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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 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

Voodoo Inspired – The Sum of Our Ancestors

This composite figure is a masterpiece of Voodoo imagery

The other day, while perusing the website, I came upon this fantastic piece by Jean Eddy Remy.  Its complex body, composed of several arms and faces and snake-like appendages struck me as a superbly representative image of Haitian Voodoo culture.  The highly stylized sculputural form artfully captures the essence of Voodoo practice; that of spirit worship.

The Loa are, of course, the spirits of Voodoo, and within their ranks are prominent, universal Loa, such as Papa Legba, Erzulie Freda, The Marassa Twins, etc.  However, there are other, less “famous” though equally important Loa to those that follow the practice of Voodoo: the Loa of the individual’s ancestral family.

At the head of this ancestral family are Damballah Wedo and Aida Wedo, the oldest ancestors.  They are the mother and

A Voodoo altar typically holds colorful bottles of drink for the Loa to enjoy during their visits.

father of all things powerful and good, and together they possess the ancestral knowledge that forms the foundation of Voodoo. They are both symbolized by serpents and from them,  the ancestors of the individual are descended.

According to “Sosyete du Marche” an American Voodou society, there are two sources of holy truth:  the universe around us and the universe within us, passed down from our ancestors as instinct, emotion, predisposition, and memory.  Ancestors are like their descendants but more powerful; living, loving, understanding, and communicating on a plane of reality that is beyond death.  Communion with the ancestors is a means of maintaining continuity and a basis of transcendence between life and the afterlife.

The individual, as the flesh and blood sum of his ancestors, is a synthesized version of all those who have gone before.  To fail to honor them then, is to court disaster and to put into jeopardy the lives of those

Mask of a wandering soul

family members yet to come. It would be as if the lifeline were broken. In fact, by this philosophy, recently deceased family members

must have a ritual performed on their behalf by a hougan, or priest, to ensure that their souls can go peacefully to the place of eternal afterlife. Later, the deceased can be consulted and entreated to bestow wisdom and blessings upon the family. Conversely, the dishonored soul, aimless and restless, will

wander the earth, leaving illness and destruction in its wake.

With all of this in mind, it seems as if many of the pieces contained within the “Voodoo Inspired” design section are sculptural celebrations, not only of Voodoo spirits, but of Voodoo Spirit.  See if you agree…

Third in the series, “Voodoo Inspired”

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/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

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