologies, only identifying with one, single religion. In contrast, the Vodou practitioners are known as xenophilic, loving other cultures and religions, and this is reflected in the religion they practice. All religions have components that are attractive, and some Africans have incorporated diverse religions, not only to adjust to the hellish conditions of slavery, but also to create a fulfilling spiritual lifestyle that reflects the diversity of everyday life. This lifestyle focuses on openness, unlike many Western religions today. Africans discovered the majesty of Christian religion, especially its beauty and strength. From this, they took what is empowering and good about Christianity, assimilating it into their larger cultural system.
EH: There are many misconceptions about the Haitian religion of Vodou. How did these misconceptions occur, and what is the most misunderstood aspect of this religion?
BH: Slavery, colonialism, and deep racism compounded over time to cause African religions to be dismissed and feared. Religion is a rallying point that stokes revolutionary sentiments; even in the news today, Islam is often portrayed as a political religion, one that causes terror. This portrayal exacerbates xenophobia. My Muslim friends in the U.S. are struggling greatly today with the tensions in the media.
For many, Vodou is a threat to the status quo. As mentioned previously, the Vodou religion is blamed for Haiti’s economic problems. This is the religion of the most destitute people of Haiti; their misery is caused by centuries of French oppression, but also from a kind of neo-colonial regime that has deep roots in Haiti. After hundreds of years of racism and bigotry, Vodou continues to be exploited for entertainment, portraying people of African descent in the worst light. One of the most misunderstood issues about Vodou is education. Many Protestants have blamed Vodou for Haiti’s development issues and they have claimed that Vodouists resist literacy. This is absolutely false. Vodouists want development, literacy, and access to knowledge. The many important volumes in Haitian Creole about Vodou that have been published since the 1940s show that Vodouists are thoroughly committed to improving the conditions of Haitians and to empowering themselves.