Caliban and the Widow's Sons: Some aspects of the Intersections and Interactions between Freemasonry and Afro-Caribbean Religious Praxis

Eoghan Craig Ballard, Ph.D.

Très Sage et Parfait Gran Vénérable

Grand Master

Grand Chapter General of the Modern Rite for North America and the Caribbean 

Grand Lodge of the Mixed Modern Rite for North America and the Caribbean 


After Freemasonry spread across the continent of Europe in the 18th century, it was inevitable that its influence should reach to Europe's colonial outposts, and none was more prone to react to the presence than the crucible of the Caribbean. Masonic lodges were founded in France's colony of Saint Domingue as early as 1738 in Les Cayes. While some elements within Freemasonry resisted the inclusion of African or Creole admission, it was not long before men of African descent entered the fraternity. Some of these men went on to hold leadership positions in the Haitian Revolution, the first successful Slave revolt to establish an independent Republic in the Americas and universal suffrage. It was inevitable, given the wide distribution of African inspired religious practice in the Caribbean, that Freemasonry would interact with African religions. Elements of Masonic symbolism reflect back from the graphic systems employed in Haitian Vodou and Afro-Cuban Palo, a religion of Congo origin. Hand gestures and ritual movements in the Asson tradition of Haitian Vodou have been credited with Masonic influence, and significant elements clearly identifiable as being of Masonic origin, comprise parts of the initiation rituals of Quimbisa, a religion of Central African origin in Cuba. However, we should not imagine that such exchanges reflect a single direction. Recently a former Grand Commander General  appointed to the Scottish Rite for Cuba, who is a practicing member of the Abakuá, a tradition originating in the Cross River area of Nigeria, and also one of the founding Babalawo's (a West African diviner)  of Cuba's internationally recognized Yoruba annual divination committee, which is viewed as religious guidance on three continents also was elected the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Cuba. In Haiti, a Masonic Rite was founded which invokes certain Lwa or spirits of Haitian Vodou, and such spirits are recognized throughout the now international community of Vodou religious praxis as Masonic spirits. One of Vodou's most iconographic spirits, Baron Samedi, the Lord over the dead in Haitian Vodou, unmistakably combines Masonic regalia with the iconic skull used in the initiatic Chamber of Reflection. Even in Brazil, which shares the Caribbean's strong African influences, the temples of Umbanda, a modern Afro-Brazilian faith, are replete with Masonic elements, and it is far from uncommon for freemasons in Brazil to also be initiates in Umbanda. This paper will explore many of the connections which Freemasonry has forged in the Caribbean and beyond, but which are rarely acknowledged.

Caliban and the Widow's Sons: Some aspects of the Intersections and Interactions between Freemasonry and Afro-Caribbean Religious Praxis.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
(1.2.396-401), Ariel from the Tempest, by William Shakespeare

The Tempest was Shakespeare's venture into and marks perhaps the first major effort in the romanticism and exoticism to which the Caribbean has been subjected in Western literature. So it is perhaps a good point with which to begin to peek, however tentatively at one aspect of the new cultural forms which began to be forged in the New World. Nowhere in the New World was the blending of culture from various continents, most notably Africa and Europe more dramatic than perhaps in the Caribbean. Certainly, nowhere was the interaction between Western Esoteric traditions, in the guise of Freemasonry, and African religious practice destined to bear fruit as it was in the Caribbean.

It might be perhaps, surprising then, that so little attention has been given to these interactions, if it were not for the famous secrecy with which both the Freemasons and the followers of Afro-Caribbean religions cloak their rituals. In recent years, sympathetic academic attention has begun to be given to both subjects and slowly some aspects of the curtain which covers both has begun to be lifted. 

It should be kept in mind that members of both camps will have their reasons for remaining silent. Outside of Haiti and Cuba, and to a lesser degree Brazil, which although not Caribbean, shares some of the same cultural dynamics, Freemasons are unlikely to see any association or parallel with Afro-diasporic religious practice as beneficial to their craft. Among Haitians and Cubans who are practicing Masons as well as adherents to African derived religions, there are also reasons to remain silent. All will be aware of the fact that masons who are not involved in African traditions may frown upon them, and there is the wish to maintain international ties of regularity for the craft. All adherents of African derived religions are well aware of the low opinion in which outsiders hold African spirituality.

It cannot be denied however, that Freemasonry and African religions crossed paths early in the colonization of the Caribbean, and this contact has continued unabated. African religions of a wide variety of origins arrived in the Isle of Hispaniola with the first slaves, and were constantly reinvigorated with the arrival of each new slave who disembarked into what was for the African, a unique hell. Life in early Saint Domingue, the French colony which became Haiti, was short and brutal. As brutal as it was however, it could not eradicate the beliefs and practices of  Africans, although it forced them to adapt to changing circumstances. While most slaves may have worked in the fields, many had other occupations including working in businesses and in the homes of their captors, places which afforded them ample opportunities to observe the activities associated with European culture. The presence of secret societies in which apparently magical, hermetic symbolism was of great import, would not have been lost upon Africans, who had similar traditions. The establishment of Masonic lodges in the wealthiest American colony followed swiftly upon their establishment in France itself, and the records suggests that not only would Africans have been aware of them, but in some cases were to gain access to them as initiates.  Africans can be forgiven for assuming that Freemasonry sprung from African roots. After all, Freemasons themselves had intimated as much. The German Masonic organization, Afrikanische Bauherren, The African Builders, founded by Karl Friedrich von Köppen in the mid 1700s and the many versions of “Egyptian” masonry would have lent credence to such assumptions. (Bogdan and Snoek. 2014: 22)

The Masonic Historian Albert Gallatin Mackey, noted  that “Two Lodges under French control were authorized in 1749. Four others followed in 1763, 1765, 1767 and 1772, and a Provincial Grand Lodge was formed by the Grand Orient of France on October 1, 1778. Six additional Lodges chartered by the French were set at work in 1774, 1775, 1779, 1783, 1784 and 1785. The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania granted a Charter for a Lodge in 1786 at Cape Francois, and another Warrant to a Lodge at Port au Prince in 1789. He went on to note that by 1851 Haiti could lay claim to no less than 80 lodges of which a North American was aware, and the likelihood is that there were at least double that number, if one does not apply sectarian standards for evaluating legitimacy. (Mackey, A. 1914: 320) 

Not only were a variety of French lodges established well before the Haitian Revolution, but no less than the most legendary of esoteric Freemasonic organizations to have ever existed, the Elús Coëns, represented, but their leader, Martines de Pasqually, settled in Port Au Prince in the final years of his life.

While in the twists and turns of Esoteric Masonic society, claims are made, by Haitians and non-Haitians alike, that the original Elus Coëns continue to practice in Haiti today, until I can find documentable proof, I will not conclude that what is practiced there under the guise of that name is other than Amberlain and Encause's late 19th century revivals of those practices. Regardless, a most visible practice of this tradition has been documented with public rituals unlike those found among  Martinist revivals elsewhere, replete with public displays of magical circles and huge outdoor bonfires, which whether their status should prove to be original or revival, certainly harks back in an impressive fashion to Esoteric Freemasonry of the 18th century. Ultimately, the source of such ritual may not be of primary importance for us, as they speak to the vibrant strength which African metaphysical influences lend to Masonic practice. (lecrocodiledesaintmartin. Cited on 11/25/2012)

The link between Esoteric and magical practice among Masons in Haiti, resulting in parallel connections in Haitian religion of African inspiration there is well established. As noted by Mimi Sheller, in her work, “Citizenship from Below: Erotic Agency and Caribbean Freedom,” (2012) Freemasonry had become a model for governing and for the elite male society which had control over Haitian institutions by the mid 19th century, citing various sources at the time, including the English Missonary, Mark Bird (1869;m 186) that “this institution is so widely extended in Hayti that it has become a distinct feature in Haytian society.” Sheller quotes Bird as stating there were about 1000 masons in Port au Prince alone, and similar percentages existed in second and third tier cities throughout the country. (Sheller. 2012: 160) Given that the population was estimated to have had a population of approximately 1,150,000 at about that time according to Aleksandr Vladimirovich Avakov's “Two Thousand Years of Economic Statistics” (Avakov. 2010: 21), this would represent a significant cultural influence, especially given it's distribution among the nation's elite.

Whatever we may conjecture about the character of Haitian Freemasonry in the mid 19th century, leaving aside the possible presence of a survival of the original Elus Coen, by the first years of the 20th century we can be certain that at least some significant intellectuals among the Haitian Elite had fallen under the spell of late 19th century esotericism. This would hardly be surprising, given that such ideas had gained significant currency among intellectuals in both English and French speaking circles in Europe, engendering the evolution of the Memphis Misraim masonic order, The Societas Rosicruciana in Scotia, Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, as well as later, a North American version, The  Hermetic Society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Encausse's and subsequently Ambelaine's revival of Elus Coen and the new Martinist organizations, and a general popular fever for all things Egyptian. As others, most notably  Scott Trafton have noted, the popular discourse on Egypt touched powerfully upon matters of race and racial ideas of history. Such influences were felt strongly among communities of African origin and while they had an impact in the United States,  the stretch of such influences beyond North America has been little examined. Trafton is perhaps closest to explaining what should be the obvious reasons such territory has remained largely unexamined, certainly in public and masonic discourse, but perhaps until recently, equally avoided in academic circles, when he notes that these issues create a :

“radical interplay between black and white...a reciprocal relationship between intimate enemies; the figure of a terrestrial rupture,... a punctiform sign of colonial instability; the figure of the breach, read as a form of racialized anxiety; the figure of layered interiority, read alternately as a  concern with … radical improvization, as a strategy of antiracist resistance.” (Trafton. 2004: 9)

It may be helpful to view that the intersection of Afro-diasporic religious practice and Euro-American Freemasonry,  to paraphrase Trafton's observations concerning American Egyptomania, consists of  intersecting and overlapping webs of  practices used by differing groups in wildly inventive and often contradictory ways. (Trafton 2004: 9-10)

Significant documents were produced in Haiti, by Haitian elites, who clearly were involved in both esoteric spiritual practices and Freemasonry. Dr. Arthur Holly, the son of the first Anglican bishop of Haiti, considered himself an “ésotérist,” and wrote a number of articles and full scale books dedicated to a contemporary, ie, egyptian influenced esoteric interpretation of Haitian Vodou, linking it firmly with what he viewed to be Egyptian traditions.  David Nicholls sees parallels in Holly's Noirist politics and esoteric religious convictions and those expressed by the defrocked priest of the eglise episcopale, Jonathas William in Le bouc emissaire. (Nicholls. 1996: 154) Most noteworthy of these were his full length works, Les daïmons du culte voudo (1918) and Dra-Po (1928) represented two of the earliest extensive Noirist arguments in support of Vodou as a legitimate religious tradition and one which had been unfairly mischaracterized as evil and unsophisticated. Holly, in writing his books used as his esoteric nom de plume, Her-Ra-Ma-El and his logic throughout these works follows closely the analysis of Egyptian language and symbol, endeavoring to show relationships between Egyptian heiroglyphs and Haitian Vevers on the one hand, and with somewhat less success, between Egyptian and Hebrew words and the ritual language of Vodou.

Perhaps of greater significance than the extent to which his efforts may be deemed credible by contemporary academic standards,  is that he called attention in a very visible way to an unaware (and perhaps indifferent) public that there were educated Haitian esotericists, that they were clearly dealing with both the materia of Vodou and of Egyptian inspired and Masonic esotericism, and that documented efforts at uniting these exist. Some years later, Milo Rigaud, often regarded as an insightful Haitian ethnographer, and an inheritor of Holly's mantle, may well have had a role in the development of a truly esoteric form of Vodou, and that esoterically influenced Vodou, may in fact be what most consider traditional Vodou today – the modern Kanzo tradition of Temple Vodou.

We need to briefly note that there exist today two major forms of Haitian Vodou – What we call “Temple” Vodou, the Kanzo tradition, which we will see was created in the first decades of the 20th century, and Lakay or rural Vodou – which is more truly a family based tradition. Karen Richman,  notes the strong influence of Odette Mennesson-Rigaud's ethnographic interventions during the development of “Temple Vodou” which is the primary focus of contemporary depictions of Vodou. (Richman 2007. 371) For primarily academic impulses, Richman and others tend to ignore the significant influence Mennesson-Rigaud's husband, Milo Rigaud, a native Haitian member of the elite, also associated with the Haitian National Bureau of Ethnology, had on her own interests. Given that he wrote significant works on Vodou which sustained the influence of the Noirist influence esoteric approach to Vodou embodied in Holly's work, this should not be surprising. However, her influence over non-Haitian academics and the strength of her own writing can also account for the inattention Milo Rigaud receives today. It served however to disguise the influences of Masonic and Western Esoteric influences upon the developing forms of urban Temple based Vodou, which was certainly in keeping with the focus of the academic and political perspectices of the period.

In Milo Rigaud's most expansive work, “Ve-Ve: Diagrammes Rituels du Voudou”, a trilingual text which is grounded upon Holly's approach, Rigaud elaborates in a more modern and accessable style, the blend of Masonic esotericism with Vodou, ustilizing a focus upon the graphic system of Vevers (veves in Kreyol) which he equates with Egyptian hieroglyphs and by extention, western sigils, to articulate an esoteric approach to Vodou (1974). In this text he elaborates upon an earlier, more typically ethnographic text, “La Tradition Voudoo et Le Voudoo Haïtien (son Temple, Ses Mystères, Sa Magie) (1953) in which he provides a more expansive view of the religion. In this earlier text he details a simplified version of the esoteric ritual which is based upon the principles of Holly and his followers. What follows, in his sections entitled “La mode Opératoire”, “Recommendations”, and “Appendice” (162-177) represents a script for a Vodou invocation.  The rest of the text describes, in ethnographic guise, what he characterized as typical and traditional Vodou practice. What he does not deconstruct for us is the fact that the ritual forms he presents as traditional were those forms that were then in the process of being created, with significant external influence by the same Haitians who were hosting his wife's ethnographic visits, and serving as a base of operation and research for a variety of foreign academics, including among others, Herold Courlander and Maya Deren - those people who were responsible for creating the modern academic documentation of what we now view as Haitian Vodou.

Richman notes that “In his renowned mid-twentieth-century study of Haitian religions, Alfred Métraux wrote, 'The little I was able to see of rural Vodou convinced me that it was poor in its ritual compared to the Vodou of the capital... Vodou deserves to be studied not only as regards the survival of Dahomean and Congolese beliefs and practices, but also as a religious system born fairly recently from a fusion of many different elements' (Métraux 1972: 61). Métraux further asserted that 'the domestic cult is losing importance daily to the profit of the small autonomous cult groups which grow up around sanctuaries [and are] more numerous and prosperous in Port-au-Prince (Métraux 1972: 60-61).  The spectacular, codified styles of worship that were displacing the modest, suggested, urban innovations  and they were recent. Metraux unfortunately, did not develop his intriguing observation about the relationship of Vodou to modernity. Observers of Haitian popular religion have continued to intrpret Vodou as the authentic religion of Haitian peasants. (Richman. 371-372)

These observations combined with the omnipresent symbols of Freemasonry in the graphic symbols utilized in modern Vodou point to dynamic interaction between these traditions. Further evidence exists in esoteric Masonic rituals specifically referencing Vodou which have developed in Haiti and have been exported to the Haitian diaspora in North America and France. One example of this is the obedience and rituals maintained by Joël Duez Vichery. Vichery is active in Masonic obediences of Memphis Misraim and several orders descended from Ambelaine. This association of Haitian esoteric Freemasonry with the Liberal French esoteric obediences of Ambelaine argues for the possibility if not probability that any current Elús Coën in Haiti were based upon the late 19th century revival in France and not Pasqually de Martinez' original form, though I do not question the sincerity of those Haitians who maintain otherwise. Although not himself a Haitian, he has had strong ties to Haitian Masonic groups, most notably in the Haitian diaspora, including the GLNDC, in Canada. (from private communications with Emanuele Coltro. Sept. 2015) Ultimately, claims for an uninterrupted continuity of practice by a lodge of Elús Coëns operating in Southern Haiti since the time of Pasqually de Matinez, as alluring as they may be, are for us not so significant as the fact that there are groups that make the claim. Whether they date from the original Elús Coëns or from Encausse or Ambelaine's revival, they demonstrate an ongoing interaction between Freemasonry and Haitian spiritual traditions, most notably the various forms of Vodou, whether the denominations known as Assón (a tradition which is practically the sole focus of most modern academic writing on Haitian Vodou,  Deka Vodou, also referred to as Fran Vodou (the less thatrical practice of the rural practitioners upon which Deka is based), also referred to by the terms Makout or Tcha-tcha, or the Secret Societies, poetically referred to as Vodou of the Night. Additionally, McGee reiterates as noted above, that

“Rigaud 'found' elements of European magic, cabala, and freemasonry in Vodou - an association which acknowledged and also encouraged the growing coincidence, especially Port-au-Prince, between the Vodou priesthood and Masonic  membership.It also meant the increased use in Vodou of symbols from Masonry and the western magical tradition – influences that can be seen on the walls of Vodou temples in Port-au-Prince to this day. Maximilien's most significant work, Le Vodou Haiden, opens with a chapter entitled "Genese Vodouesque" ("Beginning of Vodou"). It begins, "Vodou is a religion constituted of various ancient rites, organically linked by metaphysical ideas, still alive in Haiti, bearing ancient traditions which can be illuminated by ancient texts concerning the Egyptian mysteries and even the works of Herodotus." He then goes on to cite Egyptian papyri,  Greco-Roman mystery traditions, hermeticism, Gnosticism, and the Bible to help explain the origins and the mysteries of Vodou. It is difficul to tell at times whether he is doing comparative work, or actually suggesting real connections between the traditions. In all likelihood,it is a distinction which he did not himself maintain. As with Rigaud, Maximilien's text was - and still is - read by Vodou clergy, who have (to varying degrees) been influenced by his "findings."  (McGee. 2008. Pg 37.)

What McGee and others such as Karen Richman have not taken into consideration when attributing the influence of associations with Classical, Biblical  references, Freemasonry, and  Egyptian symbolism to foreign academic observers is that there is good reason to assume that these influences in fact had their origins with an educated Haitian elite who had begun to dabble in the esoteric and Egyptian interests found in abundance among North American and French intellectuals and Freemasons of the late Victorian period.  The arrival of foreign academics such as Rigaud, Courlander, and others during the first American occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) served as the bridge between the interests of the Haitian Intellectual Elite, demonstrated in the works of Dr. Arthur W. Holly, a self proclaimed ésotériste and an important contributor to the Ethnological Movement in Haiti, and the general populace whose vibrant practice of traditional religion of African origins provided a welcoming environment ready to absorb and embrace both Masonic practices and Egyptian influenced Western metaphysics.

Haiti however, is not the only Caribbean nation where such interactions took place. However, in certain regards it must be considered as of primary importance. Haiti holds a position as the first among many in all of Latin America, indeed all of the Americas. This is because it was the nation which staged the first successful revolt against colonial rule in Latin America to result in an independent nation. As a slave rebellion resulting in an independent modern state, one which went far further than the United States in its constitution, declaring all people, regardless of race or gender to be free citizens of a new republic, it represents a unique occurrence. It also served not merely as a symbolic role model for Latin American independence, but the New Haitian state gave active support to Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios, known to most North Americans simply as Simon Bolívar, in his efforts to gain independence for much of Latin America from Spain.

A former Haitian resident, considered heretical in North America for disagreements that occurred in US Freemasonry long after he had returned to live and ultimately die in poverty in France, Joseph Cerneau, raised the famed Liberator, Simón Bolívar to 33rd Degree in the Scottish Rite. That act along with his assistance in founding many Masonic obediences in Latin America, cemented Cerneau's reputation as the Father of Modern Freemasonry in Latin America, an honored reputation standing in stark contrast to the way in which his name is defamed in the United States. Due to the Haitian Revolution, Cerneau, like many French citizens of the former colony of Saint Domingue, resettled in Cuba, which was no further than 60 miles distant at some points, and which welcomed Haitian slaveowners and their slaves until in 1808  Napoleon invaded Spain.  Soon Cerneau established a lodge or according to some, lodges, in Cuba, but was forced to leave Cuba, as were many French because of the fear of Spanish authorities that the presence of French citizens, especially those who had formerly lived in Saint Domingue would incite slave rebellions in Cuba. In fact, their fears were warranted, and although Cerneau had no such involvements and was forced to migrate again, the ideas of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution, and their Masonic associations, were instrumental in several attempted revolts in Cuba during this period. 

What can be reasonably supposed, and this was echoed by John Yarker in The Arcane Schools,  is that after a second insurrection began in Saint Domingue, Cerneau fled to Cuba in 1802. Although the Spanish authorities formally banned all Masonic activity, Cerneau, like others continued to pursue Masonic objectives, and was forced to migrate once again, that time to New York.

“In the meanwhile the Grand Lodge of France was asserting itself, and as Henry Martin was proceeding to the West Indies he was appointed a Grand Inspector to supersede Morin, and Rituals, stamped, signed, and sealed, were ordered 17th August, 1766, to be prepared and handed to him. He laboured at the Consistory previously established by Morin, though little is recorded. He was succeeded in his office by Matthew Dupotet, with whom was the Frenchman Joseph Cerneau. In 1801 it is believed that Dupotet and German Hacquet had converted the Consistory of San Domingo into a S. G. C. of the 33rd Degree of the Scottish Rite. Towards the end of 1802 a second insurrection of the blacks occurred, and Cerneau fled to Cuba, and Hacquet to France by way of New York. Dupotet would seem to have appointed, 1st July, 1806, Joseph Cerneau, as Grand Inspector for Cuba. Hacquet revived the Rite in the Grand Orient of France in 1803, and Cerneau established a S.G.C. 33rd Degree in New York 22nd October, 1807[.]” (Yarker, 1909: 278-279.)

Although Cerneau appears himself to have had no direct involvement with insurrection, he is widely credited with having raised Simón Bolívar, the Liberator, to 33rd Degree, and this would have ultimately placed him at odds not only with Spain, but with the European colonial endeavor in general. Although there is no documentable evidence that Cerneau was directly involved in inciting slave rebellions, either in what was to become Haiti, indeed his departure from Haiti argues against this as well, or in Cuba, the Spanish authorities, who had long banned Freemasonry, also sought to remove the recently arrived French from Cuba. What exactly the characteristics which would exempt a French citizen from deportation, are disputable, being only vaguely referred to as only the naturalized French and those whose conduct was 'arranged to Spanish customs' were allowed to remain in Cuba, presumably either those who had sought Spanish citizenship or who were fluent in Spanish themselves, and had established politically advantageous friendships. Whatever the details, the Spanish authorities appeared to have reason to suspect that “French” slaves would instigate rebellion in Cuba, (Gabino La Rosa Corzo. Runaway Slave Settlements in Cuba: Resistance and Repression. Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 2003. P 114) and many French, Cerneau included, seemed to have failed to meet the cut. Cerneau soon relocated to New York.

If Cerneau was forced to leave Cuba, many black Haitians could not. The early 19th century saw several attempts at rebellion led by blacks apparently influenced by the Haitian model, including one led by José Antonio Aponte in 1812. Eventually, the revolution against Spain which succeeded briefly in giving Cuba freedom, before the United States established a military occupation of the island, was led by a diverse group of Cubans including those who were both black and Masons. Further, followers of Afro-Cuban religions assert that they were also intimately connected to African religious traditions extent in Cuba at that time. Far from being mere wishful thinking, no less a scholar than the “father of  Cuban Anthropology, Fernando Ortiz, has written on the topic, lending for all intents and purposes an indisputable authenticity to such claims. (Miller. 2000. 177)

When one looks to find a model that reflects Masonic influence in Afro-Cuban religious practices, one may be forgiven for looking first to the Male Secret Society of Abakuá, in so far as “they are also anticolonial, highly organized, exclusively male, secret, and uniquely costumed (Moore 162). While Abakuá ritual centers are frequently identified as “lodges” by outsiders, they themselves use several distinct terms,  calling their groups “tierras, juegos, partidos, potencias. Juegos, the word most commonly used, refers to a team or an aligned collective. Partido refers to a team or a political party. Potencia, meaning "potency"or "power," is reserved for the eldest and largest groups, some of which are almost 160 years old and include six hundred men.”(Millar. 165)  Abakuá appears to deserve their description as “African Masons,” they are most like Freemasonry in that they have well established offices called in Spanish Plazas and in Abakuá Obono. Obones each receive a muñon or staff which is prepared in special rituals, and each Obono has specific roles they are required to perform in ritual. The Abakuá also produce extensive written sets of regulations to which members are required to conform. Failure to adhere to these rules, most importantly that of secrecy can have serious consequences. As the Abakuá say, “Friendship is one thing, Abakuá another.” (Millar. 3)

If the outward appearance of Abakuá reminds one of Freemasonry, there are other Afro-Cuban traditions which contain other perhaps more significant similarities. It may be noted, although I have not seen this mentioned in any academic literature, that the ceremonial attire often used in La Regla de Ocha, what is commonly called “Santería” and which is of Yoruban (West African) origins, bears a striking similarity to the dramatic attire common in 19th Century Scottish Rite rituals. This is a subject that would be worthy of further investigation. However, the Afro-Cuban religious tradition which has perhaps been most influenced by Freemasonry is that Bantu or Congo derived religious practice known as Quimbisa or Kimbisa.  While tradition holds that Quimbisa is a traditional form of Congo Palo, and was uninfluenced by Christian traditions, in the mid 19th century, a Havana born Creole – a free black of mixed parentage, bearing a well known Haitian surname, Andrés Petit, founded what may well be considered the quintessential Afro-Cuban syncretic or mixed religion. This tradition, known as La Regla Quimbisa del Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje, was distinct for several reasons. First of all, it's origins can be documented to a single individual, and secondly that founder consciously combined elements from Catholicism, Kardecist Spiritism, Abakuá, by some it is asserted Santería and or Vodou, and most significantly for our purposes, Freemasonry. Petit was said to be a Tertiary of the Dominican Order, is documented as not only a high official of the Abakuá, but its most controversial one, as he is credited with having first introduced Mulattos and whites to the Abakuá. (Cabrera 1968.) Scholarship has since shown that there were already whites and Mulattos in Abakuá – Petit having been one of the latter, but he created a separate tierra for them. He was also supposedly a practitioner of either or both Santería and Vodou, and as the evidence demonstrates, although we have yet to find any Masonic records mentioning him, a Freemason. The latter is attested to by most modern Quimbiseros, many of whom are themselves Freemasons.

The initiation ritual for a new member of Quimbisa, contains many elements which would be familiar to any Mason in the world from their own initiation. These begin with the knock on the door of the Temple, an exchange to gain entry, the interrogation of the would be initiate, the vouchsafing that he is free, and present of his own volition, and he is required under oath to assume many of the same vows familiar to masonic orders. He is then led, blindfolded, barechested and barefoot to where he is to receive initiation, and has one of his pant legs rolled up. At the end of the ceremony he is required to identify certain ritual objects presented to him. (Cabrera. 1968 11-24) The ritual attire used in those Quimbisa temples which most strictly adhere to Petit's order, are similar in various regards to those of Freemasonry, and unlike other branches of Congo derived religions in Cuba, of which there are a variety of ramas, which we would call denominations suggest Masonic influences, including shirts with ritual embroidery and sashes with the all seeing eye in a triangle. (personal fieldwork observation). The titles of officials include Maestro (Master), Maestro Jubilado (Past Master), and Mayordomo (Steward). Muzio, in her biography of Andrés Petit – “Andrés Quimbisa” further calls attention to the injunction of all Quimbiseros to perform their services for charity, another reflection of Masonic influences and values incorporated into this tradition. (Muzio. 2001: 25)

Today in Cuba, Haiti, and among the religious communities of Afro-Caribbean origin in the United States, it is quite common to find members of all of these traditions, Las Reglas de Congo, La Regla Quimbisa, Ocha (santería) and Vodou to be also members of not only liberal masonic obediences, but also members of mainstream North American Freemasonry, although most of the latter are likely to refrain from divulging their religious affiliations to their lodges. In both Cuba and Haiti, many Masons holding high positions in the Grand Lodges or Grand Orients are frequently members of one or more Afro-Caribbean religious tradition. A recent Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite in Cuba, and current Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Cuba (both of which are in Amity with the UGLE) is well known publicly as a Babalawo (Yoruban diviner), Abakuá and Palero,  Faustino Lázaro Cuesta Valdés. (Ballard. 2015).

While perhaps nowhere the intersection of Freemasonry and African derived religions is recognized in the person of such a high position within Freemasonry as in Cuba, in Brazil, such connections are none the less wide spread, and given the size of both the Afro-Brazilian religious communities and the extent of Freemasonry in Brazil, it is tempting to speculate, although there has been no data collected addressing the matter, that the numbers involved are much larger than elsewhere. From personal conversations I have had with individual followers of the Afro-Brazilian religions, most frequently that of Umbanda, a syncretistic and often highly eclectic Brazilian religion combining elements of African religions, Native American shamanism, Catholicism, Kardecist Spiritism, and various Western Esoteric practices including Freemasonry, I have been informed that many Umbandistas are also members of one or another of the many Masonic organizations found throughout the country. I don't doubt this extends to other Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé, Xangô, Tambor de Mina, Batuque, and Omoloko, but since my direct experience lies mostly with Umbanda and Umbanda is the tradition of which most such interactions have been documented in print, I will limit my remarks to it.

Umbanda is unique among all Afro-diasporic religions, I feel confident in claiming, in that it has evolved most under the eye of the press. In fact, it may be fairly said to have coöpted the press in assisting in its evolution. Umbanda began to emerge from its predecessor named “Macumba” in the early years of the 20th century. The history in complex and hotly debated both by scholars and the faithful, who in many cases are one and the same, but suffice it to say that Umbanda was swift to utilize  political and institutional organization to aid in protecting itself from the hostility of a white government and middle and upperclass. In the process, it managed to coöpt both and gain many members of both the white middle class and the government sector. In doing so, Umbandistas, as they are called, utilized a growing press to publish an ever expanding literature concerning their religion. Since Umbanda is really an umbrella terms for many distinct smaller sects, by no means often in agreement with each other, the literature as it developed over time was far from monolithic, either in its voice, or in its approach. Over time, the movement became quite eclectic, borrowing from Western Esotericism, Freemasonry, Eastern Mysticism, and even more recently from American New Age fads.

Today in Umbanda, Masonic symbolism is widespread, both in its religious symbols, as well as in its adoption of elements such as Egyptian traditions and Hermeticism, and even Rosicrucianism. I have even seen altars which are designed in the form of an eye in a triangle, and which utilize the layout of a Masonic lodge. It is worth noting in relation to this blatent eclecticism, that Brazil is home to the widest range of Masonic rites, most of them recognized as being used by regular obediences in amity with the UGLE, in contrast to the situation in Haiti, which of course has been more influenced by French Freemasonry, than anywhere else in the world. Today in Brazil, in addition to the variety of rites common to the United States, the French Rite (with higher orders of Wisdom) is practiced as well as Adomhiramite, Schroeder, Memphis Misraim, and one unique to Brazil, the Brazilian Rite. (“Brazil: A Cornucopia of Masonic Diversity on " Thursday, April 5, 2012)

In summarizing the interactions which Freemasonry and Afro-diasporic religious and ritual traditions have had, it is important not to essentialize their character, nor to assume, based upon cultural bias that they represent a unidirectional influence. Indeed, they are far from that. It is true that African derived religions in Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil have adopted visual and ritual elements from Freemasonry. However, in the case of Haiti, Freemason rituals have been documented as having adopted influences from Vodou, while in Cuba, publicly recognized leaders of Afro-Cuban religions have achieved the highest ranks in both the Scottish Rite and in Blue Lodge Masonry on the national stage, reflecting the fact that Afro-Cuban religions are generally respected both within the Masonic community and the wider public. While the connection between Freemasonry and Afro-Brazilian religions may not take as public a stance within Freemasonry in Brazil, it doubtlessly comprises a larger demographic than in Cuba or Haiti, and as in Cuba, people are not especially secretive about their involvement in both.

This brief paper only attempts to highlight the interaction and connections which exist between the traditions of European derived Freemasonry and African derived religious and ritual practices. It is a subject, which although touched upon in the past by scholars such as Courlander, Metreux, Cabrera, and Cosentino, deserves much deeper exploration. It offers material to historians, anthropologists, folklorists, scholars concerned with ritual and religious studies, as well as those interested in the history and influence of fraternalism and Freemasonry.


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