by Selene Silverwind
In addition to venerating the loa and the ancestors, Vodounsis have several practices to help them adhere to the requirements of their religion. They hold rituals to honor the loa and the ancestors. They also practice divination and magic to correct imbalances in the ache (spirit, soul), often under the advisement of the Vodoun priesthood, the loa, or the ancestors.
Priests and Other Practitioners
Vodoun priests and priestesses have several duties within the faith. In general, they run iles, which are groups of Vodounsis who practice together. Iles are considered families, although the members need not be related. The priests might be called houngans, and priestesses mambos (priestesses are also considered the mothers of the spirit). Priests and priestesses are charged with training new members, leading rituals, and performing initiations when desired. Students are called omos.
In addition to the priests and priestesses, Vodounsis receive help from several other magical practitioners. Root-workers are herbalists trained in the proper use of plants and herbs. A ju-ju woman or man is a magician who might use magical means to attain the desired result. A two-headed woman or man is a medium who can contact the ancestors or loa for advice.
Vodoun offers several options for divining a person’s fate, the magical actions required to correct an imbalance, the offerings a loa requires, or to get an idea of what is happening in an individual’s life. In addition to using coconut shells, Vodounsis gaze into a bowl of water, interpret the arrangement of cowrie shells, or interpret their dreams as forms of divination. Any other method of divination that speaks to the practitioner, such as the tarot or I Ching, is acceptable.
Ritual possession is another form of divination, but it is also a religious experience and something that laypeople can’t control. You’ve probably seen images of possessed Vodoun dancers in movies or on TV, and the images are correct, but at the same time, it’s much more than it appears to be. In Vodoun, possession is welcomed, and usually only comes to trained priests or priestesses who invite the spirits of their loa into their bodies. The loa then convey messages to those gathered.
Magic and Ritual
In general, magic and ritual are used to correct some imbalance in the flow of energy, or to make amends for an abuse of power. All that is taken must be returned to the loa, and this is done through offerings and rituals. Before a loa is invited, his or her vever, or insignia, is drawn on the ground with cornmeal or grain. After a loa is called, offerings can be made. In some cases, an animal sacrifice may be necessary, but only in cases of life or death. The sacrifice is always done in a humane manner.
Magic in Vodoun is both negative and positive. Blessings are preferred, but sometimes the difference is in the eye of the beholder. For example, a Vodoun practitioner might do a spell to help heal someone suffering from a grave illness. From that person’s perspective, this is beneficial to the sick person. But suppose the magic prolongs the life of the person who is being healed, and she has already decided it is time to die and bring a permanent end to her suffering. In her eyes, the magic isn’t helping her.
Some Vodounsis intentionally use negative magic. Hexes may be necessary to stop a greater evil or threats to life, such as a serial killer stalking the neighborhood. Vodounsis have several terms for hexing: A person can be crossed or fixed, which usually means it’s something that person brought on himself through his own action. A person can also be hexed or hoodooed, which means someone else has cursed her. When a person is cursed by someone else, she can “turn the trick,” which means she can figure out through which method she was cursed and turn the magic back on the person who cursed her. Magic can be transferred by eating cursed food, touching a cursed item, or cursed items can be buried under the front stoop, in the yard, or placed under the bed.
With Vodoun magic, it is usually best to use it in a way that is clearly for the benefit of all. For example, if you hate your coworker and she constantly harasses you, you could do a spell to make her get a new, better job somewhere else. That would help both of you, but it also might have been simpler just to do a spell to get a new, better job for yourself.