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An American Vodou House

Sosyete du Marche, Inc’s Library

Vodou Worship begins with the Ancestors: The DNA code of life

tombsAncestor 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.

DSCN0773In 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."

MarieLaveauGraveNew 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.Ancestors_Altar

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.



Copyright 1995 - 2016.  Sosyete du Marche, Inc. is a Federally recognized 501c3 church, operating in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Your donations are tax deductible, and go towards supporting Sosyete du Marche, its mission to provide a safe haven for all worshippers, and to help those who need it most. To date, we have led medical missions to the Caribbean, supported Native Americans after Katrina and currently support our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.