Prayer 101: How to Pray in Haitian Vodou

We’re all familiar with the concept of prayer. We pray to God, we pray for ourselves and for our friends and family. But how many people are really familiar with how we pray in Vodou? I think it’s safe to say that we pray the way we were raised to. Catholics will go to the rosary or to traditional prayers. Others might have just been taught to go down on their knees and talk to God like a friend. People who grew up with Haitian Vodou know how to pray to Bondye, the ancestors and the lwa because they have grown up in a Vodou community and with a Vodou mindset. But here it is, broken down into basics for those of us who didn’t.

The first thing you need to do is to grab a white candle and a cup or glass of water. This can be a tealight candle or a little emergency or Shabbat candle, doesn’t need to be big and fancy. Likewise with the glass or cup. Use a simple glass or a white enamel cup. This shouldn’t be something you drink out of, though. It should be a cup or glass reserved for use in prayer or working with the spirits.

Now you’re ready to begin. Because Haitian Vodou incorporates Catholicism into its practices, and because we begin everything with God, we start by saying one Our Father, three Hail Marys and an Apostles’ Creed. You need to pour out three drops of water from your cup when you do this: one to the right, one to the left, and one in the centre. Just in a straight line in front of the candle. This is giving the spirits water, and also inviting them to move through the water and hear your prayers.

To pray to the lwa, you first call upon Papa Legba to open the way for you. Then you can pray to the lwa you need to pray to, or to all the lwa who walk with you. If you are praying to your Met Tet, you don’t need to call on Legba first, as you have access to that lwa at all times anyway. It is extremely important to call upon Papa Legba first, otherwise your prayer will not reach the ears you intended it for. Papa Legba opens the gate between you and the lwa. Without asking him to open the way for you, your prayer will be like having a conversation through a locked and soundproof door. You need that way open for you, and for your prayers.

It is important in Vodou to pray from your heart. You don’t filter what’s in your heart before it goes out your mouth. You pray with honesty. You say exactly what you need to say, and you lay out exactly how you feel. You don’t lie when you pray, you don’t sugar coat things, you don’t try to justify what you want or need. You just lay it out there as plainly and as honestly as possible, and you pray with feeling. You pray with all of yourself, and you concentrate upon your prayer 100%. You don’t stop and wonder what to have for dinner halfway through. You don’t blank your mind like you’re meditating. You focus all of your intention on your prayer, like it is the most important thing you have ever said or will ever say. Concentrate fully, pray honestly, and do it with feeling.

There is a cultural reticence in the West to pray for material gain, or to pray for something for yourself. In Vodou, there is none of that. If you need $200, you pray for it because you need it. You don’t have to pray for world peace and understanding between all races and faiths. Plenty of people are doing that already, and world peace isn’t going to be of any use to you if you can’t pay the electricity bill. You can be practical in your prayer. You ask for what you need, because if you don’t ask you won’t get. Pray for what’s important to you; whether that is clarity, money, control of your temper, or even that your tomato plant grows lots of big juicy tomatoes. If it’s from the heart and important to you, pray for it.

Now, we often want to pray for others when they are in a bad situation, if they are sick or just in need of prayer. So here’s how we do it in Vodou, because it’s a little more complicated. 

If you’re praying for someone in your family, you pray to your common ancestors. Pray to the spirits of your mother’s side and of your father’s side, and pray to them for what your family member needs. If you’re praying for someone who shares an initiatory lineage with you, you can pray to the ancestral spirits of your shared lineage on their behalf. If, however, you don’t share common ancestry (blood or initiatory), you can still pray to your ancestors. Call upon your ancestors, and ask them to work with their ancestors. They’re all in the same place,and they can interact.

To pray for someone else when praying to the lwa gets a little more complicated, but still not too difficult. If you know that you and the person you are praying for have a lwa in common who walks with you both, you can pray to that lwa on their behalf. If not, and you know your Met Tet, you can ask your Met Tet to intercede with the spirits who walk with that person and pray that way. If you just don’t know, call the lwa and ask them to deal with that person’s lwa. Someone will hear and pass the message on.

To break it down to basics, there is plenty that doesn’t change, whether you pray for yourself or for another. The candle and water are fundamental. You always have them. Then your Catholic prayers: Our Father, Hail Mary x 3, Apostles’ Creed. Pour your water. Ask Legba to open the way if you’re praying to the lwa. Then, whoever you are praying to or for, pray honestly, concentrate fully and shoot straight from the heart and you won’t go wrong.