As we progress deeper into the lessons here, one thing that is going to come across as a fairly repetitive idea is the notion of points of concentrated spiritual power or essence; in Kreyol, the word is ‘pwen’, from the French ‘point’, which if you’ll forgive the pun brings us back around to our own.
Pwen are places, objects, hidden messages behind songs; pwen are concentrations of spiritual energy that are made, launched, thrown, gathered, or gradually built, depending on the nature of the pwen in question. The concept of pwen is a very wide and complex idea hidden behind the simplest of words, but for today’s essay Id like to examine in depth a single aspect.
I want you to take a moment, breathe, and think about your favorite spot in your home. You know, that place where you’re instantly comfortable, the place where, when the grind of the workday gets to that spot where you just would give anything to be home again, that you’re envisioning. Is it the long part of the sofa in the livingroom, stretching out before the television? The armchair off to the side where the side table is in perfect reach? The computer desk with all your gaming equipment perfectly arranged to plunk you into your favorite world with no wasted time? If you’re reading this, who knows? You may actually be reading this from your favorite spot, you lucky duck. (Otherwise, well…. I promise I wont tell your boss.)
For most of us, we nest; we find the spot we like the most or which makes us feel the most ‘at home’, and our energy in a way claims it. (My stepfather used to be like that about his office; if I wanted to really mess with him all I needed to do was turn a single book around so the binding faced the wall…. he couldnt find the disturbance itself, but he knew *something* was off.)
For Vodouisants, this place is often our Altar. The altar is a space in our homes we dedicate to our interactions with the lwa who make up our spiritual court (also sometimes called the spiritual frame, quadro/quadrant; there’s lots of names for the grouping of spiritual guides who are our most intimate spiritual connections). It is a place we dedicate to them, a place where we honor them, where we work with them, and where their energy accrues over time, the lingering stain if you will of their repeated presence.
This notion isnt specific to just Vodou, by the way… I remember visiting my dear friend Chris at his apartment in Maine and walking by his altar; Chris is a witch who works in a tradition very different from my own, but I could feel that altar’s energy as though it were direct sunlight on my skin. His repeated work in that particular place had, over time, filled it with his energy and the energy of his spirits. Im not personally the most energy sensitive individual I know, and yet I could feel it just as I could feel the Sun shining on me.
In Vodou, the altar becomes a pwen; a place where this spiritual energy is concentrated and refined over time by the interaction between practitioner and Spirit. The altar becomes the main central doorway through which your spirits enter and through which they do their work (assuming of course that you dont have a ritually constructed poto mitan in your living room, a topic we will cover in depth in another post). Over time, as offerings are made, prayers spoken and songs sung, and the relationship between you and your spirits becomes stronger, so too will your altar.
THIS is why Im against the idea of little altars everywhere, a new tendency that has been emerging and growing from the online Vodou world; there’s both a dilution of energy at play, and an inherent violation of traditional rules that dont often even get mentioned by the folks who suggest that particular approach…. but, let me explain.
A practitioner’s Vodou altar is the place we give as a home to our spirits, our way of giving them that spot in the house we envisioned earlier for ourselves; as their energy fills it, so too does their presence. Because of this, naturally, there are rules. (Many people new to Vodou are often shocked that we actually have rules or that the “I want to do whatever I feel” impulse has no place in the tradition, and we will return to aspects of that point many, many times….. but, we have rules). While we’ll get into the specifics of the mechanics of altar building and work in a soon-to-come post, these rules are worth going over ahead of time.
The altar is quite literally both a portal and a seat, where your spirits are welcomed and invited to sit in your home as beloved and respected elders. Because of this, there’s a few things that you dont want them to have to see, based in basic respect.
- Nudity: Your spirits dont need to see it. Trust me. When it comes to spirit work and how we appear before our beloved Elders, its best to take a moment before approaching the altar to spruce up your appearrance a little. Not talking make-up, necessarily, but try to make sure your clothes are clean and “presentable”; showing respect through management of your own appearrance when you go to work with your altar is a subtle but powerful way to reinforce to your spirits that you respect them, and in Vodou, respect is paramount. Your spirits hold the same elevated social ranks as Generals, Admirals, Senators, Presidents, Queens; respect them in how you appear as well as how you walk by their dedicated space.
- Sex: Believe me, Vodou is not a religion of judgement or prudishness, but it IS one where sexual activity is seen as inherently private, between one or more consenting humans. While we’re saving outright metaphysical mechanics for that future post, Sexual energy is considered a “heating” influence as well as one that changes a person’s state of energetic cleanliness (not that sex is dirty, though frankly if you’re doin’ it right…. no; ritual cleanliness is about avoiding having the energy of another person on you; many spirits even require a full day free of sexual activity or energy before they can be approached). Just as your altar should never be subjected to nudity, it should never be within direct view of sexual activity.
- Anger and Arguments: These are on a different wavelength than nudity and sex, but they are inherent displays and broadcasts of volitile/Hot energy, and as energy they will pollute the energy of the altar, imbalancing it through unfocused Heat (which in turn takes itself out in your regular day to day life, causing imbalanced Luck and personal relationships). This ranges from heated phonecalls, verbal arguments, acts of violence… keep it away from your altar table.
- Vice: Kinda like Sex, Vodou doesnt judge your habits nor your addictions; where problems come in is through disrespectful display, and in instances where a Vice prevents a person from being able to honor their ritual commitments. When it comes to vices like alcohol, drugs, smoking, etc., keep them away from the view of the altar, and if there are vice-type chemicals running through your bloodstream, keep YOU away from your altar as well. Just as it would be social disaster to be drunk/stoned/tripping balls/tweaking in an interaction with the Queen of England, its something that should be kept completely away from your spirits’ seat in your home.
- Dirt/Clutter/Messiness: Now, believe me…. I am the last person to talk about perfect order and everything in it’s proper place. Im not the most tidy guy on the block… but, that said, the altar should be kept both in a clean and tidy space, so your spirits arent themselves stuck looking out at piles of unclean dishes, filth, disarray, pet mess, etc. Your space doesnt need to be *perfect*, but a little effort goes quite a distance. You have company over when you have an altar in your space. Keep it tidy, dust free, and heavens above keep cobwebs and dead bugs/mouse leftovers/whatever else you may find cleaned up as quickly as you may spot it. Any waters or liquids left out should be changed out often to keep clean, fresh, and free of insects.
- Dirt/Dust/Smoke: Try to keep the altar itself clean and tidy as well; energy tends to get stagnant and or trapped in a dusty and grimy filter. Picture your altar as a window into the spirits’ world for a moment; you want as much light as possible to shine through, so just like a regular windexing with a clean rag helps the window, so too does a regular tidying and dusting of your altar space keep the doorway open and the energy flowing. Regarding smoke, many lwa cannot be in the presence of it; that includes of course tobacco and other inhalants, but also extends to incenses and anything burned… while it’s good spiritual hygeine to cense out your space from time to time with things like church-blend frankincense and myrrh, do that at a time where you can let the air clear completely before your spirit work commences so the air is clean enough for those spirits to not feel like they’re being invited into their own taboos. Think of smoke as though it were pollen; some lwa are completely fine, but others are rather violently allergic. Be nice to them. Avoidance is better than trying to give them Benadryl. Some lwa DO take tobacco as an offering; it is not inhaled into your lungs first and blown out for them, and it is not an excuse to have your own cigarette or cigar in their sacred space.
- Direct Sunlight: ideally, your altar should be shaded or sited in the home outside of the path of direct sun from a window.
- Simplicity: Finally for now, in the same vein as the idea of tidiness so energy can flow, simplicity and understatement will go a long way while you are starting out and building relationships with your spirits in a place where their energy can truly shine. Too many shiny objects, art pieces, and thingamabobbers just become too many distractions for the energy you want to flow cleanly and smoothly. (There’s an inherent danger to working with lwa; it is very, very easy for them to get greedy. They will freely tell you to buy EVERY PRETTY THING YOU SEE that fits the particular spirit who wants it, and for beginners who have not yet learned to negotiate with their spirits or tell them “NO.”, it can very quickly turn into either an overburdened and over-cluttered space, or an entire home that is basically one altar with no space for you to live. We’ll talk about this more, but for now, you’ve been warned. Keep it simple.)
So yeah, there’s a few rules. They’re pretty simple, and an easy set of habits to enforce for your altar area….. but they also reveal *why* Im against this new-online-community-thing of giving every spirit a person works with their own altar. That idea is not traditional and not something you’ll ever see authentic Haitian Vodou practitioners do; while there are practical considerations to spirit relationships, jealousies, balancing acts, and a host of other reasons, today I wanted to address the point of the altar as a pwen; consolidating to a truly traditional principle of a single access point altar makes it so THE REST OF YOUR HOUSE is free to enjoy as yours, a space where you can live it up, enjoy your vices and your body, and where what you do in that favorite spot isnt going to offend any of your spirits.
Splitting your service between little altars everywhere dilutes the energy that any see flowing through them, and splits your spiritual court in a way guaranteed to only bring distracted energy into your life in place of the calm that comes from a well balanced court housed in a well tended altar.
One thought to bear in mind is that our Tradition comes from a place where, sadly, much of the populace is known to live in states of poverty and economic oppression; through this, the faith has grown into many expressions of beauty and gorgeousness, but the idea of profligate spending on dozens of shrines dripping with beauty occupying a high percentage of any house’s living space would be an alien terror more than a luxury in the eyes of the vast majority of the tradition’s carriers. While you may feel a temptation to “spoil” your spirits by what looks like treating them well, the notion of filling the entire living space with shrines both makes it nigh impossible to live a normal life in space you pay for AND, frankly, visibly and disrespectfully Colonialist in the approach to honored and beloved Spirits. One single door will always be easier, healthier, and more traditionally respectful to maintain than dozens in every part of the home.
Remember this when you see Vodou “educators” advocating making each spirit their own table, or scattering spiritual service points around the house. From the perspective of the religion itself and the culture that carries it, such things are economically impossible, unsustainable, and run counter to the idea of building an intimate relationship with your spiritual court.