What are ‘Creole Religions’?

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The term “Creole religion” refer to the religious traditions of the African Diaspora in the Caribbean.

The term is notably associated with professors Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and their work Creole Religions of the Caribbean (2011) where it refers to those religions “most pervasive” in the island regions of Caribbean. These include Vodou (Haiti), Santera/Regla de Ocha (Cuba), Rastafari (Jamaica), and ritual-based healing and harming traditions such as Obeah and Quimbois (West Indies).

Creole religions are typically syncretic meaning that they derive from diverse religious origins, and emerged out of contact between Christianity, indigenous African religions, and native American spiritual traditions. This contact resulted in adaption, syncretism, and assimilation that lead,

“to the complex systems of religious and healing practices that allowed enslaved African communities that had already suffered devastating cultural loss to preserve a sense of group and personal identity. Having lost the connection between the spirits and Africa during the Middle Passage, they strove to adapt their spiritual environment to suit their new Caribbean space” (1).

Researcher Emanuela Guano provides the example of Revival Zion as an example of a Creole religion resulting from the syncretism of

“Baptism and a Jamaican Afro-Creole religion called “Myal.” From Baptism, Revival Zion derived mainly the literal approach to the biblical doctrine, to which it added Afro-Creole elements like spirit possession, the emphasis on drumming and dancing, and offerings and sacrifices to the spirits. Revivalists regard themselves as Christians; they worship the God of the Bible, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost. The latter is believed to manifest itself by seizing the senses of those worshippers whose soul is “clean.” Revivalists attend their churches on a regular basis (about three times a week), but they also have special functions for particular occasions among which are “tables” held to thank the spirits or to urge their help, or river baptisms meant to introduce new brethren into the Revival Zion community” (2).

The creole religions, although viewed by historical Christian colonizers as being associated with the evils of magic and sorcery, developed and often thrived in the Caribbean in colonial society and under slavery, colonization, and social oppression (3). For example, Olmos and Paravisini-Geber note the emergence of Creole religions in the context of the developing sugar economy, with the consolidation of slavery systems in the colonial plantations of England, France, and Spain.

Creole religions vary in their origins, beliefs, and rituals but also share notable characteristics (4). This includes a combination of monotheism and polytheism in terms of a concept of deity. Practitioners commonly hold to a belief in a pantheon of deities who are emanations of a single creator, and who serve as intermediaries between human beings and the supreme god. Ancestors also feature in Creole cosmology as a cult of dead family members is believed to watch over a community and influence Earthly events.

Creole religions also share the notion that supernatural, mysterious power can be invested within objects such as minerals, vegetables, animals, and humans. Animistic belief is common in that there is the belief that spirits found in nature (trees and plants are believed to have souls and spirits) can be contacted. These spirits can also exert influence (positive or negative) over a person’s life. Typical mediums for contacting the spirit world include rituals such as initiation, divinatory practices, sacrifice, spiritual possession, and healing.

Music, chanting, clapping, drumming, and dancing are also very important to Creole ritual and practice. Practitioners believe that sound has the power to transmit action and they code their rhythms and dances to the identities of the gods summoned in the ritual.

References

1. Fernández Olmos, Margarite, and Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. 2011. Creole Religions of the Caribbean. New York: NYU Press. p. 2.

2. Guano, Emanuela. 1994. “Revival Zion. An Afro-Christian Religion in Jamaica.” Anthropos. p. 517-518.

3. Fernández Olmos, Margarite, and Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. 2011. Ibid. p. 3

4. Fernández Olmos, Margarite, and Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. 2011. Ibid. p. 12-13.

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