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8185: Discipline in the Haitian Vodou Tradition Before, During and , After Initiation (fwd)
I'd like to talk about the development of an individual before, during and
after initiation in Haitian Vodou; and about the discipline required of
Prior to initiation in Vodou, a person may have some spiritual abilities all
on their own. They may have useful dreams, they may undergo possession.
There is a whole tradition of "kwakwa practitioners" in Haiti, sometimes
called "Houngan djakout" (since they are almost inevitably men). One such
individual known to me works with his uncle, also a kwakwa man, and I have
begun a website for him at
http://members.aol.com/HealingMagicMan/healing.html . He and his uncle also
attempt magic, and are successful often enough that they have some degree of
reputation in their own community.
However, the uninitiated person is in some ways at risk - they are not
protected against malevolent magic, for example, directed against them by
other and possibly more powerful competitors. Their heads have not been
prepared to receive the lwa, and thus the onset of possession in these
individuals is usually rather violent - the individual may be thrown to the
ground, they might accidentally bang their head or roll into a fire or
More significantly, they are not really "tuned up", so to speak - it's like
running electrical current through a wire which is not a good conductor. The
resistance causes heat! That is why a lot of uninitiated practitioners have
"tet cho", hot heads, they get a little crazy sometimes. I don't mean they
break with reality, just that they get wound up and nervous.
The person may also not know enough to clean themselves after removing
negative entities, they may not know how to avoid offending a particular lwa
unwittingly, and so on.
During initiation, the person dies. Over and over we tell initiates, "You
are a 'mo an vakans', a dead person on vacation!" We sing songs during the
ceremonial baths about how the person is now dead, they are removed from the
world of the living.
Once in the djevo, the gestation period begins. The person is a fetus,
really, and they are carefully grown and fed and formed into a new
individual. Their "point lwa", which may or may not be their met tet, is fed
and honored, as is the met tet if that differs from the point lwa. Their
heads are consecrated. Their bodies are protected by means of "gardes" or
other methods. The djevo itself is considered to be the greatest "garde" in
the world, the best possible medicine - and the most virulent possible
poison, should the initiate talk about the secrets of the djevo to
When the new initiate is born, they come out of the djevo. The initiate is
protected against any and all malevolent magic sent their way. It just won't
work against them. This is one of the most common reasons why people in
Haiti decide to become kanzo, to protect themselves against malevolent magic.
An initiate will have a longer life, better health, better finances, a
generally happier and more powerful life. This is true even if they stop
right there, never serve in the Vodou tradition, never go to a dance and
never honor a lwa again.
Over the years following an initiation, an initiate is expected to respect
the discipline of the tradition. Although we do not have a "rule book" in
the sense of a written manual, a few of the main points might be summarized
1. Never reveal the secrets of the initiatory djevo to a non-initiate, under
any circumstances. Be cautious in discussing these matters with initiates
from other houses than your own.
2. Never renounce your spiritual parents, your maman kanzo and papa kanzo,
and at the rank of suleliye the person who gives you the asson.
3. Continue to support your house, work within that house where you are
protected from jealously competitive Houngans and Mambos. Bring new
candidates to your house to increase the size of your house's membership.
What happens if someone breaks the rules? Well, it depends. A person who
reveals the secrets of the djevo will of course be ostracized by their house
and by any other Vodouisant, initiated or not. This is probably a "life
sentence", there is no way a person can take back their words once they have
In a traditional Haitian community, that person would probably get a visit
from the Sanpwel, the secular society composed of notable Vodouisants which
enforces cultural norms. They might get a relatively mild punishment, a
wanga which renders them unable to speak or which makes them sick and unable
to support their family, for instance. If they persist in their folly, they
might become a target for zombification.
A person who renounces their parents doesn't have to be punished, because
they are punishing themselves. Who is your papa? Who is your mama? The
person can't answer, at least they can't answer truthfully, so their claim to
be an initiate is... well, not terribly well received! And once again they
develop that "tet cho", that hot head, they go from one house to the next
looking for acceptance. The word for this in Creole is "bat bounda", meaning
colloquially "rump beating"! LOL! In other words, the person wears out
their body walking around and looking for something that they are not going
Of course we Vodouisants are only human, and there will inevitably be
conflicts between initiator and initiate. That happens in all houses, and
sometimes people will be angry enough to go and initiate again with someone
else. But an initiator can never, ever put anyone outside, never renounce an
initiate. We have the joke that if you initiate a monkey, it's YOUR monkey,
and you have to manage your monkey! LOL!
I once initiated a former domestic partner of mine, and gave him the asson.
He deserved it, he had faithfully served the Vodou tradition without being
initiated, for many years. He needed it, too, because a blabbermouth
initiate had revealed to him the secrets of the djevo (the blabbermouth was
killed not long after by a truck which backed up into him an crushed his jaw
and neck), thus putting him at risk for attack by any old bokor who might
wish to kill him and make his "zombi" talk. Although he had some character
flaws which had their root in a very painful childhood, I was hopeful that
the affirmation of the kanzo and the suleliye would improve his basic
insecurity. And to some extent I was right.
However, later our relationship ended, and to my great astonishment this
person began naming someone else as the one who gave him the asson! I was so
furious, I was just beside myself. I took this case to a few local Houngans
and asked for advice.
"Oh, that man is a THIEF!", was their response. This is pretty serious,
since "thief" is one of the worst things you can call a person in Haiti,
because thieves get killed when they are caught.
It later happened that at a meeting of all Houngans and Mambos asogwe
convened for another reason entirely, this man and another Houngan, the one
he falsely claimed had given him the asson, were violently ejected from the
meeting - in part because of bad feeling about his renunciation of his true
maman asson. He certainly can't take any sort of public role, but there is
more to it than that. This man's economic situation went from bad to worse
and from worse to abjectly miserable, his cows died and he could no longer
follow his usual profession. His health declined, his hair turned completely
white in the space of a few months, and his build changed from attractively
athletic to frighteningly thin. Family conflicts forced him to leave his own
house on his own land, and live elsewhere.
What happens if someone keeps the rules? Well, all sorts of good things, of
course. The person has the continued support of their society, if they get
sick they can expect to be cared for, and they will never be hungry or
As they develop, their magical skills develop apace. They assist in
ceremonies in their house, and at the rank of sur point or asogwe they begin
to develop their own clientele. Their finances improve as a result. Finally
a Houngan or Mambo asogwe may go on to found their own house, and make
initiates of their own. At that point the individual is considered to have
achieved full spiritual maturity, and to have attained a place of honor and
respect in the Vodouisant community.
Let me give another example from my own experience. I used to work with a
Houngan asgowe in an outlying area some distance from Jacmel, and I did three
kanzos with him. In fact, I am to call him "papa", since he gave me my
During the third kanzo I did with him, he arranged for one of his people to
break into the foreign initiates' suitcases and steal their personal cash.
Disgusted, I canceled a kanzo which was scheduled for the following month,
left that area altogether, and went to live in another place in another area
I explained to other people why I was upset and why I was not planning to
work with that person or in that house any more. I was heartbroken!
However, I never said, "That Houngan is not my father". I never responded to
threats from him conveyed to me. At the meeting of Houngans and Mambos
asogwe which I mentioned above, he came up to me and greeted me in a very
mocking way, but I responded with a respectful greeting and a ceremonial
salutation, I called him "Papa" loudly enough for everyone to hear. I got
HUGE respect for that from the other Houngans and Mambos present.
And it happened that although I had no plans ever to build a peristyle in
Haiti, a well-to-do non-Haitian woman who is not even a Vodouisant stunned
Jacmel by building the biggest, most beautiful peristyle in Jacmel and then
giving it to me! Who told her to do that? It wasn't me, I never mentioned
any such thing to her! It was Guinea's reward to me, of course.
We follow the discipline of the Vodou tradition because it works. No one is
perfect, as I have said before, but the tradition is perfect in the sense
that the discipline it requires is not stultifying and restrictive but rather
supportive and nourishing.
Peace and love,
Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen
"Se bon ki ra" - Good is rare
The VODOU Page - http://members.aol.com/racine125/index.html