Aside from zombies (the actual term in Haitian Creole is zombi), the thing that seems the most off-putting about Voudon is spirit possession. Americans in particular, at least those I’ve conversed on the subject with, can’t wrap their brains around the idea, usually falling back on Hollywood stereotypes (just as they do with “zombies”). Of course this is foolishness on many levels.
Spirit possession is a far more common phenomenon than most people think. Native cultures in Thailand, Ethiopia, Brazil, the Philippines and even here in Alaska – just to name a very few – believe in forms of spirit possession, spirit wandering or both. Why the tenant of spirit possession in Haitian Voudon is so frightening to so many can really only be attributed to ignorance (I’m looking at you and your ilk, Pat Robertson) and the fact that true spirit possession lacks a lot in shock value (your turn, Hollywood).
Spirit possession, or mounting as it is known in Haiti where the individual who is “ridden” by the lwa is called a cheval (horse), is a very real thing to voudonists. In fact, it goes beyond the experiences of the oumphor or temple. It can occur at any time in anyone’s life.
Milo Rigaud, in his book Secrets of Voodoo published in 1953, gives an instructive list on times and situations when an individual lwa might choose to mount a person. Rigaud, who was born in Port-au-Prince in 1903, was a voudonist and life long student of Voudon tradition. He studied ethnology, theology and psychology in France and obtained a law degree in his native Haiti. A brilliant man with much insight into the interweaving of Haitian life and Voudon belief, Rigaud’s book is very much worth your while if you have a serious interest in Voudon, Haiti or both.
Here are the reasons a lwa will possess a person as laid out by Rigaud:
1) To protect him.
2) To confer upon him a power or faculty that he needs for the successful accomplishment of a task, which he does not ordinarily have. [Rigaud gives the example of a man in a shipwreck suddenly being able to swim to shore when he never could swim before.]
3) To permit him to remove himself with supernatural speed.
4) To cure him of illness or to prevent him from suffering.
5) To give him counsel. In this case, those who speak to the possessed person repeat to him the advice that the loa gave during the “loa-crisis”.
6) To give some other person a treatment or simply to prescribe or to compose a remedy.
7) To punish the “horse” for some offense. [This can be a horrible ordeal for the person possessed, including the dislocation of limbs, breaking of bones, utter exhaustion and/or illness and probably comes closest to the Hollywood image of “possession”. It is also exceedingly rare and usually occurs only when the person in question has transgressed beyond anything most people could even imagine.]
8) To point out some forbidden ritual.
9) To give warning of danger threatening an individual or the community.
10) To preside over, or to assist at a ritual ceremony.
11) To come and get a sacrificial offering.
This list gives a clearer picture of spirit possession in the context of Voudon. It might also give one pause; how many of these instances sound like things done by common men throughout history that we have attributed to heroism, bravery, leadership or a deity. Just a thought, after all. Bon Samedi ~
Header: The Voodoo Dance by Granger c 1885