VODOU: Out Of The Past…

“Self Hate Will End… When Knowledge Of Self Begins. However Long The Night – The Dawn Will Break”

The word derives from an Ayizo word referring to “mysterious forces or powers that govern the world and the lives of those who reside within it, but also a range of artistic forms that function in conjunction with these vodou energies. In the historical consciousness of the Haitians Vodou has an extraordinary meaning and as well played a role in Bois Kayiman, and in the ensuing revolution. This has made the vodou into a kind of national religion of Haiti. Thus today Vodou has a certain military symbolism, which is not found in other Afro-American religions.

In Haiti, practitioners occasionally use “Vodou” to refer to Haitian religion generically, but it is more common for practitioners to refer to themselves as those who “serve the spirits”

Vodou was made the official religion of Haiti. Priests and Priestesses in Haiti now have the same rights as their Catholic counterparts. They may perform formal marriages, baptisms and conduct funerals. A few years ago Vodou was recognized by the pope as a separate religion, because Vodou priest have healed so many people and their healing power has become very well known.

In this central core of vodou worship is Loa Oracle – Ancestral worship and Reincarnation. Vodou believers understand the soul not as a compact unity, but divide it into two parts, the Ti-bon-ange vital spark & conscience & the Gros-bon-ange  immortal soul, also can be equated to the ego. After physical death it returns to the underworld of the minds. Together these parts formed the mind and the soul of a living person.

Vodou is popularly described as not simply a religion, but rather an experience that ties body and soul together. The concept of tying that exists in Haitian religious culture is derived from the Congolese tradition of kanga, the practice of tying one’s soul to something tangible.

Vodouisants believe in a Supreme God called Bondye. When it came in contact with Roman Catholicism, the Supreme Creator was associated with the Christian God, and the loa associated with the saints. Since Bondye (God) is considered unreachable, Vodouisants aim their prayers to lesser entities, the spirits known as Loa, or Mistè. The most notable loa include Papa Legba  (crossroads), Erzulie Freda (spirit of love), Simbi (spirit of rain and magicians), Kouzin Zaka (spirit of agriculture), and The Marasa, divine twins considered to be the first children of Bondye.

Vodou moral code focuses on the vices of dishonor and greed. There is also a notion of relative propriety—and what is appropriate to someone with Dambala Wedo as their head may be different from someone with Ogou Feray as their head. For example, one spirit is very cool and the other is very hot. Coolness overall is valued, and so is the ability and inclination to protect oneself and one’s own if necessary. Love and support within the family of the Vodou society seem to be the most important considerations. Generosity in giving to the community and to the poor is also an important value. One’s blessings come through the community, and one should be willing to give back.

There is a diversity of practice in Vodou across the country of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. For instance, in the north of Haiti, the lave tèt (“head washing”) or kanzwe may be the only initiation, whereas in Port-au-Prince and the south they practice the kanzo rites with three grades of initiation – kanzo senp, si pwen, and asogwe – and the latter is the most familiar mode of practice outside Haiti.

A Haitian Vodou temple is called an Hounfour. After a day or two of preparation setting up altars at an Hounfour, ritually preparing and cooking fowl and other foods, etc. Haitian Vodou service begins with a series of prayers and songs in French, then a litany in Kreyòl and African “langaj” that goes through all the European and African Saints and Loa honored by the house, and then a series of verses for all the main spirits of the house. This is called the “Priyè Gine” or the African Prayer. After more introductory songs, beginning with saluting Hounto, the spirit of the drums, the songs for all the individual spirits are sung, starting with the Legba family through all the Rada spirits, then there is a break and the Petro part of the service begins, which ends with the songs for the Gede family.

Vodou practitioners believe that if one follows all taboos imposed by their particular Loa and is punctilious about all offerings and ceremonies, the Loa will aid them. Vodou practitioners also believe that if someone ignores their Loa it can result in sickness, the failure of crops, the death of relatives, and other misfortunes. Animals are sometimes sacrificed in Haitian Vodou. A variety of animals are sacrificed, such as pigs, goats, chickens, and bulls.

“The intent and emphasis of sacrifice is not upon the death of the animal, it is upon the transfusion of its life to the Loa; for the understanding is that flesh and blood are of the essence of life and vigor, and these will restore the divine energy of the god”.

On the individual’s household level, a Vodouizant or “sèvitè” may have one or more tables set out for their ancestors and the spirit or spirits that they serve with pictures or statues of the spirits, perfumes, foods, and other things favored by their spirits. The most basic set up is just a white candle and a clear glass of water and perhaps flowers. On a particular spirit’s day, one lights a candle and salutes Papa Legba and asks him to open the gate, and then one salutes and speaks to the particular spirit as an elder family member.

In a Vodou home, often, the only recognizable religious items are images of saints and candles with a rosary. In other homes, where people may more openly show their devotion to the spirits, noticeable items may include an altar with Catholic saints , rosaries, bottles, jars, rattles, perfumes, oils, and dolls. Some Vodou devotees have less paraphernalia in their homes because until recently Vodou practitioners had no option but to hide their beliefs. Haiti is a rural society and the cult of ancestors guard the traditional values of the peasant class. The ancestors are linked to family life and the land. Haitian peasants serve the spirits daily and sometime gather with their extended family on special occasions for ceremonies, which may celebrate the birthday of a spirit or a particular event. In very remote areas, people may walk for days to partake in ceremonies that take place as often as several times a month. Vodou is closely tied to the division and administration of land as well as to the residential economy. The cemeteries and many crossroads are meaningful places for worship: the cemetery acts as a repository of spirits and the crossroads acts as points of access to the world of the invisible.

Houngan (Male Priest) or Mambo (Female Priestess) are usually people who were chosen by the dead ancestors and received the divination from the deities while he or she was possessed. His or her tendency is to do good by helping and protecting others from spells, however they sometimes use their supernatural power to hurt or kill people. They also conduct ceremonies that usually take place “Amba Peristil” (under a Vodou Temple).  There are clergy in Haitian Vodou whose responsibility it is to preserve the rituals and songs and maintain the relationship between the spirits and the community as a whole . They are entrusted with leading the service of all of the spirits of their lineage. Sometimes they are “called” to serve in a process called “being reclaimed”, which they may resist at first. Below the Houngans and Mambos are the Hounsis, who are initiates who act as assistants during ceremonies and who are dedicated to their own personal mysteries.

The Asson (calabash rattle) is the symbol for one who has acquired the status of Houngan or Mambo (priest or priestess) in Haitian Vodou. The calabash is taken from the calabash courante or calabash ordinaire tree which is associated with Danbalah-Wédo. A Houngan or Mambo traditionally holds the Asson in their hand along with a clochette (bell). Inside of the Asson are stones and snake vertebrae which give the Asson its sound. The Asson is covered with a web of porcelain beads.

A “Bokor” is a sorcerer or magician who casts spells upon request. They are not necessarily priests, and may be practitioners of “darker” things and often not even accepted by the mambo or the houngan. Or, a “Bokor” would be the Haitian term for a Vodou priest or other, working both the light and dark arts of magic.

Vodou mythology is a fascinating hybrid of Yoruba, Fon, Congo and Christian mythology intermixed with touches from Caribbean belief systems. Haiti is the central location of the Vodou belief system but naturally it has spread throughout the world as have other faiths.

These Loa can be divided into 21 nations, which include the Petro, Rada, Congo, and Nago. Each of the loa is associated with a particular Roman Catholic saint. The Loa also fall into family groups who share a surname, such as Ogou, Ezili, Azaka or Ghede. For instance, “Ezili” is a family, Ezili Danto and Ezili Freda are two individual spirits in that family. Each family is associated with a specific aspect, for instance the Ogou family are soldiers, the Ezili govern the feminine spheres of life, the Azaka govern agriculture, the Ghede govern the sphere of death and fertility…

In Haiti Vodou Legba is worshiped in two different forms: as a child or as a hunched fragile old man. Both these forms express his speed and unpredictable behavior. He is seen as a cheater but also as a messenger of destiny. He is a rebellious child and a wise man at the same time. In some myths Legba is a thief as he has stolen the secrets of gods and gave them to people. Every ritual starts with invoking him and ends by saying goodbye to him. This is because he is the guardian of the door, therefore the contact with him enables better communication with other gods. During the ritual he is acting as a messenger of gods as he is translating the words of gods into human language. Those who died can return back to the world of living people if they obtain Legba’s blessing.

Legba or Elegba, Eshu: God of Crossroads, Singer, Fighter, Guardian of the door into the spiritual sphere.

 The Haitians defeated the French during the Haitian revolution 1804. And Haiti was the only slave colony that took  back their freedom & became the first independent black nation in the west. They fought tooth and nail for their land and freedom.

7 thoughts on “VODOU: Out Of The Past…”

  1. Oh I love this! It always amazes me how so many choose to partake in such deep spiritual paths. I felt this article on many levels. Thank you for taking the time to share so much.

  2. Thank you Chief Yagbe for your vast knowledge and sharing. It is wonderful how you are constantly enlightening us , and it is very well appreciated.

    1. Alafia Baba Yagbe Awolowo Onilu, Igive thanks 4 you in your infinite wisdom…..The information contained in your text, gave me a sense of purification 2 my Ori, knowledge 2 my Spirit, Ancestral Culture 4 my Soul.Thank you for your guidance on my journey 2 SELF Awareness. May your cumulative enlightenment continue to assist your children 2 seek more 2 become stronger in faith …….love and Peace.

  3. Thank you. So often Haitian vodou is not described clearly. Your description makes it possible for those of other African traditions to see the value and correspondences.

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