Monthly Archives: May 2012

Book Review: Creole Religions of the Caribbean

A book I’ve been meaning to review for a while is Creole Religions of the Carribean.

Obviously, this is not a linguistics book, although there is some linguistic information within it. Rather is an anthropological introduction to the different religions in the Caribbean that have arisen since the arrival of Europeans and Africans to the region.Each chapter covers a different religion including Santería/Orisha (Cuba), Voudou (Haiti), Rastafarianism (Jamaica) and others.

Most of the practices covered in the book are various blends of Christian and African traditions and are generally practiced by non-elites. They include practices which generally get either bad press or is very distorted coverage in the U.S. such as Voudou (or “voodoo”), Cuban Santería, Rastaferianism (which Bob Marley followed) and others.

What this book does is to describe each practice objectively with the same dignity as might be given to Shinto, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions not familiar to mainstream America. I find this valuable for understanding the context of different practices and the people who follow them.

Santería (Orisha) and Voudou

A general theme of the religions described is that they were developed within Caribbean slave communities (or their descendants). As a result, many are a blend of polytheistic West African traditions merged with many Christian elements. In fact, I was fascinated to see how well scholars have been able to trace the African elements back to original cultures such as the Yoruba (Orisha/Santería) and the Fon kingdom of Benin (Voudou).

For Santería and Voudou, the results are that West African deities are merged with Christian saints, but with personalities and rituals that might be more fitting with Greco-Roman gods. For instance one of the Voudou lwa (holy spirita) is Admiral Agwé whose domain is the sea. He is often represented as either a naval officer (with a pith helmet), a ship, including both boats with blue or green oars and steamships, and occasionally tridents similar to Poseidon.

And like these older traditions, practitioners may leave offerings, including an animal sacrifice. If you’ve ever wondered how traditional “pagan” religions like the Greco-Roman or Norse traditions would be practiced today…these religions provide a clue. It was different from what most people practice today in the West and Middle East.

The descriptions of the religions also trace changes from the original African systems to the Caribbean system as reactions to the new conditions of being oppressed in a foreign land. One example is that agriculture gods were not maintained in Santería because “Why sacrifice for a bountiful harvest to benefit an exploitative slave master? (p:34)” Another change was that a war god Changó became a spirit of justice. In this light, it’s probably no accident that Voudou is associated with terrible rituals of vengeance. It’s probably the only side that devotees would use to interact with their oppressors.

Fortunately, the book describes a more humorous side of both Voudou and Santería. For instance, both have a feminine love spirit similar to Aphrodite, but today described as a flirty biracial beauty who has a favorite perfume in Voudou (Anaïs-Anaïs). The Santería tradition further recounts a tale of how she came from West Africa to give her people comfort, but lightened her skin tone so that she could belong to everyone.


I should add that the Rastafari movement is different in that it is not an adaptation of West African polytheistic traditions to the Christian Caribbean. Rather it developed in the 1930s and is more closely related to Christianity. The religion finds inspiration from Ethiopian Christian/Jewish traditions and is named after Ras Tafari (Prince Tafari) of Ethiopia who was crowned as the Emperor of the Ethiopian Kingdom, Haile Selassie.

Haile Selassie and Ethiopia were considered sacred because 1) Ethiopia remained free of European domination for almost all of its history and 2) Ethiopia can claim a Judeo-Christian tradition lasting several millennia. Thus Rastafarianism is an attempt to claim a Christian based religion but with more ties to Africa.

The general source controversy with this belief is the use of marijuana within different rituals (similar to the use of peyote in some Native American cultures). Sometimes it is what it is.

Adapting to New Needs

These religions are fascinating from an anthropological perspective, but I think what I take most is the resilience of the people who practice these religions. In the face of horrific oppression and poverty, these people found a way to use their spirituality to find comfort and strength while preserving important elements of their culture. It’s a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit.