In Haiti, the Ultimate Vodou Cleanse

No 23

Near a small town in central Haiti called Ville Bonheur, the Tombe River tumbles picturesquely into a deep basin. The waterfall is called Saut d'Eau. It is one of the holiest sites in Haiti, and never are its supposedly sacred powers more palpable than in mid-July, during a three-day festival that brings thousands of pilgrims from all over the country to bathe in its cleansing waters.

Saut d'Eau is known as the dwelling place of Haiti's most popular patron saint, Our Lady of Carmel. In the indigenous vodou tradition she is also known as Èzili Dantò, goddess of love and creativity. The friction and interplay of those two religions is key to the modern story of Saut d'Eau. In 1847 and again in 1881, the legend goes, the goddess appeared in a nearby palm tree. Understanding her to be a Christian figure, the local Catholic clergy greeted the apparition as a miracle. But when visitors started leaving out small plates of food and votive candles, the presiding French priest, fearing idolatry, cut down the palm tree. Èzili then appeared in another, which he also cut down, a process which continued until there were no palm trees left. The goddess is then said to have turned into a dove and flown to the waterfall.

The priest's gesture, like so many of its kind, did not penetrate to the roots; it is not a Christian figure to whom today's pilgrims devote gifts of perfume, dolls, herbed red wine and cigarettes. (Ever formidable, Èzili prefers the latter unfiltered.) And while some bathers experience divine possession in the silvery pools, Saut d'Eau contrasts with Haiti's other major annual July vodou pilgrimage, at Plaine du Nord, where believers writhe in the mud while channeling the wrathful energy of Ogun, god of war (and Èzili's lover). The ritual at Saut d'Eau is one of cleansing and rebirth, the liquid rush a deliverer of sacred energy; and the falling water background music of sorts to prayers and singing.

This short film was edited exclusively for Jungles in Paris by Olivia Wyatt. Footage comes from The Pierced Heart & the Machete, her 2013 feature documentary for Sublime Frequencies.

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