This series is intended as a basic introduction to what Haitian Vodou, the religion, is. This is not facts about the forms yet in Africa. It is not about Jamaican Obeah, Brazilian Kimbanda, Palo, or any of the other, many religions related in as being rooted in ATR (African Traditional/Tribal Religions). Haitian Vodou is not Dominican Vodou. Isolated, each land's slaves formed up with what they had, so there can be more significant differences in Reglemen (Regulation) between major forms like that. Anything I write here is open information if you had a source for it, and is able to be found in some of the plethora of books out there written about it. One thing to keep in mind is that this religion has gone through several major shifts and disruptions and there remain practitioners of each pre-disruption form and so there are differences already, some which bear the same names. Also know that there is no "Pope" for the religion out there. Each asogwe ranked priest/ess who runs a House of his/her own is the authority over that House and what lineage is taught. Each lineage can have had different histories and experiences with some of the spirits they carry. So, differences are there. By itself, this does not make one wrong and the other one right. Each house can be of a different lineage, hence teaches some differences they have learned. These are mostly minor.
What is remarkable is that for all of this non-standardization how much is the same, the spirits manifest much alike, there is a great deal of similitude throughout and the inner code of how to serve the spirits is essentially the same and how we do business is referred to as the Reglemen in Haitian Vodou. The "regulation", the code we work by, and this is, primarily, taught verbally from the oral tradition and not written down. The details are infinite and can diverge, but the core of it is awfully standardized by the spirits themselves. Another asogwe may read something I write here and disagree with a detail, as we are of different lineages, but you will not see something major arise. As I will not be talking about specifics, those should not even be points brought up here, anyway. I write to inform, not to convert or recruit, though spirit does what it will given a voice.
The Basic Format
A Vodou service, if you were ever invited to one, is broken up into three parts. That seems the best way for me to introduce the main sections of the spirits which comprise the religion. The first portion is focused on the Rada spirits. Rada are generally all from African origins, were brought over with the slaves brought in chains from Africa to the New World. These began as ancestors who were venerated by their descendants for generations. They are, then, familial spirits, and considered to be elevated from their earthly origins as Dead (Morts) from such long service and seen as very wise and friendly spirits who are very well known and for a very long time. There are a few exceptions, such as Damballah, seen as the Snake God by the simplistic who do not know the creation imagery behind his personification as a great boa constrictor type of spirit. In short, the imagery is of the planet being an egg, with a great cosmic snake being encircled around it protectively, guarding his own egg. There is no concept in Vodou of snakes being a symbol of evil. We have no garden of Eden in our backstory, no lying snake, none of that.
Damballah is seen as the purest, highest spirit in the Pantheon. He is honored first. We see him as like a Christ figure perhaps, in that he is the highest we have seen under God, the Creator. There is one God in Vodou, it is a mono-theism. The Lwa are servants of that and divinities to us but not god. God created the egg, Damballah came down and encircled the egg and protects it. We live on the egg.
So Rada starts the service off, Damballah is honored, Saint Mary is honored and then a long list of Saints, seemingly, though for us these saints are syncretized with specific lwa. The songs are in Kreyol, and honoring consists of three songs at least for each Nation of spirits, sometimes with additions for spirits within a Nation who are well known by that lineage. Vodou considers there to be 21 Nations of lwa.
Rada, from Africa, are considered to be cool spirits, versus hot. Cool and hot refer to the temperament and manifestation of the spirit as it is. Cool lwa tend to be calm, sweeter, stable, and familial in how they come across and present if one happens to opt to come in possession during being honored in the service. If possession is going to occur it happens during or very close to the songs dedicated to its Nation. In our family we nearly always had Damballah come, nearly always one of the Ogou would come in for us, often others also would. If one comes the service stops and that lwa is served and does what he or she plans to do until they leave. Then the service picks back up again. Needless to say our services last many hours. Some have gone on for days. It depends on the spirits and how willing they are to come in and how long they stay. Cool is a relative term if you are new to the lwa in person and one takes interest in you. Ogou is a warrior, he is very African in some moods and can seem scary if he grabs his sword and comes after you to swat you with it. The swats are blessings or sometimes strength he is imparting to one of his favorites, or can be venting displeasure in one of his initiated children. No need to be frightened of him, he is our warrior, he won't harm you, but to an outsider it can seem violent and anything but "cool", especially if he sees someone in the audience who he recognizes and tries to deal with them and tell them they should not be out there with strangers as if they were not family. This can alarm people, especially if you had no idea you were anything but curious and simply coming to watch those odd Vodou people dance and do weird things.
Services are long, by the time the Rada portion is done the Initiates are tired. There is often a break here and a meal is sometimes served out. The Ghede (forgotten Dead, who live under the rule of the Barons - the Lords of Death, in their own Nation) come in just before this break, and I often think of them as a sort of welcome comic relief after so much seriousness and a couple hours of songs and rituals. Often we change clothes here, for the second portion, the Petwo, the "hot" lwa, ahead.
If you are just watching for the first time, you will notice right away the energy is different the second half if we have drummers in. Petwo are hotter, newer more violent in expression (not to people) and wilder. So are the drums and the songs. Some of them you will be confused, as they may have been honored or even shown up in the Rada portion already. This category of lwa are more unique to the New World, some were born during slavery, and began more tortured in life and expression. Some were actually Arawak and Taino spirits taken up and cared for when the native population left finally died out. For a period in Haitian history escaped slaves often found sanctuary with remnants of Taino in the deep mountains and shared religious traditions with them and absorbed the Taino spirits. It is an assumption of Vodou that one does not leave a known spirit to be abandoned and forgotten, so they took these spirits in as their own, not due to appropriation but because from Africa this was the Code. If a tribe was conquered by another tribe, their spirits were taken up by the victors and brought along and honored, because you do not disrespect the Ancestors, even enemy Ancestors. As illness and slavery and violence wiped out the last Taino, it was a point of honor to the slaves to be sure all their spirits known about were kept as close to how they knew the Taino did it and were not abandoned or forgotten. This new post slavery period is where the Petwo lwa generally all come from and is one of the main things which sets Haitian Vodou apart from the African original form, and in some ways also removes it from other forms, in a natural uniqueness. I do not say "specialness" as each form has its own qualities and spirits which make them beautiful to their adherents. I have worked in Obeah, Orisha and also Kimbanda and these are utterly different from Vodou beyond the bare basics. They each have their beauty and particular strengths and demands.
The crazier tales about Vodou services out there historically are typically about the Petwo. You may hear or see someone cracking a whip during this portion. It is part of the pain and sounds a spirit born in that time relates to and recognizes. These can come in wild, be hard to mount (be possessed by) and can be very temperamental, even today after a century or two of service to stabilize them and elevate them. Even in the audience you find things physically hot in the room, some have to leave. It is not imagination, they are hotter, they are often angry, they are always intense at the least.
When we finally reach the final Nation being sung for and honored and all the lwa who came are gone, the service is over. You will find the crowd has thinned down hours before, and you may wonder to see some of the Initiates flopped in a chair or sitting back while a final lwa is yet there, visiting and drinking his rum. Unlike other religions, the formality is adherence to the Reglemen and rituals secreted amidst the motion and celebration and generally things a watcher would not realize were pertinent occultic details of service. Me standing there or dancing for (an average of) five hours is not a point any lwa is going to see as required. If I am flopped in the back of the room in a chair among the watchers, nobody cares officially. I may do it to quell some energy or interference we detect back there. I may do it because I want to sit down and chose that spot. Some guests love it if one of us does that so they can ask questions or feel more included.
Things You Might Want To Know At Your First Service
I get asked some of the same things by guests, so let me answer what comes to mind here for you to close this post out. If you are invited to a service or see a public announcement of an open service and decide to go and see what is happening, feel free to do so. If you are at ease with the neighborhood, have company, and would like to see, you are welcome to this sort of party.
1. Generally it is best to wear a long skirt if you are female, and long pants if you are male. These spirits are Old World in their views. Even so, the worst I have seen is Ogou telling a girl in jeans that she should not dress like a man. Not as if they are going to do something drastic if you somehow gain one of their attention in the guests. This is not the time or place to argue or stand up for women's rights. Just smile and say "Yes, Papa" and let him go on. Some of them lived a thousand years ago. Leave them alone. The big thing is you were picked out and noted by Ogou. Be happy.
2. If you get permission to go out on the ritual area/dance area/dirt floor, take your shoes off and go barefoot. This is disrespectful in the extreme to the lwa of the house to cover your feet on their space like that. Why? Because the lore says they come up through the ground to take possession, and do so by the feet. To cover your feet is to say you do not trust them to know who you are, or to not harm you or come unasked. It is akin to coming invited into my home and carrying a weapon in your hand to make sure none of my family comes near you. If you are that paranoid just stay away or do not ask or agree to go out there.
3. Let us say on your own, secretly, you asked a lwa for help, such as Ogou, and feel he actually did help you. You want to thank him in person with a cigar for example, so you go to this open service and want to do that. DO NOT JUST GO OUT THERE IF HE COMES IN. We will probably throw you out of the place, or he may get very ugly with the sense that family space is being invaded by Outsider. These are Old World minds in most cases and do not tolerate rudeness. Or, the lwa may just leave at your approach and drop the "mount" in anger. However, you certainly can do this and are WELCOME to ask one of the Initiates to talk with the Elder running the service before it begins and tell this person what you desire to do. Show them your gift. If it is right for that spirit (there are a ton of taboos and a ton of favorite things) he or she will nearly always agree that if that lwa comes in we will fetch you out there to meet him or her, and we are always happy to do this. It is never about wanting outsiders to stay away from our lwa, but to do it right, so the experience is positive for everyone. It is usually Ogou who is wanted to meet, and most of those love those costly cigars, so bring one of those with you and ask beforehand. If they know you want to see them, they love the attention usually. This is the attraction for many in Vodou, that we can actually meet face to face with spirit, touch, even experience, the divinities.
4. If you hear the drums and were not asked, it is not really correct to just go in. This is not like a church hoping for more to come through the doors. You can try if the door is open to ask someone inside if you can come in. Many houses will welcome you warmly. It depends what the service is for or whom it is for. If they say no, please do not be angry and just ask later for a chance to come. If you are curious and want to see a service, find a servitor and ask about it, find a House and ask. In some places there are several, like New York City or Miami. I am alone and do not host services. If I really needed that I would contact people I know in New York or NOLA, but, honestly I do not need it anymore. I carry it with me and am at peace serving as I do, more of a mystic than a working Houngan.
5. Are there hotter spirits that the Petwo in Vodou? Yes. Such matters are never open to guests.
6. Do Lwa hate white people? No, though some can be standoffish until they know you are welcome and love black people and are not secretly hateful in your heart. There are French Lwa, actually, and Native American as well. There are some with disabilities. The Spirit is very open and inclusive in itself. On the other hand, I have seen people of all colors come to the Vodou with wrong intentions in their hearts and they pay the price for it. If they are white I have heard it claimed that was why it went bad for them. When you hear such a racist claim do not wonder why it went bad. Elevated spirits are not racists, nor are elevated people.
I write to serve.