Plant Spirit Shamanism: the Medsen Fey by Ross Heaven
Loulou Prince is a medsen fey (leaf doctor/herbalist and shaman) in Jacmel, a small Haitian town close to the border with the Dominican Republic. In his daily practice, he deals with a range of health problems typical of the area – from aches and cuts and bruises symptomatic of the hard toil in the fields through which most of his patients make a living, to sufferers of more serious complaints such as HIV and AIDS, a disease as prevalent in Haiti as in other Third World countries.
“Ours is a spiritual tradition which traces its lineage to the shamans of primal Africa, which we call Gine”, said Loulou. “It blends together a number of African beliefs with elements from other faiths, such as Catholicism, the religion of the French slave traders who took the shamans and priests of Africa to this new world of the Caribbean.
“The lwa are the spirits who travelled with us from Africa. They come to us through a trance where the healer is ‘mounted’ by the lwa – or through their appearances in our dreams”.
Both of these ways of working with the spirits are present in the healing practices of the medsen fey, who is at an expert herbalist and a shaman, inspired by the spirits in his choice of healing herbs.
“The medsen fey is a person who knows how to talk to the lwa and to use leaves and other plant parts to promote health and cure illness”, says Loulou. “Many of us also have personal or family lwa who also help us in our work”.
This latter point is interesting. The ancestors – the family of lwa known as ‘zanset yo’ – are a powerful healing force and every healer will have developed a close relationship with his own ancestral spirits. It is also possible to ‘inherit’ these spirits from another healer or family member. Having once been human themselves, the ancestors understand the pains and concerns of the living and, through their new status as enlightened beings, can offer direct healing or healing advice to the medsen fey.
Often, these spirits appear in dreams to advise the healer on the course of treatment to use with a particular client.
“If I am treating a sick person, very often I have a dream, and I see the leaves I should give that person”, says Loulou. “In these dreams, the lwa will come to me and tell me what to do, or I see that I am in the woods, and leaves are pushing up in front of me. Once I have this knowledge, I use my training as an herbalist to make tea or infusions in rum for the person who is suffering.
“Once I was treating a man who had body aches all the time, and diarrhoea and congestion. The man had no money to pay a doctor, so he came to me. That night, I had a dream where a lwa came to me with leaves in her hand. She said, ‘These leaves, boil them and give them to the sick man.’
“When I woke up, I went into the forest to look for those leaves and I found them straightaway. I boiled them as I had been shown and gave them to the sick man. Within a day, he was returned to full health.”
THE SPIRIT OF THE LEAVES
There are very few illnesses, it seems, that cannot be healed – or at least alleviated – with the plants of the rainforest. Loulou treats people with digestive disorders, sexual problems, fevers and colds, and has medicine to clean and purify the blood, and restore balance and order to the physical body. He also treats people who are ailing and children who are not growing well due to persecution by evil spirits. Here, the medicine is of a more magical nature and designed to bring balance to the spirit and the emotions.
“There are specific, strong-smelling leaves, which help children who are under spiritual attack”, says Loulou. “I mix these leaves with special magical items which I have been shown by the lwa, and then I take some raw rum and sea water and I make a bath for the child. I soak some of the leaves in rum and set them on fire to heat the bath up. Before I bathe the child I pray, and I bless the leaves. Then, while I am bathing him, I sing songs for the lwa and the ancestors, and ask them to come and help this child.
“The rest of the bath that is left over, I put in a green calabash bowl or a bottle, and before the child goes to sleep, I have the parents rub his arms and legs with it. When that is done, no one can curse that child or do evil magic to them”.
JUDGEMENTS AND JEALOUSY
How this ‘evil magic’ comes to infect the child bears similarities to the almost universal belief in mal d’ojo, the evil eye. The magic comes through the judgements of others and through jealousy.
As an example of this, Loulou was once asked to perform magical work for a woman who had four children, two of whom had already died through the actions of evil spirits who would come to her house at night and frighten the children, sucking the energy out of them. The woman concerned was a market trader who had been able to amass a little money (a rare commodity in Haiti), and her neighbours were jealous of her.
“One of these neighbours had sent spirits against her to kill her children”, said Loulou. “The lady lost two children that way and another was getting sick and skinny. I gave the child exactly what he needed. I bathed him and broke the bad magic, then I gave him leaves to make his blood bitter, so it would taste and smell bad to the spirits, and they would go away. After that, the child got better; he got fat and he grew. That boy is a young man now. He lives near me and he calls me ‘Papa Loulou’ because he remembers what I did for him.”
Loulou also works with people who have chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, hypertension, and AIDS. While he is realistic and honest enough to admit that he cannot always cure these diseases, there is much that he can do to help the sufferer live a longer, healthier life.
“If a person has diabetes, there are leaves I boil and give him to drink. The same for high blood pressure. Sometimes he will go back to the doctor, and the doctor asks, ‘What have you been doing? Your blood pressure has fallen.’ But the doctors never come talk with me because they don’t want to admit that they don’t know everything and they don’t want to lose any chance to make money from their patients.
“If a person has AIDS, there are leaves for that too. They are not always going to save that person’s life, but my aim is to make that life as pain-free and tolerable as I can, so they are not held back by the disease and can enjoy the life that is left to them. I stop their diarrhoea, for example or, if they have sores in their mouth, I can make them better. If the person has become skinny, if their blood is very poor, I make a tonic for them, with herbs in red wine. They drink a few spoonfuls every day, and they put on weight, they build back up. But it’s not a cure. I pray that I might find a cure, but that is in the hands of God, the saints and the lwa”.
CURING THE BLOOD
In Haiti, the met tete (‘master of the head’) is the lwa who is your guardian spirit during your lifetime. Every person is born the ‘child’ of a particular lwa, whether they recognise that and formalise the relationship through kanzo (initiation), or not. This lwa lives in the blood and is a guide and protector to his or her child throughout their lives. But the blood also attracts other spirits who may use the fluid to possess or infect that person, as was the case in Loulou’s example of the sick child.
A lot of the leaves that Loulou uses therefore have to do with the blood – ‘building up the blood’, cleansing it, or making the patient ‘throw off’ blood. If she is pregnant, for example, with an unwanted child – a situation frequent in Haiti, with low uptake of contraception and sufficient poverty to make large families untenable – Loulou has medicines which can help her to painlessly abort the child by changing the spiritual constituents of the blood which reaches the foetus.
“I find the leaves in the woods and in the pastures around where I live. I know them because my mother taught me ever since I was little. There are secrets to how I pick the leaves, secret words I have to say, things I am not going to reveal. Sometimes I dry the leaves and powder them; sometimes I use them fresh. It is not my job to judge, when a patient comes to me; my job only is to make them well again”.
Magical healing in Haiti is often very practical. There is no division, in the Western sense, between good health and good ‘luck’ – if you are in control of your own life and the things around you, you are automatically power-full and it is more difficult for the spirits to enter your body and do you harm.
“If your wife or husband leaves you, the medsen fey can work a wanga [healing charm] to make them come back. Or if you love someone and want them to be attracted to you, I can do magic for that.
“The leaves are part of the magic and there are leaves in the woods that I use, but you will also need other things: a photograph of the person you want, certain types of perfume, a pocket handkerchief, a piece of rope, a little wooden chair, a mirror… various things. I call the person you want, spiritually, and I make them come sit down on the stool where you are. Then I work with the other things to make that person notice you and want to make contact with you.
“Of course, I can only do so much! Once they are aware of you in your daily life, it is up to you! If you are kind to them and treat them right, they will love you; if you ignore them or treat them bad, then all the magic in the world will not help you!
“Everyone has their own spirits, whether they know it or not, and they can help you as well. So I will also call your spirits and talk to them, right there in front of you. Maybe they will come to you in dreams and tell you things too, which will help you find the person you love. They will tell you how you must behave, the things you must change, and so on. Love is never one-sided, it is always a meeting of souls!”
About the Author
Ross Heaven is a therapist, workshop leader, and the author of several books on shamanism and healing, including Darkness Visible, the best-selling Plant Spirit Shamanism, and Love’s Simple Truths. His website is http://www.thefourgates.com where you can also read how to join his sacred journeys to the shamans and healers of the Amazon.