Every year on July 16th, people from all over Haiti make the pilgrimage to a waterfall in the mountains a few hours North of Port-au-Prince called Saut d’Eau, to celebrate the anniversary of the 1983 sighting of the Virgin Mary, alternately identified as the Voodoo loa, or spirit, of Erzulie. This year I was invited by a friend to go participate in this festival. It turned out to be an incredible day of bathing, dancing, drinking rum and coconut juice, and making friends with strangers…
Afraid and cautious at first, I soon became quite adept at scampering up the rocks in the waterfall, and the steep paths in the cliff alongside it. And while I began the whole thing a bit timid and watching from the sidelines, within a few hours I had stripped down and joined in the rituals. I was shown how to sit on a shallow spot and lie in the stream with my arms crossed on my chest, letting the cold water flow over me. Some women showed me how to use a ceremonial gourd to pour water over my head. At first, they were pretty snarky when they handed me the gourd. I don’t think they expected me to do anything with it. When I did join in whole-heartedly, they became warm and welcoming, handing me also some eucalyptus leaves to rub my skin with. My friends bought scented oils and poured them in my hair.
We brough some bottles of rum with us from the city, and when we arrived at Saut d’Eau we had a street vendor crack open some coconuts with his machete and mixed the rum with the coconut water in the bottles. We carried these down to the waterfall with us. This potent mixture, combined with the energy of the place, was intoxicating. Several times, we bathed in the falls, and then sat in the sun to dry off, sipped our drink, talked and observed. We brought candles to light offerings on the irregularities in the rock on the cliffsides, but had some trouble lighting them with out soggy matches. We did manage eventually…
At the Saut d’Eau Festival, the day begins with a ceremony in a church, followed by a procession, led by Rara musicians, from the church to the waterfall. Rara, a traditional type of Haitian music, is typically played during processions and festivals like Easter weekend or Carnival. The main instrument is a cylindrical bamboo or metal trumpet called vaksen, but there are also various percussion instrument ranging from drums to maracas, and people often dance and sing alongside the band. We skipped the church ceremony and went straight to the waterfall, when it was still relatively empty. We went back up to the village to get some grilled corn on the cob, and happened to bump into the Rara procession, so we joined in and danced our way back to the bottom of the falls.
People go to the Sodo festival to honor “la Vierge Miracle,” the “Virgin of Miracles.” She is an amalgamation of the Virgin Mary, who has always been one of the central figures in the panoply of Catholic saints, and of a local Voodoo deity called Erzulie, who I will describe a bit later. This blurring of the lines between Voodoo and Catholicism is fairly typical of the Haitian practice of Voodoo. It originated when slaves brought over from West Africa, during the 16th to 18th Centuries, were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism by their French owners but maintained their African traditions and beliefs. Voodoo also bears traces of the Arawak people who lived on the island before it was colonized, as many of the sacred sites date back to those pre-colonial Arawak origins, and were adopted by the slaves into their practise.
The Saut d’Eau festival is the perfect example of this fusion of cultures and beliefs. When you visit the waterfall, you can feel the mystical qualities that must have drawn the Arawak to this site for worship. There are moments when the light falls through the trees and is caught by the falling stream of water, which glows as the light emanated from the water itself. This area is extremely fertile, and the source must have become a symbol of fertility and bounty long before it was formalized into the embodiment of the Voodoo loa Erzulie.
This brings me to Erzulie herself, who is a complex and fascinating figure. She has many incarnations, and representations of her often derive from Catholic representations of the Virgin Mary. What I find most intriguing is the fact that these two figures – the Madonna and Erzulie – are so opposite, and yet are represented with the same imagery and are interchangeably worshipped by many Haitians without any sense of contradiction. Erzulie is sometimes represented by the image below, which is a Polish icon called the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. The image is thought to have been brought to Haiti by Polish soldiers fighting on both sides of the Haitian Revolution in the early 1800s.
There are several branches of Haitian Voodoo; so far I have only come across Petwo and Rada. In her Petwo incarnation, Erzulie is often depicted as a scarred and buxom woman, holding a child protectively in one hand and a knife in the other. The Black Madonna of Częstochowa has a scar on her right cheek (this is also in the Polish original), which may be one of the reasons why this icon was so readily adopted by Haitians. In the Petwo beliefs, she is a warrior and particularly a fierce protector of women and children. However the Rada branch, she represents beauty, sweetness, love and sensuality. She is a patron of the arts, especially dance, and most relevant to the Saut d’Eau festival, she is also the goddess of rivers, streams, lakes and waterfalls. It is believed that her waters can cure problems of the womb, such as infertility. Many women who come to Saut d’Eau make offerings of their underwear in order to cure infertility.
Though I let go of many inhibitions that day and participated in many of the traditional rituals of the festival, I did draw the line at keeping my underwear.