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1 Explanation of a Song: Boneless ness in Haitian Vodou Athna C. PattersonOrazem, University of Florida Oh old bones! Oh old bones! Papa Legba! Dont you see were without bones!1 The above is an intriguing song: boneless ness in Haitian Vodou is a characteristic commonly attributed to very old lwa but why should humans describe themselves as without bones? A close exploration of the use of bones in Haitian Creole is required in order to resolve the quandary caused by this and other songs. Bones play an important role in Haitian Vodou; they constitute a link with ancestors and the past2. Bones are associated with Bawon Samdi and the G e d e who preside over life and death This family of lwa is associated wit h cemeteries, the dead, and the interface of life and death.3 In fact, Papa G e d e is commonly referred to as Mister Bones.4 Bones commonly appear on altars and are used in ceremonies and in the fabrication of remedies One of the most effective wa y s to capture the soul of a recently deceased person is through bones, and especially skulls T hese souls can then be conscripted into labor for evil, or to help a client without harming other people.5 Altar skulls are sometimes called Ginen a term which pertains to Vodou cultural objects6; this underlines the importance of bones as a link to the past, to the ancestors and to Vodou heritage. In Vodou mythology, lwa characterized as very old people are often described as being without bones. This is tru e for Grann (granny) zili and Bad. Legba, ruler of the crossroads and guardian of entries, is said to be so old that his bones are virtually nonexistent and he requires crutches to walk However Grann zilis lack of bones leaves her bedridden, making it hard for her to manifest herself in ceremonies; this makes sense since she is less powerful than Legba .7 Marcelin s song 197 illustrates a similar characterization of Bad: But it is unfortunate! He is a brave man, but he is without bones8. During Haitis colonial period, Vodouists were forced to convert to Catholicism. Due to this historical influence, it is appropriate to consider Catholic beliefs regarding bones. While bodies were thought best left whole in preparation for the Last Judgmen t the veneration of saints tissues including bones became very popular : these scraps of flesh or bone became relics, and miraculous powers were attributed to them Their importance was such that at one point all C atholic churches were expected to possess at least one relic.9 After the emergence of Protestantism, the importance of relics declined However t here remains to this day a certain reverence for these relics, likely for reasons of history and religious ancestry which run parallel to the importance of ancestry in Vodou. A solitary reference to Christian boneless ness occurs in a relatively modern quote from a Christian Science healer maintain ing that people a re not made 1 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs Chapter 4: Milo Marcelins Songs, p75 2 Brice, Nou La, Chapter 4: At the Vodou Altar, p168 3 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs Appendix A : Dictionary of Vodou Terms, p217, 237 4 McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola Introduction, p13 5 Brice Nou La, Chapter 4: At the Vodou Altar, p167 6 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs Appendix A : Dictionary of Vodou Terms, p239 7 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs Appendix A : Dictionary of Vodou Terms, p241, 254255 8 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs Chapter 4: Milo Marcelin s Songs, p114 9 Calvin, A Treatise on Relics, p1 28, 130137, 244, 279281

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2 of flesh and bones but rather of spirit10. T his is of no consequence to the topic of Haitian Vodou but it does bring to mind a more spiritual interpretation. Perhaps the lack of bones referred to in these songs is associated with a human loss of ancestry, a dilemma more spiritual than physical. Such a dilemma might well be illustrated by an enigmatic reference to Mawu Lisa, the Dahomean creator spirit who in Haiti, according to some scholars, has been largely deposed by Bondye as the high god.11 The song Lisa gives bones is a faded link to Dahomey, the earliest Vodou homeland12. In fact, McCarthy Brown states that it seems the only reference to Mawu Lisa retained in Alourdess community. This chant recalls the dual creative nature of the Mawu Lisa. We might speculate that if the male Lisa gave people bones, perhaps the female Mawu gave them flesh or spirit; I have yet to find confirmation of this idea. However, this example in an abstract manner suggests a link between the loss of bones and the loss of heritage. According to McCarthy Brown, V odouists in America seem to h ave in accepted this loss of heritage ,13 but their acceptance is clearly incomplete insomuch as they maintain Vodou as a means of reconnect ing with their ancestry This song may as well be a reminder of the immateriality of the lwa who, despite their anthropomorphic depictions are spirits and therefore not beings of flesh, blood and bone. In J. L.s song 4,14 oh bones is used as an exclamation which, in context, seems a reference to heritage rather than a reference to Ogou, the lwa of war and iron around who the song revolves. Marcelins song 66 Oh zili! Hey, I have no bones! immediately follows a song introducing Grann zili15: it appears that the singer is embodying Grann zili, and therefore describing her by these words T his explanation does not seem adequate for Marcelins song 4 Papa Legba! Dont you see were without bones!16 as Legba unlike Mawu Lisa and the Marasa twins, is not a dual entity and so would not address himself with a plural pronoun. Legba is, howe ver, refer r ed to as Old Bones in a manner not unlike Papa G e d e s nickname Mister Bones; this reference alludes to his age rather than his occupation. Stylistically, by using this nickname the bone less people are identifying themselves wi th Legba ; in a spiritual sense, they have become a part of his spiritual self Legba is the first lwa addressed during a ceremony H is songs are sung first because, a s the ruler of the crossroads, he opens the gate for the other lwa to enter a Vodou ceremony. Unlike some Vodou songs, Marcelins song 4 is not written in his perspective but rather addresses Legba directly T he exclamation oh, old bones conveys his extreme old age, underlining his anthropomorphic characterization and emphasizing the fact that t his song is addressed to Papa Legba Given a context of close ties between bones, ancestry and religious heritage, it is evident that the second verse Dont you see were without bones! refer s to the V odouists need to correspond with the lwa as a means of retrieving their historical and religious heritage. In this way Marcelins song 4 illustrates the vital importance of heritage and ancestry in Haitian Vodou. 10 Gottschalk, The Emergence of Christian Science (), Chapter 3 : The Tares and the Wheat, p121 11 Hebblethwaite, for example, identifies the Marasa as a retention of the Mawou Lisa ( Vodou Songs Apendix A: Mawou Lisa p. 266) 12 McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola, Chapter 10: Danbala, p280 13 McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola, Chapter 10: Danbala, p279286 14 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs Chapter 6 : J.L. Songs, p148 15 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs Chapter 4: Milo Marcelin s Songs, p89 16 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs Chapter 4: Milo Marcelin s Songs, p75

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3 Songs including the word bones: Fond in Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English Ch apter 4: Milo Marcelins Songs 4. Oh old bones! Oh old bones! Papa Legba Dont you see we re without bones 66. Oh zili! Hey, I have no b ones zili I have no b ones I have no bones in my entire body Oh zili! Hey, I have no b ones I have no bones in my entire body Oh zili! I have no b ones 197. Oh Bad! Oh Bad! He is a brave man. But it is unfortunate! He is a brave man, but he is without bones. Ch apter 6: J.L.s Songs 4. Hey the lwa who is your lwa, is a p rotective lwa, hey, oh bones, I say a lwa who is your lwa, yeah. Oh papa Ogou is a protective lwa.

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4 Works Cited Brice, Leslie A. Chapter 4: At the Vodou Altar. Nou La, We Here: Remembrance and Power in the Arts of Haitian Vodou Ann Arbor: ProQuest Information and Learning Center, 2007. 125 74. Print. Calvin, Jean. A Treatise on Relics with an Introductory Dissertation on Miraculous Images (...) Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1854. Print. Gottschalk, Stephen. Chapter 3: The Tares and the Wheat The Emergence of Christian Science in American Religious Life. Berkeley: University of California Press 1973. 98 157. Print. Hebblethwaite, Benjamin. Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English = Chante Vodou an Kreyl Ayisyen Ak Angle. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2011. Print. McCarthy Brown, Karen. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California Press 1991. Print.


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Title: Explanation of a Song: Bonelessness in Haitian Vodou, Athéna C. Patterson-Orazem
Series Title: HAI3930, ANT3930, LAS3930, REL3938
Physical Description: Course Material
Creator: Raitano, Megan
Publisher: Hebblethwaite, Benjamin
Raitano, Megan
Felima, Crystal
Place of Publication: University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
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General Note: This is a collection of student essays from the Haitian Vodou class offered at the Universtiy of Florida. These essays are the results of a combination of in class material and independent research on individually chosen topics. The writing styles, citation styles, and views expressed in the essays are established by the students and do not necessarily reflect those of the professor or the Archive.
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Explanation of a Song: Boneless-ness in Haitian Vodou
Athena C. Patterson-Orazem, University of Florida

Oh old bones! Oh old bones! Papa Legba!
Don't you see we're without bones!1

The above is an intriguing song: boneless-ness in Haitian Vodou is a characteristic commonly
attributed to very old Iwa, but why should humans describe themselves as without bones? A
close exploration of the use of bones in Haitian Creole is required in order to resolve the
quandary caused by this and other songs.
Bones play an important role in Haitian Vodou; they constitute a link with ancestors and
the past2. Bones are associated with Bawon Samdi and the Gede, who preside over life and
death. This family of Iwa is associated with cemeteries, the dead, and the interface of life and
death.3 In fact, Papa Gede is commonly referred to as "Mister Bones".4 Bones commonly appear
on altars, and are used in ceremonies and in the fabrication of remedies. One of the most
effective ways to capture the soul of a recently deceased person is through bones, and especially
skulls. These souls can then be conscripted into labor for evil, or to help a client without harming
other people.5 Altar skulls are sometimes called Ginen, a term which pertains to Vodou cultural
objects6; this underlines the importance of bones as a link to the past, to the ancestors and to
Vodou heritage.
In Vodou mythology, Iwa characterized as very old people are often described as being
"without bones". This is true for Grann (granny) Ezili and Bade. Legba, ruler of the crossroads
and guardian of entries, is said to be so old that his bones are "virtually nonexistent" and he
requires crutches to walk. However, Grann Ezili's lack of bones leaves her bedridden, making it
hard for her to manifest herself in ceremonies; this makes sense since she is less powerful than
Legba.7 Marcelin's song 197 illustrates a similar characterization of Bade: "But it is unfortunate!
He is a brave man, but he is without bones".
During Haiti's colonial period, Vodouists were forced to convert to Catholicism. Due to
this historical influence, it is appropriate to consider Catholic beliefs regarding bones. While
bodies were thought best left whole in preparation for the Last Judgment, the veneration of
saints' tissues including bones became very popular: these scraps of flesh or bone became relics,
and miraculous powers were attributed to them. Their importance was such that at one point all
Catholic churches were expected to possess at least one relic.9 After the emergence of
Protestantism, the importance of relics declined. However there remains to this day a certain
reverence for these relics, likely for reasons of history and religious ancestry which run parallel
to the importance of ancestry in Vodou. A solitary reference to Christian boneless-ness occurs in
a relatively modem quote from a Christian Science healer maintaining that people are not made



1 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs, Chapter 4: Milo Marcelin's Songs, p75
2 Brice, Nou La, Chapter 4: At the Vodou Altar, p168
3 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs, Appendix A : Dictionary of Vodou Terms, p217, 237
4 McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola, Introduction, p13
5 Brice, Nou La, Chapter 4: At the Vodou Altar, p167
6 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs, Appendix A : Dictionary of Vodou Terms, p239
7 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs, Appendix A : Dictionary of Vodou Terms, p241, 254-255
8 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs, Chapter 4: Milo Marcelin's Songs, p114
9 Calvin, "A Treatise on Relics", pl-28, 130-137, 244, 279-281









of flesh and bones but rather of spirit'1. This is of no consequence to the topic of Haitian Vodou,
but it does bring to mind a more spiritual interpretation. Perhaps the lack of bones referred to in
these songs is associated with a human loss of ancestry, a dilemma more spiritual than physical.
Such a dilemma might well be illustrated by an enigmatic reference to Mawu-Lisa, the
Dahomean creator-spirit who in Haiti, according to some scholars, has been largely deposed by
Bondye as the high god." The song "Lisa gives bones" is a faded link to Dahomey, the earliest
Vodou homeland12. In fact, McCarthy Brown states that it seems the only reference to Mawu-
Lisa retained in Alourdes's community. This chant recalls the dual creative nature of the Mawu-
Lisa. We might speculate that if the male Lisa gave people bones, perhaps the female Mawu
gave them flesh or spirit; I have yet to find confirmation of this idea. However, this example in
an abstract manner suggests a link between the loss of bones and the loss of heritage. According
to McCarthy Brown, Vodouists in America seem to have in accepted this loss of heritage,13 but
their acceptance is clearly incomplete insomuch as they maintain Vodou as a means of
reconnecting with their ancestry. This song may as well be a reminder of the immateriality of the
Iwa who, despite their anthropomorphic depictions, are spirits and therefore not beings of flesh,
blood and bone.
In J.L.'s song 4,14 "oh bones" is used as an exclamation which, in context, seems a
reference to heritage rather than a reference to Ogou, the Iwa of war and iron around who the
song revolves. Marcelin's song 66 "Oh Ezili! Hey, I have no bones!" immediately follows a
song introducing Grann Ezili15: it appears that the singer is embodying Grann Ezili, and
therefore describing her by these words. This explanation does not seem adequate for Marcelin's
song 4 "...Papa Legba! Don't you see we're without bones!"16 as Legba, unlike Mawu-Lisa
and the Marasa twins, is not a dual entity and so would not address himself with a plural
pronoun. Legba is, however, referred to as "Old Bones" in a manner not unlike Papa Gede's
nickname "Mister Bones"; this reference alludes to his age rather than his occupation.
Stylistically, by using this nickname, the bone-less people are identifying themselves with
Legba; in a spiritual sense, they have become a part of his spiritual self.
Legba is the first Iwa addressed during a ceremony. His songs are sung first because, as
the ruler of the crossroads, he opens the 'gate' for the other Iwa to enter a Vodou ceremony.
Unlike some Vodou songs, Marcelin's song 4 is not written in his perspective but rather
addresses Legba directly. The exclamation "oh, old bones!" conveys his extreme old age,
underlining his anthropomorphic characterization and emphasizing the fact that this song is
addressed to Papa Legba. Given a context of close ties between bones, ancestry and religious
heritage, it is evident that the second verse "Don't you see we're without bones!" refers to the
Vodouists' need to correspond with the Iwa as a means of retrieving their historical and religious
heritage. In this way Marcelin's song 4 illustrates the vital importance of heritage and ancestry in
Haitian Vodou.



10 Gottschalk, The Emergence of Christian Science (...), Chapter 3: The Tares and the Wheat, p121
11 Hebblethwaite, for example, identifies the Marasa as a retention of the Mawou-Lisa (Vodou Songs Apendix A:
"Mawou-Lisa" p. 266)
12 McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola, Chapter 10: Danbala, p280
13 McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola, Chapter 10: Danbala, p279-286
14 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs, Chapter 6: J.L.' Songs, p148
15 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs, Chapter 4: Milo Marcelin's Songs, p89
16 Hebblethwaite, Vodou Songs, Chapter 4: Milo Marcelin's Songs, p75









Songs including the word "bones":
Fond in Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English


Chapter 4: Milo Marcelin's Songs

4.
Oh old bones! Oh old bones! Papa Legba!
Don't you see we're without bones!

66.
Oh Ezili! Hey, I have no bones!
Ezili I have no bones!
I have no bones in my entire body!
Oh Ezili! Hey, I have no bones!
I have no bones in my entire body!
Oh Ezili! I have no bones!

197.
Oh Bade! Oh Bade!
He is a brave man.
But it is unfortunate!
He is a brave man, but he is without bones.


Chapter 6: J.L.'s Songs

4.
Hey the lwa who is your lwa,
is a protective lwa, hey, oh bones,
I say a lwa who is your lwa, yeah.
Oh papa Ogou is a protective lwa.









Works Cited


Brice, Leslie A. "Chapter 4: At the Vodou Altar." Nou La, We Here: Remembrance andPower
in the Arts of Haitian Vodou. Ann Arbor: ProQuest Information and Learning Center,
2007. 125-74. Print.
Calvin, Jean. A Treatise on Relics in ith an Introductory Dissertation on Miraculous Images (..).
Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1854. Print.
Gottschalk, Stephen. "Chapter 3: The Tares and the Wheat" The Emergence of Christian Science
in American Religious Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. 98-157. Print.
Hebblethwaite, Benjamin. Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English = Chante Vodou an
Kreyl Ayisyen Ak Angle. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2011. Print.
McCarthy Brown, Karen. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1991. Print.