Art of the Suriname Maroons

Table of contents

Maroon Societies and Creole Languages


A Brief Description of the Religion of the Maroons
of Suriname and French Guiana

Thomas Polimé

Translated from Dutch by Kenneth Bilby

        Maroons in Suriname and French Guiana in general are acquainted with a polytheistic and animistic form of worship. Polytheism coexists with monotheism. A portion of the Maroon societies adhere to Christian beliefs. The Roman Catholic church and a number of Protestant churches, particularly the Moravian church, have carried out missionary work among them. But, as already mentioned, people believe in a variety of divinities. They believe in a Supreme God known as Keeydi Amua Keeydi Anpon, or Gaan Gadu a Tapu, meaning "the great God above." The deity named Gaan Gadu is believed to be the most powerful of all gods. Gaan Gadu rules the world by delegating tasks to his lower gods, who in turn exert influence on humankind. He does not use human beings as mediums through which to manifest Himself directly; only the lower gods manifest through mediums.

        There are several pantheons to which the various gods belong. These include: the sky gods; the earth gods; the water gods; and the forest gods. In addition to these gods, there are the spirits of ancestors, known as Yooka or Gaan Yooka. The sky gods include, among others, Kumanti gods that can take the form of the vulture, known as Opete. The earth gods are in general reptile gods, and they include the boa constrictor, called Papa or Vodu. The water gods may take the form of reptiles as well, but also include gods that reside in boulders, called Bunsuki. Among the forest gods are the Anpuku and the Akantaasi; the latter consist of red Akaantasi and black Akaantasi. Beasts of prey fall primarily within the category of forest gods. Among these are the jaguar and the ocelot, known as Adjaini Kumanti spirit beings that may be gods of either war or peace. (Certain other predators belong to the category of sky gods.)

        The Kumanti gods are divided into five distinct categories, and most of these gods are related to the animal world. These five categories are:

  • Djadjaa
    He is seen as the most important god (though it is not clear to this author exactly why). He speaks the same language as the other four.

  • Djebii
    This god springs from the puma, ocelot or jaguar.

  • Kalamasunu or Opete
    This is the vulture. Those possessed by this god imitate this bird. The dance movements also resemble the movements of the bird.

  • Bunsuki
    This god comes from rivers, especially sections where a boulder or two can be seen. Among the Ndjuka these boulders are called Tando. These boulders are seen as the natural dwelling place of the Bunsuki, among other gods. The Bunsuki travels both under and above water. He is known for saying the following (in the esoteric language spoken by these gods):

        "Mi e yeuw fu ondoo bunsu.
        Mi e yeuw fu tapu bunsu."

          This means, "I see under water and I see above water," (i.e., on land). In this way Bunsuki
          indicates that he is able to observe and judge all that happens, whether above or under water.

  • Yaw
    These are peccaries (a type of wild animal living in South American forests, related to the pig). Parts of the peccary are often used to adorn the body of a person during possession by the Yaw, such as hairs from this animal used to make arm bands.

        In general, a Kumanti god is approached with much respect. He wants to maintain tranquility and peace among the people, and will therefore become angry if those in his vicinity behave violently. He will then try, through tough action, to restore calm. If necessary, he will resort to violence. He is also known for his medical knowledge.

Ancestral Spirits

        Maroons believe in a life after death. They have a strong belief in the spirits of deceased ancestors, known as Yooka. Spirits of ancestors on one's mother's side are especially revered. When a person dies, he or she moves to another world, called gadu kondee, where the ancestors dwell. A person can return from the world of the ancestors to the visible world. He or she returns from the realm of the dead, the invisible world, to the world of the living. The spirit of the deceased becomes once more a living person. This reincarnated spirit is called a nenseki. Everyone has one or more nenseki. When a newborn child becomes ill, an oracle is consulted. The consultation may reveal that a known family member has been reborn. In this way, he or she makes his/her return known. Offerings are then made to the spirit of the deceased ancestor to indicate that he/she is welcome.

        The nenseki usually returns after the body of the deceased has decomposed. But also in some cases the nenseki can take possession of another body while the original person is still alive. The nenseki of an elder may, even while he or she is still living, become merged with another person or a child. This occurs primarily in the case of elders affected by senility or elders who once played a prominent role as a religious specialist or healer. Because of these special circumstances, it is explained, the nenseki, during the transition from life to death, from the visible to the invisible world, merges with another person or a child. This takes place during this transitional phase between life and death.

        The most important spirit belonging to a person is the Akaa. This spirit accompanies a person everywhere he or she goes. It comes with the person from the invisible world, and goes back when the person returns there from the world of the living. During a long illness, when a person has little chance of surviving, it may leave the body. A symptom of this is that the sick person hardly sleeps anymore. In this case, the patient is considered beyond recovery. Specialists will still try, with prayers and other rituals, to bring the Akaa back to the body, although they know that their work will be in vain.

        A distinction is made between Takuu Akaa, the bad Akaa, and Bun Akaa, the good Akaa. Both Akaa come from what is called the Kaaka. The Takuu Akaa brings dreams when a person sleeps. On the other hand, if the person is sleeping very soundly and has a nightmare, this means that this spirit has left the person. The Takuu Akaa offers resistance to bad spirits that want to occupy the same body where it resides. The Takuu Akaa and Bun Akaa together form a whole. The Bun Akaa, in turn, is always loyal. It likes beauty and cleanness. The moment something goes wrong with the person whose spirit it is, it draws away. It does not go on the defensive. If there is a lack of balance between the two parts of the whole (the two Akaa), then it is likely that the person will become sick.

 


This article was commissioned by SITES for the Educational Resource Guide to the exhibition Creativity and Resistance: Maroon Cultures in the Americas.


Thomas Polimé is co-curator of Creativity and Resistance. He is an  anthropologist who was born and raised in the Saramaka Maroon community in Suriname. He holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands and has done extensive research among both the Maroon communities in Suriname and in French Guiana.