Voodoo Research Paper

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Voodoo is a religious tradition that originated in Haiti during the period of Gallic colonial bondage. Early in the colonial history of Hispaniola, the island that is now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the original Taino and Carib peoples of Haiti were exterminated by the Spanish. Africans of many cultural lineages were transported by force to Haiti, chiefly to function as agricultural slaves. There was some contact of class between at large Africans and lasting Tainos, but little is documented outside of the endurances found in Voodoo rites. Later, France ruled over Haiti and imported Africans chiefly from those parts of Africa colonized by France. During this period, Europeans from France and other states settled in Haiti.

There are denominations in Voodoo. The first, and most widely known, is Orthodox Voodoo. In this denomination, the Dahomean rite is given a place of laterality, and inductions are based chiefly on the Dahomean theoretical account. A priest or priestess receives the asson, a ceremonial rattling, as an emblem of priesthood. In this rite, a priest is known as a Houngan or sometimes Gangan, and a priestess is known as a Mambo. In Orthodox Voodoo, other “states” or lineages than the Dahomean are represented as sub-headings in the ceremonial order.

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The second denomination is called Makaya. In this rite, inductions are less luxuriant, and the priest or priestess does not receive the asson. A Makaya priest is called a Bokor, and a priestess is sometimes referred to as a Mambo or sorceress. The Makaya pattern is less uniform from parish to parish, and there is a stronger emphasis on thaumaturgy instead of faith.

The third denomination is the Kongo rite. It is almost entirely represented in the Kongo tradition. A priest or priestess of this lineage is called a serviteur. This rite is concentrated near Gonaives in central Haiti, and at the major annual Kongo festival that is held every year near Gonaives.

All of these traditions have several points in common: There is only one God, called Gran Met or Great Master. There are lesser entities called lwa, and though they vary from rite to rite, they are all considered accessible through spirit ownership. Possession is considered normal, natural, and highly desirable. However, there is a certain “etiquette” to possession. All rites employ supplication, vocals, drumming, costume, and dancing during ceremonies. Anyone may take part in Voodoo, and there are no gender, racial, age, sexual orientation, or national origin demands. Also, no one is asked to abdicate a preexisting spiritual association. In Haiti, the vast majority of Voodooists are also Roman Catholics.

There are assorted degrees of engagement, just as there are in most other faiths. A Voodoo ceremony is public, and anyone may come into the temple and observe. Singing and dancing are encouraged because there is no centralized order paying wages to the Houngans and Mambos. Because the temple is private property, it is considered normal for naive participants to give a little hard currency gift. This money is used to defray the cost of the drummers, food, and the general care of the temple and the Houngan or Mambo in charge. For some people, this is difficult to understand because in the Judeo-Christian tradition, priests, curates, and rabbis are salaried professionals.

There has been quite a bit of contention in the United States over the cultural association and engagement in African-derived faiths. Some corrupt Houngans or Mambos in Haiti have taken advantage of the lack of knowledge of a foreigner, execute fake ceremonies, and charge pathetic rates. Others have a silent apprehension that they will not reveal the “secret” knowledge of Voodoo, meaning right information and induction, to a non-black non-Haitian. However, other Houngans and Mambos hold the position that people are chosen by a sacred spirit called an lwa, and not the other way around. A Houngan or Mambo who refuses preparation and induction 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 reservations on the part of the Houngan or Mambo.

There are a series of degrees of induction in Orthodox Voodoo that are achieved as an individual grows in knowledge and standing in the Voodoo community. Persons who are at the initiatory class may participate in private ceremonies concerning other persons of their own class or lower. A person with a lower class may not participate in a ceremony conferring a higher class of induction because the knowledge imparted is secret and because they are not experienced enough to do so. 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 class prior to him or her, to the individual who initiated their inaugural Houngan or Mambo, and to that individual’s initiates, and so on. These relationships can become rather complicated, and there is a point in an Orthodox Voodoo ceremony where all Houngans and Mambos, sur point and asogwe, participate in a series of ritual gestures and embracings which serve to clarify and control these relationships. A naive individual who attends ceremonies, receives advocacy and medical treatment from a Houngan or Mambo, and takes part in Voodoo-related activities is called a Vodouisant. A naive individual who is associated with a particular peristyle, attends ceremonies regularly, and appears to be preparing for induction is sometimes referred to as a hounsi bossale.

The first class of induction confers the rubric “hounsi kanzo.” At a Voodoo ceremony, the hounsis kanzo wear white vestments, organize the choir, and are likely campaigners for ownership by an lwa.

The second class of induction is referred to as “si pwen.” The individual is then considered to be a Houngan or Mambo and is permitted to utilize the asson. Persons who are si pwen might be likened to curates of Christian denominations. At a ceremony, they lead supplications and vocals, conduct rites, and are almost always campaigners for ownership.

The third and final class of induction is referred to as “asogwe.” A Houngan or Mambo asogwe might be likened to a bishop in a Christian denomination. Persons who are asogwe may originate other persons as kanzo senp, si pwen, or asogwe. At a ceremony, they are the final authority on process, unless an lwa is present and manifests through the method of ownership. 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 symbolic of priesthood, meaning that they, and they alone, can confer the asson on another person.

In the countryside of Haiti, each household compound includes a family cemetery. The graves of family members are equally luxurious as the family can afford. Some resemble little houses built above ground, with the crypt below. The structures built for affluent families may even include a small sitting room, complete with a picture of the deceased and good quality chairs. When a visitor enters the family compound for an extended visit, courtesy requires that he or she make a small libation of water at the grave, so that the ancestors will welcome the individual. Family members and guests may also, at any time, make a “light.” Candles or beeswax tapers are lit, placed on the grave, and a short prayer is said.

In the city, the law requires burial in the city cemetery. Again, structures may be quite luxurious, and large padlocks and other security devices are used to prevent grave robbers from stealing the metal casket findings, bones, or other articles of the deceased.

A Vodouisant is buried with Roman Catholic ceremony, and a wake is held for nine nights after the death. The ninth night is called the “denye priye,” the last prayer. After the last prayer, the Catholic portion of the death rite is closed. At some point, either before or after the Roman Catholic ceremony, the Voodoo ceremony of “desounin” is held. In this ceremony, the individual’s soul and life force, and the primary lwa in the head of the individual, are ritualistically separated and consigned to their proper destinations.

One twelvemonth and one twenty-four hours after the decease of the person, the ceremonial retirement minute nan dlo, take the dead out of the water, may be performed. The spirit of the deceased individual is called up through a vase of water, under a white sheet, and ceremonially installed in a clean clay pot called a govi. The voice of the deceased person may speak from the govi, or through the mouth of another individual briefly possessed for the purpose. The govi is reverentially placed in the djevo, or interior room of the temple.

The head of the household of hereditary lwa is Baron. He is the Master of the Cemetery and defender of hereditary knowledge. He has many facets, including Baron Samedi, Baron Cimetière, Baron la Croix, and Baron Criminel. In all of his facets, he is a masculine lwa with a nasal voice who carries a walking stick or wand, uses profanity liberally, and dresses in black or violet. He is considered the last resort against deaths caused by magic, because even if a magical enchantment should bring a person to the point of death, if Baron refuses to “dig the grave,” the person will not die.

Baron, with his wife Maman Brigitte, is also responsible for repossessing the soul of the dead and transforming them into lwa Ghede. Baron may be invoked for cases of infertility, and he is the divine judge to which people may bring their appeals. Baron may be invoked at any time, and he can appear without being called, so powerful is he. He drinks rum in which 21 hot peppers have been steeped, and which no mere mortal could tolerate! His ceremonial foods are black coffee, grilled peanuts, and bread. He dances the unusually improvisational banda with great skill, and sometimes places his walking stick between his legs to represent a phallus. Baron is a very masculine lwa.

Maman Brigitte is considered to be the wife of Baron, Master of the Cemetery and head of all the deceased ancestors, known as lwa Ghede. The grave of the first woman buried in any cemetery in Haiti is consecrated to Maman Brigitte, and it is there that her ceremonial cross is erected. She, as well as Baron, is invoked to “raise the dead,” meaning to heal and save those who are on the point of death from illness caused by magic.

Maman Brigitte, like the rest of the Baron/Ghede configuration, is a tough-talking lwa who uses a lot of profanity. She drinks rum laced with hot peppers, so hot that a person not possessed by a lwa could never drink it. She is also known to pass hot Haitian peppers on the skin of her genitals, and this is the test to which women are subjected when they are suspected of “forging” possession. She dances the sexually suggestive and unusually artistic banda, and the virtuosity of her dance is legendary.

Maman Brigitte and Baron are the female and male parents who reclaim the psyche of the dead and transform them into lwa Ghede, taking them from the mysterious Waters where they were without awareness of their own individuality and calling them.

The lwa Ghede are a tremendous household of lwa, as many and varied as the psyches from which they originated. Since they are all members of the same household, religious kids of Baron and Maman Brigitte, they all have the same last name – La Croix, the cross. No matter what other name they bear, their signature is always La Croix.

Ghedes dress much like their male parent Baron – black or violet apparels, luxuriant chapeaus, dark spectacles, sometimes losing a lens, a walking stick or wand. They also dance the banda, but they retain more of the individual personality of the person from whom they originated.

The Ghede household, including their male and female parents, Baron and Maman Brigitte, is absolutely infamous for their use of profanity and sexual terms. The Ghede are beyond all penalty. Nothing further can be done to them, so the use of profanity among the usually somewhat formal Haitians is a way of saying, “I don’t care!” However, this profanity is never used in a cruel or abusive manner, to “curse someone out.” It is always humorous, even when there is a pointed message involved.

November 2, All Souls’ Day, commonly called Fet Gede, is a national holiday in Haiti. Catholics attend mass in the morning and then go to the cemetery, where they pray at family grave sites and make offerings to family graves. The majority of Haitian Catholics are also Vodouisants, and vice versa, so on the way to the cemetery, many people change clothes from the white they wore to church to the purple and black of the lwa Gede, the spirits of the deceased ancestors.

The lwa are lesser entities but more readily accessible. Aside from a generalized love for the children of Africa, the lwa require a common relationship with the believer. The lwa serve those who serve them. Lwa have well-defined features, including sacred numbers, colors, days, ceremonial foods, speech idiosyncrasies, and ritual objects. A lwa, therefore, can be served by wearing clothes of the law’s colors, making offerings of preferred foods, and observing sexual continence on days sacred to the lwa.

Voodoo lwa manifest their will through dreams, unusual incidents, and through the mechanism of enchantment possession. Possession is considered normal, natural, and desirable in the context of a Voodoo ceremony and under certain other circumstances. It is comparable to the New Age phenomenon of “channeling.”

The Rada lwa are chiefly, but non entirely Dahomean in beginning. Their general ceremonial colour is white, with the making that single lwa within this group may hold their ain colourss. They are considered beneficent, and in some instances so ancient as to be detached and decelerate to move. The beat of the Rada lwa are beaten on membranophones with wooden nogs keeping the stretched fell over the drum caput. The tegument of the largest membranophone, the maman, is cow fell, the other of goatskin. The membranophones are beaten with sticks.

The Rada lwa are chiefly, but not entirely, of Dahomean origin. Their general ceremonial color is white, although some lwa within this group may have their own colors. They are considered beneficent, and in some instances so ancient as to be detached and slow to act. The beat of the Rada lwa is played on membranophones with wooden nogs holding the stretched skin over the drumhead. The skin of the largest membranophone, the maman, is cow skin, while the others are made of goatskin. The membranophones are played with sticks.

The Rada lwa, in ceremonial order, are as follows: Legba, Marassa, Loco, Aizan, Damballah and Aida Wedo, Sobo, Badessy, Agassou, Silibo, Agwe and La Sirene, Erzulie, Bossu, Agarou, Azaka, the Ogoun group (Ogoun St. Jacques, Ossange, Ogoun Badagri, Ogoun Feraille, Ogoun Fer, Ogoun Shango, Ogoun Balindjo, Ogoun Balizage, Ogoun Yemsen).

There is no specific order to the appearance of these lwa within their own group. Their ceremonial colors are purple and black. The Gede group is off-color and obscene, and they provide amusing relief following the intense and disciplined effort of the Rada subdivision. The Barons and Brigittes are most mystical, and can be counted upon to prophesize amidst the most lewd dance steps. The Gedes are always willing to tell jokes and give advice.

After the Rada and Ghede groups comes the part of the ceremony dedicated to the Petro lwa. These lwa are predominantly of Kongo and Western Hemisphere origin. Their ceremonial color is red. They are considered ferocious, protective, charming, and aggressive toward antagonists. The beat of the Petro lwa is played on tanbou fey, membranophones with cord and a hoop holding the stretched skin over the drumhead. The membranophone heads are made of goatskin and are played with the palms of the hands. This part of the ceremony is hot, fast-paced, and exciting.

The Petro lwa, in ceremonial order, are as follows: Legba Petro, Marassa Petro, Wawangol, Ibo, Senegal, Kongo, Kaplaou, Kanga, Takya, Zoklimo, Simbi Dlo, Gran Simba, Carrefour, Cimitiere, Gran Bwa, Kongo Savanne, Erzulie Dantor (also known as Erzulie Zye-Wouj), Marinette, Don Petro, Ti-Jean Petro, Gros Point, Simbi Andezo, Simbi Makaya.

When the final three repeats of the last song for Simbi Makaya are finished, the ceremony is over.

The Haitian Creole word djab is derived from the French word diable, meaning Satan, but the term in the context of Haitian Vodou carries a different meaning. The congregation of a Houngan or Mambo who serves a djab is normally protected from possible acts of random aggression by the djab.

Djabs can also be specific to a particular place. In the limestone caves of Bode near Trouin in the South of Haiti, a djab named Met Set Joune, Master of the Seven Days, is believed to reside. Even if a Mambo, Houngan, or Bokor were to serve this djab in a peristyle located somewhere else, the limestone caves would remain the home of the djab.

Certain peculiarly dishonourable djabs can be invoked to drain the life energy of an individual and cause their death. When a djab is held responsible for an individual’s death, the Creole phrase is not “the djab killed the individual,” but instead, “the djab ate the individual.” This does not mean that the flesh of the individual is eaten cannibalistically by the Houngan, Mambo, or Bokor who undergoes possession by the djab, but rather that the djab has subsumed the individual’s life force.

An Orthodox Houngan or Mambo is under a curse never to cause harm; therefore, attempts to invoke djabs are more often made by Bokors. However, an Orthodox Vodou clergyperson may summon a djab and even direct it to kill an individual if the individual is a murderer, a repeat thief, a repeat rapist, and so forth.

People of many different religions create altars. Even people who do not belong to any particular religion may set aside a corner of a room where they sit and think, meditate and pray, do yoga or play an African drum. Many times they create unplanned altars which include many of the same objects: flowers, rocks and crystals, sacred symbols, photos or images of ancestors, or of members of the extended human family, musical instruments, candles, incense, books on religious topics.

Since most people living in the United States cannot begin their practice in this faith by attending Vodou ceremonies, one of the first things we can do is to build an altar. The altars of Vodou are as varied as the individuals who practice the faith. In a sense, a peristyle itself is an altar, large enough for the believers to dance around the centerpost, play drums, perform sacrifices, undergo possession. Within the peristyle, there are sometimes areas dedicated to a particular lwa. Attached to the peristyle are smaller rooms called djevo or bagi, in which the ceremonial objects of a Vodou society are kept. However, these objects, which include sacred rattles and clay pots called govi, are of no particular use to those who have not undergone initiation.

Suggestions for constructing a basic altar:

Get a white cloth and wash it in water with some of your first urine of the morning. For urine, you can substitute vinegar. Let the cloth dry outdoors in the sun if possible. Cover your altar table with it and then sprinkle it lightly with your favorite scent or Florida Water.

Next, get four small rocks from near your house, clean them by scrubbing with salt and rinsing well, then put one at each corner of your altar. Clean a wineglass, cut glass bowl, or other vessel and fill it with water. Do not use metal or earthenware – glass or crystal only. Put it at the center of your altar and add three splashes of anisette or white rum as you bless the water.

Into a glass candleholder, place some earth from near your house and a few grains of salt. Take a white taper and, with pure vegetable oil, rub the taper from the center up to the top and then from the middle down to the base. As you oil the taper, direct your energy into your hands and pray for spiritual awareness. Firmly place the taper into the candleholder and put it in front of the glass of water.

Around the altar, you will place other objects according to the deity principles you wish to serve. An ancestor shrine will have images of deceased ancestors, Ogoun’s altar will have a machete and a red handkerchief, Erzulie Freda’s altar will have flowers and jewelry, and so on.

The first step in Vodou practice:

However you have built your altar, it is a doorway between the world of human beings and the world of the ancestors and the lwa. Let it get dusty, let the water become cloudy and stale, use it as a convenient resting place for house keys and pencils, ignore it, and you will find yourself tired, drained, unlucky, and uninspired. Treat it with respect, keep it immaculately clean, visit it frequently, and you will be rewarded with energy, spiritual growth, personal triumphs, and remarkable coincidences.

Your ancestors love you. They will come and visit you, accept your offerings, and guide you on your way. They will teach you, protect you, fight for you, and heal you. They will bring you messages through your intuition and your dreams.

Obtain a picture of a deceased relative of yours whose love for you is beyond question. If you have no deceased relatives whom you can remember well, either by blood or by adoption, you can take a picture of a person who represents to you hereditary wisdom and love and give that person a name. You may also obtain pictures of ancestors from all branches of the human race.

Place these pictures behind the glass of water on your altar, either propped up on picture stands or attached to the wall behind your altar. This wall can also be draped in white fabric, and pictures pinned or tacked to it. Arrange the pictures until their grouping seems right to you. You may choose to work with one picture or many.

Sit in front of your altar. Ring a small bell or shake a ceremonial rattle to signal the start of your meditation. Light the white taper on your altar and, if possible, light some coconut or vanilla incense. Tie your head with a white fabric if you wish. Gaze into the water in the central goblet. Relax and do any meditation exercises you are familiar with. Deep breathe, counting backwards from 10 to zero. Think about your chosen ancestor. If possible, recall scenes from the past in which you appear with that ancestor. Feel the love between you that connects you. Name the name of your ancestor out loud, repeatedly. Tell the ancestor that you love him/her and that you want to work together with him/her. It is a basic tenet of Vodou that the living and the dead work together to help each other.

When you feel the presence of your ancestors, pour a small amount of water three times on the floor to welcome them. Repeat this ritual frequently until it becomes a comfortable routine. Within a week or two, you should prepare an ancestral feast to offer to your ancestors.

This feast should include foods that were favored by your ancestors in life, with the exception that the food should not be salted. Place each type of food in a bowl and place a white candle in the center of the bowl. Liquid offerings can be placed in glasses, and the candle should be placed in a holder next to the glass. Touch each plate or bowl to your forehead, heart, and pubic area, and then breathe on the food. Talk to your ancestors, remind them that they were once part of the world of the living, and that you will one day join them. Ask them to drive away all evil, such as poverty, illness, unemployment, weariness, strife, and sadness. Ask them to bring you all that is good, including love, money, work, health, joy, friendship, and laughter.

Light the candles, place the food on the altar, and leave the room. When the candles have finished burning, and preferably the following morning, take the food and throw it at the foot of a large tree. If that is not possible, put it in a garbage bag and dispose of it separately from other garbage. Wash the plates, bowls, and glasses, scrub them with salt, and put them away. Do not use them for ordinary meals. This is how an ordinary Voodoo ceremony is performed.

I hope that by reading this study on Voodoo, you gain a better understanding of the origins and spiritual aspects of the religion. I think that Vodou is one of the most criticized and misunderstood religions in our country today. It is not just about harming people and sticking pins into a six-inch replica doll of your worst enemy, but about honoring and reconnecting with your deceased ancestors and loved ones.

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