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The Haitian Vodou Handbook
Protocols for Riding with the Lwa
Table of Contents
About The Book
• Includes the myths, cultural heritage, and ancestral lineage of the lwa and how to honor and serve them
• Provides an introduction and guide that is especially useful for the solitary practitioner
• Discusses the relationship between Vodou, Haitian culture, and Catholicism
In The Haitian Vodou Handbook, Kenaz Filan, an initiate of the Société la Belle Venus, presents a working guide to the proper methods of interacting with the full Vodou pantheon, explaining how to build respectful relationships with the lwa, the spirits honored in Haitian Vodou, and how to transform the fear that often surrounds the Vodou religion.
Until recently, the Haitian practice of Vodou was often identified with devil worship, dark curses, and superstition. Some saw the saint images and the Catholic influences and wrote Vodou off as a “Christian aberration.” Others were appalled by the animal sacrifices and the fact that the Houngans and Mambos charge money for their services. Those who sought Vodou because they believed it could harness “evil” forces were disappointed when their efforts to gain fame, fortune, or romance failed and so abandoned their “voodoo fetishes.” Those who managed to get the attention of the lwa, often received cosmic retaliation for treating the spirits as attack dogs or genies, which only further cemented Vodou’s stereotype as “dangerous.”
Filan offers extensive background information on the featured lwa, including their mythology and ancestral lineage, as well as specific instructions on how to honor and interact fruitfully with those that make themselves accessible. This advice will be especially useful for the solitary practitioner who doesn’t have the personal guidance of a societé available. Filan emphasizes the importance of having a quickened mind that can read the lwa’s desires intuitively in order to avoid establishing dogma-based relationships. This working guide to successful interaction with the full Vodou pantheon also presents the role of Vodou in Haitian culture and explores the symbiotic relationship Vodou has maintained with Catholicism.
They say if you go down to the crossroads alone, and wait for that brief moment when night turns to dawn, you might see the old man sitting there. Even if you don't see him you might smell the faint aroma of his pipe tobacco, or see the shadow of his crutch, or hear his deep merry chuckle. Sometimes he gives you things: sometimes he takes things from you. Only one thing is certain: once you've gone to see him, you'll never be the same again. Some say the old man is the devil himself: others say he's an angel sent from heaven, and still others call him the Lurker at the Threshold. If you ask him about this, he'll tell you "yes." And then he'll chuckle to himself, his eyes brighter than the waning stars as he puffs on his pipe and dawn becomes daybreak.
The crossroads is the point where possibilities intersect, the point where we must make a choice. If we choose to travel down one path, we have also chosen not to travel on the other.
The cosmology of various African tribes has always placed great importance on the crossroads, and on the meeting-points of heaven and earth. For them the cross did not represent the crucifixion, but the creation of the universe.
At first glance, Legba appears like an unassuming old man. Accompanied only by his faithful dogs, he leans against his cane for support as he limps down the road. With nothing to his name but shabby clothes, a corncob pipe, and a straw bag, you might mistake him for a beggar. But when you are dealing with Legba, you must remember that appearances can be deceiving. The cane he leans against is actually the poto mitan, the gateway between heaven and earth by which the Lwa enter ceremonies. He limps not because he is crippled but because his feet are in different worlds--the material kingdom and the land of spirit.
Legba is the first one saluted at any Vodou ceremony. Since he is the keeper of the gateway, no spirit can enter the peristyle without his permission. He is the one who facilitates communication with the spirit world. Houngans and Mambos say that Legba knows all the languages of man and gods. He is the one who brings our messages to God and to the other lwa . . . and the one who brings their responses to us. In this he resembles the Greek Hermes . . . and, like the Greek Hermes, he can be a trickster. We must remember that Legba is the Great Communicator, but also the Great Miscommunicator. He is fond of riddles, paradox and ambiguity. He allows us to speak with the gods, but often plays tricks with their messages. He gives diviners a glimpse into the future, knowing full well they will misinterpret his statements. In yet another of the paradoxes so beloved by Legba, he governs both destiny and uncertainty.
Legba's homeplace is itself a crossroads, where various cultures and traditions have mingled for centuries. Long before the Yoruba and Fon peoples were brought together in chains to St. Dominique, they were trading, making war and exchanging ideas religious and otherwise. In downtown Cotonou, a gas station has gone up beside a famous shrine to Legba. At "Station Legba," as the sign says, you can fuel up and leave a priest instructions to pray for you. (I have no doubt that Legba finds this endlessly entertaining.)
Legba does not demand a lot from those who serve him. An occasional cup of black coffee, some grilled corn or peanuts, and a little tobacco for his corncob pipe will make him happy. Other offerings which he may like include cane syrup, palm oil, plantains, salt cod, yams, gin, rum, and cassava bread. To warm his old bones, you may want to add a liberal sprinkling of cayenne to his food.
You can use an image of St. Lazarus to represent Legba: they are readily available in most Haitian and Cuban Botanicas. You can also represent him with a scarf of the appropriate color, or with his vévé.
Before you honor any other lwa, you must honor Legba. This doesn't have to be fancy, elaborate or drawn-out. All you need do is sprinkle a few drops of cane syrup or some other drink of his choice on the ground, give him a cup of coffee or some roasted corn, or even say "Legba, please open the door for me. You remember me: I gave you [offering] on Monday [or whenever else you fed Legba]." When you do this, you ensure that he will "open the door" and let the other spirits through. If you forget to do this, he will not bring your offerings to the other lwa until you've provided him with appropriate payment and respect.
WORKING WITH LEGBA
Legba is not difficult to please. If you give him some spare change, some peanuts or candy, a bag in which he can keep his belongings, or a crutch to help him along his way he will generally be satisfied. Of course, if he does something really special for you, you can reciprocate in kind: give him a nice statue, or have a Houngan or Mambo prepare him a "Makout Legba," a special bag that contains his things and which has been activated by ceremonial means. If you can, you may want to keep a shrine to Legba by your door. He will guard the gate and bring you good fortune, while sending bad things elsewhere.
Before you ask Legba for any favors, remember that he has a keen sense of humor and loves taking you by surprise. When he comes through for you, it's likely to be in a totally unexpected and surprising way. He may even make you feel like a fool on occasion. If this happens, the best thing to do is laugh with him and learn from the experience.
- Publisher: Destiny Books (November 10, 2006)
- Length: 304 pages
- ISBN13: 9781594771255
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Raves and Reviews
"Refreshingly original, well-documented, and just plain fun. Kenaz brings just the right combination of insider insights and skeptical observations to this must-read for anyone fascinated by the world of Afro-diasporan religious movements. Highly recommended."
– Anne Newkirk Niven, Editor in Chief, SageWoman, PanGaia, newWitch
“Filan's clear and sensible approach shares the rudiments of Vodou, and gives us a fascinating introduction to the history and culture of Haiti. This book will be important to all who feel that religious practice makes a practical difference in our lives."
– Judy Harrow, author of Devoted to You: Honoring Deity
“This highly readable book will be valuable to every reader interested in Haitian Vodou, and essential for those who want to make the transition from intellectual knowledge to personal experience of a profound and unfairly neglected religion.”
– John Michael Greer, author of The New Encyclopedia of the Occult, A World Full of Gods, and The Drui
"Vodou is not what most people think. It's not "devil worship, dark curses, and drumbeat-driven orgies performed at midnight," poking needles at dolls, or simple superstition. With over a decade of service to the lwa (the deities of Vodou) and membership in Société la Belle Venus #2, a Vodou temple in Brooklyn, Filan sets out to right these pulpy perspectives of what in reality is a complex African diaspora spirituality and a form of worship that marries the secular and the spiritual. Of course, Vodou is not without its dangers, since "the lwa can wreak a frightening vengeance." It's not foolproof, either; without proper initiation into addressing the lwa, they will simply ignore you. But Filan aspires to give potential initiates the proper tools for communicating with the deities of Vodou (like Mama Danto who protects, and Papa Damballah who brings peace). In the process, he shares the rich and at times disturbing history of its practitioners (especially the oppression and racism faced during slavery), and offers a litany of everything necessary to practice Vodou on an individual level, from knowledge of the tradition's most important symbols, rites, myths and spells, to an extensive list of further resources and Vodou-related Web sites, music and even charities."
– Publishers Weekly, 11/13/06
"There is a sense of excitement which runs through this book, and the reader is caught up in its facts and material in an enjoyable manner. This is a good reading experience about what Haitian Vodou truly is, with nothing left out."
– Lee Prosser, Ghostvillage.com, Feb 2007
"This book made me think. And because it did, I give it my highest recommendation. Great for anyone who has an interest in this subject."
– Sapphoq Reviews, Feb 2007
"Kenaz Filan has succeeded where many before have failed. The Haitian Vodou Handbook (emphasis on the “handbook”) is a highly practical and informative starter’s guide. . . . Filan's book provides all the necessary information, and then some, to get one started in serving the Lwa. For those wishing to continue their exploration of the subject, the author provides extensive references and pointers to sources of information, internet resources and suppliers.
– Ashé Journal, Vol 6, Issue 1, Spring 2007
"I wasn't sure what to expect when I got this book, but I was very pleased with it, even the parts I disagreed with. It is informative, well-written, and well worth the price."
– Mike Gleason, Witchgrove, Mar 2007
"This is an excellent introductory text for folks of any background. . . . honest and respectful, and has a good balance of information and respecting of oathbound material. If you've any interest in this religion whatsoever, even just curiosity, this is a great place to start."
– Pagan Book Reviews, April 2007
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