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This week, the reflection is about the article “A place for spirits: the senses of movement from a Haitian village” (translation from the original title) by Rodrigo Charafeddine Bulamah published in the magazine cadernos pagu in 2015. Rodrigo presents a relevant discussion on the role of spirits in life Haitian and I would like to discuss especially one case he reports.
The case in question revolved around a family that had drastically reduced the frequency of the fulfillment of their duties due to family spirits due to the conversion to Christianity. An old, leafy tree in their residence, usually a site of offerings to a family spirit, sparked economic interest and was felled and sold. Then several misfortunes came to be that led the family to seek spiritual counseling. It was then discovered that the spirit that lived in that tree was furious and wanted a new house. At a party for the very same spirit then, it appeared as a snake and indicated the location of the construction of the new house. The money earned from the tree was all invested in the new home for said spirit.
It is amazing how the story ends in its own beginning. It is an account of the very narrow dynamics between spirituality, daily life and context. As much as the family has turned its back on the spirits, it was not possible to disconnect from the spirits completely and they are not shy to remind them of this.
Evidently, the relationship with the spirits for those who practice Vodou and are not Haitian is somewhat different. There is, for example, no knowledge or relationship with these “inherited” spirits. Note: within the context of Vodou. It is evident that in some specific family tradition the same concepts may exist. So, generally, the approach with the lwas and other spirits of Vodou occurs in other ways. Anyway, there is a clear message there that has already been discussed in articles on this site. There are spirits, certain spirits, who accompany us for some reason and not working with them can be either a missed opportunity or even simply dangerous.
Accounts like this one that Bulamah brings in his article are not new and are not infrequent. Those who dedicate themselves to reading the works available on Haitian Vodou (mainly ethnographies) will find different examples of situations in which neglect of spirits becomes a problem. Now the question is why do spirits demand us for anything?
Here, as Bulamah does and Flavia Damalso has already done, I bring Marcel Mauss and his propositions on the gift to the discussion. Mauss shows us that exchanges and that the valuation that exists in the exchanges themselves is fundamental to the social framework. Therefore, we can imagine that in addition to what is given to the spirit, the symbol of what is given counts, since it would be from that symbol that the relationship would, in fact, be structured. That is, when offering a rooster in sacrifice to a spirit, it is necessary to consider that in addition to the rooster there is the rooster symbol. This symbol would consist of the animal itself, the relationship between who offers the cock and the cock, the financial expense or effort to acquire the cock, the time and dedication to prepare the ceremony and the sacrificial act itself. Thus, these symbolic elements constituted the relationship between man and the spirit. The cock itself being a material and blood dimension for other purposes (No less relevant, let it be clear. I do not mean that everything is mere symbolic, but that symbols structures relationships).
When giving the rooster, the human who serves the spirit, expects to receive and in exchange for receiving, the spirit expects to give. When this chain is broken, the relationships are shaken and this is not really interesting for the part that is forgotten in the equation. In the present case, humans turn to another spirituality, with its very own kind of “gift”. However, the spirit that is without its relational part, loses more than a "rooster", loses its identity. Who is the spirit of a family if the family no longer recognizes it? Or if they recognize it, but ignore it, then how is that relationship? How is the identity of the spirit? It is evident that it changes. Once an ally, it can now become a fury to be appeased.
Now, it is evident that I cannot say exactly why the spirits demand. So, please understand this article for what it really is: a mere intellectual exercise. As I have already made clear here or elsewhere, intellectual exercises cannot cope with describing things and experiences completely and believing that they can often leads to error.
Bulamah's article is very competent in explaining well how different aspects of Haitian spirituality take place. I strongly recommend reading (if you can read Portuguese) and I leave here the address to access it: