Unlike many commonly known Western spiritualities, with their focus on the corporeal body and immortal soul as dualist identities, Vodou looks at the individual human in a unique way, composed of many separate but unified pieces, held together by being alive and flexible in their arrangement. The Western view of a Body animated by a singular Soul is comparatively simple in relation to the Vodou vision of the many factors that come together as the basic ingredients brought together to make a person.
These pieces are thought of as placed by God during the creation of the individual life, and upon death are ritually separated and allowed to go to their separate destinations.
The body is, obviously, the most physical of the pieces, and itself is viewed in pretty typical fashion. In Kreyol it is called the kò kadavr, corps cadavre in French, basically the ‘physical body’ or ‘body/corpse’ if you will. Upon death, the body is considered to be the earthly shell, no longer animated by the indwelling life and personality but still an important part of their being (Vodouisants who are heavily catholicized and who believe in the bodily resurrection will inter the body in protected tombs to await the coming resurrection; traditional vodouisants who have these family tombs nearby will visit the graves directly to serve their ancestors at the resting place of their very bones).
Pieces of the body are thus seen as inherently connected to the other components, and while they may no longer be suffused with the person’s living identity they are forever connected to the other fragments by merit of having been the throne upon which the spiritual pieces rested; pieces of the deceased may be seen as ways to access their spirit for ancestral service or may be used in a protective fashion, calling upon the deceased for aid in a specific working.
Animating the body, instead of a single ‘soul’, Vodouisants see two main principles/components, the Gro Bon Ange (big good angel) and the Ti Bon Ange (little good angel). I remember years ago hearing a wonderful description of the two comparing them to the shadows visible during an eclipse, the deeper solid shadow wrapped in the lighter band of shadow seen around the edges, and on the ground, the difference in shadow between a partial eclipse and the zone of totality.
The Gro Bon Ange is the animating principle, a piece placed in the person at their creation by God (also known as the ‘life spark’, an energy that gives life, motion, and bestows self awareness). Without this component, the person wouldnt be a person… in essence they’d be a lump, a rock, an inactive and non-living pile.
Upon the death of the individual and the completion of the funerary rites, the Gro Bon Ange is believed to return to its Maker. Vodou is less concerned with what happens after that, and makes no direct statement for or against the ideas of an eternal heaven or reincarnation. Both are certainly open possibilities, but the topic is generally seen as an impractical unknowable, a focus point about as useful as calculating the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin.
The Ti Bon Ange, on the other hand, is seen as the seat of the personality and all the traits that define a person’s individuality. Thoughts, memory, temperament, character, sense of self awareness and personal identity, all are housed in the Ti Bon Ange and make it as important as it is.
This is the individual’s “spirit”, the part of them we know as the person in question. Unlike the Gro Bon Ange, which is the animating principle of bodily life, the Ti Bon Ange has a more tenuous connection to the body and may, in certain instances, be temporarily separated from its seat in the person’s head. Shock and trauma can both temporarily push away the Ti Bon Ange (if you’ve ever seen a person who’s been in a violent car accident, or been there yourself, the dazed and unfocused period of shock following the accident is seen as a loosening of the Ti Bon Ange as it seeks to escape the trauma or as it finds its way back after being shaken out).
In possession, it is the Ti Bon Ange of the individual that is unseated and pushed out by the incoming Lwa or possessing spirit; this is what is referred to as a Lwa “mounting” or “riding” an individual, and the equine terminology is continued by referring to the body the Lwa is riding as its Chwal, or horse. Mount in this instance is *not* sexualized in meaning, instead referring to the rider of a horse being in control of the horse’s actions and direction. Zora Neale Hurston’s book “Tell My Horse” bears that title because of a story it contains of a possessing Lwa conveying a message to a bystander concerning the body they were operating, in hopes that the listener would convey the message after the horse had returned to normal consciousness.
The Ti Bon Ange, unlike the Gro Bon Ange, can be ritually separated from the body by certain different techniques; understandably dangerous, these practices are known only to initiates, but have different applications. In kanzo initiations and Lave Tet (ritual headwashing), the bodily connection to the Ti Bon Ange is loosened to make future possessions easier to ‘seat’ in the body, accompanied by the making of a Pot Tet, or head pot, which we will speak of later. A physical zonbi is a person who has had their Ti Bon Ange removed or banished, leaving them devoid of thought or personality; a zonbi lastral is a spirit form, essentially a disincarnate Ti bon Ange tasked with performing specific services.
After death, Vodou’s funeral ceremonies disconnect these pieces (plus one other, which we will speak of in just a little bit) and send them to their respective places. The body is prepared for entombing and burial, the Gro Bon Ange is returned to God, and the Ti Bon Ange is ritually sent “anba dlo“, or “under the waters” to rest for at least a year and a day.
After its rest period, the Ti Bon Ange of the deceased is ritually called forth from the waters and installed in a specially prepared Govi, or terra cotta jar, which is then placed in the temple or in the altar area of the descendents who have paid for the ceremony; that individual’s Ti Bon Angeis now served as an ancestor spirit, and will watch over future generations. These are the beloved dead, reclaimed from beneath the waters by family members who love and care for them… but, should the Ti Bon Ange not have anyone to reclaim it and be left under the waters, eventually it may be reborn as one of the Forgotten Dead, the Ghede lwa.
There are a few minor components in addition to the body and the two ‘good angels’, such as the Zetwal, or your star, a star that would have been rising on the horizon while you were born (similar in thought to the idea of success being indicative of your star being on the rise, or “Her star is rising”), but the most important for an initiate is the one we will speak of next.