Thursday, June 10, 2010

History: Bayou Hoodoo And Maroon Songs

Last Thursday we talked about seafaring and piratical Saints, those bastions of old Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy that so pissed off the original Protestants. We also talked about similar holy people in the Islamic world. The "Old World Saints" if you will.

In the New World, however, sailors in general and pirates and privateers in particular came into contact with a far more varied realm of religious thought. Many towns didn't have churches, or if they did they were shy a priest, rabbi or minister. Prayer outside of established Spanish colonies came to be more of a personal experience. And aboard ship or in some lonesome cay or bayou where goods could be dropped off and your vessel could be hauled up for a careening, the locals - if there were any - might introduce a seaman to a whole new religion.

It should come as no surprise that pirates, who were generally a mixed bag of outlaws in the first place, gravitated to the "exotic" religions being practiced in secret on plantations, in runaway camps and at sea. These were the roots of what we know today as Voudon (Haiti), Voodoo/Hoodoo (Southern U.S.), Candomble (Cuba), Santeria (Brazil), and many others throughout the Americas. Like that favorite pirate stew salmagundi, they are a heady mix of African animism, Native American spiritualism and Catholic ritual and imagery.

I say Catholic not because Protestants didn't own slaves. But these religions tended to thrive in places where Master followed the Roman religion. Catholics rarely paid attention to the religious feelings of local Natives or slaves. If the heathens went to church now and then, good enough. On the other hand, Protestants felt a moral obligation to convert the godless and keep them away from their soul-withering Devil worship. Lest we forget, Tituba the preacher's slave was the first witch named at the Salem trials.

Out of this melting pot bubbled a slew of appropriate spirits for seamen to devote themselves to and many did so with gusto. In Voudon, the lwa (or loa which roughly translates to spirit) of the seas were a married pair, Agwe and La Sirene (shown above on a hand-sequined prayer flag or drapeau). Agwe, who was frequently represented by the Catholic Saint Ulrich, was a sailor and Admiral. He was a favorite of most Haitian seamen and one legendary privateer at the very least - Dominique Youx of Baratarian fame - was devoted to Met Agwe. La Sirene the mermaid, sometimes shown as Stella Maris or Saint Martha, was invoked to prevent drowning and, along with her husband, for safe passage.

In Santeria, Yemaya was the queen of the seas. She was represented as the Virgin Mary and her statue was often kept aboard even the smallest fishing vessels for protection. Conversely, the married pair Oya and Shango were favorites of the bloodiest brigands. Their anger was thought to manifest itself in lightning storms and the St. Elmo's fire we discussed last week was believed to be their way of ensuring pirates that their ship would find a fat prize. Some legends say that Francois L'Olonnais invoked the pair as did Black Caesar who was one of Edward Teach's lieutenants. They are frequently prayed to in their Catholic guises of St. Barbara and St. James.
In New Orleans, where what Americans now call voodoo came with Haitian refugees and intermingled with the local hoodoo to become something similar to and yet different from Haitian Voudon, Baron Samedi reigned supreme. One of the three major Ghede Barons (as shown above in a painting by Voodoomama) that ruled the land of the Dead, Baron Samedi has become the official lwa of the Crescent City. Stories are told that Marie Leveau, the famous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, introduced Jean Laffite to the Baron. Laffite, who is himself a folk hero in the bayous, became so devoted to the lwa that their personalities intertwined. Like Baron Samedi, Laffite became sophisticated, charming, amusing, uncanny and wildly successful. It wasn't until he lost the Baron's favor that Jean Laffite was finally overcome. It certainly fits the tale that Laffite, who angered the Lord of the Cemetery, has no known final resting place.

Of course the stories go on and on, multiplying in the warm, tropical breezes and humid cypress swamps. But we'll stop here for now. The legendary heroes of freebooting around the world probably each had their own God or Saint. Who they all were, we'll never know. But some of the folktales will always fascinate, and make us wonder.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That was a fun post. Oh those wacky Protestants... too funny. I also liked the part at the end about Jean Laffite and Baron Samedi. That makes a lot more sense than some of the other theories and stories that have been made up... "The Diary of Jean Lafitte" comes to mind.

And finally, congratulations to your Blackhawks on winning the Stanley Cup over my beloved Flyers. We put up a good fight, but your boys deserved the win. Savor it and good luck defending your championship next year.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I absolutely love the story of Jean Laffite and Barone Samedi, which - to my mind - is decidedly plausible. Being a NOLA girl, I understand the attraction. I'm rather partial to the King of the Ghede and to his handsome wife, Manman Brigitte.

And thankee re: the 'Hawks. Much like the Saints, well deserved and a long time coming. Huzzah!

Daggar said...

Black Caesar? I've never even heard the name. Sounds like an interesting character.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Daggar! Black Caesar, according to some piratical historians, was a confidente and friend (to the degree that he had friends) of Blackbeard. These sources call him Second Lieutenant to Israel Hands.

Others dismiss Caesar as a myth, much like the pirate "Big Black Dick" that the Cayman Islands use to sell their rum to cruise tourists.

I'm of the first mind. Caesar, in some form or another, was probably a real person and either a free man of color or a runaway slave. I'm still doing the research but Caesar is bound to see his own post here at Triple P.