Loading... Please wait...

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






Voodoo Inspired – The Crossroads and The Cross

As mentioned in the previous blog, most Haitians, even though they are Catholic, hold their voodoo-based beliefs right alongside, practicing and observing

Freda Veve, by Meda Ulyssee

both religious traditions. The origins of this seemingly odd pairing can be traced back to colonial times when enslaved West Africans were shipped along with their religious beliefs to what was then Saint Domingue, today known as Haiti.  The French colonial slaveholders forbade the  observance of any religion but Catholicism and severly punished those who did otherwise. As a way of getting around the whip, the slaves developed a system of association of their own spiritual figures such as the Great God “Bondye” and the Loa, with those of the Catholic God and the Saints.  They also syncretized symbols, the most evident being that of the Veve, or Crossroads, and The Cross.

Both the Veve and Cross represent points of transition.  In the Catholic tradition, The Cross is the place where Jesus leaves the world of Man and enters into eternal life.  Conversely, the Veve is the point at which the Loa spirits enter the world of Man.  The drawing of a Veve in a Voodoo ceremony is an invitation for the spirits, one or more, to join the physical world and bestow health, strength, love, etc. to the supplicants in attendance. The Veves for each Loa vary, but all have a central cross figure included in their designs. If more

Another adaptation of the Erzulie Freda Veve, spotted in a Croix-des-Bouquets workshop

than one Loa is invited, the Veves connect at their trancepts.

In the beginning of any Voodoo ceremony, the Veve of Papa Legba is drawn. Papa Legba is regarded as the life giver, transferring the power of Bondye to the physical world and all who reside there. Papa Legba is

associated with St. Peter, holder of the keys to the gates of Heaven. In Voodoo, he is  the gatekeeper of the spirit world where the Loa reside, and he must be invoked to bring any of the other Loa to the physical world. After his Veve is drawn (with sand, cornmeal, ground up eggshell or ash) other Loa Veves are drawn to invite them to the ceremony. With their arrival, their powers can be used by the priests, each according to the individual attributes of the Loa.

With the Veves in place, the ritual begins. Chanting, singing, drumming

and dancing beckon the Loa down from the cosmos.

Additionally, food, drinks, and gifts particularly pleasing to the individual Loa are placed on the Veve as offerings  in exchange for service. At the end of the ceremony, when the Loa have

Music and dancing are important elements of any Voodoo ceremony

completed their earthly tasks,  they are released with seven repetitions of the following benediction:  “I thank you Loa for your services and let you go.  Be blessed.” At that point, offerings which have been placed on the Veves are removed and the lovely, elaborate Veves are destroyed.

Though the form of The Cross and The Crossroads are essesntially the same, their symbolism dovetails, and their uses differ entirely within Catholic and Voodoo traditions. Yet by gaining an understanding of Voodoo and the history of it’s development in the New World, it is not impossible to see how both have come to be important, respected, and concerently revered –  in Haiti and beyond.


Second in the series, “Voodoo Inspired”

Contributed By Linda of Beyond Borders/Its Cactus

Voodoo Inspired

One of our many “Voodoo Inspired” pieces, this by Jean Eddy Remy

You may have noticed on our “menu” of designs that we’ve recently added a “Voodoo Inspired” category. We are SO EXCITED to make this addition because the pieces it contains so wonderfully depict the essence of Haiti – its untamed, unchained, exuberant, and mysterious soul. These sculptures reveal the nature of Voodoo, and remove some of the clouds of our understanding.

There is a saying that Haiti is 70 per cent Catholic, 30 per cent Protestant, and 100 per cent Voodoo.  That may be a stretch of mathematical logic but it illustrates the point that the vast majority of Haitians – regardless of religious affiliation – hold at least some Voodoo beliefs. This varies with the individual, of course, from those holding nominal superstitions and belief in old wives’ tales with Voodoo roots, to full-scale worship and practice by priests and priestesses.

But what IS Voodoo, exactly?  It has been defined as, “…a patchwork of beliefs based on animism and spirit worship brought from the African continent by plantation slaves more than two centuries ago. Voodoo is loosely structured and functions along oral traditions and improvisation, rather than by a prescribed set of norms and values.” This description, however, smacks of being shallow and rather discounts Voodoo as an actual religion.  The fact that Voodoo has no formally written history, code of ethics and rules of practice – such as the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran – should not lead one to the conclusion that it is entirely random and therefore invalid. It does, however make it trickier to convey, though I am about try.

Caution thrown aside then, the best place for me to start is with God, who in Voodoo is referred to as “Bondye” or “Papa Bon Dye” meaning “Good God.”  He is not unlike the God of Judeo-Christian tradition in that he is the Creator and he is One. Loa are spirits, which interact with the living.  There are all kinds of Loa, representing good, evil, health, well-being, and virtually every aspect of life and living including that in the animal kingdom.  During

Village “Voodoo Tree.”

the colonial era, French Catholics forbade native African religious practices so slaves secretly syncretized their Loa with Catholic saints to continue their traditional worship. Thus, virtually all Loa have saint associations, examples being Damballa with St. Patrick, Erzulie with the Virgin Mary, the Marassa Twins with Sts. Cosmas and Damien, and so on. The Loa are invoked in ceremonies and invited with drums, dancing and singing.  During the ceremony, one or more Loa may be called upon to temporarily inhabit the physical bodies of the participants.   Therefore, when one observes a representation of man with a fish body and bird wings, it is the representation of Loa inhabitation of the body.

Within Voodoo, there are two types, Rada and Petro.  Rada is the Voodoo of health, happiness and peace while Petro, which gets all the hype, is the black magic Voodoo of death curses and zombies.  By scholarly estimates, 95 percent of all voodoo practiced is of the Rada type.  Curiously, there is no actual “Devil” in Voodoo, though aggression and anger are represented in both Rada and Petro by what most of us would recognize as a devil form.

With all of that in mind, have a look at our new “Voodoo Inspired” section. Get a feel for the blending of spirits and the life forces that Voodoo conjures. Sense the creative minds that imagine each piece.  You don’t have to change your world view, just take a peek from a different perspective.  You might be amazed.


First in a series regarding Haitian Voodoo

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus/Beyond Borders

Sign up for our newsletter

  • Information

View Cart Go To Checkout