Vodou has one deity in their religion, who is known as Bondye. (Olmos, 105) There are three different sides to Bondye, one of which is lwa – this side consists of a wide number of spirits who have their own different personalities, alignments (good or bad) strengths and weaknesses, and their own powers. The spirits usually come from ancestors or other practitioners who are long since dead and gone. - the lwa “provide the link between human and the divine.” (Olmos, 105) Rado and Petro lwa are the good and bad sides of Vodou, respectively; Rado represent peaceful, happy spirits, and the Petro are the ones responsible for bad fortune and black magic. The Vodou practitioner has a very complicated relationship with lwa, and there are several rituals and beliefs that go hand in hand with the practice of this particular religion. Also, both the natural and supernatural elements of Vodou carry a number of kinship patterns that bring the people who practice Vodou together.
Lwa are a very nationalized entity. When the slaves were brought to the Caribbean from Africa, they were split up into various nations; this too happened with the lwa. (Olmos, 106) The lwa would be categorized into nations based on their essential characteristics – the Rado come from ancestral Africa and represent the peaceful ancestors, while the Petro are the vengeful, creolized spirits that were transplanted into the New World, and are angry about it. (Olmos, 106) Every lwa would be tied to a unique nation, just like a family member in Haitian society would be linked to their other family members. This connects the lwa to a nation in much the same way as Haitian families would be tied to their other family members and their community. That sense of individuality and special personality to each community, country and lwa, forms a kinship between members of the community and the families that reside within it. (Olmos, 104)
Lwa also carry quite a bit of importance with the individual as well. A guardian lwa often stays with the Vodou practitioner throughout the entirety of their life and protects them from danger and harm. It will possess the spirit many a time in order to protect it, as well as serve the individual constantly in an effort to keep them safe. (Mitchell, 115) According to Mitchell, “Followers of Vodou remember the different African nations of their forebearers as long lost children remember stern parents” – the lwa help them out in whatever they need of them, despite the fact that destiny has handed them a poor choice in life, considering the harsh circumstances of slavery and the diaspora. (116) Vodou, especially as it concerns the lwa, provides a connection to their homeland, as the good lwa are often thought to be their African ancestors, providing a sense of “human meaning in the community.”
In Haiti in particular, it was very difficult for kinship to be established and maintained. Slave owners and transporters made a deliberate effort to mix up ethnic groups and slaves from different areas in order to demoralize them and remove them completely from all ties to their homeland. (Olmos, 101) This requirement led to the formation of Vodou, as French Catholic culture directly opposed the religions of Africa, which were mostly based on spiritual guidance and unique deities.
The rituals that go into participating in the religion of Vodou connect the practitioner with the supernatural world of the lwas and the rest of the community at large. People in the community who are not blood relation are still considered family en santo, which means “in the spirit.” (Olmos, 51) The rituals that the Vodou practitioner engages in occur in different periods of their life, marking various roles they have within the community and their own life stages. The iyawo is the first year after their initiation, where they pick whether or not they want to be a priest or have private attendance of orishas. The later stages only come after you choose to become a priest. After that, the baba- or iyalocha stage takes place when someone dedicates their lives to the priesthood completely.
The oriate is a unique priest who is in charge of the initiations; a priest can become one of these if he or she wishes. Finally, there is the babalao, which is a specific cultist priest belonging to two specific orishas, Orula or Ifa. This priests is ranked above all others in importance, and is only open to men. (Olmos, 52) All of these steps provide a unique window into becoming an integral part of the community within Vodou, whilst still maintaining the kinship that is experienced as a member. A priest merely maintains a modicum of power and authority, as well as the right to guide young minds and counsel them, not to mention officiate over events.
The family heritage of a Vodou practitioner would heavily weigh on what lwa they would worship. When you are a member of the Vodou community, this involves being in service to the lwa, as well as the community of participants. (Mitchell, 112) The lwa has the ability to possess a Vodou practitioner; often these practitioners can be trained for this eventuality and learn how to behave and control this possession. However, until that point, a person is considered “wild” when an lwa possesses them and they are not trained for it. (Mitchell, 112) The kinship between an individual and their lwa leads them to become the vehicle for the lwa, leading to a further kinship with the congregation, as there are dances and words, as well as advice, used to communicate with them. (Olmos, 103)
Kinship patterns in Haitian and Creole communities are familiar in both their natural and supernatural forms. Family is an important thing in the Haitian community, where every member of a family or community is an integral part of itself. Also, their relationship to the lwa is quite vital to how they perform their rituals, and how they behave as a familial unit. The entire community can think of itself as an extended family, as this kinship extends across the whole town or village, and the family group can have a specific lwa that is served. (Olmos, 51)
According to Olmos, “Africans will also acquire spiritual kinship in an ile-orisha, an extended ritual family which is at once a dwelling place, a place or worship, a family, and a community founded by an initiate called to the priesthood, who has dedicated his or her life to worship and the initiation of others.” (51) The ounfo is the name for the temples that the ile-orisha worship in, and is attached to a temple called an ounfort. (Mitchell, 112) The manbo or oungan presides over the ounfo, keeping the discipline, giving orders and counseling other members of the community – these are the de facto leaders of the community, as far as Vodou practices are concerned. This kind of surrogate family provides a closer type of kinship within Haitian and Vodou communities, and allows them to create deeper relationships with each other and with lwas that they worship.
Previous African mythology did not have this sort of kinship, and therefore the family of orishas was transformed in order to fit this new structure. (Olmos, 38) These kinship groups, according to the African worldview, made one person a part of an immediate family, as well as a member of their orisha, their extended family, and the cycle would continue. (Mitchell, 114)
Lwas are a very important part of Vodou life, and create an interesting parallel between the kinship that Haitians and Creole Africans feel within their communities and to the spirit world. Through ritual and priesthood, Haitian communities can bond further together, becoming extended surrogate families to one another, providing a unity that is seldom found in these areas, much less the rest of the world. The fragmented nature of African life brought about by the diaspora created separated families, and it was harder to create extended bonds of blood. However, with the help of the Vodou religion, and the lwas tying them to their ancestral past, post-diaspora Africans could find a way to make peace with themselves and find a more coherent racial identity.
Mitchell, Mozella G.. Crucial issues in Caribbean religions . New York: Peter Lang, 2006.
Olmos, Margarite, and Lizabeth Gebert. Creole religions of the Caribbean: an introduction from Vodou and SanteriÌa to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University Press, 2003.