Well, it’s time for another entry, but it’s been a challenging week and the poetic sensibilities are not in effect today, and I’m lost in the idea of the soul and its links for reasons, transcendent and painful, so…it’s a topic about which I’ll write.
Coming as many of us do from a Western, Euro-American background, our concepts of the soul are informed by Christian ones, as, like it or not, the dominant religious metagroup in our culture. In popular thinking these concepts are fairly straight-forward, just like the way we think of angels as pretty people with wings, until we read Biblical descriptions and understand why they, looking all Lovecraftian, always tell people “be not afraid!” while staring at them with a hundred eyes and wings enough to have a special at your local pub. We think of the soul as the non-physical or non- corporeal part of humans that survives death, often prancing off to fun or fear in some afterlife. Angels and harps. Halos. Moving from sitting on the couch all day to sitting on a cloud for all time. You know…that sort of foolishness that’s comforting at a glance but terrifying in its implications if you really think about it. For most people, you just stick a pin in it there, like a butterfly in someone’s collection, and call it a day, without concern for the tedium of individualized eternity or any of that. We don’t delve into the older concepts that underpin it, which in the Middle East are found in words like the Hebrew ר֣וּחַ or the Arabic روح, both meaning “breath,” “spirit,” “soul,”, and which I include just to show off and pretend that three total credits across Arabic and Biblical Hebrew are useful to me in daily life (they’re not and I’ve wasted my life).
However, this etymology, while interesting in examining Jewish, Christian, and Islamic ideas of the soul and its connection to breath, doesn’t really jive for the conception of the soul in Vodou, which is much more complex, and arguably much cooler, because we’re Vodouisants and everything we do is, by nature, much, much cooler (except the Petwo, who aren’t exactly cool at all). We’re the Fonz of spiritual paths, and thus, as a Canadian Vodou Fonz I can say,”ayyyyy, eh?”. So, today, let’s look into how we understand the soul.
In Vodou we see the soul as pluralistic, that is, made up of more than one part, and this is in no way unique to us. In some traditional Chinese belief systems there are two souls—hun, which leaves after death and gets while the getting is good, and po, which kind of loiters around the corpse like a bored teenager with nothing to do on a Saturday night. The Tagbanwa of the Philippines have six souls, and five extra, secondary souls, being, apparently, a metaphysical Lego set. Indigenous peoples here in Canada, including, but not limited to, both the Inuit and some of my own ancestors, the Mi’kmaq, have multi-part souls as well. We can puddle-jump to Africa and schlep and hotep our way to Ancient Egypt, where the person was a conglomerate of different pieces, both physical and spiritual, that combined to create the individual in a complex fashion that’s a pain in the akh to understand for those of us used to simpler Christian concepts. This is the part where Mel Brooks would joke about those poor Christians–”they’re so poor they only have one soul!” Through the Urals and elsewhere, we find souls made up of various parts.
The first thing that needs to be understood, in brief, is that the physical and the spiritual are not clearly and cleanly divided in Vodou. Human beings are spiritual beings, who just happen to be centered in the material world. In this sense we’re not much different from the Lwa and other spirits. We’re just…chunkier, with a shelf-life, and are bound by the laws of physical being. We have a six-part soul, although they’re not all separate parts, and this is only a rough thing, these parts being:
- ko kodav
- ti bonanj
- gwo bonanj
- lwa met tet
Some assembly is required. These parts come together to make the individual human being, like something from Bondye’s heavenly Ikea, but without the Swedish meatballs. So let’s get a sense of what each part does, and how they relate to the whole.
I’ll start with the chunks. Interacting with the physical world, shockingly, means you need a physical body, so that’s the first part of the Vodou soul, which we call the ko kodav, which basically means “corpse body” and may have been named in the Department of Redundancy Department. This is the meat—99% of which is just hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. About $575 worth, plus about $9 worth of other assorted elements and a whole lot of water. So the next time you feel worthless, remember you’re worth almost six hundred bucks at least, just in raw materials. I know including the body as part of the soul may seem kind of weird to the Western mind—Descartes is weeping in the afterlife and punching a white marble wall—but just accept it. Remember, the physical is just the spiritual moving really, really slowly. It’s the ice to the spiritual water, if I may use an imperfect metaphor.
So we dump all of this into a mixer and stir it about, making proto-human batter, and we come to the second part of the soul, the nanm. The nanm is what gives the ko kodav its shape and holds it together. We know that atoms are streaming in and out of your body all the time, passing through it, yet you keep your shape (although it might be getting a little less defined if you’re aging as well as I am). If your body is Jell-o, then the nanm is the Jell-o mould that gives and maintains its shape. If you throw bread dough in the oven you get a shapeless, baked lump. Put it in a loaf pan first, and you get a loaf. The nanm in like the loaf pan. It would not be wrong to think of it as the spiritual or energetic scaffolding or infrastructure on which the physical body is built. The nanm gives continuity of form; if you’re a Hermetic Qabalist, the nanm is Yesod, as the immediately pre-physical foundation of the physical (Malkuth – my kingdom for a better comparison). But the nanm is also really a function of other parts.
So now we’ve built ourselves a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, cobbling together elements and water and slapping it together in a shape created and maintained by the nanm. Great. We’ve got a non-living thing that looks like a human and can’t do anything but lay there. We’ve made a politician! But we want our body to actually do something. This is where the life force comes in, the animating principle we call the gwo bonanj, or “big good angel”. This is the battery that makes that body live! It doesn’t think yet, but it’s actually alive and breathing, but is still soulless from that old Christian perspective. Pat yourself on the back, you’ve made a civil servant! The gwo bonanj isn’t a personal thing—it’s generic life energy, basically, coming from Bondye / God, and, like electricity, it powers whatever you stick it in. But we want our living body to be a person, so we come to Vodou Soul part 4.
I should note here that concepts and teachings involving the gwo bonanj and the ti bonanj are tremendously varied, to the point where some present them as having the opposite roles to others, and the division between them is hazy and indistinct. We can content ourselves in knowing that the two parts exist, and play their roles, without getting too hung up on the varied nomenclature. Wade Davis, who I otherwise adore, appears to be one source of this confusion. Who hurt you, Wade? You know that hurt people hurt people. Some of the back-and-forth about it can be examined in Roberto Strongman’s painfully titled The Afro-Diasporic Body in Haitian Vodou and the Transcending of Gendered Cartesian Coporeality. It’s title shit like this, I tell ya, that makes me ashamed to have a graduate degree. I mean…I know this sort of thing isn’t meant to sound pretentious, and I loved it when I was younger, but c’mon. But I digress (constantly).
The ti bonanj, or “little good angel” is your mind, volition, experiences, thoughts, feelings. It’s who and what you are apart from the meat suit you wear to interact with the physical world. The love you feel with your partner, the anxiety you have at a calculus exam, the memories you have of that trip to the beach, your annoyance at your loud neighbour, your mean desire to make fun of Cancers (you know who you are), your personality (be it limp and beige or brash and in-your-face) and everything else going on in your head is your ti bonanj. It’s what makes you you. It’s also what goes for a walk at a fet when a Lwa comes, and makes room for the spirit to use your body—a carjacking with willing dignity. When your ti bonanj is displaced in favour of the lwa, you’re simply not there. You don’t remember anything because you weren’t there to experience it at all, just like that time you drank too much tequila too quickly, only at the fet people benefit from it. This is why, when Houngan Jean gets mounted we stop calling him that, and say “Badagris did this,” or “Gran Bwa did that,” or “Freda told me I stink and need a bath.” The meat suit has a new driver temporarily, you see?
Now I’m going to take a moment here to write a bit about how terminology and the cultural systems from which it spring vary culture to culture. One of the things I love about Vodou is how valid from a scientific perspective so much of it is. So let’s consider the zonbi, or zombi. We’ve all heard of zombies, and we’ve all acted like them the morning after the aforementioned tequila binge, lurching about in a state of barely-alive, angry at the sun and its cruel, life-giving brightness. Purely rationalist types hear about zombis and scoff, saying “oh, your soul was stolen by the bokor and his powder. What a load of superstitious foolishness.” But by now we know that the multipart Vodou understanding of the person can’t actually be translated simply by the English word “soul.” There’s too much to it. So when we say “the soul was stolen” it’s actually the ti bonanj we’re talking about—the memory, volition, and so on. And when we know this, we can translate the phrase “the bokor’s powder stole his soul and made him into a zombie” into acceptable science-speak as “a substance was administered that placed the subject into a dissociative fugue state, responsive to commands but lacking the ability to make his own decisions.” And these substances exist—scopolamine, etc. So there’s an element of missed messaging that occurs when we try to discuss Vodou concepts outside of the cultural framework and understanding it brings. Suddenly, “superstitious woo” becomes completely valid from a scientific perspective—Wade Davis’ The Serpent and the Rainbow, and its less mass-market-focused Passage to Darkness, hang on this very principle.
Back to the soul. The next part, the lwa met tet, is fairly well known. Meaning the “master of the head,” the met tet is the spiritual principle, or lwa, which “owns” the individual, being a sort of integrated guardian angel. It’s identity isn’t known with 100% certainty until one’s head is made, and there’s a lot that can be said about the met tet. I’ll leave a lot off about it, as it’s worth a post all to itself. Suffice it to say the met tet is so integral a part of the person that it needs to be carefully separated out during our funerary ceremonies and returned whence it came.
Lastly, we have the zetwal, which is simply Kreyol for “star”. And it’s exactly that—a star in the sky to which we’re linked. Remember that scene in The Lion King in which Mufasa (ooooh, say it again) tells Simba that the stars are the great kings of old looking down on us? That’s not too far off. Karen McCarthy-Brown describes it as “the celestial parallel self, fate,” and Davis, learning from Max Beauvoir, calls it “the star of destiny,” which really sounds like an artifact from 2nd Edition AD&D that the players have to use to defeat some beastie or other, or a line from a Dio song.
So that’s the Vodou soul—from most to least chunky. As in many indigenous and traditional ways of knowing, this understanding of the soul also brings with it a more nuanced understanding of injury and treatment than the western biomedical one. We can receive physical, psychological, and spiritual injuries, and there are appropriate ways of treating them, depending on the part of the person that’s been wounded. Vodou has its own methods and modalities for treating all of these injuries; healing and harmony are at the heart of what we do. More for another time.