Gede´s Origins

Frater Vameri



Photo from: https://www.deccanchronicle.com/gallery/lifestyle/021117/fete-gede-haitians-celebrate-voodoo-festival-of-the-dead.html


Leah Gordon called the Gede "posterboys" of Vodou. It is difficult to argue against that classification, since, in fact, these spirits seem to be the ones that most capture the attention of those interested in Vodou. Of course, the fact that they are linked to death is one of the reasons of their strong power of fascination but we cannot forget that their irreverence is charming. Despite all this, few are interested in asking about the origins of this class of spirits. Well, luckily, Katherine Smith decided to answer just that question and I will dwell on her work in that article.


Katherine Smith is an Art teacher in the United States and has extensive experience in Latin America and the Caribbean. Among her interests are the Gede . In fact, death in Haiti was the subject of her doctorate. Therefore, we are in good hands for the discussion that follows.


Smith quotes Médéric Louis Elie Moreau de St. Méry a lawyer who published in 1797 a book on the island of Saint Domingue and that gives us the first record of the word Vaudoux . Smith says we don't find mention of the Gede in St. Méry's work , although he notices veneration for the cemetery. The author then takes a small leap into 1885 and in a work by Trouillot and concludes that the Gede do not appear there either.


Shifting her focus, Smith argues that the title of Baron (from Baron Samedi ) probably has origins in Freemasonry which played a prominent role in the late 18th century helping to articulate elements of the Haitian Revolution. Thus, she understands that it is likely that at that time the rites of the slaves began to mix with the Masonic rites.


Smith retrieves a curious element from a novel from around 1800 called Zoflora , or la bonne négresse by Jean- Baptires Picquenard in which there is a possible description of the impression of slaves on the Masons of the time. I reproduce here this passage:


“I held upon my plantation at Corail a lodge of free-masonry, and my domestics having observed in the emblems of that society drawn upon the walls of the hall of meetings, death’s heads, cross bones, poinards, swords, stars, etc. failed not to take me for a sorcerer, who according to their ridiculous credulity, has covenanted with the great Zombi, or in other words, the devil”.


For Smith, these Masonic elements would have been constitutive of the Gede. In any case, she reports that it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the first specific records about the Gede appeared . According to the author it is in a novel called Mimola ; ou, L´histoire d´une casssette by Antoine Innocent published in 1906, that the mention of the Gede appears first. However, she claims that there are only brief mentions without details and that they do not characterize the Gede as known today.


It is in the work of Eugène Aubin published in 1910 called In Haiti that Smith begins to find more solid clues. Smith says that in this book, Aubin collects several reports and says that “Guédé ” is “part of the Ginen nation of spirits, together with Legba and Danbala and Agwe ” and that it´s altar is black with bones in it. Smith also collects reports from several ethnologists and seems to point to the birthplace of the Gede being in Port-au-Prince. Specifically citing Zora Neale Hurston, Smith recalls that this researcher credits a group of slaves in the capital with the creation of Gede, who later would have solidified into a marginalized cult and finally spread throughout the country - and that at the time of Hurston's studies (Approximately 1938), there was still no Gede in some regions distant from the capital.


Smith explores other nuances of the Gede's later formation but I think with what we have we can already think about when and where these spirits appear. While it seems clear that ancestral veneration and respect for the spirits of the dead appeared very early in Vodou, it is possible that the specific class of the Gede and its mannerisms are more recent than would be expected in a superficial investigation.


Reference :

2012 “Genealogies of Gede ,” in In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st Century Haitian Art, ed. Donald Cosentino (Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA), 85-100

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