SAFIYA IN WONDERLAND

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I go wherever my spirit takes me, I love exploring what the world has to offer and I'm really good at finding things. I'm the woman who reads the footnotes of the footnotes, then ends up being invited to a midnight Voudou ceremony. So think Indiana Jones, James T. Kirk, Captain Janeway, Captain Marvel and James Bond but better dressed and Black.

Welcome to my adventures, ruminations and coolness.

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Black Rooster

Updated: Jul 1


I was seven years old when I witnessed my first blood sacrifice. I was at a family gathering but wondered off when I heard a light drumming pattern. I distinctly remember it sounding like geckos falling from a ceiling. It led me to a nearby house with a gap in the iron fence. I peeped and saw a vodun priest slit the throat of a rooster in front of two young men. Although the rooster did not beg for his life, I was unconvinced of his purpose.


A black rooster walking on a farm
Originally posted on Agronomag

In 1965 an expert mason in Greece named Nikos sliced the head off a black rooster and poured its blood over a rock. This rock was the first stone used for the foundation of a mansion in the Peloponnese region of Southern Greece. An orthodox priest sprinkled holy water over the rooster’s blood and chanted. The priest prayed for good labour, which would result into a great feat of architecture. This was part of a builders’ ceremony. Also in 1965, on July 25th during the civil war in the Dominican Republic, as gunfire yelled into distant corners of the night, an afro-Dominican man named Donnel ran to the back of his garden covered in the blood of his wife who had been murdered after being raped. He sliced the head off a black rooster and spilled its blood onto a rock using holy water. He began building an altar with the rock. He prayed for the American army’s defeat so his country may know freedom. He learned his chant from a Vudú spiritist. The Greek priest would be remembered as holy, whereas the Afro-Dominican man would be remembered as the devil's accomplice.

West-Indians do not worship roosters. They have never worshipped roosters. It is the symbology of the rooster that is important. Across the Caribbean the connotations slightly vary, ultimately today it is a symbol of masculinity, strength, labour, and progress. However, it was the horrors witnessed by and afflicted upon the enslaved people during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade which led to the rooster becoming a symbol of war, awakenings and uprisings against the enemy. A rooster calls for two reasons, when it is time for its flock to start foraging, or when there is danger to its flock/ hens. In every West-Indian sacrifice involving a rooster, when the throat is slit, the beak is never broken. This symbolises a transference of a war-cry while maintaining the means to call people to war. However, as the rule goes, this type of divination is not designed to work in your favour if you are praying to entities who have strong personalities. They will serve themselves before they serve you: making a sacrifice to a war god means the reasoning behind the ritual is a matter of life and death.*


How afflicted must you be to call to a god whose favourite sound is the cracking of strong men's bones?

How afflicted must you be to call to a god whose favourite sound is the cracking of strong men's bones? And how desperate must you be to pray to a god of war to end a war? After the murder and rape of his wife, Donnel (meaning God is my judge), lost all hope and reason. A few days after praying at his alter, he was accidentally shot by his younger brother when constitutionalists bombarded his home in East Santa Domingo. His brother would later join the army in 1972.

The Greek mansion still stands today overlooking the mountains. It has been featured in luxury travel and home magazines, the construction is well documented, including the rooster ceremony. Builders’ rites ceremonies may focus on laying the foundation of a stone before construction begins. Beneath the original stone there may be relics. Greek foundation-rituals are a part of a long cultural history dating back to ancient Greece. Today (around the world) you may see people putting tokens, written prayers, or coins between cracks in walls of great significance to the person performing the ritual. These acts are also associated with the builders' rites, although this is not to say the practice started in Greece as a few countries claim the origins. There is an association with the Freemasons, but any person may perform a builders’ rite. I do not know what happened to the orthodox priest who blessed the rooster’s blood at the ceremony in 1965, but I do know he made reference to Pope Nicholas I (AD 800-867). Pope Nicholas l declared all churches must display roosters ‘in honour of Peter the Apostle’ in reference to what is infamously referred to as the ‘Denial of St Peter’. This is the scene in the New Testament when Peter disowns/ refuses to acknowledge his affinity with Jesus during Jesus’ arrest, thus fulfilling a prophecy told by Jesus during ‘The Last Supper’. Luke 22:34 ‘…I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me.’ (KJV). (See also Mark 14:72 and Matthew 26:75) * Prior to Pope Nicholas I, Pope Gregory I (AD 590-604) stated ‘the rooster’ is the ‘perfect symbol for Christianity’. It is now common to see roosters (sometimes gold) on crosses or weathervanes on church spires. Peter’s shame eventually led to repentance; however, I find it intriguing that the rooster was chosen when its reference focuses on the fragility of will and a dishonourable act towards Jesus, who is worshipped as the Christ in Christianity. * If you read the full story, you will also find a multitude of other important themes such as redemption and unyielding faith, but these are not the themes associated with the rooster. If you were to ask most people to describe the “perfect bird” to symbolise Christianity I would not be surprised if most people said, ‘a dove with an olive leaf in its mouth’ (Genesis 8:11), but this is not so. Totemism is a well-documented practice which has been happening for centuries, as is the sacrifice of animals (and people, depending on how far back in history we go), but I am more concerned about the historical, racial and cultural prejudices and judgements on civility and the way people choose to carry, share and sometimes even celebrate their afflictions and or burdens. I do not believe 'spiritual perversion', 'corruption', 'occultism' and 'holy' should be justified by the success of the project and skin colour. Whenever I read about tourists thrill-seeking spiritual experiences in the Caribbean and South America because relics are used, I wonder if they are aware of the history of European traditions.



Blackbirds falling from the sky
Originally posted in The Guardian

On the morning of February 7th (2022), in the northern Mexican city of Cuauhtémoc, hundreds of yellow-headed blackbirds crashed to the earth and died instantly. I was compelled to find out what happened, and met a woman called Maria who told me her story. On February 2nd, Maria discovered her ex-boyfriend/fiancé was cheating on her, she was heartbroken and expressed feeling a darkness she had never felt before. She described herself as a devout Catholic and said she ‘prayed over the betrayal’. When she saw the video footage of the birds, she believed it was a ‘sign from heaven’. When I asked her what she thought it meant she showed me a tattoo of a yellow-headed blackbird near her heart which she had done less than 24-hours after seeing the film. She expressed how it symbolised a love-betrayal and an end to her union. I was amazed at the speedy birthing of this new association with the yellow-headed blackbird/ mythology. Although her explanation was more confident than most news reports, I felt her impulsive decision stemmed from helplessness and a strong desire for empowerment. I did not ask what happened to her ex, something told me she may have done something along the lines of smash the windows of his car. When she finished sharing her tattoo story, I simply asked her ‘why?’ and she simply replied, ‘why not?’ On June 21st I caught up with Maria, there are now six members of the Yellow Headed Blackbird Committee, all of whom were betrayed by their ex-boyfriends. So how do I feel about roosters knowing at least seven generations before me never woke up after 6am? I was four years old when my grandparents in Barbados first taught me to pray east, it was morning. During my lesson a black rooster strolled into the yard behaving like it was the last day on earth, crowing for all the island to hear. I asked my grandparents why it made that noise. Gran gran said, ‘It doan matter, doan worry yuhself, just do good before it crows and after.' Then my grandfather said, 'yes, and ain't we blessed tuh be able tuh hear it.' I follow these sentiments and I believe when you are feeling heartbroken everything within proximity can become synonymous with the pain. I understand this to be human nature and this ability to give such significance to things outside of us transcends ethnicity. Seven years after witnessing my first sacrifice, I passed the same house and remembered the event. The fence still had the gap. This time I knocked on the door and was greeted by a man with a scar on his shoulder. I introduced myself and told him what I witnessed seven years ago, he immediately laughed and offered me some fishcakes his gran gran recently fried. We spent a few hours chatting on the veranda, it turns out he and his cousin had found themselves in serious gang related trouble and felt like they had their backs against the wall with time running out. When I asked him why he didn’t ask God for help, he said, ‘I did, but he didn’t answer’.

Notes & Acknowledgements: *There are multiple spellings of voudon, some mean slightly different variations of the practice and are specific to a certain region. *In the West-Indies and to an extent South America (depending on the community), prayers to gods and ancestors are two different types of worship/ rituals/ ceremonies. In this note/ memoir I am exclusively talking about prayers to gods. A rooster would not be sacrificed to an ancestor. * I always recommend reading full chapters of the Bible to gain deeper contextualisation. 'The Denial' has inspired so much art over the centuries such as Caravaggio’s painting ‘The Denial of Saint Peter’. *Peter’s denial is also sometimes referred to as a ‘betrayal’, but this is not to be confused with ‘Judas’ betrayal’. Thank you to Maria who kindly granted full permission for this documentation of her narrative. Thank you to Tobias Christodoulopoulos for the assistance on learning about builders’ ceremonial rites. Thank you to Angelo Demetriou for the assistance on learning about the orthodox priesthood. Thank you YB for the fishcakes. Bibliography/ Further Reading: Cooper, Artemis, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure (John Murray, 2012) Cooper, Artemis, ‘Myth Maker’, Condé Nast Traveller, February 2022. The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments, Authorised. King James Version. Palmer, Bruce, Intervention in the Caribbean: The Dominican Crisis of 1965 (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) Weston, Phoebe, ‘Why did birds fall from sky in Mexico? Probably a predator, experts say’, The Guardian, 14 February 2022.

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