Bonjou zanmi! Today’s spirit is one who is dear to my heart: Ti Jean.
Ti Jean is a member of the Petwo family, the family of hotter spirits. The saint that represents him is young St. John the Baptist:
He is also called Ti Jean Petwo and Ti Jean Dantor. He is the son of Ezili Dantor, the mother of the Petwo nation. He is also her lover (the lwa have complicated love lives).
When Ti Jean comes in possession, we give him a walking stick, a straw hat, and yellow and red scarves. He loves to dance and jump around. He is a fiery spirit who will eat fire and use fire to heal the people at a fet.
My experience with him is that at my baptem ceremony (the night that initiation finishes, there is a big party where the initiates are baptized), he gave me a big hug and told me that whatever I asked him to do for me, he would do. And he has come through for me wonderfully. So I just wanted to write a bit about him. He’s not one of the more well-known lwa like Ogou or even his mother/lover Dantor, but he is well-loved in my house.
Bonjou zanmi! Let’s talk about the role of Christianity in Haitian Vodou.
Haitian Vodou is a mix of African religious tradition, Catholic Christianity, and native Taino Indian religious practice. You can’t separate Catholicism from Haitian Vodou, not really; if you take it out, it’s not the same. Vodou uses Catholic prayers in its liturgies, the Catholic saints represent lwa, and we are even “baptized” and given godparents and a new name when we initiate.
That’s not to say that Vodou has an easy relationship with Catholicism, especially in Haiti. After the Haitian Revolution, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the revolutionary who became the new Republic’s leader, tried to limit jurisdiction of the Catholic Church; in response to this, Rome stopped sending new priests and missionaries into Haiti. Haiti went for many years without official supervision from Rome, and the syncretization of Catholic practice and Vodou religion got even deeper. Men who knew the Catholic liturgy, or who had trained as priests but weren’t officially ordained, became what was known as “pret savann”, or “bush priests.” Pret savann are still important in Vodou today; they oversee the baptem ceremony at the conclusion of kanzo, and say the Catholic prayers in French during other ceremonies.
The night before I left Haiti this summer, I went looking for my godmother to say goodbye. I ran into my mama hounyo (an official position in the sosyete; she manages all the needs of the initiates during the time they’re secluded in the djevo) and asked her where my godmother was .
“Oh, li prale a legliz!” (She went to church).
Many Vodouizants take the same attitude as my godmother; going to Vodou ceremony on Saturday night and then to church on Sunday. Most Haitians, even Vodouizants, identify as good Catholics along with serving the spirits.
As for Protestant Christianity, that can be a bit more complicated. Many Protestant churches rail against Vodou and some Protestants have been known to harass and assault and even kill Vodouizants, or destroy Vodou temples. Even my sosyete has been picketed by Protestants, praying loudly and singing hymns outside while we’re in the middle of initiations.
However, there are plenty of “good Christians” who publically will deplore Vodou and call it devil worship, but as soon as they have a problem they can’t solve, off they go to the local manbo or houngan.
I myself go to Mass and say Catholic prayers. That’s how I was raised. I do know people who practice other religions along with Vodou, but the important thing is not to mix traditions. Don’t cast a Wiccan circle and call the lwa into it, and don’t put Thor’s hammer on a Vodou altar (although I can’t help but think that Ogou and Thor might get along well).
In order to practice Haitian Vodou, you have to understand its Christian roots and the Christian practices that still influence it and are part of its function.
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her vindication shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the horror that is Charlottesville. I am disgusted and horrified by the racism and terrorism being perpetuated by Nazis and other white supremacists.
The Abrahamic faith that is Christianity says that when someone injures us, we are to “turn the other cheek”.
Haitian Vodou, though it has some roots in Christianity (namely Roman Catholicism), has no such tenet. Make no mistake, Haitian Vodou was the original Black Lives Matter movement. It’s about freedom from oppression and slavery, and a faith born of revolution. We Vodouizants do want to live in a peaceful world, but we also recognize that for most of history that hasn’t been possible.
Our spirits believe in revenge. They believe in justice, and if you ask them for those things, they will be granted to you.
I, as a white American woman, constantly work to unpack my own baggage having been raised in a racist society. I know that my largely English family (on my mother’s side) owned slaves in Barbados and brought them to the U.S. I must constantly remember that I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors and I have to be better than they were.
The lwa demand that we be strong, and that we stand up to evil and oppression. We who practice this religion, especially those of us who are white, have a responsibility to speak out and act up. Because if you don’t stand up for your lwa, your lwa won’t stand up for you.
Bonjou zanmi! Today is Wednesday and so it’s Ogou’s day. I thought we’d talk about my Papa, the head of the Vodou house I belong to.
This is Ogou St Jaques, one of many members of the Ogou nation.
Ogou is a Nago spirit. This group of spirits came from the part of Africa that is now Nigeria. Some of you might be saying, “Hey, isn’t there a spirit like this in Lukumi?” Lukumi has an Orisha called Ogun, who has some similarities with Ogou: they both are associated with iron and metal. Ogun is more of a blacksmith, whereas Ogou is more of a soldier.
Ogou is indeed every inch a soldier: brave, fierce, protective, and he expects nothing less than your best effort. Many Ogous carry a machete, but some favor a sword. His colors are red and blue, but some Ogou take additional colors: Ogou St. Jacques takes red and khaki. Remember: if you can’t afford anything else, you can use a white scarf to salute any spirit.
Ogou’s day of the week is Wednesday. The saints associated with him are St. James the Greater (that’s his picture above) and St. George the Dragonslayer. Most Ogous take rum as their drink, but depending on the Ogou they may take a different type of rum. Some like Barbancourt three star, some like five star, and so forth. Some Ogous like red wine. Your Ogou may want a different drink altogether.
He likes red beans and rice, and typically likes Florida water as a cologne. He also loves cigars. He will often blow smoke on people to give them blessings.
There is no better protector than Ogou. He will use his machete to cut away all evil and sweep your enemies away. But he is also a tender and loving Papa. I’ve seen him cry when his children are in pain. I’ve also seen him spank people (myself included) with the machete when they misbehave.
Ogou loves the ladies and he is one of the most commonly married lwa.
Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. Held the third Thursday of November, it’s a day when friends and family get together to share a meal and hopefully be thankful for the things they have.
Today I will be thankful for my lwa, who watch over me and protect me every day of the year.
I will be thankful for my family and friends.
But Thanksgiving has some problems too. For Native Americans, it’s a day of mourning the colonialism that has enslaved and tortured them for generations. Today, I urge you to say a prayer and take action for our Native brothers and sisters. Donate to a Native American charity, such as the demonstrators and water protectors at Standing Rock:
We come from the ancestors and the dead. They are our roots. They were once alive like we are, and one day we will join them in the land of the dead.
Today is Halloween, a celebration of ghosts, ghouls, and witches (and lots of candy). But tomorrow, November 1, is the Christian feast of All Saints. The next day, November 2, is the feast of All Souls, the day when we celebrate all those of our families who have joined the ancestors. This time of year belongs to Gede (pronounced “Geh-Day”), the Haitian Vodou lwa of the dead.
Venerating the dead and the ancestors is the world’s oldest religious practice. Traditionally, at this time of year, the veil that separates our world from the ancestral world is the thinnest, which means not only that it is easier for us to access the ancestors and dead, but also that it’s easier for them to access us.
What do Vodouisants believe about death? Most Vodou practitioners are Catholic, so the beliefs in heaven and hell are there. After someone dies, they can become a beloved ancestor and we can pray for them and to them, asking for their ongoing protection and wisdom. But there are those humans that died violently, that weren’t given a proper burial, that have since been forgotten by their families and friends. Instead of those lonely souls being condemned to wander eternity alone, Papa Gede takes them into the Gede family and they have a place in the Vodou pantheon.
You may have heard the name Baron Samedi (and that name is pronounced “Sahm-Dee”, by the way). He’s very popular in New Orleans as well as in Haiti. He’s often pictured as a skeletal man with a black top hat, a white or powdered face, and a cane. Barons (or “Bawon”, to give it the Haitian pronunciation) are the bosses of the Gede family and there are many of them; they all have different functions too. Think of it like the Ezili group of lwa: each Ezili has a different name and they do different things.
The saint that is associated with Gede in my lineage is St. Gerard Majella:
Note that he is a pale young man holding a cross, and note the skull in the lower left hand corner. Classic Gede imagery 🙂
During a Vodou fet, the Gede spirits can show up at any time during the fet; after all, death can come at any time. However, we *salute* Gede at the end of the evening. After what can be a long night of salutes, dancing, singing, and prayer, the antics of the Gede can be a lighthearted finish.
Gede is very….irreverent. He is loud. He doesn’t care AT ALL about social convention or manners. He treats everyone exactly the same, not caring for rank, money, or position. He cracks dirty jokes and every other word out of his mouth is a profanity. He dances the banda, a dirty hip-swiveling dance that looks like sex. He humps every object (and person) in the room. He swigs his special drink, piman, (a white rum concoction made with scotch bonnet peppers; most Gede take this drink, but he can drink other things depending on which Gede he is) and rubs the spicy liquid on his face and genitals. He’ll smoke multiple cigarettes at once. He’ll eat glass and fire (he’ll eat most anything, actually; he’s always hungry).
But his jokes hold wisdom. He always tells the truth, but he may tell it in the form of a riddle. If you want the straight skivvy on anything, ask Gede; he sees everything in both our world and his world.
I’ve mentioned before in this blog that it’s important to have a reading with a priest or priestess to determine which lwa walk with you before you start serving them. However, since we all die, we all have a Gede walking with us; you may not know which one exactly, but he’s there.
How can you work with Gede? To start, you really need to be working with your ancestors. The ancestors are your first line of defense, after God. Set up a quiet space for them, on a bookshelf or a nice table. Put out a glass of clear water and a white candle. If that’s all you can set up for them, that’s fine. You can add pictures of your dead relatives if you have them (only put out pictures of the dead on an ancestor altar; do NOT put living people there; you don’t want your living loved ones to join the ancestors too soon). Pray there; ask your ancestors for help and guidance. Say the rosary if you’re Catholic. Years ago, I found some old prayer cards with prayers for the forgotten dead and beloved dead; I use those on my ancestor altar.
Once you get a good ancestor practice built up, consider setting aside a separate altar space for Gede. You don’t want him on the same table as your ancestors; trust me, you don’t want Gede telling his dirty jokes around your dead grandma. You can put Gede on the floor or the bottom shelf of your altar, if you have one. Keep him separate from the other lwa. You can give him a bottle of white rum, or you can make a basic piman by adding 21 scotch bonnet peppers to the bottle. Cut the pepper in 4 slices while leaving it attached to the stem, then shove it in the bottle.
Talk to him. Ask him for his wisdom. He takes the colors black, white, and purple. He’ll eat nearly anything, but make sure his food is spicy.
These are just some basics with Gede; if you want more specific info, or want a reading to determine which Gede walk with you, feel free to contact me. Kwa!
Bonjou, zanmi! (Hello, friends!) Today we’re going to talk about a very important lwa. Well, all the lwa are important but Legba is the gatekeeper of the lwa and thus has a very special place in the Vodou pantheon.
Papa Legba has been characterized as the first lwa that is called at a Vodou party. That isn’t true in my house. There are a few lwa we salute before Legba, but what’s important to remember is that without Legba, none of the other lwa can come through. He stands at the gate and opens it and closes it as he will.
There are a few saint images we use for Legba. In my house, we use St. Anthony the Abbot for Legba in the Rada rite.
Notice that St. Anthony is holding a staff. Legba is pictured holding a staff in many of his saint images; Legba has what is called “pye casse”, or twisted feet; he walks with a limp and uses the staff or crutches to walk. Another common image for Legba is St. Lazarus:
In the hotter Petwo rite, we use the picture of St. Anthony of Padua:
Note that St. Lazarus is travelling on the road. Legba is a traveller; he’s always wandering. Some people equate him with Ellegua, the Yoruba spirit and orisha, who also travels on the roads and is the first spirit saluted at a religious ceremony. Yes, their names sound a bit the same, but it’s important to remember that the lwa aren’t orishas; Lukumi and Vodou are two separate religions.
(Want to learn a bit more about Lukumi, aka Santeria? Check out Santeria Church of the Orishas. This church was founded by the late Eddy “Dr. E” Gutierrez and is a fabulous resource)
Everyone has different lwa “walking” with them. One person may have Ogou, but you may not; different people have different lwa. You can determine which lwa are walking with you by getting a reading with a manbo or houngan. However, every person on Earth has Legba walking with them. Why? Because Legba is a lwa of communication, and we all communicate in some way.
You can ask Legba to introduce you to the other lwa. Get some toasted corn or spicy peanuts and white rum (one of those nip bottles work nicely) and bring that to a crossroads or intersection (be careful around cars, please). Pour out the rum and scatter the food and pray to Legba; ask him to bring the lwa into your life. Then you can go home. Pay attention to your dreams and intuition. Legba will lead you in the right way, and may even lead you to a Vodou house or priest/priestess to teach you.
When spirits do work for you, or when you feel the need/impulse to say thank you, there are some great things you can do:
Light a vigil candle for them (in their color, with their saint picture if they have one, etc)
Read the Bible or another holy book to them
Pay them with food or drink. General catch-all things you can offer are alcohol, coffee, plain water, sliced fruit (avoid lemons and limes; they’re too harsh), flowers (yeah, it’s not a food, but still a good idea). Different spirits may take different types of food; if you’re dealing with lwa from Haitian Vodou, ask a manbo or houngan what specific foods a spirit takes
Have a Mass said for them at a Catholic church. In Catholicism, dedicating a Mass to a person or saint is common. Call your local parish and ask. You will probably need to pay a small amount of money; usually it’s around $10 U.S. Try to attend the Mass if you can.
Write them a poem or song and present it to them.
Give them something for their altar. I have a few toy soldiers on my altar for Ogou, and some toys for Legba.
If they did something REALLY big for you, ask a manbo or houngan to give them what’s called an “action de grace”. This is a small feast or feeding for your spirits.
These are the most common things you can do to say thanks to your spirits. If you can think of any more, leave a comment!
Many Haitians are farmers; it’s a very agriculturally based economy. Back when the slaves freed themselves from their French owners, many went up into the mountains and began sustenance farming on small plots of land. This is where the Kouzen family of spirits came from.
Kouzen just means “cousin” in Kreyol. It’s a familiar term of address for anyone regarded as a friend, not just a family member. You could translate it to “friend” or “man” or “dude.” There are many Kouzen spirits (Kouzen Zaka Mede, Azaka Tonne, Minis Zaka); the most well-known of these is Kouzen Zaka.
The saint image commonly used for him is St. Isidore the Farmer, as illustrated above. This saint was so devoted to God that God sent His angel to plow Isidore’s fields so he could pray.
Kouzen is an agriculture spirit. He makes his living off the land. He is a “work lwa”. He loves to work on just about anything, and he likes to be busy. He is a bit shy and suspicious of outsiders, but once he gets to know you you are a member of his fami (family) and he will work so hard to provide for you.
His color is blue, especially blue denim (the outfit of a Haitian peasant). He will take white rum as an offering but his favorite liquor is made with white rum and wormwood.
He is excellent to talk to in regards to herbs and herbal medicine. Since he is a work lwa, he is excellent to talk to if you’re having trouble at your job. However, you have to pay him for his work (well, you have to pay all the spirits for their work in some way or another) and he can drive a hard bargain. Remember, you have the right to bargain with your spirits for a fair price.
His favorite food is a stew called tchaka. It’s made with pinto beans, corn, beef, and chayote squash. Recipes may vary but here is a good one. BIG IMPORTANT WARNING; when you cook for Kouzen it is VITALLY important that you do not taste his food. If you do, he will think you are stealing from him, and Kouzen hates thieves.
Kouzen has a special bag (note he has a bag over his shoulder in the above picture) where he keeps all his things. When I work with him and I put things in his bag, I tell him before hand, “Kouzen, I’m opening your bag to put this in.” I also tell him when I’m closing the bag. That way, he knows I’m not stealing from him.
Kouzen loves women, and he is a commonly married spirit. He is also good to go to in regards to marriage and relationships. Surprising, I know, but when he finds you a partner the relationship is solid and “grounded” and it will last.
Bonswa, everyone; it’s your friend Manbo Mary. Today we’re going to talk about Vodou parties, or “fets”, as they’re called in Kreyol.
A fet is simply a party for one or more spirits, or lwa. Each Vodou sosyete has several fets per year, but each house may have different spirits that they honor. In my house, Sosyete Nago, we have about 3 fets per year: one in March for Papa Damballah, one in May for Kouzen, and one in November for Gede. This is for us in Boston. Our brothers and sisters in Haiti will have a couple more fets than we do. Sometimes we’ll add a fet to our schedule up here; it really depends on time.
Let’s say you’ve been learning about Vodou. You’ve gotten to know a Haitian person and/or someone affiliated with a house. You may politely enquire as to when a fet will next happen. So you get invited. Woohoo!
Here are some guidelines for being a good guest at a fet and to help you get invited back J
Wheaton’s Law is the first thing to remember: Don’t be a dick. If you were going to a non-Vodou party at someone’s house, you wouldn’t act like a dick, now would you?
Find out the time to arrive. Haitians tend to be flexible with time. If they tell you to show up at 9pm, the party won’t probably start till around 11pm. Still, try to be there as close to the time they give you.
Dress appropriately, for the love of God. You are not going to the club to sip some bub. This is a religious ceremony. You don’t have to wear a suit or anything like that, but looking nice and dressing a bit conservatively shows that you have respect. If you can wear all white, that’s great. If you don’t have white clothes, don’t stress. Just wear something other than black or purple (unless you’re going to Fet Gede, where those colors are appropriate). Ladies, it’s not required that you cover your hair but it is an additional mark of respect. Bring a headscarf and we’ll show you how to tie it if you don’t already know.
Get someone to introduce you to the head manbo or houngan. Thank them for allowing you to attend their party. Again, it’s about respect.
Bring a little something. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. You could give $20 to help pay the drummers. You could bring a bottle of rum for the table. You could bring a bit of fruit (any kind is acceptable EXCEPT lemons or limes). Again, it’s not required that you bring something, but it’s a nice gesture and if it’s your first time in this community, it will establish your reputation.
Turn off your cell phones/pagers/little electronic doo-dads during the opening prayer! The opening prayer, or “priye Ginen”, takes about an hour to complete and someone’s cell phone going off playing “Anaconda” as the ringtone will not help the mood.
If you are menstruating, or have an open wound, try to stay away from the altar during the first half of the party. It’s not that blood is “impure” but some of the Rada spirits (who are saluted in the first part of the party) don’t like the smell of blood. Also, in the same vein, avoid sexual activity 24 hours prior to coming to a fet.
Just enjoy the experience. It will be very different from any party you’ve ever been to, but we’re there to worship and enjoy the spirits. It’s supposed to be fun!
And now for the DON’TS:
Don’t bring along extra people without asking the priest or priestess. Always ask first.
Don’t take pictures or video without asking first. Some people in the community are not “out” about Vodou to their family, friends, or employers. It wouldn’t be good to have someone get in trouble because your pics wound up on Facebook.
Don’t come stoned or drunk. Seriously, I’ve seen this happen. You won’t be able to control your actions and you’ll behave badly which will make you a dick, and you remember Wheaton’s Law, right?
Don’t use drugs or smoke cigs during the party. If you have to smoke, do so outside. Some of our spirits don’t like smoke.
Do NOT get in the way of any possessions that may occur. The first time you see a possession, it may scare you. That’s OK. You can just watch. But don’t try to stop one or touch the horse (the person being possessed).
If a spirit comes to you and wants to speak, do NOT be disrespectful. Flag someone in the house down to translate for you; the spirits speak Kreyol when they come. The spirit may give you advice or warnings. After the party, you can discuss this with any of the priests/priestesses of the house.
Don’t touch any of the food on the table until you’ve been given permission to do so. We set out food for the spirits for them to feed off the spiritual energy. After the party is over, usually we can eat the food and it’s OK. But during the party, it’s a huge no-no to touch it.
Follow these guidelines and I guarantee you’ll have a safe and memorable time!