Category Archives: Vodou

Spiritual Baths … What?

Originally published on January 4, 2015

Ayibobo la Sosyete,

One of the most common ways in which a Houngan or Mambo [a Preist or Priestess] of Vodou will perform treatments, healings, clear away ill luck, bring good luck, or perform many other works of magic will be through the performance of spiritual baths.  These baths are so second nature to us, that sometimes we forget that they are new to other people.  What we take for everyday knowledge is in fact not something that is that well known down here at the bottom of the world.  So, although we already have a page on the website which talks a little about spiritual baths, I thought it might be better to get into some of the practicalities of the bath, the hows and whys, so that those who are hearing about this form of magic for the first time can get some idea of what to expect.

I guess the place to begin is to explain what a bath is.  A bath is a mixture of herbs, waters, perfumes, colognes, flowers, fruits, and other items that are brought together to be administered to achieve a goal.  The goal of the bath may be cleansing, or the goal might be to bring luck, it might be to instill confidence, strength, or to wash away emotional issues, such as comittment phobias, it can be to bring love, or to help with a current love life situation, or it can be for healing.  There are other purposes as well, but this is a simple introduction.  Each bath is made from appropriate ingredients, sometimes recipes have been passed down through the Vodou family for generations.  We are lucky at Hounfo Racine Deesse Dereyale to have inherited many recipies from our spiritual mothers that have been used for Vodou for well over 200 years, and these recipes are still powerful and work well to achieve the end.

Contrary to the name though, a bath might not always be liquid.  There are two main kinds of baths.  The first is “dry baths” or those that do not involve water or liquid, but instead are made by using dry ingredients.  These may include putting certain ingredients, such as coins, various cuts of meat and other ingrediants into a brown paper bag and rubbing this over the body, there are baths where individual fruits are rubbed up the body starting at the feet and ending at the head, baths that involve various kinds of nuts and items such as toasted corn, and many others.  There are of course the baths made of waters and colognes, which are the “wet” baths.  Wet baths are the ones which will contain colognes, perfumes, alcohols, the juices of various fruits, often times various herbs, and oils.  These are administered over the body, however most do not require the recipient to be naked.  They are generally welcome to wear some light coloured clothing while the bath is administered.  They then remove those clothes, allow themselves to air dry and then dress in fresh new clothes of an appropriate colour.  There are exceptions to this rule, but they would be discussed in advance.

So, what can you expect when you come for a bath?  No matter what the bath is for, generally we will begin with some kind of ceremony.  A veve [ritual drawing to invoke the lwa] will be drawn on the floor, and opening prayers will be sung.  The Houngan or Mambo that is running the ceremony will welcome certain lwa, and then the bath itself will be created.  in some circumstances, such as if the Houngan or Mambo is coming to you, this will have been done in advance and the Priest will just bring the required bath that they have already made with them.  During the ceremony itself the bath will be created, with the various ingredients being added and mixed together.  This can sometimes take some time, as certain numbers of songs for various spirits must be sung to ensure that the bath has what we call “heat” or “fos” which is another word for spiritual power.  The herbs are crushed by hand, and waters and perfumes are added, altough some may have been partially prepared if the ingredients need to sit.  Typically we will ensure that the bath is warm as there is no need to take a cold bath.

Once the bath is prepared, the recipients of the bath will generally be seated outdoors weather permitting, in a private area.  The Houngan or Mambo administering the bath will then come with the bath mixture and say various prayers.  They will then administer the bath.  There are times when it is best that the lwa [spirits that we serve in Haitian Vodou] administer the bath themselves.  When this is required the lwa will possess the Houngan or Mambo and will then perform the bath.

So how is a bath administered?

Very few Vodou baths actually involve soaking in a tub.  You may be standing or sitting in a chair, and using a large white enamel cup, we will pour the bath over you, either begining at your head or shoulders, and going down to your feet, or beginning at your feet and moving up to your head.  The bath will be administered with a great deal of prayer and singing typically, and in some cases you may be given bunches of herbs to scrup with, or in the case of a dry bath, you may need to rub these into your body.  You will most likely to asked to focus on something particular while the bath is being administered as well.

When the bath is done, you will generally be shown to a private area where you can undress.  We then encourage you to air dry if this has been a “wet bath” before putting on the fresh new clothes.  There may be other instructions, but the Houngan or Mambo will give these out according to the bath.

Generally we will end the ceremony when you return with more singing.  Then the remains of the bath are collected up into a bag.

What happens with the remains?

This is very important.  In some cases, such as cleansing baths, you will be instructed to take the remains to a certain location and dispose of them in a certain way, other baths may require disposal in any number of ways, at a river, a crossroads, the beach, a forested area, or even burying in your back or front yard.  Sometimes the Houngan will dispose of the bath for you, but sometimes you must do it yourself to take full advantage of the bath.

What if I can’t come to a ceremony?

Some Houngan and Mambo will prepare baths for you that you can take yourself at home.  These are bottled and sent to you wth instructions on exactly how to take the bath, how to dispose of the remains, and any other instructions that might be relevant.  These baths are very good, although not as good as receiving the baths in person from a Houngan or Mambo.  If you are in a situation where you would like to take a bath, but can’t be present, then please let us know and we can discuss the options with you.

Some baths, such as cleansing baths, should be taken regularly.  For example, some people take a cleansing bath every month, or even more often, a Houngan or Mambo may teach you a recipe for this if you are a member of their house, or you can purchase regular cleansing baths from them.  Just remember that some baths require follow up baths, so a cleansing bath should always be followed up with the luck bath, to fill the areas you have cleaned out with luck.

Baths are a great way to maintain our spiritual and physical health, but, like our general physical health, they are not one off events.  A single cleansing bath is not going to keep you clean forever, because we are living being, interacting with the world.  A single luck bath won’t bring luck forever, because we collect ill luck from our environment.  In Vodou we combat this with our annual Christmas Baths.  Vodouwizan typically gather together on Christmas Day to undergo a series of cleansing baths that wash away all hinderance from the year gone.  Every ill thought, every negative emotion directed at us consciously or unconsciously, every negative experience, every bad thought, we wash them away, preparing for the new year.  On the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th we typically get together for our annual good luck baths which sets us up for a year of success.  Of course, according to our encounters in life we would top these up … if I’ve worked with a particularly negative client, or if my husband has had an argument with his boss, then a quick cleansing bath might be in order, followed by a simple 3 or 7 ingredient luck bath … these top ups, like going to the doctor when you feel a cough coming, keep us spiritually happy and well and keep things running smoothly in our lives.


The Bath is prepared with initiated hands. All of the herbs are rubbed into the waters and perfumes by those whose hands have been prepared and heated through the sacred rites of Haitian Vodou initiation, called the Kanzo. Although these rites are a strict secret, what can be known is that the hands of the initiated are prepared to hold magical heat which in turn ensure the success of the magical work.

 

The Holy Trinity

Originally published on November 1, 2014

Kwa Simbo!

Happy All Saints Day to All!

All Saints Day, November the 1st, is the day which marks the beginning of the Ghede season in Haitian Vodou. It is also the time where devotion to our ancestral spirits is at it’s peak. In the Catholic Church, November is the month of Souls, a time when we pray diligently for the dearly departed, those who have fallen asleep in the peace of Christ, and those who have not. To that end, each day of November, my household offers the rosary for our ancestors, those who we can name, and not name, those remember and those forgotten, those called and not called.  Although during this month we will feed our ancestors, we will make additional services to them, and we will work with them, we also want to pray for their spiritual elevation, and we can do this, in part, through the Holy Rosary.

Today we offered the Luminous Mysteries at the altar of the ancestors.  The Luminous mysteries for those of you that are not Catholic [or lapsed a little] are an addition to the rosary that came from His Holiness, Pope St. John Paul II.  As I was reflecting on the mysteries here though, the last bead of the first decade struck me.  You see in the first decade we are reflecting upon the Baptism of Our Lord by St. John the Baptist and the institution of this as a Holy Sacrement of the Church.   The meditation of the 10th bead however is the most interesting:  “The Divine Trinity is manifested:  The voice of the Father is heard as the spirit [in the form of a dove] descends upon the Sun.”

The theology of the Holy Trinity was not created by the Catholic Church, far from it.  The trinity finds it’s roots in the African traditions.  One of the most classic examples is found in the Yoruba people who define the Holy Trinity as Oloddumare, God the Great Archetect who created all things in the Universe, He is the manifestation most like “The Father” in Catholicism.  Then there is Olofin, the part of God who is closest to the Earth and who is experienced as God manifested in Ifa, who is most akin to God the Son, Jesus.  There there is Olorun, the part of God that encircles all things, the Holy Spirit if you like.  Haitian Culture has no problem in accepting the tri-nature of God, although in Haitian Vodou we talk less about that and rather insetad focus more on the generic “Bondye” or “Gran Met”, while realising that these are actually two different manifestations of God, just not needing to define it so much. But while I’ve always shared with my students the theology of the trinity of God, I never stopped to think about its manifestation in scripture.

We know that Jesus spent time in Africa and Egypt and that while in those areas it is most likely that he experienced certain religious instructions of at least saw the practices of the Priests of the African religions.  Although a jew, is this where the doctorine of the Holy Trinity found its roots in Christianity?  Is this Father, Son and Holy Spirit actually just a direct take from an African religious tradition transported directly to the Christian Faith?  If the moment of the Baptism of Christ is the first manifestation of the Holy Trinity, then is it not likely that it was a manifestation designed to pass on a piece of theology God wanted us to embrace and more fully understand?

I mentioned above that in Haitian Vodou the concept of the trinity is not lost.  God the Father, the part of God that is most abstract to humanity, that is furthest away from us is known as Gran Met, the Great Master, and sometimes as the Grand Archetect, a term most likely taken from the Freemasons.  The part of God that is closest to the Earth and encirles the Earth is Bondye, that part of God that we experience most often as the Divine Spark manifested within the Lwa and within each of us, what we call Fos, or what the Yoruba call, Ache, and then there is the God who is closest to manifestation, and this is where it gets complicated as for some Haitian Vodouwizan that is Jesus Christ, while for others this is another manifestiation of the Divine, and for some is the manifestation of O’dan.  Neither is right nor wrong, it simple will depend on the house and the theology that has been passed down through that house.

This knowledge of the trinity is the knowledge of God, and is the foundation of theology.  This is also why I do not beleive in removing the Catholic elements from Haitian Vodou.  You see, I do not beleive that the Catholic elements are there to fill somethingthat was missing when the slaves brought their religions from Africa, and I do not believe that it was added to “hide” Vodou from the slave owners.  Rather, I believe, and certainly everything I have learned seems to coincide, that when the African people were introduced to the Bible, they were not been given new information.  It is believed after all that Moses himself was a Hounon, a Priest of the Spirit Odan who in Haiti is now often served as a part of Danballa, the serpent Spirit, and his tales were not new to Africa, after all, he travelled through African soil, it is there that he met God, and it is there that he learnd his magic.  The same is true for many of the prophets of the Books of the Law, these people were already a part of African tales, their theology already present in African religion, except while the Christians had lost the magic that those early priets and saints carried, the African people had also maintained the magic.  In the BIble, and in the theology of the Catholic Church they saw their stories, their history, and they simple reclaimed it for themselves.  What did not fit with thier history they did not embrace, because it did not matter.  In Haiti, the reclamation became Haitian Vodou.

November is the month of the Ancestors and the Ghede … and in this month I think we really should reflect as a community on what makes Haitian Vodou Haitian.  It is the ancestors of Ayiti, those who fought and died for her freedom, those spirits who made the trip with the slaves across the transatlantic, those spirits that were found on the Haitian soil and all those who became ancestral spirits as a part of the process.  It is their wisdom which brought together the rites of the Dahomey, Yoruba, Allada, Djoumba, Congo, and all those others, together with the reclamation of thier history found in Catholicism that gave us Vodou, and to change it, to reject the Catholic now because of some preconceived notion of oppression I think is a disservice to our ancestors.

Kwa sou Kwa!

Houngan Liam

Vodou Etiquette 101

Originally published October 29, 2012

Haitian Vodou is built around strong families, strong societies, and strong houses. In order to maintain these strong communities, Vodou functions as a strict hierarchy on a foundation of politeness and respect.

There is a tendency amongst those who are new to Vodou or have found it only on the internet to act in a manner that is highly disrespectful to the Houngan and Mambo who are out there teaching. It isn’t that these people mean to be disrespectful, they often just don’t know any better. Also, western society has different standards when it comes to politeness and respect than does Haitian Vodou. It’s not too different, it’s not too difficult, but it’s often not mentioned or taught.

Here are some ground rules, some examples, and (hopefully) a guide to not accidentally putting your foot in it.

Firstly, titles. An Houngan is called Houngan. A Mambo is called Mambo. These people are the priests and priestesses of their religion. They have passed through the djevo. They have built good strong relationships with their lwa. They possess knowledge, learning and power. So we address them as ‘Houngan (Name)’ or Mambo (Name)’. Never just by first name, as this implies a familiarity and equality. If someone is teaching you, if they are an Houngan or Mambo and you are learning from them, you need to be respectful of their learning and experience. So you address them by title, as they are your superior in Vodou.

The titles ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ are also used in Haitian Vodou, but their use is limited to the particular circumstance of a spiritual child addressing their spiritual parents. The terms ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ are used as a term of respect in the hoodoo/conjure tradition, and it is respectful in that tradition to refer to someone as ‘Mama (Name)’ or ‘Papa (Name)’. Haitian Vodou is different. It is very impolite to call someone who is not your initiatory parent ‘Mama’ or ‘Papa’. It implies a relationship which does not exist. Just like we don’t call the teacher at school ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’, we don’t call our spiritual teachers by parental titles either. Once you are initiated into a house, however, you should address your Mama and Papa as ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’. Because not doing so would be impolite and disrespectful.

You can see why this is confusing to someone coming in from the outside. Once you’ve been living Vodou for a while and get the hang of it though, it becomes second nature.

An example of how Haitian views of politeness and Western ones differ is this: you always say hello to your initiatory Mama or Papa, even if they are in the middle of something. If your Mama is up to her elbows in laundry and talking on the phone at the same time, you still have to go say hello. If your Papa is involved in a conversation with several other people, you still go butt in and say, “hello Papa.” In western society, we would see it as rude to interrupt. In Haitian society, it’s rude not to.

It’s not just the terms you use to address Houngan or Mambo that are important, though. It’s your attitude too. Western society and education might teach us to question what we are told and to challenge our teachers. Hatian society says no! In Vodou, tradition is passed down from spiritual parent to spiritual child. The parent had to learn it the same way. It is passed down complete and intact, a system refined and set down in reglemen. Reglemen is the backbone of Vodou, the rules and the framework around which the practice of Vodou is built. When your spiritual parents or another initiated Houngan or Mambo teach you, they are passing down centuries worth of knowledge. You need to not only respect the teacher, but respect the teachings too. We don’t contradict Houngan or Mambo when they teach about Vodou, because they have knowledge from their family, their tradition and from the lwa themselves. They know what they are talking about. Two Houngan or Mambo of equal rank may debate points of difference between different houses and lineages, but someone ranking lower in the hierarchy needs to listen and to learn, and to thank the Houngan or Mambo that took the time to teach.

Remember that Vodou is a hierarchy. God, the ancestors and the lwa. Houngan and Mambo Assogwe, Houngan and Mambo Sou Pwen, Hounsi, and those that simply serve. Other titles come with other, particular jobs. At fet, everyone kisses the ground in front of the Assogwe. Even Assogwe have to kiss the ground in front of their initiatory parents, and will occasionally do so for those who are not if they have great respect for that person. You salute someone of a higher rank differently. You respect them and their role in the proceedings. This carries over into everyday life. It’s like a military chain of command, everyone shows respect to those who are above them in rank.

What it all comes down to really are a few basic rules. Address Houngan and Mambo by title. Be respectful of them as teachers, and of the subject matter that they are teaching. Be aware that rank exists, and that if you are new, just about everyone is going to outrank you, and act with that in mind. Say thank you when someone takes the time to teach you, help you, or answer your question. It doesn’t take a lot of time, but it will in turn help others to respect you.

The Machete!

Originally Published October 16, 2012

Wednesday is the day we serve Nachion Nago in Hounfo Racine Deesse Dereyale, the day of the Ogou lwa! So today I’m going to talk about a piece of equipment/accoutrement of the lwa we use a lot in Vodou… The machete.

The machete is a peasant’s weapon. Anyone can pick up a machete and fight with it, and fight with them they did. Machetes were the weapons of the Haitian revolution. The slaves and rebels of Haiti picked up their machetes and fought against their oppressors, and they won. So the machete has an important place in Vodou because it had a very important part to play in Haitian history.

The spirits who fight, the warrior spirits, are those of the Nago nation. Aside from St Jacques Majeur/Sen Jak Majer, the general of the army of the lwa, who carries a sword; these lwa all fight with a machete. When they come down in possession, we salute a machete to them. They will salute everyone present using a machete, they will use it to gesture, they will use it to do any work they feel the need to do. They may poke you with a machete to make a point (not too hard, though!), they may place the machete against your body and blow rum over it to give you strength. They use the machete to give blessings to those present who may need them.

They may also use the machete to prove they are in fact an Ogou come down in possession: they will place the tip of the machete against their body and bend it so the blade curves. (Try doing this against the ground. It requires a lot of pressure… No human could bend a machete against them like that!)

Ogou Feray once came down and made the statement that as long as a soldier has his machete and his rum, he is happy and has all he needs.

There are other lwa who use a machete who are not a part of the Ogou group of spirits. One of the most important and well known is Kouzen, the peasant farmer. Let’s not forget that the reason the Haitians fought with machetes is because they had access to them… And they had access to them because they are an agricultural tool. Kouzen uses his machete to help with cultivation.

So that’s lwa and their machetes. But what do Vodouisant do with machetes? Well, first and foremost, we have them on our altars. They are an important accoutrement of our lwa, so we have them there at the home we have made for our spirits. That also means that if one comes down, we can easily give them their machete as it is right there.

We also use machete to call the lwa. Two Vodouisant will take a machete each, and band the flat sides of the blades together to make a clang! clang! noise which attracts the attention of the Ogou. Similarly, a Vodouisant may beat the flat of the blade against the ground for the same purpose.

Machete are used in magical work, or travay, as well. If we are doing travay on the point of an Ogou spirit, we might place the machete flat across two bricks, and set a candle or a lamp on top of the blade. If we are doing work that requires a fire be made in alcohol on the ground, we might use the machete to fan the flames.

In the end, every Vodouisant should have at least one machete in their home. Everyone has at least one Ogou, after all.

Morality in Haitian Vodou

Originally published October 6, 2012

I want to talk about something that people new to Vodou seem to have a problem with, especially those who come from the Wiccan/Pagan community.  This isn’t specific to Vodou either, it goes for other African Traditional Religions.  It’s about morality, and how it applies to what we do.

Vodou doesn’t have an equivalent of teh ‘threefold law’.  It doesn’t have karma.  The only concept that is applicable is that in the end, you’ll have to stand before God and account for what you’ve done in this life.

That means that yes, sometimes people end up getting ‘cursed’.  That isn’t what I wan tto talk about here, but suffice  it to say that if a responsible Houngan or Mambo decides to take away someone’s luck and make their life worse, that person deserves it.

What I actually wanted to discuss was how this applies to magical work involving money and love.

I’m aware that in Wicca and other pagan paths, people refrain from casting love spells as they believe this impacts upon the free will of another person, and therefore is wrong.  Vodou doesn’t hold witht his point of view.  Magic done for love is incredibly common.  There are those who work selfishly to steal another’s spouse or force someone to love them, sure.  But there are also those who will work to bring that spouse back, stop someone from cheating, bring someone together with a new partner.  It needs to be said that if you get this work done by a reputable Houngan or mambo, they will first perform a reading to determine if the work ought to be done and what type of work it should be.  They will flat out refuse to bring two people togetehr if doing so goes against the will of God and the lwa.  If this isn’t an obstacle, they’ll do the work.

Same goes for money.  One doesn’t simply put it out there into the universe that they want prosperity.  it isn’t seen as ‘selfish’ or ‘greedy’ to have work done for money, or to pray and ask for it.  You need $1,000?  Ask for it!  Vodou is very practical int his respect.  If you don’t have money, you can’t live.  You need to eat, you need to pay your bills.  If you can’t afford it, you ask for it.  You might ask a lwa directly.  You might have an Houngan or mambo do work to get you a better job or a payrise.  But it’s not selfish to want better things for yourself.

People, I think, misunderstand Vodou and categorise it as ‘evil’ or ‘wrong’ partly becaus eof this practicality.  You want love?  You ask for it.  You want your man to commit and marry you?  Okay.  We can do that.  You need enough money to pay all your bills at the end of the month?  Fine.  Vodou takes practical steps to make things happen, but does so in accordance with the will of God.  No amount of magical work can change something if it is against the will of God.  But if it isn’t, Vodou can and does take action.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s the way things are.