More About Haitian Vodou
by Houngan Kay Aboudja
A primer about Haitian Vodou, written by Hougan Aboudja, one of the most knowledgeable Vodou Priests on the Orthodox Haitian Vodou Tradition.
A primer about Haitian Vodou, written by Hougan Aboudja, one of the most knowledgeable Vodou Priests on the Orthodox Haitian Vodou Tradition. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that Hougan Aboudja is indeed a walking encyclopedia on this misunderstood and complex Vodou Religion. If you visit Erzulie's you will more than likely catch him on the famed "Voodoo Couch" clarifying and correcting the many misconceptions people debate and discuss in the store! We thank Hougan Aboudja for his time, knowledge and filling in every blank possible on Haitian Vodou.
What is Vodou & where does it come from?
Vodou (also spelled Voodoo, Vaudoux, Vodun, Voudou & Vaudon), commonly known as Sevis Ginea or "Ginea (African) service", is the traditional religion & culture of the Haitian people. Some people use the term "Voodoo" to include any & all African-based diasporic religious traditions as they have survived in the West (such as Santeria/Lukumi in Cuba, Candomble & Umbanda in Brazil, etc.), but this is completely inaccurate & misleading. The word Vodou identifies a very specific set of similarly related traditional practices only. In addition to Vodou as it is practiced in Haiti, there is also Vodun in Africa, which remains the "parent" or root religion of Haitian Vodou, though its contemporary form is no longer what it was during the time of the Atlantic slave trade. The two traditions have evolved independent of each other for the past 250 years. There is also Voodoo or Hoodoo (a variant form of Afro-based magical practice) as it exists in the Southern United States.
For our purposes, we will briefly define Vodou as it is practiced in Haiti, for this is the tradition of Hougan Kay Aboudja, & the focus of this article.
The word Vodou comes from the Fon language of Dahomey (present day Benin) & translates roughly as "Spirit". The Vodou religion is an amalgamation of several African traditions that arrived in the hearts & minds of the slaves beginning around the year 1522, continuing up to the revolution in 1791, & continuing to evolve in almost complete isolation until 1860. Its geographic origins come from three separate sources: The first & greatest source is of course Mother Africa, principally the Fon traditions of old Dahomey (& to a lesser degree, the neighboring Nago traditions from present day Yoruba-Land or Nigeria), & the traditions of the Bantu speaking peoples of the Kongo basin. The second source are those traditions of Native America, principally the Taino/Arawak Indians of the island we now know as called Haiti, & elsewhere in the Caribbean. The last influences are European (which are slight) & include Catholicism (the principal liturgical & artistic influence), French Martinist Kabbalism, Spiritualism, & the traditional mysticism of the French Gypsies.
Vodou is a monotheistic religion & traditional culture whose faithful believe in a single creator God who in Haiti is commonly called Bondje (from the French Bon Dieux, or "Good God"). Beneath this Ultimate source of creation is a host of lesser divinities called Lwa (Loas), a Kreyolized word of dubious etymology. It probably arrives from any one of several Ewe dialects all denoting similar ideas such as "mystery", "law", or the like. Vodou believes that Bondje is a remote & largely impersonal force, too remote to concern Him/Her/It-self with the daily problems of mankind. It is the Lwa (Loas) then who intercede in the life of the living, healing us, protecting us, etc. The power of the Lwa (Loas) is great, but it is also finite. Only God is all-powerful.
For example, the Lwa (Loas) can protect a garden giving it a better chance to grow, but they are not responsible for the germination of the seed; that is God. The Lwa (Loas) may bring rain, but they are not responsible for water being in the sky; that is God. A few Lwa (Loas) are embodiments of natural forces such as the forest, or the sea, fire, or storm. Many Lwa (Loas) are deified ancestors. Some Lwa (Loas) represent natural forces, which historically incarnated in the flesh, died, & then became deified ancestors.
The Vodou is not just a religion, but also a culture, a way of life. In fact, it is far more appropriate & accurate to speak of "Vodou Culture", than of the "Vodou Religion". This is a complete socio-cultural system inseparable from the way of life for its faithful, one capable of answering any & all questions we might face in life. It is a familial oriented tradition, a joyous & celebratory tradition. Outsiders come to the Vodou for all manner of issues. Vodou heals; Vodou protects; Vodou solves problems, & binds people in strong, healthy family units. The Vodou is a living tradition evolving to meet the needs of its faithful, having survived for millennia in one form or another.
So then Haitian Vodou can be defined as an African traditional religion?
Yes & no. Vodou is African in the sense that it came straight from Africa. Its metaphysics are rooted deeply in African tradition. These traditions survive in Haiti today, many of the more important ones intact & largely unadulterated. This is especially evident in the rites of initiation, called kanzo, as well as those rites for the dead. These services are easily recognizable in West Africa today in both form & function. However, because Vodou is a tradition that adapts, has adapted, to its environment through its revolutionary history & to the present day, it is arguably best described as an African-based Kreyòl religion. The ideal of spiritual & cultural inclusively & adaptation is in fact, but one more traditional African religious concept brought by our ancestors during the middle passage, & Vodou embodies this today.
Does the religion have a centralized organization in Haiti?
Like a diocese perhaps? No, not at all. As we say in Haiti, "Chak houngan, houngan lakay li" (literally, "Each Houngan [no less Manbo] is in his own house"). Vodou tradition is not monolithic. Differences in liturgy & other details do occur from house to house, & this is very apparent as one moves in Haiti from North to South. For example, one of the strongholds of Vodou tradition is the Cul-de-Sac Plaine/Artibonite Valley, the central area of Haiti that runs from Port-au-Prince North as far as Gonaives. Some traditional knowledge & liturgy appears to have been lost in the South & South-West of Haiti, & some lineage are quite watered down by comparison. Likewise, the religion is all together different in the North, & there are very historical reasons for this. However in every instance, there are elements which define what is, or isn't Vodou, & these are consistent throughout the country.
Does Vodou believe in the doctrine of reincarnation?
Yes & no. Vodou does NOT postulate a doctrine of transmigration of souls as in the Hindu religion, nor the karma-based reincarnation put forth by the modern New Age Movement.
What about magic? Is it a part of the Vodou religion?
Vodou as a religious tradition has nothing to do with magic. However, magic has everything to do with Vodou as a religious tradition. Magic is NOT a prerequisite to the practice Vodou. Rather religion & magic are "parallel realities" in the daily lives of most Vodouizan. Houngan & Manbo usually practice, or are at least familiar with, the practice of magic, but this is separate from their work with the Lwa (Loas). The Lwa (Loas) do NOT make magic, man does.
What about the use of blood sacrifice in Vodou? Is it necessary at all?
Sacrifice in the Vodou is not "Hollywoodism". There are no "blood-maddened orgies offered up to primitive tribal gods". The reality is quite tame, maybe even bordering on the boring by comparison. Offerings are made to one or more Lwa (Loas) & the resulting foodstuff is prepared to feed the assembled community. That's about it. Blood sacrifice in Vodou is wholly akin to the kosher laws of the Jewish people whereby meat is consecrated through prayer & ritual while the blood is being let by a trained slayer. Rest assured that the offering of sacrifice in Vodou is accomplished by far in a more human manner than the killing done in American slaughterhouses in order to provide the shrink-wrapped sterile piece of "meat", which Americans so love to consume.
As for the actual necessity of blood sacrifice, the answer is complex. Blood is life. All things that can be born do so in blood. Blood as a medium holds enormous power (called adjae in Vodou), power that can & should be used to good effect. Sacrifice is one of the means by which the Lwa (Loas) sustain themselves. It is a major source of their power, allowing them to effect changes in reality to our benefit. Four things sustain the religion of Vodou: Leaves, stones, water, & blood. Blood is life. This is how it was, is, & how it always shall be. Take away any one of these, & I do not know what you have, but it is not Vodou.
Does Vodou postulate the existence of a Devil or other figure of absolute evil?
First of all, Vodou is not a dualistic tradition; therefore there are no absolutes. We have no figure of absolute evil, no "antithetical god", as in the Catholic, Protestant, or Islamic faiths. The notions of good & evil are highly subjective & circumstantial. They are defined by individual action & responsibility, among other things. Evil, as a concept, is a creation of man, not of God, & thus it should not be assigned any absolute value.
Then the Vodou religion is amoral in nature?
Absolutely not! Vodou tradition is VERY moral. How morality as a concept is defined in Vodou is simply different than that commonly found in Western Culture. In Vodou, a moral person is defined as someone who "does what they can, at the appropriate time, to the degree with which they are able, & in accordance to their position in the community within which they live & work" (period). This is a simple concept, which DEMANDS of the individual full accountability for his or her own actions, guaranteeing that one cannot dodge responsibility for the same. There is no "devil made me do it" in our culture.
Do I have to be of African descent in order to practice or be initiated into the Vodou religion?
No. There has been much tension created over this issue of late in the African-based traditional communities in the United States. Where there is smoke, there is often also a fire, but as usual, people tend to mistake the former for the later. In Haiti, as in Africa, there are two ways in which one may come to the Vodou, by blood (that is to say by ancestry) & through possession (that is to say, by taking possession of a lineage…by the process of initiation). This is as it was, is, & will always be so long as the religion survives. Spirit calls people to the religion. Man has no, No, NO say so in *who* may or may not be initiated. It is the height of human arrogance to try & second-guess the will of God. In the West today, it is all but impossible to determine who has, or does not have an African lineage based solely upon skin color or physical morphology. This is why consultation with the Spirit is needed. Also, White people have been in the Vodou since its arrival in the West, & ample evidence exists to support the presence of non-Africans in these traditions even BEFORE the middle passage.
Perceived race is no barrier to adherence, or even to initiation. What matters is what Spirit has to say about the potential initiate, not what any man may think. The Lwa (Loas) see the soul, the heart of the seeker. It is this that they weigh, not their "current" skin color. The opinions of men, especially those who are uninitiated in our religion, are irrelevant!
What about Gay people?
Gay men & women can & do serve in the Vodou religion in all capacities at all grades & ranks. There is absolutely no taboo against this of any kind! There are even whole hounfò (temples) in Haiti run & supported by Gay men &/or women. As a cultural issue in Haiti, homosexuality is given little attention. As far as the Vodou religion itself is concerned, it is a non-issue all together.
Is there a basic method to practice the Vodou that does not require initiation?
Yes, but this cannot adequately be learned from books. Like all learning, this is best acquired at the foot of an elder. Although, any one of the selections you find in the Voudou book section on this site are highly recommend to learn the foundations and basic principles of Vodou!
Is the acquisition of power the goal of the Vodou?
This depends on the definition of "power" in question? Are you looking for "Power" within yourself that betters you as an individual & serves to enhance your life? Yes, absolutely that is a major goal. Are you looking for "Power" over others, to make them do your bidding, to curse your enemies, or other such nonsense? No. That is not the goal of the Vodou at all.
I need help! Why must I pay for a consultation & spiritual work? Aren't the Lwa (Loas) supposed to help everyone who needs them?
No. That is a misconception. To begin with, the spirits have never worked for "free" in any culture. There must be some sort of exchange of energy, some effort on the part of the seeker in order to gain what they are seeking. In the West, this generally means money. However, other offerings may (& often do) suffice. The second issue is that the priests who are performing these services should rightly be compensated. Vodou has no diocese to pay its priests. Many priests work full time in this capacity serving a large & diverse clientele. They must eat, pay rent, utilities, & so forth. It is only proper that they be paid. The more in demand the priest is, the more they can & often do charge..
How can I find an Houngan or Mambo near me?
This is a difficult question to answer. Competent priests are not easy to find, especially if you are not tied to the Haitian communities in either Haiti, or the Diaspora, & often operate solely by word-of-mouth. However, there are Houngan, Mambo & other dedicated practitioners all over Florida, especially in the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area, in New Jersey, New York, Boston, Montreal, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Austin, Atlanta, Oakland, etc. If you live in one of these areas, you may feel free to call the store at 504-525-2055 us as we may be able to refer you accordingly or arrange for your Vodou services here in New Orleans.
About Vodou Today
What to say about the Vodou as it is found today in Haiti & in the Diaspora?
Much has changed in the religion itself, no less in Haiti, just in the past decade since I first came in contact with it, in the 8 years since I first took initiation, & today new challenges face all those who are called the children of Ginea. Certainly, Vodou remains the fulcrum of life on both the island, and in the Diaspora, the underlying rhythm of discourse, but it is also undergoing a forced evolution of sorts from both within & without, especially regarding its politic.
More than ever before, the 90's saw an upsurge of interest in Afro-Caribbean traditions, most notably in Lukumi (Santeria), but also in Haitian Vodou as well. In New York City & Miami, hundreds of houngan & Manbo treat clients' everyday. Many non-Haitians now adhere to the faith & have taken Vodou initiation at one grade or another. In Miami International Airport, in JFK, & in Laguardia, it is now common to see new initiates, dressed in white, traveling to or from Haiti. Looking in the Yellow Pages for either of these cities, one will find page after page, column after column, of "religious supply stores", called botanicas, which cater to Vodou, as well as other Diasporic traditions. In order to profit, the clientele base of these stores must be immense indeed. However, because of this surge of interest, the religion is also quickly becoming yet another tool for profit by the unscrupulous.
To satisfy the growing interest of tourists wanting to delve into the "mysterious world of the Vodou", numerous charlatan "priests" have set up shop, both in Haiti, & in the Diaspora. The full lave tet ceremonies (sevis tet la) that should take three days to finish are often accomplished in a matter of hours, seldom over-night, & at a cost of up to $1,500. The Houngan & Manbo most in demand may charge from $5,000 to $16,000 for an impressive display of sacrificial animals & other food-stuffs, & may kouche (literally, "put to bed") the gullible in their hounfò for two or three days, maybe even a whole week, in order for them to "graduate" as Houngan or Manbo. One Manbo in New York runs kanzo services in her Manhattan basement & makes the boule zin ceremony on her kitchen stovetop! I assume it is a gas range? A recent initiate entered her "djevo" to kouche Houngan soupwen in silk pajama, robe, & slippers, along with his laptop & cell phone. All at a cost of $6,000! Yet another so-called Manbo in the NE United States has been known to charge clients as much as $3,000 for a simple leaf bath! Sadly, even many otherwise legitimate priests have come to view the religion as "the business".
Not to leave technology unexploited, these charlatans also now use the Internet as a medium to profit. Almost daily do we hear about the next "Exotic Vodou Initiation Tours" to Haiti, just send your money now! This particular person is notorious in both Haiti & the Diaspora for her abusiveness, as much as for her inauthentic services. Having been completely duped in her own initiatory services not once, but twice, she ignorantly perpetuates the continuance of "nothing" & calls it a Vodou initiation. Her initiates then return home to find major upheaval in their life, dwindling opportunities, bad luck, & so forth.
These situations would all be quite laughable if people were not routinely being taken advantage of by these so-called "priests".
There are still, however, some hounfò in Haiti, some Houngan and Mambo, who do not yield to tourism & monetary greed, continuing to follow the old traditions: three (& a half) days for a lave tet, seven days for kanzo sinp, & up to forty-one days (not all of which are passed in the djevo) to properly initiate an Houngan or Manbo Asogwe. They continue to follow the regleman regarding service, & to give proper & authentic initiations to those people who find the way to their door.
Sadly, even I was not to find these houses until it was to late. To late did I realize my own error, & fell prey to one of these charlatans during my '99 kouche. It was only by grace that I later found my way to a Manbo of one of these antique lineage's &, under her guidance, entered the djevo at La Montin near Kalfou (a suburb of Port-au-Prince in Haiti) to "remake myself" properly, taking the ason again in October of 2001. Following this, I founded the Vodou congregation Sosyete Flè d'Abome (The Flower of Abomey Society), commonly called Kay Aboudja, in New Orleans, Louisiana in service of both God and L'Afrik Ginea.
That I struggled, & went through all of this in order to get where I am today is not the issue. Sometimes even "bad" things happen for very good reasons & first hand experience, be it good or bad, are always of value in an ancestrally based oral tradition. My experience, no less my education with many, many Houngan & Manbo in Haiti & in the Diaspora, has served only to make me stronger, & further, has given me the "eyes to see" what is, & what is not, correctly done.