If you’ve known me long enough, you’ll remember my old Vodou blog, defunct since 2018 or so. Back in late November I decided to relaunch it, snapped up the URL (of which I am far too proud) in mid December, and life being as busy as it is, waited until today. So those of you who’ve been hounding me can relax. We’re back to it, and what better way to begin than with one of my favorite topics?
For the majority of my life, I have lived close to the sea. Here in Nova Scotia it makes its influence felt so deeply across all of life, touching idiomatic language, the economy, the weather, tourism, recreation, spirituality, and every other aspect of geography or culture one could choose to consider. Being practically an island, no matter where you are in this province, even as far inland as you can get, when the wind is right you can smell the salt breath of an ocean breeze and almost feel the throb of wave on rock. The highest tides in the world are found here, with the difference between high and low tide in the Minas Basin reaching up to 16 meters / 53 feet; when the tide is coming in, the amount of water moving is greater than the output of all the rivers in the world…combined. The sea kisses these shores, at times like a soft, delicate lover, and at others with the pent-up fury of an inexperienced and drunken frat boy.
For those here of full or partial European decent, their ancestry reaches back across that same sea, to the shores of Europe and the British Isles, and on a clear day one can imagine those far off shores being just out of reach of the eyes, nearly able to caress a rugged Scottish coastline from an equally rugged one in New Scotland. The sea breathes life into its mystery, concealing fathomless depths, foam dancing on seemingly infinite waves that curl and crash like liquid serpents on the shores, the arms of a sainted lover, where salted sea meets windswept land. The spiritual workers here are all familiar with its spirits, and its a rare one who doesn’t feel deep-springing awe surging up when they stand on rock or sand at the edge of the kaleidoscopic North Atlantic, shifting from blue to green to grey to match its hue to moods sombre or merry. In the lead up to a hurricane in 2019 I took someone who was visiting me, one of the most deeply psychic women (I’ll call her PL for ‘Psychic Lady’ in this post) I’ve ever known, down to the water’s edge in Eastern Passage. She watched as the spirits of the sea ran across and through the water, and smiled at their exultation, transmitting through their presence the rising power of a storm surge.
In Haiti the sea is also a road back to an ancestral homeland and the expanses of West Africa, from which many of the Haitian peoples’ ancestors were brought through the horrors and tragedies of the Triangle Trade. Less grey and wed far more sweetly to the sapphire hues of the Caribbean, the sea’s influence in Haiti, and in Vodou, is powerful as well, although primarily along the coast of the country than it’s mountainous interior. As Maya Deren has said, it is not the sea itself that is venerated in Vodou, but the spirit of the sea, that is served, Met Agwe Towoyo.
Frequently portrayed as an admiral (I dated an admiral’s daughter once, and she was and is awesome, but she didn’t have a fish tail, or if she did she hid it well), or even as a merman, often with green eyes, Agwe has also been called a Haitian Poseidon, but in truth the comparison falls flat, as this lwa is far more complex than his Greek analogue. The geographical road home to West Africa is, of course, over the briny expanse of the Atlantic, but within Vodou there are always shades and levels of meaning, metaphor, and symbol for those who care to look. In the spiritual sense, the sea is also a metaphorical road leading to the spiritual world, called frequently Guinee or Guinen, after part of Africa herself (it’s more complex than that, but…later). The dead themselves are said to go anba dlo, that is, under the water, for a period of time after death, reminding one, perhaps of the Ebo / Igbo captives who themselves chose to leap over the sides of European ships, preferring a watery grave by choice to submission and the horrors of enslavement in Saint Domingue. Since Agwe is the personification of the sea, and the sea receives the dead, he fills the role of psychopomp, conducting the departed into his palace beneath the waves for a time, until they are reclaimed from the waters (retire nan dlo) the year after death. This is not a role present in Poseidon’s mythos! When it comes to the dead, Poseidon’s hidin’. Even Vilokan, the city of the Lwa, is said in some houses to rest below the sea, and you’ll hear of the three islands–Twa Zilet–as well.
Agwe commands his great ship, Imamou, on which he holds court (and at the mention of which my Irish ancestors clamor to mention the Immrama and the glass ship). His veve takes the form of a ship, and on it ride the members of his esko, a sort of Lwa navy, if you will (yvan eht nioj) In those houses that give him a saint to represent him, St Ulrich or Raphael Arkanj, both portrayed holding fish, fill the role. A conch shell is sounded to call him, and he bears its name as well, koki lanme, sea shell.
And yet, while Agwe is the “soundless, boundless, bitter sea” itself, there is much more to the ocean than the waters alone, and we must consider all that lives within it, to which he is wed in concept and story, and we come to his wife, La Sirene.
Meaning, of course, “mermaid”, La Sirene is a figure familiar to peoples across the world, from Europe to Asia to Africa. The name itself hearkens back to the Greek Σειρήν (Seiren) and the Odyssey, that classical myth about a man making his long voyage home over the ocean. Frequently depicted with her offerings of a mirror and comb, and brushing out her long tresses, the image and iconography of La Sirene owes a lot to European tales, but she herself is rooted in Africa. We serve her among the Rada lwa, where she is sung to following Agwe, but she is herself Kongo, and those rhythms are present in many of her songs. Indeed, she has told me in a dream, wherein I asked why she had so fiercely carried out a request I had gently made, “I am a Kongo woman, cheri. I do not swim in cold waters.”
While she does not speak in possession, coming as she does from beneath the waves where human speech is impossible, the memory of the Siren songs of the Odyssey are present, and she is often said to give skill in singing. Indeed, one of the best known Vodou songs, La Sirene La Balenn (here is a big band version), is hers. You can feel the energy change when this song is sung as a fet, as everyone knows it and joins in! Seven is a number associated with her frequently, and Haitian stories abound of a person being taken away by La Sirene for a period of seven days / weeks / months / years, where she teaches them and they return with lighter skin and straighter hair, as well as magical knowledge—there are elements of those stories that factor into concepts of ethnicity that are beyond what I’m writing here. I once offered her a piece of jewelry at the shore, at the edge of a still and placid harbour. Seven waves came rolling in gently then stopped, no more and no less. And I knew in my heart she was happy.
However, while there is a constancy to Agwe, a discipline he shows as the Great Admiral (although he can certainly be angered), La Sirene herself can be far more capricious, and will swamp today the same boat she blessed with a bountiful catch yesterday. Anyone who has lived by the sea knows that it can be a caressing hand as well as a crashing fist, and the depths of nuance within the Queen of the Sea are are profound as those of the watery realm itself. Any straight man knows the drill…if she says “I’m fine,” icily, she isn’t. When she wants something from you, she isn’t going to ask a hundred times, and it’s best to listen quickly.
La Sirene is the lwa who comes most frequently to my dreams, and, unceasingly, she finds ways to show her presence in my life. Since I love these stories of her, and because they illustrate the way the Lwa can show their presence, I’m going to share a couple of them.
In the summer of 2021 I had decided to take a road trip to Cape Breton Island, one of the most picturesque parts of Nova Scotia. Now, when I’m driving somewhere, like a true Canadian, I stop at Tim Horton’s and pick up a cup of coffee (or what passes for coffee at Timmies). If I know I’ll be passing the sea, I buy a large triple triple (Canadian speak for “large coffee with three creams and three sugars”), which is then taken to the shore and poured out as an offering to my beloved mermaid. I pulled into the drive through, speaking on the phone to PL, noting that I wasn’t going to get a coffee for La Sirene here, as I wouldn’t be stopping at the shore for a few hours yet. As I pulled up to the window, the waitress leaned out and asked, “Do you want an extra coffee, free?” I declined, as it was only me in the car. “Are you sure? I just made it, fresh. Someone forgot it and it’d be a shame to throw it out.” Now, I’m blond, so I don’t always catch on quickly, but it was starting to dawn on me. “What’s in it,” I asked. “It’s a large triple triple.” There was a pregnant moment of silence, before PL’s musical giggles came over the speaker. So off to Cape Breton I went, La Sirene’s coffee in hand, along with a gentle rebuke and reminder that the sea will have it’s due.
During this same summer I decided to buy a new car, and had promised my beloved Haitian Ariel that I would dedicate it to her if she helped me get a good deal. The good terms secured, and the car delivered, I hung an antique Stella Maris rosary from the rear view mirror, and smiled at the perfect blue of the vehicle. But La Sirene hadn’t been overt about it, so, ever the idiot, I was starting to doubt whether or not she’d helped. I voiced those concerns, as I was calling my insurance company to switch over my coverage. An agent answered…”TD Insurance,” she said, “This is Sirena.” So the car is Stella Maris as well, and I wish I had a bumper sticker that read “La Sirene is my co-pilot.”
Increasingly, an association between La Sirene and the moon is being bandied about, which is understandable to a degree due to the lunar influence on the tides. But in Haitian Vodou it is not she who has the lunar association at all, but a very, very different lwa, who definitely isn’t swimming in the ocean; this is a story for another time.
Agwe and La Sirene, being the rulers of the sea, are not the only spirits who live in the waves. La Balenn, the whale, is there as well, and depending who you ask, is the sibling of La Sirene, or an aspect of her. Jungian psychology finds its way into everything these days, and I’ve heard it said that La Balenn represents the depths of the unconscious, and La Sirene the emotions. Tellingly, I’ve not heard this from anyone I know in Haiti, so its best, when this comes up, to evaporate a ton of sea water, compress what’s left into a lump, and take it all with this gigantic grain of salt. But it’s also fair to say that La Sirene swims through the warmer upper waters, and La Balenn dives into the deeper, colder ones.
Before my kanzo began in earnest in 2017, we gathered together and took a trip to the sea a little north and west of Port-au-Prince, to give honour and respect to the spirits of the warm Haitian waters. While I enjoyed swimming with my kanzo-mates, I took a few moments and swam out deeper, to tread water and sing to the Lwa of the sea, keenly aware that the same waters that surrounded me there spread all the way back to the shores of my home, connecting the lands where my body and soul each dwell.
The theory of evolution tells us that, ultimately, we all come from the sea if we but trace our lines back far enough. Now, as human beings, when we are carried in the womb we are surrounded by fluid (although not of the same salinity as sea water as some claim), and when we are born we are not born from our mothers alone, but from fluid. There is depth to this that we need to remember, for when we stand on the shores of the sea, offering service to it personified as Agwe, and the living things within it as La Sirene, we are not singing to spirit alone, but to the place from which we all ultimately came. We are calling out, from the depths of who and what we are to the watery womb that birthed all life on this planet, that sustains us with the oxygen it produces through plankton, that shapes the weather of our world. We are calling to our furthest origins, and when we quiet ourselves and hear the soft sighs of waves on the shore, we are hearing the whispered answer, “welcome home, children.”
Ayibobo, and happy new year.