Houngan Matt's Vodou Blog

A City Houngan's Life Among the Lwa

A Vodou Cosmology: GOD

July24

IMPORTANT NOTE: different African traditional or diasporic religions have vastly different cosmologies and ideologies; that’s a good deal of why they are different religions and why, time upon time, those of us who are clergy in any of them remind our students to NOT attempt blending them. Different faiths have different creation stories, different metaphysics, different ideas…. and they stay different and distinct for a reason. No single one of us claims to be the sole arbiter of THE WAY THINGS ARE ™, but when it comes to adapting a traditionalist paradigm, it is always best to embrace the actual instead of trying to cobble together pieces from disparate sources… as these are each complete traditions with complete worldviews that deal with specific powers who may find your behaviour abhorrent and rude should you choose to not follow the traditional ways they themselves have handed to us.

I find myself asked, many times and quite often, to explain how Vodou “works” in terms of its emotional viability, mythopoesis, ethics, mechanics… now, first what this tells me is that I personally hang out with a very unusual crowd of religious scholars who mostly come from a cognitive science background (and its a whole lot of fun to geek out in full amongst like minded souls) but it also tells me that there’s a severe deficit in the published world about my faith; there’s noplace really to turn for the core information… a whole lot of odd little “how to” books that only half explain what they’re after, but really nothing that delves deep into the core of what things really look like from the inside.

I’ll admit that I too have been guilty of this… while a few posts back (ok, quite a few posts back) I got into a little bit of the mechanics of Vodou in terms of the balance of hot v. cool, it was a cursory glance at a remarkably and stunningly complex piece of Vodou cosmology.

I have to explain something about Teachers; this holds true really whatever the subject being taught, and is lovingly “borrowed” from one of my absolute favourite fiction authors, Sir Terry Pratchett. Its called “Lies to Children” and is originally found in his Science of Discworld series.

Sir Pratchett explains that when you’re teaching a course, say teaching Science to a group of youngsters, each successive layer of information is shown to be untrue by information that is taught later… look at it this way; first, little ones are told that the Organs of the body are the smallest divisible pieces of Life (lung, heart, kidney, brain… all that good visceral stuff.)

However, the next year (or later in the same course) those youngsters learn that all living things are made of cells, the smallest building blocks of life… which, in essense, points out the big ol’ glaring lie that the organ is the smallest part. Later, the smallest part is the Organelle, the little pieces cells themselves are made of, like ribosomes, mitochondria, the golgi apparatus/complex… but then we learn about gates between the molecules of the cell wall… wait, molecules? Atoms? Subatomic particles? Strings? Each of these successive layers builds on the knowledge of the layer before it at the same time as shredding the basic premise of having learned the layer before… that it’s as far in as there is. Its *not* as far in as there is; its simply as far in AS YOU NEED to hold the metaphor intact.

All lies…. lies that help you learn.

One of the problems as far as Vodou and its cosmology are concerned is that the simple levels tend to be all that’s visible on the surface… and people, sadly being people, believe that that first level is the ultimate truth and all there is; simple, right? Primitive religion, primitive people, primitive and easy to grasp conceptualizations.

WRONG.

Simple concept, yes, while its on the surface. Think of it as nothing more than a lie to children, a simple veneer we paste onto the deeper thoughts to make those deeper thoughts easier to recognize for what they are when the time comes.

IE I dont care what book it’s in; the book has not taught you anything more than the surface appearance. Putting these things into practice at that level IS possible, just as riding a bicycle with training wheels screwed into the sides is possible… there will be bumps, there will be mistakes, and there will be no tour de france at this point.

So lets start at the top and work our way down, so to speak… and begin with GOD.

You’ll hear all over the place that the vast majority of Vodouisants (or the vast majority of Haitians) are Catholic and that Haiti is considered a Catholic country… well, half true. Haiti was, during the time of the colony, a place that the Vatican was very concerned with; not strictly for the sake of baptising slaves, but also for the moral laxity (to put it more kindly than it deserves) of its European colonists. Code Noir is only half of the issue of those times. Revolution, however, ejected the Vatican just as it ejected the French… and Haiti was left without Church representation for a period of at least 50 years (side note; I think it’s closer to 80 or 100, but I dont have any handy timeline texts nearby to fact check… comments are, as always, welcome, and the reader is of course welcome to look it up themselves. ;)

Suffice it to say that during Vodou’s most formative time, the Vatican presence did not exist on the island; while Vodou does make heavy use of elements of Catholicism, it was also allowed by this time to remember and include larger amounts of pre-slavery African (not a single source, but many different sources from African kingdoms and nation-states) philosophy; the idea of GOD was already a strong part of Vodou, and was not as cleanly Catholic as the idea of Bondye largely is known. (So even today, while most Vodouisants ARE churchgoing Catholics, Vodou’s own notions of how GOD *is* are not wholly in keeping with Vatican II doctrine.)

First, lets talk about an often-prattled-out line that “GOD is distant”; that kinda makes it sound like, by personal Divine choice, GOD created this rock and then turned His back on it… which is about as far from how Vodouisants see the truth as possible. To make sense of this, though, we need to look at how this thought came to be and what worldview shapes those words.

GOD to Vodou is MOTION; an active principle that is embedded in all things, living and otherwise; everything has the capacity to move or be moved, all things are in constant motion. GOD is the force that allows motion to take place; the force that moves, the force that is moving, and the force that contains the principle of motion. Each living moving thing has a Divine spark, a piece of GOD, that allows us to be what and who we are… but GOD is not defined or limited by living, moving beings, nor is GOD limited or constrained by Creation. (and please understand that when we say GOD we’re thinking truly of GOD the Ultimate Source; the undefineable, that which lies behind the idea of GOD in every faith… not just the old Bearded Guy in the Sky but a concept that while we say “He” for sake of convenience lies beyond the idea of human gender; Genesis first describes the creation of Man AND Woman side by side “In His image He created them, Male and Female He created them” in the chapter BEFORE Adam and Eve……)

Think for a moment of the current state of Quantum Physics; its currently being agreed on that at a level smaller than the atom is a matrix of energy, the energy that forms the particles of the atom and subatomic levels with vibrations and probability. The vibrations that pass through this energy (scientifically referred to in terms of dimensional brane spaces; I dont have the skill nor the time to go into the math itself at great depth) form the physical properties of the subatomic particles, which form the atoms, which form the materials we see and sense in the physical world… but the matrix of energy itself is perhaps the closest we can ever come to scientifically seeing GOD (at least in the way Vodou sees Him).

THIS is why sometimes it gets passed around verbally that GOD is distant, or too busy holding up Creation and maintaining it to pay attention to the little scurrying people. GOD permeates all things, GOD constantly refreshes and re-creates all things, GOD intimately knows all things at the deepest of possible levels because GOD *is* all things at the deepest of possible levels.

Yet… EVERYTHING for us is acknowledged as being utterly reliant on the Will of GOD; we can plan all we like, but all things happen as GOD wills. We can serve as many spirits as we like and can afford, but all are served after GOD; the Lwa and Man both serve GOD, and the balance is properly maintained when they serve each other (a topic for a later Primer installment.) Houngan and Manbo are empowered to work with our spirits for the benefit of our clientele and our community, but only a fraud will ever *guarantee* success for their work as all work must flow in accordance with the will of GOD; some situations are simpky GOD’s will, and some diseases cannot be cured. We can negotiate with our spirits for the best outcomes we need, but there is no negotiating against the will of GOD… Humans are incapable of seeing the full Divine will and have no way of knowing exactly what GOD has planned or has set in motion.

A) because they’re Human, and B) because GOD *is* motion and has all things moving in a constant dance of creation and re-creation.

So… for just a moment, take that a step in a sideways direction…. Blood. Blood is in constant motion (at least in living beings that possess it), so blood itself becomes a primary offering within Vodou sacrifice because the movement in the blood is proof of the divine lifespark that sets motion in motion. (remember that the next time you ask or are asked why the Vodou community as a whole does not accept “vegan voodoo” or why animals are given to the spirits in the first place… yes, it’s the life energy the spirits take, but the life energy is symbolized by the very movement inherent in living blood… as the movement is proof of Life and proof of GOD.)

Embedded in all of this is also the explanation for why Vodouisants honor two of the hottest times of year (hot as in spiritual activity, not necessarily physical heat), Christmas and Lent. (remember, we’re still good Catholics… well, “good” in that sentence has varying values, but you know what I mean) Christmas is when GOD, through mystery, chose to be born through the body of a Woman (Mary) as the Christ; the perfect symbol of the balance of Man, Spirit, and GOD; Lent on the other hand observes the death of that form. Spirit made Flesh becomes to us a time of great spiritual heat, and whatever the truth behind that particular story Christmas is a very, very active time for Vodouisants. Lent, however, ESPECIALLY Holy Week, is a time of rest and reflection for us, a time to honor and ponder the Mystery that is GOD.

 

That’s a perfect place to conclude part one of our lil’ primer… remember that in Vodou, things are described and not defined. A definition ties the words into a static item, a stagnant and motionless thing; a description on the other hand is dynamic, flowing, symbolic… and alive. A description does not limit that which is described, allowing it to be poetry; a definition, by definition, seeks to limit the (then) object by explaining its totality… not very Vodou and certainly not in keeping with this particular lil’ lesson. Lots of lil’ tidbits buried in here; a few lies to children, but with luck we’ll get past those fairly soon.

 

Tell me…. how do YOU view GOD?

3 Comments to

“A Vodou Cosmology: GOD”

  1. Avatar July 24th, 2011 at 8:43 am vinny Says:

    Well in the country I am from originally religion is bit seen as a form of weirdness. Still my parents used to tell me that “there might be some higher power” :) …Now I see God as the Omni-present One – the One who knows everything about Me, still I know practically nothing about God…


  2. Avatar July 24th, 2011 at 10:49 am Nancy Knoll Says:

    In an age where, “GOD is dead”, and life itself can be soooo overwhelming at times I am often asked this very question. Especially by my children, but me as well… on tough days, in hard times, it’s too easy to loose yr way. Yet I know inside me, and all of us is a divine spark, a tiny piece of the whole. So when my kids ask for evidence of GOD, or when I’m feeling low by watching the daily news I remind myself, and them…. let yr inner GOD shine, be a light in this world, be what you were meant to be; a true spark.


  3. Avatar July 24th, 2011 at 11:40 am Matt Says:

    I would share with them how I see it; no matter the problems humans make or those that humans make between each other, GOD still makes the plants grow, the waves crash, the winds blow. Every moment is a moment of astonishing beauty… even something as commonplace as the play of sunlight through the leaves of trees on a Summer afternoon. GOD constantly takes this world and makes it new, each moment, each piece of a moment. No matter the wars, struggles, and issues humans create, they will simply never be able to attain that level of power, influence, and beauty. We are certainly a part of that as GOD creates us, too, but to me all I ever need do is feel the wind or watch the ocean to have direct proof of GOD. It works for me. ;)


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Vodou Boston is a teaching blog as well as a look inside the life of a mostly average city guy who just happens to be a Houngan Asogwe of Haitian Vodou.

My name’s Houngan Matt… my initiatory name and title is Bozanfe Bo Oungan Daguimin Minfort, pitit Antiola Bo Manbo, pitit Selide Bo Manbo, pitit LaMerci Bo Manbo… and so on into time. Im a Houngan Asogwe serving at home in Kansas City and in my spiritual mother’s temple in Boston (and Jacmel, Haiti)… our House is called Sosyete Nago, in honor of the Nago Nation of lwa. Im a typical Bostonian-turned-Midwesterner with a few extra dimensions to his world (tell me, how many Bostonians do you know who serve African and Haitian ancestral spirits through the lens of Haitian Vodou? Actually… more than you may know.)

This is a no holds barred blog; Im not one to limit myself in fear of what you’re going to think. Be prepared for a blog where noone’s gonna pull any punches, and you and I will get along just fine.

I can always be reached at Houngan @ VodouBoston . com for any questions, setting appointments for readings or work, or even just social mail; I am here to serve YOU, and YOU are what is important to me. No person and no question is too small.

Look for me on Facebook, too! Bozanfe Bon Oungan is my username


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