Monthly Archives: December 2016

Weight Loss and Smoking: Yes We Can Help

Originally published April 12, 2015

I really feel sorry for people who are trying to lose weight and/or quit smoking. It’s tough, your whole body and mind are basically sabotaging your efforts because our body chemistry is loopy, and even well meaning people tend to make you feel rubbish about it. So it’s no wonder that people turn everywhere they can for help, and one of the places that they turn to is hoodoo/conjure/rootwork or ATR/ADR forums and groups.

I applaud them for that. It isn’t easy to ask for help, and these people literally reach out to strangers on the internet who ought to have the expertise to help them within their particular religion/field. But what these people actually get is a lot of unwanted health advice, and stories about how other people quit using such and such a method and how it worked amazingly for them.

I guarantee you, everyone who has tried to lose wight or quit smoking has heard every crash diet, hypnosis theory, quack medical treatment, exercise regime, visualisation technique, and ‘detox’ regimen. They’ve probably tried at least half. The people who come to a hoodoo or ATR group for advice do not want to hear the experiences of others quitting smoking cold turkey in two weeks, or dropping weight using cider vinegar and cinnamon. They have tried that stuff. They want the advice they actually asked for: how to use hoodoo or the ATRs to help them quit smoking/ or lose weight.

It can be a bit of a tricky one, because both hoodoo and the ADRs came together as traditions way back before we knew that smoking was bad, and obesity was worse. Considering that these traditions sprung from slavery, the use of tobacco and being able to have enough food to put on extra weight was seen as a good thing, signs of wealth and status. When you take that into account, there are no traditional workings that you can do to make weight loss happen or to make someone quit smoking, because they are modern problems.

You have to break it down more holistically, and look at the whole problem. Smoking is essentially a bad habit and addiction. Hoodoo has plenty of different kinds of work that can be done to break bad habits and addictions. Often those works focus on breaking a gambling addiction, but there is no reason the same roots can’t be repurposed to help break a smoking addiction. Similarly with weight loss: you can break the bad eating habits.

If you approach someone in one of the ADRs for help, you’re most likely going to be prescribed a bath. Hoodoo does baths too, and taking a bath to cleanse away any negative thoughts and habits is probably the absolute best thing you can do to help quit smoking or lose weight. The next thing you need to do is to clean out your house. Chinese Wash is brilliant for that, as it removes any negativity from the home. Then all you need to do is replace the negative habits which have been cleansed away with good ones.

As I said, there are no traditional formulas for losing weight or quitting smoking. The closest we come is an old method for gaining weight, whereby you buy it from someone else in a monetary transaction. If you can find someone skinny who is willing to buy a few kilos off you, then great. Otherwise, you need to look at building up good health. For weight loss, you could be prescribed a bath for good health, you could carry a mojo hand* designed to help you make good food choices, you could work a large candle to help your weight slowly melt away. You could carry a mojo to give you the mental strength to overcome your addiction to smoking, or a root like Master Root or High John the Conqueror wrapped in a petition to give you the strength and self control to quit.

There is a lot you can do within our traditions, even if we have to create new ways of working within those traditions to deal with modern problems. If we can do things within these traditions, then there really is no excuse to offer unsolicited health advice to people who are asking for an entirely different kind of help. Yes, hoodoo/conjure/rootwork or Vodou or one of the other ADRs or ATRs can help you. Yes, you can ask for help from a rootworker or a member of the priesthoods of one of those religions, and you should receive the help that you ask for.

Let’s stop judging, let’s stop telling people to ‘visualise’ or ‘detox’ or whatever, and let’s start actually helping. Our traditions have moved into the modern age, and it’s time we shared our knowledge with those who are dealing with modern problems and give them they help they are actually asking for

*We actually make and sell a weight loss mojo hand in the webstore.

Egg Cleansing in Hoodoo

Originally published February 4, 2015

The internet has had a detrimental effect on many traditional aspects of hoodoo, I’m sad to say.  On the one hand, it has helped spread the traditions and kept them alive for a whole new generation, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to learn even half of what I know without it.  On the other, it has become very easy to spread misinformation, which is then copied and passed off as ‘ancient’ or ‘traditional’.  One aspect of the tradition where I see this a great deal is with egg cleansing.

I often see the practice referred to as ‘limpia‘ or ‘egg limpia‘, which is not the corretc term at all.  The word ‘limpia‘ is simply the Spanish word for cleansing.  Hoodoo isn’t a Latin American tradition, Spanish is not the language in which we talk and pray and practice, so we should stick to the term ‘egg cleansing’.  It’s simple, uncomplicated, and sums up exactly what is happening.  No mystery, no fancy foreign name, jut plain and simple rootwork.

Egg cleansing in hoodoo is incredibly simple.  It’s very practical, very easy to do, and once it’s done it’s done.  Egg cleansing in other traditions can be more complex, and some of this had leaked into and been passed off as hoodoo.  Some people fel the need to invent whole new backgrounds for the tradition, particularly in the case of a book claiming egg cleansings originate in Mesoamerican shamanism.  Uh…  No.

The practice of egg cleansing in hoodoo derives, as far as I can tell, from two different traditions.  One is the grimoire known as ‘The Black Pullet’, a European book which was very popular in the hoodoo/conjure/rootwork tradition, and contributed greatly to the hoodoo ideal of the magical black hen.  The second is the African practie of using a surrogate to take in all the negativity of a person, and destroying that surrogate.

In hoodoo, the egg used for cleansing should come from a black hen.  The egg is taken and rubbed down the body from head to foot, while prayers for cleansing and purification are recited.  Psalm 51 is commonly used for cleansing in hoodoo.  After the egg had been rolled down the body, it is thrown into a crossroads or at a tree.

People are talking a lot about divining the egg yolk at this point, but thats not a thing in hoodoo.  Some African Dispora Religions do divine the yolk, but that is not a part of the hoodoo/conjure/rootwork tradition at all.  There is one yolk divination performed in hoodoo.  Once the egg is thrown at the tree or into the crossroads, it is examined to see if there’s any crap inside it.  If there are hairs, blood, black stuff, bits of baby chicken, or other grossness then teh cleansing is not complete.  In which case, you grab another egg and go again.  If the cracked egg looks normal, the cleansing has been successful.

Here are the steps again:
1. Take a fresh egg from a black hen
2. Roll it dwn the body of the person beaing cleansed from head to foot, while praying Psalm 51 or similar cleansing prayer
3. Throw the egg hard and far away, at a tree or into a crossroads
4. Check to see if the cracked egg is clear or dirty.
5. If the egg doesn’t look normal and has gross stuff in it, repeat the process until the egg is clear.
And that’s it.  It’s very, very simple.  A lot of hoodoo is very simple, very practical, and very accessible.  I understant why people would want to make things complicated: sometimes it’s just hard to accept that something could be so simple and yet so effective, so we feel like there must be more to it.  Well, there’s a lot more to cleansing in hoodoo, and there’s a lot more regarding black chickens, but that’s your basic egg cleansing.

Don’t go buy the book, don’t go find a teacher or egg limpia guru, just grab some black hen eggs and get to it.

“Just Burn Some Sage” … Spiritual Hygeine Part II

Originally published January 15, 2015


From watching the various groups on Facebook, and the various comments I get on my instagram account, it is clear to me that most people are not well educated on maintaining their own personal spiritual hygiene. Perhaps that is why this subject is so close to my heart, and why I feel the need to speak on it so often. It certainly comes up in my day-to-day life enough to keep me inspired to talk about it, and as long as the spirits keep putting this subject in front of me, I guess I will keep talking about it.

In most online communities that I belong to, I see people asking for advice on spiritual cleansing. People say that they feel they are cursed, that someone has claimed to have cursed them, they just feel unlucky, like there is a spirit in their home, negative energy, that their home is not peaceful, that they are surrounded by arguments, etc. It does not seem to matter what the belief in the cause is, the answer on most groups seems to be the same: “smudge yourself”, or “smudge your home” or “smudge everything”. It would appear that the idea of “smudging” with sage has become a cure all for even the most difficult problem. The dead have been sent to torment you… No problem, you can just smudge them!

This idea of being able to smudge away all of one’s problems is not found in Native American theology. While the very act of smudging with sage as a form of purification certainly does stem from certain tribes, it is not a “cure all” and nor should it be treated as such. To do so is worse than cultural misappropriation, because instead of just taking a piece of their culture and using it according to ones own ends, in this case it has been completely stripped of the spiritual foundation on which it was created and given power beyond any that the tribes that use smudging ever attributed to it.

From the Native American Pow Wow @ JSU,

The act of smudging is a spiritual ritual in and of itself, and the ritual begins when the white sage is harvested. During the act of harvest, offerings are made to the white sage bush, and it’s task explained to it. It may then be mixed with other ingredients such as cedar and sweetgrass, or it may remain by itself; but you honour the sage by making it into the bundle that will be used for the smudging, either in silence, or with certain sacred songs. Once that bundle is prepared and prayed over, it is given to the medicine man or woman (or an elder who has been trained), along with a sacred fan which is prepared with many beads. This sage bundle is then lit and through sacred breath it is brought to a ember which can then be smudged.

The act of smudging is not a solo affair. There is the person to be smudged, the one that will do the smudging, and at least one drummer. The smudge is placed into an earthern bowl, or a bowl made of wood, and the fan moved to circulate the smoke. As this is done the medicine man or elder will sing the chants to Mother Earth, the various beings on the planet, the four legged and the six legged and eight legged, those with tails and fins, the stone people, and the ancestors. The drums will play, their sacred songs assisting to cleanse away all that is not a direct blessing from the Great Spirit.

As the smudge of the person is finished, the medicine man begins his sacred dance around the lodging, cleansing the space around and thanking Mother Earth for his time to stomp. With his smoke and his chant and his drum and his prayer bundles which he ties to the roof he makes the space anew, and he brings in the many blessings of the Great Spirit. With tiny medicine bundles he transforms old into new, and as he pours his final libations to Mother Earth and the spirits he does so knowing that the medicine is taking effect and change has occured.

What’s certain here, is that even for the cultures where smudging originated, it is not as simple as taking some white sage, or purchasing a premade “smudge stick” from your local new age store and wafting it around. As you know from reading my other blogs on this subject, even if you do manage to clear away whatever you are clearing, you still need to fill that space, that energy, with something new and beneficial.

The act of smudging is not limited to sage, nor is is limited to Native American culture. Certainly in Native American culture sage is not the only herb to be used when smudging. Different tribes have different formulae, although the most common I’ve heard of is sage with cedargrass or sweet grass. This combination is also excellent for welcoming back the beneficial spirits, or the good medicine, once the negative has been driven out. In hispanic cultures the act of smudging has continued with tobacco or cigars. A priest or priestess of one of the ATR’s, or an espiritista (a gifted medium) will take a cigar, light it, and once it is going they will reverse the cigar, place it it their mouths lit end first, and blow the smoke out of the clipped end. This smoke can be blown over an entire person, statue, or even room or home. This form of smudging can have many purposes, to cleanse, to protect, to empower, to bless and to heal.

Ogou Feray in possession of Houngan Liam using Tobacco Smudging as a form of healing.

What empowers this work, or this kind of smudging, is the spiritual force of the one performing the work. It’s not as simple as just blowing on a cigar. One must have absolute control of their spiritual force, what in Haitian Vodou we call Fos, and they must direct that force in accordance with the goal they are seeking to achieve. That is why this kind of treatment is performed by the spirits themselves when they come in possession.

The message I am trying to get across here is that cleansing and spiritual hygiene take work. They are not things to be taken for granted, and nor are they simple. A quick waft around of sage will not keep you spiritually clean. It will not remove negativity from you or your home, nor will it get rid of ghosts or other nasties… Sorry to burst that bubble. Combined with prayer, fasting, songs, and a strong will it may help, but that will very much depend on the skill of the practitioner.

So, having been so mean to the idea of a smudge fixing everything… What can I suggest to help you keep your home and environment spiritually clean? Well, the first step is for things to be physically clean. You can not be spiritually clean when you are surrounded by mess and clutter. It is very important that your home and environment be clean and well cared for. You can make the work of spiritual hygiene a part of your regular cleaning schedule. When you wash your floors, throw in some pine needles and lemon juice with the water and detergent. You can use a product like Chinese Floor Wash… I have to admit we use this in our house for everything. We have it diluted in spray bottles that we use for dusting and cleaning surfaces, we have it in it’s original form for cleaning stainless steel, and we put it in buckets of hot water for mopping floors. We will even spray it lightly on the carpets before vacuuming. The great thing about it is that it smells divine, and as soon as it’s cleaned out all the nasties it brings in good luck. It’s combination of Asian grasses is designed to bring luck and prosperity. Chinese Floor Wash is available from Kiwi Mojo… We believe in this product so much that we use it ourselves: we make it right here, with a lot of prayer.

If you don’t have the money to purchase products or herbs, another option is to head right to your pantry, pour a handful of salt into a bucket and get to cleaning… If you have a lemon tree add a couple of lemons as well, and your house will smell fresh. Just remember that while you’re cleaning you need to be focused on the cleansing… You need to get that mess out, and you need to be praying. A great prayer is to recite while you’re cleaning is the 51st Psalm. You can create your own prayer, or even a song. Just get in there, stay focused, use your force, build up a sweet and you’ll find your home spiritually clean and happy.


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

Poppets/Doll Babies in Hoodoo

Originally published September 11, 2013


Although hoodoo is a tradition that is primarily African American in its origins, the concept of poppet magic is actually European in origin. The concept was adapted from Germanic practices, and has had local herblore and personal concern concepts added to it to make it an American, hoodoo style piece of conjure.

You ideally take an article of clothing belonging to the person you’re working, and sew your poppet together from that. Poppets were typically always made from the clothing of the target, particularly used clothing and preferably from a sweaty smelly area of the body. If it’s love/lust work and you can get used underwear to make your poppet with, then yay you! If worn unwashed clothing was not an option, then plain fabric like calico was used, or whatever scrap fabric was to hand. Red flannel would also be common.

You then take the poppet and stuff it with Spanish Moss and any herbs you might want to use. If you manage to get personal concerns of the person you are working, but don’t have an article of their clothing to make the poppet with, you stuff them inside as well. If you have their clothing but it isn’t enough to make a poppet with, or if you want to be more discrete, you can stuff it inside the poppet instead of making the poppet with it.

The most important step is to baptise the poppet and bring it to life. You baptise it in the name of the person you are working, usually by saying, “I baptise you <name of the person you are working>, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” repeated three times. This is accompanied by drops of whiskey, Hoyts Cologne, or holy water to properly baptise the poppet. This process of calls the person’s spirit into their proxy: the poppet.

From this point on, anything that is done to the doll is done to the person it is baptised for. You talk to it and tell it what you want. You can cradle it and stroke it and keep it close to you if you want to draw in your target. You can torture the poppet if you want to punish your target. You can bathe it and surround it with other works for healing or cleansing. You can place it somewhere safe for protective work.

When done, you can dispose of the poppet in an appropriate manner. Burial in your yard if you drew in a lover and he/she stayed, throwing it in a river if you want the person carried away from you, at a crossroads if you were doing bad things to it.

Now here’s what poppets/doll babies are NOT, because there is some confusion.

They aren’t voodoo dolls. Vodou doesn’t use proxies the same way hoodoo does, nor does Vodou use dolls the same way. Dolls in Vodou are commonly given to particular spirits as offerings, or made into repositories for a spirit. The common fallacy of the ‘voodoo doll’ is entirely non-African in its origins. As stated above, it’s European.

Poppets aren’t offerings to spirits, devotional objects, or things to go on an altar. They are TOOLS. They are made to be WORKED. They are created for a specific purpose, which is to be a proxy for a particular human being. You could make a doll as an offering I guess, but not a hoodoo style poppet/doll baby.

I’m not sure where the idea for making poppets in colours came from, but it isn’t a traditional thing, although the colour symbolism might be. Poppets aren’t made for ‘success’ or ‘money’ or ‘dark arts’. Poppets were typically always made from the clothing of the target or from plain fabric, and they are only ever used to work a PERSON. If they had any decoration at all, it was to make them physically resemble the target of the work. Having fabric ready to go in every colour of the rainbow just in case you needed to make a poppet isn’t something that would have happened in the big heyday of rootwork. Hoodoo originated with the poor, and stockpiling fabric isn’t something most people could have afforded. Much cheaper and easier to raid someone’s dirty laundry, or use whatever scrap fabric you had to hand.

Doll babies don’t work unless you baptise them, they exist solely as a means to work a person without them being physically present. They are an old and powerful form of work, and the concept has become very strongly entrenched in the hoodoo/conjure/rootwork tradition. They rely on the Christian concept of baptism and the idea of sympathetic magic to work, but they serve their purpose well.

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.

ROLES IN VODOU: Who does what, and why.

Originally published September 30, 2012

When you go to Catholic church, what do you see? One or two priests, maybe the Bishop, several altar boys, the musicians and choir, and a lot of people just there to worship. So why, in Vodou, has there been a huge emphasis on kanzo and the priesthood?

Let’s explore this in the asson lineage of Haitian Vodou.

The fact is, not everyone is called to the role of Houngan or Mambo. Just like not everyone who is Catholic is called to be a priest, not everyone who practices Vodou is supposed to be either. No matter what the internet tells you, kanzo and the priesthood is not the be all and end all of Vodou.

So if you’re not called to the priesthood, what is your role in Vodou? You may kanzo or go through a lave tet to become an hounsi. Specific hounsi may assist an houngan or mambo while they salute a particular spirit, they may be mounted by a spirit during possession, and they often run around helping out to keep ceremonies running smoothly. Hounsi are the backbone of the Haitian Vodou congregation. Most of the attendees at any Vodou ceremony will be hounsi; they will sing the songs, dance the dances and welcome the lwa when they come.

Then there are people who won’t initiate at all. They will come to ceremony to receive the blessings of the lwa. They will come to Houngan and Mambo for treatment and advice. They will often have a home altar where they serve the spirits that walk with them, and this information is often passed down through families. This is very common in Haiti, but not particularly feasible in parts of the world where Vodou is not well known or accepted (and where there is not a Vodou ceremony just down the road every weekend!).

There are many other roles in a Vodou Society that are separate from the priesthood or the role of hounsi, although hounsi, Houngan or Mambo may (and often do) perform these roles. There are drummers, song leaders, pretsavann (who recite Catholic liturgies), Manman Houyo (the person who looks after initiates in the djevo), La Place (master of arms), flag bearers and the konfyance (person who looks after the badji and the belongings of all the lwa).

Each role requires a different level of responsibility, and not everyone is in a position to take on that responsibility. An Houngan or Mambo Assogwe must serve every spirit that wants to be served by them. They must serve the spirits of their house, the spirits who walk with them, and each spirit that walks with each one of their spiritual children. They must hold fetes for the lwa, they hold initiation ceremonies. This costs money to do, and requires space in which to do it. Not everyone is in a position to take on this responsibility, spiritually or otherwise. Very few people are called to this rank, and it cannot be bought for any amount of money. No matter what the internet would have you believe.

Houngan and Mambo Sou Pwen are priests initiated at a level that is beneath that of Houngan or Mambo Assogwe. They are the junior priesthood, and assist the Houngan and Mambo Assogwe of their house. They serve the spirits of their house and those that walk with them. They salute spirits during ceremonies, they perform readings and do magical work. They take on the responsibility of the priesthood, commitment to their house, and all the obligations which come with doing work for clients. If one is called to the priesthood of Haitian Vodou, it is likely to be to this rank.

The responsibilities of an hounsi are comparatively few. They attend fet, help with the running of fet, and take care of their own spiritual escort. Hounsi is the rank most commonly seen at a Vodou ceremony. Hounsi is the rank to which most people are likely to be initiated if they are called to Haitian Vodou. Not everyone can be a priest, and not everyone should be. Not everyone has the time, the money, the resources, the inclination or the calling to become a priest. Priesthood is not something to be taken lightly. You can’t buy it, you shouldn’t expect it.

There’s nothing wrong with being an hounsi. There’s nothing wrong with simply being called to serve. A church is not full of priests and bishops, it has a few of these and many members of the congregation. Vodou is the same. People in Haiti understand this, but outside of Haitian culture and due to the influence of the internet, people are led to expect that they can and should kanzo to the priesthood just because they are called to serve the lwa. It’s not all about kanzo. It’s not all about the rank you hold.

Vodou is about God, about service, about love and healing and beauty and happiness. You can come to a ceremony and sing and dance and experience all the wonderful things Vodou has to offer, and you don’t need to be a priest to do it. To be a member of a house, to have lwa who walk with you, to serve them and receive their blessing into your life is a wonderful, wonderful thing. We need to stop focusing on rank, and start focusing on the relationships we have with the lwa and how this benefits our lives.