Saut d'Eau Pilgrimage

Saut d'Eau Pilgrimage (Fête de Saut d'Eau)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Roman Catholic and Voodoo)
Date of Observation: July 16
Where Celebrated: Haiti
Symbols and Customs: Bathing, Cloth Strips, Offerings, Possession


In the days approaching July 16, tens of thousands of people from all over the island nation of Haiti make their way to a remote village named Ville Bonheur. In the nineteenth century, a vision of a voodoo goddess appeared by Saut d'Eau, a waterfall near the village. Ever since that time, people have commemorated the appearance with an annual pilgrimage to the site. There they honor Ezili Danto, a voodoo goddess that Haitians consider an African version of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Haitians living as far away as the United States sometimes come home in July to attend the three-day festival at Saut d'Eau. Most Haitians trace their ancestry back to West African slaves imported by the French colonizers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These slaves, who hailed from various ethnic groups, brought their deities and religious rituals with them. Once in Haiti, all these spiritual beliefs and practices blended together, along with new ideas that the African slaves learned from French Roman Catholic priests. The resulting religious mixture has come to be called "Voodoo." Today, the two official religions of Haiti are Voodoo and Roman Catholicism. Many Haitians practice both at the same time.

Voodoo encourages its followers to serve the many unseen spirit beings that watch over human affairs. In return, the spirits will grant favors, protection, and good health. One such spirit is Ezili Danto, sometimes spelled Erzulie Dantor. Ezili Danto is a beautiful mother goddess who has many children and several different male partners. Many Voodoo believers see this female spirit as equivalent to the Virgin Mary. Indeed, the pilgrimage to Saut d'Eau, which is dedicated to Ezili Danto, takes place on July 16, the feast day of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.

The festival traces its history back to the year 1849. Haitians say that in that year Ezili Danto appeared alongside a palm tree near Saut d'Eau. The young man who saw the beautiful and mysterious woman noticed that when she disappeared her image remained behind, imprinted on one of the palm leaves. By the time the leaf fell off the tree, the image transferred itself to a new leaf. Visitors began to come to see the miraculous tree. Some took the opportunity to bathe in the nearby waterfall. When news spread that one of the bathers experienced a miraculous healing, more and more people began to visit the tree, pray, and make offerings to the goddess.

The local Catholic priests were not pleased with these developments. One of them cut down the palm tree in order to abolish the superstitious practices that took place there. According to legend, he died of mysterious causes that same day. The visitors then transferred their devotions to a nearby palm tree. Another zealous priest cut the tree down. The second priest had a stroke and died a few months later. Eventually Catholic officials built a church in the village dedicated to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. By so doing they suggested that she was behind the miraculous occurrences at Saut d'Eau. Since most Haitians see Ezili Danto and the Blessed Virgin as one and the same, they easily incorporated Roman Catholic masses and devotions into the religious observances of the Saut d'Eau pilgrimage.

Saut d'Eau pilgrims begin arriving weeks in advance of the feast day. Many have serious diseases or disabilities and seek healing. Others have made vows that include a pilgrimage to Saut d'Eau, either in thanksgiving for favors granted or in hopes of future favors. Although transport to the village is difficult and often expensive, people arrive in a happy mood. Since there are no hotels in the village, pilgrims must rent a room from a villager or camp out. A festival atmosphere Saut d'Eau Pilgrimage

begins to blossom as musicians play and listeners dance in the streets. Early arrivers can attend the novena-a Roman Catholic prayer service that takes place on nine consecutive days. What's more, local people erect a crucifixion scene near the entrance to the village. Pilgrims visit it in order to pray to Jesus, touch the crucifix, and light candles there. On July 16 the village church holds many Roman Catholic masses. Pilgrims strain to get close enough to the statue of the Virgin Mary to touch or kiss it. In addition, a religious procession tours the village. Pilgrims also trek from the village to the Saut d'Eau waterfall. Here they hope Ezili Danto will hear their prayers, grant their requests, and perhaps even take POSSES SION of their bodies. They remove most of their outer clothing, BATHING under the falling water and in the pool it creates.



When the pilgrims arrive at the Saut d'Eau waterfall, they remove most of their outer clothes and bathe themselves under the falls. They scrub themselves clean with soap or with herbs and ask Ezili Danto for favors. Tradition encourages bathers to leave their old clothes behind in the water.

Cloth Strips

Ezili Danto's favorite colors are blue and pink. She is thought to have a huge wardrobe of pink and blue dresses to wear on different occasions. To honor the goddess, Saut d'Eau pilgrims tie strips of pink and blue cloth around their waists. When they reach the waterfall, they remove the cloths and tie them around the nearby trees. By doing so, they hope to rid themselves or their communities of disease and misfortune.


The pilgrimage at Saut d'Eau gives worshippers an opportunity to make an offering to Ezili Danto. Some people collect alms and make a donation to the church on the Blessed Virgin's feast day. Others leave flowers and candles near Mary's image in the church. Still others leave candles near the waterfalls, hoping to make an offering directly to Ezili Danto. Voodoo priests and priestesses sometimes arrange animal sacrifices to take place near the waterfalls, a practice that is also believed to please the goddess.


In Voodoo, it is considered a blessing to have the spirit of a god or goddess enter the body and express him or herself through a living person. Pilgrims bathing in the sacred waterfalls at Saut d'Eau are hoping for just such an experience. Those who undergo spirit possession at Saut d'Eau often cry out in a loud voice, sing, and roll their eyes. They stagger about the pools in such a way that they seem unaware of sharp rocks and rapidly flowing currents. Other pilgrims hurry towards them, hoping to make their petition directly into the ear of the Ezili Danto, as she takes possession of a devotee.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Desmangles, Leslie G. The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. Laguerre, Michel. "Haitian Pilgrimage to O.L. of Saut d'Eau: A Sociological Analysis." Social Compass, Vol. 36, no. 1 (1986): 5-21. Regan, Jane. "Haitians Seek Saint and Spirit, Pilgrimage Blends Vodou, Catholic Rites." Miami Herald, July 17, 2003.


Haiti Embassy

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Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
References in periodicals archive ?
In an annual ritual that ended on Tuesday, correct worshippers from across the Caribbean nation arrived by foot, mule and crammed into the back of pickup trucks for the week-long Saut d'Eau pilgrimage.