By Candice Russell
I couldn’t let the month of July pass without mentioning a Vodou festival in Haiti of great importance. It is the Festival of Our Lady of Carmel, held from July 14 to 16, at the waterfall in Saut D’Eau near the town of Ville Bonheur. A pilgrimage is made to the site in a procession led by Rara musicians. This joyful parade is preceded by a ceremony in a church — proof that Vodou and Christianity go hand-in-hand.
For three glorious days, celebrants bathe in the cooling waters, washing away the heat of summer and wishing for spiritual deliverance. Since water is sacred to two significant Vodou spirits, Damballah and Ayida Wedo, they are thought to also be present. This, at least, was reported in the book “The Serpent and the Rainbow” by Harvard University ethno-botanist Wade Davis, who cited the spirits’ appearance at the waterfall. (A hyperventilating Hollywood take of Haitian Vodou is found in the movie adaptation of his book with the same title, which Davis later disavowed. But that’s another story).
People said they saw the Vodou spirit Erzulie, often associated with the Virgin Mary, at Saut D’Eau. A French priest deemed the sighting mere superstition and cut down a tree at the site. His negativity did not prevent Saut D’Eau from becoming a major destination for religion pilgrimage.
Submergence in the waterfall and the pool it creates is done while praying and asking favors of these religious personages. Erzulie, who, in all manifestations, is associated with rivers, streams, lakes and waterfalls, is thought to be able to cure infertility. If bathing in these waters, singing, praying, and drinking rum and coconut juice may unlock the key to having a baby for infertile couples, it’s no wonder the site and festival are so beloved.
The web site of the global traveler The Nerdy Nomad explains how this image of the dark-skinned Virgin Mary, known as Erzulie Dantor, became known to Haitians. It says that the Polish icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa was brought to Haiti by Polish soldiers fighting on both sides of the Haitian Revolution in the early 1800s.
On page 157 in my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art,” a wonderful painting by Gerard Valcin called “Vodou Cascade” (1984) from the collection of the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa pictures this event of hope and transcendence. In the painting, most of the celebrants are clothed. But there are a few in various stages of half- or complete undress. In this lovely verdant setting, there is only the belief that the Vodou spirits will come. There is no sign of Erzulie, Damballah or Ayida Wedo. As always, faith will sustain those who visit Saut D’Eau.
Her roots in history go back farther than that. The image of the black Madonna first appeared in Christian iconography more than 1,000 years ago. Evidence exists that she is descended from the Egyptian goddess Isis. But her genesis relates to something even more basic — the Great Earth Mother, with her blackness being a symbol of the most fertile soil