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7252: Thoughts on Vodou from Mambo Racine (fwd)

From: Racine125@aol.com

We've been having some Internet troubles here and I have been trying to post this for about a week.  I haven't yet been able to check out the "Vodou and Scholars" thread, but there are a few remarks I have been wanting to make.

As Leslie Desmangles points out, Vodou can be said to be a "way of life" - but no more than
Christianity in the USA.  In the United States, Christian vocabulary, symbology, and moral values
permeate the culture.  The same case could be made for Islam in Saudi Arabia, I am sure, or Buddhism
in Tibet.

However, Vodou does indeed have a "hierarchy".  There are three grades of initiation - from lowest to
highest they are hounsi kanzo, Houngan or Mambo sur point, and Houngan or Mambo asogwe. Hounsis kanzo can be compared to the confirmed members of a Christian denomination, Houngans and Mambos sur point to priests or pastors, and Houngans and Mambos asogwe to bishops.  (To avoid going into a great deal of repetitive detail, there is a section on grades of initiation on The VODOU

There is also a hierarchy of inheritance - each of us must recognize with respect the Houngan or Mambo who initiated us at whatever rank, those in our congregation initiated at a higher rank, those in
our congregation initiated at the same rank prior to us and so forth.  Indeed, a serviteur or a practitioner
must choose to identify themselves with a set of religious principles - in fact initiates must swear some
pretty ferocious oaths to respect those principles, on pain of death!  Houngans and Mambos from different lineages, however, far from being "proverbially humble", are competitive - we compete for clients and for preferred initiates, because we are each independant and do not receive a salary from a
central location.  Efforts to organize all Houngans and Mambos under one "head", as the "Eglise Vodou d'Haiti" has tried to do, inevitably flop.

We have a very elaborate liturgy which includes the Priere Guinea and thousands of songs, scores of vevers, many phrases of "langaj", and meaningful ceremonial gestures understood only by initiates.  In non-literate Haiti, we do not write down our liturgy, we do not produce prayer books or hymnals.  This leads Western-trained, culturally arrogant investigators to the wrong conclusion - if our liturgy is not written down and printed out, they assume we do not have one.

Furthermore, Vodou is not the only branch of Haitian traditional religion.  "Orthodox" Vodou is prevalent in Port-au-Prince, it's surroundings, southward and  eastward; while Makaya is prevalent in the Artibonite region and a small Kongo denomination is active in Sucrie near Gonaives.  The geographical areas where each denomination is found of course overlap, and one does not find the same service in a Vodou house as in a Makaya house, where priests are almost always male, are not kanzo and do not have the asson.  This may lead some investigators to conclude that "Vodou" is much
more variable than it actually is - the investigator has not learned to distinguish between Vodou and
Makaya, or between the services of a Mambo asogwe and those of an uninitiated serviteur.

It is true that some practices may vary in small details from one Vodou house to another - a few words
may be different in the Priere Guinea, the leaves used for ceremonial baths may vary slightly.  My house
differs from that of one noted Houngan in that I do not abuse my initiates by telling them that I "represent the lwa" and therefore they must have sex with me to be true initiates, and I do not claim to be able to cure AIDS.  The Houngan down the street from me serves the lwa Kita more than I do, because my house is under the protection of the lwa La Sirene.  But the initiates who become kanzo in his house know the same passwords and handshakes as the initiates who become kanzo in my house - if it were not so, what would be the use of the passwords?

In addition to my status as Mambo asgowe of the Vodou, I am a member of the Episcopal Church.  I have attended services in many different parishes, and found each church to have it's own "flavor", it's own preferred hymns and so on.  This does not mean that the service of God in the Episcopal Church is "highly variable" or without a hierarchy!  Likewise Vodou - as I pointed out already, there are some things we all agree on, some things which are always required and some things which are always forbidden.  Within those boundaries we are free to be as creative as we like, as long as we remain
faithful to the service of God and the lwa in the manner of the Vodou tradition.

Peace and love,

Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen

"Se bon ki ra" - Good is rare
Haitian Proverb

The VODOU Page - http://members.aol.com/racine125/index.html

(Posting from Jacmel, Haiti)