There is the idea that when you enter into a holy space, be it a shrine or a historically holy place or an otherwise sanctified space, you are seen by the Divine and the experience changes you, be it ‘just’ from witnessing the Divine or by Their direct intervention or what have you. Going to a Fet Gede definitely falls within the purview of that idea and, as I got ready to attend, this concept was on my mind.
I had wanted to write about the Fet right away so that I would get my first impressions and experiences down before they faded. I had intended to do so on the train ride home from Boston, but I found myself so tired that I both could not string together complete sentences and, as the cliché goes, and I couldn’t even sleep. I got home this morning around 9:30AM and I don’t even remember laying down in bed. This is a bit of a feat for someone who has been working the graveyard shift for over a year and a half.
I wrote a five page play-by-play, but I think that’s mostly for me and my remembering of how things happened. There were a few interesting things that I thought I’d note here, though.
As is traditional with a Fet, it opened with the priye, which is the opening prayer. I was told by my contact for the evening that the manbo would be doing a shortened version of the priye, as she did not have her full retinue with her which meant that she would be doing it all on her own. The priye began promptly at 9PM and lasted roughly 45 minutes. I’ve been to rituals and services shorter than that.
It was truly amazing, though. Everyone that you could think of was named and prayed to in the appropriate manner, from the ancestors to the Saints to the Lwa themselves. When it was about halfway through, I realized why the manbo had shortened it. She did all of the singing, though some of it was call and response, and shook a rattle and a bell for the entire ~45 minutes with stops only to take a drink of water. Can you shake a rattle in prescribed patterns for 45 minutes without your hand breaking off?
There was also a moment during the priye when the back of my head blew open. I had no idea what was said during that part, as it was in Haitian Kreyol, but I know that it was different than the part before it due to the shift in meter, tone, and rattle-shaking. I became painfully aware of the overwhelming presence in the room and I did a lot of praying of my own. Anyone can be possessed at a Fet and, while it is unusual, it would not be out of place entirely for a non-initiate to be ridden. I, however, really didn’t want to be ridden unless I was a horse of last resort. I have only been possessed once before and it was the exact opposite of a happy, pleasant experience. I was not in a hurry to have a repeat performance in a room full of people I didn’t know. Blessedly, the prayers took hold and my head either closed itself up or Those Who watch over me said ‘not tonight’. Either way, I did not get ridden and I was pleased about that. There were a hot few minutes of panic, though, when I could feel the press on the back of my head and I sat in my chair and trembled.
The possessions were like nothing I have ever seen before, which is a bit significant. I tried to count up how many possessions I’ve seen over the years and I stopped when I got to twenty because I had made my point to myself. None of them looked like this, though.
If I had to classify the possessions I saw, they would by and large be placed under the heading of ‘violent’. The only truly calm possession I saw was when Damballah Wedo came down, which is unsurprising. The rest of them were mostly very harsh. When Ezili Freda came, She moved among several people. The first person She went to after Her initial host was someone who has at least six inches of height on me and She threw his body into the air, dropped him to the ground, and then had his body leap up to dance before jumping to a woman next to me who did something very similar.
Bossou, who is also known as a bull, ran from person-to-person as well. He landed in one woman’s body and, as He danced, He touched the forehead of a person next to Him and jumped into his body. When Agwe arrived, He possessed two people at once—the person doing His salute and a random bystander. One of my most memorable moments was seeing the song mistress [not her official title, but I don't know what her position is called], a very short, round Haitian woman, leaning against a writhing, dancing man to hold him back while she is belting out a praise song to Agwe in Kreyol, all while wearing a beautiful white dress.
There was one possession that went kind of sideways, though. An Ogou arrived—not sure which one, as it is a large family—and They threw themselves on an attendee. Once They were pulled off and redirected to do whatever it is that They were to do, They ran at someone else and ended up being put down on the ground. Almost immediately, an assistant was on Them and was asperging Them with rum. I was told later that this was an offering to cool the Spirit’s intentions, but it didn’t work. They didn’t comply with whatever was being requested of Them, so the manbo stepped in. It should be noted that, for the nine hours the Fet lasted, this was the only time I saw the manbo deal with a Spirit in any way but to receive a blessing from Them.
However, she got right up in Their business. She took the rum from the assistant, spat some rum down herself, and the two of them got to talking. She read Them out, from what I could tell, and seemed to say that what They were doing was not welcome. She punctuated her sentence with a large ‘no’ and then stood there and shook her head at Them with her hands on her hips. This petite Haitian woman in a lovely white gown stood over this Spirit and gave Them the damn ‘you-done-messed-up’ eye. Her presence filled the room and it was incredible to watch. Unsurprisingly, They left almost immediately.
The gender split was interesting, too. I had brought ritual whites with me in case I needed them. The liturgical colors for a Fet Gede are black/purple/white, so they weren’t necessary, but I am a just-in-case kind of guy. Once the Fet started, I was very glad I hadn’t worn them, as the dress for the different genders was unexpected. The male-assigned folks wore jeans and an appropriately colored shirt [white for the first portion and then black for the Gede portion] while the women wore these incrediblly complex and ornate dresses—white with many embellishments and a matching headwrap for the first part and then black/purple/white dresses with black or purple headwraps for the second half. I would have been completely underdressed in what I had with me. It would have been incredibly ambiguous, which would have been bizarrely appropriate, but I would have been very uncomfortable.
It’s also worth noting that 98% of the possessions were done by women—only two men were taken all night. I asked my Houngan friend whose house this was [sadly, he wasn't able to be there this time] about that and he said it was really a matter of who needed what from the Lwa. We talked about possession in an ATR context and it has a very different philosophy than what I’ve been with a lot of polytheists. Horsing is not considered any kind of honor, nor is anyone thought of as gifted for it. Anyone can horse and to be used as such means you need to interact with that Lwa or Ghede less than others present do. It doesn’t make any person special or well thought of by the Powers or anything more than the nearest hammer that can hit the nails. In this tradition, there’s no preparation needed or special talents required beyond getting yourself in the door. The Lwa do the rest. It would be nice if the polytheist world could pick this up…
I was incredibly impressed with how well everything was organized and planned out. Everyone involved with throwing the Fet knew exactly what was to happen when, whether it was what Spirit was to be saluted next or what song was to come after the one prior. There were no questions and no obvious ‘backstage’ issues. I mentioned this to my friend the Houngan, who came to the Lwa from general paganism, and his response was ‘welcome to vodou’. There are ways to do everything and anything, apparently, and being a member of a soseyete means you learn those ways. It was a serious difference from all the pagan and polytheist things I’ve been to over the years. It seriously made pretty much everything else look amateur in comparison and way very humbling in that way.
In that vein, the people themselves were out of this world. I mean, the manbo sang a 45 minute priye without one flub or unscripted pause. The song mistress sang for just about eight hours off the top of her head. She knew exactly what song came next, shook the rattle and bell the entire time, and managed to assist with crowd control at the same time. It was astounding—I have never met a pagan or a polytheist who can pull that off, ever. It doesn’t hurt that she’s been doing what she does since she was a child, but still. The assistants needed no direction beyond poking their heads out of the preparatory room to see how the Spirit being saluted was faring, if They were there, so they could time the next salute. The drummers were insanely good and I have never seen anyone drum like they did before. One of them was clearly touched by the Divine—you could see it all over him when he played. They were just phenomenal. Overall, the house’s preparation was boggling—they had exactly what each Spirit wanted or needed without question, right down to having likely over a hundred bottles of available alcohol between the main altar and the preparatory room. Having seen and participated in the behind the scenes stuff for rituals and services, I can appreciate how much work this took. It was far beyond anything I have ever witnessed before, even Christian church services.
My own bias came flying out in my own head, though. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier, but the whole service from start to finish was done in Haitian Kreyol. The manbo did a general welcome-I-hope-you-have-a-good-time thing in the beginning, but that was the last time I heard English all night unless I asked someone a question or spoke to another person in English. The Spirits did not speak English at all, either, no matter whether you spoke Kreyol or not. If there wasn’t someone nearby who could translate for you if They spoke to you, too damn bad for you. It was a sobering reminder of how culturally focused I can be—it didn’t even occur to me that the liturgical language would not be in English and that there would be no exceptions made. Happily, my Houngan friend has sent me a ‘how to speak Haitian Kreyol’ program, as he didn’t speak Kreyol prior to his initiation.
The biggest thing that came about for me, though, was an apparent addition to my own personal Powers. None of the Lwa spoke to me during the Fet and the Ghede largely ignored me save for feeding me, blowing smoke in my face, and shaking both my hands. When the Fet was over and all the Ghede had left [or so I thought], I ventured up into the house to grab my things so I could go home. Instead of just grabbing my backpack and exiting, I found myself face-to-face with a still-embodied Papa Ghede.
He started speaking to me and I am incredibly thankful that my look of distress was loud enough that someone nearby came over and translated. He thanked me for coming, noted that He was very happy to see me there and that He had been walking with me, and would I come back and see Him again?
I assured Him that I would be more than pleased to come and see Him again and that I was honored to speak with Him. He shook my hands again, patted me on the shoulder, and turned His attention elsewhere. I made my excuses and headed home with a bit of a heavy feeling in my stomach. I had some questions, but the manbo was indisposed [seeing as Papa Ghede was riding her] and everyone else was dragging at 6AM. When I got home, I shot a message to my Houngan friend that basically amounted to ‘what the fuck was that and what do I do with it’.
He essentially laughed at me and said that, in a vodou context, it means He’s a strong Spirit in my life and that I should consider doing things in line with serving Him. This is about what I thought it meant and it has made me cringe. The cringe isn’t because I dislike Him [I don't know much of anything about Him], but more because it feels like I am getting piled on lately. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but more a holy-Gods-I-need-more-time/energy/space/money kind of thing. I’m floored that He sees fit to pay attention to me and it’s incredibly overwhelming as well. It seems like the Powers have spent the last 6-8 months coming out of the woodwork and declaring Their stake on whatever piece of Alex They have claimed as Theirs.
Said Houngan hinted at more formal commitments to Papa Ghede, but outlined what to do now in the case that I do not feel ready or do not feel called at this time to make a more formal commitment. Regardless, I need to expand space-wise. If I am to give Papa Ghede even the simplest of spaces in my home, it has already been made clear that it will have to be separate from some of the Others. Sekhmet already made it quite crystalline that She will not share space with Him, nor do I want Him in my bedroom, which is where the Others live [and Sekhmet is not pleased with that, either].
In any case, this necessitates another reading from someone who speaks with Papa Ghede. Said Houngan suggested hitting up the soseyete’s manbo when she has recovered in a few days and seeing where things go. At the very least, I need to figure out where to put Papa Ghede for now so that He isn’t offended by the placement and so the Others don’t get cranky with me. It struck me that it would be an Awful Idea just to ignore this and keep going and my friend the Houngan [I need to think of a catchy name for him] confirmed that it would be a slap in the face to not, at the very least, acknowledge what attention Papa Ghede has paid me.
It has also not escaped my notice that I now have the attention of Powers from the ‘Big Three’ of African religions—Kemetic with Sekhmet, Santeria/Ifa with Eleggua, and now vodou with Papa Ghede. I joked earlier that this must mean I get to take over the world now, but, in reality, it just means that I’m going to get even busier and have more responsibilities if all of these relationships continue and develop/develop further.
In all honesty, I’m not quite sure what I think right now. In one week, I have gained an understanding of two new Powers in my life and neither of Them are ‘simple’ Powers, if any Power can be simple. They are both incredibly complex in Their own right, with multiple means of expression and paths of understanding. It’s interesting that They both own journeys, in some respect—Eleggua owns the crossroads, which represents the choices on a journey, and Papa Ghede owns the last crossroad, the one between death and life. That, however, is another blog post entirely.
I don’t know. There’s a lot to think about, read, discuss with the Powers in my life, and decide. Happily, however, none of this has to be done right this very minute. All that must be done to stay in balance is to find Papa Ghede a place in my home so that I may thank Him for His attentions thus far. If I have been blessed with anything lately, it is the ability to look at the small steps for the entire goddamn staircase.
All of this has led me to consider one of the labels I have held closest for the past few years. I think my next blog post will be on that.