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Haitian Vodou: Introduction
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Hello and welcome to the wonderful world of Vodou, an honest and fulfilling path that may just be the one you have been searching for. If you’re lucky enough it may have been searching for you! It isn’t unusual to hear that once one has found their spirituality, they realize that the signs were there all along. Anyway, if it’s a closeness with nature, an empathic connection to those around you, and the ability to optimize all aspects of your life that you are after, you are on the right track.
However, before muscling our way into another cultures traditions and practices, I believe it is important to have a brief understanding of how those traditions were shaped, and the trials and experiences that have befallen that nation. Now that I have said that, I can already see you hovering your mouses over the close tab button, but I urge you to continue! Any history of Haiti will be summed up and tied off in this introduction. A more in depth knowledge is encouraged, but I’m not going to force feed you. A history of Haiti article will be made available in the near future.
Christopher Columbus,I’m sure you’ve heard of him, found himself on a Spanish endorsed voyage that landed him on an island that he named Hispaniola. As you can imagine, he was over the moon when he noticed that the natives surrounded themselves with beautiful golden ornaments. He had promised the Spanish royalty a return of wealth and riches, those ideals being smashed when he realized the only gold on the island was those in their ornate statues. The Haitians did have a hell of a lot of rich farm land though…
One way or another, this resulted in the slavery of the Haitian people, those slaves being driven by more slaves bought over from the evermore prominent, Africa. The only people exempt from slavery were the ‘people of the cloth,’ more modernly known as Christians and Muslims. Despite the awful situation they were in, they used their few days off a year to remember the old rituals, songs and dances of their homelands. This soon resulted in a merging of many African traditions and practices.
Of course, the practices were coined as Satanic, and so were shortly after banned from practice. Just as they had before, the African people stood strong and instead of giving up their faith because of the situation they were in, they adapted their faith to that situation. The guardian Legba became St. Lazarus and Ezili Freda became The Virgin Mary. Under the veil of Catholicism the African traditions and the worship of Vodou (Good God) were safe, and sure to survive the coming trials. Time passed, strict laws of religion fizzled out, and the Haitian people were left to practice whichever rituals they wished in anyway they wish, and their original pantheon returned to the forefront.
It is Vodou, from this point onwards, that I will be writing about in this series.
When most people hear the word voodoo, they often instantly think of dolls used to harm and control others. The Voodoo Doll, while it does exist, was originally intended for healing, love spells and other assorted magics. The doll is first crafted in the image of the patient/ client, then a pin could be stuck in certain parts of the doll to kill infections or cure certain ailments; it is practically an indirect (and much simpler) way of performing acupuncture. For love spells, the doll would once again be crafted in the clients image, then placed on an alter alongside Ezili Freda (Spirit), and other love associated items, so that the doll and the client can absorb the loving energies. Of course, it didn’t take long for some to take this idea and use it to restrict, control, and harm. This is not a reflection on the Haitian traditions, this is a reflection of humanity. The knife was first crafted to build homes and hunt food, then later became an object involved in killing other humans. The cold realisation is that dolls do not harm people… People harm people.
Animal sacrifice has always been an active practice in Vodou, but not in the same violent, seeded way the movies like to make out. In fact, it is very different to that. In Haiti, freshly prepared meat is not readily available at supermarkets and corner shops like it is in our civilisations. So at celebrations and special occasions they take one or two animals from their livestock and kill them in a religious manner, sharing the food with their families, villages and spirits. The skin is often used to fashion whatever the skins can make, and the bones are used to craft many different items that can be traded or sold to help the nation survive. Basically, hardly a scrap of that animal is left without purpose, and it is no less humane than any ‘normal’ way of preparing food. It is important to know, however, that if a person like you or me were to offer animal sacrifices to the spirits, they would not be impressed. It would be an offence to the Haitians, the spirits, and their entire culture to attempt to recreate their living conditions, when we are sheltered inside our homes with well stocked cupboards. That act would be worlds apart from the actions of the Hatian practitioners, that merely turn a not so nice practice into an experience that can be shared with the spirits of their pantheon.
In Vodou there are two types of practitioners:
The Houngan & The Mambo; Practitioners of white magics, such as healing and honouring ancestors to bring good fortune etc.
The Bokor & Caplata; Practitioners of black magics, often referred to as ‘left handed Vodun’ that specialise in control, manipulation and the like, such as raising the dead.
There is much information about Vodou zombies on the internet, and the likeliness is that most of these stories are born from superstition. However in my experience with Vodou, a lot that I’d usually cast off as superstition has shocked me to the point that my whole belief system has been turned upside down. I’m not so sure, but that is just me. At the very least it is an interesting way to spend an hour, and I do encourage you to read around if you are interested. The zombies are said to appear vacant in their eyes and be void of all expression, have lost all human memories and are doomed to live under the command of their master. There are certain men in Haiti that have raised armies that are said to share the characteristics of these zombies, and it is widely thought that those men are left-handed vodun that specialise in zombification.
Isn't Vodou Dangerous?
When practiced incorrectly, yes it can be. This is one of the most important parts of this article, and if you don’t take note on how to work with the Haitian spirits correctly you can be met with quite a shock. These spirits, as you will learn in the coming series, are very different from your usual Pagan gods. These spirits work closely with us, and failure to maintain our bonds with them is sure to draw us some negative attention. Below I have outlined the most important rule to take note of!
The spirits of Vodou are different to the archetypal forces often invoked in pagan magics, in that they do not respond to a charged chant and a few ribbons wrapped around a tea light. They are personalised, they are in your lives and they like to bargain. A gift shall be given in exchange for something else. Legba may be offered a cup of black coffee in exchange for help with perfecting a trade, or Ogou may be offered a spearhead to help you fight back against bullies. But, never ask for something in exchange for something else, if you have no intention on fulfilling your end of the bargain. Each spirit has their own ideas of payback, and while you will mainly be working with the Rada Lwa (cool spirits), they are still inclined to get a little offended and dish back some sort of revenge. The best defence against this is to not do it! Don’t threat, however, for each Vodou spirit is going to have his/her own article, outlining safe ways in how to honour them and work alongside them.
Vodouisants believe that there is one supreme God, a creator God just like that in Catholicism, however they differ in that they believe this God is inaccessible by any human, priest or otherwise. They believe that God created the Universe, then left the running of the Earth to the spirits(angels). Any prayers to God have to first be given to a messenger spirit that may or may not relay it to him. The only groups of spirits we will be regarding in the coming series are The Rada Lwa and The Petwo Lwa, and that's purely because these spirits are enough for the uninitiated practitioner of Vodou.
The Rada Lwa
The Rada Lwa are the cooler, more easy to work with spirits of Vodou. Most of them are accessible to those that have not been initiated into any priesthood, and because of this have become very popular in modern Paganism. They will generally lend their services to anyone willing to bargain, and bad practice is easily forgiven most of the time.
The Petwo Lwa
The Petwo Lwa are much less forgiving when it comes to mistakes, and hardly ever entertain anybody outside of initiation. It’s not that it is an impossibility, it’s just unlikely. These spirits guard their traditions closely, and an unknown face isn’t going to get much positive response when they come poking around and punching above their weight. They see it as insulting almost that one who has not walked the path of the Vodouisant would come asking for favours.
The Barons & The Ghede
The terminology here can get quite confusing. Ghede is the name of the family of spirits that incorporates both the Ghede and the Barons. The Ghede, within this family, are spirits of the dead. The barons are the spirits of Death. If the Barons do not give permission for your grave to be dug, you cannot die. The Ghede can be petitioned for helping with illness, preventing death, and are also known to be fiercely protective of children. Furthermore, they are frequently asked to give information as many cultures, Vodou included, believe the dead to be the custodians of all knowledge.
Has this article changed your preconceptions about Vodou at all?
Veve's are the unique symbols of each spirit, and can be the most elaborate and beautiful aspects of Haitian Vodou if your creativity allows it. They can also be simple carvings in the mud. Typically the Veve is drawn before a ritual that involves the desired spirit, and acts as a physical manifestation of themselves, a path in which they can cross the veil. These Veve's can be rubbed out, destroyed, or put away once you are done with your ritual, or can stay indefinitely on an altar dedicated to that spirit.
Candles, like most magickal traditions, play a huge part in the practice of Haitian Vodou. Traditionally, glass chimneys are elaborately decorated with Veves and placed around pillar candles in order to represent a certain spirit. You can buy these, from select fair trade stores, however you can create the same sort of effect with an empty wine bottle that has its neck and bottom removed.
Certain drinks are poured on the floor, or into a glass (if inside) to call to certain spirits. Some of these include rum, wine, coffee, water etc... Usually, you would buy a whole bottle of the desired drink and dedicate the whole thing to the purpose of calling the spirits. However, if you wish to build a close relationship with these spirits, it may feel right to pour yourself a little glass and drink as an equal. Once your spirit has departed, tip the fluid onto the floor outside. Never keep it or tip it down the sink.
A Vodou flag is usually square, contains a fringe, and is representational of a single spirit. These representations can include Catholic Saint Images, and/ or the veve of the spirit. If the catholic imagery doesn't work for you, you may find other images of people that represent certain spirits to you. These banners can be printed or painted on to cloth or paper, or stitched elaborately with beautiful beading and colourful sequins. The choice is yours. You can buy these from many shops, due to their popularity in tourism. just search 'Vodou Flag.' Of course, you can make your own.
Scarves are traditionally worn around the head by one or more individuals during ritual in order to declare themselves as the vessel for possession. I personally have not witnessed or tried this, and I advise against it. These practitioners are qualified by the priesthood and surrounded by hundreds of practitioners at the time. It is extremely unlikely that any of the Lwa would try to possess an unprepared practitioner anyway.
Elaborate drum sequences have been created over the years in order to cleanse the area, build energy during ritual and set the mood for the whole night! They have been used since the beginning of their invention and will more than likely be an art handed down for many years to come. You can learn Vodou drumming, but unless you are very lucky you would probably have to go to Haiti. Many C.D's and videos are available to purchase and view online, and you can play these during your personal rituals for mood setting, or to call a specific spirit.
Statues & Images
As I have previously referenced, Catholic imagery is used very regularly to represent the individual Lwa spirits, however you can pick and choose images and statues at your disposal, providing they have a meaning to you. If you see a small wooden carving of an old man and a cane you may instantly think of Legba, and in that case would most certainly be an object worth using. The spirits will only respond to something that you place personal belief in, and so you should only ever do what feels right to you!
An alter is set up to honour a particular spirit. It usually contains statues and images of the spirit, along with choice items that please them. Constructing an alter shows your dedication and alerts your presence to them. Sitting with them for a few minutes a day will often ensure that they watch over and guide you every minute of your life. For example, when sat at the alter, a simple thought such as “I’d love to have more money so I could buy you some nicer perfume,” will result in some sort of monetary increase. Once a relationship is built between you and these spirits, magic really is that easy.
To sum up, Vodou is no practice for the dabbler, but can be hugely fulfilling to those that dedicate themselves to the ancient saints. Should you wish to try it out and see what you think, I’d personally suggest working with Legba, the most lenient, socialised spirit, before any other. That being said, reading the next articles in this series will direct you in how to work with each individual Rada and Petwo Lwa.
When made a regular part of your life, you will find that these spirits work hard to put opportunity and positivity before you, and all you need to do to please them is sit at their alter for a few minutes a day and pour them a drink. See them as grandparents, they are loving, generous, and kind. All they ask in return is attention. Honouring these spirits, just like visiting your grandparents, often results in a positive outcome. On that note, I thank you for reading this article and wish you much success in the future. May the spirits guide you wisely.