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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 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

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