Astonishing Names From History: Haiti

Astonishing Names From History: Haiti
If you are worthy of its affection, a cat will be your friend but never your slave. - Theophile Gautier

Haiti. The very name conjures images of voodoo priests, zombies, and dictatorships. Since the Treaty of Ryswick of 1697 most European powers recognized French rule over Haiti and even though France no longer governs the nation, remnants of French influence can be found to this very day. Most of the Haitian populations are descendants of African slaves shipped over by the French to work upon the sugar plantations which is why Haiti is the only Latin American country with French as the official language. This blend of European colonization along with the traditional African religious beliefs preserved by these slaves produced a unique culture quite unlike any other in the world. Thus, one encounters a mysterious mixture of Roman Catholic ideas as a result of French occupation existing right alongside observances of tribal ceremony honoring the gods of African origin.

So complete was the hybrid of these myths and religions that many of the African gods brought over by the Haitian slaves adapted the characteristics of Catholic Saints while many Catholic Saints were associated with African deities. All this brought about the religion that has come to be popularly known as Voodoo. By the late 1780's the French had done such a good job of communicating to these Haitian slaves the various ideas coming from Europe (as well as news of the French Revolution), that in 1791 a massive slave uprising took place. It was a blood bath. White settlers were slaughtered mercilessly. For the next several years the balance of power shifted between the French and the rebels. By 1801 the rebels were in control and slavery was abolished. In a last ditch effort to recapture Haiti and reestablish the institution of slavery, Napoleon sent an invading army but the revolution of former slaves was unstoppable. In 1803 the French were again booted out of the country and Haitian independence was at last a reality. Alas, the celebration was short lived, and from that moment on the republic of Haiti has experienced nothing but political turmoil. Civil wars, coups, counter-coups, anarchy, poverty, and totalitarian regimes you name it. With all this going on it's no wonder that domestic cats are practically invisible in Haitian lore. You may recall a few of the names from the African chapter since the deities were brought over by slaves; however the Haitian deities have a somewhat darker edge than their African counterparts. What else would you expect from a country known for voodoo?

AGWE (AHG-way; Male): Agwe is the Haitian god of the sea and belongs to the Haitian trinity of important gods which also includes Damballah and Ogoun. The Voodoo religion considers Agwe analogous to St.Ulrique of the Roman Catholics. Besides being the sea god, Agwe also rules over sea going vessels (as you might have guessed), stormy weather, and cannons of all things. The ceremonial practices honoring this god are quite interesting and incorporate many typical elements of Voodoo ritual. For starters the worshipers build a ceremonial raft designed to carry their offerings to the god. This raft is decorated with brilliantly painted symbols important to Agwe, e.g. sea-shells; fish; a mermaid (also known as La Sirene - an ocean related variation of Erzulie the goddess of love) and her dove companion. Paintings of symbols representing other Haitian deities (like Damballah, Ogoun, and Ayida) also adorn this raft. Meanwhile, a ram is colored blue in preparation for sacrifice, but that comes later. The entire day prior to the actual festivities is spent indulging in a huge feast. When the worshipers aren't eating, they are praying. By nightfall the faithful engage in songs and the sounding of conch shells. Then, first thing in the morning, the raft, the ram, drums, cakes, and food and drink galore are transported to the beach along with several cages of sacrificial chickens. All of this is piled into a boat manned by hougouns (male worshipers) and mambos (female worshipers). This boat is navigated to a spot in the ocean where it is believed that Agwe resides. At this point, the raft is filled with all the food and drink, and the chickens are butchered, their bloody carcasses also tossed upon the raft. Then one, two, perhaps several of the worshipers are overcome by a trance which they believe is nothing less than possession by the god Agwe himself. Now the blue ram is thrown into the sea. The raft, now filled with offerings, is then set adrift. As it slowly sinks into the ocean, wild songs of exuberance are chanted since the sinking raft symbolizes Agwe's acceptance of the offering. Those experiencing trances and apparent possession return to their normal state of consciousness. The boat is then rowed to shore and it's back to business as usual. And so ends a typical Voodoo ceremony, obviously not for the weak of heart. When these gods demand recognition they're not fooling around. And woe is it to the fool who ignores the demands of these Haitian deities. It goes without saying that cats share a similar, if somewhat less extreme, demand for acknowledgment. If your cat tends to act up obnoxiously in search of undivided attention, you may want to consider this unusual name.

AZACCA (ah-ZAH-kah; Male): Does this sound familiar? You come home, feed your hungry cat, and like a half crazed maniac he devours his food like he'd been starving for weeks, only to start begging for more? Well then he has a lot in common with the Haitian god of agriculture, Azacca. There's just no nice way to put it; when it came to food Azacca was a slob. He'd shove handful after handful of grub into his drooling mouth while crouched down in some distant nook, far away from the prying eyes of anyone and everyone. Manners? You must be kidding. And it wasn't just his eating habits that were foul and disgusting. He was loud, rude, had no qualms about blasting out wall-rattling farts, and constantly made sexually explicit advances on women who wanted nothing at all to do with him. In short, he was an asshole. But one must give credit where credit is due. Asshole that he was, he nevertheless was a hard working asshole, responsible for the abundant harvests and the all round health of the crops.

BOSSU (BOH-soo; Male): Is your cat mean and nasty? A bully to all the other neighborhood cats? Then Bossu is a perfectly appropriate name. Bossu was an evil Voodoo spirit; a demonic "lieutenant" if you will, distinguishable by the three horns sprouting from his head. Just think of the Voodoo bad guys as a Mafia family. At the top you've got your Don, Godfather, or if you prefer the "capo di tutti capi". In the Voodoo underworld this was Mait' Carrefour, god of magicians, bringer of bad luck, and ruler of night demons. You might say that Bossu was just one of his goons. Definitely not the kind of crowd you want to get mixed up with.

BRIGITTE (brih-ZHEET; Female): Haitian goddess of death and cemeteries. In this regard she is the feminine aspect of a god named Ghede, also associated with death and graveyards. In spite of her macabre nature, Brigitte is a sweet name that brings to mind beauty and loveliness.

DAMBALLAH (dahm-BAHL-AH; Male): Like the feathered serpent god of the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl, Damballah too was a serpent god of the sky, though without the feathers. He was originally an African deity brought to Haiti by slaves. He is considered a kind and fatherly god, wise beyond human comprehension. The Haitians understand and respect Damballah's lofty position so they refuse to bother him with the piddling trivialities of human affairs. To the Haitians the very fact that the benevolent Damballah exists at all is considered blessing enough. To honor him his devotees construct sacred pools filled with water which Damballah loves so much. This is understandable since he happens to be the patron god of rain, rivers and streams. Since he is a sky god, you'll often see him portrayed as a giant parabolic vault in the heavens accompanied by his female consort Ayida, the rainbow goddess. Together they represent sexuality and fertility. Of all Damballah's characteristics, there is one that any cat fancier will recognize right away - he loves to climb trees and relax high among the branches. From this vantage point Damballah observes the various operations of life and existence passes by while he remains aloof, unaffected, and untouched by time.

ERZULIE (ehr-ZOO-lee; Female): The personality of this goddess is about as cat-like as you can get. She was the agile and elegant goddess of sex and love (patron to prostitutes and lover to each member of the Haitian trinity), as well as goddess of beauty, flowers, and all manner of fine things. Erzulie was also well known among the denizens of night since her luxurious jurisdiction extended to the kingdom of sleep and dreams. She is said to be wealthy beyond imagination, and, when called, she will only appear if you offer her even more luxury and wealth of a quality that meets up with her demanding expectations. Therefore, to this end, worshipers of Erzulie will draw special baths laden with expensive oils and perfumes in an effort to win her favors. This is understandable since she is said to be as generous as she is picky. Once you have come into her favor, the goddess Erzulie will make sure you are never in want again. So great are her powers that she can elevate human beings to magnificence at the same time as she brings the gods down to human level. She always gave her men warm hugs, and she could make elderly women feel young and desirable. But she can also be something of a manic-depressive with severe and irrational mood swings. One minute you might find her happily enjoying a fine banquet, only to discover that she has turned up her nose to that same meal the very next minute. When this happens the faithful are advised to simply wait a spell until Erzulie begins enjoying herself again. Because of her finicky habits, keep the name Erzulie handy just in case you happen to find yourself with one of "those" kinds of cats.