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VOL. 39. NO. 3 & 4
Copyright reserved and reproduction without permission strictly forbidden.
THE SPIRITUAL BAPTISTS, SHANGO, AND OTHERS
: AFRICAN-DERIVED RELIGIONS IN THE CARIBBEAN
Guest Editor's Foreword v
Funerals and Mourning in the Spiritual Baptist and Shango Traditions 1
Stephen D. Glazier
The Shango Cult and Other African Rituals in Trinidad, Grenada and
Carriacou and their Possible Influences on the Spiritual Baptist Faith 12
The Rite of Mourning in the Spiritual Baptist Church with Emphasis
on the Activity of the Spirit 26
Father lan Anthony Taylor
The Role of the Kabbalah in the Afro-American Religious Complex
in Trinidad 42
Divine Femininity Among Trinidad's Earth People: Appropriation
and Reinterpretation in Spiritual Baptist Visions 56
African Religion and Christianity in Grenada 74
Patrick J. Polk
Visiting Ancestors: St. Lucian Djine in Communion with their
African Kin 82
Vodou Vatican: A Prologomenon for Understanding Authority
in a Syncretic Religion 100
Donald J. Convention
African Continuities in the Rastafari Belief System 108
Comments on the Spiritual Baptist and Shango Papers
edited by Stephen D. Glazier 124
BOOK REVIEW 130
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS 133
BOOKS RECEIVED 134
INSTRUCTIONS TO AUTHORS 137
(Cover photo: Spiritual Baptists, by kind permission of S.Glazier)
UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDICES
The lion. R.M.Nettleford, O.M.., Pro Vice-Chancellor, Professor of
Continuing Studies, Mona.(Editor)
G.M. Richards, Pro Vice-Cliancellor, Principal, St. Augustine, Trinidad
Roy Augier, Professor of Hlistory, Mona, Jamaica
Sir Keith Ilunte, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Principal, Cave Hill.
Neville McNorris, Department of Physics, Mona
Veronica Salter, School of Continuing Studies, Mona (Managing Editor)
All correspondence and contributions should be addressed to:
School of Continuing Studies,
University of the West Indies,
Mona, Kingston 7, Jamaica.
We invite readers to submit manuscripts or recommend subjects which
they would like to see discussed in Caribbean Quarterly. Articles and book reviews of
relevance to the Caribbean will be gratefully received. Authors should refer to the
guidelines at the end of this issue. Articles submitted are not returned. Contributors are
asked not to send intemational postal coupons for this purpose.
Jamaica J$150.00 (1993) J$200.00 (1994)
Eastern Caribbean J$ 200.00 (1993) J$300.00 (1994)
United Kingdom UK 15.00 UK 20 (1994)
Canada, U.S.A., and other countries US$30.00 US$40 (1994)
Exchanges are conducted by the Gifts and Exchanges Section, Library University of the
West Indies, Mona, Kingston 7, Jamaica.
Back Issues and Microlilm
Information for back volumes supplied on request. Caribbean Quarterly
is available on microfilm from Xerox University Microfilms and in book form from
Kraus-Thompson Reprint Ltd.
Abstract and Index
1949-90 Author, Keyword and Subject Index now available.
This journal is abstracted by AES and indexed by HAPI
Subscription orders may be forwarded to the Editor or the Resident
Tutor at the University Centre in any West Indian Territory served by this Univer-
Caribbean Quarterly. Volume 24, numbers 2 & 3, 1978, examined Religion and
Spiritism. This double issue of Caribbean Quarterly continues a study of religions of the
region, for region is not only an index of culture, but also one of the prime sources of
energy in Caribbean social dynamics. This double issue pays attention to some of the
African -derived religions of the Caribbean, with particular emphasis on the Spiritual
Baptists, Shango, Kabbalistic teachings and the Rastafari.
Caribbean Quarterly welcomes our Guest Editor, Stephen Glazier, Associate
Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nebraska.
Our University sociologists should undertake a serious
in-depth study of those believers (the Shouters) who
may well represent our only indigenous group. No
such study exists and the lack of appreciation may well
be solved by greater understanding. We believe that
the country as a whole should have an opportunity to
know more about the Spiritual Baptists who are still
largely a mystery to those who know little about their
faith. What are their beliefs, their origins, their
development?Trinidad Guardian, 21 January 1980.
It has been over eleven years since the above editorial appeared in the Trinidad
Guardian calling for further study of the Spiritual Baptist and Shango. Nor has the
significance of these religions in Trinidad and elsewhere in the Caribbean diminished
since 1980. If anything, the religion has become more international in scope. It has
followed Caribbean migrants to Europe and the United States, and today, many of the
largest Spiritual Baptist congregations are no longer in the Caribbean. For example, one of
the largest Spiritual Baptist churches is St. Peter's S.B.C. in Brooklyn.
In sixteen years of research on the Spiritual Baptist, I have become more aware of other
African American groups with similar rituals and beliefs as well as the tremendous in-
fluence these other groups have had on the Spiritual Baptists. As is apparent in looking at
be essays in this collection, boundaries of African American religious experience are
difficult to delineate. Black Spiritualism in New Orleans, Vodou, Hoodoo, the "Tieheads"
of Barbados, the Jordanites of Guyana, the "Spirit Baptists", Revival, Zion and Pocomania
of Jamaica, Santeria, and Maria Lionza in Venezuela have all influenced and been in-
fluenced by the Spiritual Baptists and Shango. There are, for example, commonalities in the
Spiritual Baptist mourning ceremony and 'tarrying' ceremonies among Primitive and Black
Baptist churches in the United States. there are also comparisons to be made between
Spiritual Baptist mourning ceremonies and Aladura ceremonies in South Africa and as
taylor points out many parallels between Spiritual Baptist mourning rituals and initiation
rituals among Revivalists in Jamaica.
Previous research has attempted to account for popularity and persistence of African-
derived religions in the Caribbean according to the deprivation hypothesis, by which
peoples (primarily of the lower classes) are said to participate in these religions in order to
compensate for material disadvantages. This theoretical approach has met with increasing
criticism; especially, as the membership of these religions become more affluent. Why,
then if not for deprivation would one become a Spiritual Baptist? My reply and the
reply of the contributors to this collection is that the Spiritual Baptist faith (as well as
Shango, Vodou, Santeria and Rastafari) provides a valid, complex and emotionally satisfy-
ing religion firmly rooted in the ancient religious traditions of Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Spiritual Baptist and Shango leaders present an original, self sufficient and coherent
worldview. They are not simply mimicing European Christianity (as some critics have
claimed). To the contrary, Baptist and Shango offer creative syntheses of European,
African and increasingly Asian beliefs and practices.
Earl Lovelace, in his novel The Wine ofAstonishment, emphasizes the seductiveness of
the faith when he has one of his Baptist characters observe: "we never ask nobody to come
and join us; but somebody get a dream, somebody will get a vision, and he comes to us and
we baptize him in the river and put him out on the Mourning' ground to pray and fast and
wait for the Lord." The majority of my informants would say that they were attracted to the
Spiritual Baptist faith because the religion helped them to meet spiritual needs rather than
material needs. I believe that his would also be true for other religions covered in this
The Spiritual Baptists have spawned a number of independent religious visions (e.g. the
Earth People covered in this volume), and few Caribbean religious organizations whether
Pentecostals, Shangoists, Rastas, Open Bible, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics or
Anglicans have not drawn leadership from Spiritual Baptist congregations. Three of the
largest Pentecostal congregations in Trinidad have been pastored by former Spiritual
In a number of important respects, the Spiritual Baptists and Shango have become a
self-reflexive part of the Caribbean mainstream. They are featured in newspapers; have
published their own histories'; have been the subject of an excellent and internationally
acclaimed novel2 of which the Malick Folk performers are currently in the process of
preparing a stage adaptation; and have been incorporated into popular music: "Soca
Baptist" (1980) by Blue Boy (Austin Lyons); and "Bahia Gyal" by David Rudder (1989).
While Blue Boy's treatment of the faith was clearly derisive ("What to them suppose to be
spiritual; to me, it was just like bacchanal'). Rudder's "Bahia Gyal" cites the Baptists as an
example of the Pan-African spirit, emphasizing similarities between Baptist "adoption" and
A major impetus for this project occurred during 1990 fieldwork when I began a
systematic analysis of University of the West Indies Caribbean Studies these dealing with
Trinidadian Baptists and Shango. The impressive range and quality of these theses caused
me to begin correspondence with Professor Nettleford concerning the possibility of bring-
ing excerpts from these theses, along with papers by established scholars, together in a
special issue of Caribbean Quarterly. He was immediately receptive to my proposal, and
one such thesis the contribution by lan Taylor appears herein. I regret that it was not
possible to include more student research in this collection.
Caribbean Studies theses are doubly interesting in as much as many are written by
Trinidadians who were themselves members of Spiritual Baptist and/or Shango congrega-
tions. In addition, these students had read the published "scientific" accounts of the
religions and were both willing and able to assess these scientific accounts from an
"insider's" perspective. This constitutes part of an ongoing worldwide dialogue in
anthropology in which "all contemporary ethnography is done in an independent or mutual-
ly informed world, where they ethnographer and his/her subjects are both a prior familiar
and alien to one another."4 Where better to initiate such a dialogue than in the Caribbean,
that most "modernist"5 of places, once at the centre and now at the periphery, where ethnic
and cultural pluralism is taken for granted, where literacy is high, and almost everyone is
from someplace else?
A most remarkable senior thesis by Hazel An Gibbs de Peza provides a cogent
examination and critique of Caribbean Studies theses addressing the Spiritual Baptists and
Shango. Gibbs de Peza, whose late husband was a prominent Baptist leader, describes the
content of twelve theses written between 1969 and 1988 and offers criticism from a
believer's perspective. Her comments are well-taken and provide a most valuable correc-
tive to the growing literature on the Baptists and Shango. Theses by Franklyn Farrel (1982).
Lynette Felix (1971) and Denise Gonzales (1987) are also worthy of note. Gonzales's piece
is especially relevant because it provides a vision of the Spiritual Baptist faith from the
standpoint of a single, female informant and could be compared to Karen McCarthy
Brown's Mona Lola (reviewed by Polk and Evanchuck in this volume).
Like most edited collections, serendipity has played no small part in gathering essays
for inclusion here. Articles from four continents and seven countries are represented, which
accurately reflects the worldwide interest in African-Caribbean religions. I have attempted
to include both beginning and senior scholars and to give readers a feel for the direction of
research since the last special issue of Caribbean Quarterly devoted to this topic (edited by
Barry Chevannes), in 1978.
Essays have been arranged from detailed accounts of Spiritual Baptist and Shango
rituals to broadly comparative statements. I am especially pleased to include an essay by the
eminent Venezuelan anthropologist Angelina Pollak-Eltz, who, when asked if she would be
willing to send a paper, replied with characteristic modesty that she hadn't done much
research on the Baptists in several years and that someone else might be better "qualified."
With the possible exception of George Eaton Simpson, no one comes close to Pollak-Eltz's
range of fieldwork among African American religious groups over the past twenty-five
years. James Houk, who has been observing the Baptists in Trinidad for over ten years,
provides a fascinating account of Spiritual Baptist appropriation of ideas from the Kabbala.
Houk's paper again illustrates the astonishing capacity of African American religious
leaders to syncretize beliefs and practices from diverse and unlikely sources. Roland
Littlewood's research on the Earth People is included in this collection at the suggestion of
J.D. Elder. The topic of Roland's essay was decided over several trans-Atlantic phone calls.
I thank him for his patience, advice and good humor. I met Parick J. Polk, R.J. Evanchuck
and Donald Consentino during the summer of 1991 while an N.E.H. Fellow at University
College of Los Angeles (UCLA), and I became aware of Manfred Kremser's excellent St.
Lucian work while at a conference organized by him in Vienna in 1990. Maureen Warner-
Lewis participated with the editor in a 1990 conference on African American rituals at the
University of Puerto Rico. Her contribution, like my own, is a greatly revised and expanded
version of her Puerto Rican presentation.
Editor and contributors alike are grateful to Professor Frances Henry of York University
(Canada) who so generously took time to critique each of the papers herein and Carole
Yawney whose commentary is included in this issue. Barry Chevannes of the University of
the West Indies offered sound advice and welcome encouragement In addition, we want to
thank Maureen Warner-Lewis, Angelina Pollak-Eltz, Manfred Kremser, Laennec Hurbon,
Nina S. De Freidmann, Albert Raboteau, Harold Silahal, Bridget Brereton, and Elwyn
Frances for their many suggestions. Editorial work was facilitated by stipends from the
Research Services Council of the University of Nebraska and the National Endowment for
the Humanities. Of course, it is the unwavering support of Professor the Hon. Rex Net-
tleford, OM, that makes this special issue possible.
STEPHEN D. GLAZIER
1.Ashram Stapleton, The Birth and Growth of the Baptist Church in Trinidad and tobago and the
Caribbean (Trinidad: Stapleton, 1983); and Eudora Thomas, A History of the Shouter Baptists
in Trinidad and Tobago (Tacariqua: Calaloux Publications. 1987).
2. Earl Lovelace, The Wine of Astonishment: (London: Andre Duetsch, 1982).
3.1 thank Gordon Rohler of the University of the West Indies for bringing these developments to
my attention. For further discussion, see the revised paperback edition of Stephen D. Glazier
Marchin' the Pilgrims Home: A Study of the Spiritual Baptists of Trinidad (Salem, WI: Shef-
field Publishing. 1991): xx-xxii.
4. See George E. Marcus and Michael M.J. Fischer, eds., Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Ex-
perimental Moment in the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986): 112.
5. See Marc Manganaro, Ed., Modernist Anthropology: From Fieldwork to Text (Princeton: Prin-
ceton University Press, 1990).
FUNERALS AND MOURNING IN THE SPIRITUAL BAPTIST
AND SHANGO TRADITIONS
STEPHEN D. GLAZIER
Caribbean religious movements have been greatly changed by the presence of
Europeans, Asians and Africans. In this presentation, I discuss changes among Spiritual
Baptists and the Shango cult in Trinidad, with special attention to funerals and mourning
Much attention has been devoted to African influences in the New World (e.g. the
Herskovits/Frazier debate), but scholars cannot fully understand contemporary religious
developments in the region (or at least in pluralistic Trinidad) in terms of an African past.
The African past is important, but only a piece albeit a large piece of a larger, more
We can no longer look at Caribbean religions solely as "religions of protest" or as
"religions of the oppressed." Many religions like the Spiritual Baptist formerly classified
as "religions of the oppressed" -have joined the political and economic elites of their
It is important to recognize that in many respects, anthropologists and sociologists have
failed to come to terms with contemporary Caribbean religions. When scholars, such as
anthropologist I.M. Lewis, use the Spiritual Baptists and Shango to illustrate general
theories of religion and protest or religion and deprivation, they often base their interpreta-
tions on data collected thirty of forty years ago. Many changes have taken place in both
Caribbean religions and Caribbean societies over the past forty years. Frequently, these
changes have been ignored in the academic.study of Caribbean religions.
H. Relations between the Spiritual Baptists and Shango
The Spiritual Baptists are an international movement. I have visited congregations in St.
Vincent (where some Baptists claim the faith originated), Trinidad and Tobago (where I did
the bulk of my fieldwork), Grenada, Guyana, Venezuela, Toronto (Canada), Los Angeles,
and New York City (USA). Many of the largest congregations are no longer in the
Caribbean. To my knowledge, the largest Spiritual Baptist Church is St. Peter's S.B.C. in
Brooklyn (New York City).
There are a number of religious groups on other islands whose rituals are similar to
those of the Baptists (e.g. the "Tieheads" of Barbados and the so-called "Spirit Baptists" of
Jamaica), but Trinidad Baptists do not consider these others to be part of their religion and
do not participate in joint worship, pilgrimages, missions, and other services with members
of these other groups.
Baptist membership is predominantly black, and- like many Afro-Caribbean religions
- they seem to have started out as a "religion of the oppressed." In recent years, however,
congregations in Trinidad have attracted membership among middle class blacks as well as
sizeable numbers of wealthier East Indians, Chinese, and Whites. Baptists emphasize this,
but I don't want to overplay the influence of other ethnic groups. This is still predominantly
a black religion. Over the past ten years, membership has remained stable at about ten
Many Trinidadians confuse Spiritual Baptists with an African-derived group known as
Shango (a possession cult somewhat similar to Vodou in Haiti or Santeria in Cuba) and
assume that Spiritual Baptist and Shango rituals are identical. Members of these faiths,
however, do not share this confusion, and a large number of Spiritual Baptists condemn
Shango rituals as "heathen worship." Shangoists, for their part, claim that Spiritual Baptists
copy their ideas and try to steal their power. On three occasions during my fieldwork,
Baptist leaders have picketed Shango centres prior to Shango ceremonies.
In examining the relationships between Spiritual Baptist churches and Shango centres,
threedistinct types of organization may be discerned: 1) Spiritual Baptist churches with
Shango connections, 2) Spiritual Baptist churches with no Shango connections, 3) Shango
centres with Spiritual Baptist connections. These distinctions reflect ways in which mem-
bers of these religions think of themselves. Are they, for example, Spiritual Baptists who
also "do" Orisha work or Shangoists who also "do" Baptist work?
Some popular literature interprets the Spiritual Baptist faith as an impoverished, overly
Christianized, variant of traditional African religions. It is suggested that slaves perpetuated
an Africanized form of Christianity mainly because they were not permitted to continue
traditional African forms of worship on the plantation. While there is truth in this inter-
pretation, it needs to be stressed that much of the black population of Trinidad arrived after
1838 when slavery was abolished within the British colonial system (Herskovits and
Herskovits, 1947), and that Shango and the Spiritual Baptists have had a long history of
co-existence. Indeed, when asked when the Spiritual Baptists and Shango began to be
associated, informants most frequently responded that it had "always" been so. In addition,
if the Spiritual Baptists functioned primarily as a "cover" for African worship the religion
would not have been a very good choice for such a "cover." Baptist rites occasioned as
much censure and sometimes more censure than did Shango rites because Baptist
services were held in crowded residential areas, while Shango rites were held in the remote
countryside. The majority of Trinidad ordinances were directed at the Spiritual Baptists and
In over fourteen years of research, I have found little evidence that the Spiritual Baptists
are simply mimicing European Christianity. To the contrary, Baptists offer a creative and
original synthesis of European, African and increasingly Asian beliefs and practices.
The Spiritual Baptists never cease to surprise me. Each year I encounter new rituals,
theological developments and refinements. Baptist leaders do not mimic Christianity, but
present an original, self sufficient and coherent worldview. In a sense, each Spiritual
Baptist leader is his own cosmographer. Each presents his own creative understanding of
the universe and how it functions. The Baptists have also have spawned a number of
independent religious visions (e.g. Littlewood's studies of the Earth People'), and few
Caribbean religious organizations whether Pentecostals, Shangoists, Rastas, Open
Bible, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics or Anglicans have not been influenced by and
drawn leadership from Spiritual Baptist congregations. Three of the largest Pentecostal
congregations in Trinidad are pastored by former Spiritual Baptist leaders.
Both the Spiritual Baptists and Shango are syncretic.2 I find it useful to think of these as
two religions playing on common themes but going in different directions. The former
religion is no less authentic than the latter. A major difference in the Shango and Baptist
belief systems is that Baptist rituals are directed towards their version of the Holy Trinity
(as well as a considerable amount of Protestant theology which seems to creep in), while
Shango rituals are directed toward African or African-derived gods. Spiritual Baptists are
(ostensibly?) Christians and, in the words of one informant, "don't worship them others."
This is not to say that Baptists do not believe in the existence of African gods. A majority
of Spiritual Baptists do believe in the power of Shango deities, but do not feel that African
gods should be venerated.
Although the Spiritual Baptists and Shango are clearly separate ritual traditions, they
are interrelated on a number of levels. Their memberships overlap. I would estimate that
about 80 percent of all Shangoists in Trinidad also participate in Spiritual Baptist services
and about 40 percent of all Baptists also participate in Shango.
Spiritual Baptist congregations provide the organizational nexus for Shango activities.
Since Baptists have permanent congregations, an elaborate hierarchy, a relatively stable
economic base, and meet weekly, they provide a home base for extra-Baptist operations
such as Shango as well as a forum for recruitment into Shango. It is rare to meet a Shangoist
who has not had connections with the Spiritual Baptist during some time in his or her
religious career. There are, of course, degrees of participation. Not all leaders in Shango are
necessarily officials in the Baptist faith and vice versa.
Individual Baptist churches vary considerably in their attitudes toward major institu-
tions in Trindadian society. Some church leaders, for example, actively support the govern-
ment, while other church leaders claim that the Baptists are constantly being persecuted by
the government. Those leaders who claim to be persecuted make much of a 1917 ordinance
introduced in the Legislative Council to ban the faith. As a result of the ordinance the
religion was officially banned between 1917 and 1953.
On the other hand, leaders who do not believe that the faith has been subject to
persecution contend that the ban was never enforced and that the ban did little to slow the
spread of the Baptist religion. For example, the Baptist church at Belmont, alleged to be the
target of the original ordinance, continued to hold weekly services throughout the period of
the ban. Moreover, during the period of the ban it is said that not a single church was closed
nor was a single Baptist leader imprisoned. Some Baptist leaders contend that other Baptist
leaders like to exaggerate the degree of government persecution because they believe that
if you are persecuted "you must be doing God's work."
Previous researchers present a very different picture. Herskovits and Herskovits3
reported very strained relations between Baptist churches and the government during the
time of their fieldwork. In 1939 two separate charges against Baptist churches were lodged.
The government fined the church leader and the man on whose land the Baptist meeting
had been held. According to a prominent Spiritual Baptist Bishop similar fines were
imposed in 1940, 1941, and 1945. I have gone over the church records and have not been
able to verify his assertion.
m. The Spiritual Baptist Mourning Ceremony
A recent area of church-state contention pertains to the central ritual in the faith the
mourning ceremony. The concept of mourning has a very different meaning among the
Spiritual Baptists than it has in other religious traditions. Among Baptists, it does not relate
directly to death and bereavement, but is an elaborate ritual involving fasting, lying on a dirt
floor, and other deprivations. Many Baptists feels that the rite has been greatly
misinterpreted by outsiders. They debate whether the mourning rite is a rite of deprivation
-as Ward and Beaubrun4 Jeannette Henny5 would claim -or a rite, according to most
informants, to discover one's "true" rank within the church hierarchy.
As I pointed out in Marchin' the Pilgrims Home,6 there is no direct connection among
visions obtained in the mourning room, public statements concerning visions ("tracts") and
church rank. When mourners speak publicly about their visions, their statements do not
represent exactly their visionary experiences but an edited and condensed version of what
they have seen. Public presentations follow a rigid format. Mourners are led into the
church. Their headbands are removed. They stand, hands outstretched toward the congrega-
tion, and recite their tracts while marching in place. Common themes emerge in all tracts.
In the samples that follow, note the stress on Biblical imagery, generosity, foreign travel,
and the sudden appearance of familiar figures from the local congregation.7 The phrase
"Father, Son and Holy Ghost" separates visions received on different days of the rite.
I am walking by a stream. I am thristy, but I do not
have a cup. A man..a Chinese..offers me a cup. I dip
into the water and take a drink, but I am still thristy. He
tells me to keep the cup, but I give it back to him
saying that others may come after me who may need it.
Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
I go traveling' to Africa...A child comes to me with a
sore foot, the Mother comes. She scolds me for
bandagin' the child. She says I is wastin' time. I am
traveling' in China...I come to giant trees; there is a
man in the tree. It is Brother Bertie. Brother Bertie
gives me a silver chalice. Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
I am in Africa...along the road come a strange man
who says he knows me. I am frightened because I do
not know him. He begins asking' me why I am traveling .
I say that I is seeking' wisdom, truth and knowledge. He
says I is a liar and must repent and be a seeker of
justice. I tell him no. An animal appears, a leopard.
The man runs away. Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
I come to a river. Flowers are along the river. The river
is deep and I am falling into it. I can't stop myself from
falling Mother R. appears. She pulls me up. I feel safe
and glad to see her. Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
I am in Africa again. It is dark and someone hands me
a candle...I take it but give it back sayin' that someone
else may come along who needs it more than I. I hear
drums and bells and follow them to a clearing in the
forest. Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
I am in China. I am floating in a river. My boat is
sinkin'. Leader R. tells me to come to shore. There is a
crowd of people -strangers. They ask me why I am
in the river when a storm is coming. I say I am a
seeker. Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
I am fishing, but the fish will not come to my net. I try
another spot and my net is overflowing. My heart is
filled with gladness because I see Jesus on the shore.
He waves to me. Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
I am traveling' to Jerusalem...I see the gates of the city.
I must clean it. I work hard..It is clean. A man gives me
a silver coin. I drop it on the ground. When I pick it up
I am standing' amidst a flock of sheep. I am blessed.
Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.
The government argues that Baptist leaders should be held responsible for the physical
well-being of mourners. Mourning rites are believed to have curative powers, and because
so many ill participants enter the rite, every two or three years someone dies during the
ritual. This results in a government inquiry. Government prosecutors assert that poor diet
and damp conditions in the mourning room are contributing factors to mourners' deaths.
Baptist leaders, they contend, must refuse to mourn individual participants believed to be
too weak to withstand the rigours of the ceremony.
Leaders defend themselves by claiming that they take every possible precaution to
insure the mourner's survival. This is very difficult for them to prove, and many leaders
interpret government charges as evidence of government persecution. They claim that
someone in "high places" is trying to "get them." Over the past ten years, the rite has
become less rigorous in some churches. For example, the rites have been shortened from
several weeks to several days; greater care is taken in terms of diet (those who want to fast
are encouraged to "mourn" at home); participants may sleep on blankets and not directly on
A further complication is that Eric Williams, former Prime-Minister of Trinidad and
Tobago was himself believed to have been a Spiritual Baptist. I have been unable to
determine his true status within the faith. But then again, Williams's "true" religious
preferences are of minor importance to this discussion. For me, the most important thing is
that many Baptists believed that he was a member. Also, I think it is significant that
Williams made no attempt to deny it.
It is possible to overplay the relationship between the late Dr. Williams and the Spiritual
Baptists. I have seen newspaper and popular accounts that portray the relations between the
Baptists and the Peoples' National Movement (Williams's party) as one of the dominant
forces in Trinidadian politics during the late 1960s and early 1970s. A majority of these
stories appeared in scandal sheets such as "The Bomb" (Trinidad's equivalent of the
"National Enquirer") and sought to portray Dr. Williams as a mysterious, reclusive,
Howard Hughes-like figure. His Baptist connections were usually cited as further evidence
of the Prime Minister's intellectual, moral, and emotional decay.
IV Other Changes in the Spiritual Baptist Faith
As noted, many changes have taken place in Caribbean societies over the past forty
years. A large number of Jamaicans, Trinidadians, and -to a lesser extent -residents of
smaller islands have experienced upward mobility. This was especially true in Trinidad
during the oil boom. In some respects, the Spiritual Baptists have become mainstream.
They are featured in newspapers; have been the topic of seven senior theses at UWI over
the past eight years; have published their own histories: 8 & 9 have been the subject of an
internationally acclaimed novel The Wine of Astonishment by Earl Lovelace: and have
been incorporated into popular music: "Soca Baptist" (1980) by Blue Boy (Austin Lyons);
and "Bahia Gyal" by David Rudder (1989). While Blue Boy's treatment of the faith was
clearly derisive ("What to them suppose to be spiritual; to me, it was just like bacchanal"),
Rudder's "Bahia Gyal" cites the Baptists as an example of the Pan-African spirit, emphasiz-
ing similarities between Baptist "adoption" and Somba rhythms.
One of the goals of my fieldwork among Trinidad's Spiritual Baptists has been to
examine the consequences of affluence for a religious group whose primary appeal had
previously been among the poor. What happens when a religion of the oppressed joins the
During the summer of 1990, I focused on three major interrelated changes within the
church: leader roles, sermons, and clocks. Changing gender roles is probably the area of
most dramatic change. Traditionally, women have not been encouraged to speak from the
pulpit or the raised platform in front of the church. If they were permitted to address the
congregation at all, they did so from an area at the same level as the congregation and
facing the centre pole. When I began field work in 1976, several churches in South Trinidad
had separate seating for males and females (males on the right; females on the left). Both of
these churches have abandoned this and now have mixed seating. In 1978, I asked if women
were ever allowed behind the altar, and was told that once a week women were allowed
behind the altar to "dust and mop." Women are still not allowed to speak from the pulpit in
many churches, but in some of the large churches, e.g. Arima lower-ranking men (like
women) preach from near the centre pole and high ranking women preach from the pulpit.
Sermon content has changed considerably. There are fewer Biblical references and
analogies and greater attempt to relate sermons to everyday life. Many examples are taken
from secular rather than sacred sources. There is more mention of current events, greater
attention to Spiritual Baptists on other islands and the United States, and -most notably
- more political and social commentary.
A most intriguing change, however, relates to the use of clocks in Spiritual Baptist
churches. Clocks are and have been standard ritual paraphernalia in Baptist worship since
at least the 1950s. When I began my research I noted that most churches possessed two or
more clocks. There was always at least one clock by or behind the altar; and usually another
one next to lithographs of the saints. Many churches had another clock on the back wall of
the' church that could be seen by the speaker from the pulpit. What is most significant -
and intriguing is that none of the clocks were in working order. Clocks that did work
were either set several hours fast or several hours slow. In 1990, I began to notice that some
urban churches had accurate clocks.
In sermons and other public pronouncements, Baptists put a great deal of emphasis on
punctuality. Almost every sermon begins by acknowledging that "my time will be short and
I will keep my message brief on account of the hour." Having prefaced one's remarks with
such a disclaimer, however, most speakers greatly exceed their allotted time. Although
Baptist services are not supposed to last over three hours, some services last four or five
hours. Baptist services, it is widely stated, should begin and end "on time." One does not
have to attend many worship services, however, before discovering that this is seldom the
case. Baptists see themselves as the centre of a great battle between secular time and sacred
time. It is a battle in which sacred time must reign triumphant.
V. Spiritual Baptist Funerals
By government edict, funerals are to be conducted within twenty four hours of death. I
attended five Spiritual Baptist funerals, and noted that there appears to be considerably less
mixture of African and Christian rituals than in the context of the mourning ceremony or in
regular Sunday services. The order of worship roughly follows the Anglican Book of
Common Prayer with less opportunity for spontaneity and innovation than is usual even
in the selection of hymns.
Overall, Baptist funerals are solemn and very atypical of Baptist ceremonies. The major
occasion for spontaneous expression came toward the end of the service when the closed
casket was carried in procession around the church clockwise, counterclockwise, up and
down the main street of town, and then to the cemetery. Processing are accompanied by
shouting, hymn singing, clapping, stamping, and bell ringing. As the casket is lowered,
there are prayers at the gravesite and relatives make brief statements about the dead, after
which participants return to the churchyard for refreshments. Services were punctual and
relatively abbreviated. Three funerals started at 4:00 p.m. and adjourned by 5:30; two
started at 3:30 and adjourned by 4:45 (this is notable in a religion where five hour services
are not uncommon).
A topic of concern among Baptists is that so many lifelong, high ranking members of
their faith do not hold their funerals in Spiritual Baptist churches. Frequently, family
members hold funerals elsewhere 7 irrespective of the deceased's wishes. Consequently,
many Spiritual Baptists are buried by churches that belong to other denominations (i.e.
Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Adventist, and London Baptist). These other
denominations are thought to confer higher social status to their adherents.
Funerals ostensibly celebrate victory over death, but there is no assurance of victory.
One is judged by one's acts while on earth (influence of Calvinism?); at death "the Book is
sealed." Spiritual Baptist are this-worldly in focus. Each prayer begins by thanking God
that "I am still in the land of the living where prayer and supplication can be made." Baptist
leaders publicly express doubts concerning the ability of the living to influence the fate of
the deceased. Several Baptist leaders told me that there is nothing that can be done on the
part of the living to alter the fate of the dead.
Some Spiritual Baptists especially those with Shango or Roman Catholic connections
contend that there is a great deal of interaction between the living and the dead, and that
there is much that the living can do to influence the fate of the deceased. These Baptists
sponsor additional ceremonies away from spiritual baptist churches. Many additional
ceremonies are similar to the Shango rituals to be described below.
VI Shango Funerals
There are no formal Shango funeral ceremonies. Adherents are buried according to the
religious preferences of their families or according to their own preferences. As noted,
eighty percent of Shango adherents also participate in Spiritual Baptist ceremonies, but this
does not meant that their funerals will be conducted in a Baptist church. I would estimate
that over half of all Shango funerals are conducted in Roman Catholic churches (although
priests are reluctant to conduct funerals for known Shangoists); the next largest number of
funerals are conducted in Anglican churches; the remainder are conducted by various
Protestant denominations. Shangoists do not consider formal funeral ceremonies of prime
importance. Of greater import are the various Nine Day of Cross-Wake ceremonies -
usually performed away from major population centres.
Cross-Wakes are very carefully organized, dramatized rituals that are intended to help
close family and friends adjust to their loss. In addition and of equal importance the
ceremony is said to insure that the spirit of the dead does not return. Wakes continue for
eight days and nights of games, food, drink and story-telling. On the ninth night, there is a
great feast. Professional musicians and singers are invited. Drunkenness is pennitted (and
sometimes encouraged); bawdy songs and obscene stories predominate; and exaggerated
- and sometimes uncomplimentary stories are told about the deceased. It is believed that
this is the last time for the dead to be entertained by his/her family before joining the world
of the spirits, and that the presence of kin and friends helps to ensure the departed's speedy
and final return to the grave. The key concept is "final" for it is thought that if a Nine Day
is unsuccessful, the deceased will not rest but continue to interfere with the living. The
emphasis here is on the removal of ancestors. There is little ancestor veneration within this
VII. Discussion and Conclusions
As is apparent from the above descriptions, Spiritual Baptist and Shango funeral
practices constitute an amalgam of beliefs and practices from a number of different sources.
There are many local variants and possibly as many types of ceremonies as there are
adherents. What is unique about Baptist and Shango services, however, is the extent to
which African and Christian (European) ceremonies have been compartmentalized. The
Spiritual Baptist funeral is almost entirely Christian, while the Cross-Wake mixes Christian
and African belief and practice. It is also of interest when the same Spiritual Baptist who
denies the possibility of multiple souls and ancestor spirit within the context of a Baptist
funeral, later contributes time and money to sponsor a Cross-Wake.
It is sometimes suggested that as Caribbean peoples become more educated and
prosperous, rituals such as Nine Night and Cross-Weeks will diminish in importance. There
do seem to be fewer ancestor cults in Trinidad than in the 1960s and 1970s,o1 but this has
not translated into fewer Wakes. If anything, there are probably more Cross-Wake
ceremonies sponsored in Trinidad than when I began research in 1976.
*An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference "Cultos Religiosos a los An-
tepasados en el Caribe" at the Universidad de Puerto Rico. I thank Jose Alegria, Maureen
Warner-Lewis, Angelina Pollak-Eltz and Ricardo Cobian for helpful comments on earlier
1. Roland Littlewood, "From vice to Madness: The Semantics of Naturalistic and Personalistic Un-
derstandings in Trinidadian Local Medicine", Social Science and Medicine 17 (1988): 129-
148; Roland Littlewood. "Putting Out the Life:From Biography to Ideology among the Earth
People of Trinidad" in Anthropology and Autobiography, edited by J. Ikele (London: Tavis-
2. Stephen D. Glazier. "Sycretism and Separation: Ritual Change in an Afro-Caribbean Faith" Jour-
nal ofAmerican Folklore 98 (1985): 49-62; Stephen d. glazier, "The Religious Mosaic: Play-
ful Celebration in Trinidadian Shango" Play and Culture 1 (1988): 216-255.
3. Melville J. Herskovits and Frances Herskovits, Trinidad Village (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
4.Colleen Ward and Michael Beaubrun, "Trance Induction and Hallucination in Spiritual Baptist
Mourning," Journal of Psychological Anthropology 2 (1979): 479488.
5. Jeannette H. Henney, "Spirit Possession Belief and Trance Behaviour in Two Fundamentalist
Groups in St. Vincent," in Trance, Healing and Hallucination: Three Field Studies in
Religious Experience, edited by Felicitas D. Goodman, Jeannette H. Henney, and Esther Pres-
sel (New York: Joyn Wiley and Sons, 1974), 6-111.
6. Stephen D. Glazier, Marchin' the Pilgrims Home: Leadership and Decision-Making in an Afro-
Caribbean Faith, (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983): 54-58.
7. Stephen D. Glazier, "Mourning in the Afro-Baptist Tradition," Southern Quarterly 23 (1985):
8. Ashram Stapleton, The Birth and Growth of the Baptist Church in Trinidad and Tobago and the
Caribbean (Trinidad: Stapleton, 1983).
9. Eudora Thomas. A History of the Shouter Baptists in Trinidad and Tobago (Tacariqua: Calaloux
10. Jacob D. Elder, "The Yoruba Ancestor cult in Gasparillo," Caribbean Quarterly 16 (1970): 5-
20; Maureen Warner-Lewis, "Ancestral Rituals in the English-speaking Caribbean," un-
published paper presented at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, November 1990.
THE SHANGO CULT AND OTHER AFRICAN RITUALS IN
TRINIDAD, GRENADA, AND CARRIACOU AND THEIR
POSSIBLE INFLUENCE ON THE SPIRITUAL BAPTIST FAITH
Grenada, Carriacou, Trinidad and Tobago are largely inhabited by descendants of
slaves who arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first two islands were ruled by the
French. A French patois is still, widely spoken. In Trinidad, a large segment of the
population are descendants of East Indian indentured labourers. East Indians are of much
lesser importance in Grenada where there are only a few Hindu merchants. Indentured
labourers from Nigeria arrived during the second half of the 19th century in Grenada.
Today, their descendants live near the town of Munich. Locals fear them as powerful
sorcerers. It seems possible that these free-men introduced Yoruba religion which gradually
blended with African concepts and Catholic traditions. The Shango cult in Grenada is thus
a product of syncretism.
During the time of slavery, drum dances were permitted on all the above islands, but in
the nineteenth century they were forbidden in Trinidad because authorities feared revolts
might be provoked by these ceremonies. Drum dances continue to be held on Carriacou,
and African Nation Dances are still popular. Nation Dances were also performed in the
1930s and 1940s in Grenada, but they no longer take place today.
In Trinidad, African dances and magico-religious ceremonies were common during the
last century, but were hidden from authorities. The practice of obeah was prohibited. As far
as the police were concerned any African ritual was considered "black magic". It is most
likely that the Shango cult developed in Trinidad around the turn of the century. Because
ceremonies had to be held in secret, few reliable records exist. Shango in Trinidad and
Grenada has it roots in Yoruba religion, but developed independently of one another. In
recent times, however, a mutual penetration has been observed as many Grenadians work
in Trinidad and people travel frequently between the two islands.2
East Indian influences may be noted in the Shango cult in Trinidad; for example, the use
of prayer flags. East Indian syncretistic cults of recent origin (e.g. Kali Mai) may also have
been influenced by Shango. In addition, in Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada and other islands
many Pentecostal and evangelical churches cater to an ever increasing number of "saved"
Christians. These Protestant groups attract followers among Catholics and Hindus alike. It
is widely believed that the first Trinidad Baptist churches were founded by missionaries
from St. Vincent, but it is possible that Baptist churches already had African traits before
spreading to the West Indies around the turn of the century.
The Spiritual Baptists, also known as "Shakers" or "Shouters", have influenced the
Shango religion in a remarkable way. However, Shango rites and Spiritual Baptist meetings
were prohibited on all four islands between 1917 and 1951.
African-derived Cults and Rituals in Trinidad According to Historical Records
Charles W. Day (1852:11 87-88) notes
"Every day there was a dance amongst the Negroes on
the estate, to the banishment of all peace and quiet.
The horrible drumming began about seven in the eve-
ning and, with the chorus was kept up until daybreak
the next morning", and (1985:11 54-55) "The Trinidad
negroes have a custom exceedingly annoying to their
neighbours, that of waking the dead, after the most
approved Irish fashion, only that the noisy Blacks are
Methodists. The relations of the deceased of both
sexes assemble early in the evening well provided
with new rum and sing hymns and drink rum all the
night everyone is intoxicated and then the maudlin'
drunken pasmody is offensively ludicrous to their
Kinsley (1987:243), visited the island during the 19th century and saw an African
"The hut was lighted by some eight or ten candles or
lamps, and in the centre dimly visible, was a Fetish,
somewhat of the appearance of a man, but with the
head of a cock. Everything that the coarsest fancy
could invent had been done to make this image hor-
rible, and yet it appeared to be the object of special
adoration to the devotees assembled. A man now
began to chant a monotonous African song, accom-
panying with the tom-tom. Gradually he began to
quicken the measure, quicker went the words, quicker
beat the drum, and suddenly, one of the women sprang
into the open space in front of the Fetish. Round and
round she went, keeping admirable time with the
music. Quicker went the trump. And now the whole of
the woman's body seemed electrified by it, and, as if
catching the infection, a man now joined her in the
mad dance. Couple after couple entered the arena, and
a true sorcerers Sabbath began, while light after light
was extinguished, till at last but one remained, by
whose dim ray I could just perceive the faint outlines
of the remaining persons." Fraser (1826:268-9)
describes religious fraternities among Blacks, who had
come from the French islands. They assembled to per-
form African rituals and dances.
Carmichael (1833:1 253) states that Obeah black magic -was very common on all
the islands. Other authors also mention Obeah, but do not speak of Shango rituals. The
records give proof of the prejudice of white planters with regards to the "primitive and
savage rites" of their slaves.
On all four islands people are accused of practicing sorcery, called Obeah. Although
nobody really knows, who is an Obeahman and how he may hurt his victims Black magic
is taken for granted and Shango priests and Spiritual Baptist leaders are consulted in order
to undo the work of a magician.
Obeah, in the sense of white magic, is widely practiced by spiritual healers, who also
know about herbal remedies. They are consulted by people in need, to solve their emotion-
al, economic and family problems also. Venezuelans also consult such persons in Trinidad
or they travel to the cities of Eastern Venezuela in order to offer advice for a fee.
Trinidadians travel to Venezuela to consult Venezuelan curers, spiritists and practitioners
of parapsychology. Healers and spiritists on the Peninsula of Paria are in close touch with
their counterparts in Trinidad and ritual material, such as perfumes, incense and fluids are
shipped back and forth. It seems that more people, even from the educated classes, consult
soothsayers, Obeahmen, Shango priests, witch-doctors and spiritual healers in order to
solve problems related to health, economics, family relations, as they find no solution
Saracas, Nation Dance, Big Drum or Cropover in Carriacou
Nation Dances, also called Big Drum or Saraca, are held in Carriacou usually at the end
of the dry season to thank the spiritual world for a good harvest and to ask for rain. These
dances take place on weekends at crossroads, and are organized by groups of peasants, who
consider themselves to belong to the same "African nation". They are sometimes called
"Maroon Dances". Maroons are cooperative gangs of labourers, who assist each other in
agricultural tasks, house building and fishing. The festivity is staged in honor of the
ancestors, so that they would ward off all evil, ill-health and misfortune from their living
relatives. The dances usually last all night. Food is prepared and drinks are provided for
everyone. Food offerings are also placed in the yard for the ancestral spirits. Water and rum
is poured on the ground for them. They are called like in Egungun, Nigeria. A "Beg Pardon"
dance is performed, with the members of the family kneeling and singing, asking the
ancestors to forgive their sins. The ceremony concludes with the performance of groups of
other "nations" (Simpson, 1978:103).
The Yoruba also celebrate dances in honor of the Egungun at the beginning of the rainy
season in order to ask for a good harvest and to thank their departed elders for the benefits
received. The same relationship: ancestral spirits-rain-fertility-dance-sacrifice is apparent.
The spirits of the dead assist the living in the same way as the Orishas in the Shango Cult.
Big Drum dances were held in Grenada too, but they have disappeared or were amal-
gamated with Shango rituals.
The Shango Cult in Trinidad
In Trinidad about 50% of the population is of African origin, 40% is East Indian and
,10% may be white Among the Blacks, about 50% are Catholic, 30% Anglican and the
remaining 20% are adherents of Pentecostal or Fundamentalist sects. Spiritual Baptists and
Shangoists do not appear in the census.
"Shango" is derived from the name of an important Yoruba deity who is also very
popular in other Yoruba derived cults of the Americas. It is most likely that the cult
developed in Trinidad at the end of the past century. Due to the lack of historical records it
is very difficult to reconstruct the development that occurred in the past.
Herskovits (1947) mentions the Shango Cult, but does not go into detail. Carr, Mischel
and Simpson studied the cult in the 1950s and 60s, but to my knowledge little recent
ethnographic material is available. The Shango Cult in its present form is syncretistic,
rooted in the religion of the Yoruba of Nigeria, but with many Catholic symbols and rituals.
Like other African American religions, such as Candomble and Santeria, Catholic saints
substitute for African deities on the altars, while the real emblems of the divinities are
hidden in a room accessible only to the faithful. I am inclined to say that the saints and
Orishas are not completely identified with each other and that worshippers are well aware
that they are different entities. The outward identification of African deities with saints had
the purpose of protecting adherents from persecution; as they could always show their altar
decorated with lithographs and statues of saints, they could claim to be practicing
Catholics. In Trinidad, not all deities have a place in the Catholic pantheon and not all the
saints are identified with African divinities.
As in Nigeria, the Supreme Being -God Father -is the creator of the universe, but
he is deius otiosus, far removed from the world and its problems. The deities, ancestral
spirits and spirits of nature are invoked in order to help people solve their problems. While
in Nigeria each deity has his own shrine, his own priestly hierarchy and his own group of
initiated worshippers, in Trinidad all divinities are worshipped in the same temple, although
the faithful are only initiated into the cult of one specific spirit ("power") i.e., they are the
sons of Shango, or Ogun or Yermanya. Celebrations for each deity are held in the presence
of all the faithful. When the rhythm of a certain "power" is beaten on the drums, his
worshippers are possessed by him. When the Orishas finally arrive, they all dance together.
In Nigeria, each Orisha is celebrated in his own temple, where only his worshippers dance.
The emblems of all divinities are stored in the same room in the "chapelle". However, each
deity has his own drum rhythms, dance steps, symbols, colours and special parapharnalis.
Each has a predilection for certain sacrificial animals and ritual food. During possession,
the mediums act in a stereotyped way, so that their identification (as Ogun, Shango, etc.,) is
easy for an experienced onlooker. The faithful approach the deities in order to obtain advice
and receive a ritual cleansing. In important celebrations, animals are sacrificed. The
initiation ceremonies are of great importance and are costly. Initiates submit to a ritual bath,
their hair is cut, and herbal substances are rubbed into their heads. The initiate is sprinkled
with the blood of sacrificed animals. During a prolonged stay in the temple, he/she learns
secrets of the religion.
The majority of mediums are women, although many temples are headed by male
priests. The deities are called"powers" or "Orishas" as in Nigeria. The Shangoists also
invoke spirits that are not Yoruba, such as Dr. Steel, who may have been a spiritual healer,
Prince of Cemetery (he may be identified with Baron Samed in Haitian Vodou) and Dr.
Broom. The belief in "loupgarrous" (werewolves) and witches is common. People also
believe in "jumbies"- the restless souls of the dead who roam around at night and may
molest the living.
Each temple consists of a "palais," where ceremonies take place and the "chapelle",
where the sacred emblems of the Orishas are stored, such as rocks (stools), ritual objects
for "African work", drums and special garments. Ceremonies are conducted by the head
of the cult group, who is also responsible for the initiation of the mediums. He or she kills
the sacrificial animals in order to wash the stools with their blood. A feast for all Orishas
is celebrated at least once a year. These may last up to three days. Food is prepared from
the meat of the sacrificial animals and alcoholic beverages are provided for the members
of the group and their guests. Sometimes feasts are held to give thanks for a favour some-
one received from a deity. In this case be has to pay all expenses.
The most important deities of the Trinidadian pantheon are:
Shango St. John
Ogun St. Michael
Osain St. Francis
bull, white cock red or red
or dove, sheep
cock, sheep, red/white
God of thunder
War, iron, sword,
Oya St. Catherine
Eshu- St. Peter
oceans, paddle is emblei
wind, rain, calabash
cacao, wine green/beige water, stick and key
A ceremony starts with Catholic prayers, then Eshu is sent away by means of a song and
offerings placed in front of his emblem. Eshu is considered to be a trickster, not the devil of
the Bible.) Orishas are called one by one with special songs and rhythms. The initiated
mediums fall in trance when their guardian spirit is invoked and often speak in "tongues".
These utterings are interpreted by the leader. Dancing continues for the entire night.
Finally, certain rhythms are played as signals for the entities to depart Catholic prayers
usually end the rituals.
Shango priests may be consulted in order to interpret dreams and visions and solve
problems for the faithful and outsiders. Other priests are healers or herbalists and they may
also conduct "prayer meetings" similar to Baptist rites. In recent years Shango priests often
work full-time as spiritual healers and even may be consulted by people, who come to
Trinidad from Venezuela or from other islands for that purpose. I was told that some
adopted the spirits of the Cult of Maria Lionza in their private rituals. Healers often have a
statue of the Venezuelan folk saint Dr. Jose Gregoria Hernandez on their altar, who is said
to advise his followers in visions and dreams about how to cure illnesses.
The Shango Cult was imported to Venezuela by immigrants from the islands, but today
most devotees of Yoruba divinities are initiates of Cuban Santeria. I know a woman in
Caracas who received her first initiation in Trinidad in a Shango temple, but practices
Cuban-type Santeria, after a stay in Miami, where she was initiated again. On the Peninsula
of Paria, some people know of Shango, Oshun, and Eshu, but there is no organized cult
(although one or the other person may prepare an offering for an African divinity, whenever
a favour is asked). Others told me that they attended Shango rituals in Trinidad. many
people are familiar with the names of Yoruba deities.
The Shango Cult in Grenada
As noted, indentured labourers from Nigeria arrived on the island after 1850 and are
probably responsible for the introduction of the Yoruba religion. African Nation Dances
were practiced before that date and despite the proximity of Trinidad and Grenada and
migratory movements back and forth, there are major differences between cult practices on
the two islands. This may suggest that the Yoruba religion was introduced to Grenada and
Trinidad by different groups of immigrants from the same area in West Africa, at different
times. Orishas are identified with Catholic saints, but syncretism is not complete and differs
somewhat from Trinidad.
Olorun is God Father, he is the Supreme Being, but he never manifests in a medium.
Some say that he consists of three persons Olufan, Igrinari and Obatala. Others combine.
Olorun and Orumila, the deity of the Ifa Oracle in Nigeria.
Shango is associated with St. John, he is worshipped on Fridays, his color is red, his
emblem is a staff, he is invoked to bring rain and a good harvest, and he is called the saviour
of the earth. Ogun is associated with St. Michael, his colours are blue/white or red/white'
his emblems are pieces of iron, he has always to be served first, he eats black/white beans,
rice and ocro, the food is put in calabashes, in front of his emblems, he also desires rum and
water. Two bush-knives are placed on his "stool", always a distance from the house. He is
worshipped on Wednesdays.
Osain is St. Mark (as in Africa). He is protector of herbalists and is considered to be a
healer, he is worshipped on Thursday. His emblem is a bottle, filled with sand that was
collected on the beach.
Shakpana, also called Omolu, is not identified with a Catholic saint, he is worshipped
on Thursday. The Orisha brings illnesses but is also invoked to heal.
Emanya is St. Anna and a powerful water deity. Offerings are placed on the beach, she
likes to eat eggs, which together with other foodstuffs are put into calabashes, that are then
thrown into the water. Her devotees dance with a receptacle of water on their heads.
Oshun is the Holy Mary. She is the guardian of fresh water and offerings are placed on
the banks of a crater-lake or a river, her colours are white or white and blue. Chicken and
goats, as well as eggs, are offered to her. The food is thrown into the water.
Osbossi is St. Paul, he is the brother of Ogun, his color is green, he is worshipped on
Thursday and eats the same food as Ogun.
Obatala, (Orisanla or Oshala) is associated with Jesus Christ. His colour is white, he is
considered to be very powerful. In Nigeria Obatala is the most important Orisha and the
representative of the Supreme Being on earth. The same is true for Grenada, hence his
association with Jesus.
Ibeji is the deity of twins and is mentioned in praise songs. The birth of twins gives rise
to ambiguous feelings. They are often considered to become powerful obeahmen, when
they grow up. Yet often they die as infants. In West Africa, mothers of twins have to
worship the divinity Ibeji, especially if one of the children dies, she then carries a statue of
an Ibeji around with her all the time.
Legbara is the name given to Eshu, he is associated to the devil, he has to be sent away
before a ceremony takes place. But he also protects the house and in many compounds be
has a shrine next to the main entrance.
As in Grenada there are no Shango temples. Emblems, ritual objects and drums are
stored in the house of the "Queen of Shango". Most cult leaders are elderly black women.
Ceremonies are held only when someone is willing to take care of all expenses, including
animal sacrifice. They are held in the home of the person who offers the feast, but
conducted by the "Queen". The purpose of such ceremonies is to give thanks to an Orisha
for a miracle or to ask the deity for a favour. Some "Queens" offer a feast in their own
homes once a year. Celebrations may last from one to three nights.
Long celebrations are called "Saracas" and are like the Big Drum Dances in Carriacou.
They may have substituted for the Nation Dances, which were held in Grenada in the past.
Drums and "Bolies" (large calabash rattles like in Brazil and Cuba) are used to accompany
the singing and dancing. An altar is prepared with the statues of saints, representing the
Orishas. Food and candles are placed in front of them. The "Queen" rings a bell, then the
ceremony starts with invocations of the deities in French Patois with an admixture of
African words, that are no longer properly understood. The initiated mediums fall in trance,
as soon as their Orisha is invoked. The dancers wear dresses in the colours of their divinities
or white gowns. Mediums are called lao o lalorisha like the other Yoruba cults. At the end
of the ceremony, in order to send the Orisha away, the medium has to prostrate on the floor.
The "Queen" blows a whistle and calls the name of the girl. Then she touches the shoulder
of the medium three times with the bell. Magic signs are drawn on the soles and palms of
the person, until she wakes up. Sometimes the medium may still linger on the ground in a
state of semi-trance. Shangoists believe that an inferior spirit, called "were" associated to
the Orishas, takes possession of the medium. Herskovits (1943 505) first described this
phenomenon in Afro-Brazilian cults, where it is said that the spirits of children, who died
as infants, take over when the powerful deities depart. Simpson (1965:30) found this
semi-trance state in Trinidad and later studies demonstrated its existence in Nigeria. In
Grenada, female water-deities receive offerings on the beach (Emanya) and on the banks of
a crater lake (Oshun). Shangoists have to build a small shrine ("stool") behind their houses,
where every morning they light a candle and place offerings for their protective "power".
Before drinking they always pour a few drops of the liquid on the ground, they say it is "for
Shangoists use a holy broom, "sheshere", in cleansing rites and to ward off evil
influences. Mediums who are possessed by Shango own staffs with a double axe on top,
which is the emblem of this deity. They are put into the ground before a sacrifice is made
to the Orisha. When in trance, the medium may carry the staff in her hands.
In order to know if the sacrifice was pleasing to the deity, the "Queen" throws "obis"
(Kola nuts) on the ground and "reads" their message. The divination techniques are,
however, much simpler than in Nigeria. A ceremony is held by the "Queen of Shango" in
order to prepare a "stool" for a deity. A hole is dug in the ground, in which Kola nuts,
candles, coins, honey and the emblem of the Orisha are placed. It is covered with earth,
Water and rum is poured on the ground and a flag may be placed on top. When the "stool"
is dedicated to Ogun, a piece of iron or a bushknife is used instead of a flag.
Initiation rituals are short. Initiates usually come from families in which the cult is
popular in the female line. Only women may become mediums, while men officiate as
drummers. The novice stays in the home of the Queen for some time to learn the secrets of
the cult Then she is bathed in a concoction of herbs, her hair is cut and her head is cleansed
with blood of a dead chicken and rubbed with special herbs. The Queen decides which
Orisha will be the guardian spirit of the initiate and eventually will be received by the
medium in trance on the occasion of important ceremonies.
In Grenada each "Queen" works pretty much on her own and adds Catholic or Baptist
rituals at will. In recent years, animals are only sacrificed on very special occasions, as they
are very expensive but rum and cigars are widely used. When animals are slaughtered, it is
important to cut the body in a special way. Only the "Queen" knows, which parts are to be
used as sacrifice and which parts can be eaten by the faithful. The mediums may drink the
blood, in order to obtain power, or it is used to wash the emblems for the same purpose.
Blood is also used to heal the sick. Food offerings are called "caruru" as in Brazil.
The Shango Queens are often known as experienced herbalists and spiritual healers,
who may also solve other problems of the faithful with the help of a Kolanut oracle. It is
said that they also work "obeah" (black magic). although they vehemently deny it and state
that they only work white magic to the benefit of mankind. Undoubtedly on the island they
compete with the real Obeahman, who may be spiritual healers and workers of magic and
Lookmen, who look into the future with the help of Tarot cards and crystals.
SHANGO AND SPIRITUAL BAPTISTS MUTUAL INFLUENCES:
The Spiritual Baptist Church came to Trinidad from St. Vincent around 1900 (Simpson,
1978:17), but may have been originally introduced on that island by North American
missionaries from the Southern United States. Many African elements are apparent and it
would be interesting to know, if they were already introduced to the West Indies by the first
North American missionaries and thus derived from the culture of Southern Blacks, or if
they are due to exposure to the Shango religion in Trinidad. In fact, the St. Vincent Prisitual
Baptists show few African elements. Glazier (1984:153) states that recently East Indians
are becoming members of Spiritual Baptist churches and it is likely that their cultural
influence will be notable in the near future Until now, Spiritual Baptists and Shangoists of
Trinidad usually come from the same social class and racial group and always had close
social and religious ties. Shango priests may be "leaders" of Baptist rituals and Baptists
participate frequently in Shango ceremonies.
Initiates of the Shango Cult sometimes participate in Baptist "mourning rites", before
being formally initiated into their own cult, in order to obtain visions, in which they learn
which Orisha will be their guardian spirit. It is possible that a possessed Shangoist may
speak in "tongues" and invoke the Holy Spirit. I once observed a woman in Grenada, who,
during a Shango ritual, fell in trance and started to preach in a very emotional way, as it is
customary in the Baptist Church. she accused her listeners of living a bad life and asked
them to repent and become good Christians, in order to be saved. Then she began to dance
and received her African power, who made her whirl around. In Shango temples it is
possible to find not only the pictures of Catholic saints, but also Protestant prayer books, the
Bible and a crucifix. Today, Shangoists usually wear white gowns, perhaps imitating the
Baptists. Sometimes Shango priests invite their congregation for "prayer meetings", as in
Baptist Churches, but the Shangoists use Catholic prayers and invoke the saints in these
sessions. Some Shango priests insist, that novices should first be baptized by the Baptists,
before being admitted to initiation ceremonies into the African cult.
Despite these contacts and similarities, Shango and Baptist rituals are different in many
important ways. Here are some striking features which are found in the Shango Cult:
syncretism between African divinities and Catholic saints; the Yoruba origin of the deities;
concepts, beliefs, rituals, legends and objects connected with both the worship of these
"powers", the frequency of animal sacrifices; the use of blood and nun in the ceremonies,
the holy rocks and "stools" as seats of the divinities; the belief that silk-cotton trees are
inhabited by spirits; the ritual importance of spirit possession, the "ere" or "were" state of
possession, the use of "obi" (cauries) for divination, the importance of water, herbs and
plants in the cult; the rituals to send Eshu-Legbara away at the beginning of each ceremony;
the deposition of offerings on street-comers or crossroads, food, taboos, abstinence before
ceremonies; the possibility of inheriting a guardian spirit from a departed relative; annual
celebrations and drum dances for the Orishas.
Let us now examine elements that the Spiritual Baptists have most likely adopted from
the Shango Cult. We must, however, take into account, that Fundamentalist sects in the
Southern United States have experienced African influence and that African concepts were
reinterpreted in order to fit the Christian framework of Fundamental Protestantism and
Pentecostalism. Nevertheless, it seems that elements were adopted when the Spiritual
Baptists came to Trinidad, such as possession by Catholic saints and "African powers". The
use of litographs of Catholic saints is very unusual in Protestant sects. The use of drums is
peculiar to Trinidad. In Black churches in the US, songs are usually accompanied by
hand-clapping and tambourines. Only recently have drums been used in services of Black
North American churches. Trance states in which the faithful are seized by the Holy Spirit
or other spirits are similar to possession by African Orishas in the Shango Cult. It is true that
possession by the Holy Spirit, such as "speaking in tongues", was common in "Camp
Meetings" or Pentecostal ceremonies in the US. These altered states of consciousness are
provoked by emotional laden sermons and rhythmical singing. In Trinidad Baptist chur-
ches, the faithful are possessed by "powers" of spirits, who speak through them or use their
bodies to perform cleansing rituals or other ceremonies, as it is customary in Africa and
African American religions, but seldom in Protestant sects.
In Haitian Vodou, it is believed that the Iwa descends along the central pole of the
temple to the ground, from which they ascend through the body of the faithful to their
heads. In Spiritual Baptist Churches, the central pole of the building may have the same
function. Offerings are placed at its feet.
Concepts regarding the spiritual world are greatly influenced by African thinking.
Baptists believe that the whole universe is inhabited by spirits. Spirits that used to live on
earth in previous incarnations, such as the saints and African Orishas, are considered to be
more powerful than spirits, who were never incarnated. The latter spirits are associated with
trees, the earth, rocks and the water. It is said that every plot has its guardian spirit. Spirits
may also reside in houses or churches. Generally speaking there are three categories of
spirits. The lowest spirits are responsible to the Orishas, the African powers, and these
entities are responsible to the Holy Trinity. Saints and Orishas are kept apart. They are
considered to be at the same spiritual level. The powers lived in Africa, while the saints
lived in Europe. Another African concept is the belief that spiritual entities may have the
same weaknesses and vices as human beings. Worshippers take advantage of this, in order
to induce the saints or Orishas to assist them, as they will get paid with things pleasing to
them. As the spirits lived on earth, they know all about human problems and therefore may
help the faithful better than the Holy Trinity, as the Supreme Beings are further removed
from the world.
1. Supreme Being or Holy Trinity
2- Catholic saints lived in Europe
2 African Orishas lived in Africa
3 minor spirits
4 human beings
Baptists believe that the Trinity consists of three entities, that often work independently.
Only the Holy Spirit can possess a human being.
Spiritual Baptists accept the beliefs in supernatural entities, that are half human and half
animal: "jables" succubos, "lagahus" werwolves and "sukoiyaas" vampires (Niehoff
and Niehoff, 1960). The "jables" may take the form of beautiful women, who seduce men.
The Baptists put a Bible under their pillow, in order to chase these spirits away. Werewol-
ves and vampires also hurt men during the night. Vampires provoke certain illnesses or
suck on the blood of their victims, until they die. (Glazier, 1984: 155-7).
Healing rituals are of great importance, both in Shango temples and in the spiritual
Baptist Churches. The most important utensils of the "doctors" are: milk, herbs and leaves,
roots, honey and "sweet oil" (palm oil). Note that honey plays an important role in all
Yoruba derived religions in the New World. The Baptist also practice "faith healing" by
laying hands on the sick. They may perform rituals of exorcism (Glazier, 1980), which help
the victims of vampires and of other evil spirits to get purified. They compete with
Obeahmen and Shangoists in these practices. It is said that they charge less for their
Baptist leaders are also asked to deal with spirits of the earth before a building is
constructed. The rituals for the consecration of a shrine for the African deities and of a new
Spiritual Baptist church are similar. Certain objects are buried in the ground, rum and water
is poured on the site, but only the Shangoists perform animal sacrifices in order to use the
blood in these rites.
Both Shangoists and Baptists always keep some "holy water" in jars on the altar. Spirits
may be thirsty when they arrive. Holy water is also used in exorcism and purification
The initiation rites into the Shango religion and the baptism of the Baptists are expres-
sions of the same basic concepts: the individual dies a ritual death and returns to a new life
at the service of the supernatural powers. After the baptism, the novices wear white ribbons
around their heads. Initiates into "African work" wear ribbons in the colors of their
In Shango ceremonies, Orishas are called by the priest, who rings a bell. The Baptists
ring bells, in order to call the Holy Spirit to take possession of the faithful. In some Baptist
churches "bolies" (calabash rattles) are used for the same purpose. Most likely, all ele-
ments were gradually adopted by the Baptists. They may not be presentin all the churches.
These brief notes demonstrate that African religious elements are present at different
levels: The African Nation Dances in Carriacou are similar to West African harvest
festivals in honour of the ancestral spirits responsible for fertility. The Shango Cult in
Grenada was introduced by- Yoruba indentured labourers in the 1900s. The Shango Cult of
Trinidad developed on the base of African religions imported in the 17th and 18th century,
exposed to more recent influences by Yoruba of Nigeria, who were the last slaves to arrive
on the island. The Spiritual Baptists came to Trinidad via the island of St. Vincent, where
the Fundamentalists adopted African elements into their beliefs and rituals. In Trinidad,
Baptists and Shangoists mutually interpenetrated their religions in such a way, that today
many aspects of both cults are similar, although basic differences cannot be overlooked. In
the future Santeria and the Cult of Maria Lionza, both imported from Venezuela, and
modem East Indian cults may also play a role in the transformation of African- Caribbean
religions on the three islands.
1. This paper draws on primary fieldwork undertaken in Grenada during 1967-68. For more recent
data I rely on Spiritual Baptist informants from the Peninsula of Paria, Venezuela. A longer
version of this paper was published previously in Anthropos (Pollak-Eltz, 1970).
2. The Kele cult in St. Lucia was also introduced by indentured Yoruba laborers and although it
developed independently is similar to Shango on other islands (Kremser and Wemhart, 1986).
Today Cuban Santeria, which is the most prominent of the Yoruba-derived religions in the
Americas, has strongly influenced Shango. Books on Santeria are widely distributed in
Trinidad. Over the past twelve years, international congresses on Yoruba religion have been
held in the USA, Cuba, and Brazil. These have been attended by Shangoists from Trinidad and
grenada, Umbandists from Brazil, as well as Santeros and devotees of Maria Lionza from
Venezuela. Trinidadian Shangoists are much in contact with leaders of Yoruba-derived
religions from Brazil, Puerto Rico, and Nigeria.
BASTIDE, Roger: 1967: Les Ameriques Noires, Payot, Paris.
CARMICHEL, Mrs: 1833: Domestic manners and social conditions of the White, Coloured and
Negro Population of the West Indies, 2 vols. London.
CARR, Andrew T: 1953: A Rada Community in Trinidad, Caribbean Quarterly, 3-1, 35-45.
DAY, Charles, Wm:1852: Five years residence in the West Indies, 2 vols. London.
BRERETON, Bridget:1981: A History of Modem Trinidad, 1783-1962, Heinemann, London.
FRASER, L.M.:1896: A history of Trinidad, Port of Spain.
GLAZIER, Stephen D.: 1980: Pentecostal exorcism and modernization in trinidad, West Indies, in
Glazier s. ed.: Perspectives on Pentecostalism, case studies from the Caribbean and the west In-
dies, university Press of America, Washington, pp. 67-80.
- 1983: Marchin the Pilgrims home, Greenwood, Westport.
- 1985: Organizacion social economic de los Baptistas Espirituales con atencion especial a sus
misiones en Venezuela, Montalban, No. 15, 153-190, Caracas.
HERSKOVITS, Melville J.:1947: Trinidad Village, Knopf, New York.
1958: The Myth of the Negro Past, Beacon Press, Boston.
KREMSER, Manfred and WERNHART, Karl:1986: Research in Ethnography and Ethnohistory of
St. Lucia, Wiener Beitraege zur Ethnologie, vol. 3, university of Vienna, Vienna.
KINSLEY, Charles:1871: At last a Christmas in the West Indies, London.
MISCHEL, Frances: 1957: African "powers" in Trinidad, the Shango Cult. Anthropological
MISCHEL W. and F.: 1958: Psychological aspects of spirit possession, American Anthropologist,
NIEHOFF, A. and J.: 1960: East Indians in the West Indies, Public Museum, Milwaukee..
PEARSE, Andrew C.: The Big Drum Dance in Carriacou, Ethnic Folkways Album P 1011, New
POLLAK-ELTZ, Angelina: 1970: Shango Kull and Shouterkirche in Trinidad and Grenada,
Anthropos, No. 65, 814-32.
- 1978: Cultos afroamericanos, Universidad Catolica a, Bello, Caracas.
- 1985: Maria Lionza, Mito y Culto venezolano, Universidad Catolica a. Bello, caracas.
- 1990: Folklore y Cultura en la Peninsula de Paria (Estado Sucre), Venezuela, Academia
Nacional de la Historia, caracas.
SIMPSON, G.E.: 1965: The Shango Cult in Trinidad, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras.
- 1978: Black Religion in the New World, Columbia University Press, New York.
- 1980: Religious Cults of the caribbean, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras.
SMITH, M.G.:1963: Black Puritan, Kingston.
- 1965: The plural society of the British West Indies, University of California Press, Berkeley.
THE RITE OF MOURNING IN THE SPIRITUAL BAPTIST
CHURCH WITH EMPHASIS ON THE ACTIVITY OF THE SPIRIT
IAN ANTHONY TAYLOR
Introduction: Who are the Spiritual Baptists?
Trinidad's Spiritual Baptists are men and women mainly of African descent whose
Church services resemble Black Protestant Charismatic services in the United States, with
great emphasis placed on the Scriptures, preaching, singing, clapping and dancing. They
are often confused with and felt to be the same as Shango devotees. However they see
themselves as a Christian denomination whereas Shango devotees claim to be Orisha
worshippers with their roots in the worship of African gods from the Yoruba pantheon.
Many Baptists are also engaged in Shango worship. Glazier estimates forty percent 1
Similarly many Shango believers attend Baptist ceremonies; here Glazier estimates eighty
percent.2 Consequently in some Baptist churches aspects of Shango influence are present.
Nevertheless, Simpson contends that the Baptists hold to:
i) "The inerrancy of the Bible
ii) the Virgin birth of Jesus
iii) the supernatural atonement
iv) The physical resurrection of Jesus and
v) The authenticity of the Gospel miracles"3
Baptist churches are entirely independent though some are affiliated to other Spiritual
Baptist churches. Baptist churches and membership are growing and Glazier estimates a
membership of 10,000 in Trinidad.4 Furthermore membership of East Indians and creoles
is expanding and whereas Simpson in 1965 categorised the Baptists as citizens of the lower
class, less than twenty years later he stated that membership now "cuts across social and
Spiritual Baptists are not unique to Trinidad but are also to be found in Tobago, St.
Vincent (where they are called the 'Shakers'), Guyana (the 'Jordanites'), Grenada,
Venezuela and in New York City and Toronto. Finally, Spiritual Baptists have no affilia-
tions with the established Baptist church founded in Europe.
Previous researchers have examined the Baptist rite of mourning from sociological,
anthropological or psychological perspectives. I do not intend to take such a perspective.
Rather I hope to explore the rite and to arrive at an understanding of its "spiritual"
dimension. I have chosen mourning since it is the rite which most distinguishes the Baptist
from other Christian churches.
I have examined the available literature and developed a uniform format of questions.
This I used to interview seven Baptist leaders in Curepe, seven in Arima (Pinto Road) and
one in St. Joseph. In one instance in Arima, three of the seven leaders mentioned were
interviewed simultaneously. These three were from the same church. Apart from these
three other leaders (in Arima, Curepe and St. Joseph) belonged to different churches. Two
former Baptists 'now Pentecostal in separate churches' provided me with additional infor-
mation based on their own experiences. One of these, Sister C. was in the Baptist religion
for twenty-five years but left the religion twelve years ago. The second, Mr. K. was a
Baptist for four years (about fifteen years ago) and his own mother is still a Baptist
'Mother'. He is now a Pentecostal pastor. The last of my informants is from Sierra Leone,
a tutor at the St Augustine campus of The University of the West Indies.
The work of previous researchers has assisted in shaping my perception of Baptist
rituals and beliefs.
Obstacles and Limitations
Early in my research I encountered difficulty in obtaining information especially with
regard to the rites of 'baptism' and 'mourning'. These are considered sacred by Baptists and
they are generally unwilling to divulge the secrets of their rites. Second, a recent television
series produced on the African Presence was seen by many informants,as doing them a
disservice. It mixed Baptist and Shango rituals. Writing and copying their inner secrets to
the public eye. Thus, my own research was viewed with great suspicion. Another difficulty
lies in making generalizations. Since churches are independent, orthodoxy of practice and
doctrine does not exist. Much also depends on whether each church has incorporated
elements of the Shango religion or not. I will thus be limited to stating: Some Spiritual
Baptists believe or practice such and such, whereas others believe or practice X, Y, and Z.
However, mourning is practised by all Baptist churches and in much the same way.
Therefore an examination of the rite should prove profitable.
Description of the Rite of Mourning
The mourning rites of the Spiritual Baptists like their rites of baptism seem to have
remained essentially the same over a number of years spanning the research of the
Herskovitses (before 1947) through Simpson (in the 60's and 70') and up to Glazier's from
1976 to 1982. This being so, I have relied on Simpson's account of the rite, since it is
among the most detailed, and on clarification given me by Mr. K, a former Spiritual Baptist.
In addition, this ritual seems to be consistent among different Baptist churches.
Mourning is a period of prayer, fasting and renunciation in which the mourner spends
most of the time lying on the floor of a dark room. For a first timer, the rite usually lasts
seven or eight days. To continue to grow spiritually, a person must return to mourn several
times, and this is called 'building.' The dark room is called the "mourning room" or "sacred
chamber" located near to the church, and here the rite is performed. A "pointer,"the church
officer who starts and directs the mournings procedures is also responsible for preparing the
ritual elements in this room. In particular he prepares the bands that the pilgrim will wear
and the ground where he will lie. The pointer also 'skins' the pilgrim. This is also referred
to as putting the mourner into the 'grave' (i.e. putting him on the mourning ground). The
pointer remains with the mourner sleeping close by, since be will assist him along the
course of his spiritual journey. He gives the pilgrim the secret 'password' which is intended
to guide him or her in travel and to "ward off" any danger or evil. In addition, the pointer
must "enter into the spirit" and "track" (i.e. follow) the pilgrim from time to time to make
certain that he/she maintains the right course and to assist in any trouble. One informant
told me that the 'mother' of the church (i.e., the female authority figure in the church) who
is often the wife of the leader, also can serve as the pointer.
Returning to the mourning room, a bell, candles, water and chalk are put there. The
pointer 'signs' bands of cloth with chalk designs and writing, and 'seals' the chalk marks
with hot wax from a dripping candle. This writing might be some scripture for example
"John 8", "Psalm 27" (just the 'name' of the scripture, not the verses contained therein); or,
it might depict some symbol such as "the tree of life", "Jacob's ladder", "The star of David"
or some other similar symbol. If a candidate has not mourned previously, three bands, a
"sighting" a "studiation" (study) band, are used, plus a "dead" band".6 The 'sighting' and
'studiation' bands go around the eyes, and the "dead" band is tied around the chin and head.
Bands are of different colours. The Herskovitses wrote, "symbolic significance of the bands
associates white with purity; yellow with glory; red with power "It's the blood of Jesus"-
green with peace, blue and pink with truth; mauve with mystery, and black and brown with
'power, air power, African'.7
Mother L. of Arima confirmed that the bands represented purity and power. Also, each
band represents a different place (in the spirit) that the mourner is sent to, she said.
Prior to banding, the candidate is taken to the tabernacle where leaders pray and exhort
him/her using the text of Romans Chapter 6 (which speaks of dying and being buried with
Christ and then rising to life with him). Next is the washing of the hands and feet and
anointing of the head with olive oil. I was told by Mr. K, that the washing is based on Jesus'
washing of his disciples feet in John Chapter 13. And the anointing indicated that you were
"chosen" just as the prophets and leaders of the Old Testament were (eg. Samuel, Saul,
David and Solomon). Thus completed, the candidate is returned to the mourning room
where he is put to kneel on a spot 'signed' with chalk while the "Mother and Pastor pray."
At this stage the bands are put on. I learnt from Mr. K that the pilgrim is spun around to
disorient him/her, and sunk (i.e. put on his back on the chalk marked spot, the 'mourning
ground') and is 'pointed' with his/her head facing West. Then the bell is placed near to his
ears and rung over and over, being softened gradually so that the pilgrim might be 'sent
off. For three days the initiate will eat nothing, drinking only 'bush-tea.8 He or she may lie
on his back for this period or may airse to kneel and pray. The bell left beside him/her is
used to summon the 'Nurse' who attends to physical needs, such as preparing tea and
leading one to the toliet. This bell also announces times of prayer, three times a day.
According to Simpson dawn, noon and evening. Mr. K explained that members of the
church enter the mourning room at these times to sing songs and to have spontaneous
prayer. In Simpson's account the prayers were "The Lord's Prayer, The Hail Mary, and the
On the third day, the pilgrim is 'raised' and with others present John XIII is read. Then
there is much marching around the candidate who is now placed in a kneeling posture. The
'dead' band is discarded and the two bands around the eyes are shaken out and replaced
over the eyes. Great rejoicing follows with singing, clapping, dancing and 'manifestations
of the spirit.' (The Pilgrim participates in this rejoicing but does not clap his hands) in
which a person may "catch de spirit."'1 Later the mourner is given a small meal and is
asked to lie down with head towards the east.
From now on he/she will receive three meals per day, but the food must be unsalted.
He/she must at this time pray for three hours and receive a bath without soap. In the case of
women, a white head-tie is placed on her.
Just before 7 p.m. on the 6th day the mourner is fed well and taken in procession around
the church led by "the pastor carrying a Bible, the Nurse a shepherd's rod, the "Prover"' a
cross, and the Mother a bell."12 The bell is lolled as the procession marches. I witnessed
from this part of the ceremony onward at the mount Zion Spiritual Baptist Church in
When the procession reaches the entrance of the church it halls and the leader/pastor
welcomes everyone. Next, Scripture verses are mad for the mourner. This includes Mat-
thew III, "Blessed are those who mourn." The mourner is warned that persecutions for the
faith will arise, but he/she must hold firm. Note that all the while the mourner and her (it
was a woman in Arima) assistants keep 'trumping/marching (i.e. stomping the ground with
barefeet). Also, the bell is rung after every verse that is read.
The procession then enters the church and whereas outside the music was a dirge, it now
becomes lively and there is great rejoicing and dancing. A lot of movement, including
dancing, occurs around the centre- pole, with members taking the two bells and ringing
them vigorously and everyone sings:
together again praising the Lord, together again with
one accord, something good is going to happen some-
thing good yes I know, together again, praising the
The pilgrim is now seated in front of the centre pole and faces the altar (this is in the
centre aisle). Next follows prayer, songs and exhortations to the mourner. Then Scripture
verses are read, the pastor preaches and the floor is opened to testimonies and exhortations
by members of the congregation. Note that songs are interspersed between almost every
different activity and the assembly stands for each song. (In this way it is difficult to get
sleepy or bored during the lengthy (in this case, four hours) ceremony.) Some of the songs
include "How great Thou Art"; "Trust and Obey"; and "O Magnify the Lord with me." Then
an assistant gives the mourner seven lighted candles signifying that she (the mourner) is
now a light. Seven they said represents the seven heights, the seven depths and the seven
candles of Revelation. Seven also symbolizes the perfection of mankind; "be perfect as
your heavenly Father is perfect." Next the pilgrim or 'child' faces the congregation holding
the seven candles. She continues to 'trump' and now reads her tracts (relates her spiritual
travels) to the assembly.
THE INTERPRETATION OF THE RITE
In mourning, the pilgrim endures great sacrifices and mortification. "Mourning is to get
victory over your carnal self expressed one leader. He said, "the flesh has to be subjected...
through prayer and fasting", since "it is unruly". Another confirmed that mourning is "to
break-down the acmal body". and my informant, Mr. K., attests to the death and resurrec-
tion motifs involved in this rite. This is why Romans XI is read to the candidate before he is
'laid in the tomb'. One of the Herskovitses' interviewees similarly explained, "Go there
(the mourning ground), and ol'person die, new person born in Christ".'3
When I asked informants for Scriptural backing for the 'practice' of mourning, most
explained that mourning is really 'prayer and fasting'. Daniel mourned for three weeks (cf.
Daniel 10:2) and Jesus did likewise for forty days in the wilderness (Luke 4: 1-15). One
leader added that Jonah did so for three days in the belly of a whale, (cf. Jonah 2:17).
However, this is not as straightforward as it may seem, for with great pride and alacrity
these leaders described to me the 'spiritual travelling' that the pilgrim undergoes. Through
Mr. K. it was clarified for me that 'prayer' for the Baptist entails entering into the realm of
the Spirit, and journeying there. This practice of spiritual travelling is attested by the
literature.14 As noted above, the mourner shares his/her tracts (account of his spiritual
travels) with the congregation.
Here are a few examples: In a Spiritual Baptist church in Arima, I heard the following
"It wasn't easy, the past weeks in there (i.e. the mourning room).., most things were
personal..... I saw a long line of little people.... people working for their sins".
She then spoke of the bucket of dirty water, which if left under a running pipe would
eventually become clear water. The allusion was to some kind of spiritual cleansing. Next
she exhorted the little ones in the congregation to be lights. Then she related how a little
voice told her
"Carry them (consolers) with you... take up the bell
and ring it....'. I took the bell and rang it".
She demonstrated to us how she did it and the congregation sang along with her. She
continued saying a little boy told her, "when you ring it people will come to hear". The
mourner, a teacher by profession, concluded that she was meant to take the bell wherever
she went, to call men to hear the Word.
This leads us to examine more closely the concept of 'spirit travel'. This is a spiritual
exercise and since Baptists generally claim to deal only with the Holy Spirit, most informa-
tion was gained in answer to my third question?: What is the Holy Spirit's role in
mourning?" The most common response emphasized that the Spirit guides the mourner in
his/her spiritual pilgrimage. Some leaders spoke explicitly of the Spirit causing or giving
power to one's own spirit to 'travel'. Twelve of my seventeen informants spoke directly of
the mourner's spirit leaving the body and travelling. I asked these informants if the body
was not left unprotected when the spirit leaves it. One leader responded that the Spirit,
while travelling, remains attached to the body by "a spiritual umbilical cord.. if not, the
body is dead". He contended "every servant of the Lord has a halo of protection around
him, therefore, the spirit can travel away. Even if an evil spirit touches the body, the spirit
comes back". As an example of this type of travel he cited St. John on the island of Patmos,
how St. John was caught up in the Spirit while still physically on the island:
"I John, your brother.... was on the island called Pat-
mos on account of the word of God and the testimony
of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day, and I
heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying,
"write what you see in a book and send it to the seven
churches..." (Revelation 1:9, 10).
Another leader in Curepe offered a similar explanation with regard to a Spiritual
umbilical cord. Another in St Joseph went so far as to caution that "you could die if your
spirit does not get back at a certain time. "Where does the spirit travel to?" It was clear from
my interviews that one journeyed to 'spiritual' places. For the Baptists, there exists a
'carnal' (physical) need and a counterpart, and it is to the latter that one goes in the spirit.
However, s/he can go in the spirit to the 'carnal' or physical place if God desires to reveal
certain things to you there. The spiritual places most often mentioned by Baptists in their
visits were Africa, India and China. Of course this is noteworthy since these are the nations
from which three of Trinidad's main ethnic groups originate. One person, Mother R. of
Arima also spoke of visiting the 'seven countries'.
Instead of the concept of 'travel', a few of my informants gave alternative interpreta-
tions. Mother L. suggested that the process could also entail a dream, or a vision or
One Baptist man in Curepe disagreed with the notion of 'travel,' stating that once the
spirit leaves the body, the body is dead. Therefore, he contended, mourning could only be
the Holy Spirit "revealing things to you." In addition, two Baptists spoke or travelling
being 'like dreaming'. In dreams, you find yourself in different places in a flash; mourning
This brings us to what kinds of characters one encounters in travelling. The normal
thing is to meet 'people', some of whom are familiar and some, strangers. In the second
tract, for example, the pilgrim met Leader R. who told him/her 'to come ashore'. But very
often the pilgrim is in a 'strange land' and is unfamiliar with the people there (see especially
the first and last tracts). The people or creatures encountered either hinder or assist the
pilgrim on his/her way. Items given to the mourner, as well as what activity or place the
mourner finds himself in, have great significance. A number of informants mentioned
meeting various 'tribes' and described putting a band on one's head according to the tribes
encountered or the colour which someone may hand you at some 'spiritual' place (eg.
India). Beings encountered may be angels. Most of those interviewed, however, did not
identify the nature of the 'people' encountered; except, of course, those who were known
to them. One man spoke of communication with the spirits of the saints and his dead
parents. Others denied involvement with the saints and dead relatives. One leader declared,
"we don't deal ancestor spirits, they may be fallen angels you can't meet relatives; they
are dead awaiting the resurrection; working for God, but we don't know what they are
As one travels, he/she is expected to use a "password" which is secretly given to you.
such a password assists one at baptism and at mourning, and is a "key' to unlock many
doors'. Also, it offers protection from evil and harm befalling the mourner. One informant
revealed that the password is often a short scripture verse or quote which you are expected
to repeat over and over. Another Baptist claimed that the password could be used later, even
to get a job.
Finally, a word about the importance of symbols in tracts. Spiritual Baptists place great
emphasis on personal experience and spiritual travel in order to determine what one's gift
in the community will be as well as to determine one's status in the church. Thus, the
objects which one is given, or the activity engaged in, or the place itself in the spirit,
indicate one's gifts. For example, being amidst a flock of sheep may indicate some pastoral
responsibility. In the example quoted, the bell and the commission could determine the
mourner's role as a future preacher. However, it seems that there is not absolute correspon-
dence of symbolism in tracts and eventual status in the church. Mourners must share their
tracts with leaders before they do so publicly. And, leaders' own interpretation of tracts is
key.17 There seems to be some validity to Glazier's assertions of leader influence. My
informant verified that some things one was told to "keep.... to yourself'.and the existence
of the post of proverr' itself would only be relevant if the story of mourners needed to be
Some striking parallels exist with other religions, elsewhere in the Caribbean, and even
as far as West Africa (Sierra Leone). Simpson has noted that Trinidad's Spiritual Baptists
have counterparts in Jamaica, namely "the various revivalists groups (Revival; Revival
Zion; Pocomania; Convince).18 And Barry Chevannes19 describes a chuch of one such
Revivalist group which bears marked resemblances in some respects to the Spiritual
Baptists of Trinidad.
Mother Bums had her own Revival Church and somewhere between 1966 and 1969 it
was incorporated into The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church where the latter
A.M.E. Zion held the doctrine of the Trinity, "the sufficiency of the Scriptures for salvation,
free will and other derived doctrines of traditional Protestant orthodoxy."20 The merger did
not change the beliefs and rituals nor Mother Burs' authority in her church. Posts within
her church included pastor, mother, leaders, deacons and armour bearer. The flag planted in
the yard of some Spiritual Baptist churches was also found at this Kingston church except
that the latter was multicoloured whereas the former is usually of one colour. It served the
purpose of honouringg the spirits" The sacred altar as in the Baptist faith was also present
and revered in the Revival Zion assembly. And, the church services described by Chevan-
nes with their emphasis on the Scriptures, preaching, testimonies and humming while
others are praying aloud, are of much the same nature as those among their Trinidadian
Yet the most arresting parallel is the phenomenon of 'spirit travel' and the relating of
tracts. In the A.M.E. Zion the ritual was not identified as 'mourning' but one spoke of being
'laid low', and of a 'rising table'. A table is 'a feast held in honour of an event or a person.2
In Chevannes' account the feast honoured an initiate who had been struck down or "laid
low" by "the Spirit" for twenty-one days. The initiate was a woman of forty-five who,
visiting the church for the first time had been 'struck down' and was instructed by "the
Spirit" to eat hot pepper and callaloo. The woman was kept in isolation in a house in the
church yard, similar to Trinidad's 'mourning ground', except that in the Jamaican case the
period was twenty one days whereas in Trinidad it is usually seven or eight. Yet it seems
likely that years ago in Trinidad the duration might have been on occasion, twenty-one
days. The Herskovitses's Trinidad Village record that the stay in the chamber could last
fourteen or twenty-one days according to the instructions of the Spirit.22 Also, one Curepe
leader interviewed by Glazier claimed that in 1934 when he became a Baptist, the ritual
lasted three weeks.23
During her time on the ground, an "evangelist" (similar to the Trinidad Baptist 'nurse')
took responsibility for feeding the neophyte. At the end of the period of isolation the initiate
was taken in procession with singing into the church and seated next to the mother. I
witnessed this same process in the Baptist church in Arima. The Jamaica account seems to
contain features not common to its Trinidadian counterpart. One of these is the 'table' itself
with all its fruits, bread, vessels of water, flowers and candles of various colours, around
which the procession passed. Yet, there exists a similar procession around the 'centre pole'
in Trinidad, with its flowers, water, bells and other ritual articles.
After a period of prayer, singing, psalm reading, humming, the taking-up of collection,
and dancing that ended in possession and was followed by trumping, the Neophyte related
her twenty-one day experience. The woman recounted that "in her vision she began to
travel. A voice told her to eat callaloo on her way and take with her the words of the song
'O for a closer walk with Jesus'". This is similar to the 'password' in the Baptist experience.
To emphasize the close parallels, then entire tract is quoted from Chevannes:
"On she travelled until she came upon a man. 'Sister
where are you going?' he asked her. 'I am a traveller',
was her reply' in a strange and foreign land'. 'I have
nothing to give you,' he said, 'but take these'. And he
gave her one banana and a water cracker. Next she met
another man who asked her the same question and
received the same reply. He gave her the words of the
song, 'How sweet the name of Jesus sounds'. Then she
reached a river. There a man gave her the song, 'On the
other side of Jordan'. Next was an Indian woman.
'Tarry with me,' she begged. 'I cannot for I am a
traveller in a strange and foreign land'.
But tarry she did for two days, at the end of which the
indian woman gave her two candles, two crackers, a
leaf-of-life and the song, 'O for a closer walk with
Jesus'. At a cross-roads she had to struggle with a man
before being allowed to continue. She met another
woman who gave her a mission house where a woman
led her around a large pool, gave her a turban and a
handkerchief to take with her."
This tract could easily have been recounted in a Spiritual Baptist church. Some differen-
ces might be that no specific spiritual locations are identified (eg. Africa or India), and there
is no clear indication from the tract or from Chevannes that one receives a 'gift' and
thereby, a position in the church. However, the central themes of a journey in the spirit,
facing and overcoming evil, and being aided along the path, are common to both groups.
Chevannes makes an interesting observation concerning African retentions. He refers to
a West African belief that the soul is "an entity separate from the body",2 Chevannes sees
this belief as being present in this Revival Zion church. He goes so far as to claim that
dreaming during sleep is believed to cause one to enter the spiritual domain. This, he
contends, allows one to contact even dead relatives by dreaming of them.
An interesting aspect of the mourning rite concerns allegations that some people 'go
mad' (become insane) as a result of the experience. Beaubrun and Ward25 state that some
have been known to 'go mad' from mourning. Glazier26similarly notes.
"While Baptists can be cynical about many of their rituals, most Baptists take mourning
rites very seriously. They approach mourning with some ambivalence. On the one hand, it
is believed to be potentially dangerous. If one does not take his or her mourning vows
seriously, he or she may become insane or, as the Baptists say, 'travel in the wrong
direction.' Usually if a mourner travels in the wrong direction, his or her leader is blamed.
Sometimes however, the leader is able to shift blame to the mourner, an attendant, or some
other church member".
In my interviews I discovered that about half of my informants admitted the possibility
of someone 'going mad' from the experience of the rite. Some acknowledged that it has
happened, though they claim that its occurence is rare. They were quick to offer possible
explanations. One leader in St. Joseph even said that you could die if your spirit didn't get
back to your body at a certain time. Mother D. in Curepe declared: "another sorcerer could
send a spirit on you and if the pointer is not alert, you can go mad." Leader R. explained that
if the pointer is not spiritual and doesn't point well the mourner may encounter an evil spirit
while travelling, and may forget the password and this could result in insanity. Pastor B.
attributed instances of insanity to the intense concentration required in mourning. Like
Leader R., he also identified spiritual reasons, such as an encounter while journeying in the
spirit, with an opposing spirit that overcomes the pilgrim due to a lack of faith or neglecting
to use the password.
Most leaders claimed only to have heard of cases of insanity but never witnessed it
themselves. In Arima, Leader suggested that insanity could mean that the pilgrim was not
grounded. The pointer may point someone correctly, but the person may choose to go his
own way in the spirit and so encounter problems. Mother B. felt that bad nerves and seals
could be the problem. Seals are the words written in chalk and 'sealed' in wax on the head
bands. These might be too 'heavy' for the pilgrim's brain. Mother R. also emphasized
sealing. But, the trouble she proposed, may arise from wrong writing put on the bands.
Seals taken from books can also "send people off." One is supposed to use only what the
Spirit gives you.
What, then, can be said of all the foregoing? First, I have sought in this paper to deal
especially with the spiritual dimension of the rite of mourning. Thus, the subjective
experiences of mourners have been treated. Previous researchers (eg. Simpson and Ward
and Beaubrun) however have adopted a 'scientific' approach to the interpretation of these
subjective experiences. They have understood them in terms of learned behaviour and
altered states of consciousness. The first term suggests that mourners learn how to adapt
their tranceexperiences and the recounting of their tracts in accordance with the expecta-
tions of their peers and leaders and with their own aspirations. We have already established
that some falsification and fabrication of tracts does take place. Therefore, there is merit in
Second, I would also agree that sensory bombardment and sensory deprivation in the
rite of mourning do assist in causing altered states of consciousness. Sensory bombardment
would include such repetitive stimuli as clapping, singing, shouting, 'trumping' and being
spun around in circles before lying on the mourning ground. Sensory deprivation includes
fasting, the darkness of the mourning chamber, its silence, the inactivity and drowsiness of
the pilgrim, his ostracization from society, the interruption of his regular routine and his
confinement to a small area, along with his 'unusual dependency' on others. While I agree
with the principles of Ockham's razor that 'beings should not be multiplied without
necessity' it is a distortion to ignore the entire spiritual realm. The tradition of the Catholic
Church is clear on this, teaching that man is made up of a spirit as well a body, and that
other spiritual (including evil) beings do exist. The second Vatican Council supports and
quotes the dogmatic statement of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215):
"by His Almighty power, from the very beginning of
time has created both orders of creatures in the same
way out of nothing, the spiritual or angelic world and
the corporeal or visible universe. And afterwards he
formed the creature man, who in a way belongs to both
orders, as he is composed of spirit and body. For the
devil and the other demons were created by God good
according to their nature, but they made themselves
evil by their own doing. As for man, his sin was at the
prompting of the devil".32
My contention is that altered states of consciousness aid mourners to travel in and
communicate with the spirit world.
It is evident that some informants claimed that as a result of the rite of mourning,
'spirits' indwell the pilgrim. It can only be said here that in the tradition of the Catholic
Church wherever more than one spirit is said to inhabit a person this is termed 'spirit
Spirit travel and trance
This is a key point in the rile of mourning, and most Baptists seem agreed upon it.
Apparently, this understanding was common also among the ancient Greeks. Abraham
"The Greeks who coined the word "ecstasy" (ekes-
tasis), understood by it quite literally, a state of trance
in which the soul was no longer in its place, but had
departed from the body, or a state in which the soul,
escaping from the body, had entered into a relationship
with invisible beings or became united with a deity. It
was a way of ascending to a higher form of living, or at
least a way which rendered possible the receiving of
The parallel with Baptist 'spirit travel' is striking. The departures of the soul (some-
times equated with the spirit), the communication with spiritual beings, the greater spiritual
advancement and even the expectation of some gift. Heschel continues:
"Loss of consciousness, 'ecstasy', is a prerequisite for
enthusiasm, or possession"
And be defines enthusiasm or possession as,
"a belief, found in many parts of the world, that super-
natural powers, spiritual or divine, may take posses-
sion of a person, either permanently or temporarily, for
good or for evil."29
However to achieve this enthusiasm or possession one must "lose his identity" and
"become invested with the fullness of deity. Self-extinction is the price of mystical recep-
tivity. The concrete past is gone; only the abstract present remains". In the case of some of
my Baptist informants there exists this lack of consciousness of their immediate physical
surroundings. Heschel however goes on to show conversely that in an encounter with the
'living God' this self-extinction does not occur. he cites the example of the prophet:
'The prophetic personality, far from being dissolved,
is intensely present and fervently involved in what he
perceives ... The act is often a dialogue in which con-
sciousness of time, remembrance of events of the past,
and concern with the plight of the present come into
In fact in dealing with the Montanist sect (middle second century) which prophesied
error while in trances, the Church Fathers declared that ecstasy was "incompatible with true
"How can the spirit of wisdom and knowledge deprive
anyone of his senses?"
"Aladura" in The New Encyclopedia Britannia. Micropaedia. Vol. I Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.,
Barrett, Leonard, "African Religion in the Americas: The Islands in Between" in African religions:
A Symposium, ed. Newell S. Booth.
Bastide, Roger: The African Religions of Brazil. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1978.
Carr, Andrew: "A Rada community in Trinidad" in Caribbean Ouarterly, Vol. 24, Nos. 3 & 4, Sep-
tember December, 1978.
- "Christian Faith and Demonology in The Documents of Vatican IL Vol. II More Post Conciliar
Documents, ed. Austin Falnnery. Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1982.
Glazier, Stephen D: "African Cults and Christian Churches in Trinidad: The Spiritual Baptist Case"
23rd Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October
15 18, 1980.
Marchin' the Pilgrims Home: Leadership and Decision-making in an Afro-Carib-
bean Faith, Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1983.
Herskovits, Melville J. & Herskovits, Frances S: Trinidad Village. Alfred A. Knopf Inc. N.Y., 1947.
Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets Bol. Harper and Row Publishers, N.Y., 1975.
Ilogu Rev. Canon (Dr.) Edmund: "Changing Religious Beliefs in Nigeria" in Nigeria Magazine No.
117-118, ed. Exhibition Centre marina Lagos, Nigeria. Cultural Division of the Federal Minis-
try of Information, PMB. 12524, Lagos, Nigeria, 1975.
Mayhew, Frank: "My Life" (Life of a Shouter's Preacher) in Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. EI (1953).
Peel, J.D.Y. "Aladura; a religious movement among the Yoruba" Published for the International
African Institute by the Oxford V.P., London, 1968.
Raboteau, Albert: "Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South Oxford
University Press, New York, 1978.
Simpson, George E: "Religious Changes in Southwestern nigeria" in Anthropological Quarterly.
Vol. 43, No. 2, April 1970.
SBlack Religions of the New World. columbia University Press, N.Y., 1978.
SReligious Cults of the Caribbean: Trinidad. Jamaica & Haiti. Institute of Carib-
bean Studies, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1980.
Ward, Colleen and Michael Beaubrun: "Trance Induction and Hallucination in Spiritual Baptist
Mourning" Journal of Psychological Anthropology 3: 1979.
World Christian Encyclopedia ed. David B. Barret, Oxford University Press, N.Y., 1982.
CARIBBEAN STUDIES THESIS (B.A.)
Donovan, Cornelius r. (OP): "Two Afro-Christian Cults of Trinidad" University of the West Indies,
St. Augustine, 1971.
Felix, Lynette: "A Comparison between the shango Cult and the Spiritual Baptist Community in
Port of Spain. University of the West Indies, 1971.
1. Glazier, Stephen D: African Cults and Christian Churches in Trinidad: The Spiritual baptist
Case, 23rd Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, oc-
tober 15-18, 1980, p. 14.
3. Simpson, George E.: Religious Cults of the Caribbean: Trinidad. Jamaica and Haiti. Institute of
Caribbean Studies, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1980, p. 140.
4. Glazier, Stephen D.: Marchin' The Pilgrims Home: Leadership and Decision Making
in an Afro-Caribbean Faith, Greenwood Press, connecticut 1983, p. 3.
6. Simpson George, E.: Religious cult of the Caribbean: Trinidad. Jamaica and Haiti, Institute of
Caribbean Studies, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. 00931, 1980, p. 147-
7. Herskovits, Melville J. and Herskovits, Frances, S.: Trinidad Vilagee. Alfred A. Knoff Inc., N.Y.,
1947, p. 207.
8. Various kinds of bush are used including black sage, shining bush and St. John's bush.
9. op. cit., p. 149.
10. Herskovits, Melville J. and Herskovits, Frances S.: Trinidad Village Alfred A. Knoff Inc.,
N.Y., 1947, p. 221.
11. There is no uniformity of practice among Baptist churches, sot aht the 'Prover' according to my
informant is responsible for discerning the tracts of mourners (Simpson concurs op. cit., p.
150) A Mother or Leader or even a pointer can be a Prover. However Stephen Glazier defines
the Prover's role as interpreting spiritual writing; testing "the powers of pointers and teachers"
and possibly testing "the sincerity of candidates for baptism". (cf. Glazier S.D. Marchin' the
Pilgrims Home, Greenwood Press, U.S.A. 1983, p. 52.)
12. Simpson o. cit., p. 149.
13. Herskovits and Herskovits op. cit., p. 204.
14. cf. for example (i) Herskovits & Herskovits op. cit., p. 205-206 ii/ Mayhew, Frank "My life"
[Life of a Shouter's Preacher] in Caribbean Quarterly Vol. 3 (1953), pp. 21-23 iii/ Simpson
op. cit., pp. 32, 149-150 iv/ Glazier oo. ci, pp. 55-56.
15. Glazier op. cit., pp. 55-56.
16. Beaubrun and Ward's research agree with this cf. Ward C. and Beaubrun M Trance Induction
and Hallucination in Spiritual Baptist Mourning, Journal of Psychological Anthropology 3:
1979, p. 482.
17. Glazier 1983 op. cit., pp. 54-58.
18. Simpson 1980- op. cit. p. 141.
19. Chevannes, Barry "Revivalism: A Disappearing Religion" in Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 24,
Nos. 3 & 4, September December 1978, pp. 1-17.
20. Ibid, p. 1.
21. Ibid,p. 11.
22. Herskovits and Herskovits
op. cit., p. 204.
23. Glazier op. cit., p. 144 note # 10.
24. op. cit., p. 14.
25. Ward and Beaubrun 1979 op. cit., p. 486.
26. Glazier, S. Marchin' The Pilgrims Home Leadership and Decision-Making in an Afro-Carib-
bean Faith Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1983, p. 51.
27. "Christian Faith and Demonology" in the Documents of Vatican I, Vol. 2, more Post-Conciliar
Documents, Ed. Austin Flannery, Dominican Publications, Dublin 1982, p. 463.
28. Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets, Vol 11, Harper and Row, Publishers, N.Y. 1975, p. 104.
See also p. 105.
29. Mbid, p. 107.
30 Ibid,pp. 137-138.
THE ROLE OF THE KABBALAH IN THE AFRO-AMERICAN
RELIGIOUS COMPLEX IN TRINIDAD
Very little is known about the early development period of Orisha worship in Trinidad.
Early traveller's accounts (e.g., Day 1852 and Kingsley 1871) describe religious
ceremonies involving what they perceived to be African drumming and singing, but it is
unclear whether or not those involved were Orisha worshipers. The early history of
Trinidad has been researched by a number of scholars (e.g., Black, el al. 1976; Williams
1964; Carmichael 1961; Wood 1968; and Brereton 1981), but, perhaps because of the sheer
lack of documentation, they have little to say concerning the origins of African folk religion
on the island.
This lack of documentation notwithstanding, there is considerable information regard-
ing the demography, provenience and ethnic affiliations of Africans in early Trinidad, as
well as the social and cultural setting of the island during the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries that might be consulted to piece together a rough account of the early period of
orisha worship in Trinidad. (Trotman , for example, uses this strategy to compare
orisha worship in Trinidad and Guyana during the nineteenth century).
There was virtually no African presence to speak of until about 1790, when the sugar
plantations became an important part of the socio-economic landscape of Trinidad. Many
slaves hailed from southem Nigeria and surrounding areas, but only about one percent of
African-born slaves in 1813 were classified as Yoruba (Higman 1984: 132). Given that the
Orisha religion in Trinidad is largely Yoruba-derived, it appears that the development and
subsequent practice of this religion took place at a later time.
Trotman (1976:2) notes an influx of Yomba into Trinidad beginning in the 1830's and
lasting until 1867. During this time approximately nine thousand liberated Africans im-
migrated to Trinidad from the free settlements of St. Helena and Sierra Leone. Since over
half of liberated Africans in Sierra Leone (by far the larger of the two settlements) were
Yoruba, it is assumed that this ethnic group is highly represented among immigrants
arriving in Trinidad. This immigration coupled with the emancipation of slaves in Trinidad
in 1838, may have led to the establishment of the Orisha religion on the island during the
Beginning in the early nineteenth century, the Africans in Trinidad were exposed to the
teachings, beliefs and practices of Roman Catholicism. This included instruction where
Africans "were taught the Lord's Prayer, the Belief, [and] the Litany" (Ottley 1974:60).
Harricharan (1981:54) notes that black participation in Church activities was generally
"peripheral" and "limited," but notes black involvement in several Church activities.
Another indication of Africans' affiliation with the Catholic Church is the large number
of slave baptisms that were conducted. According to Ottley (1974:61), almost 15,000 of the
approximately 17,000 slaves in Trinidad in the 1820's were baptized Catholics. Many
baptisms were done en masse, and were probably not an accurate indication of the quality
of Caribbean-African's involvement in the religion.
Catholic aspects of Orisha worship were probably firmly in place by 1900. A short time
later, however, there was another period of change and adjustment as the Spiritual Baptist
religion became more prominent among religions in Trinidad. While there are competing
theories concerning the origin and early development of the Spiritual baptist religion in
Trinidad (see Glazier 1983, Parks 1981, Williams 1985, Henney 1874, Huggins 1978, and
Thomas 1987), it is clear by 1920 that the Spiritual Baptists were firmly established in
trinidad. There is little historical information regarding relationships between Spiritual
baptists and Orisha adherents. Given similar socio-historical backgrounds such inter-
relationships are not surprising.
Factors contributing to this interrelationship are, perhaps, predominantly social, since
the two religious systems one primarily Protestant the other primarily African and
Catholic appear to have little in common, especially when the orthodox branch of the
Spiritual Baptist religion and the Orisha religion are compared. Glazier (1983) suggests that
no syncretism involving the two religious systems has occurred mixing, whether on the
level of ideology or practice seem to involve juxtaposition of the two rather than blending.
After 1950, selected hindu gods and rituals were incorporated into orisha worship.
Leader Scott and other worshippers said that it was not until 1960 or so that they began to
notice Hindu elements in Orisha compounds. In this case, we are dealing with groups who
do not and did not share a common historical or ethnic heritage, but practiced religions that
were similar in some respects. Most significant here are the rich and complex pantheons of
both traditions replete with anthropomorphized deities.
Finally, Kabbalah rituals, flags, shrines and other paraphernalia have become more
prominent in Orisha worship in Trinidad.
Another recent change in this complex and highly dynamic religion involves a tendency
among a handful of shrine heads to purify extraneous elements from Orisha worship,
especially those of Catholicism and Hinduism, and return to a liturgy that is exclusively
Yoruba. This Africanization movement is a significant transformative mechanism that will
eventually produce a more restrictive and exclusive religious system should it continue to
grow in popularity.
Adherents affiliated with the Afro-American religious complex have a variety of
worship patterns from which to choose. An Orisha shrine head chooses to emphasize
Catholicism by prominently displaying statutes and lithographs of the saints, or may choose
to eliminate Catholic elements entirely. A worshipper might attend highly Protestant
Spiritual Baptist services on Sunday and an Orisha ebo (the annual feast) on Tuesday.
Hindu deities may or may not be enshrined in an Orisha compound. The Kabbalah may be
incorporated into the activities of an Orisha shrine, or it may be ignored. Ideologically,
then, the worshiper can "travel" long distances and in many different directions before be
leaves the broadly defined belief system of the Afro-American religious complex. The
worshipper that affiliates himself with this religious complex, then, is "condemned to be
free" in Sartrean terms, not because he is working upon the assumption that God does not
exist, but rather because God has so many faces.
The dynamic nature and highly electric form of the Afro-American religious complex
make it amenable to change and predisposed to variation. Perhaps the most important
mechanism of the cultural transmission of religious knowledge is one-to-many information
exchange, involving mongba (Orisha priests), iya (Orisha priestesses), and rank and file
adherents. This type of information transmission has been shown to serve as a medium for
rapid cultural change (Hewlett and Cavalli-Sforza 1986:923). Another important
mechanism of cultural transmission in the religious complex is "mourning", an extended
period of fasting, isolation and trance in which the "pilgrim" undergoes a series of spiritual
experiences. Believers claim that much of their knowledge concerning the theology and
practices of the various components of the Afro-American religious complex was obtained
during mourning. The individualistic and existential nature of mourning, then, is another
mechanism that permits rapid cultural change, although it should be noted that there are
counteracting mechanisms that serve to control variation from this source. Another charac-
teristic of the religion that tends to engender variability is the fact that the success and
popularity of a mongba or iya is often associated with their ability to manipulate a variety
of beliefs, practices, and paraphernalia Finally, the religion is loosely organized so there is
no sanctioning body which serves to standardize religious practice.3
There are, however, processes at work which counteract these dissipative processes.
Over 150 Orisha shrines are found in all regions of the island althoughh there is some
clustering in the northwest around Port of Spain). Most shrine heads sponsor an annual ebo
during a feast season that runs from the week after Easter Sunday to Advent, although a few
take place in the time period between Advent and Easter Sunday. Many worshippers travel
to a number of ebo each year. Thus, the feast circuit brings together believers from different
parts of the island on a regular basis. Also significant here is the fact that some mongba and
iya direct as many as ten or more ebo each year. Both of these factors, the mobility of
devotees and the involvement of certain mangba and iya in the feast activities of a number
of shrines, serve to ameliorate change and variation that is so rampant in this religious
complex. Finally, there has been a recent movement toward Africanization of the belief
system. This involves the expurgation of "extraneous" elements, (i.e., those not considered
to be African), from the religious complex.
Thus, the present form of the highly eclectic Afro-American religious complex can be
viewed as the result of the interplay of centrifugal and centripetal mechanisms, the former
serving to engender variability and the latter acting to oppose variability. The Kabbalah
plays an important role in maintain this delicate balance between the forces of change and
conservatism. It is to this fascinating belief system that we now turn.
Kabbalah Historical Development
The Kabbalah is corpus of esoteric and religious knowledge that is thought to contain
essential teachings regarding the spiritual mechanics of the cosmos. The term "Kabbalah"
is derived from the hebrew gabbala which means a "receiving" and has also been translated
as "tradition" (Schubert 1967:1031). The orthography of this term is confusing because so
many forms exist. (e.g., Qabbalah, Kabala, Kabbala, Cabala, Cabbalah). "Kabbalah" ap-
pears to be the most popular spelling in the literature, so I will use it here.
According to Schaya (1971:19) and Sheinkin (1986:9-10), the Kabbalah was initially
given to Moses by God and has been passed down through the ages, although another
tradition claims that Abraham was the first to receive this knowledge from God (Gonzalez-
Wippler 1990:59). Sheinkin notes that Kabbalistic teachings were known only to a select
few and were transmitted orally until the Middle Ages, when they were written down
(1986:12). According to Dan (1986:4), however, the transition from mosaic Judaism to the
mediaeval Kabbalah is unclear. While there seems to be general agreement between early
Jewish mysticism and a later Kabbalistic teachings, there is little or no evidence of a
transition of any kind from one to the other during the intervening fifteen hundred or so
years (Dan 1986:4). Dan adds that "When the first Kabbalistic circles began to appear in
Provence and Spain in the Middle Ages, their symbols and terminology, as well as their
concept of the divine world, seemed to be completely novel" (1986:4).
Whatever its origins and development, it is clear that the Kabbalah as it is known today
became popular during the latter part of the twelfth century in Spain and southeastern
France. The Kabbalah underwent significant development until the end of the fifteenth
century, when the Jews were banished from Spain. Subsequently, Kabbalistic lore and
philosophy were carried to Italy, Turkey, and Safed a small Galilean town that was,
perhaps, the major center of the Kabbalah during the sixteenth century (Wigoder 1989:514;
Patai 1978:823) and was popular in England by the seventeenth cnetury (Werblowsky
The Kabbalah today contains elements of Jewish mysticism, Gnosticism,
Neoplatonism, Christian doctrine, Neo-Pythagoreanism, and Hermeticism (writings at-
tributed to Hermes Trismegistus) (Wallman 1958:17; Idel 1988:40-41; Wunshe 1908:326;
Schubert 1976:1031-1035 passim). It is an esoteric and arcane cosmology that utilizes a
symbolic and mathematical hermeneutic to apply basic theosophical and theological prin-
The Kabbalah was probably brought to Trinidad by the Spanish, French and English. As
noted, Kabbalab had been practiced in Spain and France since the latter part of the twelfth
century and had spread to England by at least the seventeenth century, so it is not
unreasonable to assume that the Kabbalah was brought to the New World during the period
of European colonization. There is little documentation on the transfer of the Kabbalah
from the Old World to the Caribbean. (As far as I know, with the exception of my own work
(Houk 1992), the only other work on Afro-American religions that mentions the Kabbalah
by name and identifies it as being an integral part of religious worship is Souza and Pinto
. It is interesting to note that many of the Kabbalists in Trinidad refer to the Kabbalah
as "white man's magic," and many of the Kabbalistic "entities" (the term used by believers
to describe Kabbalah spirits) are thought to be white and European. It has been noted that
Brazil and the British West Indies were home to thousands of Sephardic Jews during the
early settlement period in the New World (Merrill 1964), but any connection between their
presence and the practice of the Kabbalah in the New World has yet to be established.
The Kabbalah has most probably been practiced in Trinidad since early colonial times,
but only in the last twenty or so years has it become openly associated with Orisha. Two
prominent Kabbalah practitioners explained that before 1970 Kabbalah "banquets" were
generally private, closed affairs. Because of its diabolical overtones4 and the fact that most
Orisha worshippers and Spiritual Baptists consider this practice to be evil, even today, so I
am told, much of this activity is practiced in secret. Each year, however, ten to twenty
banquets are open to the general public. Of course, only those who are already aware of
these activities attend.
Just exactly why Kabbalah worship went public is difficult to say. I was told that a
particular shrine head in south Trinidad was the first to open his banquet around 1970.
While it is true that there are many heads and many banquets, this particular head was the
ranking Orisha priest of the time, and was known to practically everyone on the island. It is
possible in this case that one man could have had such an influence on the religious practice
of such a large group of people.
Also the Black Power Movement of 1970 promoted feelings of Black pride and general
interest in things African. It is possible that the opening of Kabbalah banquets was largely
a by-product of a time during which Afro-American religion experienced a temporary
surge of popularity and public support. It is recognized that the Kabbalah is not part of
sub-Saharan African cultural traditions, but has gradually become associated with Africans
and the Orisha religion in Trinidad.
Beliefs and Practices
While the population of Trinidad is comprised of Africans (approximately forty per-
cent), East Indians (approximately forty percent), and "mixed", Chinese, European,
Syrian and Lebanese (the remaining twenty percent), the practice of the Kabbalah in
Trinidad is almost exclusively an African activity. One of my informants suggested that
because Africans worked closely with the colonial Europeans as domestic servants, they
were privy to European religious practices some of which may have been Kabbalistic.
Perhaps another important factor would be the virtual absence of a popular and
widespread form of Indian religious worship in Trinidad that practices spirit possession and
mediumship, an important aspect of Kabbalah worship in Trinidad. The Hindu-based
Kali-Mai sect is an obvious exception, but has been practiced recently by only a relatively
small percentage of Indians. It is unclear whether spirit possession was an integral part of
early Kali-Mai worship in Trinidad. It is contended that practice of the Kabbalah would
have required a major spiritual leap on the part of the Indians. Afro-Caribbeans, however,
have a long tradition of spirit possession-based worship in Trinidad and could easily make
the transition to at least the theurgical aspect of the Kabbalah, which is significantly, the
primary characteristic of Trinidadian Kabbalah.
Trinidadian emphasis on the theurgical aspect of the Kabbalah may be because spirit
possession and mediumship were familiar and important parts of Spiritual Baptist and
Orisha worship, and consequently, more familiar to them. Some Kabbalists, however,
possess extensive libraries on occult literature covering the broad range of beliefs and
practices that the Kabbalab encompasses. Perhaps, the most popular work in Kabbalistic
circles in Trinidad is A.E. Waite's The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts (1972). This
book was originally published in 1898 and has been through a number of revisions [in
1911, 1961 and 1970] as The Book of Ceremonial Magic . Both versions are still in
print.) The Book of Black Magic is frequently quoted during Kabbalah banquets. Some
Kabbalah practitioners conjure entities by reading passages from Mathers' (1972) transla-
tion of TheKey of Solomon the King (Clavicula Salomonis). Other works consulted
included Waite's The Holy Kabbalah (1960), and de laurence's (1939) The Great Book of
Magical Art, Hindu Magic and East Indian Occultims and The Book of Secret Hindu,
Ceremonial, and Talismanic Magic (in one volume).
This access to various works on the Kabbalah has contributed to the development of a
more sophisticated understanding of this esoteric tradition in Trinidad. A number of
Kabbalistic practitioners are familiar with various traditions and their understandings are
quite sophisticated. Jeffrey Biddeau, one of the more prominent and erudite Kabbalists in
Trinidad, allocates roughly one half of his shrine to the Kabbalah. Kabbalistic worship in
Trinidad, then, probably began with an emphasis on familiar theurgical aspects and only
later became more generalized and sophisticated as Trinidadians gained greater access to
Trinidadians themselves, consider the Kabbalah to be potentially dangerous. They
recognize its evil and diabolical side as well as its positive side. Many entities dealt with by
the Kabbalists are perceived as demonic and are believed to be irascible, mercurial and
amoral. It is asserted that the entities are powerful and work quickly when handled by a
skilled Kabbalist. But, as Jeffrey Biddeau explained, the neophyte or the unskilled dabbler
is putting himself/herself at a serious risk, since the proper practice of this "art" requires
considerable training and knowledge:
A person must be very knowledgeable to handle the
Kabbalah. For one, you have to be able to understand
everything you read. Not only understand what you
read, but you have to know exactly [what you are
doing]....You must be able to work with figures. You
must be able to have some sense of alchemy, because
you are dealing with things on a scientific basis, and if
you don't handle them properly, they won't work. So,
you have to make this [the Kabbalah] a study; you
can't just wake up in the morning and say you are a
Kabbalist. You must devote plenty of time to it, and
you must be guided by an elder or a teacher. The
self-taught man who is handling the Kabbalah is al-
ways in danger.
Because you are dealing here with intelligence...there
is nor oom for mistakes. Once it is done, it is done, and
th eoutcome is either negative or positive. So, you
have to be careful....
There are over twenty-five Kabbalistic entities generally recognized in Trinidad, al-
though some knowledgeable practitioners claim to be familiar with many more. Some
entities are popular figures found in the various religious and occult traditions of the world,
(e.g., Solomon, Mohammed, Raphael, Michael, Uriel, Gabriel, Ezekiel, Astaroth and the
Prince of darkness). Others are of local or of unknown derivation, [e.g., the Steele
Brothers (James, Joe, Cass, and Adolph), John Fitzgerald Acloh, Skull and Cross, the five
Grand Dukes, Mr. Bune, Rahacoo Babb, Madam Burnett, J.B. Sohuluman, Mr. Swift,
Mummy Man, and Caspar's 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5]. Finally, there are two "negative" Orisha that
are used to do Kabbalistic work: Pagarat and Ajunta.
A typical Kabbalist works with the entities in both a personal, informal and impromptu
context as well as in a public and formal context. The former would generally involve
spiritual work that is done on the behalf of a client in need of assistance of some kind. The
latter or more formal context is the banquet, the most popular Kabbalistic ceremony in
There are different types of banquets, but perhaps the most general typology would
consist of "closed" and "open" banquets. During a closed banquet, particular entities are
dealt with for specific reasons. The attendance in this case would be rather restricted. The
open banquet, on the other hand, is generally an annual affair during which any Kabbalah
entity might manifest itself. The mood is usually festive, and a large table set with cakes,
cigarettes, cigars, wines, liquor and candles is the focus of activity. The entities are
expected to make their presence known by possessing a designated medium, interact
positively with those in attendance, indulge themselves with their favorite tobacco and rink,
and leave. This is not, however, always the case, and this is where the "operator" becomes
The three most important people present during a banquet are the medium, the operator
and the conjurer. (Any one of these positions can actually be filled during one night by
more than one person.) The medium is the person through whom the entity manifests itself
and is often the "sponsor" or "owner" of the banquet. The conjurer will invoke the entities
verbally, often by reading from Waite's Pacts (1972) or some other work, or sometimes by
reciting a liturgy from memory. The operator has, perhaps, the most important role, since
he is expected to conduct or guide the proceedings and to control the potentially dangerous
entities when they manifest themselves. I was present on one occasion when an operator
lacked the experience to deal competently with a manifesting entity. The entity began to
give orders and to act as he pleased. This caused quite a bit of confusion, since the operator
is expected to maintain full control over the entity. This particular entity was a potentially
violent one, but before he could do much damage another operator who was in attendance
stepped in and brought things under control once again.
Most Kabbalistic practitioners are also Orisha priests (mongba), priestesses (Iya), and
shrine beads, and practically all are members of the Orisha religion. These individuals will
generally have areas set aside in their Orisha shrine for flags or other materials devoted to
It appears that orthodox Spiritual Baptists (those who do not affiliate themselves with
Orisha worship) are involved in Kabbalah. There are, however, interesting parallels be-
tween elements of Kabbalah and Spiritual Baptist worship: the use of similar chalk-drawn
seals or spiritual symbols, the singing of Christian hymns (although the Kabbalah hyms
tend to be dirges), the invocation of spirits, the use of elaborately set tables as the focus of
spiritual activity, and the use of a "wand" or pointing stick to rap either on a table
(Kabbalah) or the earth (Spiritual baptist). The ritual similarities could simply be the result
of parallel development in a general Afro-American religious context, or they could be so
general as to be insignificant. These similarities notwithstanding, it should be pointed out
that the general tone of the Kabbalah is negative and that of the Spiritual Baptists, positive.
The Kabbalists, for example, will deal with familiar or earthbound spirits or even entities
recognized as demonic, whereas the Baptists, as a general rule, will not.
This association between the Kabbalah and the Spiritual Baptist and Orisha religions
appears to be a recent one. With the exception of Simpson (1980:55, 88), who makes a few
passing references to "circle people" without elaborating, and Mischel (1958:87), who
mentioned that a few groups in Port of Spain recognized "powers of darkness," no
researchers on Trinidad have specifically noted the existence of the Kabbalah.
Given the fact that the Kabbalah has become a public practice only since the early
1970s, and still involves a relatively small circle of worshippers, it is possible that an
ethnographer could have spent some time on the island without recognizing Kabbalah. It
was not until the end of my three-month stay in 1985 that I stumbled upon a Kabbalah room
in an Orisha shrine that I was researching. It was only after I had become a virtual fixture at
Afro-Caribbean religious ceremonies that my contacts began to open up to me on the
subject of the Kabbalah. It is not difficult to see how this fascinating religious practice
might have been overlooked.
The Kabbalah and Orisha Worship
Given the basic mechanics of the Atlantic slave trade and the trauma of capture, the
Middle Passage and the "seasoning" process, it is unlikely that the Orisha religion survived
the transfer unscathed. The Orisha religion in Nigeria is a complex system of different
shrines dedicated solely to particular deities that are maintained and managed by a number
of religious functionaries. No one group practiced the religion as a whole; rather, it was the
activities of disparate groups, each focusing primarily on one deity, that combined to
comprise what we refer to as the Orisha religion in Nigeria. Therefore, it is highly unlikely
that any African religion was transported to the Caribbean in toto, even though many
individual deities were. A more likely scenario would entail the merging of bits and pieces
of religious knowledge that had survived the passage into a moderately coherent form of
worship. Initially there were vast theological lacunae which would eventually become
filled with elements of various other religious traditions. In Trinidad, many informants
spoke in terms of a division of labour involving various religious elements that were
incorporated into the Orisha religion. One gets the impression that Orisha was originally an
In situations of unforced, non-directed, and passive contact, redundancy and contradic-
tion could be avoided in both the borrowing and incorporation of foreign religious ele-
ments. With regard to the Afro-Caribbean religious complex in Trinidad, it is true that
syncretism involving similarly perceived pantheons (Catholic and Orisha) has occurred,
but this syncretism occurred during a period of colonial oppression. Given the notion that
redundancy and contradiction are generally avoided, an eclectic or syncretic religion will,
in time, resemble something on the order of the proverbial "well-oiled machine," with its
many parts contributing to the overall effectiveness of the whole. I say "something on the
order" because complete theoretical closure is seldom if ever attained in religious ideology.
But perhaps we can conceive of this process of change and transformation in passive
contact contexts in teleological terms as being an ongoing struggle to attain a closed
ideological system. The incorporation of the Kabbalah into the Afro-Caribbean religious
complex can be explained in these terms.
Despite its diabolical overtones and the general negative perception of Kabbalah, it is,
nevertheless, popular among Orisha worshipers. In a survey of fifty-one shrines, Kabbalah
shrines, flags or rooms were found in sixteen. In a questionnaire (N = 42), over half
(twenty-four) stated that they had attended a Kabbalah banquet within the last year. It is
obvious that the benefits of this practice outweigh, at least to some, the negative aspects.
Kabbalah is an important part of the complex of religious activities that centre on the
Orisha religion. But the Kabbalah is kept separate from Orisha worship, spatially, ritually
and otherwise. Jeffery Biddeau, a Kabbalist and an elder in the Orisha religion, explained it
The Kabbalistic order has no place at all in Orisha
worship. This is an order by itself. It is an old order,
one of the oldest in the world. But what you would find
that makes you think it has a place in the Orisha...[is
that] most orisha worshippers practice the Kab-
balah.... You find that persons are able to communicate
with the Kabbalistic spirits for very wicked deeds.
Also they can communicate with kabbalistic spirits for
very good deeds. It all depends on the category of
spirits you are dealing with. Whereas with the Orisha,
you do good and you don't ever get the deities in-
volved with anything that is wrong to your fellow man,
because that is one of the laws within the Orisha
The Kabbalah powers are amoral and unconcerned with human affairs. Even some who
deal with them refer to them as "wicked," "evil," and "demonic." It is said that the
Kabbalah entities are powerful and work "fast." If one requires immediate results, he or she
may appeal to Kabbalah entities. If one wants to manipulate the natural order in such a way
as to benefit at the expense of another, he/she works with the Kabbalah.
On the other hand Orisha are said to work "slow," and, will not assist the worshipper in
activities that would be considered negative. Thus, Kabbalah entities are called on to
perform tasks that fall outside the domain of the Orisha. (It should be noted that the Orisha
are thought to be more powerful than the Kabbalah entities, and that their refusal to engage
in negative activities seems to be more a matter of predeliction than of ability.) Thus, the
mongba and iya who integrate the Kabbalah into their personal religious system greatly
enlarge their repertoire of magical practices and are then able to meet the needs of a larger
clientele. Likewise, the rank and ie worshippers can now appeal to a much broader
pantheon that can perform any number of tasks.
The relationship between the two religious systems, the Orisha and the Kabbalah,
involves something akin to juxtaposition rather than syncretism. Kabbalistic elements are
borrowed and utilized but not integrated its rituals, paraphernalia, and structures remain
independent of and isolated from those of the Orisha religion. For example, in those Orisha
shrines were Kabbalah rooms and stools are present, the Kabbalistic structures are always
spatially segregated from the rest of the shrine. There are, however, a few signs of incipient
syncretism taking place. I was told that Kabbalah entities could enter an orisha yard
through Eshu's shrine, a notion that at least connects Eshu and Kabbalah powers. Inform-
ants also noted that the Orisha Slakpana could be used to perform negative tasks, and some
equated him with the Kabbalah entity known as the "Skull and Cross". There are also two
negative Orisha (noted above) that deal in Kabbalistic contexts.
The Kabbalah and the Orisha religion are both integral parts of the African-American
religious complex in Trinidad. Their mutual differences notwithstanding, the combination
of these two systems has served to enlarge the theological and spiritual breadth of the
African-Caribbean religious systems. The Kabbalah is European-derived, potentially
diabolical, and utilized primarily to do spiritual work. The Orisha religion is African-
derived, spiritually positive, and an important and pervasive part of everyday life. Assum-
ing that redundancy and contradiction are consciously avoided in passive contact
situations, the association between these two religious systems is not surprising each
system serves to complement the other.
The Mongba iya, shrine heads and others who work with the Kabbalah in Trinidad,
have the ability to work with a very large number of powers (both African and Kabbalistic),
and, thus, cater to the needs of a larger clientele. In fact, given the characterization of
Kabbalah entities as powerful and quick-working, they are now the "spiritual powers of
choice" among some prominent ranking heads and elders of the Afro-Caribbean religious
It appears that the Kabbalah will continue to be an integral part of the Afro-Caribbean
religious complex. In fact, there is room for further growth given that the Kabbalah is a
relatively recent addition to the complex, and that, the number of knowledgeable prac-
titioners will probably increase over time. The Kabbalah probably will remain distinct from
the Orisha religion. While it is unlikely that extensive syncretism involving the Kabbalah
and the Orisha religion will occur, the Kabbalah will continue to prosper within the
confines of the Trinidadian African-Caribbean religious complex.
1. Fieldwork for this paper was conducted during the summers of 1985 and 1990 and a one-year
period from october 1988 to September 1989. Much of the funding for this work was provided
by a Fulbright Fixed Sum Grant.
Many people of Trinidad assisted me in my work. I could not possibly list them all here. A few,
however, deserve mention. I would like to thank my spiritual brother Aaron Jones and his
wife, Rhonda, for their support and friendship; henry White for his patience and assistance;
and Jeffrey Biddeau for sharing his immense knowledge of Yoruba traditions and the Kab-
balah. Finally, a special thanks to Leader Aldwin Scott and his wife, Mother Joan, for their
support and assistance during every stage of my work.
2. The African-derived belief system in Trinidad has traditionally been referred to as the Shango
cult, and this term has become a popular word in the lexicon of Trinidadians. Worshipers them-
selves, however, find the term inappropriate for two reasons. First, they correctly note that
Shango is an important orisha, there are many other orisha that are worshipped as well.
Second, they find the term "cult" distasteful since it implies that their form of worship is some-
how inferior to other forms of worship labeled "religions." I have coined the term "Orisha
religion" to replace "Shango cult" and many of my contacts in the religion support this change
3. Two organizations exist at the present time, The Orisha Movement and the Opa Orisha of
Trinidad and Tobago, and both are sanctioned and recognized by the government. The latter
appears to be the more influential of the two, although even its influence presently extends to
only a handful of shrines. The Opa Orisha, however, practices a broad-minded and ecumenical
philosophy so its influence will, no doubt, continue to spread.
4. The kabbalah in Trinidad has been subject to a unique pattern of development and, consequently,
differs somewhat from "Kabbalah" understood in a general sense. Thus. it is the Trinidadian
version of this belief system and not Kabbalah in general that is being described here as
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Wood, Donald 1968 Trinidad in Transition: The Years after Slavery. London: Oxford University
Wunsche, August 1908 cabala. In The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge,
pp. 326-331. New York: Funk and Wagnalls.
THE DIVINE FEMININE AMONG TRINIDAD'S EARTH
PEOPLE; APPROPRIATION AND REINTERPRETATION IN
SPIRITUAL BAPTIST VISIONS
They give us a Book to pay, Yeh!
To call on their God, me see
When they lie, they lie
And they give us a Book to pray, Yeh!
To call on their God, me see
When they lie, the lie, You!
The Earth is the Lord, the fulness
The Earth is the Life me see
That is Life, that is Life, Oui!'
By the early 1980s few people in Trinidad had not heard of the Earth People, a small
community established on the north-east coast. In a country long familiar with the religious
charisma of the Shouter Baptists, frequently gathered by the roadside in their brightly
coloured robes, intoning lugubrious 'Sankey and Moody' hymns and enthusiastically
ringing handbells, and also with the newer Rastafari movement introduced from Jamaica in
the early 1970s, the Earth People remain an enigma. Their appearance in the villages or in
the capital Port-of-Spain causes public outrage, for their most outstanding characteristic is
that they are naked.
Public opinion favours the view that these taciturn young men, carrying staves or
cutlasses and with the long matted dreadlocks of the Rastas, are probably crazy: if not the
whole group then certainly their leader Mother Earth. It is she whose visions gave birth to
the movement and who leads their annual marches to town. Alternatively, some feel they
are merely a novel Baptist group or a particularly dangerous variant of Rastafari. Com-
munication is hampered by the Earth People's characteristic language, their deliberate and
studied use of obscenities, and Mother Earth's striking teachings. She informs
Trinidadians, a largely devout if not exactly church-going population, that while God does
not exist she is the Biblical Devil, the Serpent, the Mother of Africa and India, Nature
The commune, which is known as Hell Valley or the Valley of Decision, lies beside a
track from the nearest village some nine miles away, itself probably (be remotest in
Trinidad from Port-of-Spain and only to be reached by a winding coastal road. The local
smallholdings of coffee and cocoa, planted in the nineteenth century, have returned to
forest; their owners either left the area for good or moved back to the village. The
mountains behind the commune, never settled and seldom crossed, remain part of the
island's protected forest reserves, exploited for wood only on their southern side where they
meet the Caroni plateau.
The track from the village follows the coast, occasionally passing over headlands and
allowing a glimpse of the sea but usually winding through the dense bush of secondary
forest, hidden from the sun, occasionally dipping down to ford small rivers and mangrove
swamps. Through the tangled foliage of now overgrown coffee and cocoa and the tall,
spreading immortelle trees planted a hundred years ago to give them shade, the occasional
traveller can glimpse the remains of abandoned cocoa houses and rotting wooden huts. The
track starts from the village and after passing the Valley, ends after twenty miles at "Petite
Riviere", another fishing village usually reached by a road from Port-of-Spain which joins
its other side through a gap in the Northern Range. Few pass along it: some forestry workers
conducting a survey or the occasional group of hiking secondary school students. The
villagers who still occasionally gather copra from the palms along the coast prefer to visit
their coconut groves by cannot, the small high-powered boat they use for fishing.
This coast is regarded by urban Trinidadians as the most desolate part of the island,
"behind God's back" a fitting retreat for the handful of Black Power guerillas who
established themselves there briefly in 1972 after blowing up the village police station.
They were tracked down and shot by the regiment, Trinidad's small armed forces.
Mother Earth in the Valley of Decision
A year after the 'guerillas' were killed, Jeanette Baptiste2, a thirty-nine year old woman
from Laventille in Port-of-Spain, came to live on the coast, together with six of her children
and her partner Cyprian. After spending two years on various estates near Petite Riviere,
the family settled in the remains of one of the deserted hamlets midway along the track,
where on one side it overlooks a small rocky bay, and on the other a long curving beach
divided by a river which, laden with mangroves, slowly enters the sea as a modest delta.
Both Jeanette and Cyprian had been Spiritual Baptists and they continued to "pick
along in the Bible" interpreting the visionary import of their dreams. From 1975, after the
birth of twins in their wooden hut, until 1976, Jeanette experienced a series of revelations
which became the foundation of the Earth People. She became aware that the Christian
doctrine of God the Father as creator was untrue and that the world was the work of
primordial Mother, whom she identified with Nature and with the Earth. Nature gave birth
to a race of Black people, known as the mothers, but Her rebellious Son re-entered his
Mother Nature's womb to gain Her power of generation and succeeded by producing White
people. The Whites- the Race of the Son, have enslaved the Blacks and continue to
exploit them. The Way of the Son is the way of technology, cities, clothes, schools,
factories and wage labour. The Way of the Mother is the Way of Nature: a return to the
simplicity of the Beginning, a simplicity of nakedness, cultivation of the land by hand and
with respect, and of gentle and non-exploiting human relationships.
The Son in His continued quest for the power of generation has recently entered into a
new phase. He has now succeeded in establishing Himself in Africans and Indians and is
also on the point of replacing humankind altogether with computers and industrial robots.
Nature, who has borne His behaviour out of love for all her creation, has finally lost
patience. The current order of the Son will soon end in a catastrophic drought and famine,
or a nuclear way, a destruction of the Son's work through His own agency, after which the
original state of Nature will once again prevail.
Jeanette herself is a partial manifestation of the Mother who will fully enter into her
only at the End. Her task now is to facilitate the return of Nature by organising the
community on the coast to prepare for the return to the Beginning and to 'put out' the truth
to her people, the Black Nation, the Mother's Children. She has to combat the false
docrtines of existing religions which place the son over the Mother and to correct the
distorted teaching of the Bible where she is represented as the Devil. As the Serpent, she
stands for Life and Nature, in opposition to the Christian God who is really Nature's Son,
the male principle, Science and Death. She is opposed to churches and prisons, book
learning and money, contemporary morals and fashionable opinions. Because God is
'right' Mother Earth teaches the Left, and the Earth People, like some other Afro-
Americans, interchange various conventional opposition: 'left' or 'right'; 'evil' or 'bad'
for 'good'. so-called obscenities are only Natural words and are to be used, for She herself
is the Cunt, the source of all life.
The exact timing of the End is uncertain but it will probably come in Jeanette's physical
lifetime. Then Time will cease, disease will be healed and the Black Nation will speak its
one language. the Son will return to His Planet, the Planet Sun, really the Planet of the Ice
which is currently hidden by Fire placed there by the Mother -Fire which will eventually
return to where it belongs, back into the heart of the nurturant Earth.
Since her revelations in 1975 which signalled the Beginning of the End, Mother Earth's
immediate family have been joined by numbers of Black Trinidadians, usually young men
who bring their partners and children. The community has a high turnover and, while over
fifty people have been associated with the Earth People, when I lived with them between
1981 and 1982, there were twenty-three staying in the Valley with perhaps twenty close
sympathisers in town, camp out in the Laventille area and present their message in the
central streets and parks, particularly in Woodford Square, the popular site for political
demonstrations and other mass meetings which is next to the Parliament building. After a
few weeks of Putting Out The Life, explaining and arguing with bystanders, and visits to
friends and relatives, they return to the Valley to continue to Plant For The Nation.
The Beginning of the End: The Vision of Mother Earth
Jeanette's account of her childhood and early adulthood are not characterized by any
extraordinary events. She had a conventional working-class life in the slum areas of
Port-of-Spain, a life she recollects as hard:
"Well, it was a struggle, a very hard struggle for me,
because I just been living3. I never had to pay rent. I
live with my first children's father for three years, he
put me out... I go by my mother. I remain there. I try to
live with somebody else again. It wasn't so easy. I
leave, to back home, try again the third time. I leave
again, go back home and I decide to say home. So then
I been living and struggling, selling, doing whatever
little I could do to make a penny for my children.
When I get in with somebody we last until by belly is
big I'm pregnant again. They leave me. I have to fight
again to mind my children but somehow or the other
the spirit always sends somebody to help me.... My
spirit always be with me so that someone would help
me, come and help me. But it was always usually end
up I by myself, working again, selling again and feed-
ing my children as much as I could, send them to
"But the struggle was on. I go ahead with it. I wasn't
finding no fault of the city. Is one thing is always in my
mind since I am living in the city: is to help my people.
Something always in me, when I see a sick [person] I
feel I should be able to help them. When I go anywhere
and somebody complain about their life, although
mine's so rugged, I always think about the person and
wish I could have helped them. This is always myself.
I know to myself that I am a healer. As the Baptists'
would say, 'You are a healer'. I know that I had heal-
ing work to do but I didn't know when."
Jeanette's maternal grandmother (with whom she lived at various times during her
childhood) was a Spiritual Baptist, and Jeanette occasionally attended the services from the
age of twelve. She was not particularly involved and indeed scorned conventional religious
beliefs. On one occasion a burst gas main in Port-of-Spain caught fire and everybody fell
on their knees:
"an' say Jesus come. I laugh an' walk on.
"As a child I was baptise with the Baptists at the age of
fourteen. And I go in Baptists, listening to them
preaching and talking about the Bible, bawling Jesus.
But in my growing up, I had a lot of visions and never
really see what they speaking about within my visions.
So I didn't understand, I didn't query over it, I just
"In my thirties, I went to mourn for the very first time,
because I never wanted to go and mourn but they keep
nagging at me why I don't come to mourn. They
prepare the list for me; I took the list, buy what they
said to buy, and I went to mourn.
"It was terrible because I had a lot of trouble and yet
myself was talking to me to help me out in my trouble.
Until the day come that I there lying down and didn't
see nothing too much (I hearing the rest of the
mourners talking and so forth but I wasn't going
nowhere) until the third day rising day, the Mother
come and tell me if I don't see myself rising I'll have
to remain there! I started to cry and thing. When it turn
the evening, one of the Mothers come and sit with me.
A Teacher, they call her. She come and she sit with
me. She say 'I come to help you see yourself and she
started to trump 4 I started to trump with her and I
started to see myself- down in a grave, swaddled from
head to foot like a mummy. I tell her. She say, 'What
again?' and I take off the swaddling bands, throw them
in the hole and seal it but in a darkness. I saw the
coffin come up. I saw myself standing on it with a
very large foot. And I say "Well, look I am a giant'
because my foot was very long. She say, 'Go ahead -
what again?! And I tell her I saw myself as a Kong.5 I
could have seen the tail of the Kong, it was brown. She
turn round and said 'What again?! An' I said 'Well I
seeing something in front of me'. She said 'What it is?!
'It a serpent but I afraid of it I can't speak to it'. She
said 'Speak to it'. I said 'No, I can't'. I started to bawl
because I was afraid of it although I know it in my
sleep for many years: I was seeing it and always run-
ning from it This life 6 it was in front of me so I
couldn't run, but all I did was bawl and eventually I
snatch it and I hold it She turn around and she say
'What that mean? I said 'Well, look it straighten and it
turn a staff. She said 'What is the meaning of that? I
said 'The Christ is the Good Shepherd'. She said
'Thank you'. She say I'm finished. So it then she left
me and I was blank again. I didn't see nothing again.
Yes till then nobody didn't really tell me what it
mean. I live on. I didn't really study7 it after the
mourning and thing."
Her partner Cyprian (now called Jakatan) mourned in 1967 after he joined the Baptists:
"The week after I baptise I lie down and have a vision.
I standing on a hill and see town destroyed by a flood.
I go to a half broken-down house and see a big black
box. I open it. I hear a whole set of voices. I see a white
man standing by it The people crying help and I say 'I
am the True Shepherd and will lead you to true
Cyprian became a Baptist Shepherd (a title he kept in the early days of the Earth
People). The following year he had another vision whilst mourning:
"I go into a school and it have a big map of Trinidad
but no pupils. A short black man point to map and say
'Go down to the valley... Like shooting is about to
Indeed, in 1970 Cyprian joined the Black Power rebellion8. After its failure he was
struck by a remark which had been made by one of its leaders, who said that Trinidadians
should "buy less clothes, go less to store". During the rebellion he met Jeanette who was
then thrity-seven (he was twenty-six), already with ten children. They started living
together, they have since had four children together.
"In 1973, the 21st of May, I leave the city with my
child father [Cyprian] and come in the bush with him.
Well, I have to say the Spirit lead me there because at
the life [time] I was about to build a house. I had the
land, I had galvanise, I had wood, I had everything but
I just walk out on it, pick up the smaller children
(which I had eveven at the time), pick up up the
smaller ones and his own and I come to the bush with
"I didn't even know I was coming in the bush! But one
day he just came back and tell me 'I come for you to go
in the bush' and I say "Who me? Not me! I ai' going
in the bush!' Well, he said 'Think it over. On Monday
I"ll be here with a van and be ready'. Well, I didn't
even take him on, but Sunday a little incident happen
between one of my children and another little boy kick
him... Within myself something was telling me 'Look
this is the time for you to leave; get out of this place'.
"It was so simple. I was about to build house then.
When life [time] reach to come in the bush these things
come like nothing to me. I just pack up and pick up
some of my children and move out... And something in
me feel different. From that day I started to feel a kind
of lightness. How you would call it a lightness in spirit,
yes, because to me, myself start talking to me more
freely, you know; things come in my mind, I talk to
myself and it was nice, feeling a vibration in the body
and I started to live.
"It was nice living, although it was hard because I
knew nothing then about the bush and the life and the
food, how to live, because you accustom in the city
with money and buy. So it was a little rough but I
continue with it. People call the bush 'the jungle'. I
call it 'life' because within the bushes you find many
lives in different form, in the birds and the animals,
the insects, the serpents, and they all life."
Jeanette went along with Jakatan's attempt to return to a simple rural life, even though
everyone who used to live along the coast had now left. They settled by agreement on the
estate where Hell Valley now lies and after an argument with the owner who lives in the
village, squatted on the land, occupying a disused store and selling the copra they gathered
in the village. A rare visitor surveying the idyllic setting said "This is the Valley of Peace".
Immediately, without reflecting, Jeanette corrected him: "No, here is the Valley of
Decision". The name stuck.
Jeanette fasted before that Easter and had a vision in which she ran away from Jesus into
a river in which swam a serpent. She continued to look after her children and "do usual
housewife thing" until another dream in 1975 when she was eight months pregnant:
"I find well I was too heavy, you know. so I had to stay
in one place. I stay one place for about two months
already. What make me stay one place is I come and
had a vision that the moon [come] up this place to have
"The vision was I was living in a place and it look
like in the city and I heard the people laughing, laugh-
ing outside, so I came outside to see what it is was
going on. When I came out I see everyone looking up
on the sky and laughing. When I look I saw something
funny, shape in a something, it had a head but the
head was funny. It had thin thin hands but yet it was
the moon that was shape in that form. So when I look
up it said to me 'Don't bother with them, it is you I
want to speak to. Get on the hill there, you will see a
house. Go there and make your baby.'
"And when I come out [of the dream] I tell him, I say,
'Well, look, I have to go to make my baby up on the
hill because I is Mary'. This is what the moon tells me
'Mary, you got to go and make the baby'. So I say
I'm Mary, say I have to go so to make the baby. The
moon didn't say really mother of Jesus but I know to
myself now I am the mother of Jesus since I reach to
this stage... And then one of my sons come and had the
same vision: he was leading the donkey and I on it with
the baby: Mary going to make the baby.
"So when I get up I was wondering where to go to
make this baby? It have no house on the hill so that I
could go and make this baby. Where? So I end up
going upstairs in the cocoa box (9)... And then I come
and make one night. I just feel a forcing I didn't have
no pain to make the baby. I just feel a force and when
I feel a force I telling the children 'Look like I going to
make the baby'. And rain started to fall. I made one. I
tell them 'Well, look, something still in my belly, I still
feel something' so I make a force again and another
comes out! I was so shocked, seeing two babies which
I never had before. So I just tie them off, one of my
sons cut the naval [cord]. I show him what to do. And
the next one the father cut it. I show him what to do.
And they cut it, which was two boys.
And after that, when they was five months, well I
started to bum everything I had. Just like that one day.
It was the same as any day. It was surprising too how I
started... The rain started to fall that day and I went
outside. I started to dance in the rain and sing an
African song which they usually use in Shange tent
(which I use to go around Shango a lot so I know how
to call the water). So I started to sing one of the songs:
'Ehmanjah, saiy, saiy,
Sanya roya maja,
Sanya roya ...' (10)
"And I sing it, and after that I sing for the day different
tunes, calling the water, calling the thunder and lightn-
"Well, next day the sun was shining and from then, I
started burning thing. I just came inside of the house, I
said 'Look I want everything in the kitchen bum, the
pots and pans and everything.' So from then we use to
roast little planting and eat it because the pot is in the
fire. I put the radio in the fire. The children take it back
out. It bum a little but it was still playing. They take it
back out. Well I come around all the bedding I had to
wash frm the twins (because I couldn't go by the river
when they bom so I was washing very little here,
waiting until I get a little stronger to go down by the
river to do the big washing). And the bundles come so
high that the day I took them up and put them into the
fire I feel like something come out of me! I feel light.
Two big bundles of bedding, I put them in the fire!
And they bum, the sheets and everything bum! I bum
everything in the house for a few days! I can't tell you
exactly what day I start but I know the last thing I had
to bum was the [sewing] machine. I even took down
the doors and windows and bur them... I had no
thinking, just doing. I was like a mad body. If I see a
nail, I pull it out.
"So Sunday morning the fire was still going for the
days, things keep burning. I pick up the Bibles then for
the first time for I didn't intend to bum them. I said,
'Let me go, come and let me show you how your
education is upside-down'. So he [Cyprian] come with
me to the fire. And certain things I have done by the
fire, can't remember all directly but one of the main
things I know: I rest my feet in the fire; I said 'Just now
I will be dancing in the fire'. Then I took up something
from the fire which is a burnt piece of something and
pass it in the book, open the Book. The writing come
upside-down and I show it to him. I show it to them.
All of us was surprised. I and all was surprised! Al-
though it's me do it but yet I was surprised to see the
writing come upside-down. So I told him, say, 'Look
your education is upside-down'."
Jeanette's mourning visions in Port-of-Spain had been relatively conventional, similar
to those of her friends and neighbours except perhaps for the recurrent serpent which she is
encouraged to oppose, and for a closer identification with Christ than was usual among the
Baptists (but one by no means totally outrageous). Her vague sense of mission was shared
by many others, including her partner, Cyprian. She had met him at the time of the failed
Black Power uprising when, dissatisfied both with Black Power and the Baptists, he
proposed that they adopt a simpler and more traditional rural life away from the pressures
of the town. Jeanette only reluctantly agreed to join him, together with their children, for
she had been gathering materials to build a house of her own in town. The family settled at
the most deserted part of the coast, reading the Bible and discussing religious questions
together, accepting omens in dreams and continuing occasional fasts. It was a physically
demanding life but the calm and peace of the coast more than compensated for the
arguments with overseers and estate owners, recalling to Jeanette the best times of her
childhood when she had accompanied her godfather as he worked on his little patch of four
acres. In a dream after she settled on the coast she finds herself running away from Jesus
towards a snake in a river.
Two years after they arrived, when Jeanette was forty-one years old, and eight months
pregnant, she has another dream in which the moon tells her she is many and she should
have her child on top of a hill. Not understanding why, she follows the dream and gives
birth to twins under the roof of the house. Five months later, Jeanette, in a burst of energy,
sings a song to the mother diety of Shango and starts burning all the disposable articles, last
of all her Bible; neither she nor her family understand what is happening but her partner
presumes some religious meaning in it and does not interfere. When questioned by him,
Jeanette gives answers that flash into her head, principally that her actions are due to the
"natural spirit" in her. The burned objects she now refers back to personal concerns, to her
religion (Bible), sickness (spectacles) or to her domestic tasks (bedding, kitchen, utensils
and eventually the sewing machine with which she made the children's shirts). Together
with the burning of all their clothes, this results in the family going naked until she makes
up some temporary garments out of sacking, later abandoning these again as uncomfortable
and unnecessary. This period is now known as The Beginning of the End, the moment when
nature became incarnate in Jeanette as Mother Earth.
Friends of her older sons who knew her in town come out to visit the family on the
coast. Amazed at what they find, they argue and discuss with Mother Earth. Some discard
their clothes and stay in the Valley and the Earth People's beliefs are consolidated through
group reasoning. Together they interpret and reinterpret Mother Earth's visions. The
commune is established and within a year the marches to Port-of-Spain begin.
Appropriations from the Baptists...
It was during her Baptist mourning that Jeanette first became aware of some sense of
difference from her friends and neighbours. Many other members of the Earth People have
previously attended meetings of the 'Shouter' Baptists who, like Rastafari, are regarded as
'half way there' to the full revelation of Mother Africa. Indeed we can conceive the
Shouters as lying between those mainstream Baptist churches of the Caribbean still closely
allied to their parent congregations in the United States, and the conscious Africanisms of
the Shango cult. Shango and Shouter baptism are closely associated and some followers of
Shango continue to refer to themselves as 'Shango Baptists'.
During Baptist mourning as I observed it in Northern Trinidad, initiates are secluded
periodically in a side room, lying in the dust or on pallets of leaves, and bound all over with
flat cloth bands, recalling the appearance of a wrapped 'Egyptian mummy'. These bands
are sealed with signs, and the mourner remains for a period of at least seven days,
accompanied by a spiritual director, usually the Mother of the group. She feeds the
travelling children on weak vegetable broth and guides their spirit quests, usually to India,
China or Africa where they learn a new role (Captain, Head Nurse, Labourer) often by
self-perception as a Biblical figure (Joseph, Mary, Joshua) which is communicated to the
Mother and, if ratified, involves them in fresh ritual costume and paraphernalia in future
It has been argued that the style and authenticity of these visions determine future status
in each Baptist group and are closely tied to internal disputes and challenges to the authority
of the leaders0 i); most Mothers therefore prefer to keep a close watch on the proceedings.
Jeanette had rather overstepped the mark when she reported a vision of herself as Christ:
not even the Baptist Mother identifies herself with any of the persons of the Trinity. Such
identification is regarded outside of the mourning as only 'spiritual', and even in the vision
itself it is only a temporary visit or gift of higher powers, not unlike the gift of tongues from
the Holy spirit in other denominations.
'Mourning' is considered by the participant less as a bereavement than as a temporary
bodily death in close association with the earth (Daniel 10:3), enabling the spirit to live
more fully in the other world, thence to be reborn spiritually. Shouters admit that mourning
can be dangerous, for the individual when travelling is vulnerable to mauvay lespwis
(malign, and usually African or nature spirits) but correct sealing and guidance by the
Mother can prevent mishaps.
How self-consciously 'African' can we take Shouter Baptism? Herskovits regards it as
transitional between West African religion and Protestantism(12). As we look at Shango and
Spiritual Baptism today there appears to be some thematic and experential elision between
them and it is likely that they continue to share key personnel as in the past, the 'open'
Christian service sometimes preceding a more restricted Shango meeting. Many small new
and short-lived groups draw on both sources0 3) and the conventional distinction between
the two is perhaps more rigid than their pragmatic and casual organisation would warrant.
Certainly the Baptists are regarded by other Trinidadians as being particularly close to
obeah ('African' sorcery), and the material success of the family of the Shepherd Mother in
the nearest Baptist group to the village I lived in was attributed by some to obeah. None of
the Baptist leaders I knew admitted to practising it but they agreed that their familiarity with
the spirit world made them particularly successful at returning obeah on the senders
through guards or lighting a candle. Nor did they see Baptism as a specifically 'African'
form of Christianity, welcoming the occasional White participants such as myself, and
maintaining that the difference between Spiritual and 'caral' (American) Baptist lay in an
openness to the Holy Spirit and a lack of formality which were simply more congenial to
those of African descent. In the colonial period, however, some Baptists were believed to
hold Black suprematist views(14).
The absence of the sort of exorcism practised by local Pentecostal groups, or of a rigid
distinction between the context of good and bad spirit intrusion, together with the idea of
travel in some world where the physical and spiritual meet, and the overlapping member-
ship between Shango and Spiritual Baptist, suggest that good and evil are less dichotomised
here than in mainstream Christianity. By contrast with Jamaica, where obeah and myal
opposed each other in the nineteenth century, Trinidadian Shango seems more deliberately
'African' in asserting a non-dualistic world, one in which the initiate can return temporarily
to Africa. the extent to which the Shouters incorporate themes of high science (Western-
derived magic) is uncertain: Shouter seals certainly recall those found in such science texts
as The Sixth and Seventh Book ofMoses, and the Herskovits' accounts of the nineteen-thir-
ties imply that Shouters then shared the pantheistic tendencies of science, including invoca-
tion of ancient European nature spirits. To an extent this sharing may be attributed to the
strength in Trinidad of Catholicism whose syncretic and thaumaturgical practices are not
found in the Protestant churches: Baptists may be simultaneously Catholics (and less often
Anglicans) but never Presbyterians, the major Non-Conformist group in Trinidad.
Certain currents in baptism are commented upon and developed in Mother Eath: the
dynamic continuity with Africa, an affirmation of the popular working-class world as
opposed to the social churches, the physical and conceptual closeness ot the earth, the
organisational and nurturant role of the Mother, the association of women with the
'African' centre-pole of the Baptist chapel rather than with its altar, the local religious
community as a family, an openness to subjective imagery, personal visions as justification
for daily life, and, perhaps most significantly, a notion of the ultrahuman as not that far
removed from everyday experience. While Mother Earth has moved decisively away from
Christian doctrine, the Bible remains for her, as it does for Baptists and Rastas, an important
source for understanding the history of our world, albeit one to be interpreted with
....and from Shango
The origins of Spiritual Baptism lie not only in missionary Baptism but in those secret
nocturnal meetings of the African-bom slaves where they weighed their knowledge against
what was known of the Christianity of the planters, with resulting accommodations,
appropriations and reinterpretations. Although described somewhat quaintly as 'balls' by
the Europeans, such assemblies are likely to have offered opportunities for other activities
other rather than simply entertainment. Of what actually happened at those meetings we
can know little but out of them emerged the characteristically West Indian 'feel' of the
mainstream churches, together with such distinctive groups as the Shouters, and those
popular understandings of the self, nature and the ultrahuman world which are embodied in
bush medicine(l5). To an extent, that popular body of knowledge took an institutional form
in the Shango rites of spirit possession by African powers, rites which shared personnel and
ideas with Shouters Baptism. After the Emancipation; the followers of Shango, like the
Shouters, continued to engage in what were illegal activities. While its occasional formal
practice continues in Trinidad, it is perhaps disappearing in a society where it has never
been officially recognized as embodying any characteristic national values unlike the
Baptists who are usually regarded by the Trinidadian establishment with good humoured
tolerance as a sort of year-long carnival.
Shango is not opposed to obeah except in as much as obeah is employed for harm.
Shango may indeed be said to be morally neutral in that every African power (or Orisha) is
potentially both malevolent and benevolent Ritual centres which emphasised the ability of
the powers to heal were once known as balmyards, and many popular practitioners of
'obeah' (who would not now use the designation of obeahman but prefer seerman, teacher
or healer) offer advice for physical or spiritual misfortune.
Instead of the Baptist travelling during mourning, devotees of the orishas are complete-
ly possessed by their power in full view of the audience, acting as a horse (or child) upon
which the power manifests. The powers themselves are named West African deities
although they are usually coupled with Christian saints: thus Yemanja is associated with the
Virgin Mary, St Anne or St. Catherine. They are usually Yoruba although in the area of
Port-of-Spain where Mother Earth lived as a girl there existed a Rada group deriving from
nineteenth century immigrants from Dahomey(16). Compared with baptism, there is more
use of Patois (French Creole) and many songs are in 'Yoruba', although the precise
meaning of the words are usually unknown to the participants. There is little similarity to a
A Christian service and Shango rites resemble more the traditional fetes, 'African dances',
communal labour entertainments (gayaps) and wakes of rural Trinidad. They are sponsored
activities, involving expenditure on food, various ritual objects and animals for sacrifice,
and their organisation is perhaps closer to a fraternity or cult than to a church. Shango
employ items regarded as more 'African' than 'Christian' rum, tobacco, drums, chacs-
chacs (gourd rattles), calabashes and cutlasses. Music characteristically employs polyr-
hythms but antiphony between leader and chorus are less common than in Baptist meetings.
Greater attention is paid to the central pole and the altar is merely one of the resting places
for a variety of ritual paraphernalia rather than the central concentration of spiritual power.
earthen shrines of the individual Orishas may be located around the courtyard of the palais.
For the Earth People, Shango asserts an Africa quite independent of White Christianity
W. whether the identification of the powers with Christian saints is any case 'syncretic'
may be doubted, for the power/saint still has two distinct aspects which are not completely
fused, and the shrine of the Orisha always remains distinct from the altar a relationship
Bastide terms a 'correspondence'('7). In some ways Shango is even closer to everyday
village life than baptism: towards the end of a wake in my village, the more respectable
villagers, particularly the women, leave the ceremony and return home to sleep; the singing
then shifts from the lugubrious 'Sankeys' to a sharper tempo, a greater degree of improvisa-
tion and the introduction of polythythms, progressing to spontaneous male dancing and
massed banjo drumming in which domestic calabashes and bowls are used.
Through its use of blood, leaves, water and 'thunderaxes'(t8) and its associations
between the Orishas and the natural forces of sea and thunder, animals and trees, Shango
eludes the natural, human and mystical domains which Spiritual Baptism, as a nominally
Christian faith, still prefers to distinguish. While Baptism merely accords the earth on
which mourners lie a status which represents the origin and fate of man, Shango takes the
ground as the continuing physical source of the Gods; oblations are poured onto it, and it is
from the earth that the powers manifest up through the central pole and then onto their
child. While earth from graves is now regarded as the material for malignant obeah par
excellence, it comes from what is the resting place of the ancestors, and grave dirt was
formerly placed in the mouth of the suspected thief or practitioner of harmful orcery to
determine the truth.
Mother Earth argues that Shango is the only authentic tradition of Mother Nature. She
herself was never an adult participant in Shango and has never been possessed. She
remembers relatively little of the details beyond some of the songs, the sacrifices of goats
(of which she disapproves) and the children' tables or feasts. She recalls how once a year
the Mother of a Shango group would invite the local children, both followers of the Orishas
and other neighbours, African and Indian together, to a feast where they were invited to
partake of large quantities of food piled high on tables in a Shango tent. Attending children
were specifically identified with the African orishas: "when you feed the children, you feed
the saints"(19). The Earth People regard children as the real Africans, and call themselves
the Children of the Nation. (The term nation, once used to describe particular descent or
regional groupings, and later their organizations for mutual aid and fetes, as well as
suggesting Africans in general, now refers to the Shango ceremonies themselves.) 'Feeding
the children' appears in the Earth Peoples' cultivation of the land around the Valley and
their accumulation of large quantities of food surplus to any immediate needs, their
emphasis on preparation for the coming famine by Planting for the Children, not to mention
the importance of the communal consumption of food, the only activity in the Valley which
could conventionally be described as a 'ritual'.
The Earth People also appropriate those aspects of Shango regarded as distinctively
African drums, stools, and the revering of an animate nature: Shango cultists washed
their 'thunder stones' and made offerings in the sea and some devotees were said to dance
with snakes. There is, however, no experience of anything like'spirit possession' or Baptist
mourning among the Earth People. Mother Earth argues that the slaves did return to Africa
after death, and that Shango possession was a 'half-way' stage of keeping in contact with
the ancestral spirits, an accommodation during the Nation's exile from their Mother. This
is no longer necessary, for the whole world is about to return to the slate of Nature, the
'otherworldly' becoming the everyday.
From fragmentary rites, visions, dreams and recollections we shall return to the totality,
for these were only a memory, a keeping of faith until the Beginning of The End: "Your
ancestor is you" says Mother Earth. We are living now in the last days, in that moment
before time itself will end, when past and present will be reconciled. Perhaps paradoxically
it is Mother Earth herself who seems to retain the double identity of the African power and
the human on whom the power manifests(20). In her African identity as the Earth Mother
she embodies all the Orishas and the ancestors, and that whole history of the separation
between Nature and her Children, the separation between Africa and the Caribbean, and
indeed between woman and man.
1. An Earth People's song, sung by Tannia. I lived with the Earth people on and off during 1981-2.
Since then there have been many changes, notably the death of Mother Earth herself in 1984. I
returned again for three months in 1988, and again in 1991 but this paper is concerned with the
situation in 1981. My initial stay was funded in part through a (British) Social Science Re-
search Council Post-Doctoral Fellowship. A further account of the Earth People may be found
in my Pathology and Identity: The Work of Mother Earth in Trinidad (Cambridge University
Press 1992). In previous papers on the Earth People (The Imitation of Madness, Social Science
and Medicine, 19 705-715m 1984; Putting Out The Life: From Biography to Ideology
Among the Earth People. In J. Okely (ed.), Anthropology and Autobiography, London, Rout-
ledge, 1991; History. Memory and Appropriation: Some Problems in the Analysis of Origins.
In B. Chevannes (ed.), Rastafari: Symbols and Continuity. Hague, Institute of Social Studies,
in press) I have emphasised analysis. Here I offer some greater space for Mother Earth's own
account of her visionary experiences.
2. Like most other proper names in this paper, a pseudonym at the request of her immediate family.
Members of the Earth People are publically known by "fruit names" such as Tannia,
Breadfruit, Cassava: these I have retained.
4. Rhythmic vocal expirations synchronized with slow stomping (see S.D. Glazier, Marchin' the
Pilgrims Home: Leadership and Decision-Making in an Afro-Caribbean Faith, Westpoint,
Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983, page 43).
5. Giant monkey as in the film King Kong.
6. This time: the word Utime is avoided by the Earth People as illusory.
7. Worry about it or be preoccupied with it.
8. For an account see H.L. Bennett, The Challenge to the Post-Colonial State: A Case Study of the
February Revolution in Trinidad, In F.W. Knight and C.A. Palmer (eds.) The Modem Carib-
bean, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
9.Loft with retractable roof for drying cocoa beans.
10. A Shango song. Ehmanjah (Yemanja) is the Yoruba deity of the river Ogu who conceives a son,
Orungan, by her brother Aganja, the power of the dry land. To Orungan himself she bears a
number of orisha including Shango, Ogun and Shopona. In Afro-American religions Yemanja
is closely linked to St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, or to mary herself; her personality
(as embodied by the followers on who she manifests) is maternal, nurturant, tolerant but im-
placcable (Littlewood 1992, op. cit.)
11. But see Glazer op. cit. who argues that this is not really so (although women participants under-
stand that it is).
12. M.J. and F.S. Herskovits, Trinidad Village. New York, Knopf, 1947.
13. M.G. Smith, Dark Puritan. Kingston: U.W.I., 1962.
14. G.E. Simpson, Religious Cults of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico: Institute of Caribbean Studies,
15. R. Littlewood, From Vice to Madness: The Semantics of naturalistic Personalistic Under-
standings in Trinidadian Local Medicine, Social Science and Medicine, 27. 129-148, 1988.
16. A.T. Carr, A Rada Community in Trinidad. "Caribbean Quarterly", Vol. 3, pp. 35-54, 1952.
17. R.Bastide, The African Religions of Brasil: Towards a Sociology of the Interpenetration of
Civilisations. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.
18. Neolithic stone tools now taken as manifestations of the orisha Shango (as in West Africa).
19. E. Thomas, A History of the Shouter baptists in Trinidad and Tobago, Port-of-Spain: Callaloux
20. Mother Earth agrees that after her visionary experiences (when she was "out of myself') her be-
haviour was different. To use the ideal-typology which Bourguignon applies to Godfrey
Lienhardt's Shiluk King, she originally experienced PT, possession trance (altered state of con-
sciousness plus possession belief), which has been succeeded by P. possession (the belief
alone); the Shango participant experiences PT and then returns to any everyday state, while the
baptist mourner is arguably in T. trance (an altered state of consciousness without possession
belief) E. Bourguignon, Spirit Possession and Altered States of Consciousness: The Evolution
of an Enquiry, In G.D. Spindler (ed.) The Making of Psychological Anthropology, Berkeley,
University of California Press, 1978).
AFRICAN RELIGION AND CHRISTIANITY IN GRENADA
The shadow is what we see;
We do not see the results,
The results are coming, father of Openness.
The continuance of traditional African religious practices in the New World has been
the focus of much scholarly attention. Haitian Voudou, Cuban Santeria, and Brazilian
Candomble have become celebrated examples of the persistence of African culture in the
Americas. The precise relationships between Afro-American religious practices and those
of Africa (past and present), however, remain unclear. While it has been demonstrated that
African peoples in the New World created and maintained, quite early on, intricate and
well-developed social institutions based in part of African practices, there is not enough
data to make broad generalizations about the processes through which these institutions
were formed. This paper is an abbreviated addition to our knowledge of Afro-American
religions and, in particular, Afro-Grenadian religious practices.
In 1498, while on his third voyage, Columbus sighted the island of Grenada and
claimed it for the Spanish Crown. However, Grenada was not colonized by Europeans,
until the seventeenth century when the island came under the dominion of the French. In
1763, as a result of the Seven Years War and the Treaty of Paris, the island passed into the
hands of the British who maintained colonial authority until Grenada achieved inde-
pendence in 1974. Although possessed by the French and English in succession, today the
island is predominately populated by peoples of West African descent. Thus, many
Grenadians, the majority of whose ancestors came to Grenada as slaves or as or indentured
labourers, believe Africa to be a primary source of their cultural heritage treating the
subjects of Africa and things African with great deference. Not surprisingly, one finds in
Grenada numerous social practices which may be traced to West Africa. The most notable
of these practices are religious traditions commonly referred to as Shango or African work.
Shango in Grenada represents a structured and internally coherent system of religious
belief which is derived primarily from traditional religious practices of the Yoruba of
Nigeria. In Shango ceremonies the Yoruba language is often used, although not always
understood, and Yoruba deities such as Eshu, Shango, Ogun, Yemanja, and Oshun are
invoked by their devotees. A central aim of Shango ceremonies is to induce physical and
psychic possession of worshipers by the Orisha. It has been suggested that the origins of
shango in Grenada is directly linked to the arrival, in 1849, of over 1,000 indentured
Yoruba labourers from Ijesha, Nigeria (Smith 1965: 34; Simpson 1978:82). These
Nigerians settled in relatively closed communities and continued many of the traditions of
their homeland. Over time, as members of these communities and their descendants moved
to other parts of the island, their religious practices (Shango) gained popularity throughout
Grenada. The practice of Shango gradually replaced forms of African-based ritual such as
Nation Dance which were once prevalent on the island but which did not include spirit
possession (Smith 1965:34). On Grenada's sister island, Carriacou, which did not receive
large numbers of free Yoruba immigrants, Nation Dance or Big Drum is still celebrated.
(Smith 1965:34; Pollack-Eltz 1970:818). Shango is not unknown on Carriacou, however,
and Shango specialists are occasionally brought from Grenada to perform spirit possession
ceremonies (Hill 1977:384).
The majority of Grenadians who practice Shango rituals do not, claim however to
worship the African deities exclusively. They are often affiliated with Catholic and Protes-
tant churches. The most popular Christian organizations seem to be the numerous inde-
pendent Baptist sects found on the island. Two Baptist groups commonly called
Shango-Baptists also acknowledge the existence of African spiritual entities (orisha).
In 1889, Hesketh J. Bell (1970:3975) an Englishman who some years earlier had briefly
resided in Grenada, published the following account of a "wanga temple" he had dis-
covered near a hot spring while exploring the island:
We soon arrived at a clump of bush and calabash
trees, in the midst of which had been erected a small
thatched shed, surrounded by bamboos stuck into the
ground and bearing long flag-like strips of red or white
cotton stuff. From the queer-looking odds and ends
disposed about the place, I made sure that I was in a
temple dedicated to some mysterious rites and
ceremonies, and, in fact, my guide informed me that
frequently Africans, old Creoles and sometimes
coolies, came here to pray and dance. Around the shed
were bamboos, disposed so as to form seats, and at the
upper end was erected a small altar, on which was
placed a most mysterious collection of objects. A
broken cutlass was stuck into the ground between a
thick tumbler and an empty oil bottle, while in front of
it were two earthenware native-made jugs, one filled
with flowers, the other with kola nuts; and next to this,
presenting a striking incongruity, was erected a rough
wooden cross, looking anything but at home in that
In a second passage, Bell (1970:28) describes a typical pilgrimage which Afro-
Grenadians made to one of the water sources sacred to Mamadjo (the Water Mother or
Mermaid, said also to be Yemanja):
First came four or five stalwart Negroes carrying pink,
red and white flags, followed by a group of old
women, dressed up in red cotton frocks, with veils of
the same material covering their heads, and topped
with a chaplet of some green feathery creeping plant,
which grows in profusion in the high woods. Then
came more elderly females, similarly clad in blue cot-
ton, all dancing frantically to the sound of most bar-
barous music, which followed them. Three or four men
carried in their hands large empty gourds, covered
over with a loose network of small porcelain shirt-but-
tons, which they kept continually shaking, thus
making a loud rustling sound, serving as an accom-
paniment to a wild sort of song or refrain, yelled out in
the most minor of minor keys by the whole of the
assistants. The rear was brought up by an indis-
criminate gathering of negroes, all dancing furiously,
and all decked with sprays of the same green creeper.
Questioning one of these followers, I learnt that the
procession was on its way to the Grant Etang, the
supposed home of a "Mamadjo" or siren, whom they
were going to propitiate by sundry sacrifices of goats
and fowls, in order to obtain from her a few showers of
rain, which were sadly needed for the young corn just
Once pilgrims have arrived at the Grand Etang, the old
women of the procession would commence an endless
prayer or incantation, addressed to the Mamadjo, ac-
companied, no doubt by the sacrifice of a black goat
and some white fowls, and the siren. Once considered
satisfied, the ceremony would conclude with an
African dance to the inspiring sound of the tom-tom,
lasting till day-light, when all would peaceably return
to their avocations, and would, most likely, be seen
next Sunday hurrying to their church, dressed out in
their best toggery (Bell 1970:29).
We are indebted to Bell, as such descriptions of practice in Grenada are quite rare. In
contrast to the large amount of scholarly work compiled on the religious practices of
Afro-Caribbean people on other islands (Haitians, Cubans, Trinidadians, Brazilians, etc.)
there is little reference to similar practices in Grenada.
African Work is another Kind of Work
During the last week of July, 1990, I observed most ritual activities of a three-day
religious celebration which occurred near Greenville, Grenada.2 The celebration was
described variously by participants as a "Shango" or "Thanksgiving feast." I was told that
events such as this are considered to be African work though they may be sponsored by a
Spiritual Baptist church. They occur seasonally,are closely associated with the agricultural
cycle, and are usually dedicated to the Orisha. At such feasts, members of the general
community, not just the church sponsoring the ceremonies, gather to share food, distribute
candy to children, pay homage to the Orisha, or to simply enjoy the festive atmosphere. The
feast with which I am concerned here was sponsored by the members of a Shango Baptist
church whose leader is well-known as a strong "worker" of the African "powers". The
event was held at the home of the leader of that church, was officiated by him, and was
dedicated to the Orisha Shango, Ogun, and Oshun.
Acknowledging incongruities between the practice of African religion and Protestant
Christianity, the church leader intimated that African work is, indeed, another kind of
work differentiated from Christian work, but African and Christian work stand together
under God. The two sets of ritual may be of separate origins, but, in the eyes of the people,
they are not incompatible. Rather, they are understood to be complimentary. Members of
the church express their religiosity through the recognition and practice of the rituals of two
major religious cults, the cull of the Orisha based upon Yoruba traditions; and the cult of
Christ derived from primarily Protestant sources.3 Each set of beliefs has its own ritual
requirements which must be observed and maintained.
On the first morning of the Thanksgiving, members of the church formed a procession
which made a short pilgrimage from the home of the leader to a hot spring located nearby.
I was unable to attend this portion of the activities, but was informed that the members of
the church had presented themselves in full regalia, carrying banners and flags before them
as they marched and sang. The spring at which they conducted ceremonies, I suspect the
same one where Hesketh Bell found his "wanga temple".
After processing to the warm springs, a ritual space was prepared in front of the church
leader's house and near numerous bamboo poles bearing small, colorful flags which
invariably mark the residences of Shango practitioners. Working quickly, several members
of the church constructed a four-cornered bamboo structure which had a centre-pole. A
plastic trap served as its roof. Four large earthenware pots were set at the base of the
centre-pole; two containing flowers and two containing holy water. Alongside these vessels
were placed a bell, a bible, and several white candles. Also at the base of the centre-pole
were a few small jars containing honey, herbs, flour, and kernels of corn. Leaning against
the centre-pole was a well-sharpened cutlass of the kind nearly every farmer in rural
Grenada carries. This temporary sacristy and its accoutrements were to be the locus of
nearly all ritual activity during the three days of the Thanksgiving feast.
It is significant that the structure for African work was situated opposite the group's
concrete Baptist church (which is located behind the home of the leader and his extended
family). Symbolically, the locus of the two sets of rituals are separated; mediated by the
house of the leader. Furthermore, to one side of the house there is a small altar for the Egun
(ancestors) consisting of two small earthenware vases, a metal blade stuck into the ground
in front of them, several candles, and a small plate of food. According to the leader,
maintenance of such a shrine for the Egun (based upon the Yoruba ancestor cult) is not
directly associated with African work such as Shango (worship of the Orisha). Instead,
Egun is regarded as a familial cult in which it is recognized that the spirits of one's
ancestors, though dead, must still be actively treated as family. Christ and the Orisha,
however, are said to be divinities and must be acknowledged accordingly.
The religious practices of the leader and his followers are best understood as a federa-
tion of cults (Orisha, Christ, Egun, and perhaps Mamadjo) ; distinct and internally coherent
sets of behaviour each having their own temporal and spatial obligations which are held
together as a system by the behaviour of individuals who find the continuance of such
distinct practices to be both affective and logical. With regard to the study of the religious
behaviour of groups such as this, Sandra Barnes (1989:21) suggests that investigations
"need to start from the premise that several religious
traditions may coexist in one context, and that par-
ticipants may be bi-religious, and to work through the
complexity that ensues from these reoriented perspec-
While separate religious traditions may coexist or be juxtaposed without merging, they
also influence one another. Stephen D. Glazier (1985:49) has noted that "Whenever two or
more religious traditions exist in proximity, there is a tendency for these traditions to
merge". There is also a countervailing tendency for each tradition to remain separate. Thus,
within the practices of both the cult of Christ and the cult of the Orisha in Grenada, one may
detect elements which have crossed the boundaries between the two. Such elements,
however, appear to be minimal. Just as in Hesketh Bell's account of the "wanga temple" the
cross appears to have been placed in juxtaposition to seemingly African elements, the
Shango Baptist church is located behind the leader's home, while the ritual space for the
Orisha was built in front of his house. In fact, it was stated that African work should not be
performed in a SpirituaL Baptist church. Connections between these two sets of practice
are neither shared ritual elements nor sacred objects, but the expression of faith by
individuals who simply believe in both.
The cult of the Orisha, as maintained by the members of the church and demonstrated
by the celebrants during the Thanksgiving festivities, displays ritual characteristics which
make it possible to discuss Yoruba religion as a metacultural phenomenon. Throughout the
New World, peoples of African and non-African ancestry continue having meaningful
religious experiences through observance of Yoruba-based sacred traditions.
In Grenada the manifestation of this reality which remains most memorable occurred
when a male member of the church became possessed by the Orisha Ogun, the Yoruba god
of war and iron. The episode described below took place after a goat and three chickens had
been sacrificed to Ogun and following several hours of drumming kept nearly continuous
by a battery of drummers who rotated in and out of position behind three drums. It also
came in the wake of other possessions by the same Orisha. The individual in question, a
man of impressive physical stature became possessed by the deity while taking a break
The man was standing to one side of the bamboo structure and shaking a bead covered
gourd (bolie) when he suddenly screamed and hurled himself backwards into the crowd.
Several observers held the man up and thrust him into the centre of the structure. There, one
of the leader's ritual assistants tied a length of red fabric around the possessed man's waist
and another length of blue fabric around the man's head. The possessed man then strode
deliberately around the perimeter of the structure shaking hands with members of the
audience, but his eyes did not seemed to focused on them. The deity had a strong grip. He
grasped each observer's hand in the same manner in which one welcomes a guest to one's
home. Upon completion of this circumambulation, the possessed man began to dance in
front of the drummers, allowing the sound of the drums to lead the movements of his body.
After a short while he moved to the centre-pole where he picked up the cutlass. Weapon in
hand, he shifted to a more aggressive dance step keeping time with the martial beat of the
drummers. Dramatically, he swung the cutlass as if he stood alone against an army: over his
head, to his left, to his right, to the front. Occasionally he would place its point against his
skin and press firmly as if to show that its sharpness was no danger to him, or charge the
audience, striking the blade against the comer poles of the structure as if warning the people
crowding too closely that they bad no such protection. Several times, he took position
directly in front of the drummers and violently slashed at the air above them, the blade
passing perilously close to their heads. Finally, he placed the point of the blade in his mouth
and held the cutlass firmly with his teeth. He then acrobatically lowered himself slowly and
self-assuredly to the ground. As he lay there, his sweating flesh resting on dirt hardened by
dancing; cutlass rising upward out of his mouth, it was obvious that he had power over the
weapon. It seemed to be an extension of his body.
The possessed did not rest long. He soon stood up,
placed the cutlass against the center-pole, and left the
structure. Moments later, he returned with several
pieces of wood and a few charcoal embers taken from
the fire-pit where animals sacrificed earlier in the day
were being cooked. He placed the wood directly in
front of the drummers. Carefully protecting the shining
coals with his hands, and periodically blowing them,
he ignited the kindling. As the flames rose, he danced
over the fire, demonstrating his mastery.
The allure of the Orisha is that their essence is actively demonstrated. While Ogun
danced before the drummers, several women to the left of the musicians began to talk
loudly. Silently, the possessed man reached down into the failing flames before him and
drew out a handful of glowing embers. Turning to the women, he threw the coals directly
at them. Two drummers found this development humorous and began to laugh. A few
seconds and another handful of embers later, Ogun had the drummers's attention as well.
When an Orisha is present that Orisha must be appropriately honoured. He/she cannot be
After refocusing the attention of his audience, the possessed man slowly placed his bare
feet into the remaining embers. he stood there a moment and then stepped out. He repeated
this several times, moving in and out of the coals unharmed. Finally, he lay down on the
ground and rolled back and forth over the embers. His point was well taken. Ogun has
complete control over fire. The flames which cook the sacrifices made in his honour and
which bum those who anger him have no effect on Ogun.
Ogun is not understood as only a "hard", "hot", and "cutting" deity. He also has the
ability to 'cool" those who pay him homage. This was clearly demonstrated by what the
possessed man did next. As the drummers maintained their steady beat, he ran out of the
structure and to the house of the leader. When he returned, he was balancing a large barrel
on his shoulder. This be carried into the structure and placed it firmly beside the centre-
pole. He then dipped his hands into the barrel and brought forth water. First he doused the
fire he had built, then he splashed water on the centre-pole, in the four covers of the
structure, and on all of the ritual objects. Then he turned towards the drummers and the
audience. With cupped hands, he threw water on the drummers, who did not miss a beat,
and splashed the audience with a divine rain. Next, he picked up the barrel and carried it
around the compound splashing water against the buildings. It is believed that Ogun may
kill and bum, but he also can bless and bring coolness. Only when the leader called the
possessed man back to the structure and persuaded him to stop his wordkdid Ogun depart
and his devotee was allowed to fall exhausted into the arms of church members.
This episode, while perhaps unusually dramatic, was only one of numerous possession
sequences occurring during the three-day celebration. Again and again, the Orisha descend-
ed upon the heads of worshippers their presence made evident through resulting ritual
Over the centuries, African-American peoples in the New World have developed and
maintained lasting forms of religious expression. They have neither abandoned traditional
African forms nor have they completely refused to accept Judeo-Christian forms of expres-
sion. Instead, they have created systems in which both co-exist in a state of dynamic
equilibrium. In Grenada as in Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad and Brazil separate religious traditions
have been purposely and logically juxtaposed and are relied upon, as parts of a complex
whole, for inspiration and "salvation."
1. These lines come from the text of one version of Odu Irosun within the corpus of Yoruba Ifa
divination narratives. It was recorded by William Bascom and published in Sixteen Cowries,
2. Research was made possible by a grant from the Foundation for Field Research.
3. The term 'cult', as used here, refers to a subset of ritual and belief within a religious structure,
most often focusing upon the worship of specific spiritual entities. For instance, the cult of the
Virgin Mary within Catholicism or the cult of Ogun within Yoruba religion.
Bames, Sandra T. 1989 Introduction: The Many Faces of Ogun. In Africa's Ogun, ed. Sandra T.
Bares, pp. 1-26. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Bascom, William. 1972 Shango in the New World. Occasional Publication, African and Afro-
American Research Institute. The University of Texas at Austin. 1980 Sixteen Cowries.
Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Bastide, Roger. 1978 The African Religions in Brazil: Toward a Sociology of the Interpretation of
Civilisations. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Bell, Hesketh J. 1970 Obeah: Witchcraft in the West Indies. Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities
Press. Originally published in 1889.
Brizan, George. 1984 Grenada: Island of Conflict. London: Zed Books.
Glazier, Stephen D. 1985 Syncretism and Separation: Ritual Change in an Afro-Caribbean Faith.
Journal of American Folklore 98: 49-62.
Hill, Donald R. 1977 The Impact of Migration on the Metropolitan and Folk Society of Carriacou,
Grenada. New York: Volume 54: Part 2. Anthropological Papers of The American Museum of
Pollack-Eltz, Angelina. 1970 Shango-Kult and Shouter-Kirche auf Trinidad und Grenada.
Anthropos 65: 8-14-832.
Simpson, George Eaton. 1978 Black Religions in the New Worlds. New York: Columbia Univer-
Smith, M.G. 1965 The Plural Society in the British West Indies. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univer-
sity of California Press.
Thompson, Robert Farris. 1984 Fash of the Spirit. New York: Vintage Books.
ST. LUCIAN DJINE IN COMMUNION WITH THEIR AFRICAN
This paper deals with the religious practice of communication with ancestors among an
African-American community called Djine on the small Caribbean island of St Lucia. In
studying this phenomenon of ritual interaction between the living and the seemingly dead
- between an African-St. Lucian social group and their African ancestors our interest
lies in the relevant concepts and ritual activities shared by members of the community
described. These will be interpreted against the background of African Traditional
Religion, a perspective which tries to overcome the separation between the physical and the
Communication between human and spiritual beings has often been termed by
anthropologists as "trance", "possession trance", or "spirit possession". However, taking
into consideration the transpersonal nature of the relations between living humans and their
ancestors, I would rather like to substitute these terms with the concept of "visiting" in its
The title "Visiting Ancestors" thus suggests on the one hand that the ancestors of the
Djine are visiting their descendants, be it in dreams or perhaps during their communal rites.
Ancestors might appear in dreams and demand food and ritual attention. This may lead to
communication with ancestors on the grave, including offerings of food and drinks accom-
panied by drumming and spiritual conversation. Also, a Kele will have to be "given",
during which this visiting relationship is initiated by members of the Djine who are inviting
their African ancestors to visit them in a spiritual manner. Signs of trance and possession
Since the relationship between the living and the seemingly dead is conceptualized as
interdependent in Africa Traditional Religion, the act of visiting each other is also con-
ceived as reciprocal. Success in life depends on the goodwill of the ancestors, therefore
offerings are made to them in order to ensure their benevolent influence. How this creative
communion with the ancestors is actualized in the Kele ritual, which is said to bring about
fertility and prosperity in many ways, will be discussed in this paper.
References to ancestors will also be made beyond the context of the Kele ritual. They
can be found in various historical contexts relating to the collective history of the Djine,
their genealogies, their acquisition and retention of family land (= ancestral land), their
preservation and continuation of traditional culture, as well as in magico-religious practices
reported by first generation Djine in St. Lucia:( according to the accounts of elders, they
used to beat their African drums whilst dancing themselves into a frenzy and then jumping
across loud "booooooooom" they disappeared, having thus returned to their African ances-
The purpose of this paper is to illustrate in how many ways this visiting relationship is
realized with one specific African-American religious community. Before describing this
creative communion between St. Lucian Djine and their African Kin embracing the
living as well as their ancestors reference will be made to the history of the Djine in St.
Lucia as well as to their main religious tradition, the Kele ceremony. The inherent religious
concepts such as Shango, Ogun, and Akeshew will be confronted with corresponding
Yoruba ideas of Orissa.'
The data presented in this paper comprise information gained during 13 months of
ethnographic field research in St. Lucia between 1982 and 1988. This research was
conducted in cooperation with the local Folk Research Centre (FRC) and the national
Research and Development foundation (NRDF).2
Several Kele ceremonies have been documented in their cultural, social, and economic
contexts. Analytical recordings of its ritual components like music, drum rhythms, songs,
dances, prayers and African linguistic relics were made. Religious concepts relating to the
African ancestry of the Djine along with corresponding ritual experiences of devotees were
studied. Certain cultural elements could be employed in authenticating their specific ethnic
origin. In order to compare or identify this cultural evidence with ethnographic features of
the originating African cultures, oral traditions research, ethnohistorical studies, cultural
comparison tests, and language analyses were conducted. Several cultural features could
thus be traced back to their African roots, and the further development of these religious
traditions in the New World could be described.3
These ethnographic materials were complemented with personal interviews of leading
members of the Djine families who were then the key-figures of the Kele tradition in St.
Lucia. Their relevant historical and religious knowledge was recorded. Biographies, life
histories and genealogies of the high-priests and their families as well as of ordinary cultic
devotees with varing degrees of official obligations were established. Public attitudes to the
cult and its social function, as well as opinion regarding the cult members as a definitive
group were discussed.
In addition to our own field research the existing literature on Kele and ancestor
worship in St. Lucia has been consulted.4 Specific studies on related religious phenomena
from other Caribbean islands5 as well as from corresponding African cultures6 have been
considered for comparison.
Djine History and Identity
As a result of the abolition of slavery in 1838, St. Lucia experienced the arrival of
several immigration waves of liberated Africans7. Those immigrants, who came directly
from the Guinea coast in Western Africa, called themselves Djine or Neg Djine (formerly
written negre Guinee) thus differentiating themselves from the majority of St. Lucia's
creole population composed mainly of the descendants of former slaves.
Whereas it proves difficult to determine the ethnic origin of the creole population, there
are certain cultural features which can be employed in authenticating the ethnic origin of
the Djine. One of their most prominent families on the island is said to have come from
Yorubaland in Western Nigeria. For a long time the only evidence was the assertion by
individuals of the older generations that their parents informed them as to what tribe the
ancestors belonged. References to Ekiti were being made by some high-priests of the Kele
and could now be confirmed through ethnographic and ethnohistorical research. According
to their oral traditions they arrived in St. Lucia around the middle of the 19th century.
Among the first generation of immigrants were the famous names of the three founder
families like Assau, Joseph and Delaire. They were leading members of Yoruba religious
cults, namely Sango8 and Ogun9 traditions.
These two religious traditions from Western Nigeria soon merged in St. Lucia to form
a new cult, the Kele. Whereas most other African derived religious cults in the Americas
have undergone syncretistic influences mainly with the Catholic religion0o, the develop-
ment which brought the Kele to St. Lucia could rather be termed as a syncretism between
different African traditionsil Until now no Christian influence has been found in the Kele
ceremony. The Kele formerly called by the population Plaisir Guinee12 has thus
remained a nearly pure African tradition of the Djine families in St. Lucia. Because of their
internal strength, the power of their faith and belief, and the effectiveness with which their
religion has helped to solve their problems, both secular and supernatural, they have
retained their cult.
According to Simmons13 the Kele ceremony, the "most exotic" tradition of the island,
began in St. Lucia "in about 1867, shortly after the arrival of families from Western
Nigeria, of the Ekiti tribe, thirty years after the abolition of slavery". Since then the Djine
were deeply involved in the practice of religious rites directly imported from their African
homeland. Termed as "pagan customs" by the Christianized creole population, they were
met with strong disapproval. Henceforth the Djine were treated with great contempt by
their fellow creole citizens, who used to scold them "Mal Djine" (meaning "bad djine")
whenever they performed their religious ceremonies. This made their integration into the
creole society extremely difficult.
Consequently, the Djine formed their own settlements in remote locations around the
"mysterious" La Sorciere mountain. Today their concentrated presence is also accounted
for by the fact that after Emancipation prominent Djine like Assau bought up the uncul-
tivated land, which has since then been called Fond Assau and Mome Assau. The descen-
dants of Assau, especially Coutou and Simeon Joseph, were all high-priests of the Kele
tradition. As such they were not only the religious leaders of the Djine, but also their
political leaders, as well as the judges within their group of families. They organized
themselves in small village communities with a pronounced group solidarity, and preferred
to intermarry within their founder families.
As Elder14 has pointed out appropriately, the term "family" in its meaning as extended
family (in St. Lucian Kweyol "fanmi"), also relates to the group comprised of ancestors and
living descendants. Since all Djine regard themselves as "children" of the deities mainly
Shango and Ogun the ancestor cult as a whole rests upon a "family" comprised of both
living and the dead "Africans" (Afwitjen in St. Lucian Kweyol). "Families remain bound to
ancestral land not merely for economic considerations but from sentiments far more
profound and powerful. Ancestral land contains the remains of the ancestor and should not,
on any account, be alienated from the descendants. It is taboo to sell land where the "old
parents" lie" 15. Thus a Djine can any time return to the group of his relatives, both dead and
living, and show consideration, love and respect for the ancestral "parents". Emotions
associated with family land can also refer to the "aura" of the dead ancestors whose
presence on such land is commonly asserted.
Though Djine soon adopted the St. Lucian Kweyol as their mother language, they also
held on to their African idiom not only within the ritual context of their Kele ceremonies,
but also as a means of communicating between themselves. The African idiom was also
used as a secret language vis-a-vis outsiders.16
Compared to the neighboring creole population and the Neg Congo the Neg Djine
were also "considered to be superior and more versed in the mysteries of nature and
magic"l7. Many old Djine speak very proudly today about the "scientific" knowledge of
their African ancestors, which dealt with ancient powers over the psychic world. The
high-priests of the Kele were not only the religious leaders, but they were also specialists in
what they refer to as "African bush medicine". This knowledge in herbal medicine was
sometimes linked with the practice of producing poisons for "black magic", called Djiner-
fication. These substances would also be found in the calabash which is smashed at the end
of every Kele ceremony. It is associated with the African Orisa Esu also named Akeshew
in St. Lucia. In Christian interpretation this concept has often been translated as "devil"8.
Djine emotionally identify themselves with Africa and designate themselves as
"Africans" or Afwitjen. Characteristic features of their identity besides a recognized
common racial ancestry and a common social history, a patrisib kinship system (extended
family) that recommends virilocal or patrilocal residence in connection with a preference to
intermarry are the observance of an "African" ethos in which the region of Africa and its
culture-heroes serve to inspire morality, a sense of identity in the history of the world, and
a self-image of cultural pride. This is based on a cosmology of African powers (deities) and
ancestral spirits related to mortal descendants.
Each Djine recognizes an African Guardian Power, mostly Shango (also called Chango
by some authors19) one of the Yoruba Orisa. Frequently, but at least once per year, be
makes a sacrifice to the Power in gratitude for his care and protection, or when he is in
trouble or facing a crisis. "In St. Lucia Chango is the name of the thunder-stones that enable
the living to get in touch with the African ancestors. One informant said that Chango
These Sbango stones (Wa Shango = thunder- stones) symbolize the African ancestors of
the St. Lucians who celebrate Kele. They are at the heart of several religious practices of the
Djine. Apart from playing an important role during the ritual of the Kele ceremony, they are
said to contain powerful protective and healing properties. As such they are used for curing
certain illnesses, protecting one's house from fire, and for safeguarding one during a
Some of these Shango stones are shaped like Amerindian stone-axes. However, many
Djine claim that their ancestors had brought them along from Africa. This is supported by
the belief that Shango protects you on your way when you make a longer journey.
Shango stones link man with God. Djine say that in using a Shango stone in a religious
context, one can bridge over the distance between man and God, since "Shango comes from
God". It has to be stressed that Shango is not convinced as being god himself. The Shango
stones are rather seen as a physical representation of God. Therefore God is addressed
through them in the prayers of the Djine. They may say: "If you want to contact God, you
can do it through the Shango because: where does the Shango come from? It comes from
God! So, if you want to get in contact with your God, if you want to ask him for something,
you do it through Shango. When there is heavy lightening and thunder, it falls from the sky
with a big flash of lighting. When it strikes a coconut tree, the tree dies right away.
Sometimes you could even see where it falls the fire travels down the stemof the tree. But
you won't find it right away it's only a long time afterwards that you'll find it. When we
found it, we would take it to the older people. Almost all Djine had Shango. Each had a
large tray in which they kept them".21
For the Kele ceremony the high-priest and his assistant would start setting up an altar by
placing all their Shango stones together in a particular formation. This may be done in a half
circle, or in the shape of a cross depending on the amount of stones. Every Djine attending
the Kele would bring his own Shango and put it on the altar too. During the ceremony the
prayers are addressed to God, and Shango is fed with ritual food: first with raw yam, and
after the sheep's blood is sprinkled on it, the second "feeding of Shango" takes place with
cooked food. After the ceremony the Shango stones must not be removed immediately for
it is said that having been charged during the blood sacrifice, when Shango has come down
in the moment of beheading the sheep, they are too "hot" and thus can become dangerous
for those who touch them. they have to stay there for one week, when the high-priest and
the other Djine will come back to the altar. A very short ceremony with some drumming
will be made. Then every-body will take up his shango stones and go home with them.
Shango will now contain healing properties and thus can be used for healing such as
bathing the sick person in the same water in which the shango has been washed before.
Whereas Shango stones are conceived as being the material representation of God, the
deity addressed in most prayers during the Kele ceremony is Ogun. There are different
meanings of this word among the Djine in St. Lucia: in former times Ogun meant "business
of the Djine a chicken would be killed at a child's birth. Ogun was only a small affair,
when only a few persons would participate. Whereas Kele would consist of killing a sheep,
and many persons would attend. When they had an Ogun to pray for someone in danger,
only men would cook, not the women".22
Today the word Ogun is used to refer to the altar which is built for the Kele ceremony.
It is the place where the offering is made. "Certain parts of the sheep have to go on the Ogun
- and the rest of that sheep must be used up on the same day. Nothing must be left for the
During the "feeding of Shango" prayers are addressed to Ogun by the high-priest and
the other Djine participating in the Kele ceremony. They should always face the east when
kneeling in front of the altar, because "it is always wise to face the sun rising". The prayers
may be in any language, although the older Djine still say their prayers in an "African
language" which is not commonly understood. The prayer mostly used by the current
high-priest runs thus:23
Ogun ni mope (2x)
yi oka mako
ya ti kene (2x)
ye ko bate eru ni
aguta eru ni
koya ma se ba sibo loju Ogun
meje meje bero medo kiti po.
Communication with the African deities at this stage of the ceremony is described by
one of the high-priests as follows:
"After calling on Ogun, you may ask your God
whatever favour you want. You come there and talk to
God to your God in your heart, in your mind. You
don't have to say it loud for him you don't have to
publicly say what you are asking it is your own secret
you talk to your God."
The ancestors and deities may be asked to protect the family from-sickness and death or
to intercede for a successful future.
Kele The Creative Communion
One of the most significant components of the religious system of the Djine is the
ancestor cult institution commonly called Kele or Shango. According to Bascom the term
Kele originates from Shango worshippers among the Yoruba people of Nigeria who "wear
strings of alternating small red and opague beads, imported from Europe and known as
Kele, as their insignia".2
Kele is usually described by most authors as "ancestral worship accompanied by a
blood sacrifice"25. Crowley calls it "an African sacrifice in honour of ancestor"26 and
reports that a prominent family in Resina performs "a Kele or sacrifice at the New Year or
the anniversary of the death of a recent ancestor"27. Simpson writes that "the ceremony is
given to ask the African ancestors of present devotees for protection in all matters of
importance good crops, good health, and good fortune. In the course of the ceremony, the
ancestors are thanked for past favors".28
The most accurate description of the Kele ceremony to this day has been compiled by
Msgr. Anthony29, who defines it as "a ritual offering involving the slaying of a ram, and
held on certain occasions in St. Lucia by people of African descent". He rejects the
discriminate use of the term 'sacrifice', since "participants in the ceremony never refer to it
as a 'sacrifice', and the St. Lucian Kweyol term "sakwifis" (translation of the English
'sacrifice') has nothing to do with the ceremony. Participants speak of 'giving a Kele'
("ngay bay an Kele") or 'going to a Kele' ("ale an Kele")."30
There are only two Djine families in St. Lucia who hold Kele ceremonies and claim to
have authority to perform the ritual and to pass on that authority to their kin. The family of
the late high-priest Noah Delaire who died in 1984, and the current high-priest Etienne
Wells Joseph. Both are descendants of the Djine founder families Assau, Joseph and
Delaire. The office of the Kele high-priests has since then been passed on to the oldest male
members from these families. Simpson reports that in 1972 "One leader, a man in his late
seventies, asserts that his grandfather, a slave who was born in Africa, informed him about
his African ancestors and taught him the elements of the Kele ceremony."31
Even though the office of the high-priest is reserved, any Djine may 'give' a Kele for
one of the reasons mentioned above. He would contact the high-priest and set a date several
weeks in advance. Preferable days are the Sunday after Easter or the first Sunday in the
New Year. All the expenses would need to be met by the person on whose behalf the
ceremony is being held. These include a white ram older than one year, ground provisions
like yams, plantains, cassava, etc., and drinks for all participants. The total expenses might
amount to more than one thousand EC-Dollars. Traditionally members of the extended
family contributed to a Kele 'given' by their family head, either through providing some of
the ground provisions, or through giving a hand with the numerous preparations and
activities necessary for a successful Kele. These reciprocal forms of assistance and its
accompanying communicatory processes of course also helped to strengthen family
About mid-morning the high-priest and his assistants set up the Ogun, the altar which is
built for the Kele ceremony. At this place where the offering will be made, a number of
ritual objects are placed on the ground: i.e. Shango stones, different agricultural tools made
of iron (representing Ogun) like forks, spades, cutlass, steel axes, as well as saws and rifles,
and an iron pole to which a shoot of a coconut is tied (representing Ogun's clothes) and the
ram is tethered up. Medicinal fern is spread next to these ritual objects.
A calabash (representing Akeshew) is placed nearby. It is said to contain secret magical
substances called djinefication, including a mixture of rotten herbs, mawi and man-
nmetamann, which have been burnt to ashes. The high-priest will throw into this calabash
small pieces of all sacrificial offerings before they are placed on the Ogun: some of the
rams hair from the tip of the tail and the ears, raw yams, white rum, water, olive oil, bits of
candles, etc. (later also some of the ram's blood). This related to Yoruba ritual where "Eshu
is responsible for carrying sacrifices to other divinities". Since be "is unpredictable and
needs constant appeasement, a portion of the sacrifice is still set aside for him, even when
the offering is to another Orisa".32
Before the actual ceremony begins, the sacrificial animal has to be cleaned. Accom-
panied by some preliminary drumming, the ram is taken to a nearby river in a procession
headed by the high-priest and followed by participants and observers alike. There all four
legs are cleaned in an anti-clockwise way, then the entire animal is washed from head to
tail. The party returns to the place where the ceremony is held near the family house.
After some initial drumming and chanting, the ceremony is usually opened by the
high-priest who first "addresses all present in the St. Lucian Kweyol, explaining the
seriousness of what is about to take place, and inviting all those willing to place any
personal object among the ritual objects on the ground if good fortune or success is desired.
On two occasions I've heard the leader appeal to incredulous observers explaining that it is
the same Catholic God being implored in the ceremony since 'there is only one God'
(footnote: It should be noted that all participants would be baptised Catholics and regular
church-goers. Both the leader and his assistant (at the 1973 and 1983 Keles which I
attended) were prominent members of the Holy Name society in the parish of Babonneau,
and actively involved in many parish functions].33
Also G.E. Simpson observes correctly that "Kele is not an alternative to Catholicism.
St. Lucia is a predominantly Catholic country and some devotees of Kele are active
Catholics"; in fact, a number of those who take leading parts in Kele ceremonies are
prominent in the work of Catholic church. The situation in St. Lucia is essentially the same
as in Carriacou where Christianity and the ancestor cult (Big Drum Dance) each supple-
ment the deficiencies of the other."34 And M.G. Smith comments incisively: "The church
deals directly with God through its hierarchy of priests, saints and Madonna, while the folk
deal with their ancestors and other spirits, who are also the servants of God."35 This can be
clearly seen in the opening speech of the Kele ceremony in which the leader "addresses the
ancestors, asking them to intercede with God in behalf of the person or family sponsoring
Before the beginning of the Kele ceremony most participants had already put their
Shango stones and some agricultural tools made of iron on the Ogun. Others would now
place personal objects like car keys, school books, jewellery, dollar bills, etc. among the
ritual objects on the ground. A circle of about 20 feet in diameter around the altar is marked,
into which only the active participants may enter. Women are excluded altogether from
active participation in the offerings on the altar. However, they play an important role in
preparing the meal after the slaying of the ram, and they also act as singers and dancers
during the break as well as after the formal end of the ceremony.
The offering starts with the high-priest kneeling in front of the altar, facing eastwards,
and intoning a chant in an "African" language, whereby mainly Ogun and the African
ancestors are being addressed. Three times he intones, each followed by drum rolls. After
each intonation he makes a deep bow touching the ground with his forehead. Then for a
moment he remains kneeling in silence. After a while, still on his knees, he takes a bottle of
white-rum, pours out a portion into the glass, sprinkles the objects on the ground before him
three times with rum, pours a little into the calabash with ashes, and drinks what's left in the
glass. He then pours some water from the mug into the glass and repeats the identical
procedure of sprinkling and drinking. This is all done in silence, the drums rolling only as
the glass is emptied. After the leader, his assistants, and then all others who want to ask for
good fortune or success repeat the same actions with the white-rum and water.37
This procedure follows nearly exactly the Yoruba way of libation during an Ogun
festival, with the only difference that it is not white-rum but white palm-wine which is
offered. Oluyemi Ogundele reports:
"Before we drink, Ogun has to drink first. We point on
the ground and say: 'Ogun, that is your own'. We point
on the ground also a second time, and give Esu his
own. Then we will call on the names of our ancestors
and give them their own to drink. Then only we may
drink our own. The reason for giving Ogun his own
first is just to pay respect to Ogun, and since Ogun is
the god we are worshipping, we let him drink first
before we drink our own. And the reason for giving
Esu his own is, because Esu is the 'devil', and anything
we are doing, we have to give him his own, so as not to
disturb us, to let us do what we are doing in peace.
Because if Esu does not get his own, he will be hungry
and disturbed, and there will be some disorder and
some problem in the festival we are doing. and just to
avoid this problem, we have to satisfy Esu himself and
give him his own. Then we may call the name of our
ancestors, and give them their own. After our ancestors
have been drinking their own, then we will ahve to
drink. The priest drinks his own, and gives it to the
second man, and down, down, down ..., till all the
people have taken their own. But before we take it, we
should be sure of giving Ogun his own, and Esu his
The libation is followed by the first 'Feeding of Shango':
"While singers lead participants in chanting to
vigorous drumming, the leader empties some olive oil
into the plate. He then takes the raw yams, make
several cross-signs upon them with the knife, cuts
them into pieces and then soaks them in the olive-oil.
He then throws some of the pieces of soaked yam
among the ritual objects and places some into the
calabash of ashes. Still kneeling, he then takes some
more pieces of raw yam and throws them in the direc-
tion of the four cardinal points, finally, be takes some
more white-rum and sprinkles it three times over the
ritual objects again."39
The ceremony heads towards its climax. Chanting and drumming stop, and the sacrifi-
cial animal is untethered and lead in front of the altar. According to some informants the
high-priest circled about three times counter-clockwise around the altar with the animal,
befroe he instructed his assistants to prepare the beheading. "The sacrifice to the ancestors,
a ram, must be killed with one stroke of a cutlass."40 "If the severance is made with one feel
swoop, this is a good sign."41
At the precise moment of beheading a gunshot is fired, and with a great drum roll the
dancing starts. The high-priest himself may dance in the blood which ran out on the ground,
while drinking some of the blood as it flows from the ram's head.
"Blood is sprinkled on the thunder stones, the link
between the devotees and their forbears in Africa, to
give them more power "to find the ancestors'. Blood is
also poured on the agricultural implements to bless
them, thus insuring that no one can be injured while
Some of the more popular Kele dance-songs are:43
1)1 jan ba le pade ni kiko (2x)
aguta ko sarumi
2)Sohio mo kara kere sobio mo
3)Jeje modi moli moje
4)Ebami ke jise o, ee o eo
5)Ola koko Ogun
we soro ri
we soso o
6)Fere oti kuku ade biere
omi lengbe lengbe
somo yan go ya iyo
7)Owo iwo e oo iya
eto ja legbusan
omo sia ya ende