Vodou - An African Shamanic Tradition
At first sight, shamanism and Vodou - what Hollywood has introduced into the popular imagination as "voodoo" - seem to have little in common. The former seems based on peaceful co-existence with nature and the elements, while the latter, in so far as it is known to us through B movies and sensational tabloid stories, has a reputation as a secretive, violent practice concerned with the blood sacrifice of animals and sometimes people, "black magic," wild sex orgies and the creation of undead zombies.
In fact, the two disciplines are more similar than they seem and are linked fundamentally by the belief that we humans are merely part of an animate and interconnected universe of sentient energies where everything around us is alive. We share our existence with the spirits of ancestors and archetypal gods - beings with whom we can interact, and whose powers we can call upon for our own progress in spiritual and practical matters. Shamanism has its spirit realms of the upper, lower and middle worlds, each populated by somewhat different beings. Vodou, too, has its pantheon of gods, known as the lwa or loa, each with their own personalities and areas of expertise.
At the root of each system is the belief that we are not alone in the universe, but an intrinsic part of a vast order with its own logic, laws and shape, and that all things, stripped of their material form, are pure energy at their most basic level. This energy can be respectfully controlled, channelled and co-operated with in order to produce the "miracle" interventions of spirit which are well known to the practitioners of both traditions.
Such root agreement between the two, in fact, prompted Maya Deren, who wrote one of the first detailed and reasoned studies of Vodou, to comment in her book that "it is doubtful whether any other two peoples of different racial and continental origins [as the Afro-Caribbean Vodouissant and the Ameri-Indian shaman] could have discovered such astonishing co-incidence of religious beliefs, not only in basic pattern but in ritualistic and even accessory detail ... Ignoring the different emotional colourings of the two systems of ritual ... one could confound them entirely". (1)
It is perhaps not surprising therefore to discover that healing in Vodou follows very similar lines to that of most shamanic forms. Or that the Houngan (Vodou Priest) and Mambo (Priestess) who carry out such healings achieved their abilities via a calling from spirit which follows pretty much the "initiatory crisis" described in so many shamanic texts.
An example of this is the spiritual development of the Houngan Luc Gedeon, who was born in Haiti in 1930 and had a fairly normal childhood and an orthodox Catholic upbringing. At the age of 12, however, while in a Catholic church, he suddenly lost consciousness and was possessed by a loa.
This caused his family great concern and Luc was pushed further into Catholicism in order to refuse the influence of the loa. But the more he fought against his calling, the more distressed he became until, in 1972, he suffered an emotional and spiritual crisis and spent 22 days sleeping rough in the middle of downtown Port-au-Prince. This was enough to convince his family that Luc should accept the calling of the loa, and he was initiated as a Houngan in 1975. From then on, he was never again bothered by mental or nervous problems.
Once he is on familiar terms with his spirits through the process and commitment of initiation, the Houngan is able to interact with them and to seek their counsel in matters of healing. The difference between shamanism and Vodou in this respect is largely one of technique. The shaman will journey out from his body into the etheric world where he will meet with his tutelary spirits and voyage together with them on adventures of healing and discovery. The Houngan, by contrast, controls the flow of energy and oversees the possession of himself or another so that information may be brought in to the material world through the appearance of spiritual forces in our own world.
The Nature of Illness
For Vodou healers, individual or social disease arises from two specific causes:
- Spiritual intrusions - perceived as energies foreign to a person which have been introduced into his energy system, where their detrimental impact is experienced as illness - or:
- Soul loss - where certain traumatic events or wilful actions result in a severe loss of power which, once again, will ultimately create illness (the most "complete" manifestation of which is the soulless zombi).
These two are behind every single manifestation of illness or lack of harmony, whether individual or at the level of society itself.
Someone reporting feelings of emptiness and lack of connection with, or engagement in, the world around her, for example, will be diagnosed as a fractured person whose soul has become separated from her body, resulting in a weakening of the spirit. Through her subsequent interactions with others, this spiritual illness is spread until, eventually, the whole society may become sick. It is therefore imperative that the Houngan is able to introduce a creative healing program which will not only cure his individual client, but make its impact felt by association on the entire social system.
Soul loss may arise through the deliberate actions of another person to seize the power of a particular individual or community (soul theft) - a fairly common occurrence in Haiti where personal power and the ability to increase it even to the detriment of another is part of the cultural heritage created by slavery.
Soul loss may also often arise as a result of shock or trauma, known as sezisman. For instance, a man who is abused by his wife may have suffer sezisman, rendering him unable to take care of her. His wife may then have to visit a Houngan, who will consult the spirits and make a determination of which loain her husband’s spiritual constellation the wife has offended by her behaviour. The treatment for her husband (so he can become healed and go back to work to take care of his family) may then require the wife to show more love and courtesy to her husband, or in some way affirm his value and that of his protecting spirits.
The other chief route to illness in Haiti is that of spiritual intrusion where a wanga (ritual spell) is worked against an enemy to damage their energy system or. In extreme cases, an expedition morte is used, where the spirit of a dead person is sent to possess and disable the victim.
Shaman Malidoma Some talks of a similar situation among the African Dagara, where special magical darts, invisible to normal men, are left on the ground in the path of an enemy so that they embed themselves in his energy body when he walks over them. They must then be removed by a shaman or the person attacked is certain to die.
In fact, the practice of spiritual attack in this way seems almost universal and is present in the literature pertaining to most tribal peoples. The shamans of New Guinea project the energy of bone and teeth splinters into their enemies in order to do them physical damage. Among the Aborigines of Australia, deaths are avenged using magical techniques to project bone fragments into the spiritual body of the presumed assailant. In a similar way, the Wana shamans of Sulawesi use sharpened bamboo to attack the energetic parallels of the body’s vital organs, while the Eskimos of Alaska use the magically re-animated sinews and skin of dead animals to attack their rivals.
The removal of such spiritual intrusions and the cure of soul loss-related illnesses rely on the strength of the partnership between the Houngan and his helping spirits. In one healing I witnessed, for example, the Eggun (personal spirit) of a Palo priest worked with a woman suffering a machete cut to her hand. Having spontaneously possessed his human host, the spirit called for an orange, cornmeal, and white cloth, and proceeded to rub first the juice of the orange and then the cornmeal into the wound before binding it. The next day the patient, who before could not bend her thumb and thought she had severed the tendon, was able to move the thumb and reported that it did indeed feel better.
Interestingly, this spirit had only been working with the priest for a few months and was considered on a "probationary year." As soon as he returned to his body, the priest asked immediately that his patient monitor the condition of her hand and tell him if the healing proved ineffective. If the spirit could not heal, it would be considered a braggart and of limited value, and so returned to the spirit world as part of a ritual "exorcism" of sorts.
Another method of healing in Vodou and in shamanism might be the use of sacrifice to appease or empower the spirits and give them energy to cure the sick man or woman who is brought to their care.
Sacrifice can be a thorny issue for we in the West, especially as the common stereotype of Vodou suggests a religion overflowing with sacrificial practices.
The reality, however, is that many of us are consumers of animals "sacrificed" to ensure the continuance of our fast-food consumer lifestyle and the killing of these animals is far less humane than in Vodou. Vodou ensures, at least, that the animal is despatched in a sacred way, rather than factory-rearing and then butchering them without thought in order to make a TV dinner we will also eat without thinking about what is on our plates or that an animal has given its life for our nourishment.
Vodou sacrifice, in fact, is rather like a Jewish kosher ceremony, where animals are blessed prior to their slaughter. The blood is then offered to god while the flesh is consumed by the congregation, the ceremony of sacrifice being what makes it sacred.
Despite the stereotypes, however, blood sacrifice in Vodou is actually quite rare. This is not so surprising if you consider that Haiti is a poor Third World country. Many people rely on their animals for eggs, milk, and other commodities that not only necessitate the animals being kept alive, but treated extremely well to ensure they are healthy and can produce. There are few Vodou ceremonies that actually demand such a sacrifice. In most cases, the spirits will accept something much simpler, like cornmeal, an egg (Dambala), rum (Ogoun), or even water (La Siren).
It is, however, considered vital to feed the loa. For, without new energy, they will soon become drained, just as a battery will run down if it is not recharged.
We can, in fact, see many parallels between shamanism and Vodoun, especially in its spiritual and healing practices. Again, this not so surprising since Vodou began as an African shamanic approach, only becoming formalised into a religion during the years of slavery when the African people were forcefully exposed to the European model of spiritual contact. That, indeed, seems to be one of the key differences between shamanism and Vodou - the structure of contact with the gods. Without that, as Maya Deren says, one could easily confound the two.
1. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, Maya Deren, Thames & Hudson 1953, p. 186.
Ross Heaven is a psychologist, author, therapist, TV, radio and magazine contributor, workshop facilitator, and Europe’s first white priest of Haitian Vodou, having initiated into the tradition in January 2000 as part of the research for his books.
He has written numerous articles on psychology, shamanism, Vodou, and the healing traditions, for magazines in America, Europe and the UK, been interviewed by and been reviewed in a number of national newspapers, and been a guest on several radio and television programmes. He has also been called as an expert witness in cases concerning trance states and ritual and acted as a consultant to feature films such as 2004’s London Voodoo. He presents widely on his work and runs workshops in personal development and healing.
He is the author of four widely-acclaimed books on personal development psychology and modern spirituality, including Vodou Shaman, his book on Haitian Vodou, and Darkness Visible, to be published in 2005, which concerns his unique workshops in ceremonial darkness, where participants remain blindfolded for the entire five days of the course.
As well his qualifications in psychology, Ross has trained in various therapeutic approaches and has a healing practice near Brighton in the UK. He has a web site, where you can read articles and book extracts, find out about workshops and catch up on news, at www.VodouShaman.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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