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Le Culte des Morts

In the Graveyard

Evening Weird

Note: The following is an excerpt from The Magic Island, by William Seabrook. 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.

Upon the three chief sorceresses of this cult, Papa Nebo, Gouédé Mazacca, and Gouédé Oussou — whoever personally they may happen to be — devolves the function of providing new dead bodies when they are needed.

Certainly no white man, certainly not I, and I imagine few Haitians, has ever seen the conjurations which take place between midnight and dawn in some lonely, isolated little country graveyard. The account I am going to give is not even the “first-hand” report of another eye-witness. The man who supplied me the details had never seen it. He had got it directly, however, from a woman who he believes did see it. I am inclined also to believe that it is accurate, but I cannot vouch for it.

The three women carry with them a spade, a pick-ax, a white candle, and a small bag of wild acacia leaves. Arriving among the graves they light the candle and set it at the foot of the wooden cross which usually stands in every country graveyard. If no cross is there, they make one, and set the candle before it. Next they kneel, and taking two stones from a grave, knock them together to awaken Baron Samedi, who is the spirit of the graveyard. Baron Samedi is a big black man with a long white beard. He usually remains invisible, but makes his presence felt by some sign. Without his consent it is dangerous to open a grave. The women pray for this permission and promise, if it is granted, to return with gifts of food, fruit, and copper coins. They then toss the acacia leaves toward him and say:

“Dormi pa'fumé, Baron Samedi!” (Sleep sweetly, Baron Samedi!)

Baron Samedi, ruler of the cemetery, granting his protection, retires into the earth.

Next they say, “Exège Morti amo vini” (probably a corruption of the dog-Latin formula, Exurgent mortui et acmo venuient). Distorted old ecclesiastical phrases are frequently used in Haitian sorcery. They say also, “Mortoo tomboo miyi!” — a jargonized creole, meaning, “Dead in the tomb, to me!”

Now they set about their grave-robbing with pick and spade. They dig up the body for which they have come and carry it away with them.

The necromantic uses which they make of various parts of the corpse are thoroughly authenticated in many verifiable cases. The facts have appeared even in American military reports of the Caco guerrilla uprisings. They rub grease made from the brains upon the edges of machetes and tools, so that they will be intelligent and cut more accurately; on the head of the hammer so that it will know always where to strike; upon the sights of a gun so that the bullet will reach its mark. The heart they dry and use to give courage to weak persons who eat small portions of it or carry bits of it in a tiny bag strung around their necks. From other parts of the body are concocted ouangas, caprelatas, philters, charms for various purposes, benevolent and malevolent. The skull and bones become a part of the permanent altar paraphernalia.

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