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.