Sunday, October 23, 2005

Vodou lwa

From The VODOU Page Vodou is often misunderstood as being polytheistic, syncretic, or animistic. These misconceptions will be cleared up as we discuss the characteristics of the lwa. Vodouisants believe in one God, called Gran Met, or Great Master. This God is all powerful, all knowing, but regrettably he is considered to be sometimes distant and detached from human affairs. He is nevertheless ever present in the daily speech of Haitians, who never say, "See you tomorrow", without adding "if God wants". The lwa are lesser entities, but more readily accessible. Aside from a generalized love for the children of Africa, the lwa require a mutual relationship with the worshipper. The lwa serve those who serve them. Lwa have well defined characteristics, including sacred numbers, colors, days, ceremonial foods, speech mannerisms, and ritual objects. A lwa, therefore, can be served by wearing clothes of the lwa's colors, making offerings of preferred foods, and observing sexual continence on days sacred to the lwa. Many lwa are archetypal figures represented in many cultures. For example, Erzulie Freda is a love goddess comparable to Venus, Legba is a lwa of communication comparable to Hermes or Mercury. These correspondences, and sometimes pure coincidence, have led Haitians to see parallels between aspects of the lwa and images of Roman Catholic saints as they are represented in popular lithographs. During the days of French colonialism, when the majority of black people in Haiti were slaves who had been born in Africa, worship of the saints provided a convenient cover for the service of African gods and goddesses. Even the priere Guinea, a long prayer recited near the beginning of orthodox Vodou ceremonies, incorporates verses about the Virgin Mary and various saints. This does not mean, however, that the lwa have been syncretized with the Catholic saints. No one confuses Ogoun Feraille with St. James the Greater, it is simply the image that is used. If St. James is invoked, he is considered different from Ogoun. Although the priere Guinea incorporates verses about Catholic entities, no one confuses a Vodou ceremony held in a peristyle with a Catholic service. John Murphy, in his book Santeria, proposes that symbiosis might be a more accurate term than syncretism. Lwa are sometimes considered to reside in trees, stones, or rarely the bodies of animals. However, the lwa in the tree is not the lwa of the tree, and ceremonies conducted at the foot of the tree are directed at the lwa, not at any animistic principle of life energy pertaining to the tree. Vodou lwa manifest their will through dreams, unusual incidents, and through the mechanism of trance possession. Possession is considered normal, natural, and desirable in the context of a Vodou ceremony and under certain other circumstances. It is comparable to the New Age phenomenon of "channeling". Lwa manifesting through possession sing, dance, tell jokes, heal the sick, and give advice.

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