Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Happy Damballah's Day!
Afro-Caribbean religions like Santeria and Vodoun are syncretic traditions. When European slave traders and colonialists imported millions of black Africans to the new world, they did their best to outlaw the original culture of the slaves, seeing in it a threat to the necessary dehumanization of their new human commodities. Yet people are resilient, and the slaves managed to keep their traditions alive inside the new traditions that were forced on them; in the end synthesizing something new, with deep African roots, but unique to the new world.
The nature spirits from west Africa, the loa of Dahomey and the orisha of Yorubaland/Nigeria, survived in the clothes of Catholic saints. St. Patrick is usually depicted standing with his staff, commanding the serpents who writhe at his feet to leave the island of Ireland. Thus St. Patrick was seen by the Haitians as a person with a relationship to serpents, those mysterious beings who manage to transcend the realms of earth and underworld. In vodoun, Damballah is the world serpent, a spirit of great power and mystery who encircles the world, bearing hidden mysteries and representing the unity between the spiritual and physical realms. So St. Patrick came to represent Damballah himself: a nonthreatening icon of the Catholic St. Patrick could represent to its devotee the actual presence of Damballah.
Today now that there are neither literal colonialists nor slaves in the new world, the open face of the original African deities are less likely to be hidden in Catholic clothing. Shown here is a Haitian vodoun beaded panel honoring Damballah. These beautiful panels decorate altars sacred to the spirits.
So if St. Patrick is meant to represent the Christians driving out of Ireland its original indigenous Pagans, let us reclaim the day by celebrating the rainbow serpent Damballah. What goes around comes around: My Irish ancestors will have to understand.