An Altar of Skulls
Note: The following is an excerpt from The Magic Island, by William Seabrook, published in 1929. The Magic Island is a non-fictional account of Seabrook’s experiences in Haiti. The excerpt is from “Part Two: Black Sorcery,” the chapter titled “The Altar of Skulls,” where Seabrook writes about the Culte des Morts, the Cult of the Dead.
In downtown Port-au-Prince, diagonally across the street from Maur & Laurin’s, where Marine Corps officers, their wives, and occasional tourists go to buy jazz records and cocktail shakers and to have their Kodak films developed, their is a small pharmacy with a large gilded lion suspended from an iron strut projecting over the sidewalk.
Above this pharmacy is located the clinic of Dr. Arthur C. Holly, who has the largest practice of any negro doctor in the Haitian capital. Mornings, from ten to noon, he treats charity patients, and his waiting-room is crowded. In the afternoon he treats the rich and well-to-do by appointment.
His desk is cluttered with the latest medical journals; his laboratory and operating-room are scientifically equipped; there are few abler physicians, black or white, in the West Indies.
But when Dr. Holly goes home at night, to his lovely villa, set among palm trees and flower gardens, behind a high brick wall with a tall grilled gate at the entrance to the driveway, he discards medical journals and buries his nose in a totally different sort of literature — Paracelsus, Eliphas Levy, Frazer, Swedenborg, William James, Blavatski — for Dr. Holly is profoundly, studiously interested in comparative religion, folk-lore, mysticism, and magic. His own new book on these subjects, when it is finished and published in France, will be a permanent contribution.
I am not betraying a confidence, nor will these statements harm my friend when they are read in Haiti, for his patients and the public know that these two sides of Dr. Holly are kept, as it were, in watertight compartments, and that when they go to him for diagnosis he consults no oracles save those of strictly modern science.
To my friend Holly I went one day concerning vague tales of a witchcraft cult in the peninsula, called le culte des morts — hoping that if it existed, he might put me in touch with some of its exponents. He was surprised that I should have heard of it.
“These people,” he said, “are necromancers (users of corpses for magical purposes), though the word necromancy does not exist in our creole vocabulary. What you ask is difficult, and your Voodoo friends will not be able to help you. The practice is not widespread; most orthodox members of the Petro and Legba Voodoo cults hate and will have no dealings with them. It is barely possible, however, that something may be arranged.”
But one day a boy appeared at my house with a note — I had no telephone — asking me to go down to Dr. Holly’s office. I went immediately and found him talking with a country girl, a coal-black, smooth-skinned negress, who seemed to me particularly mild and childlike. He introduced us politely. Her name was Classinia — Mam’selle Classinia. She stood up, almost as tall as I, and accepted my hand awkwardly, and noncommittal, soft-voiced, amiable but not friendly, said, “Bon jou’, blanc.”
I arrived at the habitation before dusk. An old man and woman were expecting me, but Classinia was not there. She would return presently, they told me. They gave me coffee and I sat smoking, while they went about their occasions.
Presently, as darkness fell, people began appearing until two or three dozen had arrived. They looked at me suspiciously, and their grudging salutations were not friendly, but after the old woman had whispered among them, they seemed satisfied, at least not aggressively unpleasant. Time passed, and nothing happened. At last, about nine o’clock they went into the house, and a quarter of an hour later the old man, who seemed to be head of the place — perhaps Classinia’s father — emerged and took me inside.
The narrow oblong room was bare except for a common table with a red and white checkered tablecloth on which were laid skulls, bones, a shovel, a pick-ax; there was a wooden cross painted like a totem pole, wreathed by a feather boa. Before it were rows of lighted tapers, slender, brown, crudely-made candles, of the sort placed on graves and in the niches of tombs. There were no Voodoo symbols or sacred objects of any sort. This was not Voodoo, nor was it religious. There was additional light from a smoking tin lamp fastened to a post which supported the roof.
Huddled upon the floor, body to body, some crouching and others prostrate, were a score or more of black men and women, swaying, writhing, moaning.
Before the altar of skulls, facing us, stood three human figures, grotesque, yet indescribably sinister. All three who stood there were women. The tall central figure, the former mild Classinia, now completely changed, wore a soft white muslin skirt, above it a man’s long-tailed black frock coat, and on her head a man’s high silk hat; her eyes were hidden by dark, smoked goggles. Why it was that as simple a thing a smoked goggles seemed horrible, I cannot tell, unless because they made the face impersonal, inscrutable. Grotesquely in the corner of her mouth, as if stuck into the mouth of a wooden dummy, was an unlighted cigar.
Thus symbolically clothed, she was no longer a woman, but Papa Nebo, the male-female hermaphroditic oracle of the dead. The dark goggles meant that death was blind.
This metamorphosed creature which had been the girl Classinia, but which was now neither man nor woman, or was both, was flanked on either side by two “wives.”
At the right stood one woman without special garb, but holding in her hand as heavy bag. Her title was Gouédé Mazacca. In the bag she carried an afterbirth and part of a naval cord, wrapped in the poisonous leaves of the manchineel tree.
At the left stood another woman with a high white turban wound awry. She was poised, motionless like a statue, but with her arms thrust forward, and her hands clutching a half-empty rum bottle and a bludgeon. Her feet were planted wide apart, her head was thrown back, and there was a sort of shameless abandon in the whole posture of her body. She was called Gouédé Oussou, the Drunken One, possibly from a corruption of the creole phrase, ou soule (thou art drunk). She was not actually drunk, for no drunken woman could have held that posture for a moment, and she stood fixedly.
There, then, before the altar piled with human bones, stood these three silent figures, in the dull smoky light, while the huddled, groaning, contorted bodies lay prostrate before them on the earthen floor.
These moaning peasants meant to establish contact through the oracle — for various purposes, some innocent, some evil — with persons recently or long since dead. After a period of writhing and groaning, during which one or two of the prostrate forms emitted loud wails, Gouédé Mazacca called out and Gouédé Oussou repeated after her, “Papa Nebo attend!” which could mean either “Papa Nebo is waiting to hear you,” or “Listen, Papa Nebo.” I think it meant the former.
Two or three that had been lying face down got simultaneously to their knees with black hands clutched, outstretched; strained, eye-closed faces, muttering; but only one, a middle-aged man, spoke out loudly.
His son was sick; he feared that the dead mother had put a ouanga on the son to make him join her in the grave, and he was begging that the boy be spared. His pleas were whimpering, simple, yet full of terrified emotion. The boy was needed for the spring planting. The family would be in poverty if he grew sicker and died. The habitation would fall in ruin.
When he had finished and waited, a hush fell, broken only by low moans. And the sexless oracle of death began to speak — if any such word as speech could be applied to the dreadful sounds that came from its throat — a series of deep, rasped gutturals, strung together on meaningless vowel monotones:
“Hgr-r-r-r-u-u-u-hgrr-r-r-o-o-o- Hgr-r-r-a-a-a-a-a- Oh-h-h-h-uu-uu-uu-uu- Bl-bl-bl-ghra-a-a-a- Ghu-u-u-u-u-u——”
It was like the prolonged death-rattle from a windpipe choked with phlegm or blood; it was those horrid sounds in skillful savage simulacre.
The oracle was talking with the dead, in the subhuman vernacular of death itself — or so it must have seemed to the ears of the waiting listeners.
And it seemed to them that the dead made answer, but through what process of transmission was not altogether clear, for when the oracle paused it was Gouédé Mazacca, she of the afterbirth and poisonous leaves, who said in plain blunt creole:
“Let your son go hang his own garments on a tree near the mother’s grave, and plant six candles at the foot of the tree, with three upon the grave itself, and she will be content.”
“Merci, Maman, merci,” whimpered the father.
Here was ample scope for the charlatanry and profitable fraud which I have been told the superstitious peasants universally suffered at the hands of rapacious sorcerers. Yet I had the feeling that while Classinia with her family and these other death-cult women obviously reaped profit from their ceremonies — since all who came left gifts of various sorts upon the altar — the chief actors believed in what they were doing, just as did the supposedly “victimized” audience.
I noted that when it was over, Classinia and her two assistants were stupefied, tired, “washed-out,” almost to the point of exhaustion, as if they had been under prolonged and violent nervous stress. These people gave me no personal confidence, nor were they particularly friendly. They had permitted me to see what I had just seen only because they had been instructed to do so, and had been assured that I was “safe” — not connected in any way with the gendarmerie or “government.”
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