William Seabrook - Describes Vodou
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
William Seabrook – Magic Island
In the air all round us, everywhere and nowhere, I became conscious of a steady, slow "boom . . boom . . .boom . . . boom." It seemed sometimes to come from a great distance, like rolling far-off thunder beyond hidden valleys and over mountains far away; it seemed sometimes to be low and close at hand, just beyond the next turning; at moments it seemed inside my own head or in my veins like a pulse beating. As we rode farther and the afternoon waned, this steady booming now louder and closer, became complicated by a hitherto inaudible under-rhythm, an incessant throbbing woven and interwoven around a simple basic motif …
It was not syncopation. It was not remotely like jazz. It was pure counterpoint like a Bach fugue except that the core of it was slow, unhurried, relentless. There was something cosmic in it like the rolling of mighty waters. There was something humanly savage and primitive too in its relentlessness, as darkness enclosed us and lights began to glimmer red up yonder at the head of the gorge.
The habitation to which we came was a compound, unfenced, on a plateau overhanging the gorge, hemmed in by the forest. There were assembled already perhaps a hundred negroes, crowding, moving about like shadow in the red flickering lights. There were three or four scattered houses, and in the central forefront of the compound was a big open tunnelle - the word is misleading, but there is no English equivalent for it. It was a great awning-like roof-canopy, rectangular, of straw thatching, erected on poles. In a corner beneath it were the three drummers, drumming.
The man with the tall central drum used one stick and the hard heel of his right palm, which produced the deepest note; the other two with the smaller drums used their hands with virtuoso-like varied rapidity, the flat palm, the bunched, hard tips of their fingers, the fisted knuckles, the rosin-coated thumb drawn across the drumhead, which then emitted a bull-roaring zooming. An old woman stood by and from time to time wiped the sweat from their faces. It was deafening, close at hand, and yet in a curious way seemed not so thunderous as it had from a couple of hundred yards distant down the trail.
Some of the black faces and whitened mud walls stood out in high lights; other parts of the compound were in dark shadow. We of the family entered Ernest’s house for coffee, and then I walked about in the crowd with Maman Celie. There was no one who had not either met or heard definitely of me, and my presence seemed taken for granted. Many greeted me.
A bright moon was now rising over the mountains, and the ceremony was presently to commence. The drums ceased, and for the first time I heard the intermittent bleating of tethered goats…………….
From this swirling milling ceremony of purification, figures leaped out dancing and screaming glory; here and there in the crowd a still higher, shriller, more unearthly shriek announced the pentecostal, invisible, yet flame-like descent of the lois, spirits of the gods and of-the mysteres, entering the bodies of individual dancers.
This final phenomenon of ultimate and overwhelming religious ecstasy, as I observed it at this and at other voodoo ceremonials seen subsequently, never became general or contagious.
True, the entire crowd was now becoming frenzied and ecstatic, but they remained themselves in ecstasy. This other force, which struck a few separate individuals here and there like lightning, swept all self away, and those thus stricken became actually, in the technical, religious sense of the word, possessed.
No need for me to insist here on the absolute subjective reality of this phenomenon. It has been common to all religions during periods of deep, mystical faith.