Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Legend of the Voodoo Honey Cake

How does New Orleans relate to honeybees?

I just returned from a fantastic trip to the Big Easy with hundreds of cool photos burning a metaphorical hole in my virtual pocket. Battling a biting urge to use The Bee Team blog as my personal travelogue, I returned to this question time and time again. An entirely bee-free vacation, the connection was not immediately apparent until I was sitting on the A train back in the city. An old friend had read about my beekeeping adventures and, knowing I’d be visiting another old friend in New Orleans, she sent a book called Plan Bee, by Susan Brackney, to his house for me. (I’ve always loved the use of “c/o such-and-such” in addresses. It calls to mind transients of today and yesteryear… au pairs, hobos, outlaws, governesses… and now apparently novice beekeepers…)

Around 125th Street heading uptown, I came upon this passage, in which the author describes the prevalence of bee motifs in ancient texts:

“…Many voodoo practitioners also believed … if you were to form small cakes of honey, amaranth seed, and a dash of whiskey, and then eat the cakes just before the new moon, you would be able to see into the future.” (Brackney, Susan. Plan Bee. New York: Penguin, 2009. p60) MLA Citation Style BOO-ya! Lib Arts Education 4eva!

(I will not apologize for that last bit, even though its inherent dorkiness may be considered cringe-worthy.)

Aha! A connection between New Orleans and honeybees! Although I neither outstretched my palm to a mystic seer nor purchased a voodoo doll from the dozens of tourist shops in the French Quarter, there is a bewitchery about New Orleans that tenderly tantalizes the traveler-not-tourist. This idea that connections exist between all things—the lines of your life through your hands, past to present to future, fiction to fact and perpetually back again—hangs in the air like the humidity.

Around 145th Street, I made a mental note to do some serious Googling on variations of “honey voodoo bees amaranth.” Not a nanosecond later, my eyes registered a footnote following the aforementioned passage, suggesting to me that the author, Susan Brackley, would provide a citation for her source of this information. Contrastingly, Brackley used the footnote to detail her own experience making see-into-the-future honey cakes. She did not bake them. This, she explains, might account for her inability to see the future, beyond an intuitive image of herself returning to the kitchen to clean up the mess.

Call me a college grad, but I’d hoped that the author would legitimize her statement by providing me with an actual citation: the name of another book that backs her up. That this is how we determine what’s “true” is very weird. But what can I say? I wanted to be 100% certain that this “fact” was not invented by Susan Brackney. I do realize that the theoretical author of the theoretical cited work might have invented this bee-voodoo connection, as well. How many times does an untruth—or a half-truth, or an interpretation, or an urban legend, or an I-want-to-believe—have to be repeated in order for someone to deem it “the truth?

Once home, I commenced Googling. I must say that Google Books, which allows you to read the entire text of millions of rare books (without stringent publishing houses,) lends the traditional Google search a certain je ne sais quoi that legitimizes one’s studies immediately. A quick search directed me to the whole text of a book alternately titled Voodoo Tales: As told among the Negroes of the Southwest (for boring, racially obsessed Americans) and Old Rabbit, the Voodoo, and Other Sorcerers, (for eccentric, Harry-Potter-loving Brits) published simultaneously in 1893 and written by a certain Mary Alicia Owen.

(I’m proud to be ‘Merican, but I’m going to reference the British title of the book. Old Rabbit, the Voodoo, and Other Sorcerers” has a whimsical ring to it that pleases me immensely.)

The book is categorized as “Fiction,” but claims to be “Collected From Original Sources” on its title page. The book’s narrative, a series of edifying voodoo stories recounted by two old black women to a white child (called “Tow Head,”) alternates between fancy-pants English and a kind of Black-Creole-Southern Missourian patois. Charles Godfrey Leland, blatant Englishman and author of the Introduction to Old Rabbit describes this particular patois as “Negro English” that “American readers will readily understand” but that English readers will not, and will need, written in parenthesis, “plain English [in] the correct form of many words which otherwise [might] have been, though perhaps only for a moment, unintelligible.” (Owen, Mary Alicia, Charles Godfrey Leland. Old Rabbit, the Voodoo, and Other Sorcerers. London: Putnam, 1893. Introduction, ix)

Ah, Charles Godfrey Leland and his “Negro English.” Ol’ Charlie. He sounds like a well proper gent, schooled in the old fashioned art of racial elitism.

But I digress...

The following passage about bees is from Mary Alicia Owen’s old book:

““Ise out o’ sorts fum top to toe. Dem bees”—she qualified them with an adjective not necessary to repeat—“am ‘stractin’ me.”

“Wut dey done?"

“Me dremp ‘bout um.”

“Dat er mighty good dream—

‘Dream o’ honey, lots o’ money;

Dream o’ bees, lib at yo’ ease’”

“Na disaway dat my dream go. Hit bin dat de bees wuz all daid, an’ de hibe (hive) chock full o’ mots (moths).”

That was serious. All the aunties sighed in sympathy.” (Old Rabbit, 11-12)

For those of you who skipped/skimmed that last part, a summary: A woman tells some other women ("the aunties") that her bees are bothering her. Contrary to the apparently popular saying that dreaming of bees is all puppies and sunshine, the woman's dream involves dead bees and moth-infested hives. The passage alternates between standard (somewhat stodgy) English and the voodoo patois so precisely documented by Mary Alicia Owens. (Thank goodness Charlie clarified that ‘hibe’ in voodoo-speak means ‘hive’ in English. That's a toughie.)

The bee banter continues, and is conveniently and predictably summed up in Plan Bee. In short, I inadvertently found the very citation I was hoping for! It seems that Susan Brackney, author of Plan Bee, did the exact same research for her book as I did for her quote! Sometimes the connections between things are easier to discover than one might imagine…

Mary Alicia Owen, a woman versed in both fancy-pants English and voodoo-steeped English patois, sent her manuscript to good ol’ Charlie without the intention of having it published. I picture modest Mary as a young black woman in the 1890s with a penchant for observing and recording her Southern Missourian voodoo culture, and thus documenting an oral tradition.

I imagine Charlie receiving Ms. Owen’s manuscript in the mail, (why did she send it to England, I wonder?) and realizing that this is his golden ticket! Charlie describes the book as a rare glance into a world inaccessible to outsiders. He talks it up, praising Ms. Owen’s dual fluency and declaring Old Rabbit a gem for those who study folk lure.

I Google Mary Alicia Owen and instantly learn that she is a graduate of Vassar College! This changes things. I learn many things besides her being white, including the fact that she “studied” voodoo in Cuba. It seems that our authentic source is, herself, an outsider.

This is our original “fact:”

Voodoo practitioners made cakes from honey, amaranth seeds, and whiskey to eat before the new moon in order to see into the future.

The legend of the voodoo honey cake is:

- first recorded by Mary Alicia Owen, a white woman talking to voodoo-practicing black folk ((“Gathered from Original Sources,” remember?) (Is she TOW HEAD???))

- published by Charles Godfrey Leland, who claims (without mention of race) that Ms. Owen’s insight into the culture and traditions of Voodoo is unprecedented.

- read by Susan Brackney, author of Plan Bee, who claims, without citing a source, that making honey cakes to see into the future was a common Voodoo practice.

- Imparted to you by me, albeit examined to its probable death.

Here ends my scrutiny of the relationship between New Orleans and bees. I leave you to ponder the “truth” of the legend of the voodoo honey cake, and perhaps even truth in general, if you’re so inclined.

I’m not and never will be a bee, just like Ms. Owen was not and would never be a voodoo practitioner. Fact, fiction, truth, untruth, perspective, opinion… as any fortuneteller will attest, everything is connected. One takes what one chooses.

Now, I will unabashedly display my un-bee-related photos of lovely New Orleans.

Crawdads by you.

Composed with love, patience, and a dragging internet connection,

1 comment:

  1. AnonymousMay 20, 2009

    I wonder what happened to New Orleans honey bees during and after Katrina. Just a thought. Nothing voodoo about it.