Waiting At the Gate: Getting Started in Haitian Vodou


“Vodou is for everyone, but not everyone is for Vodou.”

This is something which is said amongst Vodouwizan, a saying which comes from the mouths of the lwa themselves.  Anyone is able to benefit from the insight and healing the spirits provide.  Anyone can come to a ceremony; to eat, to dance, and to meet the lwa.  Everyone is welcome – but not everyone can hold the asson, lead the ceremony, attend the lwa when they come down in possession, and be a part of the proceedings.  Everyone is welcome into the world of Vodou, but not everyone is meant to fully embrace that world and become a part of it.

So how do you step into that world?  How do you know if It’s going to be for a day, or for a lifetime?  How can you tell if the lwa are calling you to come through that door, and how can you answer their call and serve them?

Taking the first steps are difficult, because it’s hard to know what is appropriate, what to do, and how to get the help you need to learn to walk in the world of Vodou.  So here’s a hand to hold you, a map to guide you; here’s the information you need as you begin your journey into the world of Vodou.

Poto mitan, peristil, and prayer: the world of Vodou

 

Is it Vodou you’re looking for?

Before you begin your journey, it helps to know where you’re going.  Many times when people decide they ‘want to learn voodoo’, they don’t mean that they want to explore the religion of Haitian Vodou.  They are really searching for information about folk magic.  Due to the mislabelling of the folk magical practices of the Black population of the American South, many people confuse the religion of Vodou with the folk magical tradition of hoodoo (also called ‘conjure’ or ‘rootwork’).

It’s important to realise that Vodou is a religion, and it has a hierarchy and a priesthood.  The magical work performed within the religion is exclusively the domain of the priesthood.  It is performed with the aid of the lwa, and is not accessible to anyone and everyone.  The hoodoo/conjure/rootwork tradition, however, is folk magic and by its nature open to anyone who cares to learn it.

If what you’re looking for is a system of folk magic, and you are wanting to learn to change your circumstances on your own using spiritual work, Vodou is not what you’re looking for.  Instead, you should head over to our page on the hoodoo/conjure/rootwork tradition.  If what you’re looking for is a relationship with the lwa, a community and a family connected to the spirits, and an enrichment of your life through a beautiful religion – read on.


Are the lwa calling, and how do you answer?

Because Vodou is for everyone, it is not exclusively for people of Haitian extraction.  The lwa can and do reach from Ginen all across the world, touching lives from the Americas to the Antipodes and everywhere in between.  This means that they call people with no experience of Haitian culture, no concept of the Vodou religion, and no knowledge of the spirits who are calling to them.

Typically, people called by the lwa will experience dreams or a compulsion to find out more.  Papa Legba or the Ghede can often be involved in calling outsiders to Vodou; as Legba is needed to open the way to the lwa, and the Ghede are universal by their nature.  It can be hard to find good information about either: many people stumble across incorrect information online and attempt to serve these spirits on their own.  This is not the way forward, but it can be hard to take the correct first step.

This is because the only real way forward is to speak to an houngan or mambo.  It is their job to interpret the messages the lwa send the uninitiated and inexperienced.  It is their job to facilitate relationships between people and the lwa.  It is their job to teach and to guide, and it is their job to  provide you the best information to guide you on your journey.  They do this by providing you with information gained directly from the lwa themselves, and they gain this information by reading for you.

An houngan’s reading area, with cards, asson, and paket.

The type of reading required is an escort consultation.  It determines which spirits are walking with a person.  It determines which spirits have something to say, and what they’re saying.  It determines if someone is called to Vodou, and if that person is called it will determine what they are called to do.  Do they need to initiate?  If so, will they initiate to the ranks of the priesthood or will they be hounsi (a house member and initiate who serves the lwa, is possessed at ceremonies, assists the houngan and mambo, but is not a priest)?  Does a specific lwa want to be served in a certain way?

Once these things have been determined, the houngan or mambo will provide guidance when it comes to taking action based in the information the lwa provide.  If you need to begin building a relationship with a particular lwa, the houngan or mambo will tell you more about that lwa and how you need to begin to serve them.  If you need to initiate, the houngan or mambo will tell you what is involved and what you need to do to make that happen.  In this case, you will need to find a house to join.

So how do you find a houngan or mambo to read for you, and how do you find a house?

There are a number of frauds out there, and there are a few ‘big names’ that people gravitate to.  Some people tend to gravitate towards whoever is closest geographically, with no regard to who is the best fit for them and their situation.  The world is a smaller place now, interconnected electronically in a way it never was before.  With the advent of the internet, it is easier than ever to connect with a genuine and reputable houngan or mambo.  But it is also easier to fall into the trap of choosing the first Google hit, or falling victim to disinformation or fraud.  So how do you find the right priest or society, and ensure that they’re genuine?

You need to ask for help, and you need that help to come from someone you trust implicitly.  You need a spiritual connection to find someone whose spirits will be compatible with yours.  You need guidance on a level you won’t receive from another person, from someone who can see further and reach out in ways you can’t imagine.  You need help from your ancestors, and you can also ask Legba to open the gate for you on the correct road.

A doll prepared to house ancestors at Hounfo Racine Deesse Dereyale

To do this, you will need to have built a relationship with at least your ancestors, and ideally with Legba too.  Your ancestors know you best, they are the spirits who are the closest to you and who want the best for you.  They want you to succeed, they want you to walk the right path in life.  They can reach out beyond the physical world, and lead you to the right houngan or mambo and house.  If you have a strong relationship with them (if you don’t, go here to learn how to build one), you’ll be able to ask them to help you and they’ll be able to provide the help you need.

If you have built a relationship with Legba as well (go here to find out more), you can ask him to help your ancestors with their task, or ask him directly to show you the road which will lead you to the people who can help you.

If the Ghede are the ones calling you to Vodou, you may find your ancestors will be the ones who provide the most help.  This is because Ghede are also spirits of the dead.  (Occasionally, they may even decide to step in themselves.)  If Legba is the one calling you, he won’t do so unless he can lead you to where you need to go, and he may be the one to provide the help you need.

It must be said that you won’t magically hear from someone out of the blue.  The information you need will come in its own way, and you will need to be aware and look out for the opportunities the spirits provide.  You could make a connection on a group or forum, you might see a particular book over and over again, you might dream the way forward, or something entirely different may lead you to where you need to be.  Be sure to pay attention, but don’t worry about it to the point of seeing things which aren’t there.  Trust your ancestors and the lwa, they will come through for you.

So then what?

Once you’ve had your reading, you’ll have a spiritual roadmap showing your way forward.  You may need to save up money to go through initiation, you may need spiritual work performed.  The usual next step is to either begin building a relationship with one or more lwa under the guidance of the houngan or mambo who read for you, or to attend a fet.

A fet is a party held for one or more lwa on their feast day.  This is when the society comes together to celebrate, to dance, to pray, and to call the lwa to come down and joint he festivities.  When the lwa do appear in possession, they often give advice, healing, and guidance to any attendee who needs it.  (In fact, some people skip their initial reading entirely; because at a fet a lwa has told them they must initiate, or serve a particular lwa.  It’s still advisable to have an escort reading afterwards though, and to discuss the information you were given with the houngan or mambo of the house.)  Attending a fet gives an excellent insight into what Vodou can be when all the members of a house come together to create something beautiful.  There is singing, dancing, food, veve, prayer, drumming, and of course there are visits from the lwa.  This is where you see where each member of the society fits, how every individual’s talents and skills are utilised for the glory of God and service to the lwa.  If it tugs your heartstrings and calls to your spirit, there may be a place for you there.

The lwa Ogou Feray in possession of Houngan Liam at Fet Kouzen, giving advice to a newcomer to Vodou.


Of course. your journey may take you down a different road entirely, or take you to another religion of the African Diaspora.  But then again, your journey may lead you to Vodou; to the peristil and the prayer, to the dance and the drums, to faith and fanmi, to a life with the lwa.

How far the road opens is up to the lwa and to God, but how far you choose to walk down it is up to you.  One thing you can be sure of is that you will never take a step down that road on your own.  You will have spiritual parents to guide you, brothers and sisters to walk beside you, the lwa urging you forwards, and the sound of the asson to follow.  You will become a part of something much greater than yourself, a family and community connected by Vodou.

 

 

…and, if by any chance, the lwa and your ancestors have led you to this page: you can book an escort consultation and speak to an houngan at Hounfo Racine Deesse Dereyale