[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
6195: Vodou and Creole in Alabama (fwd)
Deeper Knowledge Defines the Line Between Religion
and Mental Illness
The Huntsville Times, 12/10/00
A few months into my psychiatric training I went to the
emergency room to see Mr. X, an agitated, terrified man
from north Birmingham. His chief complaint: A dog had
warned him his neighbor was actually a "boko" plotting
to capture half his soul (he called it his "ti bon ange") and
seal it up in a bottle.
Talking dog? Classic auditory hallucination. Soul theft?
Bizarre paranoid delusion. Boko? Ti bon ange? We call
such made-up words "neologisms" - evidence of severe
psychotic illness. Luckily, I talked to my boss before
blitzing Mr. X with Haldol. More gently than I deserved,
I got my first lecture on cross-cultural psychiatry. Both
my patient and I, my boss advised, needed to calm
ourselves. Mr. X was badly frightened but hardly crazy,
and strange as his concerns appeared, they were
ordinary religious issues in his community.
Instead of Haldol, Mr. X got a mild sedative and a talk
with a social worker. For me, my boss prescribed a field
The Lucky Lyric, a converted theater in north
Birmingham, sold what you might call a boutique line of
religious supplies. What Lewter's is to hardware, the
Lucky Lyric was to voodoo. For every human longing,
apparently, you could buy a charm icon, or fluorescent
Need healing, love or money? Are bokos (sorcerers)
pursuing your soul? Want to interpret the thoughts of
animals? The Lucky Lyric would like to help.
Let's fix our terminology: "Vodou," an African word for
spirit, is the correct name for this religion. It is the
spiritual heritage for millions of Afro-Creole people,
assembled from remnants of their horrid and glorious
history. Perhaps this season's spirituality makes me feel I
can't end the year without telling you something about
Probably most of what you know is wrong. Vodou does
not deal with devil worship or pins in dolls.
It began in West Africa, where for centuries people have
worshiped the high god (Bonday or Bon Dieu), their
ancestors, twins and dozens of minor spirits called "lwa"
(pronounced el-wa). In vodou belief everyone has two
soul-parts. The "gros bon ange," or big angel, is present
throughout life, while the "ti bon ange," or little angel, can
drift from the body during sleep or inattention and be
In vodou rituals, the lwa are invited to take possession
of worshipers' ti bon ange, sending them into ecstatic
trances wherein they perform cures, give advice and
take on the personalities of the possessing lwa. Spirit
possession is a desirable state, and vodou rituals invoke
it through feasting, dancing and animal sacrifice.
On the other hand, if a boko seizes your ti bon ange and
corks it into a bottle, he can make you a zombie,
deprived of will-power and unable to die, doomed
eternally to be the boko's slave. For Afro-Caribs, there
is no worse fate.
Scarcely a decade after Columbus reached Haiti in
1492, the Spanish began raiding West Africa to furnish
Caribbean islands with slave labor. Some 15 million
Africans were shipped to what became Haiti, the
Dominican Republic and Jamaica.
In the New World, the slaves' Catholic masters tried to
exterminate their religion, forcibly baptizing them into
Catholicism and outlawing vodou ceremonies. But
vodou went underground, cloaked in Catholic
camouflage. The lwa metamorphosed into patron saints;
the crucifix acquired its own vodou symbolism; even the
eucharistic body and blood of Jesus became a surrogate
for vodou ritual sacrifice.
Cherished as a link with the lost ancestral home of
Africa, vodou became the social glue of the Caribbean.
Today, Afro-Caribbean immigrants in New Orleans,
rural South Carolina and north Birmingham practice a
form of vodou.
But you cannot study it as I did at the Lucky Lyric. Like
July's tomatoes, your first kiss and my term as a
community columnist, the Lucky Lyric has passed away.
Huntsville psychiatrist Alice Chenault is one of The
Times' community columnists for 2000.