Sakpata: Vodun of Earth

When Mawu was dividing the world between her children, Sakpata was given dominion over the earth, at the displeasure of his sister Sogbo. Sakpata came down from heaven with plants, crops, tools, and skills that humans could use for development. Because he had taken so much with him, he did not have space for other necessary elements like water and fire, which were stolen later.

Humans were excited when Sakpata descended from the heavens with these tools of wealth. There was a lot of promise in them, and they hoped they would see their lives improve. Legba, Sakpata’s youngest sibling, told Sogbo, who was given control of the skies, to withhold rain in the sky. Knowing that their mother noticed, Legba went to Mawu and told her water would not be enough for everyone on earth, including the plants. Alarmed, Mawu ordered Legba to tell Sogbo to withhold the rains, which he had already done.

Sakpata soon realized that his crops needed rain, but none came. A drought ensued that caused everything to become dry and brittle. Humans began getting angry with Sakpata. They harassed him and cursed him for lying to them about the prosperity and convenience he had promised. Legba came down and found his brother in a messy state. That was when he told Sakpata he would talk to Mawu on his behalf. He told Sakpata to watch for a messenger, wututu bird, who would say to him what to do when the time came. When the bird returned, it told Sakpata to instruct the others to light a great fire, so the smoke could rise to heaven, signaling their distress.

Because it was so dry, everything caught fire very quickly, and the fire leaped into the sky. When Legba saw, he went to Mawu and told her that the earth was burning and the fire was so high and powerful it might spread to the heavens. Alarmed, Mawu told Legaba to order Sogbo to release the rain. The rain put out the flames and returned fertility to the land. It was decided that although Sogbo controlled the sky, people can call for rain when needed.

What does this story reveal? In this context, it describes the role and power of the spirit of the earth, Sakpata. Sakpata is not the Vodun of Agriculture or fertility, but he is the god of progress and elevating society. When the spirit comes to rule over men, he brings them the tools of trade, crops they can domesticate, and abilities such as woodworking and carpentry skills. These are ways in which this spirit facilitates that mission of progress and growth by equipping humans with the capabilities to prosper, the right tools, and the right environment to do so.

Source: Vodun. Monique Joiner Siedlak

Xevioso: Vodun of Thunder

Xevioso is the god or lord of thunder. A god of thunder is one of the most common in cultures around the world. In Yoruba’s version, he is considered the strongest. He represents wrath, aggression, and punishment. In other words, Xevioso is understood as primarily a spirit of explosive, uncontrollable emotion like anger, violence, and tremendous power. This is a double-edged sword as he can protect those who honor him, but if they offend him in any way, he will likely turn on them.

This is the spirit you turn to when you are looking for justice. Still, anger is usually a sign that something isn’t as it should be, or there has been a violation of some agreement or law.

In most cases, spirits host and govern over the earth, and there is a set of agreements we have towards one another: a type of an unspoken agreement. We go into the world having agreed on a particular set of rules like not stealing from or hurting each other, and so forth. And when someone steals from us, we feel violated, and we have a right to be angry about it, even more so if we know they are getting away with it. Your anger is a sign that someone is not playing by the rules, an injustice has been done. Given this, it is not illogical to suggest that exercising your anger would restore justice and, therefore, balance the world. In other words, Xevioso is the protector and dispenser of justice. Through his acts, he enforces and keeps relations between the gods in check and us. It is not senseless, aimless, unexplainable anger, or fury. Although we may not understand it sometimes, it adds up on a cosmic scale.

Source: Vodun. Monique Joiner Siedlak

Baron Samedi

Baron Samedi, “The Master of the dead” in Voodoo, occupies a popular place as the guardian of cemetries, and the spirit responsible for an individual’s transportation to the underworld. One of the more prevalent loas in Haitian voodoo is Baron Samedi. He fills a vital role in Haitian voodoo as the master of the dead, ushering the newly deceased into the afterlife. Who is Baron Samedi? In Haitian voodoo, Baron Samedi is the head of the Guede family of loa.

His name is often translated as Baron Saturday, Baron Samdi, Bawon Samedi, or Bawon Sanmdi. The last name of Saturday comes from the French translation of Samedi. Baron leads the Guede family, a group of loas with strong links to magic, ancestor worship, and death. The loas in the family consist primarily of lesser spirits, dress the same as Baron, have rude (even crude) attitudes, but lack the charm of their master. Baron is portrayed in Haitian voodoo wearing a top hat, black tuxedo, dark glasses, and cotton plugs in his nostrils. His image is often said to resemble that of a corpse that has been dressed and prepared for burial in traditional, Haitian manner. His face is said to resemble a skull, and he uses a nasal voice.

Baron spends the majority of his time in the invisible realm of Haitian voodoo spirits. His behaviour is described as outrageous. He is known to spend his time drinking rum and smoking cigars, swearing profusely, and making filthy jokes to the other loas. The other spirits in the Guede family are said to behave in the same manner, without the suave ability of Baron Samedi.

The Baron needs that suave nature because he is believed to chase mortal women, despite being married to the loa, Maman Brigitte. Baron’s time is spent lingering at the crossroads of life and death in the human world. When someone dies, Baron is said to dig their grave and meet their soul as it rises from the grave. He guides them into the underworld. Only Baron Samedi has the power to accept an individual into the world of the dead.

It is also said that Baron ensures that all those who have died rot in the ground as they should, ensuring that no soul can come back as a brainless zombie. He will demand payment for this act, which varies depending upon his mood at the time. On many occasions, he is content to accept gifts of cigars, rum, black coffee, or grilled peanuts.

Mami Wata

Mami Wata is a water-spirit, sometimes described as a mermaid figure, who can found throughout the western coastal regions and into central Africa. Mami Wata is described as having long dark hair, very fair skin and compelling eyes. Although she may appear to her devotees (in dreams and visions) as a beautiful mermaid, complete with tail, she is also said to walk the streets of modern African cities in the guise of a gorgeous but elusive woman. She is interested in all things contemporary: some of her favorite offerings include sweet, imported perfumes, sunglasses and Coca-Cola. Nonetheless, the spirit appears to be related to other water spirits who have a much longer history on the continent. Mami Wata’s colors are red and white. Those she afflicts with visions and temptations, and who experience her as an obsession or an illness, may wear the red of sickness and dangerous heat. Others who have a more positive orientation towards the spirit may show their blessings by wearing white. Most devotees wear a combination of red and white clothing.

Mami Wata is also said to have a number of avatars on earth–mortal women who have the same look as the deity and who act as her “daughters.” Mami Wata may give wealth to her devotees, her “daughters” or to her (male) spouses, but she is never known to give fertility. Some Igbo stories suggest that the fish under the waters are her children, and that she uses them as firewood. Mami Wata is sometimes seen as a metaphor for modern African conditions — having the knowledge of global wealth and the desire for large-scale consumption, but lacking the actual wealth or access to the world’s wealth that would enable Africans to participate in that system. A number of Africanist art historians have written about Mami Wata, notably Henry Drewal, as have anthropologists like myself. She is the subject of local poetry, song, paintings, carvings and now film.

Mami Wata is depicted as a mermaid, with a woman’s torso and the legs of either a fish or serpent. Sometimes Mami Wata is depicted as a whole woman carrying a large snake or snakes wrapped around her body. While she is often depicted as a mermaid or half woman–half snake, Mami Wata actually represents a whole pantheon of spirits and deities in West Africa. Mami Wata is the African ambassador to all the spirits of the waters: La Sirene, the Haitian Vodou loa who is similarly depicted as a mermaid; Yemoja, the Yoruban Mother of the Seven Seas; and Yemayá in Santeria and Ifá. Mami Wata remains an important spirit in the New Orleans Voudou pantheon.

Asanbonsam

Asanbonsam (Ah-SAN-bon-some)

Variations: Asambosam, Asanbosan, Asasa-bonsam, Sasabonsam

The asanbonsam terrorizes mankind from southern Ghana in Togo and along the Ivory Coast of Africa. Although it is rarely encountered, it looks like a human with hooks for its hands and feet. Its preferred method of hunting is to patiently sit in a tree and wait for some luckless individual to pass directly underneath it. When this happens, the asanbonsam will use its hooks to snatch up its prey and drain it dry of blood. When times are lean, it will venture into a village at night and sip blood from a sleeping person’s thumb. Fortunately, the regular sacrifices of a goat and the spilling of its blood on the ground will keep it satisfied enough to not hunt within the village.

Ubuntu

An anthropologist showed a game to the children of an African tribe:

He placed a basket of delicious fruits near a tree trunk and told them: The first child to reach the tree will get the basket.

When he gave them the start signal, he was surprised that they were walking together, holding hands until they reached the tree and shared the fruit!

When he asked them why you did that when every one of you could get the basket only for him!

They answered with astonishment: Ubuntu.

“That is, how can one of us be happy while the rest are miserable?”

Ubuntu in their civilization means: (I am because we are).

That tribe knows the secret of happiness that has been lost in all societies that transcend them and which consider themselves civilized societies.

Mijikenda Tribes and the Vigango Statues

During the 1980s, Coastal Kenya experienced the largest heist of ancestral artifacts in history. Over 300 wooden Vigango statues were taken from the sacred grounds of several Mijikenda tribes. These 4-foot wooden statues were stolen and sold to western tourists and international art collectors. Since then, the Vigango statues have been discovered in private art collections and museums throughout Europe and the United States.

A majority of those Vigango pieces in circulation were sold by art dealer Ernie Wolfe III, who was accused by the New York Times in 2006 of being a prime suspect to the sale of stolen Vigango statues. Although hundreds of the statues which he sold remained in circulation, Wolfe III mentioned making efforts to stop further sales of newer Vigango statues. Much work has been made by American anthropologists Linda Giles, Monica Udvardy, and John B. Mitsanze to repatriate the looted statues back to Kenya.

The Mijikenda culture consists of nine tribes related to the Bantu ethnic groups of Kenya. Other Kenyans have derogatorily referred to the Mijikenda people either as the ‘Nyika’ or ‘Nika,’ meaning ‘bush people.’ This prejudice may be why their sacred statues may have been targets for looting, along with the pressures of crushing poverty. There are over 30 sacred Kaya forests that are used for prayer by the Mijikenda.

Vigango statues are created from the wood these sacred forests provide. The wood is resistant to termites and very dense. The statues stand 4 feet (1.22 meters) tall and have unique carved triangle etchings that symbolize abstract forms of identity that once bestowed the deceased Mijikenda elder they represent.

The purpose of the Vigango’s creation is to incarnate the spirits of dead male Gohu elders who held significant respect and immense responsibility within the Mijikenda tribal community. It is the secretive Gohu society of men who are responsible for the construction of Vigango statues.

It is customary for a family to commission a member of the Gohu to create a Vigango statue of their respected male elder a week after death. The sculptures appear two dimensional in their depiction of revered elders of significance, but in their simplicity, a plethora of complex identities are shaped with each individual Vigango statue. This ritual is often followed by a festive meal and a family gathering.

These statues also act as liaisons of communication for living community members to ask advice from wise elder spirit ancestors. The Vigango statues were said to aid in advice regarding plague, famine, and drought. Because of their essential role in the Mijikenda tribal community, Gohu are usually placed in the center of their town or near the current chief’s homestead. However, it is believed that Vigango’s advice can only be heard by those related to the people who have passed.

Ernie Wolfe III mentioned that the statues are sometimes left behind when a village relocates to another fertile region. Once the village has settled, it is up to the tribe to erect smaller statues carrying no carvings, known as Vibaos, to take the place, power, and spiritual connectivity that make the abandoned Vigango statues powerless. If this ritual is not performed, the spirits of the elders, along with their enchanted magic, remain alone and isolated in the region no longer inhabited by their people.

But the belief of deactivated Vigango statues being replaced by Vibao may be subject to scrutiny due to the controversy of Wolfe III’s own collection. In another account mentioned by the New York Times, the anthropologist Udvardy believes that Wolfe III had misinterpreted the situation and that Vigango are to forever remain in the land they were erected.

Whichever is the truth, the fact remains that the theft and displacement of these powerful spirit vessels result in their wrath towards whoever steals, purchases, and acquires them. To carry a Vigango statue is both a blessing and a curse. And those who are cursed suffer the most.

Sources: B. B Wagner