A great deal of the questions people have for me, in my role as a public Houngan and introductory teacher of this (AMAZING) religion, all revolve around the notion of where to begin the journey into Vodou. I’m a fairly typical American, not born to Vodou and not born to Haitian culture, so it makes complete sense to me that a great deal of my responsibility to this religion, its culture, and its spirits, boils down to being able to articulate the journey I’ve personally gone through so that others can use my experience to find their own way in.
Mine’s been an interesting journey; a few times I fell for things that, in retrospect, I really shouldn’t have, and in many ways put me farther away from what I was looking for than I knew at the time. Some of the lessons have been hard, and some have been downright humiliating… especially falling for frauds that, for a time being, I was even defending and advocating for without having the slightest clue that I was just another rube being taken advantage of and lied to. I’m far from a perfect being; it took me a while to realize what was going on, and right about that time the only explanation I can give is that my spirits led me through a series of seeming coincidences that led to me finding an utterly amazing House, and through that, taking initiation as a Houngan in my priestess’ Vodou family, Sosyete Nago.
Through that process, two things have become pretty evident to me; one is that I’ve gotten pretty damned good at spotting bullshit from a mile away and learning to steer clear of it, but two, more importantly, is that there’s really an extreme need in this day and age for there to be clear signposts pointing the way and free, common knowledge education about how to enter this incredible religion and folk tradition with respect, knowledge, integrity, and of course safety. Things for me, and for MANY people I know, probably would have been much different and significantly less painful if I (and they) had known ahead of time how to discern the real from the fraudulent and how to know that we were in a good, safe, and respectful place.
(It probably also would have helped to have had some basic pointers in proper dress and respectful behaviour in a system that we weren’t yet a part of… little lessons like that can go a loooooooooooooong way.)
First Things First
Contrary to a LOT of what you’re going to see online and on the bookshelf at your nearest book shop, Vodou isn’t a religion you can really practice fully on your own, nor one that really allows for being “self taught”.
That’s a really hard lesson to internalize; there’s no amount of reading that’ll put you in a position of priest or authority, no matter the written material (even this blog, while it IS a teaching blog, in a way is like a bridge that can only carry you half-way to where you want to be). Our modern culture is full of other traditions where self learning and self-appointed responsibility carry great weight; if that is where you are called, be proud of that… but, it will preclude your involvement in Vodou, where community and apprenticing under authority carry trump individual desires. This tradition’s riches are earned, and through initiation and the ceremonies built around it the individual is given license to know and license to practice; without those, the individual has nothing as the individual has no standing in the community (comprised of human and spirit alike).
License. That’s a single word that you’ll want to pay close attention to; a license is given to provide and prove permission to act in the way the license allows… a pivotal principle in African Diasporic Religions.
You CAN begin to study, learn the basics, and get some spiritual movement happening in your life… but Vodou is a community religion; at it’s truest, it is a faith that is practiced and celebrated by groups of people together, each fulfilling different functions and responsibilities as its services come together…. in a way, its kinda like saying you don’t have to be a priest to say the rosary, but if you want to lead or participate in a mass, you’re going to need more than just your lonesome.
In many ways it’s all about license and working towards earning it, much like it was back when we were all teenagers watching our friends, one by one, drive home from school while we waited for the bus or waited for driver’s ed class to begin. Once we earned that license, our world changed in fantastic (and sometimes dangerous) ways… but, before it, if we got caught behind the wheel we were in for a world of trouble.
Vodou as it is practiced in Haiti has a specific safety net to offer; we call it a House, a family structure of initiates who come together as a unit to perform religious services we call fetes (sounds like fets, the second e is silent), parties given in the spirits’ honor. (We’ll use the two words interchangeably… the next celebration my House is having, for example, is Fete Ghede in late November; conversationally I may ask a friend if they’re coming with us to Ghede’s party). The House is the basic religious unit of the Vodou clergy, the organized group of initiate family that provides rituals for the community’s benefit and for lay members of the religion to avail themselves of the religion’s service, much like the priests of the local Church provide a space and time for lay worshippers to enjoy Mass.
The majority of the energy expended by a non-initiate who feels called to Vodou or its spirits really should be directed towards finding a House, a place to begin training in the religion and the process that builds understanding of the individual’s relationship to their own spirits… now, that said, sometimes you’ll find places where there’s a tremendous feeling of the perfect fit and wonderful people, but that’s sometimes like winning the lottery. Explore around; don’t sign on to a process leading towards committing to initiation and joining the family when you’ve only spoken to someone online or attended a single celebration… joining a house as a family member is in itself a pretty big commitment; you want to be absolutely sure that it is the right place for you and your spirits, and you also want to make sure that the house’s existing membership feels that you are a good fit for them… and this is going to take some serious time.
We’ll talk more about the nitty gritty details involved in initiation in an upcoming post, but what you need to know now is that a great deal of the initiation process is a very intimate one, deeply connected to your head and your connection to your spirits. Letting someone touch your head, especially in a ritual setting designed to create and sustain deep changes and to access the spirits who are your primary protectors and allies, is an INCREDIBLY intimate act of trust. This one detail involved in your commitment to this faith is of pivotal importance, both to your emerging reputation as a priest or priestess on the other side of initiation as well as to your immediate bodily, emotional, and spiritual health/wellbeing. The people who touch your head literally take on the responsibility of being your mother or your father (the core of why we say a House is a “Vodou family”; the initiates of the individual who is running the temple are literally each other’s brothers and sisters under their spiritual mother or father) only this time around, you get to choose the parents and family you will be bound into for life (unlike that first time, when all you really got to do was be born.)
Obviously, this choice is a crucial, pivotal, vitally important choice, the ramifications of which just cannot really be stressed enough or even comprehended fully before it is made; if I weren’t thinking I’d completely lose your focus and attention, believe me… I could write several posts about the importance of this choice alone.
Because of that, and because the weight of this decision is really borne by folks with limited exposure to the religion (at least up here in the ‘states where many of us are comparitively new to the culture and its modes), this is one of the areas where fraud shows its ugly head and where so many are led astray. It is vitally important that you trust the person who would perform these services for you implicitly, and that they show themselves to have integrity. This decision is not going to be made by online interaction alone… so, when you see what I consider a “click to kanzo mill” or people pushing initiations of strangers where all you have to do is pay a deposit or full payment and you only meet the people when it’s your time to be initiated…. RUN. That kind of behaviour neither fits the rules of the tradition nor does it provide *any* feeling of safety or support… even if the person sounds like they’ve been nice to you online, in many ways this one decision is of greater importance than the idea of marriage; marriage at least can end in a divorce. You wouldn’t agree to marry someone without meeting them, getting to know them, and getting to fall in love with them… so think of that when you’re offered a lifetime commitment as a priest or priestesses child.
As a non-initiate, you have the luxury of exploring houses (respectfully!) and attending fetes to both interact with the spirits as they come in possession as well as interact with the house members, network, form relationships, and learn how, where, and when the feeling of family takes over from the feeling of mere acquaintance. Give. It. Time. Let it build organically and safely, and everything will be wonderful (of course, keep an eye out for abuses… just like any religion, ours can harbor people who are unsafe and who may not have your best interests at heart. We are a religion, not a cult, and cult behaviour should be watched out for while you’re getting to know people so you can keep yourself SAFE. Check here for the Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame, a handy resource checklist of things to watch out for to make sure you’re in a loving and supportive environment, and not in danger.) We’re humans, and none of us should be up on pedestals, but at the same time we’re humans and *all* of us should be acting ethically.
That said, if someone’s way of seeing if your a good fit for them is asking you to send them a photocopy of your handprint and a few hundred bucks to read it, you’re dealing with something outside the scope of ethics and being rooked. Caveat emptor; we’ll be getting into ways to build responsible discernment skills in the Vodou world in future posts here, but we’re gonna at least sneak this one in now.
Returning to the issue at hand, though, the vast majority of your energy expenditure is gonna be focused on finding the right House, in essence the right congregation to join and the right family to associate with. One potential snag, of course, is that Vodou of course flows with its home culture… so in order to find good and reputable Vodou houses, you’re going to have to concentrate your attention on areas known for a high Haitian population density. Reputable’s a key word, here… to me, if you want to know the tradition and be a part of it, you want to seek out the houses that are keeping to the traditional rules and modes of instruction. Feel free to ask them if they do Kanzo in Haiti; that’s a big one, and you want the answer to be YES. Folks who try to tell you they’re making an American system, or saving the religion from Haiti, or making things more modern and accessible, or whatever excuse… they’re lying. For some reason they’ve decided to take it upon themselves to change the transmission of the tradition, and to people like me that immediately puts them in a suspect category. (Ive been to Haiti, coupla times, cant wait to go back, and will GLADLY tell ya it’s a trip you’ll remember forever for all it has to teach you and all you’ll love about it).
Chances are you’ll find those concentrations in one of three major areas… coming up, south to north, you’ll find the largest concentrations of Vodou in the USA fall in Miami and it’s surrounding areas, New York City (especially the Park Slope region of Brooklyn, though that is rapidly changing as the area gentrifies), and Boston (especially around Dorchester, though there’s houses both on the north and south shores). These are also where the houses I personally know to have sterling reputations are focused and headquartered, so keep this in mind… you might be looking at some travel time when it comes to a house. Plan on being able to fly out a few times a year if you’re at a distance for several major religious celebrations (this is rarely really taxing…. my house has a liturgical calender of generally 5 or 6 major celebrations in the year, close to being just about every other month, and for a while you wont really need to attend every one but more is of course recommended to get in as much time around the family presenting the rites and face to face time with their spirits.)
You DONT HAVE TO MOVE, although if you’re able to consider doing so that would make the travel a lot easier to deal with… but, frankly, you’re gonna need serious amounts of face to face time, so you’re probably looking at somewhat regular (but affordable) flights. You’re gonna have to do that to do this, just because of location and what you want to study and see. Kanzo, also, happens in Haiti and Haiti alone… so you’re gonna wanna make sure when that time comes that your passport is ready since you’ll have more travel ahead. If travel is an extreme difficulty and you’re not in an area where Vodou houses of good quality are prevalent, Im afraid this is a bit of a FULL STOP situation. There’s no way to pull things apart or out of their own system in any way that leaves the system able to function. Be prepared to travel (but be prepared to LOVE IT.)
In our modern American culture though, this is the bad news. There is no way to self initiate, no private practice, and no way to stick up a shingle as a Vodou practitioner without the backing of community and especially the ceremonies of ordination, but the VAST majority of what can be seen online is just that. If you can get to a House, everything else for the most part barring certain issues is *good news.*
There’s a LOT more to getting to know the people of the House and getting comfortably folded in than mere attendance at celebrations; know that now. For the first few parties, of course it’s OK to just attend to see what’s up and to see how the religion actually functions in practice and in it’s natural group setting, but the more time you can spend, honestly the better experience you’ll have. People who come to my house for my Manmi’s rites are usually told something I’ll now share with you… get. there. early.
Offer to help set up, or to assist in putting things together (which means use the “please” word, show up with a good work ethic, and be willing to take direction; if you can get there or offer to be there the night before the event itself, you might expect to help with putting the fabrics together for the altar, maybe hanging decorations and streamers and basically helping all around, but there’s a very good side to the work involved… it gets you time around the initiate family for conversation and laughter outside of the time when they’re gonna be running around like madmen/-women running a religious celebration for their community. Get your questions and discussions in while there’s time for it, while you’re all together working and putting the stage together for the event, and you’ll have had the perfect opportunity to get good info while showing that you’re willing to work. THIS IS HUGE, and is something we greatly appreciate… it shows us you’re not just there to take.)
If possible, plan on staying afterwards too… now, our religious celebrations are LONG. In my house, we start sometime around 9 or 10 Saturday night and we might finish up around 730 or 8 Sunday morning; these are long, intense, and spectacular events… and while it’s not ever a requirement to be there through the whole thing, on one side you’ll definitely want to see as much as you can but on the other, if you’re there to volunteer to help clean up afterwards (gathering paper plates and garbage, helping to sweep, helping to move the candles off the main table and down to the cement floor so the house doesnt burn down, simple stuff) it will also help endear you to the House as someone who understands clearly that there’s more to the practice of the religion than just attending a party and leaving. Good displays of good manners will carry you very, very far (See? Your Mama wasn’t lying when she told you that all those times! Now’s the time to show she raised you well!)
For me, these moments (and one more special one we’re about to get to) are the heart and soul of working in the faith; the family comes together in love, laughter, and devotion, and the whole snaps into a well-oiled machine to put on a stunning display of community integrity… but, at the same time, there’s intimate access and conversation time, food, and usually a whole lot of fun involved in the time before and after. The most special time, to me, is once everyone has napped a little bit Sunday morning (these events are long and taxing… expect to be ready to collapse in the morning once the cleaning is done) and gathers around manmi’s coffee table; back to the intimate family unit (and the people who know in advance that this is a moment to not miss) ready to debrief, discuss the party, gossip, and chat…. some of my most beloved moments and important lessons I’ve learned have come from this specific time; if you want to get in with the house and get them to know you, these are the times to be savored.
(If folks are interested, Manmi’s fetes are open to the public… we don’t advertise, really, but if I know you want to come and fly out to Boston to be with us I can always bring you to one so you can see it; I admit, I have a bias, and my House is amazing… I’ll gladly share if I know you want to come and get access to something breathtakingly cool)
Betcha thought I’d be diving into technique as the important first steps, didnt ya?
Technique, and the basic lessons you’ll find here on this blog (coming soon, I promise you. We’ve got a LOT to cover) are certainly important, but lemme take a moment to explain that part of my basic mission.
This Blog’s Basic Mission
The big point of this blog and just about everything found within it is preparation… ideally, preparation for folks who are seeking out this tradition and who want to know how to actually join it. My job is to make sure that correct information is actually out there and that signposts are clear and easy to follow; unfortunately, you as the person seeking are up for one hill of an uphill climb when it comes to navigating the sea of fraud and shouting voices you’ll find along your way… as much as I wish I could just flick a lightswitch and make all that go away, I cant… and it’s here to stay. There’s a whole lot of, if you’ll forgive a momentary language slip, bullshit out there online and in print… bad information that, while claiming to bring a person all sorts of spells and power and ritual and whatnot instead actually separates people from the real religion that’s sitting here waiting for those called to pick up the danged phone already (so to speak). The best I can do is speak truthfully and authentically, maintaining respectful authenticity, giving you the tools that in my experience are the basics that *anyone* born into this tradition or who regularly attends religious functions will know… simple ways at a non-initiate level to serve your personal spirits (ancestors and lwa) at home, in ways that will both build a good connection to the spirits who ‘walk with you’ and which will also give you a traditionally accurate level of knowledge that will prepare you for being able to work towards joining a house… with a basic skill set made up of religious and cultural practices that give you a good spot on the playing field.
When we talk here about technique and actions, the basic praxis of the religion, what I write here could be thought of as the training wheels that will gradually make you able to learn to ride the proverbial bicycle… I can’t teach anyone through a blog how to be a priest or priestess of this religion as this religion requires the group setting and the license-granting process of initiation to achieve those levels and ranks… but what I *CAN* do is make sure those first baby steps are in place, the salutes, the protocols, the home service, and the basic knowledge of Reglemen are there for you as a strong foundation to build on. What I *CAN* do is give you the basic tools required to be able to recognize the traditional from the fraudulent, and help you at least a little to navigate the huge amount of what’s out there so that when and if the time comes for you to seek the real thing out, that process is less painful than it was for me. That’s why I’m here, that’s why I’m opinionated, that’s why I’m loud, and that’s why ‘Im writing this blog.
You don’t have to do what I say, and you certainly dont have to join the House I belong to… but, please take what I write here to heart and do try to apply some sense in your journey. I cant step in and personally protect you from getting taken advantage of/lied to/rooked out of money, but I can do my best to make sure you can approach this religion with open eyes and, with luck, a clear enough thought process to keep yourself out of trouble. It’s always painful to hear the horror stories of folks who realize how deep into fraud they’ve gotten and what it does to their lives… my mission here is to try to make sure that doesnt happen to YOU.
So… while you’re working on researching houses, attending celebrations, and getting to know the community of this faith (the real ones, not the online click-to-kanzo mills), I hope you enjoy the technique and history lessons we get to share here and I hope that the access you get to have to this information suits you well. (Believe me, there’s at least one individual out there who for a while was freaking out that I write these basic steps… as she herself charged her “initiates” 500$ for a weekend “intensive” to learn these same basic salutes and protocols. For my side, as this is free and public information to the lay people who make up the body of faithful in Haiti, I dont see why it should ever be treated as a money making opportunity or why it should lend an air of respectability to those who’d proclaim it secret… when anyone with an open eye can pick this level of info up by watching any Vodou religious celebration if they know what to look for.)
I sincerely hope you enjoy this blog, practice the technique lessons found here (for free!) and, at all times, feel comfortable in asking me any question about the posts here in the comments… while our religion is, actually, a religion with secrets (that license-to-know thing again) I really hate the “I cant tell you that” style of brushing off a sincere question… if it gets into initiate only territory, I’ll gladly try to tell you WHY I cant answer something… but, other than those few areas, there’s little we cannot discuss in the open.
Its been a rough process getting here, and that I can let ya know; my work has gotten copied, rewritten, heck there’s even folks who’ll take my essays after I write ‘em, add a few pictures and post ‘em up, all the while saying I’m personally worthless as a resource (when those same folks even go so far as to copy my pricing structure for some things or even suddenly start advertising for certain services I personally innovated and put out there with my manmi’s permission. Really, it’s hysterical… but, hey, publicity’s publicity and I’m not in this to bulk up my numbers or play a popularity game. As long as it’s clear to you what this work it, why it’s here, and how you can benefit from it… I’m proud of what I’ve done.)
Learn what you can from our technique lessons and discussions, and know that you’re building a good foundation for when you get to a house from which you can extend and deepen your learning. These are training wheels, but they’re some pretty good ones.
While you’re working on all of the above, there’s something important that in my personal opinion you should also be working on pretty seriously; many people going through the above express feelings of delay, doubt, or a willingness to fall into the various online traps of folks pretending to be authorities in “do it yourself” voodooisms, but I think concentrating on this one area will help keep all of those feelings at bay and provide a firm feeling of foundation and accomplishment… and this is learning the language.
There are a few wonderful resources that make having a basic grasp of Haitian Kreyol an easy prospect to do on one’s own, and speaking even a rudimentary form of the language will help you immensely as you progress in your studies of the faith (and ultimately, should you so choose, your place within it and the possibility of priest/ess/hood.)
Pimsleur has a fantastic 30 episode audio course that’s built on half hour lessons you listen to and repeat words/phrases/sentences when prompted (it works the same way as how children initially pick up language skills, and is really remarkable in just how fast it gets you speaking the language… even if only in a basic form. Fantastic program; a little tiny bit on the expensive side, but worth every penny and even something that can be split with local friends to cover the cost. http://www.pimsleur.com/Learn-Haitian-Creole ) If you set the time for it, you can do a half hour lesson per day and have a pretty good conversational ability within a month.
Yes…. a month.
A second source, once you’ve worked through the Pimsleur, is a book and CD set called Pawol Lakay (available HERE) which is a beginning to intermediate college-level course in the language. (Personally, I recommend the Pimsleur first, ESPECIALLY for folks who dont have a background in speaking French; Kreyol pronunciation works on a slightly different level than English, and certain sounds are more easily replicated by listen-and-repeat learning than seeing them written and working from there; I’d say start with the Pimsleur and work through its system for a really good crash course in how to really speak the language, and then upon completion go back and work the Pawol Lakay book and CD package. Having a really good grasp on how the sounds are made FIRST will make the book package that much more easy to build vocabulary from.)
These two language instruction programs are *amazing* and, really, some of the best ways I’ve ever seen for getting a working grasp of Haitian Kreyol for folks new to the religion, the culture, and wishing to become a part of it. If you want to earn a place in the religion and its practice, you are going to have to learn the language to the point of being able to speak and sing it… so why not start now?
If you get a good grasp on conversational Kreyol NOW, before worrying about attending fetes and trying to communicate with people when you can’t speak their native tongue, or even trying to navigate a religious service but not understand the songs being sung for the spirits… well, it’s gonna help you to a huge degree, and another plus is its an unexpected gift to give the folks you’ll be visiting and hopefully learning from. Truth be told they wont expect that you speak Kreyol as a foreigner, and it’ll knock their socks off to see that you do (it shows a high level of discipline and earnest interest in more than just a thirst for power… that itself is gonna touch them and amaze them.) I can speak from experience that if I had anything to do over in my own work in this faith, it would be this… I should have taken time to learn the language much earlier than I did. If your journey seems to be pointed towards initiation, PLEASE do yourself a favor and learn to speak the language before you head to Haiti. You’ll be so incredibly glad you did. (Especially if, as I said way up top, you’re able to spend extra time around the family to get to know them when you find them… our religion is sturdily Haitian, which means that free conversation in English can sometimes be a luxury; those times around the coffee table? If you understand Kreyol when it’s spoken you’ll get significantly more mileage out of those moments. Trust me on that one.)
So… lots to think about, lots to work on (Get those language cd’s!), and lots to help get you started/to know how to get started and what directions to look towards…. We’ll be back with more on the Blog soon.