Get to Know a Lwa: Gede!

Bonjou zanmi:

We come from the ancestors and the dead. They are our roots. They were once alive like we are, and one day we will join them in the land of the dead.

Today is Halloween, a celebration of ghosts, ghouls, and witches (and lots of candy). But tomorrow, November 1, is the Christian feast of All Saints. The next day, November 2, is the feast of All Souls, the day when we celebrate all those of our families who have joined the ancestors. This time of year belongs to Gede (pronounced “Geh-Day”), the Haitian Vodou lwa of the dead.

Venerating the dead and the ancestors is the world’s oldest religious practice. Traditionally, at this time of year, the veil that separates our world from the ancestral world is the thinnest, which means not only that it is easier for us to access the ancestors and dead, but also that it’s easier for them to access us.

What do Vodouisants believe about death? Most Vodou practitioners are Catholic, so the beliefs in heaven and hell are there. After someone dies, they can become a beloved ancestor and we can pray for them and to them, asking for their ongoing protection and wisdom. But there are those humans that died violently, that weren’t given a proper burial, that have since been forgotten by their families and friends. Instead of those lonely souls being condemned to wander eternity alone, Papa Gede takes them into the Gede family and they have a place in the Vodou pantheon.

You may have heard the name Baron Samedi (and that name is pronounced “Sahm-Dee”, by the way). He’s very popular in New Orleans as well as in Haiti. He’s often pictured as a skeletal man with a black top hat, a white or powdered face, and a cane. Barons (or “Bawon”, to give it the Haitian pronunciation) are the bosses of the Gede family and there are many of them; they all have different functions too. Think of it like the Ezili group of lwa: each Ezili has a different name and they do different things.

The saint that is associated with Gede in my lineage is St. Gerard Majella:


Note that he is a pale young man holding a cross, and note the skull in the lower left hand corner. Classic Gede imagery 🙂

During a Vodou fet, the Gede spirits can show up at any time during the fet; after all, death can come at any time. However, we *salute* Gede at the end of the evening. After what can be a long night of salutes, dancing, singing, and prayer, the antics of the Gede can be a lighthearted finish.

Gede is very….irreverent. He is loud. He doesn’t care AT ALL about social convention or manners. He treats everyone exactly the same, not caring for rank, money, or position. He cracks dirty jokes and every other word out of his mouth is a profanity. He dances the banda, a dirty hip-swiveling dance that looks like sex. He humps every object (and person) in the room. He swigs his special drink, piman, (a white rum concoction made with scotch bonnet peppers; most Gede take this drink, but he can drink other things depending on which Gede he is) and rubs the spicy liquid on his face and genitals. He’ll smoke multiple cigarettes at once. He’ll eat glass and fire (he’ll eat most anything, actually; he’s always hungry).

But his jokes hold wisdom. He always tells the truth, but he may tell it in the form of a riddle. If you want the straight skivvy on anything, ask Gede; he sees everything in both our world and his world.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog that it’s important to have a reading with a priest or priestess to determine which lwa walk with you before you start serving them. However, since we all die, we all have a Gede walking with us; you may not know which one exactly, but he’s there.

How can you work with Gede? To start, you really need to be working with your ancestors. The ancestors are your first line of defense, after God. Set up a quiet space for them, on a bookshelf or a nice table. Put out a glass of clear water and a white candle. If that’s all you can set up for them, that’s fine. You can add pictures of your dead relatives if you have them (only put out pictures of the dead on an ancestor altar; do NOT put living people there; you don’t want your living loved ones to join the ancestors too soon). Pray there; ask your ancestors for help and guidance. Say the rosary if you’re Catholic. Years ago, I found some old prayer cards with prayers for the forgotten dead and beloved dead; I use those on my ancestor altar.

Once you get a good ancestor practice built up, consider setting aside a separate altar space for Gede. You don’t want him on the same table as your ancestors; trust me, you don’t want Gede telling his dirty jokes around your dead grandma. You can put Gede on the floor or the bottom shelf of your altar, if you have one. Keep him separate from the other lwa. You can give him a bottle of white rum, or you can make a basic piman by adding 21 scotch bonnet peppers to the bottle. Cut the pepper in 4 slices while leaving it attached to the stem, then shove it in the bottle.

Talk to him. Ask him for his wisdom. He takes the colors black, white, and purple. He’ll eat nearly anything, but make sure his food is spicy.

These are just some basics with Gede; if you want more specific info, or want a reading to determine which Gede walk with you, feel free to contact me. Kwa!