Mr. Ibis writes about a girl being sold by her uncle, just one example of the horrors that happen every day in this world. Humans must put up their guard in order to keep these stories from overwhelming them. As no man is in fact an island, Mr. Ibis says, people have to band together in order to survive this world, but mortals also need individual stories so that the events of the past are not reduced to numbers and faceless masses. It is especially easy to identify with fictional stories because one doesn’t have to pity them as much as they would another human.
Mr. Ibis’s explanation of the importance of individual stories points to the significance of using stories to make a community, as mythical stories pull together all the people who believe in them. The gods give humans a place to put their hopes and fears that is not tied up in actual suffering, allowing people to experience these necessary emotions without getting overwhelmed by the sheer amount of awful things that real people must endure.
This specific girl was born in a village that had lost a war, and she had a twin. Her uncle sold both her and her twin, despite the usual respect for twins as magical beings. The girl, Wututu, asks her twin, Agasu, what will happen now. An older man answers that they will be taken across the sea to the white devils. Wututu and Agasu board a huge ship, where Wututu stays with the children while Agasu is herded into chains with the men. After a week at sea, the passengers are allowed to mingle again.
Wututu and Agasu were essentially offered as sacrifices so that their village could continue to exist after they lost the war. As Mr. Ibis said in his introduction, people’s power comes from banding together, not from trying to exist as individuals. This idea resonates with the larger plot of the book, as the Old Gods must band together in order to survive.
The voyage is long and unspoiled food soon runs out. Wututu and Agasu huddle together when they can, counting their few blessings and wondering what the white devils will be like. One of the black crewmen takes special notice of Wututu and threatens to rape her. Wututu, channeling the god Elegba, says that she is a witch girl who can hurt him if he hurts her. Some passengers try to escape overboard or starve themselves to freedom. These attempts are met with harsh whippings.
Wututu is helped by the god Elegba, borrowing some of his power to stand up for herself. When the gods have enough power and worship, they do try to protect their followers, if only to maintain the amount of worship that they are receiving. Yet Elegba cannot save Wututu from the larger sufferings of the slave ship and the institution of slavery itself.
The slave ship lands in Bridgeport, Barbados, and Wututu and Agasu are separated. Agasu is bought by a seasoning farm and punished severely each time he tries to run away. When he is 16, he is sold to a sugar plantation in St. Domingue. There, he continues to worship the old gods, using his limited free time to sing and worship with the other slaves even though that means he has no time to sleep or tend to his own food. When he is 25, he gets a spider bite that infects his entire arm, and his right arm has to be amputated. In 1791, Agasu (now called Hyacinth and Big One-Arm) takes part in the slave revolt—channeling the spirit of Elegba as the slaves fight for freedom. After 12 years, the slaves manage to take control of the island, but Agasu never gets to see the Republic of Haiti, having died two years earlier.
Agasu’s devotion to the gods he worshipped in Africa brings these gods to St. Domingue. His faith also gives him the strength to live long enough to help usher in the slave revolt and take control of Haiti. Agasu then becomes a kind of sacrifice, one of the many deaths that had to happen so that the slaves could win their freedom.
The moment that Agasu dies, Wututu feels the bayonet pierce her own flesh as well. Her twin babies, the latest of many she has been forced to have by sleeping with other slaves or being raped by her masters, wail and cry with her. It is the first time she has cried since becoming a slave, though she has endured horrors in every plantation she has lived at in the Carolinas. When she was 25, her right arm withered for no apparent reason, and she was sold to a master in Louisiana when her owners in North Carolina found the withered arm unsettling.
The magical connection between Wututu and Agasu comes from their identities as twins. Twins are considered sacred in many cultures, including the Fon culture from which Gaiman takes Wututu and Agasu’s names—the Fon believe that twins are two parts of the same person, and a direct conduit to the ancestors. Wututu thus loses a part of herself when Agasu dies, but must carry on in order to pass the Fon beliefs to her children and grandchildren.
While she lives in New Orleans, Wututu (now called Sukey) practices voodoo and sells her charms to both black and white people. She continues to dance and worship the old gods, just as the slaves did in St. Domingue. When she hears the news of the slave revolt, she notices that the white folks stop talking of the Republic of Haiti altogether, as if through the power of their collective belief they can will the new country to stop existing.
Wututu, whose name means messenger bird, continues to pass on the cultural practices of her homeland to people in America, but does not reap the same benefits that her countrymen in Haiti did. Regarding white people and Haiti, Gaiman again explores how people can be so convinced of a certain belief that they manage to shape the physical world around them. Cut off from any news by her white masters, it is as if Haiti does not exist for Wututu.
In 1821, Wututu (now called Mama Zouzou) takes on an apprentice of mixed race who calls herself Widow Paris. Wututu tells Widow Paris that her husband, Jacques Paris, is cheating on her, pretending to divine this through magical means though it is common knowledge throughout New Orleans. Widow Paris brings gifts in thanks for this service, and then Wututu tells Widow Paris that she will teach her all she knows of voodoo. Widow Paris learns the charms and rituals well, but has no interest in the gods behind the magic. Wututu is disappointed that Widow Paris refuses to see what is truly valuable in the charms and worship, but understands that this land is not a good place for gods. It is precisely the lack of fertile ground for gods that keeps the American slave revolts from succeeding as the revolt in Haiti did.
Wututu’s many names follow the same pattern as the gods who go through many names as they are reincarnated in different places. Wututu again acts like a conduit to the gods and the ancestors by passing on her craft, but her American student is only interested in how the voodoo charms can benefit her and not in the worship behind the rituals. Old Gods cannot exist in America when the people only look for what can benefit themselves. Wututu sees the lack of gods and godly assistance as the reason why American slaves are still enslaved. Though the truth is more complicated than that, the shared belief that the slaves in Haiti had in their gods did sustain them to fight as a more cohesive force, possible contributing to their victory.
After Agasu’s death, Wututu’s soul dies as well. Now she lives only to hate her white captors. She teaches the Widow Paris, who will later practice under the name Marie Laveau, all her sacred dances and tries to explain that there is more to voodoo than making yourself prosper and your enemies fail. Widow Paris does not learn, having only pity and revulsion for the bitter version of Wututu who has lived through so much pain. One night, while dancing a sacred ceremony with Widow Paris, Wututu has an odd vision of Agasu as a grown man with all the scars that a life as a slave has given him. Wututu reaches out her own left hand and promises to be with Agasu soon.
Marie Laveau, like her daughter Marie Laveau II, was a famous practitioner of voodoo in New Orleans, where a house of voodoo dedicated to her name still exists. As the Widow Paris, Marie seems to use Wututu’s pain for her own benefit, learning the rituals but refusing to recognize the sacred aspects of them and focusing only on their outcomes. Her attitude towards Wututu is reminiscent of the attitude of modern Americans toward the Old Gods, as interesting objects worthy of pity or revulsion, but not as sacred beings. Wututu can only become complete again in death, where she will be reunited with her twin, the other half of her soul.