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Papa Nwel and Papa Fwedad

Wall Plaque by Winston Cajuste

A wish for you and yours, by Winston Cajuste

Since it is the beginning of December and many of us are caught up in holiday preparations, I thought I would look into some of the Christmas

Hanging Spiral Tree by Evenson Thenor

Decorate our Hanging Spiral Christmas tree with tiny red bobbles for a bit of color and Suess-like whimsy.

traditions of Haiti to share with you here. Christmas is one of the major holidays of the Haitian calendar and many of their traditions are quite similar to ours in the States. There is a holiday tree to decorate, songs to sing, special foods to enjoy, and there is the embodiment of our

Santa Claus in Papa Nwel. However, Haiti being Haiti, there is a Rada to the Petro, a yin to the yang. In addition to the beloved Papa Nwel, there is a dreaded Papa Fwedad as well.

During my last trip to Haiti, i realized how prevalent the idea of balance is. Haiti is ” 90 percent Catholic and 100 percent Voodoo”, as they say in references too numerous to mention. Within Voodoo are two distinct spirit groups – Rada and Petro. Rada is benevolent and kind and the other, Petro, is fierce and dangerous. In Voodoo temples that I visited, I found images from both spirit groups represented in equal measure, together forming an idea of justice within. When the spirits are in harmony, there is balance in the world. In the sense of Voodoo, then, Papa Nwel would be associated with Rada family of gentle spirits, and Papa Fwedad would be the counterpoint, one of the fierce Petro spirits.

To be honest, Papa Fwedad was mentioned only a time or two in my research, but in both cases, it was in the same breath as Voodoo. ( See The Haiti Observer and Prezi.) Though I am no expert, I am not convinced that Papa Fwedad was born of Voodoo belief at all, though the association now is strong. I think he was appropriated from the tradition French tradition of Papa Fouettard, who accompanies Papa Noel on his visits to children during the Christmas holiday season. In both Haiti and France, the one bestows wonderful gifts to good children, while the other brings lumps of coal and punishments to those children who are naughty.

“They see you when you’re sleeping, they know when you’re awake.

They know if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Reading Veves

Last week, Casey sent me a letter from a customer, who was inquiring about the meaning of one of our veve sculptures. Veves, like this one at

veves symbolize the Voodoo Spirits

How do you read this veve?  There are lots of clues!


the right, are symbols for Voodoo spirits, or loas. Each loa has a veve, and when the presence of a loa is required, a veve is drawn to act as an invitation to the loa to come to the Crossroads between the Natural World and the Spirit World.

The customer’s question was an interesting one, which I dug into with relish. However, after looking at several references, I found that many loas have two or more veves. Furthermore, this particular veve matched nothing that I had reviewed. Some of the lines of the piece writhe, snake-like, which could indicate Damballah, The Creator. The triangle at the bottom might further that possibility. Yet the rooster on the left is the favored animal of Papa Legba, The Protector. It is also favored by Ogun, The Guardian of Truth. Couldn’t this veve indicate either of those as well?

Curiouser and curiouser. I had to stop and think a bit. There was an answer somewhere, but I had come to the realization that I wasn’t going to find it in a book or online in black and white. I had to summon my inner Sherlock Holmes and use the available clues come to a logical solution.

First clue: Voodoo is not a religion with a book. No Koran, no Torah, no Bible and therefore no single set of rules. It is a religion based on oral tradition. Ever play “The Telephone Game” as a kid? The one where you start out with a single message and whisper it down the line and see how the message changes from beginning to end? Well if you did, you know what happens: Inevitably, some details get rearranged. That explains the variations on particular veves, of course. A variation, then. Maybe that’s what this is.

Second clue: Voodoo has hundreds of spirits. While there are a couple of dozen that are commonly invoked, dozens upon dozens more are only common in the vernacular. Like a local accent, they are recognized in small, localized areas and not by the entire body of Voodoo practitioners. It could be a fairly exact veve, but one that didn’t get on the academic (ethnographic? ethnographical??) radar because of it’s relative ideological isolation. A symbol for a minor spirit, then. Hmmmm….Maybe that’s what this is.

Third clue: The sculpture was created by an artist. Ever heard of artistic license? Sure you have. Artists take liberties all the time, bending their work to fit their own view of the world. It could be a an abstraction, a commentary, or even a synthesis of several veve symbols. An artistic interpretation, then. Ah, maybe THAT’S what this is.

So, Sherlock, what’s the the answer? Well, Watson, it could be anything. Maybe not a brilliant deduction on my part, but at least it’s honest. Guessing does no one any favors. Still, the possibilities are intriguing, are they not?


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Voodoo Priests and M.D.s : Finding the right mix in Haiti

More than 5 years after the earthquake that devastated Haiti, many of the physical wounds have healed, but much of the psychological wreckage lingers. Because voodoo culture is so pervasive -with an estimated 70 percent observing its practice – mental health care as a medical concept never really took hold and no system for clinical treatment was ever really established. Haitians who are in a state of mental suffering are likely to believe themselves to be possessed and seek the ministrations of a voodoo priest or priestess whereas their condition might otherwise be clinically diagnosed as depression, psychosis or other mental illness.  (Read more in the Huffington Post.)

A metal art interpretation of spirit possession by Jean Eddy Remy

This marvelous voodoo piece illustrates possession. A one-of-a-kind sculpture by Jean Eddy Remy.

Because of the prevalence of its practice, ignoring the influence of Voodoo with regard to mental health care would be a recipe for disaster. In a paper published in 2010 by the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization entitled, “Culture and Mental Health in Haiti: A Literature Review,” the authors state that, “Voodoo encompasses the promotion of personal well- being, prevention of illness, and healing.” Practitioners of Voodoo believe that the health or illness of a particular person depends on his or her connection to tradition and place in the social and moral order as well as his/her relationships with the gods and ancestors. Voodoo and personal health are so intertwined that believers would not accept treatment of which Voodoo is not a part.

Moreover, the common strategy of seeking out a voodoo priest rather than a doctor of psychiatry is also a practical one. In Haiti, with its

Hypocrates' staff recreated by Patrick Bernard

The Rod of Asclepius – a universal symbol of the medical profession – is artfully recreated in Haitian metal by Patrick Bernard.

population of 10 million, there are an estimated 60,000 hougans and mambos. There are only 10 psychiatrists.

Max Beauvoir, a high-ranking Voodoo hougan is emphatic that Voodoo must play a role in the development of a comprehensive therapeutic model. As he sees it, “Voodoo is the soul of the Haitian people. Nothing can be achieved if we work without that cultural basis.”

Enter Akwatu Kenti, head of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Office of Transformative Global Health. He along with Catholic, Protestant and Voodoo leaders are seeking an approach that blends tradition perceptions and cultural influences with clinical practices. His goal for the collaboration is that the shared wisdom of the participating clinicians and spiritual leaders will result in a state of elevated mental health for Haiti’s population as a whole.

It seems a set of ingredients that will be tricky to blend. But whoever came up with mixing yeast, sugar, flour and milk for the very first time? And now we have bread.

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

The Truth about Veves

These winged hearts, by Wiseton Brutus, are adorned with veves.

These winged hearts, by Wiseton Brutus, are adorned with veves.

They say that to be forewarned is to be forearmed. With that in mind, I’m hoping you will find the following information, hip, cool, enlightening, or some combination thereof, but I will forewarn you that it may – despite my intentions – simply freak you out. Are you ready? These cute little winged hearts are detailed with voodoo veve symbols.
Voodoo beliefs encompass rada, or benevolent spirits, and petro spirits, which are anything but. To mix the metaphor, they are the yin and yang of voodoo culture. This is purely an issue of balance, though somewhat unfairly, Petro spirits get a disproportionate amount of the hype. The veve on the heart in front (photo left) symbolizes the spirit of Erzulie Freda, the spirit of love, and a rada spirit, if ever there was one. How perfectly appropriate that her veve should adorn a metal heart with wings. Not so freaky, right?
Veves appear on many of our Haitian pieces, on the flags, on paintings, and on the metal too. What is a veve, actually, and what purpose does it serve? Worthy questions, both. The short answer, according to Milo Rigaud, who is an expert on such things is this: “Veves represent figures of the astral forces. In the course of Vodoo ceremonies, the reproduction of the astral forces represented by the veves obliges the spirits to descend to earth.” This begs the further

Brilliant sequins of red and blue form the veve of Erzulie Freda, the spirit of love.

Brilliant sequins of red and blue form the veve of Erzulie Freda, the spirit of love.

question: What is an astral force? I hope you love the following definition as much as I did when I consulted the Cambridge Dictionary. It said, “Astral forces are those forces pertaining to the stars and are beyond human comprehension.” Ah, mystery.
Every voodoo spirit, benevolent or otherwise, has its own unique veve symbol. In ceremonies, the veve of the spirit whose presence is desired is sprinkled on the floor with cornmeal or colored sand. Personally, I have observed veves arranged in stone on the floors of voodoo temples. In either case, they are a visual supplication, used to summon the presence of a particular spirit. In art, they are representational symbols of honor.
So what’s the verdict? Not freaky at all, but very hip, cool and enlightening? Oh, I hope so!


Contributed by Linda for Its Cactus

The Enduring Mystique of La Sirene

"Mermaid Mysteries" one of a kind sculpture by Michee Remy

“Mermaid Mysteries” one of a kind sculpture by Michee Remy

Mermaids are the among most ubiquitous of sea creatures, at least from a cultural point of view. They appear in ancient legends of the deep from Egypt and Greece, the Eskimos have them in their lore, as do the Western Europeans, Australian Aborigines and the tribes of Africa. Across boundaries of time and space, this half woman, half fish is at once powerful, beautiful, protective, hypnotic, and dangerous.

It was from the combined influences of West African spirit worship and Western European folklore that mermaids made their entrance into the New World. Mami Wata, as the sea spirit was known to West African tribes, was an integral part of the belief system that traveled with enslaved Africans to the Americas. Reestablished and revisualized across the Atlantic, Mami Wata emerged in new communities and under different guises, among them Yemanja, Santa Marta la Dominadora, and most commonly, La Sirene. African–based faiths honoring these manifestations of Mami Wata continue to flourish today throughout the Americas, including Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

From Europe, and beginning with Christopher Colombus, mermaid veneration and ideology was reinforced. During his explorations of Hispaniola Colombus wrote of seeing, “…three mermaids, though these were not as pretty as mermaids that had been previously described to me. In fact, somehow in the face, they appeared more as men.” Too bad for Colombus. Years later in 1614, Captain John Smith had a more pleasant experience, taking note of a lovely mermaid that had, “a fish-tail, round eyes, a finely-shaped nose, well-formed ears, and long green hair.” Though he could not have failed to notice her naked breasts, his impression of that was delicately omitted from the Captain’s log…(!)


One of a kind "Mermaids" sculpture by Julio Balan is clearly inspired  by voodoo culture.

One of a kind “Mermaids” sculpture by Julio Balan is clearly inspired by voodoo culture.

In the practice of Voodoo today, La Sirene is recognized as a strong female deity. She is capable of bestowing great fortune and even magical powers upon those who do her honor, and bringing catastrophy to those with whom she is displeased. Her beauty strenghens her powers of enchantment but also causes her to be vain. She is associated with lunar movements and also with dreams which she uses as tools of inspiration and creativity for endeavors such as writing, painting, and music. In reference to these characteristics, La Sirene is often depicted with a mirror, a comb, and a horn or other musical instrument. Of these items, the mirror is most significant. The glass itself is representative of the sea, while the back of the mirror is the dividing point between La Sirene’s underwater world and ours.


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus






Erzulie Dantor – The Fierce Mother


The Black Madonna of Czestochowa

Thinking about Mother’s Day just around the corner, it seems fitting to recall the Haitian spirit of the “Fierce Mother,” Erzulie Dantor.  She is characterized as hard-working, independent, aggressive, wild and strong.  She is recognized as the great protector of children, and will go to any lengths to keep them from harm. Like any mother, she bears the pain of her children’s sorrow but  also radiates the joy of their successes. Erzulie Dantor is often depicted by the image of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, an icon reportedly painted by St. Luke on a cedar table thought to have belonged to the Holy Family that somehow ended up in a monastary in Poland. Curiously, it was Polish Catholic soldiers fighting on both sides of the Haitian Revolution that brought the image to the nacient island nation, where it was quickly embraced and absorbed into voodoo culture.

Erzulie Dantor’s symbol, the veve, is drawn onto temple floors during religious ceremonies to summon her presence.  Meda Ulyssee has recreated that symbol in recycled metal.  Of course, he had all of the cultural background to communicate its meaning with hammer and chisel, but we  had to learn the story before we could fully appreciate the significance he struck into every detail. What we called simply “Meda’s Heart”  is actually much more.  On a pure and elemental level, it is a beautiful representation of the strength of a mother’s love.

Meda Ulyssee in his studio

Meda Ulyssee in his studio



Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Easter in Haiti

SM182 Cross by Michee Remy

SM182 Cross by Michee Remy

Easter week is a time of great celebration in Haiti and, as in so many other aspects of Haitian life; it is a combination of Catholic and Voodoo tradition.  Along with personal reflection and attending worship services focused on the last days of Christ on earth, Haitian Easter observances also include processions in which rara bands play a central role.  During the Lenten period, and continuing through Holy Week, these processions are loosely organized assemblies of musicians playing homemade drums, trumpets, maracas, bells, and whistles.  Dancers and singers perform as they follow along, clad in flamboyant, free-wheeling costumes.  These processions often grow and diminish during their course, and may carry political nuance as well as religious significance. Click here for a video portrayal of both Catholic observance and rara performance. http://search.yahoo.com/search;_ylt=A0oGdW4LZFBRmQ8AVtul87UF?p=easter%20celebration%20in%20haiti&fr=ush-mailn&fr2=sfp

Specialty foods for  Haitian Easter include cooked chicken, beets, rice, and black beans such as those prepared following the recipe below.   As they say in Haitian Creole, “Bonn fet Pak!”  (Happy Easter!)


2 cups dried black beans, picked through, rinsed, and soaked overnight

Hand-made trumpet used by rara band muscians.

Hand-made trumpet used by rara band muscians.

4 cups water

1 large onion, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

5 cloves minced garlic

2 bay leaves

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. oregano

1/2 tsp. thyme

1 tsp. ground black pepper

1-4 oz. jar pimentos, drained and chopped

1/2 c. cider vinegar

1/2 c. vegetable oil

Drain soaked beans and add them to 4 c. water in a large saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover pan and simmer for 30 minutes. Add onions, green pepper, garlic, bay leaves, salt, pepper, thyme and simmer the ingredients 1 hour longer, checking periodically and adding more water as necessary. Stir in vinegar, pimentos, and oil and remove bay leaves. Heat through and serve.

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus


Owls of a Different Feather

Owl sculpture by Max-Elie Brutus.  Coming soon to our catalogue!

Owl sculpture by Max-Elie Brutus. Coming soon to our catalogue!


Written for  Patrick, because he asked…


Back in October, when I was in Haiti, I was looking at an intricate sculptural depiction of the voodoo ceremony at Bwa Kayman that set off the Haitian Revolution.  There was a lot of symbolism worked into the scene, every detail fraught with meaning, so I was taking my time, looking it over very carefully and asking a lot of questions.  When I spied an owl sitting in a tree, I asked our translator about its significance. Roosevelt’s face visibly darkened as he replied, “Oh owls are bad – very bad. Evil.”  Then, he shook his head, “An owl has powerful black magic. You don’t ever want to mess with that.” I made a mental note to look into it further, and so here we are:

There are two different loas (Voodoo spirits) associated with owls.  The first and by far the most ominous is Marinette, who takes the form of a screech owl and is clearly the one to whom Roosevelt referred. She is believed to have been the Mambo priestess that sacrificed the black pig at Bwa Kayman.  Cruel, vicious, raging, and vengeful, she is greatly feared.  She metes out justice with a powerful, violent hand and possesses the ability to free people from bondage or send them into slavery, at her pleasure. Knowing that after the Bwa Kayman ceremony, slaves slipped their chains to freedom while French slaveholders were slaughtered by the hundreds, it is clear that Marinette is not to be trifled with.

The second loa associated with an owl is named Brise, guardian of the hills and woodlands. Though he appears to be fierce, with large, dark, exaggerated features, he is actually quite gentle and loves children.  Brise seems to be the basis of a widely recognized children’s folktale, which is elegantly retold in English in Diane Wolkenstein’s book “The Magic Orange Tree.” (For more on her book, click here http://dianewolkstein.com/projects/haiti-and-the-magic-orange-tree/ )

In the story, a shy owl encounters a lovely young girl in the woods at night.  They talk and agree to meet again and again and during the course of their encounters, fall in love and agree to marry.  The only problem is that the young girl has never seen the face of the owl and he is afraid to show it because he is ugly.  He ends up flying away, alone, ashamed, and unwilling to believe that he could be worthy of a lifetime of love. The girl eventually finds a new love, but her happiness is forever shadowed by the melancholy of her previous loss. Far from being fierce and powerful, the owl in this story is self-effacing and unsure. Pretty significant contrast, I’d say.

Then on the other hand, across the Carribean and a good bit of land mass are “my” owls; wise and all-knowing. What likely formed the basis for my line of thinking is a simple British poem written in the 19th century that I learned in second grade.  Bet you did too:il570xN264988494[1]

“The Wise Old Owl lived in the oak

The more he saw, the less he spoke.

The less he spoke, the more he heard.

Why can’t we be like that wise old bird?”

How different my impression of owls is from those depicted in Haitian lore! It has nothing to do with the bird itself and everything to do with the stories I was told as a kid. Cultural heritage.  Pretty interesting, isn’t it?


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Voodoo Inspired – The Elephant in the Room

I wasn’t going to do this.  I was going to do four articles on Voodoo.  Four.  No more.  But to ignore the whole idea of zombies in four articles on Voodoo would be to ignore the elephant in the room.  OF COURSE THERE ARE ZOMBIES IN VOODOO!  I just wasn’t going to go into zombies because I thought they were too creepy and “out there,” running contrary to the kinder, gentler side of Voodoo practice that I was trying to convey.  But then I read an article entitled, “A Zombie is a Slave Forever,” in the Oct. 30, 2012 edition of the New York Times by Amy Wilentz. A journalist and professor of literary journalism at UCal-Irvine, Wilentz described zombies so reasonably that they became, to me at least, more historically interesting than creepy.  So here we are, with a fifth and absolutely final article in the “Voodoo Inspired” series.  (Really.)

According to Wilentz, zombies are the very logical offspring of New World slavery, combining old African religious beliefs and the pain of the merciless, cold-blooded French colonial  system of slavery in seventeenth century Saint Domingue, now Haiti. In the slaves’ view, the only escape from grueling servitude on sugar plantations was death, which was seen as a return to Africa, or ”lan guinée,” a phrase which even today means “Heaven” in Haitian Kreyol.  Thus, death became a desirable means of attaining freedom and suicide became morbidly commonplace.

Naturally, the death of a slave was very costly to slave owners, whose accounting ledgers would reflect not only loss of productivity, but also of property.  To ingratiate themselves to the owners then, slave drivers – themselves slaves and often Voodoo priests – put down the practice of suicide with the threat of zombification.  Zombies, being soulless wanderers, are unable to get to lan guinee, the lush, languorous African heaven, and are thereby stuck in eternal bondage on Saint Domingue. Logically, the threat of becoming a zombie was an effective deterrent from self-inflicted death, as evidence of “real zombies” could be observed in the blank stares of

Two zombies, by Louis Eric

broken slaves who toiled in the fields in endless, unresponsive misery.

In traditional Voodoo belief, the soul is transported to lan guinee at the discretion of Baron Samedi, the Loa of Death.  To offend the Baron is to be doomed

to a zombie state in which the actions of the soulless body are entirely dictated by a mortal master. Baron Samedi is represented by a male figure in a black suit and hat with dark glasses.  He is low, foul-mouthed, and vicious.

Centuries later, it was no coincidence that “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s notorious dictator from 1957-1971, used the imagery of the Baron and zombies to instill fear in his own people. Like the Baron, he often dressed in a black top hat and business suit, and wore dark sunglasses.  His secret police, the Tontons Macoutes, maintained order with a violent, seemingly blind obedience and were taken by the populace to be zombies under the dictator’s control. Of course, this assumption was used to Duvalier’s advantage and no pains were taken to reassure the public.

As can be plainly seen, zombie-ism in Voodoo has roots that are both historical and credible and it is pop culture that has applied the hyperbole.  Amy Wilentz does a superb job of giving clarity to the subject and her forthcoming book, “Farewell Fred Voodoo” promises to more of the same on the broader topic of Haiti’s day-to-day struggle for survival.  It comes out on January 8th but is available now for pre-order here   http://www.amazon.com/Farewell-Fred-Voodoo-Letter-Haiti/dp/1451643977/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1355325883&sr=8-1&keywords=farewell+fred+voodoo

Order up – we can do cyber book club!

Last in the series, “Voodoo Inspired”

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Voodoo Inspired – Bwa Kayiman, Revolution and Haitian Independence

Events at Bwa Kayiman interpreted in metal

A couple of months ago when we were in Haiti, Casey and I saw some intricate and complex sculptural renditions of what we were told represented events at Bwa Kayiman.  Though very different from each other, each piece had constant elements of composition: a tree, a man and a woman, bottles, snakes, and various anthropomorphic figures.  But what did they signify? We sensed a good story…

Deep in the forest, in the Morne Rouge region southwest of the colonial capital of Cap Haitien is the sacred and historic cradle of the slave uprising that lead to revolution against the French and ultimately to the establishment of first free black republic in the New World.  That place was known in French as Bois Cayman, Bwa Kayiman in Kreyol.

According to legend, a maroon, or fugitive slave by the name of Dutty Boukman organized a meeting of 200-300 slaves at Bwa Kayiman in August of 1791.  Boukman was a Voodoo

priest, and assisted by a priestess, Cecile Fatiman, the two performed a ceremony under a raging thunderous sky, invoking Erzulie Dantor and requesting

Etching of Dutty Boukman, a fugitive slave whose last name represented the fact that he was educated and knew how to read.

her help in freeing the black slaves of Saint Domingue.  A black pig was sacrificed, and its blood was drunk, lending the slaves a mystical sense of invincibility and emboldening them to unite in revolt against their French oppressors. (A concise, informative clip about the events at Bwa Kayiman can be viewed here by clicking here:      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WZiXpdaGF8  )

In the days that followed, the slaves organized themselves and began putting plantations to the torch and the slave owners to the sword. Larger than life heroes began to emerge, such as Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines.  Hugely outnumbered and defenses in disarray, the colonial government of Saint Domingue was eventually forced to capitulate.  On January 1, 1804 the free Republic of Haiti was born.

Today Bwa Kayiman is a protected National Historic site.  Haitians visit throughout the year, as well as attend events commemorating the slave revolt each August.  Independence Day is marked along with the New Year on January 1st with music, dancing, fireworks, and eating lots of soup joumou – a hearty pumpkin soup that was a luxury reserved for the French and forbidden to slaves during colonial times.  Eating the soup on New Year’s Day represents communion and brotherhood, peace and freedom. Click here for the recipe:

http://recipes.sparkpeople.com/recipe-detail.asp?recipe=98211  To our friends, in Haiti and beyond, we wish you peace and freedom.  Bonne Ane – Happy New Year!


Fourth in the series, “Voodoo Inspired”

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

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