Voodoo flags are not my area of expertise, but I’ve spent a good deal of time around them and the artists and craftsmen who make them. For the cover of my new book, Farewell, Fred Voodoo (to be published in January, 2013), I’ve used a voodoo flag, and the positive and interested reaction to this flag has made me think about the flags in general.

Every voodoo flag is associated with a god (as are the ones below, with the voodoo goddess Erzulie), and usually centers around a symbolic portrait of that god and/or his or her veve, or calling design. A veve symbolizes a god and is used in ceremony to call that god up from the earth or down from the sky and into the service, to possess either the voodoo priest or a member of the celebrating community. Veves themselves are very beautiful and sometimes intricate line designs, often symmetrical but not always; traditionally they’re drawn in cornmeal around the base of the poteau-mitan, the center pole, which is the center of the peristlye, or temple; unlike Western religions, voodoo is practiced mostly in the round — it’s less hierarchical and more participatory. 

In the old days, the houngan, or voodoo priest, would wave a flag during the informal parade at the beginning of a ceremony, to indicate which god, or lwa, the congregation was hoping to call to itself. These flags, which now hang in Haitian museums (or did, before the 2010 earthquake took almost all of those museums down), are plain things, made mostly of some kind of faded satin on which the god or veve has been outlined with sewn strings of fake pearls and colored sequins. They’re simple but not primitive and not really “naif” — and quite stirring. I own a few that are like this: see second photo below.

Since I started my very minor collection of flags, the nature of flags has been changing. More materials have become available for the flags, and more artists have more money and more training. An artist with some savings can afford to hire more workers for his or her school; the flags are labor intensive. They are made by stretching the “canvas” or material out on a table frame, around which sit a number of seamsters (in my experience the flag makers are always men) who sew in the sequins and pearls according to the artist’s design. Flags have been getting bigger, heavier, and less wavable (see flag, just below). One that is 6 feet long by four feet high and weights more than twenty pounds just cannot be lofted on a stick for a ceremony, nor is it intended for ceremonial use. 

It is, in fact, intended for you and me, for tourists and development workers, for UN security people, for foreign consular and ambassadorial employees, for businessmen who work in Haiti — in short for anyone but Haitians. Haitians now seem to use plain satin cloth in ceremony: a square of black for Baron, lord of the cemetery, a square of red for Ogoun, warrior god, no veves, no design, no gods. Only if a country priest happens to have an old decorated flag from his father or mother in his possession will such a flag get used in a ceremony, because the price of voodoo flags has exceeded the budget of voodoo officiants.

It’s as if a Catholic priest were incapable of affording a censer, or wine. Luckily and not incidentally, voodoo is such a strong religion that it can function — and has often functioned — on almost nothing: just needs participants, some rum, some cornmeal, some candles, three drums.