A Participant’s Account
At the end of February I went to visit Vodou priest Houngan Hector of the Sosyete Gade Nou Leve (‘Watch us Rise Society’) in New Jersey for a Lave Tet ceremony. Hector is a Houngan Asogwe in Haitian Vodou and also works in the Sanse, Dominican Vodou and Mesa Blanca traditions. You can read what he has to say about the Lave Tet ceremony here
After the three days of the ceremony were over a ‘party’ (what we at CUPS would call an open ritual) was held to celebrate and thank the lwa (spirits) for their assistance. I am not here to discuss my Lave Tet but I would like to share my experiences of the party with you, since they are very different to the kind of ceremony we Brits normally see. Any errors are my own.
The party was to be held at Hector’s family home, although for larger ceremonies he might have hired a hall. First the room was cleaned thoroughly with help from the Sosyete members, and the altar table (a lot of space would be needed for all the necessary paraphernalia) was set up. Although one may perform Vodou without props, at a party of this nature the lwa are expected to visit in person through possession, and when they come certain drinks, coloured cloths, perfumes etc. are traditionally provided – in much the same way that one may wish to furnish a king or queen with their favourite food if they honour one’s house with their presence.
A pristine white table cloth was spread out on the altar and a beautiful white canopy was stapled to the ceiling above it. A gorgeous yellow and blue statue of Mary was placed in the centre and surrounded by flowers, coloured cloths, perfume bottles, favourite beverages and at least four different cakes, all of which were very beautiful and costly (see photograph, left). The House members were dressed in white and the women complemented their dresses or skirts with white satin head scarves, although this is not a prerequisite. Meanwhile, two huge platters of food were brought in and placed in the oven to keep warm, while crates of beer, water, Pepsi and other soft drinks were unloaded into a large ice bucket for the guests (the party would play host to a full house, many participants having travelled some distance to be there, and although none of them paid to see the ceremony, all must be fed).
Although larger parties might hire a Haitian drumming ensemble, these are not actually required and can be very costly. In this case there were no drummers, but as I quickly came to discover the atmosphere buzzes simply with the sacred songs, the shake of the rattle and the awed exclamations of the crowd as the lwa appear.
When it was time to begin the ceremony the Houngan spoke the Lord’s Prayer three times, followed by three Hail Marys. This is done in order to honour God or Bondye as is traditional in Vodou. Many Vodouisants are also Catholic, and the Houngan recommends that we attend church or at least remind ourselves that there is a higher power of some sort (the stress is on God first, then Gineh, the lwa, second). This may seem very strange to us coming from a Pagan standpoint, especially if we are polytheists used to working within a particular pantheon, all of which are ‘gods’, but it has to be made clear that in Vodou the spirits derive their power from God and are not deities in their own right. For this reason the lwa are often likened to angels or saints; indeed for every lwa there is a Catholic ‘mask’. They are not usually seen as identical to the saint used to depict them however; Damballah, for example, is represented by images of St Patrick, not because he and St Patrick are similar but because there are snakes in St Patrick’s icon.
After the Lord’s Prayer and a litany the Houngan began the Priye Ginen, which is a beautiful mix of langaj (the sacred language of Vodou) and Kreyol. Nobody knows what some of the words in langaj actually mean. The song creates a sacred space and works by call and answer. It can be very long, and will vary according to the Sosyete; for this reason it is not always easy to find examples of the Priye online. The beautiful melodies, call and answer, and occasional exclamation reminded me just a little of being at church, only more colourful and much more exciting. As the unfamiliar words continued I felt that the already friendly atmosphere was beginning to heat up.
At a particular point during the party, it became time for salutes to be made to the lwa. An initiate is provided with the sacred rattle, and a special cloth known as a moushwa in the lwa’s sacred colour is draped around his/her neck. They are joined by one person holding a white candle and another person holding (for example) Florida Water or rum. They salute in a complex manoeuvre that is a lot harder than it looks, involving spinning and rattling in the four directions (“because we do not known from which direction the spirits may come”), followed by the altar (or in Legba’s case, the door). The rum or other liquid is poured out in three drops before the altar and the lwa’s sacred song called out. At this point, it is hoped, possession will occur, though Damballah Wedo (the snake lwa, and father to all others) must come first if his children are to follow.
Damballah in possession is characterised by snake-like movements. When he came to our party, the ‘horse’ (possessed person) was wrapped in a white sheet and fed with a white egg on flour; this seemed to signify the blessing of the lwa and the opening of the way. After that, further salutes were given and more lwa came to ride their horses. I suppose I ought to consider what we mean by ‘possession’ at this point. Speaking from my own experience – which may be different from yours – and without going into too much detail, I would suggest that possession and invocation are two different things. Most of the invocations I have seen in private and public ritual appear to a greater or lesser extent to be personal in nature. This is not universal, nor is it undesirable, but quite often they have had a certain amount of particular meaning for the person invoked, who may recall some or all of what happened to them afterwards. They may feel as though they entered a heavy trance during which the gods spoke ‘through’ them, channelling a certain wisdom to fellow participants, or they may have had a light sensation of being filled with the energy of that spirit. Quite often the person invoked feels very moved and much closer to the deity or spirit in question, as though they have made a deep and lasting connection; perhaps they will also feel personally empowered (this is certainly my experience when working with invocation).
In Vodoun possession, however, the horse often has no recollection of what transpired during the time that he was ‘ridden’. His memory of the incident is so non-existent that witnesses to the event will not say “You did this as Ghede,” or “When Ogoun possessed you, you said…”but instead they will say “Ghede did this when he came” or “Ogoun asked me to tell you…” More importantly, perhaps, the lwa rarely come for the benefit of the horse. The reason so many people had travelled to the party is that they wished to speak with the lwa to gain their blessing and insight or simply to see them; participants felt understandably blessed by this communion. The lwa come through for the benefit of the congregation, not the priest; in some instances they may even berate their horse or provide a message to the person from whose mouth they are speaking (thus the book title, Tell my Horse by Zora Neale Hurston). Thus although there are certainly parallels between possession and ceremonial invocation, I do not think that they are generally the same.
One thing you can certainly say of the lwa is that they have strong personalities; it is almost impossible to mistake one for the other even if you have only read about them before. I suppose you could say that they are very ‘human’ in their individuality, not like some of the nature spirits who are certainly powerfully felt but may not have much to say. Once experienced ‘in person’, the lwa are impossible to forget. La Sirene the silent mermaid who loves to be sung to, Erzuli Freda with her general disdain of other females and enjoyment of handsome men (some of which she may propose to), and the beloved Anaisa simply cannot be compared. This is absolutely not the case of “all goddesses are one goddess…” or “all lwa are one lwa” and I imagine the suggestion could be deeply offensive to some of them! The deep and commanding voice of machete-bearing Ogoun Feray could not be any more different to the Ghede’s nasal intonations as he mischievously offers you his ‘zozo’, and in the excitement it is almost possible to forget that serpentine Damballah’s horse is actually a man with legs.
Quite often the lwa will perform certain feats to demonstrate the truth of their possession. Most of them spoke in Kreyol and we were lucky to have several attendants capable of translating. Anaisa likes to take Florida Water in her beer, which simply could not be stomached normally; Feray baptises participants with fire, yet they do not burn unless he wishes them to (see photo, above). The lwa frequently know things that their horse couldn’t possibly have guessed; apparently the Ghede finds particular pleasure in shouting out the personal secrets of those who deserve embarrassment. Participants may be treated to a blessing or cleansing act, thus Erzuli Dantor threw Florida Water over us and Feray handed out the Champagne!
At the end of the evening everybody was exhausted and I personally felt as though I hadn’t slept in years. The party had taken several hours and normally would have taken much longer as the House Ghede left earlier than he usually does. Participants had consulted the lwa and received advice from them. They has enjoyed a feast with the Sosyete and taken photos of the proceedings. Had it been worth it? Looking around at peoples’ smiles, at the food and drink which must have cost the equivalent of a small wedding, and at the sparkling, colourful decorations on the altar, I couldn’t help but feel a little moved. Of course, everything’s not always going to be perfect; sometimes the lwa will be angry or offended, sometimes a guest will attend the party and leave a bad taste in everybody’s mouth – much as can happen at the public rituals over here. It’s possible to attend a party and view it as nothing more than entertainment; you get back what you give out, in terms of your interaction with the lwa and whether or not you take their advice, and whether you believe what you have seen and heard and felt. As far as I was concerned I felt honoured to be there, and there was a real sense of genuine help being given to participants, which is, I suppose, what public ritual is really all about.