Ancestor worship in Vodou can be defined as any variety of beliefs and practices concerned with spirits of the dead. In ancient times, this was exclusively dead people who were relatives. We all have feelings of loss when a loved one passes over into Ginen or however you define the other side of living. Today's modern religions are sadly equipped to help us understand our feelings and to deal with our losses. Haitian Vodou takes ancestor worship and elevates to a true art form.
Ancestor worship is widely distributed. It is practiced still today in Modern Nigeria and Sudan. In Africa, the dead are divided into three categories - the founders of clans, those who died before there were genealogical records, and the known dead. The founders is an echo of the king worship from ancient Egypt. The Egyptians did not have rites of ancestors, but the royal houses did worship the dead of their royal lines, there by preserving the rites of kingship and familial duty to honor and serve the dead. There are echoes of this in the family grave sites in Haiti, where drink and food is given to those buried in the family compound.
An interesting comparison to an old Samhain rite in British Craft tradition speaks of the Ancient Dead, The Newly Dead and the Unnamed Dead. The ritual pays honor to them, invites them to dine with the living, and to always know that they are remembered and loved. So even the distance of land and sea doesn't alter the need to recognize the ones who have gone before the living. We recognize them because we see ourselves in them. They are the survivors of time and space, still standing guard over us and protecting us.
You are the descendants of those survivors. They were men and women strong enough to fight off illness, danger and thrive. They prospered and ate well enough to bear children and raise them to maturity. Remember that when you feel that your life is too hard, or you just can't make it. You are here today because of your ancestor's will to live; because you have that same will.
In some areas of the world, there are placatory rites for the dead so that they do not haunt the living, or create disturbances. This has more to do with dispensing of emotions than with reverence and honor. Rites such as the Desounnen and Anba Dlo are designed to help the living complete the work of the dying by placing them within the correct sphere of realization. We are not haunted by the dead. We are haunted by ourselves, by our inability to process the current situation (the death) thereby completing the act of transmutation that is symbolized by death. Our real knowledge is of this life, the one we can get our hands around. We can taste, see, feel, hear and smell this life. That is how human beings were designed to analyze the world around them. When we can no longer use our senses to grasp the situation in front of us, when our normal methods of perception are shattered by the realization that we have no analytical tools available, then we fear the thing/situation/idea that we are confronted with.
By looking to the ancestors and accepting their guidance, we have genuine empirical evidence as to the immortality of our existence. We have proof of what happens after the act of death is completed on this plane.
We have no metaphysical bias to prevent us from looking back to the ancestors for the origins and solutions to many of our problems. In simple fact, they are more like us than anyone else. We inherited not only their physical appearance, but also their predominant mental, emotional and spiritual traits. We think and feel like they did; our basic needs are more like theirs were. There are really two sources of holy truth. One is the universe around us, a manifestation of the underlying divine essence. The other is the universe within us, passed down from our ancestors as instinct, emotion, innate predisposition and perhaps even racial memories. By combining these sources of inner and outer wisdom, we can arrive at our own solutions to our questions.
Your ancestors are family members who are still interested in your affairs. Because they have crossed over doesn't mean they aren't curious and willing to help in this life still. If this wasn't the case, then there would be no strong ancestor cults around.
In Mexico, they celebrate Dia de Los Muertos - Day of the Dead in October. Families go the graveyard, clean off the tombs, and have a picnic with their dearly departed. In New Orleans, this custom is observed on November 2, "All Souls Day". There, the dead are feted with special liquors, flowers and cakes, called soul cakes. All the tombs in the Lafayette Cemetery #4 had special libation vessels. I had erroneously thought they were for flowers. Our guide was genuinely shocked when I suggested this possible use. "No ma'am," he answered in a thick New Orleans patois, "that's for sharing drink with the dead. Flowers just get laid on top."
New Orleans is also the place to witness the continual propitiation of the dead - especially at the tomb of Marie Laveau, the Vodou queen. Even the Catholic Church had to admit to her power - they paid for the lovely bronze plaque that marks her tomb in the cemetery. The faithful still leave flowers, alcohol, money and bricked crosses on the walls and ground surround the grave. The belief is that Marie will intercede for you on the other side. And not just tourists leave their pennies and wilted flowers - we saw the priests from the Vodou temple across the street come make an offering of fruit while we stood respectfully off to the side .Marie still holds sway with her flock - or is it because they still need her to do the work from the other side?
In cultures that practice ancestor worship, the living and the dead are quite often related, for death doesn't make you cease to be a member of your family. If your social status made you a member of a group, then you might be remembered in communal rites - those that honor a group or nation of people. Sometimes, if you were a powerful and respected person alive, you keep that attitude, even in death. And quite often, that attitude, that power becomes a predominate feature of the rites performed in your memory. Haitian Vodou is derived from the Kongo rites of Western Africa. The richly ornamented flags, the "crowned" pakets, the elaborately decorated tombs all speak to the kingly processions and accouterments of the royal houses. In Egypt, the ancients were buried in highly stylized tombs, with elaborate coffins and myriad jewels and foods, all designed to keep up the courtly state of affairs. Haitian Vodou has continued this elaborate ornamentation of tombs. Throughout the countryside, family tombs are kept immaculately white washed, with flags and decorations ornamenting the surfaces and walls. There are often chairs to sit in, so you can "visit" with the dead. When entering a new lakou in Haiti, it is considered appropriate and respectful to first approach the family tombs and pour water - thus honoring the oldest and most knowledgeable of the family first.
A point to remember is that rituals nearly always reflect the society or persons they are meant to uphold or remember in life.
Sometimes, one person so combined in his image all the qualities desired in a worthy ancestor, that he was no longer regarded as a deceased ancestor, but elevated to the status of a god. In the Third Dynasty of ancient Egypt, the architect Imhotep designed the Step Pyramid of Saqqara. So great were his accomplishments - architecture, medicine, art and science - that by the Eighteenth Dynasty, he was no longer regarded as a man, but as a god. In the Haitian world view, family members of great strength or wisdom are revered at special times throughout the year - their birthday, an anniversary, at Fet Gede. Through successive generations, they eventually become Lwa, served and feted along side others like Ogou and Freda.
So what is the benefit of revering your ancestors in Vodou? To begin with, some scholars believe that ancestors are "anthropocentric conceptions" meaning they have the capabilities and personalities that we do, added to which is a supernatural potency. In simple terms, they are us, but more powerful. They live, love, understand and communicate with us, while simultaneously existing on another plane of reality. Maintaining communion with them reflects on our need to have continuity in this life as well as intercession with higher levels of consciousness. Whether ancestral spirits are gods or intermediaries, communion with them is a form of transcendence of ordinary states of existence. This can be either the conscious or unconscious goal of the act of devotion.
We always tell our students to begin their journey into Vodou by building an ancestor altar. There are as many way of doing this as there are people actually doing it. Some basics: A space separate from the rest of the house. This is to show reverence and to allow a quiet atmosphere. White is the color of the Ancestors, symbolizing purity and spirit. Photos of the dearly departed, a white candle, a bowl of fresh water. Sit quietly and gaze at the pictures. Realize this is where you came from, and where you too, will eventually go. Please don't focus on things like "I never liked this uncle" or "my father hated me". A waste of time and it doesn't mean anything or have value in this religious practice. Vodou has some basic rules and ancestors is one of them. You may not like them, but they are yours, and their interest in you in preordained to be about you. So take that energy and use it!
Focus on the positive - that same uncle may have been a whiz at business. Your father might have had tough feelings for you, but he's gone now, and in a place where if he did do something bad, he's got to make recompense for it. They must look out for you -. And to focus on the negative doesn't help you. I know some folks want non-blood or unrelated ancestors. That's fine, but they are not in the same position to help you - they have their own relatives to focus on.
How do I know this - by all the years of practice that have gone before me. Because Reglemen tells me this is so. And because at a recent fet for Mambo Erzulie Freda, she pointedly chastised one of the Sosyete members for having a loan with a "stranger". "Why didn't you go to your papa!" she scolded. "You don't go to strangers! You stay in the family! They will watch out for you! No stranger will do that!" It made me think of Karen McCarthy Brown's book Mama Lola. In one chapter, Mama Lola chided her folks, "You in you in. You out, you out."
Ayibobo to that statement. Pay attention to your dead - they are everlasting and ever loving to you, regardless. Pay them attention, and you will always have love on your side.