274. A Voodoo Priest’s Silver Cane Top

Haiti, 19th century
Size: 9 cm high
Old label: Polished pewter cane top from
Voodoo priest staff. Haiti, 19th c.

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This powerful Voodoo symbol is cast from solid silver, not pewter as stated on the label. The haft is deeply incised with two fleur-de-lys, and at the back grips the skull with a bony hand.

The Tate provides no information on its website about the skull-topped cane held by Robert Mapplethorpe in his 1988 Self Portrait, of which they have a copy. The composition, in which the skull and hand around the cane are in sharp focus, while Mapplethorpe’s face remains slightly out of focus, is generally interpreted as a knowing reference to the photographer’s impending death, which came the following year. His cane top and this one both come from the Voodoo tradition of Haiti, and are clearly closely related.

We tend to regard Voodoo and other such things as primitive superstitions at worst, or objects of suspicious curiosity at best. But before allowing the mind to close totally, it is worth reading this article that appeared in The Independent on 29th October 1998:

‘Football fans in the central African state of Congo were hurling accusations of witchcraft at each other yesterday after a freak blast of lightning struck dead an entire team on the playing field while their opponents were left completely untouched. The bizarre blow by the weather to all 11 members of the football team was reported in the daily newspaper L’Avenir in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo.

‘Lightning killed at a stroke 11 young people aged between 20 and 35 years during a football match, the newspaper reported. It went on to say that 30 other people had received burns at the weekend match, held in the eastern province of Kasai. “The athletes from Basanga [the home team] curiously came out of this catastrophe unscathed.” The suspicion that the black arts might be involved arose firstly because the opposing team emerged unharmed and then again because the score at the time was a delicately balanced one-all. The exact nature of the lightning has divided the population in this region which is known for its use of fetishes in football, the newspaper commented. Much of the detail about the match remains obscure as the Congo – officially known as the Democratic Republic of Congo – remains stricken by civil war between the government of Laurent Kabila and rebel forces, backed by neighbouring Rwanda, in the east of the country.

‘Witchcraft is often blamed for adverse natural phenomena throughout western and central Africa. It is relatively frequent for football teams to hire witchdoctors to place hexes on their opponents. In a similar, though less deadly incident in South Africa over the weekend, six players from a local team were hurt when lightning struck the playing field during a thunderstorm.’

Reading such an account, one would normally assume that, if true, the disaster as described must indeed be the result of some freak natural occurrence. The idea that such an event could be caused by witchcraft appears ludicrous, and anyone who seriously believes in such an idea would seem ‘primitive’ from our point of view. That is unless you give credence to the fetish religions which exist in Africa, much diminished in recent times, but nevertheless still in evidence today, particularly in West Africa.

A remarkable description of fetish religion can be found in a book called Africa Dances, by Geoffrey Gorer, first published in 1935, from which the following extract is taken. Perhaps one should not reject the notion of witchcraft out of hand...

‘Benga and I were made, as it were, honorary members of the Agassou (panther) fetish, on the ground that I was certainly and he probably harbouring the spirit of a dead fetisher. But before our initiation we were made to swear that we would neither write nor speak about anything we see or experience, and we had to leave cameras, pencils and notebooks behind. For the greater part I was going rather regretfully to keep my word – regretfully, for a number of very curious things occurred. I realize that this sounds rather like Herodotus with the Egyptian Mysteries, and I think we may both be in the same position; after all, we are both of us pretty good liars, and could make up perfectly satisfying marvels if we wanted to. Concerning three incidents, however, I am going to break my vow; they are none of them fundamental but all to my mind interesting.

‘The first occurred before we were admitted into the convent. A sacrifice was being made at which we could not be present, and we both stood outside the courtyard on the grass in the moonlight holding a piece of dried grass in our left hands (this grass played a considerable role later), probably looking ridiculous and feeling very silly and rather alarmed. Our sponsor and interpreter was with the priest. After a time he came out and said to me, “You live in a white house on a hill surrounded by trees; you have a mother and two brothers who are walking under the trees” (a quite adequate description of my home and family; and it was very probable that on 25 June they would have been walking in the garden in the evening). Then he turned to Benga and said, “You have no home. In the place you think of as home there are many people. Your two sisters are well, but your dead mother’s husband was taken very ill two days ago; he will recover, however, before you see him again.’ This was exact in every particular; on 23 June Benga’s stepfather had had a severe attack, as we verified on our return to Dakar, and he was quite convalescent before we returned. We were more than a thousand miles from Dakar at the time, and had received no communications from there for the better part of a month.

‘After a night spent in the convent we were considered to be fetishers. Fairly early in the morning we went with the priest and the other fetishers into the open country, among maize fields. A chicken was killed – the number of animals which were killed that night, and I presume every night in Dahomey, is astounding – and the priest started to sing in a low voice. The rest of us stood about, smoking or chewing cola. After about half an hour a full-grown panther walked out of the maize and started moving among the people; it was quickly followed by another, and in a short time there were fifteen panthers among us. They arrived from every direction. We had been told most earnestly on no account to touch them, and not to be afraid of them, for they would only harm wicked men (i.e. sorcerers). I was scared so that I felt my legs shaking, but I was able to keep quiet. When the fetisher stopped singing they went away again. The first animal had eaten the chicken. This was the only time in Africa that I saw any of the fiercer mammals alive and in freedom. There were a number of villages within an hour’s walk. It was about fifteen miles from Abomey.’

The excerpt from Edward Gorer’s Africa Dances is by kind permission of Barnaby Rogerson, whose entire Eland Press list of publications should be the companion of choice for anyone on a desert island.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, artist rooms National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.