Vodou, community and communion

At its heart, Vodou is a community religion. In her book Haitian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition, Mambo Chita Tann writes: “Haitian Vodou is not a solitary practice overall. While there are things that a person does alone to serve Bondye and the Lwa, the vast majority of Vodou service is done in community, with one’s family or sosyete, or in large gatherings with other families or sosyetes.”

I remember when I first started down this path, I kept hearing that there is no such thing as solitary Vodou. Before that, I had always been a solitary Wiccan, and feeling ‘forced’ to be part of a group did not appeal to me at all. My plan was to learn on my own, and maybe hook up with a group years down the road. The ‘maybe’ was very vague and noncommittal and, as it would turn out, not taken very seriously by the lwa, who used various channels to hook me up with the local mambo. Now, four years later, I realize the value of a Vodou community.

It’s not that one cannot serve the lwa on one’s own. Obviously one can; author Kenaz Filan did for many years before he was initiated, and I know other Vodou and Voodoo (two spellings to differentiate between the Haitian and NOLA traditions) practitioners who are solitaries. But there are some things that you simply cannot or should not experience on one’s own. For instance, one should not attempt possession by oneself, and talking to a lwa via a physical vehicle (a chwal, or horse) is not going to happen when you are by yourself.

Personally, I love my home altars and talking to my lwa one-on-one. However, I also love the infectious rhythms of live drumming that command my feet to dance.

I remember when I agreed to attend my first fet, and feeling uncomfortable about the whole group thing. Losing myself in dance and service is no easy task for me, and one that I am still working on. It’s getting better with time. Something else I am getting out of the group activities: my singing voice is starting to improve a little. I am still not a good singer, and in fact not even a decent one, but it’s getting easier.

There certainly are better tools out there available for solitary Vodouisants these days, the most recent being the above quoted book by Mambo Chita Tann. The book includes very detailed instructions on how to make a Vodou lamp which one can use for illuminasyon or wanga (I plan to try this soon). However, there are other things that I still have not seen in books and would not know about if I had never attended a fet. For instance, how to properly do salutes (you can see this on some YouTube videos, although sometimes it’s hard to see exactly what they are doing, and no one narrates it).

When one is new to Vodou and becoming attuned to the lwa, it makes sense to pay attention to your intuition and those subtle nudgings. But intermingling with other Vodouisants and attending services is also very important at this stage. As my friend Ian recently commented: “…it’s a given that pretty much everything in Vodou is UPG (unverified personal gnosis), at least initially.” He then pointed out that one of the reasons to attend public Vodou services is that it’s one of the only ways to verify UPG, by communicating and communing with others.

It really helps too to be able to talk to houngans and mambos and hear their perspectives on things. Vodou is not the same as Neo Paganism; it’s not a reconstruction but a faith that has been practiced continuously for centuries. And in my opinion, the lwa are not thought forms or energy vibes who are satisfied with having our love and our gratitude in the form of ‘thank yous.’ They expect service from us, and it seems to me that the closer we are to them, the more they demand of us. Initiates have very specific duties that they have to perform, and the higher up you go, the more responsibilities you have.

My Vodou practice is far less “free form” than my other Pagan practices. Why? Because the ways to work with the lwa are established and there is no need for me to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. I do put my own spin on things to a degree, but one must find that balance between personalization and respect for the regleman and other established protocols, especially when one is new to the faith (otherwise we risk falling into that nasty cultural appropriation trap). Also, as I mentioned above, I do not believe that the lwa are energy vibes, thought forms, what-have-you. I believe them to be their own entities with autonomy and free will. And some of them have bad tempers. They have their own tastes, and it is not for us to redefine those for them.

During the past several months I have been noticing a closer connection with the lwa and with spirit in general. I can feel it in my head; something shifts when I approach my altars, sing to Legba, light a candle. I know that my progress would be much slower without the experience of the fets and other gatherings and the help of Mambo C. And I am grateful. Ayibobo!


2 Responses to “Vodou, community and communion”

  1. Sherwin gibbs Says:

    You can look on houngan Matts blog on how to do the Salutes for the Lwa look Click on Basic Vodou Lessons

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