Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Mambo Chita Tann, author of Haitian Vodou.
One of the things indigenous religions have in common, no matter where they arise, is a strong continuity between living people and their ancestors. Whether or not a culture thinks of its dead as benevolent or dangerous—and sometimes, both at the same time—the culture will have an origin myth and honor its ancestors in some way, as part of religious and cultural practices. Most indigenous groups fully embrace the idea that the dead are not actually dead, but removed from the world of the living and in another place, where they can interact with living descendants.
When Christianity spread across the cultures the Roman and Byzantine Empires conquered, it had a hard time dislodging all these dead people. In many cases, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy embraced these indigenous traditions, replacing beloved ancestors with saints and offering two feast days—November 1-2—to honor the souls of those saints and other departed. It made sense, when trying to fold these cultures into a global Church, to bring their ancestors along with them.
When Martin Luther’s movement created Protestantism, a concurrent effort to de-Catholicize Christianity began, and attempts to “purify” the message by removing these pesky indigenous traditions were made. Over time, Protestant churches came less and less to recognize the power of our ancestors, preferring to relegate discussions of the afterlife to the context of Heaven and Hell, and to keep the living and the dead in increasingly separate categories. Some more conservative forms of Protestantism teach more than separation; they insist that involvement with the dead is “necromancy” and thus forbidden by Scripture.
This unfortunate separation between the living and the dead persists into many forms of modern Paganism. I suspect it has something to do with the number of former Protestants who have converted, but it may also have to do with a general Western disdain for the spiritual.
It is surprising, and more than a little disappointing to me, to learn of worshipers of ancient gods who know little to nothing of the ancestors who worshiped those gods before them. How can a person worship a god of an ancestor-honoring culture, and yet ignore the ancestors who introduced that worship? I’m equally baffled by people who will go to their gods with their tiniest problems, but consider talking to an ancestor about them either impossible or a last resort. Why would a god be better to ask for spiritual help, in a human problem, than a human ancestor?
In African and Afro-Caribbean traditions, including Haitian Vodou, we are taught to get to know our dead first, before we go introducing ourselves to spirits or god(s). The dead are related to us, by blood and culture. They are our extended family. Additionally, they are human. They know what it’s like to love, to be afraid, to lose a job, or to need help dealing with other family members. They are a powerful force residing in the Unseen World, just waiting to be included in our lives.
Our thanks to Mambo Chita Tann for her guest post! For more from Mambo Chita Tann, read her article “Forty Days and Nights of Purity: Lent, Haitian Vodou Style.”