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.
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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.
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~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.