Or, y’all don’t know what you’re missing.
It’s no secret that, as a young adult, I cut my spiritual teeth in paganism and polytheism. It was easily accessible to me and it made sense, in some respects, since I am of mostly European descent. The church of my youth did not want me and did not fulfill me, particularly after some really terrible experiences with an offshoot of the main church that engaged in some very cult-like practices. Despite me not having the language to describe what was going on in the depths of my soul, I needed something bigger than myself to throw myself at, and paganism and polytheism answered that need.
I was never really a good fit for paganism, at ALL. It didn’t give me the fulfillment that I was seeking, left more questions than answers in an unpleasant way, and gave me serious pause because the feeling that there was something bigger and better out there for me didn’t go away. Instead, it grew more hungry and chewed on me in an almost painful way.
This isn’t to say that the relationships I had and maintain with my non-vodou and non-Orisha divinities are in any way bad or unfulfilling. I hold those relationships close and value everything They give to me, but I see Them differently now. I really see Them through the lens of vodou, and that has changed expectations and actions in a very positive way. It has made me a better devotee, a more effective servant, and an all around better human to be dealing with, with more tools at my [and, by situation, Their] disposal.
All of this has led to a massive, MASSIVE pull-back on my part from pagan and polytheist communities. The more I get involved with vodou, the less I find I have in common with those who seems to speak the loudest in those communal settings. When I watch how people talk to each other, about each other, and about their respective divinities, I thank all my divinities and stars and stuffed animals and anything that will stand still that Those who have walked with me since the beginning saw fit to pack me off to vodou. Had They not, I think I might have packed my shit, given the larger pagan and polytheist communities the finger, and disappeared off to parts unknown. It is that noxious, that toxic, and that goddamn unpleasant to be around. It is not surprising at all that many of my dearest pagan and polytheist friends—the ones who basically made sure I didn’t die in the first handful of years that the divinities blew my life apart and that who are along for the amusement ride that my life has become, even if they don’t understand it—have felt similarly and done just that; disappearing into private practice until things become palatable again, if ever.
That said, I am still a polytheist and I don’t see that going away any time soon. It doesn’t conflict with my vodou, nor does my vodou community see it as a conflict for me. That, however, does not seem to sit well with some of the pagans and polytheists I talk to or whose writing I read. I’ve had long discussions about this and it really seems to boil down to one stark, blunt fact: pagans and polytheists are not comfortable with, as my dear soon-to-be elder brother put it recently, subversion made manifest and, as I put it, a thriving, vital religion that lives in and embraces liminality as an ideal space. Vodou exists as a living conflict, with ideas and practices that run at each other head on, with little care for whether it makes sense or looks right or causes any level consternation for those that would seek it’s counsel. Paganism and polytheism does not embody those same things, at least not anymore, if they ever did.
Now, before you run screaming for your pitchforks and torches, hear me out. I promise I don’t hate pagans and other polytheists and don’t want to burn other people’s religious practices to the ground [mostly—some of y’all test me].
All of this has been brewing for me in the last six months or so, and it started with watching pagans and polytheists talk about privilege, social justice, concepts of authority in religious practice, and what boils down to ‘best practices’ in terms of how to approach and love divinities. It is interesting to watch and I am sure it is a vital conversation for those who participate in it and find it meaningful, but it has been like watching a trainwreck caught in a vacuum. The same things are said over and over, the same things are pointed to as sick and inappropriate practices, and the same divisions expand, all while hot air fills the proverbial room until it is poisonous and suffocating.
The part that has really set my teeth on edge is the sort of speech that holds up ‘ancient’ practices and then proceeds to shit all over the tenets and basic functions of living ancient practices. That blows my mind and short-circuits my brain, but it all goes back to the base realization that pagans and polytheists are not that good with purposeful and embraced subversion in their religion and religious practices.
Over the past few years, I have had a similar conversation numerous times with numerous people. It is a good conversation, and it’s one that has continually allowed me to ask questions of my elders and sharpen my understanding of vodou. Essentially, it boils down to ‘how is it that vodou is so powerful? How do the Lwa move so clearly, directly, and fast in your life?’.
I have found that to be a deceivingly simple question. The really easy, yet still accurate, answer is this: vodou is an unbroken religion. It has never bowed to conversion, never died, the Lwa have never slept only to awake and move in the world when a group of interested parties come knocking, and it has never lived on the page—the record of vodou is almost entirely oral, with books recording more about culture than actual practices. This speaks to that subversion made manifest; when the world has slammed down a barrier to vodou on the right, vodou has dodged left. When the Spanish and French imperialists demanded that traditional African practices cease among the enslaved Africans they brought to Hispaniola [later Haiti and the Dominican Republic], vodou was birthed in the bellies of those who believed and brought into the world when those who forged Haiti in their hearts came to the decision they had suffered enough. Some Lwa came from Africa buried deep in the skin and bones of those who would call Them forth on new land, and some were called into being from the bodies and spirits of those crushed by colonization in this new place. Some sprang from the knife and the blood spilled by the imperialist, some rose from the water with open arms for those who screamed for Them under the lash. Some rose from the dead, some rose from the dust on the road. All came because there was [and is] work to do, and the people needed [and need] them.
That is the first subversion and mental car crash of vodou—it is a religion born out of pain and rebellion, and that legacy has never gone to sleep. Vodou has a long memory and the reality of it’s roots can never be forgotten, because it forms the foundation of the religion.
In comparison, traditions upheld by many pagans and polytheists went fallow for hundreds to thousands of years to the point of the death of those religions. Whether by conversion, conquer, disinterest, or otherwise, what is became what was, and stayed that way for quite a time. Did those gods die? Who knows, but Their active practice did. A revival of these things is not necessarily bad, but it changes things dramatically. In stark comparison to vodou and other unbroken religions, these practices never had a chance to evolve—they existed, then went away and were regarded only through the eyes of Abrahamic observers or anthropologists sifting through the sand for remains of what was. Now, there is new blood for these divinities and yet there is a desire for things to be what they were, for a resurrection and recreation of how those religious ancestors loved those gods. There is this idealization of these ancient polytheisms, yet an utter denial that what is no longer can be what was and putting those practices and people on a pedestal in a ‘it was better than because they did it this way’ is ensuring that the revival of these traditions will ultimately wither again, because it is unsustainable.
Second mental car crash: vodou is ancient in the sense that we still do things the way our spiritual ancestors did them and can trace direct lines back to the very beginning, but vodou is incredibly modern with a deep understanding of the world it moves in. It constantly changes through the process of shared community understanding while maintaining that the roots must be fed and respected if vodou is to continue to embody the immense amount of power it has built through the generations. The ason, a ritual rattle conferred through kanzo, has it’s origins in many different African traditions but lives as a tool that does the work that is needed now. It is the old that carries the new into being, in a literal way, and it brings the voice of the ancestors into the room.
The Lwa act in this way, too. They have old origins, but boy do They understand modern needs. When you tell a Lwa that you need money to do what it is They have outlined, They nod in understanding and then provide the opportunity to gain that money. They know what it means when you say ‘I need money this month to make sure my child has food and shoes without holes in them’. They know why it is you might need to pass on feeding them this month, because your dick of a boss cut your hours and you have to pay rent first. They get that and They roll with it, because the Lwa not only move in this world, They are of this world, in a very literal sense. One of my favorite stories is from when air travel became a commonplace thing, and Haitians began to have access to it. All of a sudden, numerous unconnected sosyetes were reporting a similar occurrence; an Ogou who no one had ever met before was coming down at fetes and ceremonies. He told people His name—Ogou Panama—and taught the same general song to call and praise Him with. Why did Ogou Panama show then? Because more Haitians were taking to the skies to travel and the Lwa go everywhere with Their people, so it makes sense that there would be an Ogou who was a flight captain and who could assure the safety of His people as they ventured forth in this new way.
Modernity is a good thing in vodou, because it keeps people alive and keeps the religion alive. If the religion could not be modern, how could it meet modern demands? This idea that modernity is a poison to religious practice is born from longing for good ol’ days that didn’t exist, really, or that we have no proof existed because the tradition we point ceased to exist before our grandparents’ grandparents were born.
This reflects in every day life, too, and further illustrates the inherent conflict of vodou—the Lwa are everywhere, but still reside elsewhere. I see my Lwa in everything and feel Them move in my heart at the strangest times, but They also reside anba dlo/under the water. They are everywhere and in all places, and that’s not weird at all. Heck, They can be in multiple places in the same room, as any person who has been to a lively fete can tell you. It’s not unusual for a Lwa to inhabit more than one body at once in one room. When Gede comes at His parties, it’s not unusual for Him to take lots of people because He wants to have lots of fun [I have seen Him in at least nine different people at once]. Which brings us to another car crash that modern pagans and polytheists have a hard time grasping…
Possession is not special, nor a mark of any sort of status. It’s just not. In fact, it’s sort of a pain in the ass and quite unfun, nevermind utterly exhausting. It does not mean the person possessed is any sort of higher functioning person or has any special abilities. There are things that can be done to make possession an easier process or a person can be an easier tool for the Lwa to use, but, really, it just means you are the nearest hammer for the job the Lwa wish to do in that moment.
In fact, possession can be used to send the message that there are no special snowflakes in vodou. It often doesn’t happen without some sort of crisis that makes it clear the person is not in control—screaming, crying, being thrown around the room or on the floor, and other things are quite common—and it ends similarly, in that more often than not the horse is dumped on the floor or into the arms of someone with a keen eye for how these things go. It isn’t done to hurt anyone—and in fact no one is hurt in the process, as the Lwa know if They break Their tools They will no longer be able to use them—but more to send the message that no one is special or above being treated as any other person. From the lineage head with 30 years of service to the Lwa under their belt to the ti-fey in the corner who is horrified that they cannot stop crying, it is all the same—no one will be treated differently or coddled because of who they are.
So why do pagans and polytheists get all wide-eyed and status-y about possession? Part of it is cultural—many are white and have never been a part of a culture that embraces possession by the divine as a completely normal and run-of-the-mill thing. Part of it, I think, springs from this desire for something deeper. The culture of many religions that fall under the pagan and polytheism died with the religions that were held within them and, no matter how hard folks work, that cannot spring to life again. That particular richness was lost, and likely how the divinities directly interacted with people dwindled, too.
It’s trying to come back, and I’ve seen it. I’ve witnessed instances of true, authentic possession of non-Diasporic divinities, and I believe those divinities want that. However, this narrative that possession is special and an honor has created cults of personality and a lot of outright fraud. They point to what they assume must be special preparation by folks who participate in vodou to do the work and use that to puff themselves up as specially chosen, having to do weeks and weeks of preparation to hold a divinity. Know what I did before I ended up with some of my Lwa in my head? I didn’t have sex for a few days and I took a shower. Sometimes there is special preparation to do, but that is often about the person in question more than the Lwa. There weren’t days and days of prayer and ritual or a hugely special or limited diet—there was just me, in my clothes with all my stuff, dancing along to the drums.
That is a hallmark of vodou, though—in many ways, it is low barrier for its practitioners because it has been doing it’s thing for quite awhile without being torn apart. The Lwa have spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out the quickest and easier ways into someone’s head, while the divinities of religions that went fallow perhaps have forgotten how to do that or have been out of practice for so long that They are rusty with Their actions.
If I am insightful at all, there is someone sitting in front of their computer or staring bug-eyed at their phone going ‘how dare you say that? HERESY. IMPIETY.’. And maybe so, if those religions or divinities are hypersensitive.
Here’s another thing about vodou that smashes together those mental cars: the Lwa do not expect or desire bent backs and heads that never utter anything but the most poetic of prayers that praise Them up one side and down the other. Instead, They expect strength of spine and will, and They expect that Their people will not cower or turn into doormats at the mere whisper of Their presence. It is perfectly normal to look Them in the eye, proverbial or literal, and say ‘no, I can’t do that’ or ‘not until You provide the money’ or ‘I need to think about that because You’re asking more than I can give right now’. It is acceptable to argue [within sensible reason—you are dealing with a disincarnate being who has a lot of resources available] and acceptable to make demands of Their service and work. It is acceptable to barter, negotiate, bribe, and otherwise push to have your specific needs or desires met, and it’s not a bad thing or a disrespectful thing, provided you act with at least a modicum of manners and decorum.
I have raged at my Lwa for things They have done or asked for. I have screamed, cried, cursed out, and otherwise behaved in ways that have paled the faces of pagans and polytheists who I have related my experiences to. The inevitable reaction has been ‘how could you’ or ‘I would be too afraid of <divinity> to do that’. My response is that I will absolutely not be afraid of divinities I love and serve. I might be awed or intimidated, but I will not fall victim to this Western idea of fear of the divine because They might step on me. They might step on me anyways and, if the stories people tell me of their divinities are even remotely true, They might step on me because They are feeling particularly asshole-ish that day. Similarly, how could I not speak frankly and bluntly to Them if I love Them? How can I not tell Them when I am livid that They did a thing or did not deliver on something I have worked my butt off for? My first response when Kouzen [whom I adore and who loves me probably more than I deserve] told me I needed to kanzo was ‘you’ve got to be fucking kidding me’. He didn’t frown or pout or smack me, He just smiled and assured me that the money to do so would show up and that I would be fine.
This idea that the divinities are untouchable, beyond reproach, and, frankly, far too fragile and sensitive to hear true words from their servants is a new, Western thing. The people who claim that monotheism is the root of all that is bad and that they have rooted out this influence in their religious practices are some of the worst offenders, and they don’t see it. They do not see how they are repeating and propagating this inherently twisted idea that respect means a bowed head, long practice praising their divinities, and never uttering your true feelings for fear of a divinity crashing down on your head in displeasure if you do otherwise. Are They really that sensitive? Do They really have such an adolescent understanding of Themselves? I think not, but I also think that when people say they are shedding the baggage of their milk religions, they often have no idea what they are talking about.
Often this is spoken about in terms of devotion and what ‘proper’ devotion and piety is, and it’s horrifically narrow in view. Extensive ritual, prayer, and praise, all done in the privacy of one’s home alongside plenty of dictating that this is the right way keeps getting pushed out like a sour, bitter egg from a chicken that should have been eaten months earlier. It does not facilitate growth, depth of connection, or anything but knowing how to say words and do a ritual. It might work for some, I suppose, but not for all.
Vodou turns all that on it’s head. Vodou, in essence, is about community, versus lifting the Lwa up as awesome, great, beloved, etc. They know They’re awesome, and They don’t need my constant reminder when I sit in front of my altar. Having a devotion-focused practice will leave the Lwa lazy and asleep—They work when you do, and a lot of that work comes in community. The Lwa are not focused on how pious any particular vodouisant is, but how the community supports the work and, moreover, DOES THE WORK. Not everyone kanzos to be a priest in the community, but even those who kanzo solely for the relationship with their spirits do things to further the work. One of my to-be elder sisters is a manbo because her spirits wanted that for her, but she is the only who quietly comes and helps at fetes and out in the Haitian community. She’s the one who makes sure the PA system for the sosyete is up to date, and she’s the one who can be counted on to do work when necessary. Instead of being focused on veneration of the Lwa, vodou is focused on strengthening community and evening the playing field for those who are marginalized, since vodou is a religion that strengthens the disenfranchised.
That sort of brings this back full circle to what spawned this lengthy writing; how social justice and privilege play out in religion.
My elder brother said something very true this week; vodou is the original Black Lives Matter movement. It is a religion founded on the principles of social justice, of rising up against oppressive forces and assuring the best possible lives for all involved. The idea that relatively new Western ideas of devotion trump this or outrank it is ridiculous at best and deeply offensive to the spiritual ancestors who broke their backs and lost their lives to assure that vodou and it’s people would live to see another day and perhaps a better existence. Vodou is out in the world, not solely in prayers and altars, and religion that only lives in those places cannot live in an unjust world for very long. My Lwa are the original activists and justice-seekers. They were the force that, through the people, slaughtered the French colonizers and drove them into their boats and back to France. They are the ones who fed the Haitians when there was no food to be had. They are the ones who kept the rafts and boats afloat when the Haitians took to the sea in search of a different life, and the ones who kept people as safe as possible when Duvalier’s tonton macoute death squads roamed the country. They are the ones who sustain Haitians caught in MINUSTAH’s cholera epidemic and who dry the tears when loved ones die.
With all this in mind, how could I write off social justice as second to Western-defined devotional practices? Social justice IS devotion to my Lwa, and especially as a white person in a Haitian religion. It cannot be divorced from vodou, nor can it play second fiddle to what Western religious society thinks is right and true. When I seek to open doors and provide options for the clients at my dayjob, no matter their background, I am doing the work of the Lwa out in the world, and that is holy and good. When I use my voice as a white person to cast light on the appropriated practices of other white people that harm minority religions and people, I am doing the world of the Lwa out in the world, and that is holy and good. I may not sit in front of my altar for days at a time, but that doesn’t mean I am not praying and am not devoted to my divinities—my prayers and devotion come from my heart through my hands, in answer to how the hands of the Lwa have moved in my life. Divorcing that and placing it second to Western ideals is missing the point of vodou.
That point gets missed a lot. A lot of white folks come to vodou and think the work gets done in front of an altar in prayers. They see that as devotion and eschew the community work—however that is played out for them—as lesser or separate. This gets called disrespect for elders, but, in reality, it is privilege at play and thinking that one can bring in Western practices to a culturally-based religion, or that Western ideals somehow apply when they spring from European practices…from the very cultures that sought to shut down vodou. This manifests in a variety of ways, from privileged statements to denouncing the necessary need for authority figures in vodou to polluting vodou with practices that have no place there [applying Qabala to the prayers that open services, using Tarot to attempt to speak to the Lwa, asserting authority that only belongs to the Lwa]. If you are taking Western concepts of religious practice, authority, and what constitutes right interaction, you are missing the big, glaring point.
So, what to do with all of this? I don’t know. For any of this to mean anything, the people to whom this applies would have to be able to hear it and then look critically at what they have been saying out in the world, which requires humility and a long view. Tied into this has to be the realization that paganism and polytheism in and of itself is only subversive in as much as it’s adherents are willing to be subversive, which means removing their paganism or polytheism as the center of the world or as the most subversive religious action. Doing that assures that Western [and, let’s face it, white] ideas do not play as the supreme narrative on what religious devotion looks like, nor does it allow this false history of identity and lineage to manifest when the only unbroken histories and lineages really exist in Caribbean and continental African religions. It’s okay to fill gaps, but the first part of being truly subversive and acting against the common narrative is to admit that there are gaps and that they cannot be filled with an unending litany of pronouncements of what is or is not correct in a tradition that has only recently risen from a long fallow time.
These car crashes are the gifts of vodou, if we can only get out of our own way to access them. Vodou fucks up the pagan and polytheist idea of devotion because it decentralizes a European-centric voice as important. Rejecting the rising narrative of a one appropriate way that discounts minority and indigenous religion, except as it is useful to illustrate how pious one is, is rising in polytheism and paganism, but it misses the mark. One of the lessons of vodou is that the roots cannot be tended by an individual only—the lone practitioner does not survive, particularly if that practitioner locks the door on growth and vitality by making pronouncements on things that exist past the end of their nose. When we speak from our ego and with the goal to change what others do by pronouncement [versus example], we poison the blood in the root and ensure that our legacy is only one in books.