Cover image for Mark of voodoo : awakening to my African spiritual heritage
Mark of voodoo : awakening to my African spiritual heritage
Caulder, Sharon, 1944-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
St. Paul, Minn. : Llewellyn Publications, [2002]

Physical Description:
xii, 420 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : color illustrations ; 23 cm
Subject Term:
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BL2490 .C38 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Black History Non-Circ

On Order



The True Account of
One Woman's Odyssey into Voodoo

In midlife, native New Yorker Sharon Caulder left her successful physical therapy practice to find her soul among the Voodoo people in Benin Republic, West Africa. Mark of Voodoo is the story of her amazing experiences with sub-Saharan African Voodoo-the root of all Voodoo-including her initiation into the spiritual hierarchy as a full-fledged chief, and her romance with the Supreme Chief.

Dr. Caulder speaks candidly about karma, evolution, tantric sexual systems, sacrifice, and spirit possessions. Hers is the first book to explain what happens during Voodoo rituals from both the visible and invisible perspectives.

This revealing account contains graphic anthropological details of rituals and sacrifices, and includes 16 pages of color photos of the people in the book, their rituals, and practices. Filled with adventure and romance, this is a story that will speak to your psyche and your heart.

First Runner Up for the 2003 Coalition of Visionary Resources (COVR) Award for Best Biographical/Self-Help Book

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Prompted by reawakened memories of voodoo rituals from her childhood, Caulder, a middle-aged physical therapist with a doctorate in mythology, journeys to Benin, West Africa, to trace her spiritual roots. In this first-person account, Caulder chronicles her transformation to an African voodoo chief by depicting her struggles with cultural differences as she integrates herself into the life and customs of a Benin village that practices voodoo. She also describes her new friendships and the mutual romantic attraction between her and the village's powerful chief. Caulder details her initiation rites and many voodoo rituals as she explains a religion that has been misunderstood and maligned as dark magic. She links her new knowledge of voodoo to her knowledge of energy healing and neuroscience. Including 16 pages of color photographs of voodoo rituals and practices, this is a fascinating book. Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

This book documents Caulder's pilgrimage to uncover Vodou's roots in the West African coastal areas of the Republic of Benin, and there to clarify her role as a Vodou (which she calls "Voodoo") leader. Raised in Brooklyn, until the age of 13 Caulder was a participant in Voodoo rituals conducted by her great-aunt. The book opens with an explicit, vivid and, for some, horrifying scene of Caulder as a five-year-old subjected to ritual abuse, climaxing with the torture and sacrifice of a cat. Until her early 40s, Caulder was repulsed by such powerful experiences, but when her memories returned as flashbacks, she left her family and her physical therapy practice, abruptly setting off for Benin. Within one day of her arrival, Caulder's "inner guide" provided her with the location, the identity and an introduction to the Benin "pope" of Voodoo, Supreme Chief Daagbo Hounon Houna. Over time, Caulder was initiated into Voodoo's spiritual hierarchy and came to appreciate that the "basic structure of Voodoo is a fine one," although she became increasingly troubled by animal sacrifice and spirit possession, illustrated in some of the 16 pages of color photos. To the extent that objectivity can be applied to spiritual pursuits, Caulder's seems strained by the fact that she fell in love with Daagbo, and by such offhand revelations as "I most often used my clairvoyant abilities" for translation during conversations and rituals. For those who can discern legitimacy and have a strong stomach for animal slaughter, Caulder's account is not without merit. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Opening the Door of the Invisibles I woke up at around 4 a.m. Afraid to oversleep and too excited to go back to sleep, I got out of bed. I threw on some pants and a T-shirt and waited until five for Martine to show up. Not sure that I would hear the motorbike from my room, I went down to the front door and out to the gate. Martine was not there and it was still pitch dark so I decided to go back to my room. I was to soon learn that one of Martine's less-endearing habits was to be chronically late. Martine actually arrived in plenty of time at 5:30. The ride to the compound was bumpy and sandy. A few times we had to get off the bike and walk it over or around some obstacle. Martine drove and I sat on the back. When we finally got to the compound about ten minutes later, the gate was still locked. Martine pressed a buzzer and knocked several times before a young boy of eleven or twelve opened the gate and led us to the sitting area outside Daagbo's quarters. As Martine and I sat in the moonlight on the veranda, I looked around the courtyard. Directly across from us was a concrete well shaded by a wooden awning. A wooden bucket hung from the winch on a rope. Surrounding the courtyard were three or four small huts, each with a name above the door. Martine told me they were the names of Voodoo deities. They were the same names that appeared beneath the pictures on the wall on the outside of the compound. The hut closest to us was a temple of Avelekéte, who, I was to later learn, is one of the manifestations of Mami Wata, mother of water. Near the entrance to Avelekéte's temple was a pile of something I couldn't make out at first in the semidarkness. I was startled when I realized it was a pile of bones that was perhaps two feet high. Not knowing whether they were human or animal, I walked over to inspect them and was relieved to see that the skulls were clearly those of animals. On the compound wall to the left of the bones was a mural of Daagbo. He was standing under a parasol on a giant turtle's back in a small boat floating on the ocean. He held a ceremonial staff in his left hand. As I bent over to look at the turtle more carefully, I suddenly heard eerie murmurs echoing in the courtyard. I looked over at Martine who looked ready to bolt out into the street. As I walked back toward her, I realized that the sounds were whispers coming from a small window in Daagbo's quarters. In the dark stillness of the early morning, the whispers felt like auditory smoke drifting out of the walls. For a moment the voices became more distinct, and Martine breathed a sigh of relief. "It's Daagbo and some woman," she said. "They're just talking." A little later a tall woman who was probably in her early forties came out. She nodded to us, walked to the gate, and left the compound. Then Daagbo appeared in a white toga and said he would be ready in a little while. Martine and I passed the time talking about her children, the hardships of women in the society, and her own life. She had gone to language school in Accra, she said. Her father, who was a schoolteacher with political connections, had been influential in getting Daagbo out of prison when the government was on one of its anti-Voodoo campaigns. Martine went on to tell me that her family on her father's side had been powerful in Ouidah for centuries. She was a direct descendant of Cha Cha de Souza, a Portuguese slaveowner-in fact, the biggest slavemaster in Ouidah's history. I said, "You seem to be proud of that, Martine." Picking up on the criticism in my voice, she said, "But he was different from the other slavemasters. After a while, they all went home. But he settled here and made Ouidah his home. He built a huge compound on the highest hill in the village and took fifty African women as his wives." "No doubt the cream of the crop," I said, saddened to see this beautiful young black woman taking pride in being descended from someone who had destroyed her own people. She ignored my comment. "He had hundreds of children," she continued, "and began to become part of the culture. He even worshiped Dagóun, a Voodoo deity, and built a temple for him. It's still standing right down the road. I'll take you there tomorrow and introduce you to my cousin who is the chief." By now the sun was just starting to come up and the compound slowly came to life. The cocks crowed and goats started scampering around, romping and playing with one another. Then young boys, anywhere between the ages of four and twelve, started to appear. They gathered naked around the well, pulled up water in a bucket, and lathered one another with a lump of black soap. Giggling with delight as they poured the cool water over each other in the chilly air, they showed no sign of shame in front of Martine and me. "Where are the girls?" I asked Martine. "They're inside. They'll bathe later in private with their mothers." Once the boys had washed themselves, they ran inside to get dressed. Some of them appeared again a few minutes later to fetch water for the adults who were waiting to bathe inside their huts. Other boys came out to do other chores-things, Martine told me, such as delivering messages, making fires for cooking, or going to vendors to buy food. After a while the women came out, many with clay pots or enameled metal bowls on their heads, others carrying reed baskets. Martine explained that the ones with pots and bowls had food to sell, and the ones with baskets would fill them with bread from the nearby bakery. Some of them had stalls from which they sold their food, and others walked up and down the roads. The few older men in the village began to drift out after them, but they seemed to have nowhere to go. The younger men were the last to emerge. Many seemed solemn or angry. The majority of them, Martine said, would spend the rest of the day idling about. I had already noticed young men milling around in small groups smoking dope outside the compound. Other small groups stood about ogling women. A few loners leaned against trees. Some of them stared out with vacant eyes as if they had already given up on life. Others were feeding on rage. When I passed some of these, they looked at me with stark hatred in their eyes. I asked Martine how people earned money in this small village thirty miles outside Cotonou. "It's very difficult," she said. "Most of the men are unskilled, and there are few jobs in the village for the Voodoo people." Around nine o'clock Daagbo came out and told us that he was waiting for certain people to arrive before starting the rituals. Several young children then ran up to him, bowed, and put out their hands. He took coins out of his pocket and passed them out with a fond smile. He made jokes with the children and enjoyed each one. Later I learned that many of the youngsters in the compound were his own children or grandchildren. When Daagbo went back inside, I asked Martine why he had given the children money. She explained that they would go to the street vendors to buy their first meal of the day-which in many cases might be their only meal. This surprised me because I had assumed that the preparation of meals would have been a community enterprise. Later, I always kept extra food around so that I would have it to feed hungry children. As I was to discover, Daagbo was often short on money and could not always protect the children in this way. I started to get annoyed at sitting around for so long. By now we had been waiting for several hours. I was still operating on an American clock and had not yet adjusted to the local rhythm. Every time Daagbo came outside, I had Martine ask him when we would be ready. He always said, "We have to wait." I would gradually learn that we were waiting for a number of things. Villagers were often late. The ancestors and deities had their own peculiarities and were directed by many different circumstances in their supernatural realms. And the astrological considerations were numerous and complicated. It would often take hours for all pertinent aspects to move into alignment so that plans could proceed. Daagbo was standing in the doorway of his quarters when a heavyset woman of perhaps thirty-five or so ambled across the courtyard toward us. She had a warm, welcoming look and had obviously been prepared for my arrival because she didn't look at all surprised to see me. As she approached Daagbo she prostrated herself at his feet and kissed the ground. He greeted her and motioned with his hand for her to rise. She turned toward Martine and me and gave me a broad smile, which I returned. After she spoke to Martine in Fon for a moment, Martine formally introduced me to her as Nana, Daagbo's assistant. Knowing the attitudes toward women in the country, I was surprised that he had a female assistant. That told me something about his character. Nana immediately began to speak to me alternately in Fon and French, to see if I spoke either. When she saw that I spoke no Fon and very little French, she told Martine that she spoke almost no English, but would be willing to tutor me in Fon. I accepted. As we were chatting, a young girl of about eight or nine approached. She walked with an exaggerated limp because her left leg was considerably shorter than her right. Her left foot drooped down like a wilting flower. She held her left arm close to her body with her hand balled into a tight fist. To my surprise, she came right up to me as if she knew me. I reached out for her as I assessed her physical condition to see if I could help her during my stay. Fortunately, her intelligence and speech appeared to be unaffected by what was clearly a trauma that had damaged part of her brain. Nana introduced the girl to me as her daughter and excused herself for having to take care of some errands. The day continued to wear on. The sun got higher and hotter, and Martine and I began to get thirsty. At some point Daagbo sent a couple of the children to bring us back cold drinks. I ordered a cold beer, and Martine asked for a soda. She told me that she didn't usually drink alcohol because she would become giddy after only two sips. Around midday Martine complained that she was getting hungry, so we decided to walk over to the nearby village square where vendors sold various kinds of food. I told Martine that I was allergic to all meats except fish and turkey. That would really limit my choices, she said, since fish was much less common than goat or chicken dishes and no one sold turkey. It turned out that one of the vendors had fish, but it was so bony that I had to order a lot of pieces, along with some rice, to make a meal. Martine ordered a double portion of chicken and rice. I was surprised that such a thin woman could eat so much. It occurred to me that she might have worms in her intestines that were sharing her food. We sat down under a large tree on a cement block that looked like the remains of some building. Everything in Ouidah seemed to be in some stage of crumbling. Before we started to eat, Martine sent a child to get us cold drinks. I ate my fish with a plastic fork provided by the vendor. I was surprised, given her manners at the hotel restaurant, to see Martine eating her chicken and rice dish with her fingers and spitting out the bones on the ground. I enjoyed the meal immensely. I hadn't expected it to be so fresh and tasty. Nevertheless, when I was finished and even though I had no signs of upset stomach, I downed four capsules of acidophilus as a precaution. After the meal we walked back to the compound. We sat and talked for another hour at least. People came up to us to ask Martine who I was and why I was there. I asked her to tell them that I was there because this was where my people came from. They didn't seem to have the faintest notion of what I was talking about. It was becoming apparent to me that most of the people in Ouidah knew virtually nothing about slavery beyond the fact that something unpleasant had happened centuries ago. I began to feel overwhelmed with grief and disappointment. Having struggled for lifetimes to get home and back to my roots, and now having finally made it, I wasn't even recognized as kin. Instead, as a yovo, I was identified with the enemy. Daagbo seemed relieved when I returned. Later I learned that he was always concerned for my safety, especially that I might be poisoned, kidnapped, or robbed. Eventually we were summoned into the ceremonial room of his quarters. As I walked into the room I noticed a weirdly shaped stick leaning in the corner next to the door. What really grabbed my attention was the strong spirit that was in the stick. "Who is that?" I turned to ask Martine. Nana, who was next to Martine, noticed my focus on the stick and asked Martine what I was saying. When Martine explained my question, Nana told me that it was Legba. "Legba is the deity of the crossroads, the crossroads between this world and that of the deities. He is the messenger between humans and the deities." Nana went on to tell me that Legba is very sexual and appears in many different forms. I was to see different manifestations of Legba throughout the Voodoo community. To my surprise at least twenty people-men, women, and children-were already gathered in the ceremonial room. The room had no windows, so the only light came from the open door. As my eyes accommodated to the low light, I realized that it was a large open room with several pitch-black areas off in three directions. These spaces were impossible to see into from where I was. Off to the side of the room was a goat tied to a pole and several chickens with their legs tied together. The floor was concrete. The cold against my bare feet was quite refreshing after the sweltering heat of the village dirt roads and the torrid hot sands of the compound floor. We all sat around, and Daagbo sat in front of us on a bench. His feet rested on a small mound on the concrete floor. When he noticed me staring at the mound, he told Martine to tell me it was a deity. Nana was seated on a small stool behind Daagbo and to his left, prepared to assist him as necessary. Everyone was in a very festive mood and was laughing and joking. Children ran in and out. Some of the men and women joked with me, talking through Martine. But some of the people just stared at me. They weren't used to seeing foreigners-or at least not in the middle of their religious ceremonies. Some surely must have questioned why Daagbo had let a yovo in, which was clearly against the rules. Daagbo had two beautiful red-tailed gray parrots in a cage next to him. The door was open, but they mostly stayed inside. Frequently he would talk to one of them as he balanced it on his forearm. I could see that he was very fond of the birds and spoke to them spirit to spirit. Suddenly the room became quiet as everyone's eyes turned toward the door. A very short older man of perhaps fifty was hobbling in on crutches. His left leg, which was lifeless, was swinging loosely. Martine whispered in my ear that he was the bocono, the diviner. His way of divining was through the deity called Fa. Everyone shouted greetings to him. Then he bowed to Daagbo as best he could, and the two of them talked softly for a couple of minutes. After that the bocono spread a cloth on the floor, untied a large fabric bag from one of his crutches, and dropped it down on the cloth. Then he lay down his crutches, sat on the cloth, and proceeded to take several ritual objects out of the bag and set them beside him. When everything was in place, he signaled to Daagbo that he was ready to begin. Daagbo instructed Martine to move my chair next to the bocono and to sit down behind me. She would be out of the way there, but have good access to my ear. A young man to my left started drumming. Daagbo picked up two of the hobbled chickens and set them down beside his bench. He started saying something, but Martine hesitated in her translation, and then stopped altogether. I kept asking her what Daagbo was saying, but she didn't answer me. She seemed to be straining to pick up the words. Finally she told me that Daagbo must be speaking some special ritual language and not Fon because she couldn't understand most of what he was saying. Daagbo then picked up one of the chickens and put it down in front of the bocono and me. The space before us was now transformed into a ceremonial arena. Daagbo was offering the chicken to the ancestors-his own, mine, and the ones we shared. Then he reached into a wooden bowl, took out a nut that Martine told me was a kola nut, and divided it into four parts. He held the parts between his hands for a moment and then cast them onto the floor. How they landed told him whether or not the deity accepted the chicken. From the excited cries of the people around me I knew that the chicken had been accepted. Daagbo proceeded to sacrifice it by breaking its neck with a sharp twist. Then he broke open its mouth, yanked out its tongue, and let the blood pour out onto some stone altars scattered about the arena to feed the ancestors. Daagbo went through the same procedure with the second chicken. This one was not initially accepted by the deities as I could tell from the groans of the people. But Daagbo urged and pleaded, and then he picked up the parts of the kola nut and cast them again. This time the people cheered. Again Daagbo snapped the bird's neck with a twist, and this time poured the blood onto different stones. Daagbo then broke the parts of the two kola nuts into smaller pieces and placed them on a small wooden tray along with a bitter nut called goro and a peppery nut. He ate a piece of each kind himself, and then passed the tray around for everyone else to share. Daagbo told me to eat a piece of each kind of nut, which I found very bitter. He then picked up a bottle of European gin, poured some into a simple glass, spilled some on the floor as a libation for the ancestors and deities, and took a drink. A middle-aged woman came up to Daagbo, kneeled on one knee, and took the glass from him to pass it around the room. She kneeled to each one of us in turn as we took our sips. Even the small children and the babies tasted the "ambrosia, the drink of the gods." Another woman passed around water after Daagbo fed the spirits and then himself. As the glasses went around the room, Daagbo said something to the bocono who was holding a divining tool made of a string with cowry shells on it. Martine told me that they called it an alecka. Holding on to the middle of the string, the bocono cast it out on the floor and read the significance of the position of the shells. He did this several times. Sometimes he and Daagbo seemed to be surprised by the information they received. At other times they seemed to be disturbed. A few times the bocono put sacred stones into my hands which I had to throw down for him to read. If he or Daagbo were displeased with the reading, I would have to hold the stones up to my third eye to infuse them with my energy, and then throw them again. The bocono had me go through the same procedure with four cowry shells. The frequent discussions between Daagbo and the bocono continued between each segment of divination. Finally Daagbo's son Yahmín untied the goat from the pole and placed it in front of me. Daagbo offered the goat a small branch with green leaves on it, which the goat began to chew. Later I learned that this was taken as the goat's consent to be sacrificed. The reward for sacrifice is to be reincarnated at a higher place in the chain of being. Daagbo then prayed aloud and looked at me. Martine said, "Repeat after him." I repeated the words. We did this several times. Then he cast out a kola nut again, and it was clear from his reaction and that of the others around me that the deity had accepted my offer of the goat. Yahmín then grabbed the goat's front legs while an assistant grabbed its hind legs, rendering it immobile. Yahmín picked up an old rusted ceremonial knife. The goat bleated pitifully as Yahmín tried to cut its throat with the blade that was far too dull. Daagbo was clearly upset that the goat was suffering. I, too, was becoming very uncomfortable with the goat's agony, but I didn't want to appear aggressive or to dishonor tradition. Finally, however, I reached into my bra and pulled out the switchblade knife that I had bought in New York. I dramatically flicked it open, then wondered if Daagbo would be offended. I was relieved when I saw his face light up. He reached out his hand for the knife. Not knowing if I was allowed to hand it directly to the supreme chief, I gave it to Martine, who carefully passed the knife to Daagbo. The serrated blade sparkled in the darkened room. Everyone was clearly impressed with it. Daagbo quickly blessed the knife and then motioned for one of the other young men to carry it to his son. Yahmín eagerly threw down the old blade, took up the new one, and with one stroke totally decapitated the goat. Everyone gasped. I didn't know it at the time, but usually they just cut deep enough into the throat to sever the jugular veins. Not realizing how sharp the knife was, Yahmín was shocked as he stood there with the goat's head in one hand and the knife in the other. Yahmín passed the head to one of his assistants while the other assistant, who was holding the body of the goat the whole time, held it over a clay pot to capture the blood. Then two women came up and took the pot into another room. Yahmín's assistant then captured more blood in another pot. When the blood flow slowed down to a trickle, the assistant carried the goat around the room to feed the ancestors and the deities, and then poured a few drops on my head. Next, the pot of blood was passed around the room for everyone to drink from. When it was my turn I paused momentarily, engrossed in the thoughts of the danger of drinking blood that may be contaminated with the AIDS virus or hepatitis B. But I immediately dismissed the warning thoughts and then sipped a little of the goat's blood. It was warm and thick. The drumming stopped, and the energy in the room became more casual. People started to laugh and joke again. Yahmín by then had opened the goat and removed its organs, placing some of them in a large shallow bowl that he sat down in the center of the room. He took what remained of the goat outside. Through the door I could see him and his assistants starting a fire, skinning the goat, and defeathering the chickens. In an hour or so everyone who had participated in the ceremony would partake of the chickens and the goat. The sacrificial animals were an essential element of people's diet. For the poorest ones it was their only source of protein, and so it was particularly important for the health of the children. Thus some people took large pieces of meat home for their families. Other people ate a meal from the sacrifice. I just took a respectful bite from each animal. Later I learned that because many of the local animals were not fed antibiotics and other chemicals as they are in the United States, I was not allergic to the meat. While the animals were being cooked,we were all free to walk around the compound. Martine and I went out to the veranda in front of the building. "Does killing the animals bother you?" Martine asked me as soon as we sat down on the low wall in front of Daagbo's quarters. "I'm still thinking about it," I answered truthfully. "I need to see it some more so I can get a goodidea of exactly what is going on energetically." I remembered reading something about sacrifice from the perspective of the Dogon people of Mali. To them, sacrifice in all its forms is for redistributing the life force. Forces move in a circular way through the sacrificer, the victim, the altar, and the power invoked through the saying of prayers and the shedding of blood. The altar acts as a storehouse of forces, the point of contact between humans and the gods. It is from the altar that the deities come to drink in order to sustain their life. This is the secret of their immortality. "So I guess," I told Martine, "the blood must be tended. It must be a way of spirits getting sustenance when they don't have a human body." I was figuring things out for myself as much as I was answering Martine's question. But she didn't seem to mind. Just then Daagbo walked over toward us and sat down next to me. "Ask him what happened in there, Martine," I said. All Daagbo would reveal was that I had two deities. I remarked that he seemed surprised at the information. He replied that he was surprised because most people only had one, although he himself had two. When I asked who my deities were, he replied that I would know soon enough. He also said that the ancestors and the deities were very pleased that I was there. I was relieved. Hearing this dispelled my fear that they would think I was fake or not really one of them. I wandered back into the ceremonial room. Looking up, I was startled to see ten or twelve huge, grayish-brown rats sitting along the rafters, hungrily eyeing the soon-to-be-abandoned goat entrails. "Why don't you get rid of them?" I asked Daagbo. "They are dangerous for the children." "We are afraid to put out poison for them because the little children may eat it. Some of our children got sick and died because the rats contaminated by the poison got into some of our food before they died. We have not done anything about the rats since," said Daagbo. "That is a tough situation," I agreed. Excerpted from Mark of Voodoo: Awakening to My African Spiritual Heritage by Sharon Caulder All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Introductionp. xi
Life Forcep. 1
In Search of Myselfp. 5
The Motherlandp. 13
A Welcomingp. 19
Back to My Rootsp. 29
Opening the Door of the Invisiblesp. 35
In Preparationp. 61
Dancing the Body and the Spiritp. 69
Unionp. 81
Recognizing Spiritp. 91
In Search of Deliverancep. 105
Sequestered with the Deitiesp. 109
The Mystical and the Mundanep. 137
Initiationp. 153
The Supreme Chief of Voodoop. 167
Living in Both Worldsp. 173
Naetep. 187
Mythology of the Peoplep. 207
The Tricksterp. 233
Bondagep. 247
Reflection and Preparationp. 271
A Crossroadp. 279
Mamip. 287
The Illustrious Ancestorsp. 297
Journey Northp. 313
Return of the Prodigal Daughterp. 333
Serpentsp. 347
Soul Sisterp. 361
By the Seap. 377
Epilogue: Honoring the Divine Withinp. 405
Appendix The Voodoo Pantheonp. 409
For Further Readingp. 415
Indexp. 417