As published in the February 2012 edition of the Murfreesboro Pulse (updated for 4-2013)
|Actual photo from my adventure. Note lumbering zombie in background|
Voodoo is indeed widely misunderstood. It conjures images of zombies, animal sacrifice and exotic dance rituals performed to the sound of drums. More accurately defined it is the group of spiritual belief systems and practices brought by African slaves to plantations in the Caribbean and the Southern US. These traditions often blended with Roman Catholicism and share similar origins with the vodou religion of Haiti. It was a vodou ceremony in Haiti that signaled the beginning of a massive slave revolt in 1791 resulting in the burning of 1,800 plantations and the massacre of 1,000 slaveholders during a single week. That fateful ceremony at Bois Caïman sealed a covenant with an African deity to kill the whites in exchange for freedom and was consummated by the drinking of blood which is naturally why voodoo makes most white folks a little nervous.
Now Mama always said not to go sneaking into voodoo temples all by my lonesome. Luckily my brother-in-law Reagan Ammons, having been deployed to Haiti as a US Marine, was familiar with vodou and was equally stoked about the mission. Arriving in Memphis, we headed to Beal Street for some hot gumbo and cool Delta Blues, tasting the nightlife to set the mood before our adventure. Around midnight we left the laughter of Beal Street behind and made our way to the temple site.
|Uprising at Bois Caïman|
Once inside, my heart began to beat like the drum of a savage, sending adrenaline throughout my body as we surveyed the grounds for anyone who might challenge our presence. The place appeared to be in disuse. There were no zombies and no women to be rescued from the alleged den of pagan debauchery. In fact, the site possessed an air of sacredness resembling a shrine dedicated to something I couldn’t identify. Certainly, the masks and symbols displayed a bit of African influence. Also present were a lot of masonic and Christian symbolism. Under the moonlight, the temple possessed an air of sacredness and a beautiful, folky asceticism that I’ve never seen elsewhere. After taking a few photos, we made our exit.
While this adventure yielded more questions than answers, a book published in 2005 called No Space Hidden, offers more. According to the book, Wash Harris, the deceased spiritual leader of the community, “established the temple as a church and center for traditional medicine.” In the same book, which was written by Grey Gundaker, a professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, the temple artwork is described as a form of African-American devotional art. Adding to the confusion, published quotes by Harris state that the temple is a Christian church whose symbolism can only be understood if one is a freemason. He is also credited with saying that “God told the Black man and the Indian things that he didn’t tell others.”
There you have it. I know the PC conclusion here is that St. Paul’s Spiritual Temple is simply a group of afro-masonic Christians who build funky art and practice “traditional medicine” in secret. But I think the name Voodoo Village still sounds better and here is why. There is a strong connection between Haitian Voodoo and Masonic orders. In fact it can be said that Haitian history has been undeniably influenced by secret societies which are described in a book called The Serpent and the Rainbow (not the movie) written by ethnobotinist Wade Davis. Here is an excerpt that demonstrating this point.
"There were, according to these informants, secret societies in all parts of the country, and each maintained control of a specified territory.... Membership was by invitation and initiation, open to men and women, and was strictly hierarchical. Laguerre verified the existence of passports, ritual handshakes and secret passwords, banners, flags, and brilliant red-and-black uniforms, as well as specialized body of spirits, songs, dances, and drumbeats...
"... he described them [the secret societies -Recluse] the very conscience of the peasantry, a quasi-political arm of the vodoun society charged above all with the protection of the community. Like the secret societies in West Africa, those of Haiti seemed to Laguerre to be the single most important arbiter of culture. Each one was loosely attached to a hounfour whose houngan was a sort of 'public relations man' acting as a liaison between the clandestine society and the world at large. In fact, so ubiquitous were the societies that Laguerre described them as nodes in a vast network that, if and when linked together, would represent a powerful underground government capable of competing head-on with the central regime in Port-au-Prince."
Is the Voodoo Village somehow representative of the Vodou-Masonic Connection? Many including anthropologists who have studied and written about Saint Paul's Spiritual Temple would say there is no connection. However, it;s my opinion that when dealing with what is by definition a secret society then all bets are off.