Spirits, Blood, and Drums: The Orisha Religion in Trinidad

Spirits, Blood, and Drums: The Orisha Religion in Trinidad

Spirits, Blood, and Drums: The Orisha Religion in Trinidad

Spirits, Blood, and Drums: The Orisha Religion in Trinidad


James Houk's field work in Trinidad and subsequent involvement in the Orisha religion allows him a uniquely intimate perspective on a complex and eclectic religion. Originating in Nigeria, Orisha combines elements of African religions (notably Yoruba), Catholicism, Hinduism, Protestantism Spiritual Baptist, and Kabbalah. A religion of spirits and spirit possession, ceremonies and feasts, churches and shrines, sacrifices and sacred objects, Orisha is constantly shifting and unstable, its practice widely varied. As a belief system, it is a powerful presence in the social structure, culture, and, more recently, the political realm of Trinidad. Houk carefully examines the historical forces that have transformed Orisha from a relatively simple religion in colonial Trinidad to an abstruse mix of belief, ritual, and symbolism. The voices of worshippers and Orisha leaders spring to life the intensity and power of the religion. Houk's own recounting of participation in many of the mystical ceremonies, including taking on the important role of drummer in several feasts, his initiation into Orisha, and his exceptional field research provide fascinating details essential in understanding the development of this Caribbean religion. Author note: James T. Houk, an independent scholar, holds a Ph. D. in anthropology from Tulane University and has published several articles on Caribbean religion.


After doing preliminary literature research for my first visit to Trinidad in the summer of 1985, I felt confident that I had a fairly good grasp of the beliefs and practices of the Orisha religion in Trinidad. My research topic was spirit possession; my focus was the possessing agents and the belief system of which they were a part. The first handful of shrines I visited seemed to be typical of those described in the literature: there were flags planted for African gods, and statuettes and iconography of Catholic saints in the chapelle (a small, enclosed sanctuary).

Then I met Aldwin Scott. His shrine contains the typical flags and "stools" (small shrines) for the orisha and saints, but it also displays flags and paraphernalia for Hindu deities (one of whom, I was told, was "on the African side"), an African "power" (not technically one of the orsha, which are primarily spirits derived from the religion of the Nigerian Yoruba), and personal spirits. His compound also holds a Spiritual Baptist church. I soon realized that this religion was much more complex than I had thought -- and more complexity was to come.

During the last week of my first visit I interviewed Elder Jeffrey Biddeau at his shrine in northeastern Trinidad. When Jeffrey had to leave on business, he allowed me to remain behind and take photographs. As I walked around the compound, I found a small room attached to the back of his house (but not part of the family's living quarters) full of religious paraphernalia that I could not identify. When I asked Jeffrey's wife, Lydia, about the room, she advised me to wait and talk to Jeffrey about it. Later, when I did so, he introduced me to the Kabbalah, a European-derived, esoteric, and diabolical belief system. The room was the focal point of Elder Biddeau's Kabbalistic worship.

By the time I left Trinidad after my first visit, my perception of the Orisha religion had changed dramatically. I saw that worshipers . . .

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