What is Sevis Ginen?
Sevis Ginen, also known as Haitian Vodou, comes from Haiti and has many roots that extend back to several parts of Western and Central Africa, including Benin, Nigeria, and the Congo. It is an ancestral-based spiritual system of great beauty and power and seeks to work with, or serve, the spirits called Lwa in exchange for healing, blessing, protection, and prosperity. Those who serve the Lwa, the Vodouisants, look first to God, then to the Ancestors, Saints, and the Lwa for assistance in the daily hardships of life.
A ceremony of Sevis Ginen seeks to bring together these forces so the Lwa can speak directly to us through the vehicle of spirit possession. Far from an evil act, as Vodou has nothing to do with the Christian Devil, being possessed, or mounted, by a Lwa is the anticipated outcome of the ceremonial songs and gestures of the faithful. One or more Lwa can then directly address the people and sometimes assist them with their problems. The beginning part of a possession can seem very distressing as the person and Lwa fight for control of the body. Should the Lwa come through fully he or she is then given appropriate offerings and/or items by the Vodouisants. After saluting members of the house, the Lwa may then choose to address visitors before leaving. Or the Lwa may stay an undetermined amount of time before departing, administering advice and assisting the those present in various spiritual and physical matters.
The order of a ceremony follows the Regleman each house (Vodou congregation) has inherited over the many years of spiritual re-formation following the forceful relocation of the Africans to the New World, mixing of the various African nations and tribes and inter-mixing with the quickly disappearing Native population. The Regleman determines how and when each Lwa is served in ceremony, along with many other rules pertaining to Sevis Ginen. Houses within the same region of Haiti usually have a very similar Regleman, although details can vary from house to house. There is no central authority or organization that determines an ultimate Regleman, and each house is considered autonomous, receiving its guidance from its Elders and the Lwa themselves. A major ceremony can take many hours and even days to complete, however, tonight’s ceremony will be much simplified due to various factors. Regardless, many hours of preparation go into even the shortest of ceremonies. In the following description of the Order, there are many “can”s, “may”s, and “usually”s, and that is because no two Vodou ceremonies are ever exactly the same, as far as the behavior of the Lwa is concerned, and one never knows what’s going to happen until it’s actually happening.
The Order of the Ceremony
The Priye Ginen and the Opening
Once everything is in place, everyone will take a seat, and Mambo Marie will lead the Priye Ginen, the opening prayer, which is a lengthy set of spoken and chanted Catholic prayers, followed by many African and Haitian prayers for the Lwa. When the Priye is finished, Mambo Marie will stand, followed by the people, and the opening songs are sung. Everyone is encouraged to clap along with the rhythm of the Asson, the sacred rattle used by the Hougans (priests) and Mambos (priestesses), and to follow the dance steps. The Vodouisants will salute each other, the Hougans and Mambos, the Hounsis (those who have gone through some form of initiation into Sevis Ginen), and those who are non-initiated members of the house. Throughout the ceremony, it is not necessary for everyone to do the turns when ritual salutations are being done, only those who are actively saluting need to do these.
The First Five Lwa: Legba, Marassa, Loko, Ayizan, Danballah/Ayida
The first Lwa to be saluted is always Legba, the gatekeeper, as he opens the gate between our world and the Lwa. Those saluting him will go out to the main entrance and ritually process back into the main ceremonial area. It is not necessary for the people to follow. Following Legba, the Marassa, or cosmic twins, are saluted, opening the doors for all children spirits. Candy may be thrown in your general direction (watch out!) and handed out to the people. Then we salute Papa Loko, who is the Lwa of the Priesthood; all Hougans and Mambos pay special attention to Papa Loko, as he gives the Asson, the symbol of the Priesthood. After Papa Loko, we salute Mambo Ayizan, the mother of Initiation. All who have undergone the Kanzo or Sevis Tet rites serve her. The final, but most important, of the first five Lwa served is Danballah/Ayida Wedo. Danballah is the serpentine King of the Lwa, and Ayida is his rainbow serpent wife/companion (and some say sister.) All must stand in respect, and no one can smoke or drink alcohol during this time. When Danballah comes, he is covered by a white sheet to preserve his purity and keep him cool. Sometimes there is a short break after Danballah leaves or passes through.
The Rada nation of the Lwa are the cool spirits, most of whom come from the old Kingdom of Dahomey, present day Benin. They include Sobo and Bade (thunder and the wind that announces the storm), and Agasou and Silibo (the leopard king and his wife). Agwe and LaSiren are the Master and Mistress of the ocean, Agwe the sea admiral who sails in his ship, Immamou, and LaSiren the mermaid who swims below the surface. Should they come, Agwe will mount his “ship” (a chair turned backwards), and LaSiren will “swim” on a white sheet on the floor. The Ezilis are the famous river spirits of femininity, luxury, wealth, the most well-known being Ezili Freda. If Ezili Freda comes, all must be sprinkled with perfume, and she usually only addresses men. Again, the white sheet will be brought out so she doesn’t soil her feet. Following the water spirits are Bosou, the bull, and Agaou Wedo, the winged serpent.
The Lwa of the Djouba nation include Azaka, Kouzen, and Kouzin. These are the hard-working peasants who toil the fields (Kouzen) and sale their wares in the marketplace (Kouzin). They can be distrustful of city dwellers. Kouzen may ask for money, then turn around and give it to someone who needs it more. Kouzin may give everyone a piece of fruit, then go back around and collect her payment. Have some money in your pockets, just in case.
The Nago: Papa Ogou!
The Nago nation is comprised of the protective, paternal, masculine Lwa of war and fire. Many of them originate from Yoruba land, present day Nigeria, and have “Ogou” in their names, such as Ogou Badagris and Ogou Ferray. These spirits are very forceful and stern, yet caring as a father, grandfather, or uncle. They are usually all addressed as “Papa.” Cigars, rum, and machetes are their signature offerings. Sometimes food is passed out to the people by Papa Ogou himself before he leaves. Regardless, after Papa Ogou leaves there is a break, and this usually signals the transition into a different type of Rite within Sevis Ginen.
Should time allow, we may salute the Ibo, Kongo, and Petwo spirits. Many of these Lwa are very hot and aggressive compared to the Rada, and the salutes, songs, and dances reflect this intensified energy. The Ibo and Kongo spirits originate from their respective origins in Africa, while the Pewto spirits were born from the fires and anguish of slave times. The famous Ezili Dantor is part of the Petwo nation. If there is not enough time, then one large salute, called a Milokan, may be given to these Lwa.
The Cemetery: Baron/Brijit/Ghede
The last salutes are given to the Lwa of the cemetery and the dead. Death itself is embodied in the trinity of Baron Samedi/LaKwa/Simitye, as the gatekeeper of the cemetery. Mama Brijit is his wife and lives in the cemetery with all the Ghede, who are the elevated spirits of the forgotten dead. Ghede very much embodies the cycle of life, death, sex, and rebirth. He can be very sexual and vulgar, as he stands beyond the norms of polite society, and because of that he’s usually the life of the party! Ghede can sometimes follow other Lwa, but will be politely asked to leave and come back when it is his time—you never know with this Lwa!
Considerations during the Ceremony
A Vodou ceremony is a complex weaving of life situations: family, community, spirit, ritual, and much more. In some respects it may resemble a serious religious ritual, and in other respects it may seem more like a family reunion, complete with arguments and tears of joy. Just remember to be open, courteous, and patient. The Lwa have a very special bond to those who already serve them, and so are considered more important than people they’ve never met. Thus, not every Lwa will address everyone present, so please don’t be offended if you don’t get to talk to a certain Lwa. Also, many of the Lwa speak (if they speak at all) in Haitian Kreyol. There are very few Kreyol speakers at tonight’s ceremony, so expect some awkward translations and interpretations of the Lwa’s messages. Above all, approach tonight’s ceremony with love, honor, and respect. Ayibobo!