Note: I know this covers some of the info we’ve already discussed in at least two sections, but think of it as simply rehashing some of the info and practicing to make sure it solidifies. This article takes the previous set and ADDS THE SALUTES FOR PETRO, which we havent spoken about before…. make sure you read them in order and not jump around as it can easily become horribly confusing. This adds to the basic service and the altar articles and clarifies/deepens some of the information there presented.
In addition to the Ancestors, who are the core of Haitian Vodou, we recognize three major groupings of Spirits, called Lwa; the Rada, the Petro, and the Ghede. (Note: these names are both names of groupings of specific Spirits as well as being the names of the rites within which these Spirits are honored; there are other groupings/Nations/nanchons of spirits who may be honored under a specific Rite, ie the Nago/Ogou group of Lwa are not in themselves truly Rada spirits, but are honored in the Rada portion according to Rada rules). These are not the only types of Spirits recognized by the Vodou tradition, but are merely the major categories and the names of the ritual formats through which the major spirits are honored. (The other categories of Spirits are outside the scope of this class and document)
Vodou, just like every spiritual tradition, recognizes that people are surrounded by Spirits/Angels/Saints/Guides/etc. Just like every spiritual tradition, we recognize that each individual will have an affinity for different types of spirits, have different Guardian Angels, or different individual Lwa; as an example, Ogou spirits, the members of a Warrior family we call the Nago nation, will not be called to work with every person… La Sirene, the Mermaid and Queen of the Ocean, likewise will not take an interest in -everybody-. Each person usually has an intimate “court” or “Esko” in kreyol, meaning each individual human will have a grouping of usually three to seven specific Lwa that are around them, guiding and protecting them, at any given time in their lives. These spirits are not always the same, either; you may find during your life that Lwa come and go, attracted to you through phases you may be going through, leaving when their assistance is no longer needed, etc.
From a different angle, Vodou, just like any other spiritual tradition, recognizes that each person is surrounded/surrounds themselves with specific patterns of energy in keeping with their life, lifestyle, and personality. Vodou provides a “cast of characters” or archetypal models for these forms of energy to express themselves, in culturally adapted molds that have evolved over time to express themselves in human-like ways we can more readily understand. These are the Lwa.
Vodouisants see the Lwa both in terms of the individual person and the overarching principle the Lwa represents; Say that Marie is accompanied in her life by a particularly strong Ezili Freda… when Marie is possessed, people may come to recognize the way Freda manifests through Marie and identify her as Marie’s Freda, as the Lwa in possession of her horse always displays characteristic behaviour or operates in a specific fashion; people will also however go to this Freda riding the head of Marie for any advice or treatment they would normally expect to speak to Freda about (and they may well find that if Freda comes in the head of another Vodouisant at a different Fete, while that Freda may behave slightly differently than Marie’s Freda manifestation, she may also very clearly point out that the person she’s speaking to didnt follow the instructions She gave them or she may ask about what that person spoke to Marie’s Freda about… though we each have our own little bubbles of energy that connect us to specific Lwa, Vodou freely recognizes the autonomy and interconnectedness of the Lwa as independant of the human individual)
It is HIGHLY recommended for the beginner to receive a card reading (a “Leson” in kreyol) to determine which spirits they have around them and who they should be serving. It is beyond the scope of this class and this booklet to describe each of the Great Lwa and how they are served, nor would that information help the beginner… if a Lwa is not “with you”, your service to the spirit runs the risks of being completely ignored, causing annoyance, or causing anger to the spirits you DO have but to whom you have not given service. This class and this guide will show how to serve the spirits in a blanket fashion, and show the motions required for the rites that serve the different types of Lwa; I can only in this form give the barebones minimum of required elements for service…. service can certainly become more and beautifully complex as information is gained and individual Spirits become known, but those explanations are beyond the scope of this class and document at the current time.
The RADA Lwa:
NOTE: When serving Rada lwa, the individual should be as “clean” as possible; in addition to bodily hygiene, this means no sex for 24 hours prior to saluting Rada spirits. Women should have their hair bound in a white headscarf as a sign of respect to the spirits. (Vodou does NOT have any gender preferences on practitioners or clergy)
Its a common misconception to say the Rada Spirits are those who originated in Africa and were brought over by the various peoples conquered and brought to the New World via slavery (in comparison to the spirits the same broken maxim explains as Petro, mistakingly thinking Petro are entirely forged in the New World.). The Rada Spirits are largely those brought to Haiti from the more Northern reaches of the kingdoms sourced for slaves: the Fon, Gbwe, Daome, and Yoruba. (Rada is thought to be a corruption of Allada, the port city through which many people were exported). In the main, Rada lwa are seen as “cool”, stately, and dignified, as befits members of a Royal Court. They are seen as gentle (in comparison to the other categories/rites of Lwa), significantly more orderly, comparitively slow to anger, and more forgiving than the other categories of spirits. Rada spirits are the most logical of the lwa, seen mostly as ancient and wise.
Rada spirits share several common threads in how they are served: White is always an acceptible color for serving Rada lwa (in fact, the Rada portion of public ceremonies features all-white clothing for the active saluting participants); though we will usually add a colored scarf in the appropriate color for the individual spirit we are saluting to help concentrate their energy and aid in the salute, White is NEVER innappropriate for saluting a Rada lwa (if all you have at home is a White scarf, “moushwa” in kreyol, you needednt worry about adding other colors… white is good.)
At home, when serving Rada spirits you should endeavor to wear white and be as clean as possible; tidiness goes a long way, and the spirits recognize the an effort to honor them through dress and ritual cleanliness.
All Rada spirits are saluted with a white candle and a cup of cool water; for home service you’ll want the candle in your left hand and the handle of the water vessel in your right. Typically Vodouisants will use a specific kind of mug to hold the water, a white tinware cup that often has a blue enamel rim.
(For public fetes this is more complicated with multiple assistants aiding in the salute, but a general rule is that the candle is ALWAYS the leftmost item, followed by a clergy person saluting with the specific lwa’s favourite liquor and the asson, followed by the pot of water to the right of the Priest/ess, lastly followed on the rightmost side by any specific accoutrements given to the lwa being served or perfumes used as part of their service)
For Rada salutes, the water and the candle are presented first to the 4 cardinal directions; form a cross pattern with your motions instead of a circle, starting East, then West, then North, then finally South (rhetorical directions; typically the first direction faces the main Altar or the Poteau Mitan when available… if you know your directions, fantastic! but no big deal if you dont.) To each direction, hold the water and candle in front of you at eye level and gently lower it to approximately hip level (this is to present the items to those spirits in each quarter of the world, showing them what it is you are holding.) At each spot, when the item has come to hip level, give a gentle bob or curtsey motion to seal the presentation. This presentation to the four directions is done once per Spiritbeing saluted, and is always the first thing done as a part of that Spirit’s salute.
For the actual offering to the Spirits themselves, in the Rada rite, the items must be aligned to the “other side of the mirror” in a special way at each point at which they are saluted; in a public fete, this is typically done before the main door, before the drums, before the poteau mitan, before each doorway to the spirits individual chambers if available, before the main altar table if present… we do this a lot.
The procedure for a Rada salute is as follows:
- 1 small step to the Left with a gentle bob motion
- 1 small step back to the Right with a gentle bob motion
- 1 small step to the Left with a gentle bob motion
- Stepping back with your Right foot, turn to the right with a three-step-turn (right foot, left foot, right foot) in a way that leaves you facing the same direction you were before you began turning (these turns are called “Vire” or orienting)
- Reverse direction to the left in another three step turn, left foot back, right foot, left foot to face front.
- Reverse direction again to the right, exactly following the first of the turns.
- Now that the items are oriented to the Spirit’s side, the actual offering is made; bend down, and pour three small pours of water in a line, keeping the candle beside the container of water. Kneel, and while carefully setting the water down, place your right hand on the ground and kiss the back of it three times (this honors the Earth from which we all spring)
- Pick up the water, and carefully stand (trying not to fall over or spill water everywhere… it takes a while to get the hang of doing this with grace)
- Now, to reorient yourself to the human side of the mirror, the process must be reversed; begin by taking a single step to the left, and then going into the three turns. This brings you fully back to the human side of the equation, and finishes the process of the basic Rada Salute.
The word sometimes cried out to salute Rada spirits is Ayibobo!
(NOTE: The Nago Nation of Ogou spirits is served in the Rada format with an important 2 caveats; Red is their color, and frequently women will change their headscarves from a white cloth to a red one before serving the Ogou group… but the most important is that water, while present, is not poured out for the Ogous. The mug of water is simply tapped against the floor 3 times instead of being poured out. The Ogou group is comprised of the “hottest” spirits served within the Rada rite and while saluted with water they do not take it as an offering preferring instead strong drinks of rum; the word sometimes cried out in serving Nago Lwa is “Aocher Nago!” pronounced Ah-Oh-Shay)
The PETRO Lwa:
The flipside of the common misconception about the Rada lwa stemming entirely from Africa is the comparison to the Petro lwa, often mistakingly thought to be entirely forged in the New World during the revolutionary struggles… this is quite simply not the case; while some Petro lwa are indeed from that time, both the Rada and Petro categories contain both spirits from Africa as well as spirits who do not have a direct African counterpart.
The Petro Lwa are largely spirits brought from the more southern reaches of the areas sourced for human labor, namely the Kongo kingdoms; Red is their dominant color, and unlike the Rada lwa who are predominantly aligned to the Air, the Petro spirits are aligned to Fire and are Hot Hot HOT!
For Petro service, change your clothes into something bright and colorful! Petro lwa dont take white, they take red as their dominant color, so women will want to wrap their heads ideally in something red, but any bright and hot color will work! Neatness is still a factor as it shows honor to the lwa, but the Petro spirits are not going to care as much about exact cleanliness as the Rada spirits are; their demands are in promises and payment. If you make a promise to any lwa, keep it of course, but the Petro spirits are MUCH more likely to be unforgivingly harsh than the Rada spirits are. Rada will take what you can give and will work with you more than Petro, who will drive a hard bargain and wreak havoc if the agreed upon and promised payment isnt offered. Do not promise what you cannot give.
Wheras Rada spirits are seen as Stately and sometimes aloof, the Petro lwa are VERY engaging, sometimes harsh or seen as aggressive, and less forgiving than their Rada counterparts. Work performed by Rada lwa tends to be subtle, reweaving the general pattern of the world around you to bring you closer to your wants and needs… but Petro lwa are direct and HOT; they wont necessarily reweave patterns gently, often preferring to give a strong pull HERE and a hard yank THERE until what you want/need is right next to you… but the whole of the area’s general pattern may be a bit wrinkled or pulled about a bit by the time they’re done. Petro spirits are FAST! (Rada spirits can be VERY fast as well, but they’re usually known for being a little slower to act than the firey Petro lwa) Where people generally turn to the Rada lwa for gentle work and improving conditions, people generally turn to the rougher and hotter Petro lwa for immediacy, protection, fast change… all this and more are the province of the Petro spirits.
In possession, the cooler Rada lwa often immediately begin touring the room, offering advice, performing treatment, or greeting attendees with handshakes and embraces; the hotter Petro may do the same, or they may commence making great show of their strength and toughness by eating hot burning coals, broken glass, leaning upon blades that bend instead of cutting them, leaping around… Petro possessions are known to be incredible displays of the Spirit’s strength!
In serving Petro, we keep them Hot! Water is not a feature of Petro saluting; typically instead Petro lwa are offered a hot drink like white rum or taffia, often brewed with a special mixture of herbs and spices to create a brew called Kiman (Kiman recipes are typically a secret of the initiates of the House, and many houses have variations in their Kiman) For the non-initiate, a bottle of white rum, preferably Barbancourt (the Haitian export rum par excellence) will be perfect.
A Petro Salute is performed in a very different way than a Rada salute, though they share the same general outline. Petro salutes begin with the presentation to the quarters and feature the Vire/turns, but the appearance is altogether different.
Petro salutes at home are the same as at a public Fete; they are done on an individual basis with a solo practitioner. The Vodouisant will hold the bottle of Kiman or white rum in their right hand, and a special type of beeswax candle called a Bouji (available at Haitian botanicas) in their left. (NOTE: most Petro lwa are saluted with a yellow bouji; for at home purposes generally saluting the category as opposed to individual Lwa this will be fine)
The presentation begins by starting in the East, as per Rada, but the practitioner steps forward, and while stepping to the left raises the bottle of rum over the candle flame; a step to the right and the practitioner reverses the candle and the rum so the candle is on top, and a step to the left switching the position of the candle and bottle (so the arms do a hand over hand each time, while the feet make a side to side stepping motion to the left/right/left) THEN comes the small bob motion. The elbows are held in a sharp angle, almost militaristic in appearance.
This is repeated in full to the West, then to the North, and finallly to the South. That concludes the presentation to the directions.
For the orientation and offering, the feet go through the SAME MOTIONS as for the Rada offering; its the hands and arms where things get complex. The three steps are performed just as they are for the Petro orientation to the directions, with a hand over hand switching the bottle and the bouji in top/bottom positions.
For the turns, at the third step where for the Rada we performed a small bob or curtsey motion, for the Petro we present whichever elbow in on the inside of our turns (first the candle elbow, then the bottle, then the candle) in a sharp fashion (Petro lwa like to lock elbows with people when they come to a party as a test of stregth; this offering of the elbow is a way of inviting them in, showing that we are willing to do mock battle with them).
After the three turns, instead of bending and pouring as we did in the Rada portion, the practitioner takes a small mouthful of the rum or Kiman and “breathes” it out three times in a fine mist; once OVER the arm holding the bottle, once under it, and finally over it. This does take some practice to perfect.
The turns are then reversed to bring the individual back to the human side of the mirror; in the single step to the left, the bottle is presented with the right hand above the left which is holding the candle; turn to the right, presenting your left elbow after the turn; left turn/right elbow, and finally right turn/left elbow. That concludes the Petro salute.
Petro Lwa get the word “Bilolo!”
Setting an Altar for Rada and Petro Service:
Now that you have the salutes down, we can move on to setting a basic altar surface for your lwa at home. This does NOT need to become complicated; in fact, for at home service the simpler it can be the better, especially at this stage of learning how to serve the spirits in broad categories before complicating matters by getting into individual lwa and their likes/colors/beverages/images/veve/etc. Right now, we want to keep it as simple and elegant as we can; your personal spirits will respond better to the grace with which you are able to offer service simply, without getting mired in a whirlwind of complications and easy to forget/mix up details that could spell disaster.
General rules for a Rada/Petro altar are to place the Rada to the Right side and the Petro to the Left (formal temples often devote separate altars entirely or even separate rooms to the two divisions; at home, a single table is ok… just not your ancestor table. That’s to be kept separate)
White table cloth for the whole surface, though if you choose you can lay a red cloth or scarf on the Petro/Left side (a typical altar at a public fete will be surrounded with brightly colored scarves for all the lwa, but at home and for the beginner this is not required. Simplify.)
In the center of the table should be a Cross or Crucifix; again, the cross in Vodou is both a symbol of God and a symbol of how the human world and spiritual world intersect; placing it to the center of the table also helps separate the Rada from the Petro.
You’ll want your pot of water there, too; though it will spend most of its time during your Rada salutes in your hand, you’ll want a place to put it down; likewise with the bottle of Rum/Kiman for your Petro salutes (on the Petro/left hand side of course).
The altar should have a plain white candle on EACH side; these provide light and heat to your spirits.
There should be a cup of water with a few sprigs of fresh basil; one is enough for the table, and should be kept close to the center.
Flowers are also a good addition to the table when you are saluting your spirits and working with them; there should be a separate offering of flowers for the Rada and Petro lwa, each on their side of the table.
Food offerings right now should be kept to small plates of sliced fruit; one to a side. NO LEMONS OR LIMES; other fruits are ok. A general thought about fruit is the more common (apples/pears/ oranges/etc) are thought of as “cooling” and the tropical/exotic fruits (pineapples/papaya/guava/etc) are more of a “heating” influence.
You’ll want a good supply of emergency style candles and a handful of yellow bouji (its ok to put those directly on the altar’s working surface or on the floor in front of it)
So at this point your altar should have:
- White Tablecloth (optional red for the Petro side)
- Cross/Crucifix (center, holiness and separation of the two groups of Lwa)
- Water (white enameled mug, right hand side-ish)
- Bottle of White Rum or Kiman (left hand side)
- 2 White Candles in the front corners (light and heat, one per side)
When active, it should have:
- Basil (a couple of sprigs in a small cup of water, center-ish)
- Flowers (one vase per side)
- 2 Plates of sliced fruit (one per side)
And in backup, you should have
- A good number of white emergency candles
- A good number of Yellow Bouji (Haitian beeswax candles for Petro)