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Serving the Spirits: The Religion of Vodou An Introduction Vodou includes, it does not exclude "There are as many Lwa as there are stars in the sky," my kanzo papa Bon Houngan Fritzner George told me one day during my training to become a priest of Vodou. As I watched the proceedings of a Vodou dance unfold for us that evening, I could see in person what he had spoken of earlier. Standing on the pe, the circular altar that surrounded the center pole of the temple, a tiny mambo danced elaborate circles round and round the elevation, the Lwa Ezili Freda in her head. Below her on the ground, three hounsi were sli thering about in full possession by Ezili's husband Danbala. And on the opposite side of the temple, a man called for rum and a machete as the Lwa Ogoun n descended to take his place in the hierarchy of spirits roaming the peristyle space that evening. De spite their stellar origins, the stars that had fallen into the temple space were expressing themselves in very human terms. Servitors were running for offerings, clothing and food to share with these luminaries who had chosen to visit us. Rum, tobacco a nd perfume were the preferred gifts that were liberally shared with everyone present, spirits and human alike. As the evening came to its end the Lwa retreated, leaving behind advice, blessings and very tired "chwals" the term used to describe a servito r under possession. Papa nodded with great satisfaction as the last of the Lwa left a hounsi sitting slightly dazed in a corner. "The Spirits are very pleased that you are here," he said. "They came in abundance to see you! Tomorrow, it will be your tur n!" I smiled uneasily back, not sure if I was ready to be chwal or just observer. But one thing I was sure of, I was in Haiti to become Mambo Asogwe, the rank of service in the faith. And I was determined to help change the worldview of Vodou along the w ay.
Vodou is not a cult, a magical means for personal gain, or any of the Hollywood stereotypes. It is a religious practice, a faith that points toward intimate knowledge of God, and offers its practitioners a means to come into communion with the Divine, through an ever evolving paradigm of dance, song and prayers. It is an invocation wrought from skin hands, drums and feet, in joyous pounding prayers that brings Heaven down to earth. Vodou helps to explain the mysteries around us, and to express the many truths of the world through song, dance and drum rhythms. Vodou has helped me express who I really am and has given me a profound sense of purpose in life. My morning prayers, my afternoon services and my pastoral counseling form my daily routines. I spend my free time creating artwork in service to the Lwa, the great Mysteries that are served under God. I learn songs and drum beats and dance before my altars to share my laughter and my sense of accomplishment. Vodou has given substance and shape to my life and I am deeply grateful for all that I have. I find immense satisfaction in expressing myself as a mambo or "mother of the spirits." There are many ways you can express your inner sense of self. Fashion is one system. Group affiliation is an other, whether it's a social or religious group. Religion is one of the most personal expressions of our own inner sense of self. To fully give yourself over to a religion, it helps to understand the history and circumstances that gave birth to that reli gion. All faiths reflect the morals and rules of the societies that give rise to them. The the laws of the ancient world that gave rise to it. The books o f the Torah reflect back the society of Judaism at its inception. And the rules of the Koran speak to the time when the Prophet Mohammed walked on earth.
Vodou is no exception. The ceremonies, songs and liturgy of Vodou clearly demonstrate the mix of Afr ican nations and their religious ideas and practices that contributed to what we now know as modern Vodou. In each region of Haiti, we can trace the original African nations by listening to the drum beats and songs played for a Vodou ceremony. Colonial c ontradanses and African yanvalous are performed side by side, dressed in Caribbean colors. This intermixing of nations African, European and Caribbean -is the legacy left to us by the Ancient Africans. Their gift to Vodou is clearly demonstrated throu gh its liturgy everyone is included; no one is excluded. My late Gran'n Papa Kanzo, Bon Houngan Luc Gudon always insisted every person is welcome in Vodou, because every person has a Lwa met tet, every person has ancestors. In every country there are crossroads that is the Lwa Kafou. In every country there are woods where ancient Grand Bwa resides. Every race of people produces twins that the Haitians call Marassa. These are the basics of Vodou, found all over the world, in every place, culture an d village of humanity. As the Fon people of West Africa say, everything is their language. To the ancient Africans, they saw Spirit as being immanent in all things under heaven. many African ethnic groups, including the afore mentioned Fon (of West Africa), the Dahomeans (who live in what is now called Benin), and Yorubans (who live in what is now called Nigeria). Vodou also draws from the rich and diverse Kongo people: the Ibos,
Senegal and Kapalou nations. We remember these and the other plantation era Africans as the 21 nations of Vodou. These various nations of people lent name s of spirits, drumming rhythms, dance footsteps, and many forgotten words (langaj) to the mlange we know today as Haitian Vodou. Although the African root is deep and prominent, Vodou also combines elements from the colonial plantation era into its bricol age. The plantation owners were French, Spanish and Dutch, and came out of a time when the Enlightenment was just beginning to make its mark in thinking, in science and in mystical practices such as Kabala. Catholicism added its own touches through the s ynchronicity of Catholic hagiography. British sailing lore lent the use of ships and flags. And finally, the occultism of European Masonry, the mysticism of the Spanish Kabalists and the mix of European folk practices such as carnival parades at Lent all seasoned the brew that became modern day Vodou. As an example of this accumulative nature, at the start of every service the presiding mambo or houngan sings the Priye Ginen, the Prayer of Africa. A long recitation of the many spirits that are honored in a given sosyete, the Priye is the foundational prayer of Vodou. Everyone who is a servitor is expected to know the Priye by heart and to join in when it is sung for service. In that prayer, verses are sung for the Nigerian Papa Loko, for the Dahomean Ho ungan Agassou, for the Portuguese Don Pedro, for the Kongo Simbi Andezo, and for the Roman Catholic derived Grand Saint Anne, who in her physical life was a Palestinian Jew. Racial prejudice and ethnic scorn are diametrically opposed to the agglomerative and inclusive tendency of Vodou.
If you compare the theology of religions such as Hinduism, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, you will find incredible similarities between them. They all espouse one supreme creator who created a multiple pantheon of otherworldly sp irits who act as servants to both Man and God. Even the Old Testament of the Bible shows multiple pantheons of Angels (Seraphim, Watchers, etc.) as well as animal sacrifice, including human sacrifice. These religions in their oldest forms share a similar set of paradigms used to help their congregations: prayers of invocation, songs of praise and morality tales that feature heroes and villains, beautiful maidens and powerful warriors. These individuals are all vying for attention, adoration and veneratio n, so They can receive the greatest reward possible that of serving Their Creator to the fullest capacity of Their own potential. This competition for attention and adoration comes with the price of service by the humans, but with the reward of enlighten ment for those who can see the Divine spark in the actions of the spirits. Such feats of attention are meant to be examples of how one can live in the world, with the result being a balanced and harmonious life. We accept these examples as proof that the Divine has a plan and can bring about knowledge of our own Divine nature. But it is the lives of the spirits, those maidens and warriors that reflect our own inner divinity that we seek. By studying their exploits, emulating their choices and learning f rom their mistakes, we can find the Divine in all we do in this mundane life. That is another gift of Vodou finding our own Divinity, by seeking its reflection in the lives and loves of the Lwa. The Divine shows Him/Herself to each culture in a way that the culture can understand, have faith in and incorporate into its daily life in the context of which they
circumstantially live. In other words, the religion reflects the society that gave rise to it. Just as in the Old Testament, where God's voice/ me ssage was heard through Angels, in Vodou those Angels are called Lwa. You learn their names, their purpose, their preferred offerings and ways to engage with them for the betterment of yourself, your family and your community. In return, the Lwa and thei r stories offer wisdom, guidance, and inspiration for you to draw upon each day. house is its own autonomous collective. But underscoring all Vodou sosyetes is what is known as Reglemen the order of service, songs and drum beats; the manner in which rituals and ceremonies are performed; the dances that are offered to the Lwa for their entertainment and pleasure. Depending on where on the island you go, the services are similar yet different, reflecting the make up of the African populations from ancient times. Along with the dominant styles of a given location, the Spirits themselves have their own styles, wants and desires, making these things known among the servitors of a particular house. These wishes are then incorporated into the dances, the praise poems and veves, giving each Vodou sosyete its own particular stylistic take on the Reglemen of Vodou. Thus, when speaking of Vodou, one cannot make find a rigid system of b elief, because to do so would exclude the very soul of the religion and its colorful, inclusive nature. Vodou includes, it does not exclude. Vodou is not magic, but it does offer a path in which you can physically touch God and the Lwa. That is what brou ght me to the faith: proof, in physical form, that God lives and is willing to personally show His face to me through His messengers, the Lwa. I like a
religion that allows me to have conversation with the angels. But you have got to have faith that what In order for you to give yourself over to the beauty inherent in Vodou, you must first forget what the media and society has drilled into the public consciousness that Vodou is evil, diabolic or jus t plain old hocus pocus. Secondly, you must learn the history of Haiti, the Sugar Kingdom of the Caribbean and home of the enslaved Africans who came to create this faith for themselves. The remarkable gift of Vodou was to create a religion that 21 diver se nations of people could understand, grasp and more importantly, believe in wholeheartedly. No other religion can make this claim of unity through diversity. And lastly, clear your head, make a commitment to yourself that this path is relevant to your life, and have faith. I will try to explain to you the high points of Vodou as I work with them daily. I am a mambo asogwe the highest rank that one can hold in Vodou. It is the rank of service to the spirits, to my sosyete and to the community at la rge. It is my oath as a priest to be of service. I make this book an offering to Legba, the great gate keeper, to open the way for your journey that it may be filled with wonder, awe and inspiration. That you find the truth you seek. And that togethe r, we become more than author and reader, but family, as Vodou has always done: uniting strangers in faith, making families out of people who are not related by blood, but by respect, honor and most importantly love. Mambo Vye Zo Komande La Menfo Daginen