Every mer-fan has a favourite marine-deity from human history’s infinite pantheon, and today I’m going to talk about mine. In later posts I’ll talk about others, but I’m going to start off discussing a character who holds a certain level of importance for me – Lasirenne, the Haitian version of earlier African water spirits adapted by devotees to a new context in a colonial, plantation-slavery society.
Why the special interest for me? Haitian Vodou is probably the most well preserved and richest of the surviving ‘creole’ religions – re-adapted and blended African and European belief systems that developed in colonial settings around the world. I’m drawn to these religions because of how much colonialism and the responses to it are responsible for shaping my world and my own historical path. When my grandmother used to talk about her own mother being a practitioner of ‘witchcraft’, I didn’t know what it really meant. Now I know that it meant she had a special interest in illegal magical rites which had roots in religious practices brought by slaves from East Africa and Madagascar. Our ancestors in the Seychelles lost the names of their deities, the stories that surrounded them and any non-European religiosity to successful regimes of slavery, colonial rule over a small population and active ‘anti-witchcraft’ campaigns from the 1950’s onwards. All that’s left are traces of the practical side of herbal cures and curses, methods of divination and ‘sorcery’ that’s similar to Jamaican Obeah. I can look to the surviving practices of ancestor worship and spirit possession on the nearby island of Réunion for a stronger connection to creolised religious traditions with the same roots, but even there a detailed cosmology has been lost.
Objects of ‘witchcraft’ in the Seychelles (left). A ‘servis malgache‘ ceremony for the ancestors in Réunion (right).
Thanks in large part to the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) – a slave uprising which overthrew colonial rule and was instrumental in the abolition of slavery elsewhere, Haitians were able to better preserve beliefs in ways that other similar creole societies (like the Seychelles) couldn’t at all. The development of Haiti as the first free post-slavery society from the beginning of the 19th century allowed for these beliefs to flourish, become widespread and openly practiced (at least for the majority of the next century – another story). Haitian Vodou has also become the most studied and documented of the creole religions, beyond the level of even other well preserved ones in the Atlantic world. Obviously each island or creole society began with, and developed, different sets of beliefs and there’s no way to recover what has been lost, but if you want to know anything about creole religions – lost or living – as a set of belief systems, you’ve got to get to know Haitian Vodou. That’s why I started learning about it. I’ll write somewhere else non-mermaid related about the shared roots and similarities in Indian Ocean and Atlantic European-colonial slave societies, here I will just say that connections in terms of overlapping origins and journeys, customs, language, music, and belief are more extensive than most people think. Back to Lasirenn and Haitian Vodou…
In Haitian Vodou, like most other creole and African belief systems, there is one supreme god. But this god is unreachable and does not interact directly with humans. Instead there is a host of other deities and spirits known as the lwa who followers of the religion engage with, appease, honour, ask favours from, seek guidance in and develop short or longterm relationships with. Each lwa represents a different set of ideas, stories, needs, emotions, and identities, and they attract attention from humans based on these, sometimes in the form of tributes at relevant moments and sometimes they decide to from a lifelong relationship with a particular human.
Lasirenn is a lwa depicted as a mermaid – related to earlier West and central African water deities like Mamiwata and Yemanja, and to other creole mermaid deities like Iemanjá of Brazlian Candomblé or Yemajá of Cuban Santeria and Relga de Ocha. She carries a comb, mirror and a trumpet on which she creates beautiful music that expresses the deepest and most complex elements of her ancient soul. She can also sing the most beautiful songs which can entice followers into her service. She represents, among other things, introspection, self-knowledge and affirmation, wisdom, truth, expression, adaptability, multiplicity and connection to other, older, deeper worlds that bring spiritual and material enrichment. Just as the Ocean can provide sustenance, Lasirenn, if honoured correctly can bring wealth in many forms to her devotees.
In Haitian Vodou the sea is a place of origins where many of the lwa are born. It is also a realm of ancestors where spirits dwell and the place where memories are held. Lasirenn is said to hold the powers and secrets of the sea, as well as lakes, rivers and streams, and is thought to be married to Agwe – another ocean dwelling lwa and the captain of a ship which transports the dead – especially those who die at sea – to the spirit realm. In many creole societies which were forged by the slave trade the sea is strongly associated with a realm of death. This was encouraged by the experience of bodies – dead, almost dead or simply unwanted – being routinely tossed over the sides of slave ships during voyages and the high rate of suicide and attempted suicide by jumping overboard. Lasirenn represents a link between this world of the dead, the ancestors, the spirits, and our world of the living, the present and the physical. Her comb symbolises the management of memory, heritage, identity and the parts of the self which extend beyond the physical world (symbolised by the hair).
As a female lwa and a mermaid, Lasirenn is sometimes described as another deity representing the divine feminine, beauty, sex or love. Lasirenn is thought to be beautiful, sexual and to appreciate artistic (especially musical) beauty as well as expensive items like gold and jewels. She is even thought to be able to bring her devotees good fortune in love, but she is not the lwa of these things and they do not define her identity. Those characteristics are more associated with Ezili Freda, the supposedly immensely beautiful lover to many of the lwa who seduces, parties, loves beautiful and expensive items, brings romance to her followers but is also very sensitive and cries tears of heartbreak. She is heralded as the epitome of ‘mulatto beauty’ and historically associated with lighter skinned women of higher class who secured their position by associating with wealthy white or light-skinned men. This is in contrast to the other prominent female character – Ezili Dantor, a darker skinned lwa who represents motherhood, strength, struggle for survival, hard work, independence and vengeance, historically associated with women of lower class. But Lasirenn’s appeal is not associated with class or colourism – a prejudice which favours lighter skin prominent in many creole societies. Lasirenn connects us to something deeper in ourselves than our place in society.
Ezili Freda (left) and Ezili Dantor (right)
Lasirenn’s mirror represents an inward journey and a deep understanding of ones’ multiple identities. Like an image in a mirror viewed from different angles, identity is always changing. Lasirenn herself does not conform to a fixed identity and represents complexity, constant development, merging and growth – syncretism and adaptation, the very aspects that creole societies are founded on. Lasirenn remembers that we came from more than one world. In her other form, a giant whale known as Labelen, she can leap from the water, splashing it into the air, and she can take air to the bottom of the ocean. Often when Lasirenn possesses someone during a ceremony they will embody a whale and become beached on the floor, flapping their arms and legs as if they were fins. Or they may find her objects – the mirror, comb or trumpet, or blue and white clothing that is kept ready in temples along with the objects of other lwa who may appear to possess members of the congregation. Lasirenn, like other lwa, may possess any individual regardless of gender, age, class or colour during a ceremony. She is honoured by adherents of the religion as they choose, or as she demands, when what either lwa or human has to offer is required by either side, but she also attracts many devoted followers who keep permanent alters for her and foster a close, lifelong relationship with her. She is especially popular with musicians, artists, historians and those who work on the sea as well as those who also devote themselves to her husband, Agwe.
Often after you have seen Lasirenn, felt her, been possessed by her, or after she has passed by without you knowing, you will be temporarily unable to speak. That’s the time she gives you for deep introspection. Her emphasis on looking inwards and to the past is linked to a sacred knowledge in Vodou known as konesans. She encourages understanding and finding meaning, the chance to pursue what Haitian scholar Réginald Crosley called ‘the total revelation of the tripartite nature of the self, the discovery of the centre of the self and its unbroken connection with the universal soul’. Everything that Lasirenn represents demands attention and she will use her trumpet to draw us to it. In many traditions she is said to be used to the riches of the ocean and not easy to please with offerings. Many followers of voodoo will not swim with their heads submerged beneath the water, in case they are possessed by Lasiren while in water which could drown the human body, or in case they are lured away by her. There are stories of individuals who were lured into the water by Lasirenn and returned several years later, lighter skinned and with streaks in their hair, possessing the highest skills in divination and the secrets of the sea from their time with Lasirenn. Though she can bring wealth and success, she is thought to have high expectations and little tolerance for those who break promises or neglect her. Both of which can get you drowned – you’ll be in danger if you don’t look inwards and devote time, energy and consideration to what can help you understand yourself, your past, your places in the multiple worlds around you and how to adjust to those, occupying them at the same time. Lasirenn’s refusal to be reduced to a singular identity is to remember a history of transcultural exchange and mixing. It reminds us of the importance of maintaining the ability to adapt in overlapping, fluid worlds.
I will end with a picture of an alter I set up, inspired by Lasirenn to help me keep in mind everything that she represents.