In his essay Imagine Heaven, found in the pricey but oh-so-worthwhile telephone book sized reposwa of information Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, scholar Donald Cosentino reminds us that, when speaking of Vodou, we always must ask ourselves, “who’s Vodou?” And this question can open cans of swirling complexity complete with whirling eddies of nuance and deep-cut slashes of geographical and historical context that make some of us exult and drive away others as quickly as ESL learners being handed a ponderous tome of Shakespeare’s plays. So today I’m going to blather on about this very idea in a sort of stream-of-consciousness vomit because, hey, it’s the weekend and I’m wrapped up in energized boredom, which is as paradoxical as it is dangerous, and y’all get to witness it.
I have no doubt that most of my readers are aware of different and broad categories of Vodou. We can go back to the furthest roots in West Africa, where Vodou continues in an ever evolving but unbroken dance that began so long ago it’s an exercise in futility to even attempt to consider applying dates. We can follow forward through history and the horrors of the trade in enslaved peoples to find the seeds of a New World Vodou planted in Saint Domingue (and Trinidad and other places), where the blending and cross-pollination of African, European, and indigenous beliefs and practices gave rise to Haitian Vodou and its Caribbean cousins. We can look to Louisiana and Vodou as it grew there, or to contemporary New Orleans and Sallie Ann Glassman’s New Orleans Vodou. But these are essentially broad categories and create traditions which, while sharing various similarities, are distinct and their own things.
I’m going to focus more on Haitian Vodou, and I’d like to start off with a metaphor I’m going to ask y’all to keep in mind. Think about Christmas. Let’s say you and your family live on a street, and across that street live your neighbors. Every Christmas Eve, your family hangs stockings, sings carols, and carves up a Christmas turkey for dinner. You’ve done it this way for years, are happy to do so, and will, most likely, keep doing it this way for decades to come. Now, across the street your neighbors spend their Christmas Eve trimming a tree, drinking eggnog in front of a burning Yule log, and eat a Christmas ham. Now, who is celebrating Christmas correctly, and who is the raging family of heretics who should be flogged with oversized candy canes and Toblerones, and driven out of town to live with the other filthy animals in the forest?
It’s a stupid question, because no one is doing it incorrectly. Each family has its own traditions, its own way of celebrating, and its own way of coming together as a family. Despite the differences, everyone is still celebrating Christmas, complete with its funky mixture of Christianity and European paganism, which is like strawberries and pickles, but somehow we got used to it and it works, especially if we don’t examine it too thoughtfully.
This same concept applies to Vodou, but sadly we see a heck of a lot of folks forgetting this, especially in the online community festering in (anti)social media, where everyone has a soap box, even if they haven’t been near its contents in a year. The unwashed
Haitian Vodou is not monolithic. Imagine me clapping my hands firmly between each of those words and increasing my volume with each slap of palm on palm. Participate by waving your hands in the air and shouting “hallelujah” or “amen” or “ayibobo” for bonus points if you like. Shut up and do it. Make me happy. You’re not paying for this, ya know.
If you stick to Internet Vodou you get an idea of the religion that appears a lot more monolithic than it really is, and an error can spread like wildfire until it seems factual to the uninformed (AHS’s
“Legba” for example, stfu); equally a bit of information which is accurate in one house can take on the status of gospel, and suddenly those neighbors eating their Christmas ham are declared heretical and we have some form of Vodou Cathars or Huguenots, and cries of “kill ’em all and let Bawon sort ’em out.” Realistically, this simply isn’t how its done, and things can and do vary house to house, village to village, town to town, and region to region.
For many of us approaching Vodou in North America we find the loudest online voices are from the asson lineages (aka asogwe Vodou), probably because asson Vodou is the most accessible to non-Haitians and our internet addiction. This particular, wider lineage (of which I am a part) is only about a century old or so, and is most prevalent in Port-au-Prince and further south, in towns like Jakmel. It’s only a single part of Haitian Vodou, which is varied throughout the country; within asson houses we can find variation in which spirits are served, which colours or offerings a spirit might take, even the order in which nations of spirit are saluted at a fet. Even the kanzo initiations, while all sharing specific key landmarks (to borrow a Masonic term) vary in what else is included or excluded. Little experience is required to begin to see the differences–the variations played on a specific theme. And yet we get to witness quasi-sectarian mini-crusades. “We give Freda pink and white and giving her gold and pink is wrong.” Depending on where you are, and in which house, Dambala and Ayida are spouses, or siblings, or parts of the same whole, or something else. Is La Sirene represented by La Diosa del Mar or the Virgen del Caridad del Cobre? Is Agwe represented by St Ulrich or Saint Raphael Arkanj? Is Saint Andrew a Simbi, or Kalfou, or someone else? Do we even use saint images with the Lwa? Who is the general and who the solider when it comes to Ogou Badagris and Ogou Feray? What is the key-kekekeke to understanding Dantor? Shut up and eat your turkey. This isn’t to say there aren’t standard things that are shared–Dambala Wedo doesn’t take black anywhere, for example, and Dantor doesn’t take crumpets and cucumber sandwiches–but variation does exist within the broad confines of the tradition, and these variations are as important on the level of the individual house as the similarities are on the level of Vodou as a whole.
And yet asson Vodou is not the end-all and be-all of Haitian Vodou. Away from those lineages we find older ones–the kwa kwa / tcha tcha Vodou practiced throughout much of the country and strictly-inherited family Vodou. Many of the landmarks of asson Vodou, which the weirdly wannabe ultra-orthodox element among Vodouisants of North America often take as Holy Writ (such as days that are nation-specific rather than Lwa-specific, tight roles for each Lwa, the presence of the asson itself, and so on) are simply not generally present in non-asson Vodou, nor are they missed. One mambo I quite like, based in Cap Haitien, explained to me that non-asson fets are far more free-form, and lwa are frequently called as desired, rather than following the strict order found in the more regimented asson tradition. Even the strict regleman of asson Vodou is not part-and-parcel part of non-asson Vodou, which does its own thing (which isn’t to say there aren’t rules at all, of course), and is older in any case.
The diversity of Vodou and its practice across Haiti is part of its strength. Rooted in place like the sacred trees it soaks up its inspiration and shapes its practice around where it is just as much as who is doing it. There is no Vodou pope, no central authority, no book of scripture, no council of cardinals, and no Vatican to set a universal tone. And frankly, when it comes to boots-on-the-ground Catholicism, universal is a less meaningful term than Rome might like (and the pun was intended; indeed, every pun I make is intended). A religion that functions well sans dogmatism is able to remain dynamic, adaptive, and relevant; why would we want to screw with this?
There is a proverb, chak houngan se houngan nan lakay l, “each houngan is houngan in his house.” This speaks to the decentralized nature of Vodou and the variation we find house to house, village to village, town to town, and region to region. The way House A does things may not be the same as House B, and Sosyete X may function very differently from Sosyete Y. This is not a bug, it’s a feature, and it is working as intended. So when we stumble across these little pissing contests in which members of one group want to beat down others for their equally valid practices, or sleazily suggest that “the way that house does it is wrong, but guess who gets it right? Us, of course,” it would behoove us to remember that consistency is key to our relationships with the lwa, not confusion because the turkey-munchers have something against the ham we enjoy in our own houses. And part of this consistency comes from what we inherit from our initiators and the expectations placed upon us not only by our house / bitasyon / lakou but by the spirits we serve. You don’t speak Korean to Nigerians or Italian to the Inuit, so following the guidance you should receive from your Mama or Papa on how to serve your spirits within the context of your lineage until you can stand on your own two feet is vital.
In the end, if we’re going to practice Vodou effectively, and build proper relationships with our lwa, we’re not going to do it if we start doubting what we learn at home without good reason.
In other words, just because the guy across the street insists turkey is the One True Christmas Dinner doesn’t make him right, no matter how loudly he yells it. Keep celebrating Christmas the way your family does it, and you’ll be just fine. Cosentino’s advice, that we ask “who’s Vodou?” when discussing the topic, is vital, and should always be kept in mind. The vast diversity of this religion is truly part of its strength, and indeed, reflects and informs its adaptability and continued relevance in the lives of its practitioners. When we forget this, we may well be chopping up and snorting lines of tribalist thinking and one-true-wayism, and in so doing condemn Vodou to the same path of irrelevance into which other faiths have stumbled, or at the very least to dogmatic sectarianism that does no one any good at all.
Variation in practice or teaching, within the wider boundaries of the tradition, does not inherently equal wrongness; it simply indicates variety.