Friday, March 5, 2010

The Vodou that I don’t

A few weeks ago I had a post titled The Vodou that I do, about my struggle to be, and to be honest about being, a priestess of Vodou. It can be hard to talk about, for reasons that I imagine are obvious. Most people don’t even realize Vodou is a religion, and some can be remarkably committed to that view.

So I’m pleased that, after years of frustrating conversations, I finally have a  conclusive way to prove that Vodou is a REAL religion! Is it that Vodouists believe in a Supreme Being? It is that it’s about the human quest to understand the unseen world? No! It’s that Vodou has as much judgment, intolerance and factionalism as other, better known faiths. We’re in the club, people!

I’ve been pretty active on various Facebook groups relating to Vodou, and am happy to have found an incredibly welcoming, diverse and compassionate online community. Of course I have my Vodou family in New Orleans, but I don’t live there. My friends and family here are very supportive, but it gets a little lonely up here in Minnesota. It was wonderful to find others to talk to.  The earthquake in Haiti brought the Vodou community in the USA into conversation, everyone was shaken, everyone was (is) doing something to help our brothers and sisters in Haiti.  Everyone is talking, reaching out, holding each other together.

One particular FB group is a great resource, with mostly kind, informed and helpful people. But, as I discovered -- in a discussion topic on how to deal with ignorance and misinformation about Vodou, of all things – that it wasn’t such a great place to express my uncertainty  about how to respond to said ignorance (I think that’s what’s meant by “irony”). Some people were supportive; others, not so much. My use of the phrase “turn the other cheek” provoked a veritable roar of outrage: I was informed that Vodou is not a “turn the other cheek” sort of religion. Apparently, machetes are required. If our family is threatened, we will draw blades! I was like, AH! NO! Stop now! Bloody metaphors are not particularly helpful in, wait, what were just talking about? I mean, really, it’s funny: let’s address misinformation and fear with some really violent imagery, because clearly people aren’t scared enough of us already. *sigh*

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me (where’s the fun in that?) but neither did I expect the metaphorical machete lady, also a group admin and a fellow Mambo, to tell me that my statements illustrate my lack of understanding of Vodou. That Vodou is not this but that. One thing led to another and, suddenly I realized I was in conversation with Vodouists who believe that because I 1. did not kanzo (initiate) in Haiti and 2. do not offer animal sacrifice, I am not a “real” Mambo. To these people that I found welcoming and interesting and cool, I practice “Pseudo Voodoo” and am not a priestess. Ouch.

Now, to be fair, this is my own fault. I asked for this. I knew there were people who would not recognize my initiation because of these things. I was like, ok, they can chill with the other 4 billion people (or 2 billion, or 5.9 billion, or whatever) who don’t recognize any religion other than their own. Given the choice to kanzo in Haiti or New Orleans, I would choose New Orleans every time, every day, from now to eternity.

Anyway, I believed that people would not recognize me as a Mambo, but I didn’t BELIVE believe it. You know what I mean.

The group admin/Mambo, whom I have been FB friends and very cordial with for over a year, actually unfriended me after the revelation of my New Orleans lineage and wimpy, non-sacrificing ways. I have to admit that I’m (perhaps inappropriately) delighted to be unfriended on FB over Vodoun ideological differences. I mean, doesn’t that make you feel like anything is possible?  But I’m also saddened and pissed off by the contemptuous tone of her words.

It’s not the differences or disagreement that bother me—I love to argue, live to argue—it’s the blatant arrogance and disrespect inherent in telling someone they 1. do not understand their own religion and 2. what they are practicing is not legitimate religion anyway. WTF? What makes someone think they have the authority to ascribe legitimacy?

The real question is: why does it bother me? I’ve been a member of a little-understood tradition since birth. Never mind what most Americans or Brits I’ve lived among think, I have found other Hindus to be the most disrespectful, judgmental and dogmatic people imaginable. I guess the closer we are to something, the more it can threaten us. There’s no feud like a family feud. To explain: Hinduism is really really a real religion made up of countless factions, philosophies, views and practices…but some are more prominent than others. I’m sort of a religious minority among Hindus, what with this weirdo meditation stuff. Many Hindus also don’t consider me a priestess—they have a problem with that “ess” thingy on the end of the word that indicates my gender isn’t male. Some traditional, caste-obsessed Hindus even consider me literally, not just metaphorically, illegitimate. My mother, a priestess in her own right,  was not born in India, so she wasn’t Hindu enough for my parents’ marriage to be recognized in some hidebound Brahmin circles.  My feelings on these matters? Whatever. Screw you and the narrow-minded, misogynistic caste you rode in on. I would never waste my time arguing about this stuff (although I’d recommend people watch what they say about my mom; I do have a machete around here somewhere). I’d stew my teeth, roll my eyes and forget it by the end of the day. Ok, no, I’d probably rant about it for awhile, but you know what I mean. It rolls right off of me.

So, if half a billion (or however many) conservative Hindus don’t bother me, why do a few Vodouists? 

I’ve been mulling that over for awhile now. I’ve ranted, talked it out, even sat in front of my altar all night and sort of sulked about it….and I’ve come to some really uncomfortable conclusions.

This is about my arrogance, not anyone else's. When Hindus denigrate or disrespect me, I can ignore them, in part, because I know what I know. I know who I am. I can be like, yeah, why don’t you go study the Vedas in Sanskrit, then get back to me? You want my lineage?  Sit down, honey, this is going to take awhile. I’ve got crumbling manuscripts and however many generations of ancients backing me up. My family’s land was granted by the mother of the dude who built Taj Mahal, around a hundred years before the founding of the United States. Our spiritual heritage is far more ancient. I’m terrifically proud of my history, and do my best to fulfill the responsibilities that come with it. Although I’ve struggled to make sense of my place in my tradition –-as a woman and someone with, it’s been pointed out, somewhat strong opinions— I’ve never doubted that there was a place. It was my choice to take it or leave it (well, not really, but that’s a post for another day). Basically, I can out-Hindu most Hindus. 

Then the Lwa found me in New Orleans and everything was chaos and I discovered Vodou. (Although the Lwa havr been with me my whole life, I didn’t realize until then.) It’s a tradition I knew little about. I have no privilege of birth, no credentials or education that come with it. I have to speak for myself in a different way, to find faith in myself in a different way.  The very things I love about Vodou—its capacity to level, its lack of hierarchy—are the very things that stir the doubt in my depths. In Vodou I am no one. I am leveled. I have to struggle through my fear and frailties in order to find or make myself. And I’d rather there not be any witnesses to that journey. It’s bad enough that I have to witness it.

These people I’m in disagreement with affect me because they  reveal things about me that I’d rather ignore. Anger I can embrace. Lack of confidence is something I have a hard time accepting, assessing and forgiving myself for. The closer we are to something, the more it can threaten us.

However, feeling insecure and like maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about might slow me down but does not shut me up. It’s  also been pointed out that shutting me up can be a little, um, challenging.

Here is my response to a very lovely post from another group admin describing traditional Haitian Vodou which stated, among other things, that there is one true Vodou, and (although nothing was directed at me personally) I am not a part of it.

~If for some insane reason this post is not long enough for you, and you feel the need to see the whole conversation, you can view it here and here.~

  * * * * * * *

I'm going to try and tread carefully here. I do not intend any of what follows to be an analysis of your tradition, I am trying only to respond to your comments regarding yours being the one true Vodou.

I agree that someone cannot take a class or read a few books and then expect to be accepted into a tradition, although the books and the class may lead them to find a tradition. Discipline, guidance and commitment to one's tradition are necessary.

I also agree that people should not label what they are doing as traditional Haitian Vodou if it is not. That is both disrespectful and delusional. Where I disagree is with your statements that other paths are "Pseudo-Voodoo" which threaten your tradition's future. Please let me be clear that I am not referring to doing things haphazardly or randomly, but to other different or emergent traditions and communities that respectfully serve the Lwa.

As someone born into a very ancient spiritual lineage, not hundreds but thousands of years old, (see? I somehow manage to drag that in) I understand the need to preserve and pass on tradition. It IS a calamity for these ancient and wise ways to vanish. However, I don't think that the existence of different, syncretic or parallel traditions in any way threatens the ancient way of doing things.

As for altering tradition, most ancient traditions change as the years go on, in subtle as well as obvious ways. Do you think that a tradition that excludes women from being clergy is destroyed when women become clergy? One comment I have heard from an African practitioner is that women cannot be "real" priests in the way men are. Someone in Africa might well consider Caribbean traditions "pseudo voodoo" that threatens to corrupt and destroy their ancient tradition. (Although most of the traditional African practitioners I know do not see boundaries around their faith. As it was put to me, Vodou is "everywhere and everything").

Alterations, evolution or innovation aside, even some ancient traditions do not recognize other, equally ancient, traditions. (Hindus have been disagreeing with other Hindus for literally ages). We can choose to recognize the legitimacy of other people's faith, in the same way we hope our own faith will be respected. That does not mean we understand or agree with it.

We all have a hard time taking our younger siblings seriously! Africa is the soil of Vodou. Caribbean traditions are younger and different from African traditions, not less real or less authentic. They are not African traditions altered for personal preference. They are birthed, evolved from and perpetuate ancient ways, not particular practice, but the deep knowledge, the pulse that underlies and gives life to the visible.

Likewise, there are ways to serve the Lwa that are not traditional Haitian Vodou as you describe it, and "different" does not mean watering down or corrupting something authentic. Practitioners of your tradition's path are not the only ones who have real relationships with the Lwa. As an East Indian I frequently often offer guests something they have never tried before...quite often they like it. Does that significantly change them as a person? Are they less of who they are because they had some chai? If the Lwa don't like something, they are, as you pointed out, very capable of saying so. If the guest is as happy with chai at my house as with chicken at yours, what is the problem?

I'm going to use the example of New Orleans Vodou, as it's what I'm familiar with. New Orleans has its own Lwa, some of which are Haitian and before that, African. Others are local. Just as Haiti looks to Africa, New Orleans looks to Haiti. For a Haitian practitioner, going to Africa to initiate into the ways of the Lwa is not necessary; their Lwa are right there in Haiti. For the practitioner of New Orleans Vodou, their Lwa are right there as well. The pulse of New Orleans is Vodou, deep and real and true.

There is also "Pseudo-Voodoo," or "tourist voodoo" as it's often called, in New Orleans: souvenirs, performances and so on. I imagine the same is true in Haiti?...the intent is to entertain and bring in tourist dollars. That is what makes it "pseudo." People may confuse this with Vodou in the peristyle. It is not.

From what I understand, there are many native Haitian practitioners who do not feel that there is "one true Vodou" as defined in the terms you set forth. There are also those who share your views. I'm sure, as with all traditions, there are some who feel that one must be born into it.

Which of these views represents Vodou? One of them? Two? All three? Are the ones who recognize or perform kanzo outside of Haiti not "real" Vodousiants, despite their being born and initiated into generations-old lineages in Haiti? Do people not born in Haiti and not raised in that culture, have the authority to tell native Haitians that what they are practicing is not real, or that they have no authority to interact with their family Lwa or practice their own ancestral traditions in the manner of their choosing? (I have no idea where you're born, I'm just trying to make a point about the dangers of using only one tradition as a synonym for authenticity.)

Isn't that what happens when the missionaries come? They start deciding what is religion and what is not?

I understand the need for distinct markers by which to define what is and what isn't a particular tradition. Much of your post is a great example of how to do that. These traditions MUST be preserved. But where we differ, is that I think it is possible to define, practice and perpetuate a tradition without labeling everything outside of it as false.

Isn't that our complaint about conservative, proselytizing Christians? That they think everything outside of their tradition is a 'pseudo' religion which threatens and destroys the one true faith? Don't we keep saying that those views are based on ignorance and fear?
I'd ask you to consider the same thing I ask the conservative Christian to consider: How, exactly, does the way I worship in my home threaten the way you worship in yours? Who has the authority to judge what is real religion?

One way of worship offers no insult or threat whatsoever to another...until we choose to denigrate a different way of life as false and set ourselves, and our tradition, above all others as the sole authority for truth. Is that Vodou? If so, you're right, what I practice is not Vodou at all.

  * * * * * * *

~If you’re going to leave a comment, and I wish you would, please keep in mind that some of the people I’ve discussed (probably not the infamous, Unfriendly Mambo) may read this, and thus your comments. So, be nice. We may disagree, but they are still my sisters. And if you threaten my family, well… I might have to get the machete out.


  1. I believe you’ve needed to say this for a while.

    People challenging your beliefs in Vodou, something you’ve obviously spent so much time, energy and dedication on pursuing, is more personal, because it’s something you choose, something you reach for. Not being born into it, there is an inherent uncomfortability in it that there could be a nuance you’re missing that other people get, through their years of being immersed in the tradition.

    Someone using those wedges to try and pry you apart is another matter altogether. Would people say houngans and mambos in Africa are not legitimate because they didn’t kanzo in Haiti? I don’t think people would dare call them illegitimate, even though their Vodou practices would differ from those in Haiti, which were infused with indigenous native traditions and Catholicism. Those in the New Orleans traditions can trace their roots and houses back to Haiti. They’re much closer relatives of each other and still intermingle quite often through interchange and dialogue. Of course being a part of that interchange and dialogue yourself, it makes it personal.

    There are a few ways to look at this. First, the birthright and cultural emersion of being raised in this tradition you’ll never be able to claim. Now I do agree with you the the Lwa have been with you your entire life, but that’s my next point. Spiritual experience is something you continue to have with you. If it’s not this Mambo’s Vodou (if we can legitimately verify her claim to such title) then you should continue to pursue what is yours. It works for you and many other people in Minnesota, Louisiana and elsewhere in the US. Beyond that there is the education, training and practice. You’re educated, you’ve had specific training the Haitian and New Orleans traditions, initiation, rites and you practice.

    If someone wants to claim that you’re not a Mambo, or that the moon is made of cheese, they can make all kinds of claims. But there’s no real authority she can assert in making thus claims. That’s between you and the Lwa. If they want to make those claims, well then you’re in trouble. If she wants to make them, tell her to punt off. I’d just laugh.

    The whole thing reminds me of the Eastern Orthodox Catholics and the Roman Catholics. The Eastern Orthodox excommunicated the Romans, and the Romans in turn excommunicated the Eastern Orthodox. Are neither valid religions or is it just the Romans because they were ousted first? If some woman wants to start a schism between Haitian and New Orleans Vodou, let it be her shtick but I think I’ll continue with my house to consider Haitian Vodou real and the rest of the linage in Haiti will do the same.

    Religion is a very personal thing. It’s one way we identify who we are, as a being, as a soul as something more than mortal, physical and intellectual. Challenging someone’s belief system is more than world shocking, it’s reality shocking. But that doesn’t give people the right to kill people over it, whether in riot, massacre or machete. Facebook flaming and unfriending over this difference of opinion is juvenile.

    That all being said, nothing I or anyone else can say matters here. The Lwa speak to you and you listen. They’re the ultimate authority on this topic. I’m glad you said something.

  2. wow, your letter was extremely well written and explained very succinctly.

    i think many people follow a religion in order to feel that they are superior to others. that's why we have the "our religion is the only right one" mentality. it's laughable. do we really know what is going on in the minds of God? or the spirits? who really knows the whole picture? certainly not you, and certainly not me.

    the instructor of my class, Iya Bega, warned me that there will be those who say i can't practice because i'm white. for her, personally, she had been told she couldn't practice because she is gay. people have definitely had problems with her for other reasons too... stupid reasons like the one against you.

    i'm also receiving mambo racine's updates and she just received a hate letter calling her a fake and poseur for having a french, not creole, name! so my point is that people will say such things to anyone and they don't need a legitimate reason to do so.

    however this is one of the most potent reasons i am hesitant to join any religious order. how much of the religion is politics and drama and negativity? how much is genuine spiritual work? i don't know, and this is part of my search- to find a community where i don't always have to be on the offensive. otherwise, i'd be better off just practicing on my own.

  3. You're an amazing woman, Saum. I'm moved by your humility. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and including us in your struggle. Powerful stuff.

    Urban I disagree on the flaming and defriending. When I speak my mind - edited or not may be considered aggressive or inflammatory. How ppl respond to it is more telling of their motivations and may not be responding to my intent or expressed opinion.

    The medium is driven on exclusive perspectives. Social media puts the user in charge of their 'feeds' and level of disclosure or engagement.

    Interests wane, change like the flowing of time. Defriending goes the way of such interests, I think.

  4. My knowledge of Vodou is exceptionally limited, as you know, but my knowledge of your quest to find a spiritual framework that speaks to you and works for you is much more fleshed out. And so I will post these lyrics as they have spoken to me in my personal quest so many times...

    "If I knew my mind like the back of my hand,
    The Gold and the Rainbow,
    nothing panned out as I'd planned.
    They say only milk and honey's
    gonna make your soul satisfied
    but I'd better learn how to swim
    cause the crossing is chilly and wide...

    ...Up on the Watershed
    standing at the fork in the road
    you can stand there and agonize
    til your agony's your heaviest load.
    You'll never fly as the crow flies,
    get used to a country mile.
    When you're learning to face
    your path at your pace
    every choice is worth your while."

    - "Watershed" by The Indigo Girls

    Try not to agonize too much over what others might try to claim as legitimate in your world, although I know it goes against your grain. Your Lwa will help you make your choices.

  5. Vodou is clearly an 'adaptable' practice.

    Did Gede wear glasses in Africa 2500 years ago? I don't think so.

    Were cuban cigars offered then?

    Was Danballa connected to St. Patrick in the very old days? Seems highly unlikely.

    So, thinking that practices (the externals) shouldn't change is foolish and misguided.

    However, there probably is something about adhering to the tradition and not spoiling sacred images.

    Did the Kokkipelli image lose it's power by being taken up by every shop seller in the southwest? Maybe.

    Did the power of the crucifix diminish by Madonna wearing one as a hood ornament. Possibly.

    But what you are speaking about is really listening inside yourself and making very personal choices guided by your own spirit (spirits).

    Dogmatists be gone.



  6. i've also heard people get up in arms saying "new orleans is 'voodoo' not 'vodou' but neither is superior"
    personally i could give a shit about spelling. :P but this is apparently a hot button issue. weird!

  7. Thanks. Y'all are truly wonderful people. I really appreciate the support, and your willingness to share your wisdom and perspective.