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Voodoo is a spiritual tradition which originated in Haiti during the period of French colonial slavery. Early in the colonial history of Hispaniola, the island that is now shared by Haiti an the Dominican Republic, the original Taino and Carib peoples of Haiti were exterminated by the Spanish. Africans of many ethnic lineages were transported by force to Haiti, mainly to serve as agricultural slaves. There was some contact of course between escaped Africans and surviving Tainos, but little is documented outside of the survivals found in Voodoo ritual. Later, France ruled over Haiti and imported Africans mainly from those regions of Africa colonized by France. During this period, Europeans from France and other countries settled in Haiti.
There are denominations in Voodoo. The first, and most widely known, is the orthodox Voodoo. In this denomination, the Dahomean rite is given a position of dominance, and initiations are based mainly on the Dahomean model. A priest or priestess recieves the asson, a ceremonial rattle, as an emblem of priesthood. In this rite, a priest is known as a Houngan or sometimes Gangan, a priestess is known as a Mambo. In the orthodox Voodoo, other "nations" or lines than the Dahomean are represented as sub-headings in the ceremonial order.
The second denomination is called Makaya. In this rite, initiations are less elaborate and the priest or priestess does not recieve the asson. A Makaya priest is called a Bokor, and a priestess is sometimes referred to as Mambo, or sorceress. The Makaya practice is less uniform from parish to parish, and there is a stronger emphasis on magic rather than religion.
A third denomination is the Kongo rite. It is almost exclusively represented in the Kongo tradition. A priest or priestess of this line is called a serviteur. This rite is concentrated near Gonaives in central Haiti, and at major annual Kongo festival that is held every year near Gonaives.
All of these traditions have several points in common: There is only one God, called Gran Met or Great Master. There are lesser entities are called lwa, and though they vary from rite to rite, they are all considered accessible through spirit possession. Possession is considered normal, natural, and highly desirable. However, there is a certain "etiquette" to possession. All rites employ prayer, song, drumming, costume, and dancing during ceremonies. Anyone may participate in Voodoo and there is no gender, racial, age, sexual orientation, or national origin requirements. Also, nobody is asked to renounce a pre-existing religious affiliation. In Haiti, the vast majority of Voodooists are also Roman Catholics.
There are various levels of participation, just as there are in most other religions. A Voodoo ceremony is public, and anyone may enter the temple, and observe. Singing and dancing are encouraged because there is no centralized order paying salaries to the Houngans and Mambos. Because the temple is private property, it is considered normal for uninitiated participants to make a "small cash gift." This money is used to defray the cost of the drummers, food, and the general upkeep of the temple and Houngan or Mambo in charge. For some people this is hard to understand, because in the Judeo-Christian tradition priests, ministers, and rabbis are salaried professionals.
There has been quite a bit of controversy in the United States over the ethnic affiliation and participation in African-derived religions. Some corrupt Houngans, or Mambos, in Haiti have taken advantage of the lack of knowledge of a foreigner, perform bogus ceremonies, and charge ridiculous rates. Others have an unspoken understanding that they will not reveal the "secret" knowledge of Voodoo, meaning correct information and initiation, to a non-black non-Haitian. However, other Houngans and Mambos hold the view that people are chosen by a sacred spirit called an lwa, and not the other way around. A Houngan or Mambo who refuses training and initiation to a foreigner sent by the lwa will suffer for it. Initiation requires a significant period of study, and the commitment shown by the foreigner is usually enough to overcome any reservations on the part of the Houngan or Mambo.
There are a series of levels of initiation in orthodox Voodoo, that are achieved as an individual grows in knowledge and standing in the Voodoo community. Individuals who are at the initiatory grade may participate in private ceremonies pertaining to other individuals of their own grade or lower. A person with a lower grade may not participate in a ceremony conferring a higher grade of initiation, because the knowledge imparted is secret and because they are not experienced enough to do so. Even a Houngan or Mambo asogwe must defer to the Houngan or Mambo who initiated him or her, to those in the same peristyle who were initiated at the same grade prior to him or her, to the person who initiated their initiatory Houngan or Mambo and to that individual's initiates, and so on. These relationships can grow rather complicated, and there is a point in an orthodox Voodoo ceremony where all Houngans and Mambos, sur point and asogwe, participate in a series of ritual gestures and embraces which serve to clarify and control these relationships. An uninitiated person who attends ceremonies, receives counsel and medical treatment from a Houngan or Mambo, and takes part in Voodoo related activities is called a Vodouisant. An uninitiated person who is associated with a particular peristyle , attends ceremonies regularly, and appears to be preparing for initiation is sometimes referred to as a hounsi bossale.
The first grade of initiation confers the title hounsi kanzo. At a Voodoo ceremony, the hounsis kanzo wear white clothing, form the choir, and are likely candidates for possession by an lwa.
The second grade of initiation is referred to as si pwen. The person is then considered to be a Houngan or Mambo, and is permitted to use the asson. Individuals who are si pwen might be likened to ministers of Christian denomination. At a ceremony, they lead prayers and songs, conduct rituals, and are almost always candidates for possession.
The third, and final, grade of initiation is referred to as asogwe. A Houngan or Mambo asogwe might be likened to a bishop in a Christian denomination. Individuals who are asogwe may initiate other individuals as kanzo senp, si pwen, or asogwe. At a ceremony they are the final authority on procedure, unless an lwa is present and manifest through the method of possession. They are also the last resort when the presence of a particular lwa is required. A Houngan or Mambo asogwe is said to "have the asson," the ceremonial rattle symbolic of priesthood, meaning that they, and they alone, can confer the asson on another individual.
In the countryside of Haiti, each family compound includes a family graveyard. The tombs of family members are as elaborate as the family can afford. Some resemble small houses built above ground, with the crypt below. The structures built for wealthy families may even comprise a small sitting room, complete with a picture of the deceased and good quality chairs. When a newcomer enters the family compound for an extended visit, courtesy requires that her or she make a small libation of water at the tombs, so that the ancestors will welcome the person. Family members and guests may also, at any time, make an "illumination." Candles or beeswax tapers are lit, placed on the tombs, and a short prayer is said.
In the city, the law requires burial in the city graveyard. Again, structures may be quite elaborate, and large padlocks and other security devices are used to prevent grave robbers from making off with the metal coffin findings, bones, or other articles of the dead person.
A Vodouisant is buried with Roman Catholic ceremony, and a wake is held for nine nights after the death. The ninth night is called the denye priye, the last prayer. After the last prayer, the Catholic part of the death ritual is closed. At some point, either before or after the Roman Catholic ceremony, the Voodoo ceremony of desounin is held. In this ceremony, the person's soul and life force, and the primary lwa in the head of the person, are ritualistically separated and consigned to their correct destinations.
One year and one day after the death of the individual, the ceremony retire mo nan dlo, take the dead out of the water, may be performed. The spirit of the dead person is called up through a vessel of water, under a white sheet, and ritually installed in a clean clay pot called a govi. The voice of the dead individual may speak from the govi, or through the mouth of another person briefly possessed for the purpose. The govi is reverently placed in the djevo, or inner room of the temple.
The head of the family of ancestral lwa is Baron. He is Master of the Cemetery and guardian of ancestral knowledge. He has many aspects, including Baron Samedi, Baron Cemetiere, Baron la Croix, and Baron Criminel. In all of his aspects, he is a masculine lwa with a nasal voice who carries a walking stick or baton, uses profanity liberally, and dresses in black or purple. He is considered the last resort against deaths caused by magic, because even if a magical spell should bring a person to the point of death, if Baron refuses to "dig the grave," the person will not die.
Baron, with his wife Maman Brigitte, is also responsible for reclaiming the souls of the dead and transforming them into lwa Ghede. Baron may be invoked for cases of infertility, and he is the divine judge to which people may bring their appeals. Baron may be invoked at any time, and he can appear without being called, so powerful is he. He drinks rum in which twenty-one hot peppers have been steeped, and which no mere mortal could swallow! His ceremonial foods are black coffee, grilled peanuts, and bread. He dances the remarkably improvisational banda with great skill, and sometimes puts his walking stick between his legs to represent a phallus. Baron is a very masculine lwa.
Maman Brigitte is considered to be the wife of Baron, Master of the Cemetery and chief of all the departed ancestors, known as lwa Ghede. The grave of the first woman buried in any cemetery in Haiti is consecrated to Maman Brigitte, and it is there that her ceremonial cross is erected. She, as well as Baron, is invoked to "raise the dead," meaning to cure and save those who are on the point of death from illness caused by magic.
Maman Brigitte, like the rest of the Baron/Ghede constellation, is a tough-talking lwa who uses a lot of obscenities. She drinks rum laced with hot pepper, so hot that a person not possessed by a lwa could never drink it. She also is known to pass hot Haitian peppers on the skin of her genitals, and this is the test to which women are subjected when they are suspected of "faking" possession. She dances the sexually suggestive and remarkably artistic banda, and the virtuosity of her dancing is legendary.
Maman Brigitte and Baron are the mother and father who reclaim the souls of the dead and transform them into lwa Ghede, removing them from the mystic waters where they were without cognizance of their own identity and naming them.
The lwa Ghede are an enormous family of lwa, as many and varied as were the souls from which they originated. Since they are all members of the same family, spiritual children of Baron and Maman Brigitte, they all have the same last name - La Croix, the cross. No matter what other name they bear, their signature is always La Croix.
Ghedes dress much like their father Baron - black or purple clothes, elaborate hats, dark glasses, sometimes missing a lens, a walking stick or baton. They also dance the banda, but they retain more of the individual personality of the person from whom they originated.
The Ghede family, including their father and mother, Baron and Maman Brigitte, are absolutely notorious for their use of profanity and sexual terms. The Ghede are beyond all punishment. Nothing further can be done to them, so the use of profanity among the normally somewhat formal Haitians is a way of saying, "I don't care!" However, this profanity is never used in a vicious or abusive fashion, to "curse someone out." It is always humorous, even when there is a pointed message involved.
November 2, All Soul's Day, commonly called Fet Gede, is a national holiday in Haiti. Catholics attend mass in the morning and then go to the cemetery, where they pray at family grave sites and make repairs to family tombs. The majority of Haitian Catholics are also Vodouisants, and vice versa, so on the way to the cemetery many people change clothes from the white they wore to church, to the purple and black of the lwa Gede, the spirits of the departed ancestors.
The lwa are lesser entities, but more readily accessible. Aside from a generalized love for the children of Africa, the lwa require a mutual relationship with the worshipper. The lwa serve those who serve them. lwa have well defined characteristics, including sacred numbers, colors, days, ceremonial foods, speech mannerisms, and ritual objects. A lwa, therefore, can be served by wearing clothes of the law's colors, making offerings of preferred foods, and observing sexual continence on days sacred to the lwa.
Voodoo lwa manifest their will through dreams, unusual incidents, and through the mechanism of trance possession. Possession is considered normal, natural, and desirable in the context of a Voodoo ceremony and under certain other circumstances. It is comparable to the New Age phenomenon of "channeling."
The Rada lwa are primarily, but not exclusively Dahomean in origin. Their general ceremonial color is white, with the qualification that individual lwa within this group may have their own colors. They are considered beneficent, and in some cases so ancient as to be detached and slow to act. The rhythms of the Rada lwa are beaten on drums with wooden pegs holding the stretched hide over the drum head. The skin of the largest drum, the maman, is cow hide, the other of goatskin. The drums are beaten with sticks.
The Rada lwa, in ceremonial order, are as follows:
Legba, Marassa, Loco, Aizan, Damballah and Aida Wedo, Sobo, Badessy, Agassou, Silibo, Agwe and La Sirene, Erzulie, Bossu, Agarou, Azaka, the Ogoun group (Ogoun St. Jacques, Ossange, Ogoun Badagri, Ogoun Feraille, Ogoun Fer, Ogoun Shango, Ogoun Balindjo, Ogoun Balizage, OgounYemsen).
There is no particular order to the appearance of these lwa within their own group. Their ceremonial colors are violet and black. The Gede group is bawdy and lewd, and they provide comic relief following the intense and disciplined exertion of the Rada section. The Barons and Brigittes are most mystical, and can be counted upon to prophesy in the midst of the most lascivious dance steps. The Gedes are always willing to tell jokes and give advice.
After the Rada and Ghede groups remains the portion of the ceremony dedicated to the Petro lwa. These lwa are predominately of Kongo and Western Hemisphere origin. Their ceremonial color is red. They are considered fierce, protective, magical, and aggressive toward adversaries. The rhythms of the Petro lwa are beaten on tanbou fey, drums with cord and a hoop holding the stretched hide over the drum head. The drum heads are made of goatskin, and are beaten with the palms of the hands. This part of the ceremony is hot, fast-paced, and exciting.
The Petro lwa, in ceremonial order, are as follows:
Legba Petro, Marassa Petro, Wawangol, Ibo, Senegal, Kongo, Kaplaou, Kanga, Takya, Zoklimo, Simbi Dlo, Gran Simba, Carrefour, Cimitiere, Gran Bwa, Kongo Savanne, Erzulie Dantor (also known as Erzulie Zye-Wouj), Marinette, Don Petro, Ti-Jean Petro, Gros Point, Simbi Andezo, Simbi Makaya.
When the final three repetitions of the final song for Simbi Makaya are finished, the ceremony is over.
The Haitian Creole word djab is derived from the French word diable, meaning devil, but the term in the context of Haitian Vodou carries a different connotation. The congregation of a Houngan or Mambo who serves a djab is usually protected from possible acts of random aggression by the djab.
Djabs can also be specific to a particular place. In the limestone caves of Bode near Trouin in the south of Haiti, a djab named Met Set Joune, Master of the Seven Days, is believed to reside. Even if a Mambo, Houngan, or Bokor was to serve this djab in a peristyle located somewhere else, the limestone caves would remain the home of the djab.
Certain particularly dishonorable djabs can be invoked to drain the life energy of a person and effect their demise. When a djab is held responsible for a person's death, the Creole phrase is not "the djab killed the person," but instead, "the djab ate the person." This does not mean that the flesh of the person is eaten cannibalistically by the Houngan, Mambo, or Bokor who undergoes possession by the djab, and the djab has subsumed the person's life force.
An orthodox Houngan or Mambo is under oath never to do harm, therefore invocations of djabs are more frequently attempted by Bokors. However, an orthodox Vodou clergyperson may invoke a djab and even direct it to kill a person, if the person is a murderer, a repeat thief, a repeat rapist, and so forth.
People of many different faiths construct altars. Even people who do not belong to any particular faith may set aside a corner of a room where they sit and think, meditate and pray, do yoga or play an African drum. Many times they create unplanned altars which include many of the same objects; flowers, stones and crystals, sacred symbols, photographs or images of ancestors, or of members of the extended human family, musical instruments, candles, incense, books on spiritual subjects.
Since most people living in the United States can not begin their practice in this religion by attending Vodou ceremonies, one of the first things we can do is to build an altar. The altars of Vodou are as varied as the individuals who practice the religion. In a sense, a peristyle itself is an altar, large enough for the worshippers to dance around the centerpost, play drums, perform sacrifice, undergo possession. Within the peristyle there are sometimes areas dedicated to a particular lwa. Attached to the peristyle are smaller rooms called djevo or bagi, in which the ceremonial objects of a Vodou society are kept. However, these objects, which include sacred rattles, and clay pots called govi, are of no particular use to those who have not undergone initiation.
Suggestions for building a basic altar:
Get a white cloth, and wash it in water with some of your first urine of the morning. For urine, you can substitue vinegar. Let the cloth dry outdoors in the sun if possible. Cover your altar table with it, and then sprinkle it lightly with your favorite perfume or Florida Water.
Next, get four small stones from near your house, clean them by scouring with salt and rinsing well, then place one at each corner of your altar. Clean a wineglass, cut glass bowl, or other vessel and fill it with water. Do not use metal or earthenware - glass or crystal only. Place it at the center of your altar, and add three splashes of anisette or white rum as you bless the water.
Into a glass candleholder, place some earth from near your house and a few grains of salt. Take a white candle, and with a pure vegetable oil rub the candle from the middle up to the top and then from the middle down to the base. As you oil the candle, direct your energy into your hands and pray for spiritual awareness. Put the candle firmly into the candleholder and place it in front of the glass of water.
Around the altar you will place other objects according to the divine principles you wish to serve. An ancestor shrine will have images of deceased ancesters, Ogoun's altar will have a machete and a red kerchief, Erzulie Freda's shrine will have flowers and jewelry, and so on.
First step in Vodou practice;
However you have built your altar, it is a door between the world of human beings and the world of the ancestors and the lwa. Let it get dusty, let the water become murky and stale, use it as a convenient resting placee for housekeys and pencils. ignore it, and you will find yourself tired, drained, unlucky, and uninspired. Treat it with respect, keep it immaculately clean, visit it often, and you will be rewarded with energy, spiritual growth, personal victories, and remarkable coincidences.
Your ancestors love you. They will come and visit you, accept your offerings, and point you on the way. They will instruct you, protect you, fight for you, and heal you. They will bring you messages through your intuition and your dreams.
Obtain a picture of a deceased relative of yours whose love for you is beyond question. If you have no deceased relatives whom you can remember well, either by blood or by adoption, you can choose an image of a person who represents to you ancestral wisdom and love, and give that person a name. You may also obtain images of ancestors of all branches of the human race.
Place these images behind the vessel of water on you altar, either propped up on picture stands or attached to the wall behind your altar. This wall can also be draped in white cloth and images pinned or tacked to it. Arrange the images until their grouping seems right to you. You may choose to work with one image or many.
Sit in front of your altar. Ring a small bell or shake a ceremonial rattle to signal the start of your meditation. Light the white candle on your altar, and if possible light some coconut or vanilla incense. Tie your head with a white cloth if you wish. Gaze into the water in the central chalice. Relax and do any meditation exercises you are familiar with. Deep breathing, counting backwards from ten to zero. Think about your chosen ancestor. If possible, recollect scenes from the past in which you appear with that ancestor. Feel the love between you which connects you. Call the name of your ancestor out loud, repeatedly. Tell the ancestor that you love him/her, and that you want to work together with him/her. It is a basic tenet of Vodou that the living and the dead work together to help each other.
When you feel the ancestors' presence, tip a little water three times on the floor to welcome them. Do this meditation often, until it is a comfortable routine. Within a week or two, you should make an ancestral feast to offer to your ancestors.
This feast should include foods that were favored by your ancestors in life, with the exception that the food should not be salted. Place each type of food in a bowl, and place a white candle in the middle of the food. Liquid offerings can be placed in glasses and the candle should be put in a holder next to the glass. Touch each plate or bowl to your forehead, heart, and pubic area, and then breathe on the food. Talk to your ancestors, remind them that they were once part of the world of the living, and that you will one day come to join them. Ask them to drive away all evil, such as poverty, illness, unemployment, fatigue, discord, and sadness. Ask them to bring to you all that is good, including love, money, work, health, joy, friendship, and laughter.
Light the candles, put the food on the altar, and leave the room. When the candles have finished burning, and preferably the following morning, take the food and throw it away at the foot of a large tree. If that is not possible, put it in a garbage bag and dispose of it separately from other garbage. Wash the plates, bowls, and glasses, scrub them with salt, and put them away. Do not use them for ordinary meals. That is how an ordinary Voodoo ceremony is performed.
I hope that by reading this report on Voodoo you gain a better understanding as to the origins and religious aspects of the religion. I think that Vodou is one of the most criticized and misunderstood religions in our country today. It is not just about harming people and poking pins into a six inch replica doll of your worst enemy, but about remembering your loved deceased ancestors and loved ones.