Peace be with you my friends! Last week I joined a friend in mounting and consecrating a bóveda, or spiritual altar of the Allan Kardec tradition. It is my pleasure to share a photo of the complete altar and part of my master’s thesis about Kardecian Spiritism, a spiritual discipline practiced by many adherents to Voodoo. Enjoy!
Kardecian Spiritism is practiced by many adherents to Voodoo.
Voodoo being true to its syncretic nature, adopted and incorporated the teachings of 19th century French penseur Allan Kardek into its repertoire of beliefs and practices. Allan Kardec was the penname of Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail the founder of the doctrine of Spiritism, which is followed by many as a religion. Spiritism teaches that after death, souls remain in a state of limbo in which they must work off their karmic debt in order to free themselves of the excess spiritual weight that inhibits them from moving closer to God. Souls may work off their karmic debt by helping individuals on the earthly plane and in rare cases it may be necessary for a soul to become incarnate again to atone for serious sins. Spiritism also teaches that on Earth, individuals may help to elevate their spirit guides by offering them prayers and by leaving glasses of water and white candles in a special place in their home reserved for meditation. By working with one’s spirit guides, it is possible to attain material success in this life and a higher station in the afterlife. Kardec even tried to reconcile his doctrines to traditional church teachings in his work, The Gospel According to Spiritism. Despite his scholarly attempt, Spiritism was condemned by the church hierarchy but nevertheless found a following among the members of European high society who enjoyed gather in their parlors and communing with spirits as a form of entertainment. While Spiritism was little more than a passing fad in Europe, Kardec’s works were translated into Spanish and Portuguese and the Spiritist religion soared to undreamed-of levels of popularity in Latin America where it still has millions of followers. One of the places Spiritism caught on was in New Orleans where Voodooists eagerly incorporated Kardec’s teachings into their own eclectic practices, perhaps because some of his doctrines were right in line with their previously held beliefs concerning the state of Purgatory and ever older ideas handed down from their African ancestors.
True to their instinct of survival and reverence for the past, Voodooists africanized the Spiritist practices as outlined by Kardec. This can be seen most clearly in the categories of spirits served in New Orleans Voodoo.
The Indian Sprits-As in all animistic religions, Voodoo pays a great deal of respect to the land and its past inhabitants. For this reason, on many spirit altars in New Orleans you will find statues of Native American figures such as the medicine man, the chief and the Indian princess; and often Indian-head pennies are placed on the altar. Most likely, these figures bear little resemblance to the indigenous people who once inhabited the region, but they are nevertheless included in the pantheon of “les morts” as a sign of respect for those who were there long before the Europeans or the Africans. People who venerate Indian spirits are often endowed with curative powers and blessed with good fortune. In New Orleans popular culture, the Indian figure represents good luck and Mardi Gras parades would not be complete without scores of fluorescent feather and twinkling sequin bedecked Indians.
My friend Angie in Massachusetts is a practitioner of Santería and Spiritism. She serves several native spirits. About tweleve years ago, Angie moved to a house in Deerfield, Massachusetts, a region known to be haunted by the ghosts of Native Americans slaughtered during the French and Indian War. Shortly after moving in, she began to hear the persistent sound of drums at night and often smell wood smoke when no fires were lighted. Her five-year-old son began to complain of nightly visits from frightening, imposing dark-skinned figures that would materialize in his room as he was trying to sleep. Angie attributed this to an overactive imagination until one day while she was hanging clothes to dry she looked over her shoulder to see a round smiling Indian woman with a child standing around a campfire. Then in an instant both of them vanished along with the fire.
Angie called me and related the events she and her son had witnessed. We decided to go see Wendy, a longtime friend of ours and renowned practitioner of Wicca, a Celtic Earth based religion. Wendy informed us that the Native American presence was nothing to be feared and that it could be turned into something positive. Together, we went to Angie’s house and prepared an ancestor feast for the ghostly inhabitants. We made smalls dishes of rice and beans, dumplings, and Indian pudding. We placed the dishes at the edge of the forest with a lighted white candle in the center of each dish. Angie invoked the spirits and poured three splashes of water on the ground from a metal dish and then made an offering of rum. Angie then placed nine shiny pennies next to the food and told the spirits that she wanted to coexist peacefully with them. From that day on, she has maintained a close connection to the Native American spirit world and they have become her protectors and personals guides. On one occasion, while at work a Native spirit appeared to her and admonished her of a situation at home. She left the office in a hurry to arrive at home just in time to see the smoke coming from behind the washing machine due to an electrical malfunction. Thankfully, no damage was done to the house. In accordance to Wendy’s instructions, every Monday night, Angie takes a small amount of whatever food she herself has eaten, and leaves it at the edge of the woods along with a dish of water and a candle. When the candle in extinguished, inevitably an animal, usually a fox or a deer, but occasionally a bear or raccoon, will come and eat the food. Angie takes this as a sign that she has made friends with the ghostly inhabitants of her land.
The Africans-It goes without saying that Voodooists in New Orleans serve and work with a huge pantheon of African spirits. This spirits serve as a link to the mother land and come directly from the ancestral paradise, the final resting place of the all souls after proper purification and elevation. The first category is the “negritas” who represent young African women who were often slave girls in life. One might petition a negrita for help in a love related matter or for a favorable outcome to a difficult situation. The second category is the “madamas” who represent the stereotypical plantation Mammy. Those who have a madama in their spiritual repertoire are often blessed with clairvoyant powers and live long, healthy and protected lives. Male African spirits are rare, but they are severed by Voodooists and Spiritists. They usually appear in the form of elderly men with white hair and they represent wisdom and tradition. Those who serve “negritos” often have a sharp knowledge of root work and herbal medicine as well African and Southern folklore. Two male African spirits that have achieved a level of high fame are Candelo and High John the Conqueror. Candelo is often represented as a little, skinny, old ever-smiling African man. He is also associated with San Carlos Borromeo of the Catholic faith. Those who serve Candelo often exhibit superhuman qualities while under possession. My friend Lydia from Puerto Rico is a devotee of Candelo and I have seen her under possession consume almost an entire bottom of rum without succumbing to alcohol poisoning and extinguish a lit cigar on her tongue without being burned. Candelo often blesses his followers with prophetic dreams and unparalleled good luck. High John the Conqueror is more from the folklore of the American South rather than from Voodoo per se, and he is completely unknown in Haitian Vodou. According to legend, High John was a powerful wizard from what is today Angola, when he saw that his people were being taken into bondage he decided to go with them to America to show that he had not abandoned them. In the American south, he would fly from plantation to plantation helping slaves escape or get revenge on a cruel master. Therefore he is invoked today for cases of justice.
I know a woman named Susan who was going through a nasty divorce from her abusive husband of twenty years and it looked like she was going to lose her house. I told Susan to write her husband’s name on a piece of paper and place it in the freezer to prevent him from doing further harm. Then I gave her a purple pouch into which she placed a piece of High John the Conqueror root (a bulbous root associated with this folkloric figure). Susan carried this charm to court and the case swung mysteriously in her favor and her husband’s bankruptcy plans were foiled and she was awarded the house as part of the settlement. Due to the fact that he is not of Caribbean origin, High John has no Catholic counterpart and I have yet to see him depicted in statuary, but his color is purple and his day of the week is Wednesday.
The White Spirits-There are very few spirits of European origin served in Voodoo, possibly because the religion itself was originally practiced as a means of cultural survival in a society that looks down upon those who refuse to assimilate. When European spirits appear in a Spiritist’s pantheon they are often gypsies or nuns. Gypsy spirits are served by Voodooists who specialize in divination and these individuals often possess astounding clairvoyant abilities. Their tools of divination, playing cards, sea shells, crystals globes etc. will often be consecrated to their gypsy spirits who will speak to them directly through these media. Also, nuns appear from time to time in a Voodooist’s pantheon and no particular power is attributed to them, other than the reassuring presence of God’s grace in their lives.
In New Orleans, Voodooist serve their spirit guides much according to the traditional Kardecian method. They recite prayers for the dead as written in Kardec’s books, and offer them white candles and glasses of water, but there are several additions to New Orleans Spiritism that clearly are of African origin, which again shows the syncretic nature of Voodoo. Often, a Spiritist will have an altar in his home called a “bóveda” which will be dedicated entirely to his spirit guides and not to the lwa or the saints. On the altar there will be nine glasses filled with water, and the glass in the center will be the largest on top of which a crucifix is placed to represent God, the source of all life. There may be photographs of deceased relatives and images of one’s personal spiritual guides, such as statues of Indians or Spanish Flamenco dancers to represent Gypsies and of course black mammy dolls. Every Monday, the Spiritist will make an offering of libations and food to the dead, making sure that no salt is added to the food, since this weakens the powers of the spirit guides and drives them away. Lydia Santiago, a renowned Puerto Rican Spiritist, says that salt neutralizes vibrations both good and bad, and since spirits are pure vibration, their energy is greatly depleted when they come into contact with salt. Salt does however have its uses in Voodoo. One might take a salt bath of cleanse one’s self of all negativity, but the good is also washed away, therefore it is advised that a blessing with holy water be given after each salt bath.
In addition to serving the spirit guides at the bóveda, the Spiritist uses this altar to conduct divination sessions with the help of the dead. A person might go to a Spiritist to seek help in resolving a personal matter or just to receive a general spiritual forecast. Spiritists will often have what is called a “baguette des morts.” This instrument consists of a stick adorned with multicolored ribbons with bells tied to the end. The Spiritist shakes the stick and bangs it against the floor to call the spirits and if they are willing, they may take possession of his body and use him as a mouthpiece. Such possession often occurs during what is called a “misa blanca,” which would be the equivalent of a church service for the Spiritist religion. A personal will often order a misa when in need of spiritual counsel or if a serious health or money problem arises. At one of these ceremonies, several people will gather at the house of a Spiritist and will often each bring a various dishes of food as well as music and drinks to create a party-like ambiance. After eating, they will sit in a circle with the person for whom the service is intended sitting closest to the Spiritist. Several offerings of food, flowers, incense and alcoholic drink will be laid out on a table covered with white cloth on which the bóveda also rests. The service begins with the sign of the cross and the recitation of the Our Father. Then they will often sing a song in honor of their departed ancestors and spirit guides. The following is a popular song in honor of the dead. Originally it was a hymn popularly sung at African-American funerals to accompany prayers and litanies for the deceased, but today is commonly used as part of a Spiritist or Voodoo service.
Adye, Adye cher Frere
Maman, Maman, il e mo
Me nou a reoua o cieu
No Seigneur m’a dit
Li ora pitye de nou, Maman
Goodbye, goodbye dear brother
Mother, Mother, he is dead.
But we will meet again in Heaven
Our Lord told me,
He will have mercy on us, Mother
After the Spirits and ancestors are greeted, one of them may wish to take possession of the Spiritist and offer advice or request prayers from those present. Then the Spiritist will proceed to pray over the person who has ordered the misa. The presiding Spiritist passes his hands over the client and orders unclean spirits and negative energy to depart from this individual. This cleansing is also meant to remove the evil eye or any hexes than may have been placed on this person. Spiritists believe that the negativity released from those present is trapped in the glass dish of water, which is immediately tossed out the back door to prevent it from being reabsorbed. The service in concluded with the recitation of more prayers, a formal thanking of the spirits and the sign of the cross. The guests return to their homes and the Spiritist is paid a fee for his services. He wraps the food offerings in a white cloth and disposes of them at the nearest cemetery. Within the next couple of days, he will be sure to offer extra candles and prayers to thank his spirits for those role in the misa blanca.
Through the course of his practice, the Spiritist may serve several spirits, and often times, according to Kardec’s teachings; his guides will reach a level of elevation that will put them in the presence of God and will cease to be spirits, but “ascended masters,” more commonly known as saints. According to Kardec, these beings can no longer be invoked as spirit guides, but will be truly grateful and bless the Spiritist for his role in their heavenly elevation, when one’s spirit guides move on, more often arrive to take their place. I have two stories involving Spiritism, one of which I witnessed first hand and another that occurred in New Orleans during the 1970’s and was retold to me by a Spiritist and Voodooist named Shirley.
In 1987, when I was four years old, I lived briefly in Naples, Florida, where there are many Spiritists among the Cuban-American community. My mother had a friend named Lita who suffered from multiple sclerosis and was confined to a wheelchair because of this debilitating and crippling disease. My mother got the idea of having a gathering and inviting a well known Spiritist to conduct a healing service for Lita to go along with her more conventional therapy. Lita readily agreed and they made arrangements for a misa blanca. That night, my mother asked me to stay in my room, not wanting me to be frightened by the bizarre goings on in our living room, but true to my nature, I stood in the upstairs hallway and watched intently the events of the evening. The service transpired exactly as previously detailed, but when it came time for Lita’s purification, tiny bubble began to form in the large basin of water at the center of the table. As the cleansing continued, more bubbles formed to the point that one would say the water was boiling. Then the glasses and flower vases began to tremble and slide about on the table. Everybody, including myself, was frightened. I went back to my room and covered myself with a blanket and as tears and sweat poured down my face, I heard cries rising up from the living room such as ¡Mira cómo trabajan los muertos! and ¡Alabado sea Dios! I did not mention to my mother that I had witnessed the ceremony, but the next time I saw Lita, she was moving on her power completely without the aid of a wheelchair or cane. Her disease went into remission and last I knew she was still in good health today.
The second story speaks of the darker side of Voodoo. In the mid 1970’s, one of the most renowned Spiritists and supposed drug dealers in New Orleans was a man by the name of Joaquin. He dealt with the dark side of the occult and worked with Spirits that in life had been criminals and psychopathic mental patients. According to local legend, Joaquin had made what was called a “prenda,” an altar for evil magic housed entirely in a black cast iron cauldron, this is not a tradition in Voodoo, but comes from the Palo-Mayombe religion of eastern Cuba that originally has its roots in the Congo. In Joaquin’s prenda were found the usual items-graveyard dirt, various herbs and human bones he himself had stolen from local mausoleums. Also, he had a pet snake that would rest inside the prenda and come slithering to him on command, despite the fact that snakes are supposed to be deaf. Joaquin would brag that the bones in his prenda belonged to a sociopath murderer who had died in the electric chair and that he could send this evil spirit out to kill or terrorize whomever he chose.
Shirley was a neighbor of his and she often witnessed him performing dark, devious ceremonies between midnight and 3:00 am, the hours between which evil is at its most powerful. Joaquin was forever offering animals sacrifices to that prenda, so much so that Shirley called his house a slaughtering plant from the amount of goat and chicken carcasses that exited via the side door. Shirley told Joaquin that if he kept feeding that prenda so much blood it was going to develop an addiction and become a “nadoki,” a malevolent blood-drinking spirit of African origin closely resembling the European vampire. One day, while chatting casually with Joaquin over the fence the separated their two yards, she caught a glimpse of a tall shadowy figure with piercing red eyes standing in his kitchen. She knew immediately that the demonic spirit had gained enough power to leave the prenda and amble about on its own. She warned him that his demise was imminent unless he disposed of the prenda by leaving it in a cemetery or at a crossroads and aspersing it with holy water. Joaquin ignored her advice and two days later he was dead. Shirley saw his corpse laying on the kitchen floor his head having been crushed by the overturned refrigerator with a stream of blood flowing toward the prenda. When the ambulance came to retrieve his body, Shirley entered the house and retrieved the prenda unnoticed and personally destroyed its contents. She raised Joaquin’s pet snake, who she claims was quite happy to get out of that crazy house. Whether the story of Joaquin transpired exactly as told or whether some exaggeration has occurred overtime does not matter, since Voodoo has survived by means of oral tradition, a moral or practical teaching can be found in every Voodoo story. In this case we can deduce that people who live their lives doing evil eventually succumb to it and sooner or later meet an unhappy demise.
I hope you have enjoyed learning about Spiritism and as always I wish you peace, love and the sweetest of blessings.