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#3967: What is Public, What is Private in Vodou (fwd)
WHAT IS PUBLIC, WHAT IS PRIVATE IN VODOU
Often Vodou ceremonies are described as secret, and clandestine, and closed
to outsiders. Authors, including Haitian authors, claim to reveal "what no
other white man/ethnologue/videographer/you-name-it has seen before".
Actually, most Vodou ceremonies are public. When a Houngan or Mambo holds a
service, it's intended results may be to benefit their biological extended
family or their spiritual family, and these two groups may overlap to large
degree especially in rural peristyles. Nevertheless, unrelated individuals
are encouraged to come and well received by local standards. One of the
benefits of animal sacrifice at Vodou ceremonies is to feed the participants!
And the more people who sing, dance and "chofe", or heat up, the ceremony
Magical activities as distinct from religious ceremonies are more often
performed in private, in the badji, an inner room of the peristyle. There
the person commissioning the magic is accompanied by the Houngan or Mambo in
charge, assistants, and other welcome and interested parties. Nothing which
takes place during magical activities should be revealed outside, and a
Houngan or Mambo with a loose tongue usually also has few clients.
Initiation ceremonies are for the most part public. This may seem
surprising, but the reason for this is to prevent the new initiate's status
from being in doubt in the community. Everyone must see who is in the
dances, everyone must see who is going into the djevo. A rural community is
usually abuzz with gossip in the days before a kanzo, with all sorts of
speculation about who will be included, and at what grade, and so on.
The bat guerre, the opening portion of the initiation cycle, consists of
three nights of Petro dances open to the public. Some activities, such as
the manufacture of ceremonial objects called pakets, take place away from the
public eye, but once made the pakets are then paraded to the crossroads at
midnight and any passer-by will see them, so it is an obvious deduction what
the initiation candidates were doing when they were out of sight.
The baths which follow the bat guerre are semi-public, in the sense that
drums are played, people are encouraged to come and sing, and a person
passing by or tying their cow in the field next to the peristyle will see
what is happening. Between baths, initiates are screened in an enclosure
hung with white sheets, and in some houses the baths are conducted with the
initiates clothed. During the baths, the initiates are guarded by peristyle
members armed with batons and with machetes. The initiates are not permitted
to leave the peristyle except for the calls of nature, and they are escorted
to the latrine and back again.
The kouche kanzo, lying down kanzo, is the following ceremony, during which
the initiates are put in the djevo. It is also public up to the point where
the initiates are secluded. This portion of the initiation cycle includes
the "chirer Ayizan" ceremony, in which a royal palm frond is split into fine
shreds until it resebles a giant plume. This is public, and the thrilling
"kouri Ayizan" in which the palm frond is carried at a run around the
ceremonial space, with much characteristic flourishing, has been documented
by many photographers and videographers.
Once the initiates are in the djevo, however, complete and total secrecy is
strictly enforced. Spaces under and over doors are stuffed with rags to
prevent spying, and if a person who is not kanzo should dare to so much as
take a tiny peek through a crack into the djevo, that person is immediately
arrested by the members of the peristyle and beaten rather roughly
considering their ultimate destiny, which is to be flung violently into the
djevo, subjected again to the tender mercies of the offended, peeked-at
initiates, and then finally given the kanzo themselves on the responsibility
and at the expense of the officiating Houngan or Mambo! This is so that the
peeker-in is forced to take the same oaths of secrecy as all the other
initiates, becomes the brother or sister of the new initiates in fact, and is
prevented from telling non-initiates what he or she saw.
The time which the initiates spend in the djevo is a secret, and nothing they
see, do, eat, say, or hear is permitted to be spoken to non-initiates.
Initiates of competing houses, for obvious reasons, sometimes will not
converse frankly with each other on the subject of their respective djevos.
Initiates leave the djevo at dawn some days after their kouche. This time
period can vary from house to house, but most houses in Port-au-Prince and
southward put the intiates in the djevo on a Tuesday night and take them out
on a Sunday morning. The initiates are marched out before the awaiting
congregation and general public and presented to St. Nicholas, Saint Soleil,
the Holy Sun, to the crossroads, and other sacred places. During this time
their faces are hidden under large straw hats and they are canopied with
white sheets screening almost all but their hands and feet from view. They
remain covered until the baptism, at the conclusion of which the sheets are
whisked away and the cry goes up, "Zye m kale!", my eyes are open. A dance
of rejoicing follows which approaches a social dance in character since all
the initiates' "marinn" and "parinn", godfathers and godmothers, are present
and a "reception" is organized with colas and cake and other treats.
The following morning initiates are required to go before the public and beg
for money. In my house at least, we are required to make formal obeisance
before anyone who gives so much as a ten-centime coin, and also before anyone
who curses us for serving the lwa. The reasons for this are obvious - this
experience prevents new initiates from developing an inflated ego.
Furthermore, we believe that when we are cursed for the service of Guinea, we
are then blessed by Guinea in recompense.
The initiates are then free to go home, but they are forever under an oath of
secrecy not to reveal what takes place in the djevo. The consequences are
dire! I will recount a story to illustrate this point:
At the time I was preparing the Millennium Kanzo a Haitian initiation
candidate, now Bon Houngan Sent Zetwal Anba Lame, said to me, "Oh, I'm not
afraid at all, I already know what is in the djevo, and what is going to
happen to me there."
I was shocked!
"What do you think you know?", I asked, and he provided me with a relatively
accurate account of the salient points.
"Who told you these things?", I cried. "Alas! Close your mouth! How do you
Well, my candidate told me that he had a close friend who was kanzo, who had
"Where is this person? Take me to him! What can he be thinking of, putting
you at risk like that? Let us go see him right away!", I sputtered, totally
aghast at this unthinkable breach of secrecy.
"I can't take you to him," said my candidate. "He's dead. He was hit by a
truck... not long after he told me these things, actually. I didn't know he
wasn't supposed to tell me."
"Well he wasn't!", I snapped, "and you just better not tell anyone else
either before your kanzo, because people will say that I told you, and
furthermore even if the lwa let you live, you will be the target of every old
bokor (malevolent magician) who wants to know the secrets!"
So my candidate obediently kept silence until he went into the djevo, and
having become an initiate he will keep silence now and forever.
Peace and love,
Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen
"Se bon ki ra",
Good is rare - Haitian Proverb
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