Sunday, September 13, 2009

From The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook: Yon Sue

Yon Sue, mighty warrior and king, hear my plea. Always you have been the champion of your people: you raise up the weak and bring low the mighty. King Agassou, panther who stalks in the night, strike down those who would do evil against me. As you led your people to their promised land, guide me through the darkness and protect me from the schemes of those who would hold me back.

Since the days of Marie Laveau, many in New Orleans have petitioned St. Anthony of Padua by another name. When addressed as “Yon Sue,” the benevolent old monk could become a powerful guardian. Indeed, some said that he was the special protector of those who followed the old African traditions. A few of his wealthy Creole followers claimed he was actually a mighty king: they wore red neckerchiefs in honor of their royal patron, whom they addressed as “Monsieur Agassou.”

A bit of research will soon verify M. Agassou’s regal bona fides. According to an African legend, a young princess named Aligbonon of Tado met a leopard in the jungle and fell in love with it: their union produced a son named Agassou. When the king of Tado died, Agassou tried to ascend the throne. Alas, his claim was denied: while his mother’s royal lineage was not in question, no one could determine whether his feline father was of the right social set.

Undeterred, Agassou and his followers left the kingdom and moved into the Abomey plateau (in modern-day Benin). There he proved his leadership credentials by setting up and ruling a small colony. The chief of one small nearby village, Da, complained that these new migrants were taking up so much room that they would soon be building a palace on his belly. Agassou responded by taking up arms against Da’s village. After killing him, they threw him into a pit and proceeded to place their new palace atop his body: its name, “Dahomey,” can be translated as “On the Belly of Da.” To honor his divine ancestor, the new king chose the leopard as the heraldic symbol of his dynasty.

While skeptics may question tales of Agassou’s divine parentage, none can dispute the success of his kingdom. Dahomey became famous for the discipline of its armies, including thousands of female soldiers who were known to European observers as the “Amazons of Dahomey.” This military might allowed them to expand throughout the Abomey plateau and on toward the coast. In 1645 King Houegbadja declared that each Dahomean king should leave his successor more land than he inherited. His successors took his suggestion to heart: by 1724 Dahomey had conquered the important port of Allada and become an important slave-trading kingdom.

The slave trade brought great wealth to Dahomey’s monarchy, and to the artisans and weavers who worked to decorate its palaces and temples. But although Dahomey was flush with gold, it lacked in basic human freedoms. Each citizen of Dahomey owed absolute allegiance to the king, who was honored as Dada (father of the whole community), Dokounnon (holder and distributor of wealth), Sèmèdo (master of the world) and Aïnon (master of the earth), among other titles. The slightest disobedience could be punished by death: a court official who fell into royal disfavor, or a relative who might pose a challenge to the throne, could be sold into slavery.

But even in the New World those slaves who carried Agassou’s blood continued to pay tribute to their half-divine ancestor. In New Orleans Yon Sue was known as the guardian of the old ways, the one who kept trouble away from the Voodoo queens and ensured they could continue their devotions to the African spirits. When the chips were down and legal or social pressures threatened the community, Yon Sue would make sure that his people survived to perform the traditional rituals. Police, crusading evangelists and muckraking journalists regularly launched crusades against Voodoo and its believers: Yon Sue saw to it that all their efforts came to naught.

To serve Yon Sue, you can get a small statue of St. Anthony of Padua or a leopard or spotted panther figurine. Tie a red ribbon about the statue: as you do, welcome Yon Sue into his new home and offer him your respects. You can serve him with red candles, rare steak and high-proof alcohol. Yon Sue is not one to be petitioned lightly: you don’t trouble the king for trivial matters. But if you approach him with the appropriate reverence and respect he will help you to triumph and prosper in the face of adversity.

If you are being harassed for your interest in Voodoo, you can ask Yon Sue for his aid – but make sure you are prepared for his response! Your tormentors may very well wind up dead or horribly injured. As a Dahomean king, Yon Sue has little patience for blasphemy and disrespect: he also knows the value of fear in maintaining order and discouraging wrongdoers. You may do better to call on him for advice in leading your group, or ask him to bless your rituals so that the spirits look upon them with favor.