Colored scarves, sequined bottles, veves, spirit dolls, metal works, ornate flags. Understanding Vaudun Concepts by Wynne Hanner. Published by openmythsource.com
Vaudon (otherwise known as Voudon or Voodoo) originated in west and central Africa. From there it traveled to the New World by way of slave ships where it flourished in Haiti, on the island of Hispaniola. The practice of Vaudun involves ceremonial dance, music, and sacrificial offerings through which participants communicate with the ancestor spirits. Divine possession creates the portal or doorway between the mundane and ethereal, allowing of this interaction to take place.
The intricate ceremonies involve a pantheon of ancestors known as the lwa or loa. Vaudun is divided into two “nations” each of which has its own spirits. These two nations are Rada and Petwo. The Rada spirits are considered cooler or gentler than the Petwo spirits who are hotter or more fiery in nature. Each lwa also has a catholic counterpart or saint with whom it is identified. The Catholic saint counterparts originated from the era of slavery and religious enforcement of Christian principles upon the African slaves. Thus, slaves adopted the saints as paralleled representatives of their own African gods.
The Vaudun temple (ounfo) is communal space. At its center is the sacred post (poto mitan) around which the ceremonies revolve. Around and outside the sacred post are smaller alter rooms where ritual objects are kept. Ceremonies begin with prayer, drumming, and singing, to which each lwa spirit responds. The rituals are overseen by a priest (oungun) or preistess (manbo) who honors and greets the spirits for the participants. At the altar, the priest/ess must first greet the loa Papa Legba to begin the ceremony. Legba is the spirit of the crossroads, who opens and closes the gates to the divine domain of the ancestors. He is to be greeted before any other deities can be addressed.
At the altar, the priest holds the sacred rattle (ason) and requests that Legba open the gate to the ancestors’ world. Then he goes to each of the four temple corners, bows and shakes the rattle. Next, the priest greets other spirits: the Marosa, and Loko Atisou. The sword master (laplas) enters the peristil accompanied by two flag bearers who carry the ceremonial flags. The four directions are again saluted as the priest kisses the hilt of the sword and flag poles. Cornmeal is used to trace sacred symbol of the manbo priestess. This symbol is known as the veve, and is tranced on the floor of the peristil. With the veve tracing in progress, the singers and dancers shred palm leaves. The ceremonial spirits have now been honored, and the door to the ancestors’ spirit world is open for divine possession of the ceremonies’ participants.
Vaudun participants acknowledge divine possession as a spiritual path to enlightenment, and as a way to temporarily transcend the mundane world. During this process, the lwa mount the participants. As a rider mounts a horse, the spirits ‘possess’ the celebrants who adopt the characteristics of each lwa in succession of their appearance. Dambala, (the snake spirit) is first. The celebrants dance and writhe on the temple floor to the sound of rapidly changing drum beats. More spirits are greeted, such as Ezili (the lwa of love), Agwe (the spirit of the oceans), and with a faster more heated drum beat, Ogou (the warrior) appears. Other spirits present themselves, and finally, the Gede (of the graveyard) appears to finalize the possession.
The Vaudun celebrants apparently have no knowledge of their actions during the ceremonial possession, and are unharmed when finished. The final stage of the ritual involves the blessed sacrifice of an animal or animals sacred to, and in honor of, each ancestor spirit. After the divine sacrificial death, the animals’ blood is collected and mixed with salt, syrup, and rum. A cornmeal veve is drawn on the body(s) of the sacrificed animal(s), and given money offerings. Last, it is cooked and eaten by the ritual celebrants who share their meal with the spirit ancestor lwa.
Brightly colored scarves, sequined bottles, veves, spirit dolls, metal works, ornate flags, and paintings have a significant role in the Vaudun tradition. Each ancestor spirit is associated with specific colors and symbols. The most important temple symbol is the sacred post. It is located at the center of the temple and is decorated with spiraling patterns to represent the snake lwa, Dambala.
Veves are the symbolic drawings traced on the ground during the rituals. Cornmeal, powdered red brick, or wood ash is used for this process with each veve representing its own spiritual alignment. Some veves are drawn to represent a single lwa, while others are interlinked to represent adjoining spirits. The veve’s purpose is to summon and ground the lwa, thus solidifying the spirits’ manifestations.
Colorful Vaudun bottles are used as offerings to the spirits. Usually left empty, they are sometimes filled with libations such as rum, wine, or sugar cane alcohol. Each bottle, representing a spirit, is decorated with fabric and sequins with colors specific to a particular lwa.
Dolls and cloth packets representing the spirits have their own purpose and space on Vaudun alters. Some dolls are used as symbols of the lwa to be placed on alters, while others known as ‘message dolls’ serve a different purpose. These small cloth dolls are used to relay one’s personal message to the spirit world. A message is written on a small piece of paper and secured to the doll. The message doll is then left at a crossroads (sacred to Legba) or a cemetery (the domain of Gede) to deliver the secret message to the divine.
Ritual packets (packet Kongos) are ritually charged and blessed cloth packets containing herbs and powders. These can range from simple ribbon bound cloth packets to more elaborate sequined, beaded, and feathered works of art. These vessels for the spirits are used for healing and protection, kept for seven years, and then replaced with a new packet Kongo. Each has its own colors and individual shape to represent a specific lwa.
Spirits and ritual concepts are depicted in metal works usually in the form of stencil-like wall sculptures and cemetery crosses. These works are forged from recycled oil drums and shaped with chisels, inspired by Haitian folklore and Vaudun.
Beaded and sequined flags are used in ritual and decorate temple walls. Otherwise called ‘drapo sevis’ , the flags are carried by the flag bearers to mark the beginning of the ceremony and are walked from the alter rooms into the main temple where the rituals are performed. Usually, the flags measure 36×36 inches and are covered with up to 20,000 sequins per flag.
Though traditionally intended for ritual purposes, colorful and decorative flags have become acknowledged worldwide as works of art to be exported and sold to markets and galleries.
Vaudun paintings depicting various aspects of the tradition, have also found a place in the modern art world. Traditionally, Vaudun paintings decorated temple walls. By the mid 1970’s, Vaudun artists still represented lwa concepts, though began depicting them in a more abstract form (abstract expressionism). This era marked the beginning of the transition from temple art to more widely accepted gallery art.
It may be easy for individuals unfamiliar with Vaudun traditions to dismiss this often misunderstood religion as primitive or out of touch with modern spiritual and worldly concepts. It should be acknowledged for its exquisite spiritual purity and alignment with raw natural elements . In all its complexity and beauty, Vaudun calls us to listen to the divine subtleties of life itself, and to understand its rich, intricate heritage.
“Spirits Of The Night: The Vaudun Gods Of Haiti” by Selden Rodman, Carole Cleaver
“The Book of Vodou”: by Leah Gordon
“The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti” by Leslie G. Desmangles
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