A letter of appreciation for Manbo Maude and Houngan Matt


First off, @rockofeyeblog I’m totally stealing your idea and writing my own thoughts about the people in the house who’ve influenced me 🙂

My involvement with Vodou all started with a book.

I was living in Jacksonville, FL about 7 years ago. I was a semi-practicing pagan/witch/whatever, but it was hard for me because I always felt something was missing. I’d been a practicing Catholic all my life and I always found myself returning to the old prayers and thinking about the saints. Really, the only reason I went towards witchcraft was my belief in tarot cards and magic, and I didn’t see a way I could continue to practice Catholicism and do magical work.

I was in the local library and found this book by a gentleman named Kenaz Filan called (appropriately) _Haitian Vodou_. Now, I’m someone who likes to read about new and interesting spiritual practices, so I checked out the book. I read it, thought, “Well that was interesting,” and moved on.

But sometime later I happened to find the book again. I was at a point in my life where I had a good job as a nurse but I was deeply in debt and I couldn’t get a handle on it. In the book I read about the spirit named Agwe, the king of the ocean, and his wife La Sirene. The book said that these spirits were very wealthy. In my pagan way of thinking, I thought “I can call on these spirits just like any other god and work with them.”

Ha ha ha.

I set up an altar to both spirits with the things that the book said the spirits liked: champagne, cake, fruit, candles. I bought La Sirene some jewelry. I bought Agwe some cologne. I prayed to them and said “Hey, could you bring me some money?” I did not know if they would respond or just ignore me.

They responded, but not like I thought. They started talking, and they haven’t stopped since.

When I say “they”, I mean the spirits just started coming out of the woodwork. I had dreams about Gede showing me his offering bottles. I had dreams of Ti Jean Dantor. Ezili Dantor. They just kept coming. By this time I’d made contact with Kenaz and he was helping me understand some of the dreams.

Jacksonville is not known for its Haitian population so I didn’t have any in real life contacts there. Then my life changed.

Due to some trouble at work where someone hexed/jinxed me, I left that job and decided to move back to Massachusetts, my home state. My parents were already living back there. When I moved back I did a Web search for Vodou in Boston. I found a mailing list for Boston Vodouisants and then I met a man named Adam, a houngan in a local sosyete. I knew by then that I needed a reading to determine where and how to go in this tradition. Adam said, “I can give you a reading but you should really go to my mother because she’s the best.” He gave me the number for Manbo Maude.

The day I met her was the day of my grandmother’s wake. I went to see her on a very cold December morning; I was all dressed up to go to the funeral home right after our appointment. Maude was warm and welcoming. She read my cards and looked at me and said, “You have a lot of spirits!”

Thus began a beautiful relationship, myself and Maude. She invited me to my first fete. She spent many hours on the phone with me, reassuring me that my experiences and dreams weren’t crazy. She was endlessly patient.

When I did my spiritual marriage to the spirits, she walked me right through it and helped make it a beautiful ceremony.

When I hit my lowest point and wound up in a mental hospital, wondering if the lwa had abandoned me due to my own stupid actions, she spoke to me even though she was hurt by my actions. She forgave me and prayed for my recovery.

When I was studying to do kanzo, she was a patient and thorough teacher. When I made it to Haiti she welcomed me and made my visit (at least the part before kanzo) comfortable and hospitable.

I can’t talk about what happened during kanzo, but my respect and love for Maude tripled during that process. She is a juggernaut and so worthy of respect. She walks in power and yet she has not a shred of arrogance in her.

She inspires me to become a leader. That is the mark of a true leader, IMHO; someone who creates more leaders.

On a different note, I also have to talk about my brother Houngan Matt. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love this man. He is patient, creative, and hilariously funny. I can’t believe how much I’ve learned from him, whether it’s how to decorate a beautiful altar or the finer appreciation of shoes (omigod SHOEZ). He reassures me when I’m feeling insecure, encourages me when I’m hesitant, and reminds me to pull my head out of my ass.

Much love to both Manmi Maude and Houngan Matt. I hope to be 25% as awesome as you both are one day.

Intro to Haitian Vodou: What it Is, and What it Definitely Is Not

When someone says “voodoo” to you, what do you think of?

Zombies? Blood sacrifice? Moonlight orgies? That James Bond film where the pretty white lady is tied up as the scary Haitians invoke their nefarious Baron Samedi?

This is the image of Haiti and its religion that has been portrayed in pop culture. It’s bloody, it’s scary, and frankly, it was invented by white people who didn’t understand.

(Yes, I know Not All White People, etc, etc, blah blah. This is my blog and I’m going to call it like I see it. I’m white, by the way 🙂 )

I am not Haitian or black. I never will be. I came to this religion as an outsider and, in a way, I will always be a bit of an outsider. That’s OK by me. Haitians have every reason to distrust outsiders. Outsiders have this bad habit of being “seagulls”. As in, they fly in, shit all over everything, and fly out again.

So how to explain this beautiful and complex faith? Let’s start with some basics about what Vodou is and isn’t.

  1. Vodou is a monotheistic faith – Vodouisants (pronounced “voo-dwee-ZANT”, people who practice Vodou) worship one God, the same God that Christians worship. He is Bondye (bohn-DYAY), or “Good God”. He created the universe and everything (and everyone) in it. However, He is so busy running life, the universe, and everything that He doesn’t have much time to deal with humans. So Bondye created the Lwa.
  2. Vodou believes in many spirits, called Lwa – Lwa is single and plural (one lwa, two lwa, etc). The word means “spirit”. Lwa are the intermediaries between Bondye and humans. There are hundreds and hundreds of lwa. They come from all different places: some from the Dahomey people of Africa, some from the Congo, some from Benin, some from the native Arawak Indians in Haiti. They are vast and powerful, yet they will readily come down to interact with and help humans.
  3. Haitian Vodou started in Africa – It started with the Fon and Dahomey people in what is now the country of Benin. It has Congo and Ibo influences. African Vodou became Haitian with the arrival of millions of slaves in the Western Hemisphere. They were forced to practice Catholicism, but they secretly maintained their beliefs in spirits.
  4. Haitian Vodou does involve spirit possession and animal sacrifice – Possession and animal sacrifice are going to each take up at least one blog entry, but these two components are definitely a part of Haitian Vodou. But it’s not as scary as it sounds!
  5. Haitian Vodou is a community faith, a family faith – You cannot practice Vodou on your own. You need a community to back you up. The pain and torture of slavery tore apart many families, so Haitians banded together into Vodou houses (a house, sosyete, and family are all synonyms for a group of Vodou practitioners of a particular lineage) which became the only families these slaves had. The tradition continues today where member initiates of the same house will call each other brother and sister, and the head of the house will be the mama or papa.

Let’s look at a few of the things that Vodou is NOT.

  1. Vodou is not devil worship – The Devil is a Christian invention. The lwa are not “evil” or devils. Vodouisants worship God and God alone.
  2. Vodou is not Hoodoo – Hoodoo is a magical practice based on African-American Protestant Christian beliefs. It is not a religion; most practitioners of Hoodoo have Christian beliefs.
  3. Santeria, Lukumi, Wicca, Witchcraft – Those are all separate religions and practices. Lukumi (or Santeria, as it’s been called) is an African diasporic religion, which means it was brought to what is now Cuba by African slaves, in the same way slaves brought Vodou to Haiti. But the lwa and the orisha (Lukumi spirits) are different spirits from different parts of Africa.
  4. Vodou does not practice human sacrifice – Vodou is about healing humanity; how can you do that through killing people? Human sacrifice belongs in horror movies, not Vodou.
  5. Vodou is not necessarily a democratic faith – There is hierarchy and rank in Vodou, amongst the spirits and amongst the human participants. This isn’t like Wicca where everyone can become a priest. Initiation and priesthood is not for everyone in Vodou; indeed, most practitioners are not initiates. Just like anyone can be a Catholic but not everyone can be a Catholic priest, it works the same way in Vodou.

Those are some basics. I will be expanding upon many of these points in later blog entries, but feel free to ask questions in the comments or you can email me: manbomary at gmail dot com.