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Spirits, Blood and Drums

Spirits, Blood and Drums: The Orisha Religion in Trinidad

James T. Houk
Copyright Date: 1995
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Spirits, Blood and Drums
    Book Description:

    James Houk's field work in Trinidad and subsequent involvement in the Orisha religion allows him a uniquely intimate perspective on a complex and eclectic religion. Originating in Nigeria, Orisha combines elements of African religions (notably Yoruba), Catholicism, Hinduism, Protestantism Spiritual Baptist, and Kabbalah. A religion of spirits and spirit possession, ceremonies and feasts, churches and shrines, sacrifices and sacred objects, Orisha is constantly shifting and unstable, its practice widely varied. As a belief system, it is a powerful presence in the social structure, culture, and, more recently, the political realm of Trinidad.

    Houk carefully examines the historical forces that have transformed Orisha from a relatively simple religion in colonial Trinidad to an abstruse mix of belief, ritual, and symbolism. The voices of worshippers and Orisha leaders spring to life the intensity and power of the religion. Houk's own recounting of participation in many of the mystical ceremonies, including taking on the important role of drummer in several feasts, his initiation into Orisha, and his exceptional field research provide fascinating details essential in understanding the development of this Caribbean religion.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-0376-6
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables and Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. PART I

    • ONE Orisha Experiences
      (pp. 3-16)

      Seventy to eighty peoplecrammed themselves into a small church in Barataria in northwest Trinidad on a warm and muggy June night, and another fifty or so stood outside peering in the doors and windows. Almost everyone was African, although a few East Indians could be seen scattered here and there in the crowd. Also in attendance was a white foreigner doing his damndest to conduct himself in a manner befitting an anthropologist. The crowd engulfed and carried me as it swayed back and forth to the spiritual rhythms of an ancient religion. The clapping, singing, joy, and enthusiasm were...

    • TWO Religion, Postmodernism, and Methodology
      (pp. 17-24)

      Perhaps the most problematicand troubling theoretical issue in sociocultural anthropology today is the postmodernist controversy and its ramifications for theory, fieldwork technique, and ethnographic writing. One problem is the lack of a clear statement regarding just what postmodernism is. A few works — such as George Marcus and Michael Fischer’sAnthropology as Cultural Critique(1986) and James Clifford and George Marcus’sWriting Culture(1986) — are generally recognized for their postmodernist critique of traditional ethnography, but, as Ernest Gellner (1992, 23) writes, we have “no 39 postmodernist articles of faith, no postmodernist Manifesto.”

      Still, we need to formulate at...

    • THREE The Setting
      (pp. 25-44)

      Trinidad lies at the southernmosttip of the Lesser Antilles and is only eleven kilometers (about seven miles) from the northern coast of Venezuela at its closest point (Annual Statistical Digest1988, 1). In fact, Venezuela is often visible from the west coast of the island if viewing conditions are good. Geologically, Trinidad lies on the South American continental shelf and is actually an extension of the South American mainland.

      There are three mountainous or hilly ranges on the island, the northern, central, and southern ranges. The northern range, running roughly east to west across the entire island, is the...

  7. PART II

    • FOUR African Roots of the Orisha Religion
      (pp. 47-60)

      The Orisha religion in Trinidad, like the other African-derived religions of the New World, originated during the colonial period when European colonizers brought in millions of Africans to work on sugar, cotton, and tobacco plantations. From the mid-fifteenth century, when the Portuguese began to colonize certain eastern Atlantic islands (the Azores, Cape Verde, the Madeiras), until 1888, when Brazil abolished slavery, the slave trade greatly affected virtually the entire Western Hemisphere, both socially and culturally.

      The colonial economies were based on a variety of crops, including cacao, cotton, tobacco, and sugar. It was sugar, however, that would have the biggest...

    • FIVE Catholicism and the Orisha Religion
      (pp. 61-70)

      On Easter Sunday, March 26, 1989, I attended a prayer session in an Orisha shrine north of Chaguanas in the west-central part of Trinidad. The focus of activity was a small church at the rear of the compound. In the center of the church was a large table set elaborately with candles, cakes, liquor, milk, honey, crystal, candies, and other items. In some ways the table appeared to be ready for a Spiritual Baptist “thanksgiving” (an annual prayer ceremony), yet it also resembled the Kabbalah table that serves as the focal point for Kabbalah “banquets.”

      The first part of the...

    • SIX The Spiritual Baptists
      (pp. 71-85)

      The Spiritual Baptist religionis found throughout the Western Hemisphere with churches in many areas, including St. Vincent, Grenada, St. Croix, Venezuela, Guyana, and large urban areas of North America such as Toronto, Miami, New Orleans, and New York City. Many of these churches appear to have been established as the result of movement to and from as well as inside the Caribbean.

      The relationship between the Spiritual Baptist and Orisha religions is much more pervasive and marked than that involving Orisha and Catholicism, Hinduism, or the Kabbalah. For one thing, the Baptist and Orisha religions often share members. Spiritual...

    • SEVEN Hinduism and the Kabbalah
      (pp. 86-104)

      By 1950 or so, various Catholic elements had long been part of the Orisha religion, and the interrelationship between Spiritual Baptists andorishaworshipers was no doubt quite advanced. Sometime during the 1950s, for reasons explored below, Hinduism began to make its presence felt in the already highly eclectic Orisha religious system. About twenty years later, manyorishaworshipers began to practice the Kabbalah as well. These are the two latest additions to the Afro-American religious complex.

      Hinduism has been present in Trinidad ever since Indians began arriving about 150 years ago, and it has become one of the island’s...


    • EIGHT Spirits and Spirit Possession
      (pp. 107-124)

      The most significant eventin the Orisha religion is the manifestation of anorisha. The onset of anorishapossession is a startling event: the worshiper who is being manifested upon screams loudly and falls about as if being pushed and pulled by some invisible force. After this initial “settling” period, however, the “horse” dances to the beat of the drums with a beauty that has to be seen to be appreciated.

      Although most possessions are somewhat predictable, there is always the possibility that something will happen to disturb the manifestingorisha. This sometimes leads to a confrontation between the...

    • NINE Social Organization of the Orisha Religion
      (pp. 125-139)

      The Orisha religionis highly variable when viewed in cross section and dynamic when viewed longitudinally or across time. Whether because of opportunism, desire, or sheer necessity, it is a complex synthesis of a variety of religious traditions. Thus, those who practice the religion must be at least somewhat adept at manipulating an assortment of symbols and ideologies; this is especially true for the elders, shrine heads,mongba, andiyawho construct and maintain the shrines and actively direct the annual feasts and other important rituals.

      The shrines of many of the most popular and successful heads in the religion...

    • TEN The Orisha and Their Abodes
      (pp. 140-155)

      Orisha shrines vary greatlyin layout, size, and complexity, but all share certain characteristics. First, they are “earthy.” Virtually the entire shrine has a dirt floor, especially the more sacred areas; when individuals enter the sacred areas, they are expected to remove their shoes. There are various implements, utensils, candles, and so on stuck here and there in the ground; medicinal and religious plants growing in the compound; and pens holding chickens, goats, and other animals. Second, Orisha shrines are active. Candles burn constantly, and spiritual work is done almost daily in some compounds. Finally, shrines are historical. The remnants...

    • ELEVEN The Ebo, Feast for the Gods
      (pp. 156-166)

      Worshipers learn muchof what they know about theorishaat the manyebothat are held during the feast season. Anywhere from a handful to dozens oforishawill manifest themselves in the course of a week-long feast. The primary functions of thepalais, chapelle, andperogunbecome clear during theebo, as does much about the liturgy, ritual behavior, and Orisha beliefs.

      Theebois without question the most important ceremony in the Orisha religion. It is basically a celebration of food, dance, and song during which theorishamanifest themselves and interact with worshipers in a variety...

  9. PART IV

    • TWELVE The Orisha Religion as an Open System
      (pp. 169-179)

      Ihave focused considerable attentionthus far on the highly eclectic nature of the Orisha religion. The question naturally arises, what are the transformative processes at work in the religion — that is, those mechanisms of change that have transformed the religious system from a body of knowledge initially drawn from a single cultural tradition to one drawn from a variety of cultural traditions? Several sociocultural processes can act to shift society and culture from one state to another, ranging from nativism on the one hand to assimilation on the other. The ethnocentrism of nativism initially serves to temper any...

    • THIRTEEN Syncretism and Eclecticism versus Africanization
      (pp. 180-190)

      The syncretism of Catholic saintsand African gods —orisha, vodoun, or others — is one of the more salient and prevalent characteristics of African-derived religions in the New World. It was Melville J. Herskovits, in his research of the highly eclectic and multicultural Afro-American religions, who first popularized the term “syncretism” in the social sciences. Scholars have given syncretism little theoretical treatment, the more notable exceptions being Munro Edmonson (1960), Jay Edwards (1980b), and Herskovits (1948, 1955). The process itself has been investigated in the field by Bastide (1972, 1978), Edwards (1980a, 1980b), Herskovits (1937, 1943), Peter Kloss (1985),...

    • FOURTEEN The Transmission of Religious Knowledge in the Orisha Religion
      (pp. 191-198)

      The structure of the Grisha religion, as we have seen, facilitates and even encourages variation. Its loose organizational structure, its oral liturgy, its multiethnic membership, and its open system make the religion a complex and dynamic system of beliefs and practices that is highly susceptible to change. Not surprisingly, then, the enculturation of Orisha religious knowledge is characterized by mechanisms that permit a fairly high degree of change from one generation to the next.

      Cultural inheritance and evolution, though somewhat analogous to genetic inheritance and Darwinian evolution, are guided by different processes and motivations. Cultural inheritance and the transmission of...

    • FIFTEEN The Transformation of the Orisha Religious System
      (pp. 199-208)

      The development of the Orisha religion, or at least that complex of religious activities of which it is the focus, has involved the incorporation of selected elements from four additional sources over the course of roughly 150 years. Therefore, any model of such a process needs to consider not only the components being borrowed but also the way in which these components were incorporated into the existing religious system, plus an examination of those factors — ethnicity, historical context, the nature of the borrowed traits, and so on — that influence the borrowing and incorporation process. Let us begin by...

  10. Appendix A A Demographic Estimate of Spiritual Baptists
    (pp. 211-212)
  11. Appendix B A Demographic Estimate of Orisha Worshipers
    (pp. 213-214)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 215-218)
  13. Glossary
    (pp. 219-220)
  14. References
    (pp. 221-232)
  15. Index
    (pp. 233-238)