“Why do I have to pay for that?” What is free, what isn’t, and why in Haitian Vodou.

No matter who you are or what you do, sooner or later, someone is going to try to get you to do it for free.  This is particularly prevalent in the area of readings and magical work.  People either want a free reading, or they want to be told exactly how to do a piece of magical work so they don’t have to pay someone to do it, or they expect it done for them without cost.  So here’s a run down of why Houngan and Mambo do not work for free, and some information about what you get for your money.  Also, some discussion about what you can get for free and why.

First things first.  Vodou is a religion.  Not a cult, not a magical system, but a religion.  By definition, that means you can worship for free.  If you come to a Fet, you won’t be charged admission.  (Anyone who does charge an admission price for a Fet is a either greedy or a fraud, or both.)  A Fet is an offering made by the heads of a Vodou society to the spirit in whose honour the Fet is being held.  Therefore, the costs are covered by the society.  The exception to this is if a society is paid to mount a Fet by an individual.  That person may wish to mount a Fet in honour of a lwa, but not be able to do so because they lack the rank, resources or space.  In this case, anyone may still attend the Fet, but all the costs are covered by that individual rather than the society.  Anyone may attend a Fet, anyone may speak to the lwa if they choose to come down at the Fet, and anyone may partake of the food offerings when they are shared.

That being said, it is polite (although not required) to make a donation towards these costs.  When you go to church, a collection plate is passed around.  It is not compulsory to add money to the collection, but it is polite to do so, as it helps cover the costs the church incurs in performing their services.  In Vodou, you may discreetly make a monetary donation.  It will be appreciated, but not expected.  Whether you donate or not, you may still attend and enjoy the benefits of a Fet.

Similarly, we welcome anyone who wants to come and pray in our badji.  If we do not know you, you will be expected to meet the main members of the society and be properly introduced to the lwa.  It is important for us to feel comfortable having someone on our property with our spirits, but this is not something you can buy.  Trust is gained through conversation and effort, not through cash.  Again, it is polite to make a small monetary donation, but not required; just as a church may have a donation box in the entrance, or an honesty box by the candles for you to make a donation when you go to pray

The other thing which is provided free of charge is education.  Particularly outside of the Haitian community, Vodou has a poor reputation.  People associate the religion with zombies and ‘voodoo dolls’.  It is out of service to the lwa and the wider Vodou community that Houngan and Mambo educate others about the truth of the Vodou religion.  If someone asks questions about the lwa which don’t require that person to initiate to have the answers to, an Houngan or Mambo will give them that information.  Teaching is an important part of what Houngan and Mambo do in the community.  Certain knowledge is restricted to initiates, but that which may be freely shared often is, and gladly.

Now that we have covered the very important point of worship being free, it is time to move on and discuss those products and services which are not.

Vodou is a hands on religion.  We have the ability to effect change in certain situations through magical work.  We have the ability to perform readings to see clearly what is happening in a particular situation, and exactly what can be done to create the desired outcome.  The primary services offered by Houngan and Mambo are therefore readings and travay (magical work.)

So why isn’t a reading free?  Firstly, it is not a form of worship.  It is a service.  You are receiving something for your money.  You are paying the Houngan or Mambo for the time it takes them to perform that reading for you.  They may choose to take additional time to type up a written record of your reading for you: you’re paying for that, too.  In Vodou, we require there to be water and light present when a reading is performed.  This generally means that a candle is lit.  You’re also paying for that candle.  Finally, a reading is not a simple thing to do.  It isn’t like opening a book and reading the words off a page.  Depending upon the type of reading, the cards or signs need to be interpreted.  So you are also paying for the knowledge and experience required for the Houngan or Mambo to accurately interpret what appears in front of them.

Magical work is the other thing people often want for free, and to be fair, it is often the most expensive service provided by a Houngan or Mambo.  Firstly, no magical work can be performed without first obtaining a reading to see what can be and should be done.  Therfore, before you take into account the cost of the work itself, you must pay for the initial reading.

Magical work is expensive firstly because it requires time and effort.  Houngan and Mambo have been through the kanzo ceremony and have worked hard to obtain the knowledge to do the work required.  You are paying a skilled and qualified practitioner whose qualifications can be verified by inquiring into their lineage.  You are paying for authenticity and the means to verify it.  You are also paying for the time spent praying over the work.  For a seven day lamp, prayers will be said over that lamp each of those seven days.  Not to mention that someone has to attend that lamp the whole time, making sure it doesn’t go out or run out of oil.  The making of items such as wanga also takes time.  Ingredients need to be gathered, prayers said, appropriate ceremony made, the item needs to be decorated.  All of that takes time, not to mention the correct knowledge to create the item on the point of the right spirit, decorate it in the right colours, and heat the item appropriately.  Speaking of heat, it is the fos, or spiritual heat, in the hands of the Houngan or Mambo that makes a spiritual item strong and powerful.  That is only gained through kanzo, so again, you are paying for the certainty that comes from engaging a reputable Houngan or Mambo for the work.

Secondly, you are paying for ingredients.  In Vodou, we use a lot of herbs, roots and woods.  These cost money.  Even if the Houngan or Mambo has access to their own garden where they grow some of these items, they can’t grow them all.  Also, not all plants are used fresh.  Some need to be dried, others dried and powdered.  This takes time and effort.  Some herbs need to be imported directly from Haiti, which is another expense.  In a lamp, there needs to be oil.  And a lot of it, too.   A seven day lamp, burning constantly, will consume a great deal of oil.  You have to pay for that.  There’s also the wick, another consumable item.  Again, you need to pay for it.

For items such as wanga paquets, you need to pay not only for the herbal component, but also for the decorations on the outside.  The lwa are attracted to certain fabrics and shiny things.  Highly decorated paquets are the norm, not the exception.  They require fabric, ribbon, feathers, decorative motifs, sequins, etc.  Additionally, these have to be in colours and designs appropriate to the spirit upon whose point the paquet is made.  Fabric and decorative items are not cheap.  You are paying for those when you pay for a paquet.

There are other consumable supplies which need to be taken into account, but which aren’t necessarily present in the finished item.  Candles need to be burnt to provide light and heat.  Florida Water is often used.  Various perfumes may be used to attract the lwa.  Alcohol may be poured for a lwa.  A food offering may need to be made.  These items will be specific to the work being done, but all travay involves some type of ceremony, and all ceremonies involve some type of consumable item such as alcohol or perfume.  This is all part of the cost of the item.

Finally, it needs to be taken into account that the spirits themselves may need payment for their work.  Some lwa may be happy to assist in or perform a work because they want to, or because they enjoy doing so.  Others need payment as a matter of course.  Certain lwa, for example, will always need to be given payment upon completion of a successful work.  That payment will be negotiated while the work is being performed.  The payment required by the lwa won’t be added to the cost of your work, it will be included.  Some lwa might ask for payment during the course of the work.  If a Houngan or Mambo charges $500 for a working, and a spirit asks for $400 of it, you won’t pay $900.  You’ll pay $500, and the Houngan or Mambo ends up with what is left; which may or may not cover the cost of the items used to perform that work.  It is entirely possible for a Houngan or Mambo to make a loss rather than a profit.  Sometimes the spirit themselves will set the price of the work, and the Houngan or Mambo has no say in the matter.  They may wish to charge $300, but a lwa may come and tell them that the price for the work is $1,000 and that is that.  The Houngan or Mambo may be sympathetic to the cause of the person they are working for, they may want to charge less.  However, if a lwa sets the price, the price is set.

From what you have read above, you can see that magical work in Vodou requires more than just a recipe to follow.  It requires knowledge of and relationships with the lwa.  It requires heat which can only be gained by going through the djevo, a spiritual strength that a non-initiate just does not have.  It should be fairly obvious that no Houngan or Mambo can give instructions on how to perform any but the most basic of ceremonies or works.   In addition, some types of work, such as certain baths, need to be administered by the Houngan or Mambo themselves.  These simply cannot be done by the person who needs the work.  The work needs to be done to them, not by them.

In some exceptional circumstances, a Houngan or Mambo may elect to perform a reading or travay without charging someone, or do so at a lower cost.  This, of course, assumes that the lwa would allow them to do so in the first place.  The circumstances would dictate whether or not something could be done without charging a fee.  For example, a close friend with a life threatening illness could prompt a Houngan or Mambo to work for that friend without charging them.  It needs to be pointed out that this is not free, the Houngan or Mambo instead takes on the costs of the work themselves, including any payment which needs to be made to the lwa.  They aren’t just doing something for free, they are, in fact, doing something which results in them losing money.  Just because a Houngan or Mambo elects not to charge someone doesn’t mean that the ingredients are free.  Someone still has to pay for them, and the Houngan or Mambo doing the work is making a personal sacrifice to absorb these costs.  What looks free to the outsider is actually expensive for the Houngan or Mambo concerned, something that many people fail to realize.  Someone always has to pay, and if it isn’t the person having the work done, the cost comes right out of the pocket of the Houngan or Mambo doing the work.

A stranger asking over the internet for a free reading because they can’t afford one is likely to be told to save up and get one when they can afford it, or ignored.  Not only do Houngan and Mambo not have the time to perform readings or travay without charge, they also do not have the money to absorb the cost of the work.

In the words of the lwa themselves, “an Houngan has to eat!”  Houngan and Mambo do what they do for a living as much as in service to the community.  If they cannot support themselves, they cannot in turn support others.  You would not expect to get a free dental check, you would not expect to get a free meal from a restaurant, you wouldn’t expect to get a free haircut from your local hair stylist.  A Houngan or mambo is a professional the same as anyone else.  They have credentials, and the ability to prove them.  They have knowledge that can only be gained by going through the djevo.

There is no way to avoid paying for magical work, but you should know that you are paying for something concrete.  You are paying for expertise, for ingredients, for attention to detail.  You are paying an expert in their field, and you should not expect anyone in a similar position to work for free.  Spiritual practitioners are no exception.  You really do get what you pay for.  If you aim to pay nothing, don’t be surprised if nothing is exactly what you end up with.  If you are prepared to pay a fair price to a knowledgeable and experienced individual, you will get more than your money’s worth.