Saturday, April 16, 2016

St. Expedite around the World: Road Side Altars in Réunion


Today, St. Expedite is a popular folk saint in various parts of the world, including the tiny French Island of Réunion, located off the east coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The origin of his devotion there follows the familiar storyline of the arrival of a mysterious crate marked expedit that contained some bones. Apparently, a request was made by colonials to the Vatican for saintly relics. When the box of old bones arrived with expedit marked on the wooden box, those who received them assumed they were the bones of a saint and named him St. Expedite.

An unfamilar dimension of this story indicates St. Expedite is routinely invoked for his help with black magic in placing and breaking curses. As the story goes, he is so prompt to dispense a curse that to call him anything other than St. Expedite would make no sense, whatsoever.

However he arrived there and whatever the nature of his association, people professing a wide range of religious faiths including Christianity, animism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are equally attracted to St. Expedite’s ability to get things done in a hurry, whether it be a curse or a blessing. He is apparently revered in secret in Reunion; some have gone so far as to say it is a taboo to invoke him. People typically do not come out during the day to make their petitions so as to avoid being seen. That said, there exists numerous roadside altars, huts, little shrines and niches painted in bright red that do nothing to keep St. Expedite on the downlow. Images of these roadside altars show they are obviously well taken care of and offerings or ex-votos commonly left at the various shrines in gratitude for petitions granted show his devotees are numerous and strong in faith. Among the offerings left are red wine and small cakes with coins pressed into them.

According to some reports, St. Expedite is the Patron Saint of Roads in Réunion. The roadside altars and shrines are situated in memoriam by families of those who die in roadside traffic accidents. Apparently, the roads there are quite treacherous and the question is not if you will get into an accident; rather, it is more like when. Some of the locals say St. Expedite is the product of Voodoo and that he is the saint to petition when you want to get rid of someone in a hurry.

According to the website Travel, the local Hindus “treat St Expedite as an unofficial incarnation of Vishnu; those wanting children come to his shrine and tie saffron cloths to the grilles“ (Dalrymple 1998).

Unlike other places, there is an unusual practice there that is not observed in other areas of St. Expedite devotion. Apparently, as easy as it is to observe how well cared for the roadside altars are, it is also plain to see decapitated statues of St. Expedite strewn about—reportedly the result of petitioners’ anger for when he doesn’t come through for them. It has also been suggested that he is decapitated as part of a petition to break existing curses. 

I find the practice of decapitating his statue to be quite intriguing. Reunion Island is a diverse community consisting of white Europeans, Indians, Africans, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Given the different cultural influences found there, it piques my curiosity as to who may have brought the practice with them and what the true meaning is for cutting off St. Expedite’s head.

Interestingly, there is the theme of decapitation found in private and royal funerary literature of ancient Egypt (Picardo, 2007). The actual act of decapitation was considered the most reprehensible of acts with only the vilest of human beings deserving of such a fate. To the ancient Egyptians, enemies and foreigners were among those who received such treatment at the request of the King. However, decapitation also occurred in a ritual context in magic spells. Symbolic decapitations directed against enemies and criminals were invoked through execration magic and in threat-formulae or curses against robbers. Evidence for this activity is found in some tomb inscriptions. 

Of course, the possibility that St. Expedite is being destroyed by iconoclasts shouldn't be discounted. Iconoclasm is the deliberate destruction of religious icons or monuments, usually for religious or political motives. In common parlance, an iconoclast is a person who challenges cherished beliefs or traditional institutions as being based on error or superstition (Besançon & Todd, 2000). Could it be there are locals who disapprove of St. Expedite and show their disapproval by the destruction of the statues? Whatever the case may be, it is clear there is an underground devotion of St. Expedite that serves both positive and nefarious purposes on the island of Réunion.

References

Besançon, A. and Jane Marie Todd. (2000). The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of
Iconoclasm
. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Picardo, N. (2007). Semantic Homicide’ and the So-called Reserve Heads: The Theme of Decapitation in Egyptian Funerary Religion and Some Implications for the Old Kingdom. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 23.


Image credit

A roadside hut altar dedicated to Expeditus on Réunion Island CC BY-SA 3.0 Uploaded by David.Monniaux (2005) Wikimedia Commons.

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*The above article is excerpted from A Conjurer's Guide to St. Expedite, available here and at bookstores everywhere.








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