Snakes and Kongo: a brief discussion about how Vodou is diverse
Geggus in an elegant paper about Vodou at the 18th century brings back to the spotlight the testimony of one Moreau de Saint-Méry about an “ecstatic cult of snakes” called Le Vadoux that used to be seen amongst the Fon-speaking people known as “Aranda”. As Geggus himself notes, today it is believed that the greater influence on Vodou came from the Fon-speaking people. Also, there is a nation in Vodou called Rada and one cannot miss the similarity between “Arada” and Rada.
The report by Moreau goes on and states that le Vadoux was practiced in its most authentic ways hidden from the public eye and that it encompassed a priest and a priestess that mediate the interactions between the followers and a “divinized living snake”. Ceremonies, according also to Moreau, were characterized by trances and dances. Also, he reports that it was an initiation cult. About new members of the cult, Moreau briefly tells that they were received by a chant that Geggus would then identify as being in the Kikongo language, belonging to the Bantu group, from the Kongo region.
Here we can find an interesting fact: already at the end of the 18th century there was integration of different cultures in a Haitian cult.
Curiously, the chant seems to be an appeal to an entity called Mbumba. There is some dispute in the academia (it seems) around the meaning of Mbumba in this very context. Geggus teaches that Mbumba Luangu was a serpent deity of the Bakimba society and that python in this language would be mboma. Also, he teaches that mbámba would mean a smaller type of snake. Again, all seems to be pointing to Le Vadoux really being some kind of snake cult.
Still regarding Mbumba, Geggus states that in other regions of Kongo this was the denomination for the Supreme God (Nzambi, as it is most commonly known). Geggus also notes that Mbúmba Mamba, an aquatic spirit found in Palo Monte is sometimes seen as a snake. In other words, although there are discordances in the correct interpretation of Mbumba we cannot disregard that it may have been related to a snake.
Geggus also discusses a report by a farmer in the year 1814 where this witness tells about a chant in the Kongo language. Also, this farmer reports secret Vadou ceremonies that included a snake cult, a priest and a priestess, trances and dances.
The snake cult reminds us of the serpentine deities like the serpent Dan of Dahomey (land of the Fon-speaking people). This cult also points to Damballah and to Ayida-Weddo, the most famous snake Lwas in Haitian Vodou. Bearing those associations in mind it is hard to dismiss the relationship between Le Vadoux, Vadou and the contemporary Vodou.
De Heusch tells us that a great deal of Lwas of the Petro nation can find their origin in the Kongo, like the Simbi, that were originally spirits found near bodies of water, for example. In addition, he teaches us that the traditional Kongo religion (mainly south of the Kongo or Zaire river) is characterized by trance. Again we have evidence that Vodou is the result of great cultural diversity.
We could go on with the discussion proposed by De Heusch about the reasons why determined aquatic spirits like Simbi ended up being associated to fire in the Petro nation. However, for the sake of conciseness we can just enlighten a certain single point. In summary, De Heusch believes that this apparent “contradiction” is an byproduct of the “opposition” between Rada and Petro. As Rada was a nation of cooler and aquatic spirits, mainly because of Damballah, to the Petro nation would have left no other choice but to be the fiery one in order to keep balance.
De Heusch tells us that in 1973 he visited a temple in the northern region of Haiti where the Kongo Lwas were not submitted to the Rada x Petro dichotomy. According to this author the cult held on that temple was completely dedicated to the Kongo spirits and the priestly organization was also very different from the more conventional Vodou temples.
It is beyond our scope here to analyze properly this temple as we aim to emphasize how it is a testimony to the diversity of contemporary Vodou. In fact, this short essay really is just a quick synthesis of the ideas put together by the authors cited and it has only one goal: to help unveil the fact that Vodou has many faces and that in order to begin to understand it one has to study (and experience) a lot.
Geggus, D. Haitian Voodoo in the Eightennth Century: Language, Culture, Resistance. Jahrbuch für Geschichte von Staat, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Lateinamerikas 28 (1991): 21-51.
De Heusch, L. Kongo in Haiti: A New Approach to Religious Syncretism. Man. 1989. 24(2). 290