“Remembrance” and why we serve the lwa

A couple of months ago a few friends and I were discussing Vodou books, and how we’d like to read more that are written by Haitians. Mambo C recommended “Remembrance: Roots, Rituals, and Reverence in Vodou” by Jerry M. Gilles and Yvrose S. Gilles. The Kreyol version is titled “Sèvis Ginen: Rasin, Rityèl, Respè lan Vodou.”

This book really delves into the history of Vodou beliefs and practices, largely via language. Words are traced back to their African roots, often identifying precise regions. It was also fascinating to read about African historical figures who became lwa. Some have songs written about them that are still sung at fets. For example, one song I’ve sung a number of times is written about the Kongo King Antonio who inspired Gangan Vita to start the Toni Malo movement in 1704 to restore the Kongo to its past glory (discussed in Chapter VIII). It’s nice to understand the history of the song:

“Toni rele Kongo, Toni rele Kongo, Toni rele Kongo, Santa Maria Gracia.”

This is translated as “Toni calls for the Kongo, Toni calls for the Kongo, Toni calls for the Kongo, By the Grace of Saint Mary.”

The book also contains one of the best explanations I’ve seen about why we serve the lwa. People new to Vodou sometimes wonder if we serve the lwa as a way of bribing them to do us favors. This is simply not so:

The principle of offerings is based on reciprocity. If good will is shown to the Lwa, good things will happen. Today in Haiti, the Lwa are thought to reside in a world beneath our own and are served as a means of showing appreciation for the support that they provide. A show of appreciation keeps their memory alive and keeps them interested in our lives. When the Lwa are ignored, they go away. (p. 185)

I tend to think of service to the lwa as maintaining a relationship. If I never talk to my friends except when I want a favor, then how likely is it that they will even care about what I need? Service to the lwa is a way of maintaining a relationship that I care about.

I enjoyed this book very much, although it is not one I would recommend for the beginning Vodou student. It really helps to have some familiarity with the lwa, Vodou terminology, the reglemen and some of the songs before diving into this book. While the translation is written very clearly, the sheer volume of information and new words could be overwhelming to a new student. However, I am happy to have it in my library and know I will be referring to it again.


8 Responses to ““Remembrance” and why we serve the lwa”

  1. Thank you for yet another book recommendation.

  2. I am not into vodou, but the relationship you describe is also how I view my own deity/spirit interactions. Thanks for posting!

  3. seastruckbythecrossroads Says:

    Hello… I am here to give you the Inspirig Blog Award:
    Enjoy it with my thanks for many well-enjoyed blogposts!

  4. Hello,

    I agree, Remembrance is full of relevant information and is really well researched.
    It’s a book full of interesting facts and knowledge, really a wealth of information.

    For me there are certain problems with it also though.
    I think the book is suffering somewhat under the fact that the authors clearly have in mind to explain the Vodou beliefs in a way that makes Vodou understandable and respectable for people of Western culture that do not have the same references as a Haitian.
    The problem is that at times they try to hard to make Vodou into a respectable way of the passing of myths and information of ancestors, and somewhat devalue the meaning of the beliefs in vodou, of the lwas and more.

    Many of the readings and interpretations in their extremes t, would not be agreed upon many places in Haiti, where the myths are not only stories, but are taken very literally as well.

    At times the facts in the book is cut and pasted to suit their points, and I think it is important to read the book with a somewhat critical mindset, try to double-check everything they write.
    This is a shame, because this sometimes muddles up what could have been valid points in a discussion.

    One thing that generally annoys me are the translations of Creole Vodou songs and Creole words, which I think at times are misleading to better fit the point that the authors are making. The translations are simply not correct translations from creole. But deviate at certain important places that suits their point.
    To be fair, underneath every translation of a Vodou song, they write “An Interpretation”. But I think this is somewhat misleading. They should first write the proper English translation. Translate the words correctly, then afterwords they could write their english interpretation. By having the Creole song next to their interpretation it’s too easy to see it as a translation, if not, why even have the creole song there in the English language book?

    For instance in the book Danse nan tet mwen (the correct translation is ‘dances in my head’ -said about a lwa) is interpreted as “I am inspired by (the spirit of…)”
    And while inspired is definitely covered by the word Danse in this respect, it’s quite a specific and reductive meaning of something that in Haiti means that that spirit resides in my head as a being, someone that I can contact and communicate with and a relationship that can even lead to possession and such. “Being inspired by..” is quite reductive, and even such, the word inspired exist in Haitian Creole as the word ‘enspire’. Interpreting danse as inspired is a poor way of understanding the meaning of what is said. This is going too far in translating Vodou to a western taste, if you ask me. The belief is somewhat washed out of the new meaning.

    The very real beliefs in spirits and the supernatural is in Remembrance translated into a more general philosophy that sees the beliefs of Vodou only as a way of transferring memories of ancestors and cultural ways to younger generations. And while this is definitely what Vodou also is, if you only see it as this, you are missing a big part of the religion.

    Anyway, thats my critique of the book. Apart from that, it’s a book full of interesting facts and interesting hypotheses, but in my opinion, you do not have to read it as a definite explanation of Vodou, more of an exploration of one aspect of Vodou…

    Enjoy your day

    • cheshirecatman Says:

      Thank you for your comments, Tomas. I very much appreciate feedback from Haitians and people who have spent considerable time in the culture. What you wrote would make a good blog post all on its own.

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