The Cycles of the Haitian Vodou Ceremony

In this blog entry, Benjamin Hebblethwaite, author of Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English, describes a recent vodou ceremony he attended at Société Linto Roi in Miami.

In this blog I want to tell you about the gorgeous beauty of Vodou, a systematic Haitian religion with roots in the Vodun of West and Central Africa. The ceremony and its rituals, music, dance, and possession events are key expressions of the Vodou religious and cultural system. The periodic Vodou ceremonies I have attended at Société Linto Roi in Miami, most recently on the eve of January 2nd and morning of January 3rd, 2012, are riveting experiences that start at 9 p.m. and go beyond 6 a.m. The ceremonies are literally founded on continuous drumming, singing, dancing, and ritualizing that leads to short and long possession events.

Kongo-style Vodou drum (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

The ason rattles hang from the center post (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

 The white attire worn by the initiates, the temple’s most active members, indicated that the Rada rite of Dahomian origin, with its regimented line of Dahomian lwa (spirits), would begin the evening’s worship. Later in the evening, when the focus shifted to the Petwo-Kongo rite, the participants changed and wore multicolored attire. The oungenikon (the choir leader) led the songs and shook the sacred rattle and bells (ason ak klochèt) while the ounsi (initiated choir members) responded in song and dance. Four drummers thundered taught rhythms, intensifying their beating to heighten spiritual energy and urgency. The ountogi (drummers) are central as they pound the lwa into the heads of the Vodouists. As the music filled the temple with its cathartic power, the priests and priestesses—there are usually several working in tandem—began cycles of ritualizingthat endured throughout the ceremony.

A vèvè symbol consecrates the ceremony (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

Each lwa in the Rada or Petwo-Kongo pantheon receives a handful of songs. As each spirit receives her or his allotted songs and praise, priests and priestesses skillfully wield their rattles and bells as they salute and honor the major stations of the Vodou temple: the drummers and drums, the center post (potomitan) which is the conduit of the lwa, the altar, and the audience. The salutation of each station—renewed with each new cycle of songs to a specific lwa—entails the synchronized dancing and ason-work of the priests and priestesses. The rattle and bells are held forward and shaken in unison; the priests or priestesses gracefully twirl, dance, dip and bow as they approach each station. At the station, the ason is shaken and touches the parts of the station, rum or water libations are poured out, gulps of rum are vaporized into a fine mist, candles are lit, and, in the case of the drummers, bowing takes place in which the head touches the ground.

The colorful attire indicates the Petwo-Kongo rite; the manbo salutes the drums (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

The manbo salute the center post on which the serpent lwa Danbala and Ayida Wèdo are painted (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

The Vodou ceremony is cyclical ritualizing and dancing. For each lwa called upon—for example, Legba, Marasa, Ayizan, Loko, Danbala, Agawou, Agwe, Azaka and so forth—a series of songs are sung and the stations of the temple are saluted with renewed vigor. Although the lwa, the songs, and the rhythms change throughout the ceremony, the salutation of the stations in the Vodou temple remains constant. Cutting through the cyclical nature of the ceremony is the cyclical nature of Vodou songs which are condensed statements on the lwa and the Vodou universe expressed in 4-8 lines. The songs are cyclical as the lines are repeated; at the same time the lines of the songs can be slightly embellished as they recur. The salutation of the stations of the Vodou temple cycle from lwa to lwa; however, unique ritual elements specific to the honored lwa are expressed in each cycle. For example, candy is presented to the audience during the cycle for the Marasa (the Divine Twins) and a sword is presented during the one for Ogou. Another important cycle in Vodou is the dancing and worship that moves counterclockwise around the center post (potomitan).

The cyclical structure of the ceremony, of the songs and rhythms, and of the dancing around the center post all serve Vodou’s primary objective: to be the launch pad for possession by the Vodou lwa (spirits). They often appear in the sequence of ritual in which they are heralded, and they dance in the heads of those they ride, expressing their traits, traditions, wisdom and energies. Atibon Legba, the ancient one, comes stooped over a crutch, blessing worshippers who bow before him; the wide-eyed Èzili Dantò, exuding power, pain and strength, tightly grasps daggers at each side; Danbala Wèdo, the serpent lwa, writhes silently on the ground and is covered with a white sheet by worshipers. The appearance of the lwa is a sacred narrative that inserts itself into the course of worship. The various forms of cyclicity in Vodou ceremonies serve to insistently call upon the appearance of sacred narrative—possession.

The white attire indicates the Rada rite; Danbala has possessed a worshiper (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

Danbala is covered with a white sheet as he writhes toward the altar room (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

Our book, Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English, is a diverse collection of texts that stem from Haitian Creole Vodou worship. The songs span Haitian and pre-Haitian history and preserve the sacred traditions from the African nations that Haitians descend from. As the Vodou ceremony is grounded in song, including during possession events, they are literally the main body of the religion’s sacred literature. The mythologies, histories, epistles, prophesies, and commandments of religions like Islam, Christianity or Judaism are not found in Vodou sacred literature; instead, songs and prayers dominate the religion’s literary output. To know Vodou theology, mythology, history, culture, and language and to grasp Vodou ceremonies, one should read, listen to, and sing Vodou songs. The songs repetitively cycle in order to heighten trance states of mind and open the way for possession performance. Vodou ceremonies and songs are beautifully preserved illustrations of the African wing of humanity—the cyclical structure of Vodou worship is a unique dimension of this sublime World Religion.

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