What is Vodou?

From The VODOU Page (http://members.aol.com/racine125/index1.html)

Vodou is a spiritual tradition which originated in Haiti during the period of French colonial slavery. Early in the colonial history of Hispaniola, the island now shared by Haiti and 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, primarily 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 Vodou ritual. Later, France established hegemony over Haiti and imported Africans primarily but not exclusively from those regions of Africa colonized by France. During this historical period, Europeans from France and other countries, including pro-Stuart deportees from Scotland, settled in Haiti.

Because so many lineages were represented, no one particular African service could satisfy all participants, especially since reverence for ancestral lines was so important. Therefore, each "nation" would take it's turn at a gathering. This "take turns" approach eventually evolved into the ceremonial order of the Vodou liturgy. During this formative period, European pre-Christian entities such as Brigid, or Maman Brigitte in the Vodou tradition; and influences from the native Taino and Carib populations were also absorbed.

There are denominations in Vodou, just as in many other religions. The first, and most widely known, is the orthodox Vodou. In this denomination, the Dahomean rite is given a position of primacy, and initiations are conducted 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 Vodou, Yoruban lines are also given prominence. Other "nations" or lines than the Dahomean are represented as sub-headings in the ceremonial order. This rite is widely represented in Haiti, and concentrated in Port-au-Prince and in the south of Haiti.

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, sometimes as a sorciere, sorceress. (The terms bokor and sorciere are considered pejorative in the orthodox Vodou, and bokor can also refer to an uninitiated specialist in malevolent magic, also called malfacteur. Such individuals are not clergy in any denomination.) The Makaya liturgy is less uniform from peristyle to peristyle than the orthodox Vodou, and there is a stronger emphasis on magic as opposed to religion. This rite is present in Port-au-Prince, and strongly represented in the Artibonite Valley in central Haiti.

A third denomination is the Kongo rite. As the name implies, it is almost exclusively representative of the Kongo tradition. The initiation follows the Kongo model. A priest or priestess of this line is called a serviteur. (In orthodox Vodou, a serviteur is merely one who serves the lwa, the dieties of Vodou.) This rite is concentrated near Gonaives in central Haiti, and a major annual Kongo festival is held every year in Sucrie near Gonaives.

All of these traditions have several points in common: There is only one God, called Gran Met, or Great Master; and also Bondye, from the French Bon Dieu, Good God. There are lesser entities are called lwa, and though they vary from rite to rite, they are all considered immediately accessible through the mechanism of spirit possession. Possession in the context of a ceremony is considered normal, natural, and highly desirable, however there is a certain "etiquette" to possession which will be discussed later. All rites employ prayer, song, drumming, costume, and dancing during ceremonies.

Who may participate in Vodou?

Anyone may participate in Vodou. There are no gender, racial, age, sexual orientation, or national origin requirements, neither is anyone asked to renounce a pre-existing religious affiliation. In Haiti, the vast majority of Vodouisants are also Roman Catholics.

There are various levels of participation, of course, just as in most other religions. A Vodou ceremony is public, and anyone may enter the peristyle, or temple, and observe. Singing and dancing are encouraged. Because there is no centralized hierarchy paying salaries to Houngans and Mambos, and because a peristyle 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 which is offered to the participants, and the general upkeep of the peristyle and of the Houngan or Mambo in charge. This is often hard to understand for people raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where priests, ministers, and rabbis are salaried professionals.

Individuals who have an initiatory grade may participate in private ceremonies pertaining to other individuals of thier 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 competent to do so.

There has been quite a bit of controversy in the United States in recent years over ethnic affiliation and participation in African-derived religions. Some unscrupulous Houngans or Mambos in Haiti will take advantage of the ignorance of a foreigner, perform bogus ceremonies, and charge exorbitant rates. Others have an unspoken understanding that they will not reveal the "secret" knowledge of Vodou, meaning correct information and initiation, to a non-black non-Haitian. However, other Houngans and Mambos hold the view that people are chosen by the lwa, and not the other way around - and that therefore 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 reticence on the part of the officiating Houngan or Mambo. I have even seen a Houngan vigorously defend his non-Haitian candidate, and refuse all suggestions that he "rip off" the person.

Having said that, I would note that respect for African and Western Hemisphere black people is incumbent on all who would study or follow the Vodou tradition. Let us never forget that uncounted numbers of African men and women were flogged, raped, tortured, castrated, and burned alive in an effort to eradicate the Vodou. Vodou supported the impetus for the resistance to French colonial slavery, and fueled the only succesful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere, which led to the birth of the hemisphere's first independant black republic. Even as recently as the United States military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, a systematic effort was made to eradicate Vodou. Temples were burned, priceless ancient drums destroyed, and Houngans and Mambos beaten, imprisoned, and murdered.

Names and grades of Initiatory Levels in Vodou

There are a series of levels of initiation in orthodox Vodou, usually achieved sequentially as an individual grows in knowledge and standing in the Vodou community. All levels of initiation are open to men and women.

An uninitiated person who attends ceremonies, receives counsel and medical treatment from a Houngan or Mambo, and takes part in Vodou related activities is called a Vodouisant. This is a general term, like "Christian" or "Buddhist".

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. Hounsi is from the Fon language of Dahomey, and signifies "bride of the spirit", although the term in Haiti refers to men and women. Bossale means "wild" or "untamed", in the sense of an untamed saddle horse.

The first grade of initiation confers the title hounsi kanzo. Kanzo, also from the Fon, refers to fire, and the fire ceremony, also called kanzo, gives it's name to the entire initiatory cycle. Individuals who are kanzo might be likened to confirmed members of a Christian denomination. At a Vodou ceremony, the hounsis kanzo wear white clothing, form the choir, and are likely candidates for possession by a lwa.

The second grade of initiation is referred to as si pwen, sur point in French. This term refers to the fact that the individual undergoes further ceremonies, "on the point" or on the patronage, of a particular lwa. The person is then considered to be a Houngan or Mambo, and is permitted to use the asson, or sacred rattle emblematic of priesthood. 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 inevitable candidates for possession. Once intitiated sur point, they may initiate other individuals as kanzo senp (simple kanzo) or as sur point.

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, as they can consecrate other priests. 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 a lwa is present and manifest through the mechanism 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 emblematic of priesthood, meaning that they, and they alone, can confer the asson on another individual, thereby elevating that individual in turn to the status of asogwe.

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 Vodou ceremony where all Houngans and Mambos, sur point and asogwe, participate in a series of ritual gestures and embraces which serve to elucidate and regulate these relationships.