Individuality by Symbol: Veves in Haitian Vodou
Photo by Eve Arnold/Magnun Photos. Originally found at: https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/people-politics/papa-doc-duvalier-the-voodoo-president-who-killed-kennedy/ Acess at 04/18/2020.
One of the most impressive visual elements in Vodou are the symbols formed by geometric designs and patterns that are called veves . These veves are signatures or symbolic representations of the lwa . Despite drawing attention because of its intricate contours and unique beauty, they are not mere figurative paraphernalia. On the contrary, they presente a key role in ritual.
Bonhomme and Kerestetzi in an article about Palo Monte and Abakua discuss the firmas or signatures, which are also graphical representations of the spirits present in these cults. These authors state that these signatures are an essential part of the ritual, appearing at different times and spaces and even in the bodies of the participants. The above authors conclude that those signatures are schemes of all the ritual and that they give visibility to the invisible and that they also mean the structural principles of the ritual itself. Interestingly they point out that the symbols function more as a course of action and less as a communication tool.
In fact, the authors state that the firms are the "ritualistic substitutes for the entities that they represent" and that they also mean the practicioner and the community. This is very interesting because it points to focusing the abstract or to a densification, in a sense, of the invisible. Moreover, it seems to suggest that the act of drawing the firms and other symbols also functions as something shared by the visible and by the invisible world and that the construction of the invisible depends on the visible hand (which reminds me of the fetish).
The article cited above also points out, interestingly, that Robert Farris Thompson proposes that the firmas of Palo Monte have their origin in the Bacongo culture and that he also sees a Congolese influence on veves of Vodou and on pontos riscados of Umbanda. Thompson's work, however, as Bonhomme and Kerestetzi warns, presents certain inconsistencies and make bold associations about the continuity of the African iconography in the New World. In other words, they warn that Thompson may have made comparisons without proper support, just based on visual similarities.
About veves and pontos riscados, the authors cited talk that they bear strikingly similar elements with the European magical iconography, which could mean an influence. Now, we know very well that in Portugal and Spain, including the colonies, several versions of Cyprian books containing drawings and magical symbols, including signatures of spirits, used to circulate. It is estimated that these books have influenced the hybrid cults of the New World. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to consider that some of these elements are present in veves.
Lourival Andrade Junior studies more specifically the pontos riscados in Umbanda. He understands that these are symbols that act aiding the medium and the whole terreiro. In addition, he states categorically that no corruption will be accepted in a ponto riscado, which I find curious, but which is in completely accordance to the logic of the symbol that represents a specifi spirit (we will discuss more about this later). Also, Júnior confirms what is widely known: "Each Exu can have more than one ponto riscado (...)".
Anyway, armed with these previous discussions, we can devote ourselves to the more specific discussion of the veves. It seems that we can agree with some of the statements made in those articles. Veves are specific symbols of a particular Lwa . In fact, as in the case of Exus and pontos riscados, a Lwa may have more than one veve . In fact, a Lwa may reveal a specific veve to a house or to a practitioner, which makes the amount of veves incalculable. Therefore, as in the case of pontos riscados, it is true that a veve should not contain corruptions but it can encompass modifications. If the side that changes the veve is the invisible, then it is a valid innovation, but if the practitioner or the visible side modifies the veve by mistake, all ritualistic structure may collapse.
The veves as Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold comments in his book "Craft of the untamed" are usually organized around the figure of the crossroads - actually a fast investigation will reveal that many veves have this structure, as well as snakes symbols. Frisvold sees the crossroads structure as a clear reference to Papa Legba, who is the Lwa of access and possibilities. Thus, the veves as symbols of lwa cannot be understood as inert because they partake of the logic of the crossroads and become themselves portals and active elements within the entire ritual.
Moreover, it is generally around or on the veves that are placed offerings, candles and which are held certain ceremonies. Thus, veves are sacred demarcated spaces and resemble magic circles of the magicians of Western esoteric tradition. Veves then can create an outstanding and special environment that favors or promotes the manifestation of the invisible.
Therefore, in a similar understanding to the one dispensed by Bonhomme and Kerestetzi for firmas of Palo Monte , the veves of Vodou are less symbols that communicate something to the practitioner and more concrete action itself. After all, the practitioner needs to draw the specific veve to the Lwa that he wants to call, so there is no communication bias or maybe there is but it is not about an intellectual communication. The practitioner does not necessarily gain new knowledge looking to a veve, though it can gain new insight or intuition . However, the act of drawing the veve and of centering part of the ritual on it means that it is basically a dynamic element that trigger some processes.
On the specific origin of veves some say that they are a heritage of the natives of Hispaniola, the Taino. Others, like the aforementioned Thompson understood them to be of Congolese descent. This issue is still debated. However, most likely the origin of these symbols find grounds in both natives and the Africans.
The discussion on the veves is extensive and could yield many, many pages. Karen McCarthy Brown dedicated his doctoral thesis to those symbols and produced a voluminous document of almost 500 pages. Unfortunately, I was never able to find this document on physical media or in digital media.
As an introduction to the topic, I think we are well served. Of primary interest to the OTOA is, I would say, to understand the magical dynamics behind these symbols and how this can be replicated in ceremonies or in the construction of one´s own cosmogony.
JÚNIOR, L. A. Pontos riscados e nominações: Exu em discussão. Mouseion. 22, pp. 135-150. 2015.
BONHOMME, J. & KERESTETZI, K. Les signatures des dieux. Graphismes et action rituelle dans les religions afro-cubaines. Gradhiva. 22, pp.74-105. 2015.