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“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.


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.

ALTARS AT HOME: Some thoughts on what to do, what not to do, and why you don’t need an entire room full of them.

Originally published September 27, 2012

I’ve seen pictures on the internet, and I’m sure many of you have, of beautiful altars that take up the entire wall of one room, or take up the entire room itself. We’ve seen pictures of these beautiful altars, and think we need those at home. Right?

Wrong. A lot of the images of Vodou altars posted online are those that belong to Houngan and Mambo who lead their own house and maintain their own temple. They are going to have big altars, because they need to accommodate all the spirits of that entire house. They have the space to do so, and they need to do so because that is what is required of them as the head of a Vodou society. You might see an image of a table that takes up an entire wall but not an entire room… That might be the altar of an Houngan or Mambo. The problem is, a lot of newbies look at those altars and decide they want one just like it.

They don’t need one.

Someone who isn’t even initiated doesn’t know their permanent escort of spirits. They don’t know who needs to go on that altar. They certainly don’t need a huge space for all their spirits AND room for travay (magical work), offerings and whatever else may end up on an altar.

So let’s take a look at what the average new to Vodou person wanting to build an altar for their lwa is going to need.

You’ll need an altar for your ancestors. In Vodou, our ancestors are very important to us. If you skip ahead to building an altar for lwa, you are missing out on creating a crucial connection with your ancestors. Don’t skip them. Their space is important, their elevation is important. They are close to you, they want to help you, so start with them. You can find more information about ancestors and how to serve them here, on the ancestor page.

Assuming you have an ancestor altar already set up, if you haven’t had a lesyon from an houngan or mambo to determine your escort of spirits, you’ll only need to build an altar to Papa Legba. Instructions on how to do this are also conveniently located on our website, right here.

Otherwise, your Houngan or Mambo will have given you a list of spirits to start serving, maybe only one or two. You’ll have just started serving them, so you won’t need a huge space. You’re just beginning to integrate them into your life, so it’s better to put them somewhere you can make them a part of your life. In a separate room, on a giant table, that’s not going to work for you. On the top of a bookshelf in your living room, on a side table in your study, that’s much more likely.

You only need a small space. You can’t recreate, in one week as a non-initiate, the kind of altar that an Houngan or Mambo has spent years building. An altar is an evolving thing. It will grow and change over the years, but it needs to start small.

To start with, you might only have a few pictures you printed off the internet of saint images, maybe a few small trinkets, statues or other items you picked up for your lwa. You might start with a few keys, a pipe and some tobacco for Legba, a bottle of sparkling wine and some lipstick for Ezili Freda, a bonsai tree for Gran Bwa. That’s fine. You can get statues later. You can purchase items made specifically for those lwa, such as decorated bottles. But you still don’t need a big space!

Vodou is not a religion that one practices in the home by oneself. Vodou is about community. The Houngan and Mambo that head their own houses have such large altars because they need them, and because they’re able to be visited by members of that house. They need space to make ceremonies, to do work with the lwa, and places to put all the items they have collected for their spirits over the years they have been practicing Vodou.

For example, I consider that my altar at home is larger than it needs to be. It’s the top of a sideboard. It has machetes for my Ogou spirits, a large porcelain doll, four statues, three wanga paquet, some govi style pots, a large skull and some small halloween bits for gede, and several other trinkets that I’ve collected for the spirits that walk with me over the nearly two years I’ve been serving them. The space I have is larger than I need it to be to fit everything that is on my altar. I also don’t use the altar at my house a great deal, because I have access to the altars of my Papas at Hounfo Racine Deesse Dereyale.

All you really need is enough space to put the items you’re giving your lwa, enough room to light candles on the altar and put down a couple of coffee cups. Any more room than that is just extravagant. You don’t need to cover an area the size of a dinner table with a giant altar to just one spirit. It’s not about the stuff. It’s not about having the biggest, flashiest most photogenic altar. It’s about connections with the lwa that walk with you.

Building an altar brings you closer to the lwa you are building it for. It gives you a space you can go to spend time with them. It shows that you’ve made room in your life for them. It brings the lwa into your home.

So what do you need? One space, with enough room to fit what you have to put there. Not one altar for each spirit. Not a whole room dedicated to the lwa. Not a table that runs the length of a wall. Just a space where your lwa can have their objects, and where you can go to spend some time with them.