Originally published in The New York Times.
A Marriage, When the Spirit Moves Them
Rearing back like a raging snake, the woman hisses and writhes on the floor. Another divine match.
IT’S 10 p.m. and the wedding is in full swing in a ground-floor apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The groom, wearing a crisp white dress, is writhing belly-down on the floor and hissing fiercely. Soon he is going to look into his bride’s eyes and pledge his everlasting love to her. But instead of the clink of champagne glasses, she cracks a hard-boiled egg for him, which he swallows whole — like a snake. Because he is a snake. His name is Dambalah and he is a voodoo spirit about to marry a New Yorker.
Like all spirits, Dambalah has no physical form. So when the woman to whom he has proposed is ready to be his bride, an elaborate voodoo ritual must take place to coax him to materialize — as he does this evening in the body of a female wedding guest — and marry her. Hence, the singing, the dancing, the praying and the rum as the wedding guests prepared for his arrival.
This elaborate voodoo ritual, which took place on a recent Saturday night, may seem utterly bizarre to outsiders. But spiritual marriages are not uncommon among New York’s 200,000 Haitian immigrants. The marriages are the heart of voodoo, a centuries-old Afro-Caribbean custom that itself marries animistic rites with the Catholic concept of saintly patronage. The tradition, brought to the city in the 1960’s by Haitians fleeing François Duvalier’s dictatorship, promotes mating with unseen forces, called lwa, as a path to spiritual health and material well-being.
Many immigrants believe that joining hearts with a voodoo spirit is like signing a contract with an invisible protector to bring good luck, dispel loneliness and ease financial woes.
Cathleen Doucet, a Haitian-American in her 30’s who lives in Bellerose, Queens, says her spiritual marriage to Kouzen, the lwa of work, has had a tangible effect on her life. “I was looking for employment when Kouzen asked me to marry him, and I told him, ‘If you give me a job, I will marry you,’ ” says Ms. Doucet, an executive assistant at a software company. “A week later, I had a temp assignment that lasted three years.”
Getting hitched to a spiritual spouse can, however, strain the wallet.
“Back in Haiti people used to get married with a piece of thread,” said Marie-Florence Jean-Joseph, a priestess in the religion who also lives in Bellerose and who left the island 26 years ago. “But here the spirits request a ring with a stone.”
On weekend nights throughout the year, voodoo initiates gather at the homes of their spiritual leaders to pay homage to the spirits. The peak of those sessions occurs when a lwa “possesses” a person from the group.
This was the case on a recent evening in the Crown Heights apartment when Dambalah, the snake-bodied voodoo spirit, seized one of the wedding guests. The woman’s voluptuous frame fell to the floor, writhing in true serpent fashion.
WALLOWING belly-down among chairs and flip-flopped feet, and sullying her festive dress with dust from the bare floor, the prostrate woman hissed, sputtered, writhed and wiggled, then flared her nostrils and reared back like a raging snake, until the bride fed her — and the mighty spirit inside her — a hard-boiled egg. As she gulped the egg and the newlyweds traded rings, the crowd cheered and set out to feast into the night. The phantom husband slipped back into the air, while his flesh-and-blood new wife remained, rejoicing.
Another New Yorker had found love by marrying a lwa.
According to voodoo lore, a spiritual marriage offers something for everyone. The spirit gains entry to the human world, where in dreams or visions it makes its proposal of marriage to the person. If the proposal is accepted, the spirit is honored and celebrated, in exchange for which its earthly spouse is promised divine protection from life’s misfortunes.
“In New York, people do it because life is so hard here,” said Ms. Jean-Joseph, who is also a paralegal at a bankruptcy firm in Long Island. She says she believes that marrying a spirit is like “placing an application to relieve the financial pressure.”
Those who choose to engage in spiritual unions are free to mingle with and marry whomever catches their fancy. But a small segment of voodoo practitioners believe that a spiritual marriage can actually be an alternative to the more traditional one.
Andre Jean, a 38-year-old Haitian and a voodoo priest, says his marriage to Erzulie, the spirit of love, is a happy and fulfilling one.
“The reason why I’m not married to a real woman is because I want to avoid problems,” said Mr. Jean, who owns a car dealership on Atlantic Avenue in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. “Women of my age don’t see my work as a career, and they want a lot of my time.”
Mr. Jean may seem like a lucky man. In addition to Erzulie, he is married to two other female deities — an acceptable arrangement in the voodoo canon. He says his wives often visit him in his dreams to ease his daily worries or warn him if they feel mistreated.
“Any time a man marries Erzulie Danto, you have to be extra careful,” he said. “She could bring you up to the sky financially, or she could bring you down. If you make her angry, you’re going to have problems with police, with I.R.S., with everyone.”