The Ancestors In Haitian Vodou
By Mambo Racine Sans But ("Roots without End")
The ancestors, 'zanset yo' in Haitian Kreyol, are ever with a Vodouisant. He/she lives, breathes and acts with the awareness of their presence. The national anthem of Haiti begins, "For the country, and for the ancestors, we walk united...".
In the countryside of Haiti, each family compound includes a family graveyard. The tombs of family members are as elaborate as the family can afford. Some resemble small houses built above ground, with the crypt below. The structures built for wealthy families may even comprise a small 'sitting room', complete with a picture of the deceased and good quality chairs. When a newcomer enters the family compound for an extended visit, courtesy requires that her or she make a small libation of water at the tombs, so that the ancestors will welcome the person. Family members and guests may also, at any time, make an 'illumination'. Candles or beeswax tapers are lighted, placed on the tombs, and illuminated, and a short prayer is said.
In the city, the law requires burial in the city graveyard. Again, structures may be quite elaborate, and large padlocks and other security devices are used to prevent grave robbers from making off with the metal coffin findings, bones, or other articles of the dead person.
The bones of dead individuals are considered to have great magical powers, particularly if the dead person was a Houngan, Mambo, or in any other way notable or distinguished.
A Vodouisant is buried with Roman Catholic ceremony, and a wake is held for nine nights after the death. The ninth night is called the 'denye priye', the 'last prayer'. After the 'last prayer', the Catholic part of the death ritual is closed.
At some point either before or after the Roman Catholic ceremony, the Vodou ceremony of 'desounin' is held. In this ceremony, the component parts of the person's soul and life force, and the primary lwa in the head of the person, are ritualistically separated and consigned to their correct destinations. The 'desounin' of a well known and highly respected Houngan, such as my initiatory Houngan Luc Gedeon, Bon Houngan Jambe Malheur, may be attended by hundreds of white robed, weeping mourners. It is at this time that the inheritor of any 'family lwa' liberated from the deceased is usually revealed, as the chosen individual becomes briefly possessed.
One year and one day after the death of the individual, the ceremony 'retire mo nan dlo', 'take the dead out of the water', may be performed. The spirit of the dead person is called up through a vessel of water, under a white sheet, and ritually installed in a clean clay pot called a 'govi'. The voice of the dead individual may speak from the govi, or through the mouth of another person briefly possessed for the purpose. The govi is reverently placed in the djevo, or inner room of the temple.
Sometimes the spirit of a departed ancestor may return of it's own accord, as a 'lwa Ghede' (see Lesson 2, Part 2). My own initiatory Houngan had in his head a Ghede named Ghede Arapice La Croix, who revealed to me that he had once been a black Haitian man, born on Nov. 2, All Souls' Day, in the Bel Air district of Port-au-Prince. His outspoken nature and inability to tolerate injustice got him murdered by a neighborhood strongman at the age of 21. Then followed a long spiritual odyssey (available by special request, "Biography of a lwa Ghede"). One day, he saw Luc Gedeon in the woods with the govi of another lwa, Kanga, working on a cure for a sick person. Arapice asked Kanga for permission to enter the govi with him, but Kanga refused, and made Arapice hang around immaterially outside Luc Gedeon's peristyle for another year. Then Kanga required a ceremony of installation for Ghede Arapice la Croix.
When Luc Gedeon, Bon Houngan Jambe Malheur, became possessed for the first time by Ghede Arapice la Croix, Arapice demonstrated his power and his loyalty to Luc by sitting down in the middle of the huge ceremonial bonfire. Screams of fear from the congregation and tears of terror from Luc's family did not dissuade him - and in a moment the terror turned to wonder as not a hair of Luc's head nor a thread of his clothes was burned. Arapice then entered the peristyle and was reverently installed in his very own govi, where he remains until today, manifesting through one of the younger relatives of the late Houngan.
May God/Goddess, the Ancestors, and the lwa be with you.
I, Mambo Racine Sans But, "Roots Without End", am a legitimately initiated Mambo, or priestess, of the Vodou. I was initiated in 1990, in Grand Goave in the south of Haiti, by Luc Gedeon, Bon Houngan Jambe Malheur, honor to him! As a Mambo, I am competent to speak on Vodou. I have spoken at colleges and universities in the northeastern United States, written articles for scholarly and popular journals, and appeared on television on "The Learning Channel". I am competent to do divination (readings), work charms, prescribe herbal baths, instruct querents in how to construct altars, make food offerings, and so on. I am also competent to conduct Vodou ceremonies.