Voodoo take this man?

With a voodoo wedding, you don't marry just one person, but two goddesses of love. Damian Fowler enters into the spirit. Photographs by James Rexroad
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is 10 o'clock on a Saturday night in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, New York City, and the streets are dark and quiet. This is the last stop on the subway, a one-hour ride from Manhattan. Out here, the only sign of life is the occasional flicker of blue light through the window of one of the small detached houses.

In a narrow, equatorially hot basement room, two tables are crammed with bottles, flowers and plates of food. Wearing an elegant sky-blue African dress, Dorothy Desir-Davis, a voodoo priestess, or "mambo", sways slowly to the pulsating beat of master drummer Damas Fan Fan Louis, before joining in a chorus of voices. Tonight, more than 50 people will gather with her to sing, dance, chant and entice the gods down for a voodoo wedding.

Such rituals are not uncommon among the largest Haitian community in the United States. They brought their religion with them when they settled here, but feel they are widely misunderstood: "I'm fed up with the stereotype ideas of who we are," says Desir-Davis. "I'm fed up with living in a closet, of not showing our flag in terms of who we are culturally."

"Whatever people assume about this religion, it's completely wrong," says Michael, a painter. He's the bridegroom tonight, but he's not getting married to just one person. Rather, he is marrying two goddesses of love, Erzulie Freda and Erzulie Dantor. But how did he choose his brides-to-be? "It's mutual," he says, straightening his tie. "You come to a lot of ceremonies. They talk with you and you talk with them."

Both goddesses have lavish altars devoted to them, decked with flashing coloured lights, bottles of champagne, Caribbean fruits, eau de Cologne and bouquets of flowers. As well as these offerings, elaborate designs (known as veves) representing different gods, or Iwa, are traced on the floor with cornmeal and coffee grinds before the ceremony. "You cannot miss one step or one point of the veve," says Louis, as he traces an intricate heart-shaped pattern on the carpet. "Otherwise, you might end up calling down someone you don't want."

Each goddess is represented by a statue of the Virgin Mary, one white- skinned, the other black. Two dolls stare out from either side of the African Madonna. Their meaning is a closely guarded secret. "There are certain things I can't really tell you," says Desir-Davis, drawing me in with her eyes. "If I did, I'd have to kill you." For a moment, her tone is serious, then she laughs.

At one o'clock, the possessions begin. A tall, wiry woman dressed in a blue Senegalese dress staggers forward and falls face down on to the floor. Her body is tense and quivers with energy. She has been possessed by the god Damballah, the Great Serpent, and cannot use her legs. A group of women surround her, chattering in Creole and French. They cover her head with a white silk cloth and splash her with drops of eau de Cologne. Suddenly, she snaps to her feet with a look of terror - her eyes are wide, her mouth gapes - before the god leaves her and she collapses in a chair.

"I remember feeling this whack in my lower back," says Desir-Davis, recalling the first time she experienced possession, at the age of 15. "The only way I can describe the sensation is that it felt like a snake was undulating up my back. This was new. I found myself unable to control what was going on. I knew this thing that started at the base of my spine was working its way up and was going to hit my head. I ran out of the room so quickly, because I didn't want to know what would happen next."

Possession is at the heart of the voodoo ritual, during which the spirits speak and act through family members. There are literally hundreds of deities in the voodoo pantheon, derived from a variety of African nations. The religion also focuses on venerating ancestors and dealing with the dead. In Clint Eastwood's film, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which opens this month, a voodoo priestess tries to commune with the spirits of the dead in a graveyard at midnight. In its own Hollywood way, the movie touches upon an important voodoo tenet - that those who lived before influence the lives of those living today.

By now, possessions are coming thick and fast. Every time a god enters someone, there is a loud thump from the drums (Damas Fan Fan Louis tries to "get" people) and the dizzying smell of Cologne is pungent in the air. The gods flaunt their personalities aggressively, in a dramatic confrontation with the sometimes frightened believers. A farmer god, Azaka, takes over the body of an older woman wearing thick glasses. In her state of possession, she no longer needs glasses and her face becomes screwed up and angry. She demands money from people, sputtering curses if they're not quick on the draw with a dollar bill.

Around two o'clock, four hours into the ceremony, we come to the main event. Erzulie Freda has entered the room in the shape of Mamoun, the chief mambo. She disappears upstairs to change and returns, pretty in pink and clutching a bouquet of roses. She is escorted to the altar and takes her seat next to the nervous-looking bridegroom. The marriage ceremony, conducted in French, begins with the "Hail Mary" - over two centuries, voodoo has incorporated the imagery of Roman Catholicism. Erzulie emits a low hiss like the sound of a tyre going down as the priest incorrectly addresses her as "Madame". He is quickly corrected by the crowd. "Mademoiselle," they say in unison. Soon, the two are declared "man et femme".

The drumming kicks in again as the newlyweds drink a glass of champagne, toasting their union. The flirtatious Erzulie Freda grabs at every man in the room, leaving her husband looking on. She purses her red lips provocatively, rubs my face and wraps her legs around me. Embraced by a goddess. "She is pleasure, and pleasure is something the Iwa have given us," explains Dorothy Desir- Davis. "She is love, and love is to be shared."

But there is a darker side to voodoo. Around four in the morning, the ritual goes into the next phase - the invocation to Erzulie Dantor, the African Madonna. "The rhythm of the drums has changed," says the woman next to me, with a trace of nervousness. "There's a difference, when they change the rite." The gods being summoned are the Petro gods, created in Haiti in the 18th century to help the slaves defeat their colonial masters. "These spirits are very strong," says Louis, his face shining with sweat. "The Petro spirits, as soon as you do something wrong, even me as

a voodoo priest, they can kill you in a second." The drumming sounds like a volley of semi-automatic gunfire.

Suddenly, the tall, wiry priestess is standing in the middle of the floor, wielding a large machete. She shouts at people, ordering them to kneel before her, gesturing with the weapon, which looks suitably dangerous in this cramped space. This has nothing to do with black magic. The voodoo ritual is about acknowledging all the forces of life, says Desir-Davis. The Petro gods represent a different incarnation of natural force. "When we're dealing with the forces of nature, there are positive and negative things that exist," she says. "The same leaf that can be used to heal you, can also be used to do you harm."

No harm is done. After the second wedding to Erzulie Dantor, people begin to disperse. It's six in the morning and a pale, milky dawn is breaking over Brooklyn. A woman, seen earlier as the god Azaka, is on her way to work. She's anything but exhausted. "After a wonderful party like that, who needs to sleep," she says, striding out into the daylight `You cannot miss one step or one point of the design,' says Louis, as he traces the intricate pattern (above, watched by Desir-Davis). `Otherwise, you might end up calling down someone you don't want'