Houngan Matt's Vodou Blog

A City Houngan's Life Among the Lwa

Vodou Cosmology: A little look into Vodou’s complexities and publically available information

July24

So… lets take a brief moment to step a little deeper into some Vodou cosmology; We’ve touched a bit on GOD, and are inching ever closer to talking about the Spirits who form the core of what we do… but we’ve got a little bit left in the idea of Lies-to-Children to cover to help make some of this make a little more sense… let’s look at a little of the available common information, some of the pitfalls it entails, and show a touch more of how deep and branched the rabbit hole can be before we really start getting into some deep nitty gritty… lets take off the training wheels, shall we?

 

Lies and the Lying Liars who tell them:
A fair and balanced look at Vodou education

So, at the moment, there’s a lady online (who Ima not gonna name but we’ve publically locked heads on many an occasion) who’s teaching a Legba service… She teaches that Legba’s colors are White in Rada and Red in Petro, so put both red and white on the table to serve him all at once, put a little food and sing some American blues songs about Devils at Crossroads…… wait, what?

So for starters, we have a Rada format and a Petro format for a reason (actually, we have MANY formats, but these are the big two right now) where we call a lwa in a specific format to reach a specific lwa… make sense?

ie Call Legba in Rada, the way we usually do, for a Rada Legba; gotta do that before calling the Rada lwa anyway, so we should over time be able to get used to that and do it the right way. After that, though, we sing for Legba nan Petro to open the doors for the Petro spirits; we have to do that every time as well, so we should be used to it.

Why would anyone choose to teach that you can just do them at the same time? Easy; they want your attention, they want your money, and they want you to think that you dont have to do it the real way (or maybe they think that teaching you the real way is just either beneath them or over your head) so that you can have a taste, but you can’t have the real thing. Maybe you’re seen as stupid; maybe youre not good enough for the info… or, maybe, she just thinks that because you’re white you just want a cursory glance so you dont have to trouble yourself with the way things are done in Haiti.

This is the same lady who screams everywhere that other white authors just dont respect black people, or dont respect women, so everyone is out to yell about how she’s wrong…. but, if you remember our ‘lies to children’ point in the previous post, she’s flagrantly guilty of the very accusation she’s levelling at everyone else.

After all; she just taught to do a quicky service for all the Legbas at once; who would do that? Vodou doesnt really have any ritual that is “fast”; after all, to really get the spirit to do what you need them to, you’ve gotta heat them up and get the space really good and hot… which you just wont be able to do with 15 minutes of singing english pop songs the spirits dont know and lighting a whole bunch of candles while sending conflicting signals about what rite you’re calling your spirits in… is it Rada? Is it Petro? Are you supposed to forget that that’s one of the most crucial things you need to know to serve a lwa?

To help this make sense, and to help the nature of the lwa and how/why we call them the way we do, we gotta delve past the lies-to-children approach of the majority of what’s out there in print.

Lies-to-White-folks is a good term, too. Yes.

This though is the biiiiiiig reason why your friendly neighbourhood Houngan Matt says that most books out there are bunk; cause they are. They dont give you ANYTHING resembling a realistic picture of the Lwa; they give you little training wheel bytes that wont really get you anywhere but give you a Warm Fuzzy Feeling that youve mastered something.

You havent; you’ve done a working that isnt real and would be miraculous to get a response.

You’ve been lied to; you’ve been given a training wheel and have been told that its just a simple idea from simple, primitive people… and you, the book purchasing customer, have been sold a book that if it even contains anything useful contains less than a quarter of the reality you’ll learn from a traditional and qualified teacher.

Wipe away the warm fuzzy feeling and look carefully at what you’ve been told/sold/given, and you’ll see that there really isnt much substance; you’ve been told that you are empowered to do for yourself! the way most books of that ilk do, or most websites that pretend to teach while selling you “service kits” do. They exist to make you feel like your hand is being held because you are someone special and can do things that just arent a part of the traditional religion… but that doesnt matter. Those people dont know the real YOU the way that website woman or that book guy do.

After the warm fuzzy is gone and you want to know the real thing… well; there may be a bit of a shock. You see, its very hard to learn when you’ve already learned in its place; the Zen monks would say you need to empty your cup to make room for more tea. You need to unlearn what you think you know to make room for what a real practitioner will teach you; they’re not gonna hold your hand, and they’ll probably hold it against you if you try to say “but I thought all I needed to do was give Kouzen a blue candle and he’d get me a job!”…. because they’re going to see through you, and see that you’ve been polluted. Its not a hard thing to see.

THE LWA

Lets start with the spirits… since we began talking about Legba, we’re gonna start with Legba. ;)

First, lets get rid of a persistent stupid little myth… dont hate me, but did you know that Legba is *not* the first Lwa we call?

Seriously… the part about asking him to open doors is true, although simply asking it versus singing the song that’s keyed to him because of the lyric that contains those words is a vastly different matter they didnt tell you about, but it is true that he controls the gate.

What you havent been told about are the spirits we sing to before him, or really even what all the steps are before we get to him (which is actually in a full fete set up usually a couple of HOURS after the party begins.)

Lets start at the get go; once the table is made and everything is set up, and the party is actually ready to start (and thank you, Haitian Standard Time, for making sure that no party ever begins when you tell people it’s going to. ;)    ) we start the Priye Ginen (which Im going to devote a whole essay to fairly soon, so now’s not the time to get into that).

After a while of the Priye (which isnt short… lemme tell ya) the first batch of songs that follow a Party format are called the Bode songs. These dont invoke lwa, per se, but instead these create a boundary (Bode means border, and is pronounced Boh-DAY with emphasis on the second syllable) within which the party will take place. The Priye already blessed and cleansed the space, and called in the spirits related to those attending… but it’s the Bode songs that define the temple space as the functional world the party is to take place in.

For those who come to Vodou from a Wiccan background, the Bode songs are functionally (though not the same as, so DONT mix them) a circle casting; they contain the space and provide a hedge of a sort… as Mama Lola declares, You in, you in! You out, you STAY OUT!. These are the Bode songs.

THEN, we begin saluting the lwa… but, we dont start with Legba. We start (when in a fete that has them) with Hountor, the lwa of the drums.

Hountor is the spirit who translates/transmits the text, liturgy, songs, rhythms, and emotions of the party to the spirits themselves. Hountor empowers the drummers to be able to single out a person at the party who may be showing signs of a spirit possession beginning and hammer that spirit into their head with a few beats of one of the drums; Hountor guides the songs, heats up the space, and gives power to the drummers who guide the ceremony as led by the Hougenikon (singer) or the manbo/houngan in charge of the party.

After Hountor comes Grand Chemin, the big road… think of it this way; first we establish the setting, and then we call to the spirit who allows a party to fully function. Once we have him on board, we call in to being a Road between where we are and where the Lwa are (this road is Grand Chemin) THEN, and only then, when that road has been called into existence, THEN we can call to Legba who sits at the gate positioned on that road. If we call to the door keeper first, what’s he going to do when we havent given him or the other spirits a path to get from that gate to our party? Imagine sending out party invitations for a Christening or a Bachelor party (beginning and end, if ya think about it) without giving anyone the address or phone number to RSVP or know where the party’s gonna be held…. Sure, your mom’ll be there, but she’s riding with you in the car. Pretty crummy party if noone knows how to get there.

Then, after Legba (in Rada… we havent gotten to others yet) the rest of the spirits in the liturgical order established by the Reglemen of the house can be called… so remember, when they tell you that Legba is the first spirit ever addressed, that they arent telling you the truth. Not even in the slightest.

We can talk a little more about Legba, too… did you know that EVERY nation and grouping of lwa has its own Legba figure? And no… they’re not the same spirit (which is why making a little table for all the legbas at once like that lady would have you do is bound to fail… especially if you follow her instructions that you just need to do it once and that’s good for all of them. Silly, really, but people still fall for it because it sounds like its easy and comes from “authority”)

Every nation and every rite, every group of lwa, has its own Legba figure. Remember that when you see an early member of the Ogou group be saluted with crutches… yes, he’s an old retired warrior who needs them to get around, but the deeper mystery is that those crutches are the same poteau mitan that the Rada Legba carries as a staff and the Petro Legba uses in the St Lazarus image as the crutches the saint moves on; those are the Poteau, the center pole the spirits ride (grand chemin) and which Legba controlls the gate for. Just to make it more confusing, NOT every spirit who is shown with a cane or baton or walking stick is a Legba…. but then every spirit who IS a Legba carries the implement that shows who they are if you open your eyes.

Remember, also, that frequently that figure is not the first lwa called in the group. The stage has to be set appropriately for the actors to be able to work on it… as without the boards, lights, and whatever else, it isnt actually a stage at all.

To continue with an analysis of the Lwa, we need to take a step back and illustrate a curious area that gets a whole lot of questions but which none of the books seem willing to touch… and that’s a part of the Reglemen and the order of which spirits are called and where they’re called. Take for an instance a very popular spirit called Metres Dayila.

Dayila doesnt have a separate place in the reglemen for most houses… there are some songs, sure, and her name is there, but she isnt given her own special veve and isnt really provided for much within rules of service. There’s little to go on in terms of what to give her to drink, what to feed her… she can be incredibly useful to a person who has her, but in the grand scheme of things seems to be one of those spirits who’s kinda danced off the edge into obscurity.

The reason for this is easy to spot if we take another step back and look at a very strange example for your neighbourhood Houngan to make… look at a Shark’s Jaw.

C’mon; we’ve all seen them, and you know what Im talking about… museums and aquariums have them. The big, giant dried out jaws of a big ol’ shark showing all the teeth… but, when you look up close, you notice the big difference between that sharks jaw and your own; inside, behind every tooth, are a whole bunch of teeth folded down just waiting to replace one that might fall out or get ripped out when that hollywood scream queen gets a bite in her thigh (ever seen the Jaws movies? ;-)  )

If you’ve seen one, you know what Im talkin’ about. If you havent seen one, for the moment you probably think Ive gone completely bonkers and have no grasp on reality, but go to google and look up “shark jaw” and you’ll see what I mean. Each visible tooth has a ton of replacement or back-up teeth waiting in the background where they can’t be seen.

For Vodou, we say that “Each lwa has 6 standing behind them” … frankly because 7 is a mystical number, but the example holds; it might be a total of more than 7, but the idea is that for each Name that is called out or sung for, there are (well, really an infinite number of) spirits standing behind in the shadows who are all in the category of the one just called but who are different, their own beings.

Dayila is one of these; she stands behind Ezili Freda in the reglemen; to serve Dayila, you present the service exactly as you would to her better known sister (with a few details different, those that are unique to Dayila) and sing her songs… but she comes during the Freda part of a Fete, so service to Freda could just as easily be service to Dayila or any one of the number of Sisters standing by to take your call.

Which is important to us. Please continue to hold.

Lets look at Ezili Nan Petro for an even better example; that one part of the reglemen stands in of course for Ezili Dantor… but, Ezili Nan Petro (Erzulie in petro rite) also stands for at least Ezili Ge Wouj, Ezili Baliane, Ezili Mapyang, Mambo Zila, a whole host of women hidden by a knife-pierced heart.

What about Simbi? My house has at least 9 Simbi I could name right now; some of them you probably know by name such as Simbi Dlo, Simbi Andezo, Simbi Makaya, maybe you’ve heard of Simbi Anpaka… dunno. He’s on the line of the more obscure Simbis, but still… all of those men are contained within a single set of Simbi salutes… and when a guest at a fete, unless you have taken serious time to learn the differences between the various Simbi men you may not know at any given time just which Simbi is being sung for or who comes in possession. Each of our simbis at least takes different colors, different special things unique to them… its not just a single Simbi out there, and if the book or website leads you to believe that “Oh, its *just* Simbi”… there are serious problems. Especially when that source claims to be teaching you the tradition the way it is performed by those of us who are priests or those of us who have houses and temples where our spirits are served.

Same with the Marassa (who are gonna be another entry all of their own, just to warn ya) There’s the Marassa de, Marassa twa, Marassa of the woods, marassa of the house, the chouquette marassa, the marassa dossou or dossa, marassa ginen, marassa kreyol… and that only starts the list. Category will only take you halfway there, the rest is going to be taught to you when you need to know it by a qualified Houngan or Manbo; not a book or a website service kit.

I can’t get in to all the specifics of my house, especially if you are not a member of my house, because a) you arent traditionally my student if you’re working through my blog, helpful as I try to make it so you can learn, and b) the information my house holds is useless to those who are not member of the house. You may find yourself in a different line or lineage where the information they teach is itself unique to their house… at which point you would have to unlearn what you have read of my houses specifics and try to empty your cup… which, frankly, ain’t easy.

Basics I can and do teach you here; however, Im also the one telling you that while basic information will help you serve at home and will start you on your road, I cannot tell you where that road is going to take you… Im the Vodou kindergarten teacher; gradeschool, highschool, and college are a Houses responsibility and are things you will not find in a book or a website. Not even mine.

What I can conclude with now, before getting back into the lwa’s cosmology in terms of heat and reglemen, is that when you go to get a reading that tells you who you have, what is going to come up are the broad categories. The reader will see, say, that you have Simbi. They may or may not be told which Simbi you have, and that’s ok… to begin service, just to begin, its ok that you know the beginning points of your personal Esko (spirit escourt, or who travels with you and who you should serve) and the rest will come with time. Sometimes the eccentricities of a full Esko are something that should only be meddled with or even attempted by the Houngan or Manbo who runs the house (some spirits really arent happy if you call them when you shouldnt) but knowing the broad categories CAN be ok.

What isnt OK is when you are led to believe that that is the be all and end all of the information you have potential access to; just like the lies to children example I can clearly see moments where it is OK to say “Serve Freda” when I know Dayila to be standing over your shoulder as well… but then, there are also a great many reasons why certain information is under a special lock and key delineated by the outlines of loyalty, initiation, trust, love, and mutual safety. I wont tell you to mix up your Legbas, just as I wont tell you its ok to mix the Ezilis. I also wont put a loaded gun in your hands when I know it can hurt you without guidance… and I also wont tell you that simple information comes from simple people with primitive notions about primitive concepts. I endevour to show that this is a faith with a spectacularly complex worldview that while as Ive said before revolves around staggeringly beautiful and simple core ideals comes with a whirlwind of supporting technicalities, practices, spirits, and nuances that can’t be contained in the $14.95 you paid for that book.

As Ive said, I’ll get in to more… but talk to me. Talk to a Houngan, or a Manbo, and start your walk into the tradition with open eyes if you’re interested or feel called…. but be warned that the bridge you find in sale sites and “novel” approaches to the religion will only take you halfway there; that text or service kit leaves you without a safety net and says either turn and walk away or jump into the river beneath you.

The real religion and its priests, however, got a damned good speedboat just sitting at the dock. Your choice; fall/swim/drown, or take a ride with us.

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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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