What The Lwa Say -

and What They DON'T Say

COPYRIGHT 1996 - Mambo Racine Sans Bout

No reproduction without consent of author

A Houngan, Mambo, hounsi, or uninitiated individual who appears to undergo possession is not as revered in Haiti as one would think! The putative possession is often regarded with some healthy skepticism at the outset, and there are a few things which clearly mark the possession as phony. One of these is when the putative lwa comes forward and advocates for the Houngan's or Mambo's personal interests.

For example, let us say that Houngan Dahomey Kombley and Farmer Djo Blo are feuding over a piece of land, to which both men claim title. The argument becomes more and more bitter, until one day Houngan Dahomey Kombley throws himself on the ground, and then rises, supposedly possessed by Ogoun Feraille or Baron Kriminel or whoever. The supposed lwa intones, "Beware, Farmer Djo Blo! The land belongs to my horse, Bon Houngan Dahomey Kombley. I am Master Ogoun Feraille, and I have a message for you! If you do not immediately allow Houngan Dahomey Kombley to plant that land you will suffer and the lwa will punish you!"

By this time, Farmer Djo Blo, far from quaking before the august presence of Ogoun Feraille, is laughing so hard his sides ache! Why? Because the lwa do not take up the personal issues of their mounts, that's why! Houngan Dahomey Kombley has merely made a fool of himself.

The personality of the lwa and the personality of the "horse", the possessed person, are different - they are two different entities and may have very dissimilar likes and dislikes. Let me give an example from my personal experience. I have, as I have noted before, a Native American personal lwa, the spirit of a woman who was responsible for a good deal of land situated around Mount Toby in central Massachusetts. She is very popular among my aquaintances in Haiti, especially my friends in the country, since she concerns herself a great deal with crop fertility. One day, in the Marche en Fer in downtown Port-au-Prince, I found a pair of beautiful tcha-tchas (maracas) decorated with faces - eyes, nose, mouth, very realistic, and in the preferred colors of this lwa. I bought them for her, took them home, cleaned them, and had a friend of mine present them to her when I called her. Imagine my dismay when, after the possession was over, my friend reported, "The Reine Indienne said, 'Those things are hideously ugly and I forbid my horse to keep them in this house!' ". Oh well!

Another group of lwa which have been misrepresented by phony clergy in the USA recently are the lwa of the dead, Baron, Maman Brigitte, and the Ghede lwa. It is true that all these lwa very often use a great deal of profanity. BUT, this profanity is not used to "curse someone out". It is used in a humorous manner, and usually refers to sexual intercourse or to genital organs. Baron never, ever says things like, "this f*cking person, those f*cking white people", or other vicious or racist insults. In fact, Baron always addresses women with the prefix bel fanm, beautiful woman, and men with the prefix gason, man. Sometimes he, Maman Brigitte, or a Ghede will address someone compassionately as peche, sinner, but this does not mean that the person is a worse sinner than anyone else - we are all sinners.

Here is an example of typical profanity used by Baron :

Many years ago, when I first went to Haiti, I didn't really understand about lwa. I thought they were like unto God herself! One day I tumbled across a Baron (or maybe a Ghede, I'm not sure), and I promptly got on my knees and said something along the lines of, "Oh great and good lwa! Oh mighty and powerful lwa! Look upon me, your humble servant, and know that I worship and adore you!", and so on and so forth. (Now, by way of explanation let me note that I wear eyeglasses, linet in Creole. The word for "clitoris" in Creole is langyet.)

The Baron, unaccustomed to such obeisances I am sure, looked at me skeptically, and said, "Oh, bel fanm, aba ou gen doub langyet nan figi ou!", meaning, "Oh, beautiful woman, behold you have a double clitoris in your face!". Needless to say, this pun on linet and langyet did not exactly please me, but the people around us roared with laughter, and well they might have!

I have also heard Barons refer to trucks stuck in traffic on a narrow road as "a big penis stuck in a tight vagina", and other humorous references. I have never heard a Baron, a Ghede, or a Brigitte use vicious abuse to any person or group of people.

There are also certain lwa who are mute, who never speak under any circumstances. One such lwa, in the Rada group, is Dambala. Dambala is a serpent, and as such he does not speak. A person possessed by Dambala immediately falls to the ground and crawls, like a snake. The possessed person may climb trees, or the centerpost of the peristyle, without using their hands, because a snake does not have hands. Like a snake, too, Dambala will eat a raw egg, and sip milk. In her book, "The Divine Horsemen", the late Maya Deren described a typical possession by Dambala.

I have in Haiti an uninitiated friend named Mortel, who is nevertheless quite gifted in card reading, and who has an entire two-room house dedicated to the service of the lwa and filled with ceremonial objects. One day we were laughing at the behavior of a girl who had claimed possession by Dambala in the previous evening's ceremony, and then got up and walked around the peristyle, speaking to people present. The onlookers couldn't help laughing, and the next morning as we sat together, the young woman passed by in the street.

"I don't know who you are," said Mortel to her. "If you crawl, you can be Dambala if you want, but if you stand up and talk, I don't know who in all Guinea you are!"

Another lwa who never speaks in words is Erzulie Dantor. She says, "Ke-ke-ke-ke-ke-ke!", and "Te-te-te-te-te-te-te!", and she points at what she wants. If she desires marriage with a person present, she grabs them, and points to her ring finger, and back to the person, and says, "KE-KE-KE-KE-KE!" There is even a bit of folklore that says Erzulie Dantor's tongue has been cut out, although I am not familiar with the details of that story.

Certain American wannabe-Mambos or wannabe-Houngans, who do not speak Creole and who have not spent any appreciable time in Haiti, fake possession by these lwa and then behave uncharacteristically. These phony possessions are immediately obvious to experienced, competent, genuine Houngans and Mambos. Usually these phony possessions are coupled with dire predictions of misfortune for one or more spectators, if they do not immediately undergo expensive ceremonies. This is nothing short of charlatanism! It is vile, and it is no service at all to the Vodou.

One particularly aggressive wannabe-Mambo has been reported as actually trying to injure spectators with whom she personally is angry, during her phony possessions. In Haiti, if a person who behaves as if possessed injures someone, then that person is arrested by the police, and punished! This prevents people faking possession and injuring personal enemies, and then excusing themselves on the grounds that "the lwa made me do it".

The lwa and the ancestors love us! Any sort of violent, mean, or hateful behavior is an immediate mark of fraud! Sometimes a lwa will chide a person for wrong behavior, and certain lwa can indeed be invoked to perform aggressive magic. But that magic is performed immaterially - the lwa involved does not possess someone, and then walk up to a person and attack them!

Without enough time spent in Haiti and without correct training, a person claiming falsely to be a Houngan or Mambo will not know this, and their phony possessions become doubly obvious.