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There are many symbols associated with Vodun and diaspora systems. Their meaning and significance, as with many things, varies from place to place. Some of the most familiar and widely publicized on the internet are Haitian veve. These are symbols that are employed when Lwa (deities, forces of nature, and honored ancestors) are called.
There are many other ATR/ADR that use such symbols, often some similar or the same. However, it is important to remember that regardless of what may have been watered down or forgotten over time, the Motherland traditions from which ADR’s grew did not consider these things representative but embodiment of the spirits to whom they are connected.
Once a veve or God-seal is drawn or crafted and activated, it is a sort of 2 dimensional fetish of a spirit or a gateway for them. It is not to admire them, represent them, or conceptualize them. It is them. In order for one’s mind not to break from the prospect, one could call it a part of them.
Humans are given the ability to build these embodiments through what adherents of Ifa and Orisha call our Ori. This is something like the Ba in Kemetic spirituality. It is where one’s personality comes from and an aspect of ourselves one should both honor and develop. It is the part of us that is real but unseen as most of the spirit realm is real but unseen. A witch (not Aje initiate but wise-person) or sorcerer either was given the ability or learns to use this similarly to an appendage like a hand or leg. Any person who understands how though, can create a drawn embodiment of a deity.
So most symbols, veve, and God-seals have nothing to do with magic, and are about traditional or religious observance. They may look exotic and pretty, but then so does a stained glass church window.
Bearing all this in mind, unique symbols belong to the cultures in which they were created. Yes, quite a bit is shared between regions and styles, but generally in the African community, we are aware and give respect to the originators of a particular design. A lot of exchange has happened especially between adherents of Oshun, Ezili Freda, Ala, and diaspora Mami Wata. So it’s not surprising to see similar heart shapes, fish, flowers, curls, and other beautifully dangerous indicators in all of their symbols. However, each group has their own take, and outsiders can seldom tell the difference.
The reason it is important to know what it is one is looking at and whether or not it is traditional, an innovation, regionally specific, agenda based, or just plain fake is obvious to most of you who would be reading this article. It is not so obvious to someone who has no exposure to the African or diaspora community though, so for those few of you out there who wandered in via some internet rabbit hole, I will explain.
First, since African and diaspora spirituality has been written about in western languages, there have been many gross misinterpretations. Some were honest mistakes, but others were perpetrated by “white” supremacists and Christian and Muslim clergy to sabotage those exploring African spirituality or profit from their energy or money spent on books and publications. Aside of what most symbols one would see in the public are usually used for, symbols can be used to hypnotize, subliminally program, or funnel spiritual energy vampirically from those who look at it without adequate protections.
Though the tendency in the magical/witchcraft community is usually the French “kill the author”, Africans haven’t historically been able to afford such flippancy. We judge things by whether or not they are effective, therefore one should consider the implications behind the revelation that Kenaz Filan is a “white” supremacist. He doesn’t seem to consider himself such, but then out of the other side of his neck, speaks from the wholehearted belief in American anti scientific “race” theory. He shames his own ancestors by glomming them into the multikult called “white”.
So apparently either he didn’t write any of his books or everything in them is rubbish. If it had been effective or real, then certainly one of the Legbas would have led him to at least give honor to his own ancestors instead of dishonoring them with that insecure energy. When you compare his work with say, Milo Rigaud’s (may his name be spoken eternally), it’s easy to see the difference. Milo Rigaud is from Haiti and grew up in the Haitian traditions. He actively participated in making Black people’s lives better. He can also explain in excruciating detail how a veve is constructed so that instead of stealing someone else’s, you can build your own.
Ah yes, out here in the diaspora, just like in the Motherland, we take symbols seriously. Whenever you see one, it wasn’t just thrown up to be cute or even just to show love. Each time your eyes pass over one, it is there to manifest something. So now we get to the next question.
Is it okay to wear a Vodun symbol?
Mindfully yes, depending on what it is. Like elekes, they are portable embodiments of deities, forces of nature, or honored ancestors. They should be treated with care. Some symbols are specifically crafted for wear. They will have features that connect them to a wearer, specific or general, or at least a lack of things that could harm or disorient them. Though some spirits are good with public display, some prefer their symbols be either hidden or at least not obvious. You need to know the tradition to know what you’re looking at.
One of many good reasons for care is that some prefer to be worn or stored alone, while others prefer to be in the presence of certain others or absence of certain others. Some prefer specific circumstances. One would not, for instance, wear Yewa with a symbol or item embodying Shango or with clothing that could be considered a “heaux uniform”. One would not curse or engage in any sexual behavior while wearing Yewa, not because it is bad or wrong, but simply because it is not appropriate with her. Oshun on the other hand, might be offended if you did not look your best while wearing her unless the purpose was to motivate you to do so or cheer you up.
There are somewhat different rules when a symbol is not traditional/religious, but is a psychospiritual cue or sorcery symbol or seal. The instructions for these are purpose dependent or highly individual. The Turkish anti “evil eye” for example, is a psychospiritual cue symbol, and should be in a visible place on the body or in a building. It is there to remind people to check their jealousy, possessiveness, or greed, and protect the person or place from harmful energy generated by these. A lie detector talisman on the other hand, may need to be kept secret or worn in a not very visible place despite containing aspects of charisma enhancing deities. One should follow the giver’s instructions.
Speaking of which, some symbols like tradition or house specific elekes or baskets/pots/cauldrons/soperas should not be on bought items. They are the privilege of those connected to the original designers’ lineage. For example, Ile Baalat Teva has a Eshu as the Gatekeeper symbol containing elements of the ancestry of our founding members and the fair exchange principle. I don’t mind if others use it so long as they give us some linkage and respect. However, if someone were to begin selling things using our unique symbol because they didn’t bother to check its origins, this would be unfortunate for them as we are an ile of witches, not traditionalists.
The spirit realm is not dependent on things like copyright law. Though Orunmila and Ochosi do tend to these things on some level, their priority is not based on human legality. Regardless of human standards, they are not going to reward someone for swiping someone else’s ideas, styles, or symbols, especially if the swiper then tries to place themselves above the origin.
Also bear in mind that “kill the author” doesn’t fly in the spirit realm either for obvious reasons. Though all symbols, rituals and practices originated in someone’s imagination, if that imagination live in the soul of someone sincere and observant, it will manifest in blessings. If it came from corruption or in the case of the aspects that people like Kenaz Filan made up, actual contempt for the people it was sold to benefit, then that is the energy it will carry.
Additionally, if you wear the wrong symbol or one containing subliminal sabotage, this could lead to some serious harm. There is the “white” people trap issue, but it goes further than this.
On January 6, 2021, a bunch of people, some phony Heathens and Nordic Pagans, tried to overthrow the democratically elected government of the U.S. This angered a lot of witches who were disgusted that someone would swipe their cultural symbols to use for “white” supremacist and fascist causes. One way they were able to help the perpetrators of that criminality be caught, and some of them meet other unpleasant destinies was by holding them to the wyrd they explicitly swore to when tattooing gateways for spirits onto their bodies.
When you are wearing a symbol, especially if you tattoo it onto yourself, you are pledging your body as a carrier of that force. So consider this whenever you buy, make, and wear wearable or portable Vodun or diaspora symbols.
Blessings and Ashé!