Religion, Vodou

Happy Vodou Christmas

“What do you want for Christmas?” she asked me.

“I don’t—”

I stopped. She raised an eyebrow.

“What?” she asked.

I was going to say I don’t celebrate Christmas. It’s an automatic response. But to my surprise I realized…

“Oh crap. I’m Vodou now. I do celebrate Christmas.”

From my Vodou ceremony Saturday night.

From my Vodou ceremony Saturday night. Photo by Drew Jacob.

Other People’s Holidays

I wrote last week about why the Bible isn’t part of my spiritual quest. That was mostly a mix of personal preference and philosophic reasons. Christmas hits a little closer to home.

If you’re not Christian, chances are high that Christmas sucks—or at least aspects of it do. There are a few reasons:

  • Christmas is everywhere.
  • Christmas is everywhere, and your holiday is nowhere. There’s no faster way to make someone feel like an outsider.
  • People actually get mad at you for not saying “Merry Christmas.” This is a small percentage of people, but when it happens it will ruin your whole day.
  • Unless you’re Jewish, most people don’t even know what your holiday is. You’re in that “and everything else” category. In many cases, people you love won’t remember its name even if you tell them.
  • Maybe no one will wish you a happy holiday till your holiday is over. (When you wish your Jewish friends Happy Hanukkah at the holiday party, you should know that it’s been finished for two+ weeks this year.)
  • Well-intentioned Christians remind you that “you can celebrate Christmas anyway.” I’m sure they all celebrate Diwali.
  • You may be compared to Scrooge.

I recognize that many non-Christians choose to participate in Christmas as a cultural holiday or for family’s sake, and that’s a fine choice. It’s one I’m personally uncomfortable with, and I’ve abstained from Christmas for a good decade now.

But my Vodou changes that. Vodou is quite definitely not Christian, but uses a lot of Christian elements as frosting. Saint candles, crucifices, some Catholic prayers—things that were absorbed during Slavery and are now tradition.

The Christmas Eve Bonfires at Lutcher.

The Christmas Eve Bonfires at Lutcher. Photo by Drew Jacob.

Bathing in Fire

Last Christmas Eve I arrived at the Temple at a run, almost late for the ceremony. I knew not many people would be there—Xmas and all—but it was a special occasion. I wore the usual white, but with a red head scarf. We were serving the Petwo, fiery and aggressive spirits whose ceremonies include live fireworks.

The Hounfo was cold, the cement floor chilled through by damp New Orleans air. One by one we sang in the Petwo lwa and their veves took shape in cornmeal on the floor.

Then the cauldron came out.

Our priests mixed together a cocktail of ingredients including rum and Florida Water. In went a spark and whoosh came the giant dancing flames.

And we bathed in them.

Reaching into the cauldron I dipped my hands into liquid fire, trickles of light running down my arms and flames leaping off of me. It felt pleasantly warm over my skin. To some people present it was old hat; for me it was a moment of awe.

After the ceremony it was late, but we packed into several cars and drove an hour to Lutcher, Louisiana for a centuries-old tradition: Christmas Eve bonfires on the levee.

It was one of the few times my House family did something together outside the temple, one of the most special nights of my time in New Orleans. I didn’t even think of it as Christmas, really.

But now I’ve been initiated and Vodou is one of my religions. I practice alone here in Texas, and it’s up to me to decide which elements of Christmas to borrow and absorb—just as our House has borrowed the Lutcher bonfires.

My own fire bath. Photo by Drew Jacob.

My own fire bath. Photo by Drew Jacob.

I’m not yet sure how I’ll celebrate Christmas this year. I do know it’ll be me, alone; no family, no girlfriend visiting, not even my roommate. I have a fantasy of getting a Nativity scene and replacing all the figurines with skeletons to make a Vodou Manger. What do you think?

There are a few copies left of my book about adventure. Get the last one quick!

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Adventure, New Orleans, The Great Adventure, Vodou

You are at a river with Legba

O koto bouke, parenn se’m pote ouvre!

“You are at the edge of a river with Legba. The river is fast, it roars over rocks. You want to cross the river, but the current is too strong. You try to yell over the river, but the rapids are loud.”

“Legba hits you with his cane.”

“He hits you hard. Papa is not fucking around. He sends you reeling.”

“You fall in the water. The river washes over you, and you flail. The current is too strong! How can you swim in this madness?”

“You gulp water and air, a rock strikes you.”

“Sputter, scramble. Stand up.”

“The water is waist deep.”

Saut d’Eau waterfall in Haiti. Credit: YoVenice.com.

This is a dream a mambo had about me in December, as I crashed into bankruptcy.

In essence, the same story I told yesterday.

I stood up, Papa. I stood up and now I must go down the river.

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Spotlight, Vodou

Is the age of the shamans dead?

This is an excerpt from a piece from a Vodou priest at Knitta Please

Working overnights are gruesome. People are different when the sun goes down. Forget phases of the moon, planetary alignments and stellar influences, people do in the dark what they wouldn’t normally do in the light of day. Without the sun to witness, as if the moon cared less, I’ve seen man, woman and child in the grips of one nighttime habit or other.  Usually, I’m pretty OK with what goes on. Usually, their glazed eyes and slurred words become a river of unconscious thought. Their babblings become a prophetic tongue, the science of decoding the pickled Pythias. 

Photo used without permission from Knitta Please.

This is how my story starts. Two young chaps come in from a night of tippling, sit down at my counter and start yelling. Working in a diner, overnight, this is common, and eyes aren’t batted at it.  I give them waters, if that could help, and take their order. Conversation changes between the two of them frequently, greased by the liquid excess pumping through their veins.

Then, as it always does in the small community I live in, they see someone they’d gone to school with. It’s-been-forever’s and It’s-good-to-see-you’s were exchanged and conversation between the two chaps stuck to that. Like two old men recounting their spent youths, these gumshoe yuppies blurted out a Schindler’s List of people they’d known, saw, fucked, or hung out with during their formative years. Then, because I was close enough to spy into their conversation, one asks me, “So, are you in school?”

The question seemed far out of understanding for me. Could they not see my age? Could they not see the transparent mortarboard hanging over my head?

As I looked up from my task at hand, I answered them, “Nope, I’ve actually already graduated.”

Next, inevitably, “So, why are you working here?”

To read the rest of the story click here. Yes, there are shamans.

From now on I’m going to publish the things I enjoy reading, so you can enjoy them too. I don’t believe in a full “reblog” because I want you to actually go to their site and learn to love them. You will always have to click over to get to the good stuff.

I don’t get reimbursed or compensated for this. I just like sharing what I love. 

I will still be publishing my own original work every Wednesday and, sometimes, more often. Now go read Knitta Please.

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New Orleans, Religion, Vodou

What is Vodou?

Photo and original pattern by Judith Pudden.

 

Vodou is a religion that fights slavery.

 

It has literally fought slavery, and freed a nation of black slaves from their white owners in Haiti before the US, France or England abolished slavery.
But also fights slavery in every form today.
It is a religion of empowerment. A religion of personal freedom. It brings together communities to develop ways to fight those forces—economic, political and social—that hold us into roles and limit us.

 

That’s what Vodou is.

 

I believe we can change our lives. Magic ceremony is my tool for doing that. Help me make magic accessible to everyone. Magic to the People needs your help to raise as much money as possible before April 5.

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New Orleans, Religion, Vodou

What Is Vodou Initiation Like?

We cracked my skull open and installed a few new parts.

Saturday, February 16 I was initiated into Vodou. I feel an obligation to write about my experience, because most people don’t. They say there’s no way to describe it. “You have to experience it for yourself.” But I do believe I can describe some of the feeling, the experience. I wish someone had described it to me long ago.

First, here is what I won’t say:

  • I won’t reveal any of the secret aspects of initiation. There are things the initiates don’t know beforehand, and I won’t share them here. The anthropologists have already revealed them anyway.
  • I won’t give a primer on what Vodou is or what the religion is all about. For a basic introduction read this. Or for a detailed journal of one man’s life in Vodou check out Oungan François’ Chasing the Asson.
  • I cannot help you initiate (sorry). If you are a person considering initiation into a Vodou house, I recommend contacting the wonderful community at La Source Ancienne Peristyle.

What Kind of Initiation?

This does not make me a priest of Vodou. The initiation I went through makes me a “hounsi bosale.” Hounsi is essentially a dedicated member of Vodou. Sometimes I see it used to mean apprentices or assistants of priests. In other usages it seems more like a term for a mystic or devotee who is not clergy. There is no analogous term in Christianity. It’s not like baptism, Christening or confirmation, although I erroneously compared it to those things before I underwent it myself.

Here are some questions I’ve been asked:

  • What is the purpose of this initiation? The reasons are different for every person. In my case it was to dedicate myself to a lwa who I’ve grown very close to. He is my met tet or patron deity. At least, he’s one of them—I have more. For other people, the cleansing aspect of the ceremony might be more important, or being “opened up” as a clearer medium for the lwa.
  • Why did you initiate? It felt appropriate. The lwa have been in my head for over 10 years and finally I’ve had a chance to practice with them formally and learn their traditions, songs, stories. It was time to officially dedicate myself in some way.
  • What about your other religions? I am and will always be a priest of the Old Belief. I practice multiple religions. They’re compatible.
  • Will you become a Vodou priest? We’ll see.

Experiential

I understand why people say they couldn’t possibly describe what initiation is like. However, I do think it can be put in words—you just have to think about the words very hard. Many practitioners have a hard time framing it in a way that outsiders can understand, which is frustrating for both parties.

Vodou is primarily experiential. It will provoke moods, emotions, ideas and realizations in the practitioner and that’s really the point. It doesn’t matter what herbs the priest threw into the fire. That’s the stuff that’s easy to describe, but it doesn’t communicate the feeling.

Feelings are harder to explain but they’re the end result of Vodou practice. I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience but my own. Other initiates may feel something different. But I believe initiation will always be deep, emotional and outlook-changing.

My Vodou initiation. Photo by Julie Valdivia.

My Vodou initiation. (Photo by Julie Valdivia.)

Internal Shift

Here is why it can’t be compared to confirmation. Confirmation is as much external as it is internal. The person might feel a sense of spiritual elation or they might feel blasé. Maybe they’re only there because their family expects it. Much of the Confirmation is for the congregation: it shows everyone that this person has made a commitment. It strengthens a social structure. A 14 year old receiving confirmation may feel like the same person before and after; it’s their status with their group that has changed, not their sense of identity.

Vodou initiation is internal. Imagine if every person who took confirmation had an immediate vision of Christ bleeding on the cross, then felt the holistic ecstasy of all the angels singing. Imagine they suddenly blacked out and saw through the eyes of Jesus the day he forgave Peter.

Vodou has this down to a science. The ceremonies used in Vodou are a finely honed technology that can, reliably, provoke powerful consciousness shifts.

No one goes through initiation because it’s “expected” of them. If they’re there it’s a conscious, personal choice to be there. And, in the case of becoming Hounsi Bosale, their status with the group doesn’t really change. It didn’t make me a Vodou priest and it conferred no special powers or rights. I haven’t even made a promise of any kind. The entire point of initiation is to take a step in a personal odyssey. It is a rite of the individual, not of the congregation.

Both the expectations and the results of initiation are different than the rites of passage most of us went through growing up. It involves a dramatic internal shift.

Before the Jump

Four of us initiated together. I had never met the other three. They are part of our House (congregation) but they live in another state. They can’t fly to New Orleans for ceremony very often.

I was told to arrive at 6 pm with all my offerings. They looked like they had been there for hours already. I was just showing up for another evening at the temple—something I do every week. For them it must have been a pilgrimage.

I wonder how they felt. I’ve been through initiations before. None were quite like the Vodou ceremony, but some were very intense. If we were soldiers waiting to jump out of an airplane, I was one who’d jumped before. It didn’t make this one less intimidating, it just meant I was calm about it.

We were sequestered together. I sat leaning against the wall with my eyes closed. I prayed to my oide, Lugh, and reaffirmed my devotion to him. Just because I am taking on a met tet doesn’t mean I don’t need my oide. There’s room in this adventurer for many gods.

That was all I really needed to do to prepare. I felt ready for anything. I made small talk with the other initiates, and made sure they were feeling happy and ready. Then I closed my eyes again and waited for my head to break.

The Ceremony

To a spectator, the highlight of the ceremony is when each initiate personally calls their lwa in. This is something that’s usually done only by the priest. Imagine if at confirmation you were told to turn the wine into blood and you had to find the wherewithal to do it. Would you?

Lwa are called in by drawing their veve (diagram) on the ground in cornmeal, giving them offerings and invoking them. There’s a lot more to it but that’s the short version. Each of us had to be our own priest and manage this ourselves.

However, for a lot of reasons our lwa were already there. At least for me, mine was in my head since before we entered the main temple and he stayed there all night. I suspect it was the same for the other initiates.

I’m not going to describe all the details because I don’t know how much is secret. But I can say this:

  • The initiation lasts all night. We were aware of this in advance. And yes, we were allowed to sleep. Bear that in mind when you’re reading below.
  • No hallucinogens or drugs are involved at all, not even alcohol. (Alcohol is offered to the spirits, but not consumed.) Bear that in mind below, too.

Snakes in the Head

I had a spirit installed in my head that night.

What is that like? Overpowering, joyful, profound.

It’s overpowering because there is a loss of control. I would move without willing myself to move. At one point I was asked a question and my mouth opened and someone else’s words came out. My lwa’s words. I was conscious and I heard them—I could even have stopped them if I wanted to. But I let them come out, and to hear them in my own voice was startling, almost worrying. It felt like something foreign in my head.

Likewise, at times I was completely lost in something. During the ceremony I was grinning and happy and acting with an energy and euphoria that are not part of my everyday persona. While dancing I felt lapses of control over my own body and I felt things very differently than normal. Some of this I had experienced at routine weekly ceremonies. But it was magnified.

With time, this overpowering aspect of the experience became normal—I learned to trust it. But even though it began to feel natural, it was no less overpowering. Aspects of my movements, words, thoughts, emotions remained out of my control or, more accurately, external to me. As if I was participating in my actions, but no longer as sole proprietor.

The overpowering aspect was there from the beginning, but the joyful aspect set in more gradually. I described already the euphoria during ceremony. This came and went in crescendos. When the main ceremony was over and we were led off for the rest of initiation, the four of us could hardly keep from laughing with excitement. Every one of us was in full contact with something that had previously been glimpsed only fleetingly in prayer.

I should note here that one does not choose one’s met tet at random. In some cases, you consult with your priest to decide it. Other times you may just know who it is. But always there is a connection between yourself and the lwa you choose. There are thousands and thousands of lwa, represented most commonly by about 20 main characters that every Vodouisant has heard of. They each correspond to a personality type that us living humans sometimes encounter. Your met tet is often the lwa with the personality most like your own, or the one who inspires you most. In the abstract this is like a list of archetypes. But a list of archetypes does not leap off the altar and into your brain, does not speak out loud, does not dance with you and share your cake. To meet your lwa is like seeing your mother or your soul mate when you thought they were dead.

So it’s joyful. But more than just the joy of knowing them, the experience itself is uplifting. All the changes to your body and mind are positive. And my lwa likes the other initiates’ lwa a lot. So the fact that they were there too, also in the flesh, right next to me meant this was like a reunion on top of it all.

In my case, the experience included a lot of visions. I don’t mean anything prophetic. But the visions can tell you a lot about what’s happening in your own life, and about yourself. Ultimately this leads to the profound aspect of initiation.

The profound comes after the fact. During my visions I was hardly thinking of their meaning at all; I was just in a state of bliss. The next morning, the weight of some of what I had seen, felt or realized crushed home. Again, this will be different for every person. But it comes with clarity. Tremendous, far-ranging clarity.

Integrated

The effects of the ceremony continued long after it was over. The next day I went home and showered. I went out to lunch with friends. I got some work done. Even though I had returned to normal life, I experienced the following conditions the whole time:

  • A continued sense of my lwa’s presence in my body, which was welcome.
  • I moved differently. I moved slower, more purposefully and gracefully. I didn’t think about this or affect it. In fact, I noted it with a sort of incredulous awe.
  • I spoke with more confidence, I was more social and charismatic. People reacted warmly to me, even strangers.
  • The euphoria remained.
  • I made good decisions. I said the right things in conversation, I handled stressful matters easily, and I chose my priorities well.
  • My reflexes were faster.
  • My mind was quiet. Normally I have a lot of thoughts unless I intentionally take them away with meditation. But now I was hardly thinking at all. I paid attention to the moment, experiencing it without judging it.
  • I was more aware of my surroundings.
  • I enjoyed physical sensations more, even simple things like the feel of a blanket.
  • I did better work. I sat down and wrote seven client articles in record time, same quality as normal, but with no distractions along the way. I was able to concentrate fully when I needed to and calmly, easily complete my work.

All these conditions lingered long after the ceremony. Some of them are still in effect.

I don’t know what the long term effects will be. How many of these conditions will remain? How will they effect my journey? We’ll see. If you have questions about Vodou or the initiation process, please ask in the comments. I’ll try to answer although I’m not a Vodou priest.

Note: If you are interested in information regarding Vodou or initiation, I am not the person to ask—I am not a Vodou priest and I cannot speak on behalf of the House or our tradition. Instead, I recommend you contact La Source Ancienne Peristyle. They are great at answering questions. 

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Religion, Vodou

Small Religions

Photo and original artwork by Judith Pudden

I took my mom to a Vodou ceremony. She’s visiting me here in New Orleans. The ceremony was small, with seven people in attendance. She asked questions like:

Don’t more people ever come?

How many people usually come to your ceremonies?

Is that everyone involved in the temple?

Initially I brushed aside Mom’s inquiries with accurate, polite answers:

It varies. Some weeks it’s four, some weeks it’s twenty. At the big holidays it might be forty plus.

But around the eighth or ninth time she brought this up, I went deeper:

You’re not really asking how many people attend the Vodou temple. You’re asking why the Vodou temple is failing, because you equate small numbers with failure.

Vodou doesn’t work that way, because we don’t seek to convert people. There’s no recruiting, just honoring the ancestors. A few people coming together for that is beauty.

And I would measure success differently. This is a religion that was beaten out of slaves and then hid underground. Opening the doors is a success. Staying open 25 straight years, serving the public, is a success. And initiating dedicated people every spring, year after year, is a remarkable success.

So I think comparing our numbers to an Episcopal church or a Jewish temple is backwards. This is one of the biggest communities of Vodou outside of Haiti, and our priestesses and priests have made it successful.

This was the most common question when I ran an Irish temple, too. They’d ask how many people were in our congregation. I stopped giving numbers, which were impressively large, and started saying We don’t have a congregation, we have a family.

I don’t know at what point I started thinking of my Vodou sisters and brothers as my family, but I do.

I loved our big Fête Gede with its crowd of 50. But I also love the candlelight and the little press of close friends on lonely nights.

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New Orleans, Religion, The Great Adventure

Spirit Will Use You

“If you use Spirit, Spirit will use you.”

These words echoed in a friend’s dream, to be delivered to me.

A warning, or a promise?

Every day I serve Papa Legba. Sometimes I give him rum, sometimes paprika, sometimes other little gifts. He is an old, limping lwa and one of my patrons. Legba possessed my friend Saturday night. Later, he had this dream.

Photo & original artwork by Judith Pudden

Photo & original artwork by Judith Pudden

Priesting

I miss priesting.

It’s been a year since I ran a temple. A year focused very much on myself.

My role at the temple was that of teacher. Often, I guided people through crisis (or provoked it); spoke for tradition (or silenced it); attacked pride in the proud students and fanned it in the meek ones. I rehearsed ancient ways with dedicated apprentices.

But there are other needs.

What of those who seek their next meal? Instead of the dedicated, what of the lost and uncertain?

I used to minister to, essentially, a college; now I’m called to minister the street.

Drunks and Maniacs

Bring out your drunks, your maniacs, your criminals.

I feel invited to mix with them.

I will talk with the tongueless man on the corner. I will give my dollar to the kid who hops boxcars. I will hold the alcoholic in between his shouted rants.

At least, I think I will.

I’ve been told this city brings out my protective streak. I don’t know if it’s this city, or the presence of so many people who struggle. Many don’t know how to get past tomorrow, tonight. They don’t have any control in their lives.

Most of us derive our peace from a sense of control.

How do you help people who have neither?

Divine Terror

I’ve used a lot of magic lately. I’ve used, so to speak, Spirit.

Will it use me back? How?

It’s scary. I’ve seen people run from religion over smaller scares. Sometimes digging deep means finding things.

Divine terror is the same flame as divine awe.

There are two tools I’ve used when struggling. For peace, meditation; for control, magic.

In some way, I think it’s time for me to share those tools in the community. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know how to keep myself safe when I do it.

Perhaps an open salon for handing out ceremonies. No one turned away, no matter who they are.

I am open to suggestions.

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