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Sex in Vodou is an interesting topic! On the one hand, Vodou encourages fertility, and Haitian culture tolerates male polygamy. On the other hand, and paradoxically, Vodou forbids sex in a variety of ceremonial contexts - Vodouisants may observe sexual abstinence on the night sacred to their personal lwa, and before and after certain ceremonies. Following initiation, new initiates are required to abstain from sex for forty one days!
Furthermore, among Vodou lwa the most explicitly sexual behavior is reserved for the lwa of the Dead - Baron, his wife Maman Brigitte and their children the lwa Gede. The sexual mimicry of these "animated cadavers", who can feel nothing at all, is cartoonish, sometimes even grotesque, and at the same time wildly funny. Their signature dance, the banda, is an excruciatingly accurate, spare-nothing mime of sexual intercourse with exaggerated gestures and a staccato rhythm.
One of my initiates once asserted to me that he had once been told that two people dancing the banda together during a Vodou service must avoid looking each other in the eyes to prevent becoming sexually aroused. I had never heard anything like that, but on the premise that there is always more to learn, I mentioned this to my partner Houngan, Yabofe (pronounced YA-bo-fay) Bon Houngan.
Yabofe laughed! He said, "Ooomph, AH, oomph oomph AH!", mimicking the characteristic banda rhythm. "That's no way to have sex, when you have sex for real you want things sweet, and nice. Besides, you don't do the banda with a partner, you do it by yourself! The only time you see one person winding up on another is when one of them has a lwa in their head!"
Yabofe reflected, "When we have a dance, we are serving the lwa. When a lwa comes, it can do what it wants, but we ourselves are serving the lwa. You don't come to a Vodou dance to look for someone to have sex with! In fact, men are not supposed to have an erection while they are dancing, not at ALL, not even if they are dancing that banda...", and here Yabofe broke up laughing again at the idea of making love banda style.
A Vodou dance is indeed for the service of the lwa! Big dances, where several congregations come together, provide opportunities for new encounters, and the dancing itself provides the opportunity for men and women to display health and strength, as well as talent for song and movement. But "playing to" a particular person, or advancing an agenda other than the service of the lwa, is immediately discouraged.
At a Vodou dance, men generally wear normal civilian clothing, trousers or jeans, and nice shirts. Women wear dresses, usually with full skirts, and head kerchiefs. The Houngans or Mambos present may be dressed more richly, or in clothes more resembling African styles. Men seldom remove their shirts, unless it has grown quite late and everyone is more or less soaked in sweat from several hours of dancing. Even so, unless a man is in his "home" peristyle, shirts usually remain on. The exceptions are the drummers, who in many cases are professional musicians who are not members of the congregation. Drummers often play shirtless, because they are the first to ruin their clothes with perspiration, owing to their exertions playing the drums.
Outside of religious activity, the magical work of Houngans and Mambos very often includes doing sex-related magic. Clients often wish to attract a particular lover or to ensure the fidelity of a spouse. There are probably more different types of wanga, or spells, for love and for sex than for any other purpose!
For example, one very simple wanga involves filling a clay pot with certain particular food items and then wrapping it tightly with a cloth and then again with string, while invoking for influence over the desired person. The person working the magic rubs the clay pot, and then contrives to rub the head of the desired person, thereby making the person suceptible to the influence and control of the person working the magic.
There are very effective herbal baths to attract love and sex, there are wanga for fertility and for fidelity, as well. Even the sex organs themselves may be utilized in minor ways to ensure the success of love wanga. All of these wanga are the property of the Houngan or Mambo who knows how to do them, and are performed for a fee.
A general tendency to encourage fertility plays a major role in determining sexual attitudes. Even homosexual men are expected to father children. This high value placed on fertility plays into Haitian men's advantage in polygamy, and many Haitian men are not above enforcing this advantage by violence. Thus women venerate Erzulie Dantor, who is a strong black woman, a mother, who uses knives and protects women from domestic violence and sexual abuse. Erzulie Dantor is also the object of particular veneration by lesbian women, and Dantor herself is sometimes said to be a lesbian. She is invoked by market women to protect their businesses and ensure a profit; or in any other context in which women's own income gathering activities or other independant work is involved. Interestingly, Erzulie Dantor has two husbands! One is the foundational Petro lwa Ti-Jean Petro, the other is the master magician Simbi Makaya.
Childless women in Haiti are the object of concern to a much greater extent than childless women in the United States. Lack of economic opportunities for women makes the role of "mother" one of the few available to majority class Haitian women, and one of the few ways in which they can hope to provide themselves with some small security in old age. Childlessness is sometimes considered to be a reasonable grounds for a man to put a woman out of the house, or to conduct relatively open relationships with other women in the hope of impregnating one of them. Childless women often seek help from medsin fey (herbalists), Mambos, or Houngans. Interestingly, in the case of an infertile couple, the woman and not the man is invariably presumed to be "at fault", and any magical intervention is directed at her and not at the man.
These interventions are usually conducted under the patronage of Baron, and women wishing to become pregnant are escorted to the cemetery and presented to the Cross of Baron, where further ceremonies take place depending on the guidance of the presiding Houngan or Mambo and any lwa who may appear through the mechanism of possession.
Likewise, a woman deprived of the use of a man, for example if her husband emigrates to the United States and does not return for a very long period of time, may be excused for bearing children in her husband's absence. Excused by the community at least - if the woman is legally married she can be imprisoned if convicted of adultery! (Men convicted of adultery, by the way, pay only a small monetary fine.) If the woman is not married, she may be abandoned by her absent man, but she will not be severely condemned by the community. Here, the fertility principle overrides the proprietary rights of the man.
The Vodou festival of Saut d'Eau, held every July 14, 15, and 16 at the waterfall of Ville Bonheur, near the town of Mirebalais on Haiti's central plateau, is in many ways a fertility festival. The waters of the falls are sacred both to the lwa of primal creation Damballah and Ayida Wedo, and to the lwa of love and luxury Erzulie Freda. When the "serpent" of the hissing falls is visited by mist-diffracted sunlight which produces the rainbow of Ayida Wedo, these two lwa are thought to be making love! The water is believed to promote fertility, and couples wishing to bear children often attend the festival specifically for that reason. Women enjoy some degree of sexual license during this festival, for the purpose of procreation.
A famous Houngan of Bel Air, in Port-au-Prince, the late Dieu Bon, once took a young woman to Saut d'Eau. The young woman then astonished Dieu Bon by having sexual relations with a whole series of men! Dieu Bon lamented to me, "If she had gone and had fun with one or two, I wouldn't have said anything. Let her have her fun, it's Saut d'Eau! But so MANY!" This episode was immortalized in song by Wawa, who sang "Dyebon te genyen yon ti fanm, korve bare nan bobo l, ah hey, a yo!", meaning, "Dieu Bon had a little woman, a work crew got stuck in her vagina, a hey, a yo!"
Vodou has no moral injunction against sex before or without marriage. Houngans and Mambos are not legally competent to perform marriages in Haiti, so when Vodouisants wish to marry formally, they usually marry in the Roman Catholic church. If they are such notable Vodouisants that the local priest refuses to marry them, they obtain an "act civil" from the local Juge-de-Paix, justice of the peace.
Houngans and Mambos conduct marriage ceremonies between humans and lwa! People marry lwa because of a personal affinity for a particular lwa, or because the lwa requests the marriage. In a marriage to a lwa, the desired lwa is invoked and possesses a person present. In the house in which I was first initiated, the lwa must be of the opposite sex from the person, and the lwa must appear in the head of a person of the appropriate sex. For instance, if a man is to marry Maitresse Erzulie Freda, Freda must possess a woman, and that woman will then be the vehicle for Freda's participation in the marriage ceremony. The ceremony itself is conducted according to Roman Catholic liturgy by an uninitated ceremonial specialist called a pere savan, who is able to read and recite Catholic liturgy.
A person married to a lwa must abstain from sex on the night sacred to that lwa. Often they wear the colors of that lwa, and serve that lwa particularly well in other regards. In return, the person is protected, aided financially, and nurtured spiritually by that lwa.
In the congregation where I work in Haiti, we have a running joke, a pun on the Creole words Gine (Guinea) and gigit (gigit is a not-terribly-vulgar colloquial term for 'penis'). We were joking one day about people who mix up sexual activity and Vodou service, like this, "Si ou nan Gine, ou pa nan gigit! Gine se Gine, gigit se gigit!", meaning "If you are in Guinea (involved in Vodou service), you are not involved in penis! Guinea is Guinea, penis is penis!" Of course we repeat these phrases in very deliberate, measured accents, like children saying naughty words to vex the adults present! But in this joke lies the key to sexuality in Vodou - sexuality is celebrated and faciliated as the normal physical manifestation of a healthy adult; yet it is completely subordinated to service of spiritual principles during Vodou ceremonies.
Some unscrupulous, predatory Houngans and Mambos including at least one very well known in the United States sometimes try to take advantage of clients or intiates. They may attempt to pressure the client or initiate into sexual intimacy. This is never necessary or recommended, and such a Houngan or Mambo is disreputable and vicious.