african diaspora religion

268: Down to the River to Pray

The river is a healer. The rushing river. The gentle river. The cleansing river. Seven rivers flow down from around the Tree of Life in Heaven. Seven rivers to bless us, seven rivers to heal us. Let’s go down to the river to pray. 

The symbol of the river goes across cultures here in the South. The Protestant dissenters brought to the mountains and hills their need for baptism by immersion, this merged with indigenous and African beliefs surrounding the importance of the river as liminal space and mode of purification. 

“Going to water” has been crucial to Cherokee traditional beliefs for centuries. It can involve both the act of the individual petitioning the river to carry away illness, evil, etc. and the act of the healer taking many people to the water for a cleanse. 

“Because of the importance of water in Cherokee beliefs, practices, legends, and myths, it is safe to say that their use of water for religious ceremonies probably dates back thousands of years. Taking the most conservative view - even if we were to say that the emphasis on water had been shaped by their living in the southern Appalachians, and even if we were to take the most conservative archaeological view, that the Cherokee had only been here five thousand years or so - (which tenure seems to be in the process of being extended by recent archaeological finds) - Cherokee water rituals may be at the minimum several thousand years old.” ~Barbara Reimensnyder Duncan “Going to Water: A Cherokee Ritual in Its Contemporary Context”

It’s likely that already present water and river traditions from multiple sources (European, Indigenous, African) merged together through exposure, and the mythos behind these traditions became blended, especially in the South. This is most seen in the case of early New World converts to Protestantism who are introduced to the importance of immersion baptism (Protestant/Orthodox Christian mythos) but still retain their traditional beliefs about the healing power of the river/water woven into the fabric of daily life. There are still areas of the South were frequent mini “baptisms” in a lake or river are used as sources of renewal and healing for congregants, a clear divergence from traditional European beliefs surrounding the act of baptism as more of a one-time occurrence in a person’s life. 

“In Cherokee ritual, the river is the long man, Yunwi Gunahita, a giant with his head in the foothills and his foot far down in the lowlands, pressing always, resistless and without stop, to a certain goal, and speaking ever in murmurs which only the priest may interpret. In the words of the sacred formulas, he holds all things in his hands and bears all down before him. His aid is invoked with prayer and fasting on every important occasion of life, from the very birth of the infant, in health and sickness, in war and love, in hunting and fishing, to ward off evil spells and to win success in friendly rivalries. Purification in the running stream is part of every tribal function, for which reason the town house, in the old days, was always erected close to the river bank.

“We shall speak here of ceremonial rites in connection with the running stream, saying nothing of the use of water in the sweat-bath or in ordinary medico-religious practice, beyond noting the fact that in certain cases the water used by the doctor must be dipt from a waterfall. Two distinct formulistic terms are used for the rite, one of which signifies ‘plunging into the water,’ the other ‘dipping up the water,’ nearly corresponding to our own ‘immersion" and “sprinkling’ in baptism. Whenever possible, the priest selects a bend in the river where he can face toward the east and look upstream while performing the ceremony, which usually takes place at sunrise, both priest and petitioner still being fasting.

“At regular intervals, usually at each recurring new moon, it is customary among the more religiously disposed of the old conservatives for the whole family to go down together at daybreak, and fasting, to the river and stand with bare feet just touching the water, while the priest, or if properly instructed, the father of the household, stands behind them and recites a prayer for each in turn, after which they plunge in and bathe their whole bodies in the river.” ~James Mooney “The Cherokee River Cult”

The river as a spirit has the power to carry illness and evil away with it. Many traditional Cherokee healing formulas (as recorded by Mooney) include “going to water” as a final act of cleansing. Often the patient will take an emetic and throw up into the river, or at the very least spit into the flowing water, allowing whatever evil that was trapped inside to be carried away into the mythical land where all bad things are sent. Similar beliefs can be found throughout Europe and the World. One example is seen in the Middle Irish text the Saltair na Rann where we see Adam and Eve atoning for their sins by fasting in a flowing river up to their chins while holding bowls of burning herbs above their heads. The river has been seen cross-culturally as a force that has the power to carry away things with it, in both a physical sense and spiritual one. Along similar lines, not only can the river act as a means of physical transportation but it can also carry us into the “otherworld” which lies beyond (or below) certain sacred wells and bodies of water. 

The Southern river cult, as we can call it, is best characterized by the traditional folk spiritual “Down in the River to Pray”, most likely composed by an African slave, with clear indigenous overtones when it comes to the melody and phrasing. On the surface level we see a Christian song referencing baptism by immersion in a river, underneath this, however, the song harkens back to traditional beliefs regarding the river as healer and carrier of prayers. Even deeper and we can see references to a sort of map-song for escaping slaves. The river being both road and way of masking human scent from slave hunters and their dogs, and the “starry crown” which has been considered by some to be a reference to traveling by night. 

The river is a healer. The rushing river. The gentle river. The cleansing river. Seven rivers flow down from around the Tree of Life in Heaven. Seven rivers to bless us, seven rivers to heal us. Let’s go down to the river to pray. 

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way

O sisters let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
O sisters let’s go down
Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way

O brothers let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
Come on brothers let’s go down
Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way

O fathers let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
O fathers let’s go down
Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way

O mothers let’s go down, come on down
Don’t you want to go down
Come on mothers let’s go down
Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way

O sinners let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
O sinners let’s go down
Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way

Index of Religions

After a couple of hours, the list of every religion/tradition on this blog has been edited and reorganized alphabetically and geographically (excluding Abrahamic & Dharmic religions). If you have any corrections or would like to see a tradition that is not listed here, please feel free to ask! (And if it’s a correction, please be polite.)

The official blog page can be found here!

Abrahamic Religions:

  • Judaism
    -Orthodox (Hasidic)
    -Conservative
    -Reformed
    -Reconstructionist
    -Kabbalah (Mysticism)
    -{Abayudaya, Afghani, Amazigh, Ashkenazi, Bukharian, Cochin, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Igbo, Iranian, Iraqi, Japanese, Kaifeng, Moroccan, Sephardi, Tunisian, Yemeni}

  • Christianity
    -Eastern Orthodox (Ethiopian, Eritrean, Russian, Romanian, Greek, Coptic, Oriental)
    -Catholicism (Ambrosian, Armenian, Chaldean, Chinese, Coptic, Ge'ez, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Maronite, Melkite, Syro-Malabar; Nueva Jerusalen “cult”)
    -Protestantism
    -Nestorianism
    -Jehovah’s Witnesses
    -Mormonism (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
    -Quakers (Religious Society of Friends)

  • Islam
    -Sunni {Hanabali, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafai'i}
    -Shi'a {Alawites, Alevism, Ismaili, Twelver, Zaidi Muslims}
    -Ibadi Muslims
    -Ahmadi Muslims
    -{Sufism; Chinese, Mexican}

  • Druze
  • Babism
  • Baha'i
  • Samaritanism

Dharmic/Indian Religions:

  • Hinduism
    -Shaivism
    -Vaishnavism
    -Shaktism
    -ISCKON (Hare Krishna)

  • Buddhism
    -Mahayana
    -Theravada
    -Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism)
    -Zen (Chinese, Japanese)

  • Jainism
    -Digambara
    -Svetambara

  • Sikhism

African/African diaspora traditions (Spirit Religions):

  • Ancient Egyptian
  • Atenism (Ancient Egyptian monotheism)
  • Candomble (Brazilian- diaspora)
  • Hoodoo
  • Kemeticism (Egyptian revivalist)
  • Rastafarianism (Jamaican)
  • Santeria (Cuban- diaspora)
  • Umbanda (Brazilian- diaspora)
  • Voodoo(Vodoun) (Haitian, Benin)
  • Yoruba (Nigerian)
  • {Ibibi, Luba, Zulu}

Asian Religions:

  • Bon Po (Indigenous Tibetan religion)
  • Caodaism (Vietnamese)
  • Chinese Popular (Folk) Religion
  • Confucianism (Chinese)
  • Phillipines: Indigenous  
  • Sanshin (Korean)
  • Sarnaism (Indian)
  • Shinto (Japanese)
  • Taoism (Wu Wei)
  • Tengriism
  • Vedic Religion (ancient Indian)
  • Vietnamese Folk Religion
  • Wuism (Chinese)
  • Yiguandao (Chinese)

Australian (People):

  • Aborigine Australians

European Religions, Mythology, & People:

  • Arthurian mythology
  • Asatru (Nordic)
  • Baltic mythology
  • Celtic mythology (Irish, Scottish, Welsh)
  • Church of the Last Testament (Russian cult)
  • Druidism (Neo-druidry)
  • Finnish mythology
  • Hellenism (Ancient & revivalist Greek & Roman religions)
  • Icelandic mythology
  • Mari (Russian indigenous)
  • Minoan (ancient Crete)
  • Mithraism (ancient Roman cult)
  • Norse mythology (Nordic)
  • Rodnovery (Slavic: Russian, Ukrainian, Polish)
  • Roman mythology
  • Romani

North American (People & Cultures):

  • Aleut
  • Apache
  • Cherokee
  • Comanche
  • Hopi
  • Inuit
  • Iroquois
  • Kiowa
  • Lakota
  • Mohawk
  • Native American Church
  • Navajo
  • Ojibwe
  • Peyote
  • Pueblo
  • Seminole
  • Sioux
  • Ute

South/Latin American Religions:

  • Aztec mythology
  • Incan mythology
  • Mayan mythology
  • Santo Daime

Middle Eastern Religions & People:

  • Ashurism (ancient Sumerian)
  • Babylonian mythology
  • Canaanite mythology
  • Kalash
  • Mandaeism
  • Manichaeism (ancient Gnostic Persian religion)
  • Ugaritic (ancient Syria)
  • Yazdanism (Kurdish: Yarsanism)
  • Yezidi/Yazidi (religion/culture)
  • Zoroastrianism (Persian & Parsi [India])

Polynesian Religions & People:

  • Hawaii'an
  • New Zealand
  • Phillipines
  • Polynesian mythology

Others:

  • Atheism
  • Gnosticism
  • Humanism
  • Luciferianism
  • Paganism (Neo paganism)
  • Satanism
  • Shamanism
  • Unitarian Universalist
  • Wicca

Narco-Saints Are Melding Catholicism with the Drug Trade in Mexico

Since the 1970s, Mexico has been plagued with high-volume drug traffickers attempting to satiate the United States’ demand for low-cost narcotics, resulting in country-wide violence and guerrilla warfare in the streets. In Mexico, a rapidly adopted narco-culture built on the back of folk Catholicism has transformed from back-alley prayers to narco-saint Jesús Malverde into public altars for Santa Muerte, Lady of the Holy Death.

Patrick Polk is a professor at the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures, as well as a curator of Latin American and Caribbean Arts. His current exhibit at UCLA’s Fowler Museum takes on representations of narco-culture, along with marginalized religious icons and unrecognized sacred figures from Latin America and the United States. Called Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners, the collection plays on folk legends and the drug traffickers and impoverished who rely on them as nonjudgmental sources of strength and protection. I sat down with the bespectacled, bearded professor, who has an upside-down tattoo of St. Expedite on his right arm.

External image

Marcos López (b. Santa Fe, Argentina, 1958): Santos Populares,  2013

VICE: Where does your interest in narco-saints start?
Patrick Polk: Well, I got my MA and PhD in folklore here at UCLA, so my interests have fundamentally been religions and ritual traditions of the African diaspora and also popular religion and religious art in the United States. A lot of my work has been where Europe and Native America and Latin America and Africa sort of collide in Los Angeles, particularly with the way in which religion, material culture, and visual spirituality mix and mingle and reshape in LA.

Not a lot of saints here.
I’m from an even more sinful place: Las Vegas. But I love to drive around LA and just look and see what kind of things pop out. I’ve done exhibitions on storefront murals, muffler sculptures, little rider bicycles. A lot of folk art in general and religious art in the sense of the vernacular.

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J. Lorand Matory discusses African Inspired Religions

The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti by Kate Ramsey

Vodou has often served as a scapegoat for Haiti’s problems, from political upheavals to natural disasters. This tradition of scapegoating stretches back to the nation’s founding and forms part of a contest over the legitimacy of the religion, both beyond and within Haiti’s borders. The Spirits and the Law examines that vexed history, asking why, from 1835 to 1987, Haiti banned many popular ritual practices.

To find out, Kate Ramsey begins with the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath. Fearful of an independent black nation inspiring similar revolts, the United States, France, and the rest of Europe ostracized Haiti. Successive Haitian governments, seeking to counter the image of Haiti as primitive as well as contain popular organization and leadership, outlawed “spells” and, later, “superstitious practices.” While not often strictly enforced, these laws were at times the basis for attacks on Vodou by the Haitian state, the Catholic Church, and occupying U.S. forces. Beyond such offensives, Ramsey argues that in prohibiting practices considered essential for maintaining relations with the spirits, anti-Vodou laws reinforced the political marginalization, social stigmatization, and economic exploitation of the Haitian majority. At the same time, she examines the ways communities across Haiti evaded, subverted, redirected, and shaped enforcement of the laws. Analyzing the long genealogy of anti-Vodou rhetoric, Ramsey thoroughly dissects claims that the religion has impeded Haiti’s development.