New Worlds Spring/Summer 2013 Issue
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The Work of the Medsen Fey - the Leaf Doctors of Haiti
This article was written by Ross Heaven on March 24, 2005
posted under Vodou
Loulou Prince is the medsen fey (leaf doctor/herbalist and shaman) for a Haitian community of around 1,500 people who live in the vicinity of Jacmel, a small town close to the border with the Dominican Republic. In his daily practice, he deals with a range of health problems typical of the area – from the aches, cuts, and bruises symptomatic of hard toil in the fields, to more serious complaints.
The Haitian shamanic tradition that Loulou practices is known as Vodou (often, wrongly, called ‘voodoo’ in the UK). The word has connotations of black magic and Satanism for people in the West, but as Loulou explains in his words and his work, Vodou has absolutely nothing to do with the "dark arts." It is our Western prejudice and ignorance that has created this misguided impression.
"Vodou is a Caribbean spiritual tradition which traces its lineage to the shamans of primal Africa, which we call Gine," says Loulou. "It blends together a number of African beliefs with elements from other faiths such as Catholicism, the religion of the French slave traders who took the shamans and priests of Africa to this new world of the Caribbean.
"The lwa are the Gine spirits who travelled with us from Africa. These spirits come to us through possession - a trance where the healer is ‘mounted’ by the lwa – or through their appearances in our dreams."
Both of these ways of working with the spirits are present in the healing practices of the medsen fey. He is at once an expert herbalist and a shaman, inspired by the spirits in his choice of healing herbs.
"The medsen fey is a person who knows how to talk to the lwa and to use leaves and other plant parts to promote health and cure illness," says Loulou. "Many of us also have personal or family lwa who also help us in our work".
This latter point is interesting. The ancestors - the family of spirits known as zanset yo - are a powerful healing force and every healer will have developed a close relationship with his own ancestral guides. It is also possible to "inherit" these spirits from another healer or family member. Having once been human themselves, the ancestors understand the pains and concerns of the living and, through their new status as enlightened beings, can offer direct healing or healing advice to the medsen fey.
Often, these spirits appear in dreams to advise the healer on the course of treatment to use with a particular client.
"If I am treating a sick person, very often I have a dream, and I see the leaves I should give that person," says Loulou. "In these dreams, the lwa will come to me and tell me what to do. Or I see that I am in the woods, and leaves are pushing up in front of me. Once I have this knowledge, I use my training as an herbalist to make tea or infusions in rum for the person who is suffering.
"Once I was treating a man who had body aches all the time, and diarrhoea, and congestion. The man had no money to pay a doctor, so he came to me. That night, I had a dream where a lwa came to me with leaves in her hand. She said, ‘These leaves, boil them and give them to the sick man.’
"When I woke up, I went into the forest to look for those leaves and I found them straightaway. I boiled them as I had been shown and gave them to the sick man. Within a day, he was returned to health."
THE SPIRIT OF THE LEAVES
There are very few illnesses, it seems, that cannot be healed - or at least alleviated - with the plants of the rainforest. Loulou treats people with digestive disorders, sexual problems, fevers, and colds. He has medicine to clean and purify the blood, and restore balance and order to the physical body. He also treats people who are ailing and children who are not growing well due to persecution by evil spirits. Here, the medicine is more magical in nature, and designed to bring balance to the spirit and the emotions.
"There are specific, strong-smelling leaves, which help children who are under spiritual attack," says Loulou. "I mix these leaves with special magical items which I have been shown by the lwa, and then I take some raw rum and sea water and I make a bath for the child. I soak some of the leaves in rum and set them on fire to heat the bath up. Before I bathe the child I pray, and I bless the leaves. Then, while I am bathing him, I sing songs for the lwa and the ancestors, and ask them to come and help this child.
"The rest of the bath that is left over, I put in a green calabash bowl or a bottle. Before the child goes to sleep, I have the parents rub his arms and legs with it. When that is done, no one can curse that child or do evil magic to them."
JUDGEMENTS AND JEALOUSY
How this "evil magic" comes to infect the child bears similarities to the almost universal shamanic belief in mal d’ojo, the evil eye. The magic comes through the judgements of others and through jealousy.
As an example of this, Loulou was once asked to perform magical work for a woman who had four children, two of whom had already died through the actions of evil spirits. These spirits would come to her house at night and frighten the children, sucking the energy out of them. The woman concerned was a market trader who had been able to amass a little money (a rare commodity in Haiti), and her neighbours were jealous of her.
"One of these neighbours had sent spirits against her to kill her children," said Loulou. "The lady lost two children that way and another was getting sick and skinny. I gave the child exactly what he needed. I bathed him and broke the bad magic, then I gave him leaves to make his blood bitter, so it would taste and smell bad to the spirits, and they would go away. After that, the child got better; he got fat and he grew. That boy is a young man now. He lives near me and he calls me ‘Papa Loulou’ because he remembers what I did for him."
Loulou also works with people who have chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, hypertension, and AIDS. While he is realistic and honest enough to admit that he cannot always cure these diseases, there is much that he can do to help the sufferer live a longer, healthier life.
"If a person has diabetes, there are leaves I boil and give him to drink. The same for high blood pressure. If a person has AIDS, there are leaves for that, too. [The leaves] are not always going to save that person's life, but my aim is to make that life as pain-free and tolerable as I can, so they are not held back by the disease and can enjoy the life that is left to them. I stop their diarrhoea, for example or, if they have sores in their mouth, I can make them better. If the person has become skinny, if their blood is very poor, I make a tonic for them, with herbs in red wine. They drink a few spoonfuls every day, and they put on weight, they build back up. But it's not a cure. I pray that I might find a cure, but that is in the hands of God, the saints, and the lwa".
CURING THE BLOOD
In Haiti, the met tete (master of the head) is the lwa who is your guardian spirit during your lifetime. Every person is born the "child" of a particular lwa, whether they recognise that and formalise the relationship through kanzo (initiation), or not. This lwa lives in the blood and is a guide and protector to his or her child throughout their lives. But the blood also attracts other spirits who may use the fluid to possess or infect that person - as was the case in Loulou’s example of the sick child.
A lot of the leaves that Loulou uses therefore have to do with the blood - "building up the blood," cleansing it, or making the patient "throw off" blood.
But Loulou also deals with less spiritual, more mundane injuries. He once treated a woman who was kicked in the leg by one of her horses, for example.
"People carried her back to her house and called me, so I came running. I saw the leg wasn't broken, so I started right away to massage the place, with a special oil we call lwil maskrati, which is made from a dry fruit, like a nut. Then I took some leaves and I pounded them to make the juice come out, and I made a bundle out of them and tied it on her leg, to pull the bad blood out. I gave her tea to drink, and leaves to stop pain, and then leaves to make her sleep. All the time, I talked to God and the lwa, and I told they should help me to get her better quick.
"When I had done all that, she went right to sleep, and in the morning she woke up better. The leg was still very sore, and her skin was showing a lot of different colours, but she could walk around by herself again."
Magical healing in Haiti is often very practical. There is no division, in the Western sense, between good health and good "luck." If you are in control of your own life and the things around you, you are automatically powerful and it is more difficult for the spirits to enter your body and do you harm.
"If your wife or husband leaves you, the medsen fey can work a wanga [healing charm] to make them come back. Or if you love someone and want them to be attracted to you, I can do magic for that.
"The leaves are part of the magic and there are leaves in the woods that I use, but you will also need other things: a photograph of the person you want, certain types of perfume, a pocket handkerchief, a piece of rope, a little wooden chair, a mirror ... various things. I call the person you want, spiritually, and I make them come sit down on the stool where you are. Then I work with the other things to make that person sense you or notice you and want to make contact with you.
"Of course, I can only do so much! Once they are aware of you in your daily life, it is up to you! If you are kind to them and treat them right, they will love you. If you ignore them or treat them badly, then all the magic in the world will not help you!
"Everyone has their own spirits, whether they know it or not, and they can help you as well. So I will also call your spirits and talk to them, right there in front of you. Maybe they will come to you in dreams and tell you things too, which will help you find the person you love. They will tell you how you must behave, the things you must change, and so on. Love is never one-sided, it is always a meeting of souls!"
Ross Heaven is a psychologist, author, therapist, TV, radio and magazine contributor, workshop facilitator, and Europe’s first white priest of Haitian Vodou, having initiated into the tradition in January 2000 as part of the research for his books.
He has written numerous articles on psychology, shamanism, Vodou, and the healing traditions, for magazines in America, Europe and the UK, been interviewed by and been reviewed in a number of national newspapers, and been a guest on several radio and television programmes. He has also been called as an expert witness in cases concerning trance states and ritual and acted as a consultant to feature films such as 2004’s London Voodoo. He presents widely on his work and runs workshops in personal development and healing.
He is the author of four widely-acclaimed books on personal development psychology and modern spirituality, including Vodou Shaman, his book on Haitian Vodou, and Darkness Visible, to be published in 2005, which concerns his unique workshops in ceremonial darkness, where participants remain blindfolded for the entire five days of the course.
As well his qualifications in psychology, Ross has trained in various therapeutic approaches and has a healing practice near Brighton in the UK. He has a web site, where you can read articles and book extracts, find out about workshops and catch up on news, at www.VodouShaman.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The soul comes from without into the human body, as into a temporary abode, and it goes out of it anew…it passes into other habitations, for the soul is immortal." - Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82)
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