Thursday, November 19, 2009

The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook: Nsambi, Simbi, and Li Grand Zombi

Thanks to Dr. Eoghan Ballard for his very useful comments when I was first drafting this chapter, and apologies for the gross oversimplification of Kongo cosmology. (Giving it due attention would have required a book of its own, never mind a paragraph!)


According to Kongo legend, Nsambi created the heavens, the earth and the animals. Then, after creating man and woman, he taught them how to survive in his world and how to harness the magical power of his creation. By using those teachings they could break the blazing droughts and bring down the summer rain: they could heal sickness and ensure fertile crops. They could also communicate with the mpungas, deceased ancestors and nature spirits who assisted Nsambi in maintaining his creation. Today Nzambi is still honored in Cuba by practitioners of Las Reglas de Congo (also known as Palo Mayombe), who say “Nsambi primero” or “Nsambi is first.”

Kongo cosmology envisioned the cosmos as two worlds – nza yayi (this world) and the nsi a bafwa (the land of spirits). Between these two worlds lay the kalunga, a vast ocean which also served as threshold between the living and the dead. Because snakes were frequently seen climbing trees, burrowing beneath the ground and resting in or near rivers or bodies of water, they were considered travelers between the realms. Since Kongo religious practices were concerned largely with commerce between the various worlds, it is not surprising that snakes play a major role in Kongo religions.

In Haiti Vodouisants honor the Simbi family of lwa. Like the basimbi, snake spirits living in the rivers and streams of southern Africa, they were known to be shy but powerful magicians. Those who approach them with due patience and respect and gain their trust find they are powerful allies who can act as intermediaries between the worlds of flesh and spirit and life and death. Milo Rigaud said of them:
The voodoo Mercury has the name of Simbi, a loa of many forms. He is the conductor of souls, who leads the souls of the dead in all directions bordered by the four magical orients of the cross. He is the Messiah of Legba, the messenger of the sun. Simbi corresponds to the hermetic Mercury of the cabalistic alchemy of the ritual sacrifice.
The lwa Simbi Makaya is one of the great sorcerers of Haitian Vodou. As patron of the secret Sanpwel society, he teaches his chosen followers powerful wangas that can be used for healing or destruction. Those who are not members regularly accuse the Sanpwel of human sacrifice, corpse desecration, and all sorts of related misdeeds. Within New Orleans Li Grand Zombi had a similarly mixed reputation. Believers and practitioners considered the great serpent a benevolent protector and wise teacher. Those who were not so affiliated generally associated Grand Zombi with orgies and devil worship. As with Simbi Makaya, one’s attitude toward Grand Zombi marked your status within the group.

In New Orleans the snake served simultaneously to advertise to one’s clientele and to set them apart as outsiders. This is similar to Simbi’s liminal position in Haiti. As a traveler between worlds, Simbi is tough to pin down. One of the most popular Simbis, Simbi Andezo, literally resides “in two waters” (an de zo), occupying the space where fresh water meets the salty ocean. Li Grand Zombi is similarly placed between public Voodoo rituals for tourists and private devotions, between religion and entertainment, between African root and American money-making spectacles. In this, he is a fitting patron for the city of New Orleans and its religion.

The best way to honor Li Grand Zombi is with a live snake. This is not a commitment to be undertaken lightly. Taking responsibility for a pet is no small matter, especially when that pet is also a spirit animal! While snakes are relatively low-maintenance companions, they have
certain needs which must be met. If not provided with appropriate temperatures and humidity, they are likely to become ill and die. A suitably large cage must be procured, along with a supply of the proper food.

A snake which is going to be handled in public ritual also needs to have a suitably tractable disposition – and when stressed even the most docile snake may respond by biting, musking or defecating on the nearest available target. That large python you are dancing with may be less impressive when you are soaked with runny snake dung or nursing a bloody open wound. The care of your personal Grand Zombi is beyond the scope of this book: as with any other pet, do your research before making your purchase and make sure you are able to live up to your commitment.

Should you be unable to do so at this time, there is no shame in admitting this. Snake sheds can also be used as offerings for Grand Zombi, as well as snake statues or imagery. I do not recommend using snakeskins, since they are harvested by killing the animals. (You want to honor the great serpent, not present him with the corpse of one of his siblings!) These can be placed on an altar along with offerings of eggs, candles or, if you are rhythmically talented, drumming. All these will show your devotion and help you to establish a link with Li Grand Zombi.