Vodou Lesson 4

Copyright 1996 - Mambo Racine Sans Bout
No reproduction without consent of author


Part 1. Constructing an altar.
Part 2. Making an ancestral feast.
Part 3. A Mambo's experience.

Part 1 - Constructing an altar

People of many different faiths construct altars. Even people who do not belong to any particular faith may set aside a corner of a room where they sit and think, meditate and pray, do yoga or play an African drum. Many times they create impromptu altars which include many of the same objects - flowers, stones and crystals, sacred symbols, photographs or images of the individual's ancestors, or of members of the extended human family in many countries, musical instruments, candles, incense, books on spiritual subjects.

Consciously or unconsciously, when we build altars we are engaged in an efort to open that most enigmatic of all doors - the door between the human and spiritual world. An altar is a representation of that very door in material terms - the altar is the door. When you sit in front of your altar, you are inviting the spiritual forces on the other side of this door to notice you, come and visit with you, and act upon you.

Since most people living in the United States can not begin their practice in this religion by attending Vodou ceremonies, one of the first things we can do is to build an altar. The altars of Vodou are as varied as the individuals who practice the religion. In a sense, a peristyle itself is an altar, large enough for the worshippers to dance around the centerpost, play drums, perform sacrifice, undergo possession - in short, to act out every aspect of the cosmic drama. Within the peristyle there are sometimes areas dedicated to a particular lwa - the cross of
Baron, or a small palm-leaf booth for Erzulie. Attached to the peristyle are smaller rooms called djevo or bagi, in which the ceremonial objects of a Vodou society are kept. However, these objects, which include sacred rattles, sequinned bottles for drink offerings, pot-tetes given during initiation, and clay pots called govi, are of no particular use to those who have not undergone initiation.

A better model is found in the kay myste (from the French caille des mysteres, house of mysteries). These are small houses, often no more than ten by fourteen feet, in which are constructed individualistic altars to whichever lwa the owner of the kay myste serves. These altars incorporate many common materials, easily available everywhere in the world. They are remarkable for their individuality and beauty.

Frequently altars in Haiti are constructed on a dirt floor, which may not be practical in the United States. However, you may have easier access to certain items such as crystals, ceramic vessels in particular colors, and so on.

Your kay myste may consist of a small area in your bedroom or living room, although the feeling in Haiti is that it is not well to sleep in the same room with objects consecrated to the lwa, especially with a member of the opposite sex; except during initiation, when sex is prohibited anyway. You may screen off this area, or set aside an entire room to the service of the lwa. The directions which follow will give you suggestions for constructing one type of very basic altar which can then be added to and elaborated on in the service of any particular lwa you wish.

Suggestions for building a basic altar:

In Haiti, when a Vodouisant person wishes to make an altar in the home for a partiular aspect of God, a saint, or a lwa, they very often buy particular religious objects identified with whatever principle they wish to serve, and then have a Houngan or Mambo set up and consecrate the altar. Some altars are by definition made on a dirt floor, others are made on platforms constucted of boards or more frequently concrete.

Here is one possible way to set up a basic altar indoors, without a dirt floor. Get a white cloth, and wash it in water with some of your first urine of the morning. For urine, you can substitue vinegar. Let the cloth dry outdoors in the sun if possible. Cover your altar table with it, and then sprinkle it lightly with your favorite perfume or Florida Water.

Next, get four small stones from near your house, clean them by scouring with salt and rinsing well, then place one at each corner of your altar. Clean a wineglass, cut glass bowl, or other vessel and fill it with water. Do not use metal or earthenware - glass or crystal only. Place it at the center of your altar, and add three splashes of anisette or white rum as you bless the water.

It is common in Vodou practice to baptise ritual objects, that is, to give them names. You can take a spring of basil and splash a baptism onto your water glass, which is now a powerful passageway for spiritual energy. You might name it almost anything appropriate, fanciful, and positive - "Water of Life", "Gurgle Mama Brings Spirit", or whatever!

Into a glass candleholder, place some earth from near your house and a few grains of salt. Take a white candle, and with a pure vegetable oil rub the candle from the middle up to the top and then from the middle down to the base. As you oil the candle, direct your energy into your hands and pray for spiritual awareness. Put the candle firmly into the candleholder and place it in front of the glass of water. Don't light the candle just yet.

Around the altar you will place other objects according to the divine principles you wish to serve. An ancestor shrine will have images of deceased ancesters, Ogoun's altar will have a machete and a red kerchief, Erzulie Freda's shrine will have flowers and jewelry, and so on.

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Part 2 - Making An Ancestral Feast

Now that you have constructed a basic altar, you are ready for the first step in Vodou practice - reverence for your ancestors. However you have built your altar, remember always that it is a door between the world of human beings and the world of the ancestors and the lwa. Let it get dusty, let the water become murky and stale, use it as a convenient resting placee for housekeys and pencils. ignore it, and you will find yourself tired, drained, unlucky, and uninspired. Treat it with respect, keep it immaculately clean, visit it often, and you will be rewarded with energy, spiritual growth, personal victories, and remarkable coincidences.

Your ancestors love you. They will come and visit you, accept your offerings, and point you on the way. They will instruct you, protect you, fight for you, and heal you. They will bring you messages through your intuition and your dreams.

Obtain a picture of a deceased relative of yours whose love for you is beyond question. If you have no deceased relatives whom you can remember well, either by blood or by adoption, you can choose an image of a person who represents to you ancestral wisdom and love, and give that person a name. You may also obtain images of ancestors of all branches of the human race.

Place these images behind the vessel of water on you altar, either propped up on picture stands or attached to the wall behind your altar. This wall can also be draped in white cloth and images pinned or tacked to it. Arrange the images until their grouping seems right to you. You may choose to work with one image or many.

Sit in front of your altar. You may ring a small bell or shake a ceremonial rattle to signal the start of your meditiation. Light the white candle on your altar, and if possible light some coconut or vanilla incense. Tie your head with a white cloth if you wish. Gaze into the water in the central chalice. Relax and do any meditation exercises you are familiar with. Deep breathing, counting backwards from ten to zero, or opening the chakras all work fine. Think about your chosen ancestor. If possible, recoollect scenes from the past in which you appear with that ancestor. Feel the love between you which connects you. imagine that love beaming from your heart as a ray of light, passing through the water and to the ancestor's image. Call the name of your ancestor out loud, repeatedly. Tell the ancestor that you love him/her, and that you want to work together with him/her. It is a basic tenet of Vodou that the living and the dead work together to help each other.

When you feel the ancestors' presence, tip a little water three times on the floor to welcome them. Do this meditation often, until it is a comfortable routine. Within a week or two, you should make an ancestral feast to offer to your ancestors.

This feast should include foods that were favored by your ancestors in life, with the exception that the food should not be salted. "Generic" ancestor offerings include grilled corn, grilled peanuts, fresh cocnut, and white foods like rice pudding, milk, and flour dumplings.

Place each type of food in a bowl, and place a white candle in the middle of the food. Liquid offerings can be placed in galsses and the candle put in a holder next to the glass. Touch each plate or bowl to your forehead, heart, and pubic area, and then breathe on the food. Talk to your ancestors, remind them that they were once part of the world of the living, and that you will one day come to join them. Ask them to drive away all evil, such as poverty, illness, unemployment, fatigue, discord, sadness. Ask them to bring to you all that is good, including love, money, work, health, joy, friendship, laughter.

Light the candles, put the food on the altar, and leave the room. When the candles have finished burning, and preferably the following morning, take the food and throw it away at the foot of a large tree. If that is not possible, put it in a garbage bag and dispose of it separately from other garbage. Wash the plates, bowls, and glasses, scrub them with salt, and put them away. Do not use them for ordinary meals.

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Part 3 - A Mambo's Experience.

My first ancestral feast took place before I was ordained as a Mambo. I wanted everything to be as beautiful as possible, so I first cleaned my room, then my altar and all the altar objects, crystals, altar cloths, and so on. I sprinkled the altar with Florida Water, and set new white candles in the candle holders.

I made different types of food. There was chicken, rice and beans, cooked greens, and tropical fruits for my African ancestors, sausage, saurkraut, boiled potatos and sweet pastries for my European ancestors, roasted peanuts, boiled corn, and coconut meat as all-round ancestor food. There was beer, rum, milk, fruit juice - in short, everything I could possibly think of. Every dish of food had it's own candle. I presented the food and drink to the ancestors, lit the candles, meditated, and left the room.

That night, I had some very interesting dreams. In the morning, I noticed the condition of the candles - every candle was burned to absolute nothingness - not a drip of wax or a fragment of wick remained in any of the food dishes. "Gosh," I thought, "those ancestors must really have been hungry!" I gathered up the food, and disposed of it at the foot of a large tree near a river. As I walked home, I wondered, "Which one of my ancestors, or which lwa, will now come to help me?"

It was a beautiful spring day, and I was walking alone on a rural road. A yellow Volkswagen Beetle came along and honked it's horn. I thought that the person must be lost and wanting directions, but as I looked, there was no driver in the car! Instinctively I noted the license plate - 125-LOA!

Now, you might think that with 125 lwa to feed and serve, my grocery bill would be enormous. But actually, aside from major ceremonies, regular service to the ancestors consists of a bit of food from Monday's dinner, an occasional libation, and correct observance of the Feast of the Dead (Fet Ghede) each November 2.

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