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.