Here’s a tip…. its a fairly simple one, and a fairly simple lesson about how a core part of Vodou works; We’ll talk about the tip first, then we’ll talk a little bit about how it applies… and then we’re going to talk about why its fairly serious.
Real Vodou maintains the national/tribal identity of the spirits it serves, those spirits we call Lwa (the fon language word for ‘lords’, incidentally… its not related to the French for ‘law’, “lois”, even though they have the same pronunciation.) by dividing the order of service into what we call ‘nancion’, or Nations. ALL of the different component roots of Vodou are maintained as encapsulated pieces, generally identifiable to the observer by the drum rhythms those spirits are called with. This is *intimately* tied to the dances performed as a part of the salutes in the temples… each dance is directly tied to its corresponding drum rhythm, which is in turn tied to the nation of origin for the spirit being saluted at the time.
This is *crucial* to the understanding of Reglemen for the religion… each section of the liturgy and the order in which the spirits are called traces all the way back to where those specific spirits came from; those from Benin/Nigeria (among the fon and gbwe people) take the Yanvalou rhythm and the graceful dance often featuring rolling shoulders and an undulating spine commonly associated with Vodou in general; the Nago, the spirits of the people now called the Yoruba, feature a militant 4×4 rhythm in their drumbeat and dances that are very sharp and angular, with strong arms and militaristic movements. The Kongo spirits feature a flirty drumbeat with a talking-drum sound, a pitch that rises, and a dance that features circling couples rolling their hips flirtatiously… a delicate dance of a great deal of fun. The Djouba nation (all our beloved Zaka spirits) has its own rhythm, and certainly the Ghede are known for the intense Banda rhythm and the racy hip-thrusting dance that goes with it…. There are MANY such instances of the portion of the ritual and the spirits called featuring the rhythms of their home nations and the associated dances, which while serving to show the rituals as a whole serving the different roots that came to Haiti, they very much drive home the national/geographic origin of the spirit being saluted, showing precisely what part of Africa/what original Nation the spirit came from.
Learn to identify the rhythm or dance behind the Salute, and you know where that Spirit’s journey began. Isnt that cool?
Of course many of these individual spirits maintain similarities among themselves in comparison to each other… after all, we inherited the national pantheons of many, many different groups of people…. many different kingdoms, each with their own religion; it only makes sense that several Nations have powers/spirits that do similar things, right? A good example may be found between, say, Damballah (Da, the principle of First Motion, is *incredibly ancient* and gave it’s name to Daome/Dahomey, a kingdom found in the northern part of West Africa) and the Simbis, water-related serpent spirits that come to us from deeeeeeeeep in the Kongo/Angola basin; noone would assume these two types of spirits were the same spirits (because they’re not; their peoples were separated by some 2000 miles) but there are similarities between them in certain parts of their root characteristics and their ‘areas of expertise’, being snakes related to fresh waters and rains.
Vodou, however, maintains the spirits of both root peoples; thus, we have Damballah (in with the Rada spirits, who come from that area associated with the port city of Alada), and the Simbis (who are saluted in the Petro portion of the rites, MUCH of the Petro coming to us direct from the Kongo/Angola peoples).
I suppose a good parallel would be, say, the Virgin Mary sharing MANY of her qualities with the Chinese goddess Quan Yin; were there to be a Vodou like phenomenon where both religions needed to combine to stay alive, you may picture the songs for the Virgin being heavily influenced by Roman Catholic Church music, while Quan Yin’s songs would have a decidedly Asian air and presence to them… as the music associated with both Powers would very clearly show where they were inherited from.
For us, study the music and the way the dances move, and you pinpoint the exact spot/home kingdom the spirit came from.
But…. that adds some wrinkles in public Vodou education; lemme explain why and how.
Lets look at one of Vodou’s single most beloved Lwa…. LaSirene, the Queen of the Ocean.
LaSirene’s rhythms and dances are actually all Kongo; while she’s saluted towards the late middle of the Rada grouping (immediately after Agwe, who is seen as her husband… though he is pure Rada and saluted with Yanvalou rhythm) her songs and dances are all in Kongo rhythm, pointing to her coming direct to Vodou from the MamiWata spirits of the Congo/Angola basin. She rose to prominence in Vodou over the other female marine spirits of other Kingdoms due to our huge influx of Kongo peoples and was paired with Agwe in his portion of the rites, but maintained the rhythms that show what part of Africa she was brought to Haiti from.
This presents a certain problem in public Vodou education…. and *her* name is Yemaja.
Yemaja, the Orisha of the Sea (and also a Queen of the Ocean figure) comes to the religions that maintain her from the people now known as the Yoruba (who Haitians call the Nago); a different nation and a different pantheon. Yemaja stayed prominent among the religions drawn from Yoruba/Lukumi practice (such as Santeria in Cuba and Candomble in Brazil) but didnt have the numbers to push her to the top in Haiti (where the Kongo LaSirene occupied the same “seat” of Queen of the Ocean). The two ladies have *very* different personalities, LaSirene much more seductive and capricious than Yemaja, who is motherly and loving; the little secret is that Yemaja survives in Vodou, hidden under one of her praise names instead of her outright name, located deep in the Nago rites (which are usually known best in most houses for the Ogou spirits…. many of whom are also the Orisha, transformed ever so slightly by the voyage and assimilation into Haiti… Ogou Shango = Chango, Ogou Batala = Obatala, and so on…. There’s a great deal more to the Nago nation than the Ogou brothers; study the lesser known spirits who arent popular in American Online Vodou and you learn a great deal more about the people who brought their spirits to the island.)
Vodou never lost these spirits; they’re just hidden deeeeeeeeep, very deep, inside old songs and old rites that while VERY well known in Haiti and in the temples just dont seem to make it into American consciousness. There are a few reasons for that, and sadly none of them are nice…. as anyone who’s been around the online Vodou community can plainly see, there are *many* people who make quite a bit of money selling vodou practices, service kits, and whatnot to interested people… usually from within the Pagan community, but not always…. but those people find it easier to present a simpler image, “dumbing it down” for the consumer, than presenting the reality of the religion in all of its complex beauty. If you seriously hunt around and look deep into the Nago portion of the rites, weed through the songs and learn what they say, you will find Yemaja hidden under one of her old praise names, a title of what she is rather than naming WHO she is…. but, on the surface level, when you see LaSirene saluted you hear the Kongo rhythms and see Kongo dances… which only drives home the point that these two Ladies have *never* been the same spirit. Forcing them to be the same lady is a lie… one told either by people who want to present something simple in American-sized bites, or told by people who just dont know the truth about these spirits. Neither camp is one I would trust to be an authority on such matters.
Study what they say and how they say it, but pay especial attention to the things they dont say and how they cover up the holes in their knowledge. Dont fall in.
Calling LaSirene and Yemaja the same lady is nothing more than saying Quan Yin gave birth to Jesus.