I Married a Iwa: The Sacrad Nuptials of Haitian Vodou
by Kevin Filan
All is on earth. Nothing is in the sky. Nothing was made in the sky. No one needs to speak to the sky. Instead of talking about the sky, talk instead of the earth. André Pierre
In most religions, devotees talk to the divine; in Vodou the divine talks to its devotees. Vodou is a very concrete school of mysticism. The lwa (spirits served in Vodou) are not part of some ineffable astral choir detached from reality; to their followers, they are as real as the local greengrocer or the noisy neighbor who lives down the hall. Vodouisants (devotees of Vodou, also known as serviteurs) come to their spirits with worldly concerns — difficulties in romance, financial needs, health problems — and ask for their intervention. In return, they provide the lwa with food, housing, gifts and, via the mechanism of possession, their own bodies. Many Vodouisants will show their love for the spirit in a time-honored fashion: by taking wedding vows in the ceremony of the maryaj lwa.
To understand Haitian Vodou, one must understand Haiti, and to understand Haiti, one must understand Haitian history. If Vodou is a mirror of Haitian culture, Haitian culture is a mirror of colonial St. Dominique. A study of the maryaj lwa — and of marriage in Haitian culture — can help to illuminate many of the ways in which a century of slavery, followed by two centuries of poverty and oppression, has shaped every aspect of Haitian life.
Bay kou bliye pote mak sonje (He who strikes the blow forgets; he who bears the bruises remembers.) Haitian Proverb
Among the various African tribes whose members came in chains to the New World, there were many different conjugal relationships. Some tribes were polygamous, while others were monogamous. Brideswealth marriages, cross-cousin marriages, slave marriages, secondary marriages and ritual marriages could all be found in Central and West Africa. Few of these customs had meaning in the harsh conditions of St. Dominique. Family relationships were regularly torn apart at auctions, while plantation owners who wanted to sleep with an attractive slave woman rarely considered their own marital vows, never mind those of their “property.” Slave owners forbade anything that smacked of African “heathenism” and “voodooism,” and brutally punished any slaves who were caught preserving their native traditions. Nor would the customs of any one tribe necessarily be reflected in the customs of another. To minimize the risk of organized uprisings, it was common practice to keep slaves from different groups together on a plantation; Africans separated by language and by ethnic identity were considered less likely to band together than Africans from the same region or tribe.
Flung together in this hellhole, the slaves were forced to recreate their ancestral religious traditions with whatever was at hand. A ceremonial reglamen developed to honor each of the ancestral nachons (nations or tribes) in order. Roman Catholicism, the religion of the French colonial masters, would also come to play an especially important role in Vodou. Africans had never been afraid to incorporate the deities of neighboring tribes. Obviously the French gods were powerful: They kept their White followers in wealth and gave them mastery over the black slaves. And so the slaves appropriated many of the symbols and practices of Catholicism into their own religious melange, including the sacrament of marriage.
Even after a bloody decade-long revolution, and the 1804 establishment of the Free Black Republic of Haiti, the influence of Catholicism and European culture did not fade away. The ruling blans (whites) were largely replaced by gens du coleur, free blacks and mullatos who were known for being “more French than the French.” They identified African culture with ignorance and inferiority: Indeed, many gens du coleur had themselves been slaveholders before the Revolution. Free Haitian society quickly became stratified between a dark-skinned poor majority and a light-skinned wealthy minority ruling class, a situation that has persisted to this day. European customs and religious practices were identified with wealth and prestige– and, inevitably, power.
The sacred obligations of marriage are but Iittle regarded in [Haiti]; the two sexes live in a state of concubinage; and, according to M. de la Croix, many irregular unions have taken place. Niles’ Weekly Register, Baltimore, Nov. 25, 1820.
For most Haitians, a civil or religious marriage is a luxury. The most common relationship among peasants and the urban lower class is plasaj or common-law marriage. Haitians typically refer to any woman who lives with a man, keeps house for him and bears his children as a “wife.” The husband and wife often make explicit agreements about their economic relationship at the beginning of a plasaj. These agreements typically require the husband to cultivate at least one plot of land for the wife and to provide her with a house. Women perform most household tasks, though men often do heavy chores like gathering firewood. These unions are distinguished from vivavek or tizammi relationships, sexual affairs that carry less responsibility and are less stable than a plasaj.
Among the Haitian elite, civil and religious marriages were the norm; the “best” families could trace legally married ancestors to the nineteenth century. Legal marriages were seen as more prestigious than plasaj, but they were not necessarily more stable or productive, nor were they necessarily monogamous. In fact, legally married men are often more economically stable than men in plasaj relationships, and so it is easier for them to separate from their wives or to enter into extramarital relationships. While Haitian women are expected to maintain sexual fidelity to their husbands, whether or not they are legally married or in a plasaj relationship, Haitian men are more free to pursue polygamous relationships. Polygamy among Haitian men is not so much a sign of virility as of social and economic success: few Haitian men can afford to keep more than one family.
Danto, she says to me “You have a choice: Be with me, mon amour or I’m not responsible for what will happen to you.” I could die, you know, anything could happen. Georges René, husband of Ezili Danto
When the lwa possess bystanders at a ceremony, they will frequently offer advice and blessings — and make demands in return. Often their demands will include a request for marriage. The coquettish Erzulie Freda, lwa of love, beauty and luxury, often proposes to several men when she arrives at a ceremony, while the rum-swilling warrior lwa Ogou is known for his love of the ladies and often asks for their hands in marriage when he comes. Frequently these proposals are met with reluctance. A maryaj lwa is at least as expensive as a civil or religious marriage, and may cost several years in savings. In lieu of a marriage, a Vodouisant might offer to buy the proposing lwa a gift or to make some sacrifice that is less costly and onerous. Sometimes the lwa will be satisfied with these counteroffers; as spirits residing in an impoverished land, they have long since learned to accept what is available to them. At other times they will insist on the maryaj. Vodouisants who continue to ignore these demands will often discover their luck turning for the worse, as the spurned lwa brings them misfortune and sickness. Sometimes the lwa will even punish the Vodouisant’s partner, making him or her ill until such time as the marriage demands are met.
When the Vodouisant decides (or is persuaded) to marry the lwa, a ceremony is held. The space is prepared by the Priye Gineh, a lengthy ceremonial salute in which the lwa are honored alongside God, Jesus, the Virgin and various saints. A table is set up for the spirits who are going to be married. Cakes are prepared in their favorite colors (pink for Freda, red and blue for Danto, etc.). Their favorite offerings are placed on the table, alongside offerings for other lwa who might show up at the ceremony to give their blessings. The ceremonial clothing or objects of the brides or grooms will be close at hand. The human bride or groom, meanwhile, will be dressed in his or her finest clothing, as befits such a solemn ceremony.
After the Priye, the houngan or mambo (Priest or Priestess) in charge will begin calling the various lwa. Starting with Papa Legba, the gatekeeper who “opens the door” for the other lwa, s/he will salute the spirits in the order of the reglaman. At the appropriate time, the bride/groom spirits will possess one of the participants. That chwal (“horse”) will be dressed in the clothing of the lwa — a straw hat and bag for agricultural lwa Zaka, a denim dress for Ezili Danto, etc. Then s/he will be seated before the table beside the serviteur s/he is marrying. A pret savanne (literally “bush priest”) will recite the Catholic marriage ceremony; the lwa and the serviteur pledge fidelity to each other. The serviteur’s rings are “passed through fire” — incense smoke, really — and then the lwa places the ring on the serviteur’s finger.
This ritual is repeated for each lwa whom the serviteur is going to marry. Only rarely does one marry a single lwa: usually it is necessary to marry two or three so that their energies will be balanced. A woman who marries Ogou will also marry Damballah, the Great White Serpent, and Zaka: It is believed that Damballah will “cool” Ogou’s hot, intense energy while Zaka will help to “ground” it. And any man who marries Freda must marry her hardworking peasant sister Ezili Danto, and vice versa: the acrimony between these two women is legendary in Vodou and it is believed that marrying only one will cause the other to become enraged with jealousy. (Polygamy is also the rule among the lwa themselves: Erzulie Freda is “wife” to Damballah, Ogou and the sea king Met Agwe, while even Ogou has to wear the rings of both Freda and Ezili Danto.)
The serviteur is now married to the lwa. S/he will be expected to set aside at least one night per month — and perhaps as many as three nights a week — during which s/he will not have sexual relations with anyone else. During that time many spouses of the lwa will sleep alone in a bed that they have specially prepared for the occasion. They may wrap their heads with a cloth in their spouse’s color, and will almost certainly wear their wedding rings. On that evening they are frequently visited by their husbands/wives in dreams that may have sexual content or which may involve more platonic counsel and advice.
While most wealthy planters in St. Dominique were having sexual relations with one or more of their slaves, few would admit to this publicly. They might grant favored status to those women and their offspring, but always in private. The whole process became an open secret, one of those things that everyone knew but no one discussed. Among Haiti’s wealthy, the same could be said of Vodou. Rather than holding public fetes in their homes, or attending ceremonies, wealthy Haitians might honor the lwa privately through a maryaj lwa performed in their homes. This allows them to serve the lwa discreetly. By setting aside days for the lwa and maintaining an inconspicuous shrine, they can gain the spirit’s continued protection and blessings without incurring the social stigma that open service to the lwa would bring. If poor Haitians marry the lwa, rich Haitians take them as concubines.
Entering the Vodou is like choosing a whole new family. Choosing a family is rightfully a serious undertaking. Houngan Aboudja
The maryaj lwa ceremony is not only costly; it also involves considerable responsibility. Violating your wedding vows is seen as extremely dangerous. Edeline St.-Amand, a Haitian Mambo living in Brooklyn, tells the story of a man who married Erzulie Freda, then had relations with another woman on the day set aside for Freda. “He says his nature is gone,” Mambo Edeline explains. “I try to call Freda for him so he can say he’s sorry. For three hours I try to call Freda, but Freda won’t come. Finally I call Brav (Brav Ghede, a dead spirit with whom Edeline works frequently). Brav come and he say `Freda don’t want to talk to you.’ He beg Brav, tell her I’m sorry, tell her I’m sorry. Finally Brav tells him, `Okay. Freda say you got to go to Mass every day for 21 days, then you need to throw a big party for Freda. Then maybe she think about forgiving you.”
Whether rich or poor, Vodouisants see the maryaj lwa as both a sign of devotion and a guarantee of success. The Vodouisant throws a party for the lwa and sets aside special days for the spirit’s honor. In exchange, s/he expects the lwa to provide support and protection. The maryaj lwa, like marriage and conjugal relationships, is as much a promise of mutual support as a sign of undying love. Kathleen Latzoni, an American woman who recently married Ogou, Damballah and Zaka, says that her maryaj had a pronounced positive effect on her life. “I’ve become much more productive at work; and while I still have a demanding job, I feel that things around the office have started to run more smoothly. I also feel less anxious and better able to cope with whatever life throws my way — no matter what happens, I’ve got somebody (or three somebodies!) on my side.” For Latzoni, the Maryaj also served as a community-building experience. “Even though my cultural background is very different from most of the Vodouisants I know in Brooklyn, I feel more bonded to them now, as if this shared experience gives us something in common.”
Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, Donald J. Cosentino, Editor. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995. p. xxiii.
For an excellent and extensive study of the interplay between African religions and Catholicism in Haiti, see Leslie G. Desmangles, Faces of the Gods: Voodoo and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).
Haitian Women’s Role in Sexual Decision-Making: The Gap Between AIDS Knowledge and Behavior Change (II. Presentation of Findings), available at http://www.fhi.org/en/RH/Pubs/booksReports/haitiwom/haitpres.htm
Cosentino, p. 292.
Conversation with Mambo Edeline St.-Amand, February 2003.
 Conversation with Kathleen Latzoni, October 2003.