Saturday, March 17, 2012

Happy Fet Damballah, and a Shout-Out to St. Patrick

Top o' the mornin', me arse...
What was in Ireland a somber memorial to British oppression and the survival of the Irish spirit has become an American celebration of debauchery. Streets across the country become public vomitoria as revelers gorge themselves on green beer while wearing plastic hats and shamrock glasses  imported from China.  The country which gave us James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats is honored instead with stumbling drunkenness. 

In Haiti St. Patrick's Day is the feast of Damballah, the great white serpent who is one of the oldest and wisest of the lwa - a spirit who demands that onlookers put out their cigarettes and cap their alcoholic beverages before his salute.

As they used to say on Sesame Street, "one of these things is not like the other." Attend ye now to a wee tale o' floatin' signifiers. 

In Haiti Catholic lithographs and statues are frequently used to represent the lwa. Legba, the lame old man at the crossroads, is represented by St. Lazarus leaning on his crutch.  St. Jacques Majeur, the charging crusader, is used to honor Ogou San Jak: the Mater Salvatoris with her scarred face is immediately recognized by Vodouisants as Ezili Danto, mother of the Petwo nation.  And one of the most common images for Damballah is St. Patrick casting out the snakes.

(Alternately, a Vodouisant might point out that he is showing the snakes the way to Gineh, the undersea home of the lwa and the ancestors.  The lithographs have spawned many of their own stories. They are not just "masks" for African spirits but symbols which can be used to reveal, access and convey their aspects and their power).

Because of this connection with St. Patrick, Damballah's fet is traditionally held on or around March 17.  This is very close to the feast day (March 19) of another important figure in Vodou, St. Joseph.  Joseph is also associated with Loko, the lwa who gives the asson in the asogwe ceremony, and so this party is invariably a Fet Damballah et Loko.  To honor one without the other would be seen as an insult to both.  This is an excellent example of the way that Catholicism and African beliefs mix and match in Haiti to form new and unique traditions and practices which partake of both roots.  To scorn this as a "corruption" of some "pure" ur-African belief is to miss the point. 

Those seeking to honor Papa Damballah today can do so by offering him a white egg (well-washed beforehand, ideally with rose water or Lotion Pompeia) placed atop a mound of flour and a white candle.  Put these before a St. Patrick image: you should have no problem finding one today, and can print out the picture given above if all else fails.  Amidst all the noise and revelry, Damballah will help you find your peaceful center - and help you maintain that place after the celebration ends.