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1 An Investigation of the Perception of Left Handedness in Haitian Vodou Athna C. PattersonOrazem University of Florida In many cultures the left side has been given a bad reputation. Due to the predominance of right handers, tools are generally perfected for right handed use, and it becomes a tradition to use the left hand for menial tasks. I n some communities, l eft handers are violently persecuted. This preference is present in our vocabulary: the word sinister comes from the Latin word meaning on left hand (Stein, 1973) Gauche in French means left but also clumsy (Legrain, 2001) The Haitian Creole term degrenngch, which is translated as idiotic or half assed, enshrines this bias : degrenn means disjointed or awkward, and gch means left (Freeman and Laguerre, 2002). Historically, lefthanders have been forcibly switched made to write with and otherwise use their right hand as if it were their natural dominant hand. T his practice continues to this day, including in the United States: a young friend of mine was switched because her mother associated left with the devil. Does Vodou share this repressive, right ist tradition, or does Vodous nonprescriptive nature also pertain to the perception of handedness? In his diagram displaying the moral hierarchy between the various V odou rites, Rigaud (1953: 161) clearly indicates the difference between magic of the right hand or good magic, a nd magic of the left hand or bad magic. This nomenclature has been carried on to the practitioners of this magic; Brown (1991: 403) defines the bk as a sorcerer or one who works with both hands or the left hand. Interestingly, bk are predominantly male. All oungan (and manbo ) possess the knowledge to use mercenary spirits, but an honest and honorable oungan will not do so unless absolutely necessary for the protection of a threatened client or in dealing with criminals (Mtraux, 1959: 267). Oungan who work with both hands are considered suspicious and subjected to censure; such bk are believed to buy and sell mercenary spirits because the good spirits have declined to become their patrons ( Mtraux, 1959: 65). Davis (1985: 96) does not consider the distinction between oungan and bk to be as sharp as portrayed above. I n his argument, he emphasiz es the importance of choice and the dichotomy inherent in Vodou ideology Kerboul (1977: 202) points out that Haitian Vodou magic was strongly influenced by European magical traditions; if the practice of the magic bears a strong European influence, then why shouldnt its naming? O ne cannot assume the European origin of Haitian Vodou views on right and left without first con sidering Vodous African roots. In fact, as indicated by Wieschhoff (1938: 202 17) African associations on the surface are generally not unlike the European: the right side is preferred and generally associated with goodness and maleness, whereas the left is considered inferior and associated with badness and femaleness. Wieschhoff notes an exception found in the northern and eastern regions of Af rica: in these places left represents fortune, and right misfortune. In these places as well certain nonmenial tasks are delegated to the left hand F or example, in the Congo one counts with the left hand. Wieschhoff also observes that the distribution of right hand preferences likely reflect s Islamic influence which was established in Dahomey and the Congo approximately a thousand years before the slave trade started. Since Islam is descended in part from the JudeoChristian tradition, this could be considered evidence of the vast conquering influence of JudeoChristian ideology. However, the incompleteness of this ideological conquest mirrors the cumulative and nonprescriptive nature of Vodou. Just as the Vodou ceremony retains some Catholic praye rs, some traces of earlier, more respectful and egalitarian beliefs still remain in Africa

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2 T he Haitian Vodou perception of left handedness should be most clearly demonstrated in its ritual and ceremonial practices T he negative symbolism of the left side may be illustrated in a conversation between Mama Lola and an African priest. Illustrating the comparative simplicity of bad medicine, the priest explains that one can cause intestinal pain by stepping on a wrapper from something someone ate; in his demonstration, he uses his left foot (Brown, 1991: 106). However, since he did not specify using the left, it may have been a gesture of convenience since even while sitting it is easier to move the non dominant, less supportive leg. Mama Lola performs a healing ritual in which she pumps her left leg up and down in a similar manner. P erhaps lifting the foot represents letting the illn ess escape from the body but once more it is unclear whether the identity of the foot is due to anything more than convenience (Brown, 1991: 351). A much more definite example occurs during initiation: piping hot dumplings are pressed into an initiates left hand and foot, and they are told Never say hot again, say strong! ( Brown, 1991: 351). This is reminiscent of a northeastern African tribal custom for curing a child displaying left handedness by scalding its left hand in boiling water (Wieschhoff, 1938: 216) but without damaging effects and with a clear reference to left hand mag ic. Vodou dances clearly display a preference towards the right. In preparing to welcome Legba, the oungan (or mambo) directs the head of the family to turn around to the right, to the left, and then to the right again (Hebblethwaite, 2012: 255). Salutations also contain this rightleft right pattern (Brown, 1991:54). Dances start to the right, but may be reciprocal : in the ibo dance one takes two steps to the right, then two to the left (Hebblethwaite, 2012: 2423). The petwo dance is characterized by outstretching the right arm while keeping the left hand on ones hip ( Hebblethwaite, 2012: 278) This may be a visual representati on of phallus and annulus as the shapes made by each arm mirror in an egalitarian manner the male/female right/left assoc iation Alternatively the right hand could be extended in greeting, demonstrating right hand dominance or in exploration, in which case the left would be reserved in case of danger indicating lefthand dominance. Beginning with rightward movements is c ommon in danc e classes throughout the world and caters to a right handed majority who tend to feel more comfortable moving (and especially turning) towards the right. Contrastingly, t he manman tanbou i s played with the left hand and a horn stick, the badyt kon in the right (2012: 164). This interesting combination requir es significant coordination and, depending on the rhythm, likely gives the left hand the harder task due to the refined digital control required for manual drumming In general Vodou practices seem to use a mixture of right hand favoritism and ambidexterity the former being more a matter of tradition and physical convenience than displaying a negative perception of left Unfortunately, much of this data seems limited, speculative and inconclusive; further fieldwork on the specific topic of left handedness in Vodou and Africa is required to form more decisive conclusions. It remains clear that Haitian Vodou is influenc ed by overlapping European, Christian and Islamic views of left . T his right ist presence is especially evident in Vodou terminology regarding good and bad magic T he mixture of equality and right hand preference in Haitian Vodou practices reflect s the persistence of more egalitarian African tradition s while mirro ring the practical and nonprescriptive nature of the Vodou religion.

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3 Works Cited Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California, 1991. Print. Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. Print. Freemont and Laguerre. Degrenn Gch and Degrenngch. Haitian English Dictionary Port au Prince: La Presse Ev angelique. 2002. Print. Hebblethwaite, Benjamin. Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English. Philad elphia: Temple UP, 2012. Print. Kerboull, Jean. Vaudou Et Pratiques Magiques Paris: Editions Pierre Belfond, 1977. Print. Legrain, Michel, and Yves Garnier, eds. Gauche. Le Petit Larousse 2001. Print. M traux, Alfred. Voodoo in Haiti Trans. Hugo Charteris. New York: Schoken, 1959. Print. Rigaud, Milo. La Tradition Voudoo Et Le Voudoo Haitien. Paris: Editions Niclaus, 1953. Print. Stein, Jess, ed. Sinister. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language 1973. Print. Wieschhoffm Heinz. Concepts of Right and Left in African Cultures . Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 58, No. 1 (Mar., 1938), pp. 202217. American Oriental Society, < http://www.jstor.org/stable/594208>


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Title: An Investigation of the Perception of Left-Handedness 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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Acquisition: Collected for University of Florida's Institutional Repository by the UFIR Self-Submittal tool. Submitted by Megan Raitano.
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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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An Investigation of the Perception of Left-Handedness in Haitian Vodou
Athena C. Patterson-Orazem, University of Florida

In many cultures, the left side has been given a bad reputation. Due to the predominance
of right-handers, tools are generally perfected for right-handed use, and it becomes a tradition to
use the left hand for menial tasks. In some communities, left-handers are violently persecuted.
This preference is present in our vocabulary: the word 'sinister' comes from the Latin word
meaning 'on left hand' (Stein, 1973). Gauche in French means 'left' but also 'clumsy' (Legrain,
2001). The Haitian Creole term degrenng6ch, which is translated as "idiotic" or "half-assed",
enshrines this bias: degrenn means "disjointed" or "awkward", and goch means "left" (Freeman
and Laguerre, 2002). Historically, left-handers have been forcibly 'switched' made to write
with and otherwise use their right hand as if it were their natural dominant hand. This practice
continues to this day, including in the United States: a young friend of mine was 'switched'
because her mother associated 'left' with the devil. Does Vodou share this repressive, 'right-ist'
tradition, or does Vodou's non-prescriptive nature also pertain to the perception of handedness?
In his diagram displaying the moral hierarchy between the various Vodou rites, Rigaud
(1953: 161) clearly indicates the difference between 'magic of the right hand' or 'good magic',
and 'magic of the left hand' or 'bad magic'. This nomenclature has been carried on to the
practitioners of this 'magic'; Brown (1991: 403) defines the bdko as "a sorcerer" or "one who
works with both hands or the left hand". Interestingly, bdko are predominantly male. All oungan
(and manbo) possess the knowledge to use mercenary spirits, but an "honest" and honorable
oungan will not do so unless absolutely necessary for the protection of a threatened client or in
dealing with criminals (Metraux, 1959: 267). Oungan who 'work with both hands' are
considered suspicious and subjected to censure; such b6dk are believed to buy and sell
mercenary spirits because the 'good' spirits have declined to become their patrons (Metraux,
1959: 65). Davis (1985: 96) does not consider the distinction between oungan and b6dk to be as
sharp as portrayed above. In his argument, he emphasizes the importance of choice and the
dichotomy inherent in Vodou ideology. Kerboul (1977: 202) points out that Haitian Vodou
magic was strongly influenced by European magical traditions; if the practice of the magic bears
a strong European influence, then why shouldn't its naming?
One cannot assume the European origin of Haitian Vodou views on right and left without
first considering Vodou's African roots. In fact, as indicated by Wieschhoff (1938: 202-17),
African associations on the surface are generally not unlike the European: the right side is
preferred and generally associated with goodness and maleness, whereas the left is considered
inferior and associated with badness and femaleness. Wieschhoff notes an exception found in the
northern and eastern regions of Africa: in these places 'left' represents fortune, and 'right'
misfortune. In these places as well, certain non-menial tasks are delegated to the left hand. For
example, in the Congo one counts with the left hand. Wieschhoff also observes that the
distribution of right-hand preferences likely reflects Islamic influence, which was established in
Dahomey and the Congo approximately a thousand years before the slave-trade started. Since
Islam is descended in part from the Judeo-Christian tradition, this could be considered evidence
of the vast, conquering influence of Judeo-Christian ideology. However, the incompleteness of
this ideological conquest mirrors the cumulative and non-prescriptive nature of Vodou. Just as
the Vodou ceremony retains some Catholic prayers, some traces of earlier, more respectful and
egalitarian beliefs still remain in Africa.









The Haitian Vodou perception of left-handedness should be most clearly demonstrated in
its ritual and ceremonial practices. The negative symbolism of the left side may be illustrated in a
conversation between Mama Lola and an African priest. Illustrating the comparative simplicity
of "bad medicine", the priest explains that one can cause intestinal pain by stepping on a wrapper
from something someone ate; in his demonstration, he uses his left foot (Brown, 1991: 106).
However, since he did not specify using the left, it may have been a gesture of convenience since
even while sitting it is easier to move the non-dominant, less-supportive leg. Mama Lola
performs a healing ritual in which she pumps her left leg up and down in a similar manner.
Perhaps lifting the foot represents letting the illness escape from the body, but once more it is
unclear whether the identity of the foot is due to anything more than convenience (Brown, 1991:
351). A much more definite example occurs during initiation: piping hot dumplings are pressed
into an initiate's left hand and foot, and they are told "Never say hot again, say strong!" (Brown,
1991: 351). This is reminiscent of a north-eastern African tribal custom for 'curing' a child
displaying left-handedness by scalding its left hand in boiling water (Wieschhoff, 1938: 216), but
without damaging effects and with a clear reference to 'left-hand magic'.
Vodou dances clearly display a preference towards the right. In preparing to welcome
Legba, the oungan (or mambo) directs the head of the family to turn around to the right, to the
left, and then to the right again (Hebblethwaite, 2012: 255). Salutations also contain this right-
left-right pattern (Brown, 1991:54). Dances start to the right, but may be reciprocal: in the ibo
dance one takes two steps to the right, then two to the left (Hebblethwaite, 2012: 242-3). The
petwo dance is characterized by outstretching the right arm while keeping the left hand on one's
hip (Hebblethwaite, 2012: 278). This may be a visual representation of phallus and annulus as
the shapes made by each arm mirror in an egalitarian manner the male/female right/left
association. Alternatively the right hand could be extended in greeting, demonstrating right-hand
dominance or, in exploration, in which case the left would be reserved in case of danger,
indicating left-hand dominance. Beginning with rightward movements is common in dance
classes throughout the world and caters to a right-handed majority who tend to feel more
comfortable moving (and especially turning) towards the right. Contrastingly, the manman
tanbou is played with the left hand and a horn stick, the badyet kon in the right (2012: 164). This
interesting combination requires significant coordination and, depending on the rhythm, likely
gives the left hand the harder task due to the refined digital control required for manual
drumming.
In general, Vodou practices seem to use a mixture of right-hand favoritism and
ambidexterity, the former being more a matter of tradition and physical convenience than
displaying a negative perception of 'left'. Unfortunately, much of this data seems limited,
speculative and inconclusive; further field-work on the specific topic of left-handedness in
Vodou and Africa is required to form more decisive conclusions.
It remains clear that Haitian Vodou is influenced by overlapping European, Christian and
Islamic views of 'left.' This 'right-ist' presence is especially evident in Vodou terminology
regarding 'good' and 'bad' magic. The mixture of equality and right-hand preference in Haitian
Vodou practices reflects the persistence of more-egalitarian African traditions while mirroring
the practical and non-prescriptive nature of the Vodou religion.









Works Cited

Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of
California, 1991. Print.

Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. Print.

Freemont and Laguerre. "Degrenn", "Goch" and "Degrenngoch." Haitian English Dictionary.
Port au Prince: La Presse Evangelique. 2002. Print.

Hebblethwaite, Benjamin. Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English. Philadelphia: Temple
UP, 2012. Print.

Kerboull, Jean. Vaudou Et Pratiques Magiques. Paris: Editions Pierre Belfond, 1977. Print.

Legrain, Michel, and Yves Gamier, eds. "Gauche." Le Petit Larousse. 2001. Print.

Metraux, Alfred. Voodoo in Haiti. Trans. Hugo Charteris. New York: Schoken, 1959. Print.

Rigaud, Milo. La Tradition Voudoo Et Le Voudoo Haitien. Paris: Editions Niclaus, 1953. Print.

Stein, Jess, ed. "Sinister." The Random House Dictionary of the English Language. 1973. Print.

Wieschhoffm Heinz. "Concepts of Right and Left in African Cultures." Journal of the American
Oriental Society, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Mar., 1938), pp. 202-217. American Oriental Society,