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VODOU AND VODOUISANTS
Part 1. What is Vodou?
Part 2. Who may participate?
Part 3. What are the names and grades of initiatory levels in Vodou?
Part 1 - What is Vodou?
Vodou is a spiritual tradition which originated in Haiti during the period of French colonial slavery. Today, Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola, Haiti on the western side of the island and the Dominican Republic in the east.
The Vodou tradition has roots in three major ethnic groups. First were the indigenous populations of Taino and other Arawak people. Early in the colonial history of Hispaniola, they were exterminated by the Spanish. Their struggle, their uprisings, and their eventual defeat was chronicled by historians of the day, and little of their spiritual traditions survive in contemporary Vodou.
Second, Africans of many ethnic lineages were transported by force to Haiti by both the Spanish and later by the French in great numbers, primarily to serve as agricultural slaves. There was some contact between escaped Africans and the few surviving Tainos, but little is documentedl. French colonists in Haiti imported Africans primarily but not exclusively from those regions of Africa colonized by France.
It is from the many African ethnic groups brought to Haiti that most of Vodou ceremonial practice is derived, including respect for ancestors, communication with sacred spirits called lwa through the phenomenon of trance possession.
Because so many African groups were represented, no one particular African service could satisfy all participants, especially since reverence for ancestral lines was so important. Therefore, each ethnic group would take it's turn at a gathering. This "take turns" approach eventually evolved into the ceremonial order of the Vodou liturgy.
Third, during this historical period, Europeans from France and other countries, including pro-Stuart deportees from the British Isles during the Stuart Wars, also settled in Haiti. Their contributions include the Catholic popular piety of the day, their folk beliefs, and also certain spiritual entities. For example, the Celtic pre-Christian goddess Brigid became Maman Brigitte, the mother of all reclaimed ancestors.
There are denominations of Haitian traditional religion, just as the Christian religion includes Roman Catholics and Baptists. The first and most widely known, is the orthodox Vodou. In this denomination, Dahomean, Nigerian and Kongo lwa are given primary importance, and initiations are conducted based mainly on Dahomean practices. 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.
Vodou is widely represented in all of Haiti, and is especially dominant in Port-au-Prince, southward and westward.
The second most popular denomination is called Makaya. Leaders of Makaya congregations are not initiated and do not receive the asson. A Makaya priest is called a Bokor, and a priestess is sometimes referred to as a sorciere, sorceress. However, most Makaya leaders are men, female Makaya priests are rare. (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 is 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. A priest or priestess of this line is called a serviteur. (In orthodox Vodou, a serviteur is merely one who serves the lwa, the deities of Vodou.) This rite is concentrated near Gonaives in central Haiti, and an annual Kongo festival is held in Sucrie near Gonaives.
All of these traditions have several beliefs 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, not demonic or satanic. All rites employ prayer, song, drumming, costume, and dancing during ceremonies.
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 initiation ceremonies pertaining to other individuals of their 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 among people in the United States in recent years over ethnic affiliation and participation in African-derived religions. It is true that some unscrupulous Houngans or Mambos in Haiti will take advantage of the ignorance of a foreigner, perform bogus ceremonies, and charge exorbitant rates. Others claim that they will not reveal the "secret" knowledge of Vodou, meaning correct information and initiation, to a non-black non-Haitian. These Houngans and Mambos paradoxically sometimes have non-black or non-Haitian initiates whom they dupe shamelessly, and load down with commitments. The trend is away from this practice, however, as the new "initiate" often returns to their home country, proudly proclaims themselves to be a Houngan or Mambo, and are then debunked by authentic practitioners. All of this reflects badly on the rip-off artist who performed the bogus ceremonies in the first place.
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. The history of Vodou is one of resistance, and much of the anti-Vodou propaganda which has entered into the popular mind was invented to forward the political goals of the United States or the Roman Catholic church.
Vodou supported the impetus for the resistance to French colonial slavery. The Haitian Revolotion, the only succesful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere, began with a famous ceremony at Bois Caiman in northern Haiti, now a protected national site. The Haitian Revolution succeeded, and resulted in 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.
Thus, non-Haitian initiates in Vodou should behave respectfully, and should take time to learn both the religion and it's cultural context. At the same time, they are free to defend their own right to correct ceremonies and respectful treatment by the Houngans and Mambos with whom they work and study.
There are a series of levels of initiation in orthodox Vodou. 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, but this is a colloquial and even humorous term. Bossale means "wild" or "untamed", in the sense of an untamed saddle horse. Hounsi is from the Fon language of Dahomey, and signifies "bride of the spirit", although the term in Haiti refers to men and women. Despite this term, initiates are not considered to be married to the lwa. A person, whether initiated or not, can marry a lwa, but this is a different ceremony unrelated to initiation.
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.
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, given to them by the lwa Papa Loko Atisou. This means that they, and they alone, can confer the asson on another individual, thereby elevating that individual in turn to the status of asogwe.
These grades do not have to be achieved sequentially, from the lowest to the highest - most Haitians who initiate at the highest level,asogwe, do so in their first initiation ceremoniesin order to save time and money, although some will become si pwen first and then become asogwe in a second initiation cycle several years later. Most Haitians who initiate at the lowest level, that of hounsi kanzo, never go further.
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.
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