HAITI ANCESTRAL RITUAL PRACTISE
AS NECCESSITY OF IDENTITY
This article was compiled by Jodi Phillips May 2014, for the Institute of Black Academics
concerning Black Under achievement.
PUBLISHED 09 MAY 2014 04:26
A Creolized form of Vodou is the primary culture and religion of the more than 8 million people of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. Haitian Vodou also has strong elements from the Ibo and Kongo peoples of Central Africa and the Yoruba of Nigeria, though many different peoples or "nations" of Africa have representation in the liturgy of the Sèvis Gine, as do the Taíno Indians, the original peoples of the island now known as Hispaniola
Haitian Creole forms of Vodou exist in Haiti (where it is native), the Dominican Republic, parts of Cuba, the United States,
and other places that Haitian immigrants dispersed to over the years. It is similar to other African-diasporic religions such as Lukumi or Regla de Ocha (also known as Santería) in Cuba, Candomble and Umbanda in Brazil, all religions that evolved among descendants of transplanted Africans in the Americas.
The majority of the Africans who were brought as slaves to Haiti were from the Guinea Coast of West Africa, and their descendants are the primary practitioners of Vodou (those Africans brought to the southern US were primarily from the Kongo kingdom). The survival of the belief system in the New World is remarkable, although the traditions have changed with time. One of the largest differences however between African and Haitian Vodou is that the transplanted Africans of Haiti were obliged to disguise their lwa or spirits as Roman Catholic saints, a process called syncretism.
Most experts speculate that this was done in an attempt to hide their "pagan" religion from their masters who had forbidden them to practice it. To say that Haitian Vodou is simply a mix of West African religions with a veneer of Roman Catholicism would not be entirely correct. This would be ignoring numerous influences from the native Taíno Indians, as well as the evolutionary process that Vodou has undergone shaped by the volatile ferment of Haitian history. It would also be ignoring the large influence of European paganism in Roman Catholicism and its pantheon of saints itself.
Vodou as we know it in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora today is the result of the pressures of many different cultures and ethnicities of people being uprooted from Africa and imported to Hispanola during the African slave trade. Under slavery, African culture and religion was suppressed, lineages were fragmented, and people pooled their religious knowledge and out of this fragmentation became culturally unified. In addition to combining the spirits of many different African and Indian nations, pieces of Roman Catholic liturgy have been incorporated to replace lost prayers or elements; in addition images of Catholic saints are used to represent various spirits or "mistè" ("mysteries", actually the preferred term in Haiti), and many saints themselves are honored in Vodou in their own right. This syncretism allows Vodou to encompass the African, the Indian, and the European ancestors in a whole and complete way. It is truly a "Kreyòl" religion.
The most historically important Vodou ceremony in Haitian history was the Bwa Kayiman or Bois Caïman ceremony of August 1791 that began the Haitian Revolution, in which the spirit Ezili Dantor possessed a priestess and received a black pig as an offering, and all those present pledged themselves to the fight for freedom. This ceremony ultimately resulted in the liberation of the Haitian people from their French masters in 1804, and the establishment of the first black people's republic in the history of the world.
Haitian Vodou grew in the United States to a significant degree beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the waves of Haitian immigrants fleeing the Duvalier regime, taking root in Miami, New York City, Chicago, and other major cities.
Haitian Vodouisants believe, in accordance with widespread African tradition, that there is one God who is the creator of all, referred to as "Bondyè" (from the French "Bon Dieu" or "Good God", distinguished from the god of the whites in a dramatic speech by the houngan Boukman at Bwa Kayiman, but is often considered the same God the Roman Catholic Church talks about). Bondyè is distant from his/her/its creation though, and so it is the spirits or the "mysteries", "saints", or "angels" that the Vodouisant turns to for help, as well as to the ancestors. The Vodouisant worships God, and serves the spirits, who are treated with honor and respect as elder members of a household might be. There are said to be twenty-one nations or "nanchons" of spirits, also sometimes called "lwa-yo". Some of the more important nations of lwa are the Rada, the Nago, and the Kongo. The spirits also come in "families" that all share a surname, like Ogou, or Ezili, or Azaka or Ghede. For instance, "Ezili" is a family, Ezili Dantor and Ezili Freda are two individual spirits in that family. The Ogou family are soldiers, the Ezili govern the feminine spheres of life, the Azaka govern agriculture, the Ghede govern the sphere of death and fertility. In Dominican Vodou, there is also an Agua Dulce or "Sweet Waters" family, which encompasses all Amerindian spirits. There are literally hundreds of lwa. Well known individual lwa include Danbala Wedo, Papa Legba Atibon, and Agwe Tawoyo.
In Haitian Vodou, spirits are divided according to their nature in roughly two categories, whether they are hot or cool. Cool spirits fall under the Rada category, and hot spirits fall under the Petwo category. Rada spirits are familial and mostly come from Africa, Petwo spirits are mostly native to Haiti and are more demanding and require more attention to detail than the Rada, but both can be dangerous if angry or upset. Neither is "good" or "evil" in relation to the other.
Everyone is said to have spirits, and each person is considered to have a special relationship with one particular spirit who is said to "own their head", however each person may have many lwa, and the one that owns their head, or the "met tet", may or may not be the most active spirit in a person's life in Haitian belief.
In serving the spirits, the Vodouisant seeks to achieve harmony with their own individual nature and the world around them, manifested as personal power and resourcefulness in dealing with life. Part of this harmony is membership in and maintaining relationships within the context of family and community. A Vodou house or society is organized on the metaphor of an extended family, and initiates are the "children" of their initiators, with the sense of hierarchy and mutual obligation that implies.
Most Vodouisants are not initiated, referred to as being "bosal"; it is not a requirement to be an initiate in order to serve one's spirits. There are clergy in Haitian Vodou whose responsibility it is to preserve the rituals and songs and maintain the relationship between the spirits and the community as a whole (though some of this is the responsibility of the whole community as well). They are entrusted with leading the service of all of the spirits of their lineage. Priests are referred to as "Houngans" and priestesses as "Manbos". Below the houngans and manbos are the hounsis, who are initiates who act as assistants during ceremonies and who are dedicated to their own personal mysteries. One doesn't serve just any lwa but only the ones they "have" according to one's destiny or nature. Which spirits a person "has" may be revealed at a ceremony, in a reading, or in dreams. However all Vodouisants also serve the spirits of their own blood ancestors, and this important aspect of Vodou practice is often glossed over or minimized in importance by commentators who do not understand the significance of it. The ancestor cult is in fact the basis of Vodou religion, and many lwa like Agasou (formerly a king of Dahomey) for example are in fact ancestors who are said to have been raised up to divinity. [Source :http://www.haitianconsulate.org/vodou.html].