|Vévé for Damballa|
But first - a little background about some of the choices I made for the book as a preliminary, before we get to the religion and the magic.
I had always planned for Miriam, my protagonist, to cross the Great Ocean Sea (the Atlantic, as it was first called) in order to settle in the Caribbean or New World. In book two, The Tattooed Seer, one of her love interests - Joachín - is shown a map of a gold mine on Xaymaca (Jamaica, being the island's present-day name.) Xaymaca was an Arawak term meaning 'land of wood and water', the Arawak being the indigenous people of the Caribbean and parts of South America. They were also known as the Taino. (In Queen, I refer to them as the Tain. Interesting how one small thread of research leads to another, isn't it?) Anyway, I decided on Xaymaca (or Jamaica) for book two, because Jamaica actually does have gold which is mined in the Blue Mountains today.
Voodoo isn't just about zombies, and it certainly isn't about 'zombies eating your brain', although that's how it's often portrayed in popular culture. The term vodun from which voodoo derives comes from the Yoruba, a west African tribe, and means 'spirit'. Today, it's a syncretized Afro-Christian faith, or set of faiths. There are different varieties, depending upon where it is practised: Santeria in Cuba, Candomblé in Brazil, Voodoo in New Orleans and America, Vodou in Haiti, and Obeah in Jamaica, where it tends to include more magic.
One of the things I had to consider was what voodoo on Jamaica might have been like back in 1550, when the book is set, and before it melded with Christianity to the extent it has. Because the slave trade was active throughout the Caribbean, with slaves bought and sold, and many escaping horrific conditions, I decided to incorporate both the French and Jamaican versions of voodoo - Voudou and Obeah, to better reflect a melding of African cultures. I used a little creative license in allowing a French presence on Jamaica. One of my key characters, Papa Kodjo, is an escapee from Esbañiola (Hispaniola being the original place name for present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Papa K is also a houngoun or voodoo priest, and honours the lwa or voodoo gods. Another of my characters, a wild girl named Ekua, worships the Obeah pantheon, and Ogun, a machete-wielding warrior orisha, in particular. I hesitate to say the terms lwa and orisha are interchangeable, but they have similar meanings. On her arrival to Xaymaca, Miriam unexpectedly encounters Ekua, who claims that Ogun 'rules her head'. When a lwa 'rules your head' it means that a particular god has chosen you, and that he or she rides or possesses you as and when they choose. This possession is seen as a great blessing by the vodouisants who are ridden. Miriam finds the similarities between Ekua's religion and her own striking (as did I, when I was writing and doing research for the book. Both vévés and tattoos can be magical symbols, opening doors for spirit to enter.)
The vévé, above left, represents Damballa or Damballah Wedo, one of the most important lwa in the pantheon. Damballah is the Sky God, the great serpent who encircles the universe, and who is the creator of all life. Next post, I'll talk a little more about voodoo in general, as well as describe some of the lwa/orisha pantheon.
And yes, eventually we're going to talk about zombies. :-)