Voduo is a religion that is commonly associated with possessions and dark magic in U.S. popular culture. The curriculum of “Shaking the Spirit” at Champlain College is aimed at dispelling the misconceptions associated with voduo. In reality, it is a community centered religion that is highly adaptable.
The main focus of voduo is on the lwa (spirits) who serve as intermediaries between the divine spirit (God in Western religions) and people. The people who practice this religion must make regular offerings to the lwa for thanks. Any requests made of lwa for help are usually reciprocated with offerings as well.
Each lwa receives different kinds of requests because each lwa specializes in something different. For example, Papa Legba (commonly depicted with the Christian iconography for Saint Peter) is the lwa for the gatekeeper. If any other lwa must enter into the human world for a ceremony, then Legba is first asked to open the gateway and an additional altar must be made for him.
My bottle is dedicated to the lwa Papa Ghede (the lwa of death and fertility). However, you will notice that my bottle states that it is dedicated to Baron Samedi. This is the confusing aspect of Voduo. Because it has no unifying text and many cultures have adapted its concepts, the names and organizational structure for types of lwa varies depending on the region that you are considering. For example, in Haitian voduo, Ghede is the lwa who is best known for his role in death and fertility. Any problems associated with this specialty are usually directed towards Ghede. On the other hand, the North Side Skull and Bones Gang in New Orleans dedicates their celebration on Mardi Gras to Baron Samedi who is considered the head of the “Ghede family”. In this second case, Ghede is associated with a type of lwa rather than one lwa in particular.
In addition, Baron Samedi differs from Ghede because Baron Samedi is less associated with fertility. For example, art pieces which depict Papa Ghede usually include an abnormally large penis or his signature staff with a penis head on top of it. Papa Ghede, therefore, pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable to discuss about sex in public. On the other hand, the Mardi Gras celebration dedicated to Baron Samedi does include some sexual undertones (such as carrying large bones and commenting on them in a suggestive manor), but it is more closely associated with the humorous side of death. In this way, Baron Samedi is used as a tool to relieve stress about death in an area where it has had an obvious presence with hurricane Katrina.
The North Side Skull and Bones Gang uses this concept in the phrase they chant “You Next” while walking up and down the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras dressed as Baron Samedi. The message is intended to remind people to value life while they still can because they may be the next to die. This is usually paired with other positive messages such as anti-drug propaganda.
My bottle draws on the concepts associated with the Skull and Bones Gang’s celebration of Mardi Gras. It is fairly obvious that it attempts to send the message that if you worry too much about money, then you are wasting your precious time on earth because you may be the next to die.
It also includes the Christian iconography of a cross. This is present because voduo syncretised (mixed and embraced concepts) with Christianity when African slaves who practiced voduo accepted the Christian symbols forced on them from Europeans. Voduo accepted these images quite readily as it is an adaptable religion and merely used Christian iconography to represent its own lwas (such as the image of Saint Peter being used to depict Legba).
Baron Samedi is also associated with the colors black and purple. He is commonly depicted as wearing a top hat and people who dress up as him usually paint their faces white like a skull. The Skull and Bones Gang members wear large paper mache skulls on their heads. This is why the bottle is depicted with these images
Which leaves the last question unanswered: Why use a bottle?
As stated earlier, voduo is a highly adaptable religion which may be because it has no unifying text. Another important factor, however, is that it thrives in impoverished areas. Practitioners are forced to use whatever materials they have on hand to make art associated with their religion. One of these common materials is a bottle because in Haiti, where sugar cane rum is a major export, bottles are common.
Bottles are also vessels which are easy to place things inside of. Voduo practitioners may cover bottles with cloth to hide something valuable, such as zonbis, inside or may use the rum inside as an offering to a lwa while simultaneously decorating the outside.