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Photos and slideshow
|At the end of February I went to visit Vodou priest Houngan Hector of the Sosyete Gade Nou Leve (‘Watch us Rise Society’) in New Jersey for a Lave Tet ceremony. Hector is a Houngan Asogwe in Haitian Vodou and also works in the Sanse, Dominican Vodou and Mesa Blanca traditions. You can read what he has to say about the Lave Tet ceremony here
After the three days of the ceremony were over a ‘party’ (what we at CUPS would call an open ritual) was held to celebrate and thank the lwa (spirits) for their assistance. I am not here to discuss my Lave Tet but I would like to share my experiences of the party with you, since they are very different to the kind of ceremony we Brits normally see. Any errors are my own.
The party was to be held at Hector’s family home, although for larger ceremonies he might have hired a hall. First the room was cleaned thoroughly with help from the Sosyete members, and the altar table (a lot of space would be needed for all the necessary paraphernalia) was set up. Although one may perform Vodou without props, at a party of this nature the lwa are expected to visit in person through possession, and when they come certain drinks, coloured cloths, perfumes etc. are traditionally provided – in much the same way that one may wish to furnish a king or queen with their favourite food if they honour one’s house with their presence.
A pristine white table cloth was spread out on the altar and a beautiful white canopy was stapled to the ceiling above it. A gorgeous yellow and blue statue of Mary was placed in the centre and surrounded by flowers, coloured cloths, perfume bottles, favourite beverages and at least four different cakes, all of which were very beautiful and costly (see photograph, left). The House members were dressed in white and the women complemented their dresses or skirts with white satin head scarves, although this is not a prerequisite. Meanwhile, two huge platters of food were brought in and placed in the oven to keep warm, while crates of beer, water, Pepsi and other soft drinks were unloaded into a large ice bucket for the guests (the party would play host to a full house, many participants having travelled some distance to be there, and although none of them paid to see the ceremony, all must be fed).
Although larger parties might hire a Haitian drumming ensemble, these are not actually required and can be very costly. In this case there were no drummers, but as I quickly came to discover the atmosphere buzzes simply with the sacred songs, the shake of the rattle and the awed exclamations of the crowd as the lwa appear.
When it was time to begin the ceremony the Houngan spoke the Lord’s Prayer three times, followed by three Hail Marys. This is done in order to honour God or Bondye as is traditional in Vodou. Many Vodouisants are also Catholic, and the Houngan recommends that we attend church or at least remind ourselves that there is a higher power of some sort (the stress is on God first, then Gineh, the lwa, second). This may seem very strange to us coming from a Pagan standpoint, especially if we are polytheists used to working within a particular pantheon, all of which are ‘gods’, but it has to be made clear that in Vodou the spirits derive their power from God and are not deities in their own right. For this reason the lwa are often likened to angels or saints; indeed for every lwa there is a Catholic ‘mask’. They are not usually seen as identical to the saint used to depict them however; Damballah, for example, is represented by images of St Patrick, not because he and St Patrick are similar but because there are snakes in St Patrick’s icon.
After the Lord’s Prayer and a litany the Houngan began the Priye Ginen, which is a beautiful mix of langaj (the sacred language of Vodou) and Kreyol. Nobody knows what some of the words in langaj actually mean. The song creates a sacred space and works by call and answer. It can be very long, and will vary according to the Sosyete; for this reason it is not always easy to find examples of the Priye online. The beautiful melodies, call and answer, and occasional exclamation reminded me just a little of being at church, only more colourful and much more exciting. As the unfamiliar words continued I felt that the already friendly atmosphere was beginning to heat up.
At a particular point during the party, it became time for salutes to be made to the lwa. An initiate is provided with the sacred rattle, and a special cloth known as a moushwa in the lwa’s sacred colour is draped around his/her neck. They are joined by one person holding a white candle and another person holding (for example) Florida Water or rum. They salute in a complex manoeuvre that is a lot harder than it looks, involving spinning and rattling in the four directions (“because we do not known from which direction the spirits may come”), followed by the altar (or in Legba’s case, the door). The rum or other liquid is poured out in three drops before the altar and the lwa’s sacred song called out. At this point, it is hoped, possession will occur, though Damballah Wedo (the snake lwa, and father to all others) must come first if his children are to follow.