Haitian Vodou Overview
What Is Haitian Vodou?
Haitian Vodou is a religion of Haiti. Haitian Vodou Religion has many branches and styles of practice, much like in the way you have various types of Christians, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, etc, yet they are all still Christians. Some of the more well known and common branches, which often are referred to as lineages, are the Asson Lineage, Vodou Deka or Deka Lineage, the Tcha Tcha Lineage. There are also a variety of other related lineages which focus more primarily on magic rather than religion. Some of the more common of these lineages are known as Makaya, Sanpwel, Sect Wouj, Bizango, etc. . . . more on various lineages in another lesson or click here
Some of these lineages are initiatory, where as others are not. ( Haitian Vodou Religions are creolized Traditions. Thus Haitian Vodou includes and mixes various influences, spiritual cultures and practices, primarily those of Catholicism, African Traditions/Religions from different nations/tribes (ie Dahomey, Kongo, Ibo, Nago, etc) and those of the Taino Indians. Thus they are often referred to as synchretic religions.
Vodouisants (those who practice Vodou) believe in one God, identified the same as the Chrisitan God. God does not intercede in human affairs (or does so rarely), and thus he has created subordinate beings (similair to Angels or Saints in Catholicsm) known as the Lwa to assist humanity in their needs. Thus, Vodouisants, after God, direct their ceremonies and services to the Lwa to help them in their needs and maintain spiritual balance. More on Beliefs of Haitian Vodou here
While we are using the term, vodou, this is a term not commonly found used by those who practice Vodou. Due to the fact that the Lwa are actively served or taken care of, most Vodouisants refer to their practice as Sevis Ginen (Serving Ginen or Lwa).
Back to the topic, Vodouisants serve the Lwa by giving various rituals, offerings, ceremonies to them (more on this later). As well as by observing certain codes and taboos. In return, the Lwa assist the Vodouisant by conferring blessings, fixing and resolving the persons problems, keeping them spiritually and physically protected, revealing the future, etc. In Vodou, it is believed that everyone has at least one Lwa given to them by God and often has access to many other Lwa, Ancestors or other Spirits.
The Lwa themselves are divided within various groups and categories. There are said to be 21 Nations (Nasyons) or groups of Spirits who typically all share certain particular background or lineage. More on these groups in a later lesson. The Lwa are also commonly categorized roughly in rites, or types of ceremony. The most common of these being Rada, Petro and Banda (Gede). Lwa are also desccribed as being hot (cho) or cool (fre, dous). For the large part, most Rada lwa are considered cool and most Petro Lwa considered Cho or hot. The difference describes the manner in which the Lwa behave or react to certain offenses, petitions and works. This doesn’t describe good or evil, both are just different. Cool Lwa are considered to be defensive rather than offensive in their manner an work, tend to work more slowly (though they can be just as fast as the others), more focus on the whole picture rather than small parts, and mostly of African Origin or Descent.
The Hot Lwa are said to be more demanding. More offensive rather than defensive in manner and style. Many are Natives of the New World (Hispanola) rather than African in origin. They are considered faster in doing magick and magickal work, however they demand larger offering and sacrifices. Punishments are quicker. Work more on small pieces, tactical, rather than a whole picture (strategically). It is important to remember that these are overall generalizations and do not apply in all instances though in most. You will learn more about why later on. More on the Lwa of these categories later on . . . .
Just like in any other religion, in Haitian Vodou there is a Priesthood as well as congregants and others who practice. Depending on the lineage, there are a variety or number of titles/terms that are used to describe or define certain types of Priests. As stated above, some Haitian Vodou lineages are initiatory while others are not. Some of the more common terms and what they refer to are below. Vodouisants also gather for communal services as Vodou is very much a community based Religion.
Vodouisant is a term used when referring to a person who, uninitiated or initiated, serves their Lwa or participates in Vodou services. It is a general term. In fact, non-initiates serve the lwa, and they outnumber initiates overall. Most Vodouisants fall into this category. They serve their Lwa on their own for most things, and when needed they will seek out a trusted Houngan or Mambo for spiritual work (wanga), larger ceremonies, and to do other things they may not be able to do on their own. Generally speaking they serve their Lwa to help themselves and maintain their own spiritual balance. Oftentimes, they will regularly attend public Vodou services, usually those held by the Houngan/Mambo that guides them.
Another general term is sevite. It refers to any person, initiated or not, that serves the Lwa. Sevite actually means servant. This statement clearly states that our tradition is one of action. We don’t see it so much as a religion, but as an action, a practice, a way of life. However, for those initiated within the Deka/Kongo Lineage the word Sevite refers to a Priest or Priestess (much same as Houngan or Mambo) as well as the Lead Priest within that lineage.
Hounsi- an initiated servant of the Lwa. There are various types of Hounsi depending on the lineage in which they were initiated.
Some simply refer to themselves as Hounsi, these usually being individuals initiated in a Tcha Tcha lineage. May also be known as Kanzwe.
Hounsi Lave Tet/sevis Tet- refers to an individual who received the Sevis Tet/Lave Tet initiation in an Asson or Tcha Tcha lineaged house.
Hounsi bossal (wild hounsi) is a non-initiate who attends services at one particular Vodou house or Sosyete, who is preparing for initiation there.
Hounsi Kanzo- These are individuals who are initiated in the Kanzo/Asson lineage at the first level. These individuals have received the Kanzo ceremony, also referred to as Kanzo Senp.
Houngan or Mambo— This is a Priest of Haitian Vodou. Houngan being male and Mambo/Manbo for a Priestess. There are a variety of types of Houngan or Mambo, though some refer to themselves simply as a Houngan or Mambo.
Within the Tcha Tcha Lineages we commonly see Priests simply referring to themselves as a Houngan or Mambo or a Sevite. Also Houngan or Mambo Tcha Tcha or Kwa Kwa, though infrequent, can be heard.
Also they may refer to themselves as a Houngan or Mambo Djakout (more on that below) These Houngans or Mambos may lead Sosyetes or Houses depending on their calling.
Within the Asson/Kanzo lineage, one hears of the following types of Vodou Priests.
Houngan or Mambo Sou Pwen— These are Junior Houngans and Mambos within this lineage. They do magick, readings and help people. As well as they hold a variety of important positions within the Sosyete or Kay that they belong to.
Houngan or Mambo Asogwe– High Priests within this lineage. They do all ceremonies within this lineage, including but not limited to magick, readings, ceremonies, initiations and others. They may lead Vodou temples depending on their calling.
A Houngan or Mambo Djakout is a Priest of Vodou who does not lead a temple or Sosyete. He is said to keep all his important things in a straw bag, though they may also keep an altarroom (badji) where they help others and do magickal work. They are usually not initiated or initiated within the Tcha Tcha lineage.
Some Vodou Priests, though not all, may have a temple or lead a congregation which is often referred to as a Sosyete (En. Society). In the Hounfor, or Temple, he leads public ceremonies and services to the Vodou Spirits, helps people, has ceremonies for his congregation etc. Depending on the lineage and Houngan/Mambo, he or she may or may not initiate others. Instead of a Sosyete, he or she may also refer to it as a Kay Vodou (Vodou House). Some people use these terms interchangably while others do not.
Amongst Vodou Priests there are those who work with the right hand (only clean or positive magick) and those who work with the left hand (negative, aggressive magick) and those who work with both.
A Boko is a term that usually refers to a Priest who specializes in negative or agressive magick. They may or may not be initiated. They frequently work alone and not with a Sosyete in general. He is what is considered a for hire specialist.
You also have people who are within a separate – yet related – tradition, known as Makaya. Again, they too have peristyles (temples) and members. They are generally focused on magick, and essential to this magick is the service of the Lwa. Their priests are known as Bokors.
Haiti also has its Secret Societies. In these Sosyetes, initiations and terms are different as well as Heirarchies. That is not however the focus of this website.
Whether you are initiated, want to be initiated, or are a happy non-initiated sevite, you should try to make it to Haiti. That is where it will be easiest for you to learn. This holds especially true, if you are a non-initiate, therefore, not a member of a house. Learning Vodou is not easy, and even the number one Houngan or Mambo continues to learn more and more. This is because we (people) will never be able to know everything. A lifetime is too short to know all the mysteries that are in Ginen.If you decide to go to Haiti, I suggest you get a lot of information before going. Life in Haiti is hard, and traveling there is not easy either. You should also have a good translator there or have a strong knowledge of Haitian Kreyol. If you are interested in Vodou as your religion, research, study, research, study. There are many teachers and much to learn.