In this month’s post I’m looking at plant lore associated with the spirit world in Haiti; in particular on how trees are embedded in Vodou cosmology and worship.
Trees have a number of roles in Haitian Vodou. They provide homes for the spirits, the lwa (alternate spelling, loa), and the dead. They are used as natural altars and as boundary markers for the temple of hounfo (ounfo/ hounfort).
Trees are also associated with the Vodou pantheon. For example, in the 1950s film-maker and ethnographer Maya Deren noted how the most ancient of the Vodou gods are known as “loa racine” or root loa (Deren, p. 36). Legba, one of the major lwa of Haiti and opener of the gates between the human world and that of the spirits, is at times represented as a tree ‘stretching skywards (Deren, p. 99)
The cottonwood tree (ceiba) symbolises Loco, who Robert Voeks describes as the lwa of “vegetation”. Offerings to him are laid in its roots (Voeks, p. 73). Loco Attiso meaning ‘he of the trees’
In Haitian cosmology, an island, the Grand Bois D’Ilet, lies below the seas, a place of “submerged forests”. Deren wrote that here the lwa live and souls of the dead arrive (Deren, p. 36). Its ruler is Legba who in this role carries the name Grand Bois (or ‘Great Wood’).
Trees are further referenced in the name of Loco Attiso (meaning ‘he of the trees’) another of the Loco ‘family’ of lwa, (Deren, p. 146).
As well as being used as natural altars or as sites to lay offerings to the lwa, trees form part of the peristyle, or ceremonial enclosure, of a Vodou temple. The poteau-mitan (poto mitan), the centre post of the peristyle, is made from wood. In Vodou ceremonies dances take place around the poteau-mitan and offerings are placed at its base. Down it the lwa enter the peristyle to possess the living. In another connection to trees, Loco is in charge of the poteau-mitan (Ibid., p. 146).
Deren described the poteau-mitan as not only a physical tree being present in the temple enclosure, but also as embodying the idea of the “stylized tree” found throughout Vodou. This image of a tree has its branches and roots spreading out equally on both sides, and its trunk reaching up into the heavens and down into the “waters of the abyss” (Ibid., p. 36).
Just as the lwa can travel down the wooden centre post of the peristyle, the tree image provides a bridge between the world of the spirits and the physical world, the world of the dead and the world of the living.
Next time…. a more detailed look at Legba and his association with the sign of the cross then it’s back to the plant lore.
Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: Living Gods of Haiti (reprint, with a foreword by Joseph Campbell, New York: McPherson & Company, 2004, of orig. edn, London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1953).
Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo (New York and London: New York University Press, 2003).
Robert Voeks, “African Medicine and Magic in the Americas”, Geographical Review, vol. 83, no. 1 (Jan., 1993), pp. 66-78.
Image credits: Photo of Mapou tree in Petit Goave, Haiti by Bdx via wikimedia -(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)