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Interview with the Vodoun: Manbo Sallie Anne Glassman
Article ID: 14770
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Author: Brunhilde [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: December 25th. 2011
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I am a solitary Wiccan living in a wonderful city where diverse cultural influences abound. My city is New Orleans and one of our local religions is Vodou (voh-DOO) . I was interested in learning more about it, to compare and contrast Vodou with Wicca. I interviewed Manbo Sallie Ann Glassman, a Vodou practitioner here since 1977. She was ordained as a Manbo (Vodou priestess) in 1995 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She is the founder of La Source Ancienne Ounfo, a local Vodou society. Glassman is also a talented artist and author of the book Vodou Visions: An Encounter with Divine Mystery (2007) . We met at her shop, Island of Salvation Botanica, situated in a newly renovated building called the New Orleans Healing Center. We discussed a specific ceremony that she had performed in response to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster.
Brunhilde: Before we begin, can you tell how to correctly pronounce some of the Vodou terms in your book?
Sallie Anne Glassman: (Smiling) In Haiti, I would listen carefully to all that was being said before the ritual began. I always thought that they were discussing important ideas and major metaphysical points. But once I learned Kreyòl, I realized that what they were actually saying was the same thing WE say before a ritual. “Do you put it over here? No, you put it over there. Well that’s not what we did last time. Well, do it this time. Does anyone have a cigarette?”
B: Sounds like Wiccans. “Where did we put the altar last time? I don’t know, I missed that ritual, remember? Well, did you bring the altar cloth? No, I thought YOU were bringing the altar cloth. Does anyone have a cigarette?”
SG: The initial focus of a Vodou ritual is to establish a crossroad between the visible and the invisible worlds. Once that crossroad is opened both the spirits and we can function in both worlds and the celebration of the ritual can unfold. The invisible world is bigger, more beautiful, and more powerful than our visible world. In ritual we are reaching into that larger world. The visible and invisible worlds interact and influence each other. So it is possible on our physical side to reach into the invisible world in visible ways. And it is possible for the spirits to touch us in invisible ways.
B: Wiccans in a ritual circle also establish a portal. We believe that all the dimensions of reality exist simultaneously. That is why we can pray and effect change—because the invisible world and the visible world occupy the same space.
SG: Vodou is characterized by its devotion to the spirits, the Lwa. Every Lwa has its own unique symbol, called a vèvè (VEH-vay) . At the beginning of every ritual, I draw these symbols on the floor or the ground to summon the corresponding Lwa. The symbol itself becomes a summons, an invitation to the Lwa to enter and be with the people. Offerings are placed on the vèvè to entice the Lwa to enter and communicate with us. The symbol becomes an active portal.
B: What was the small vèvè that you drew in the center of the ritual circle that day? It was an equal-sided cross inside a circle.
SG: That was a marker for the spot where the center pole would have stood had we been in our usual ritual site. But we were on the Mississippi River bank that day. So we had to mark the central spot with that vèvè. The cross drawn inside the circle symbolizes many things: the crossroads between the worlds, the four directions and also the movement of life through the universe.
B: There was a large turnout that day. Many different religions participated.
SG: (Laughing) Yes, when we first got out there, it suddenly poured down raining and we were drenched! We all laughed about it. We were there to pray for the waters of the Gulf, so we were blessed with an abundance of water. We took it as a good sign.
B: The vèvè symbols look like intricate artwork. Can you tell me more about them?
SG: Everything in Vodou ritual is an acknowledgement that there is an invisible world co-existing within our visible world. For every ceremony I draw four vèvès, using cornmeal, on the ground or floor of the ritual space. I also create more vèvès, depending on the goal of the ritual. But there are always four basic symbols for the four Lwa that are invited to every ritual.
B: Which vèvès did you draw for the Gulf ceremony?
SG: The first symbol is Legba (LEHG-ba) who guards the gateway to the spirit world; he lets all the other spirits come through to this physical plane. I draw his vèvè first. We sing and drum prayers to him first, to call him to the ceremony. Then I create the vèvè for the Marassa (mah-RA-sah) the sacred twins, they are the first-born of God. They are two bodies sharing one soul. They represent the physical world and the metaphysical world, which interact at the crossroads. Many of our Vodou practices emphasize this reflective quality of the visible and the invisible worlds that we all share. Then Loko (LOH-koh) the original Vodou priest and the guardian of the center pole in the middle of the ritual space, which connects the visible world and the invisible one. And Ayizan (AH-ee-zahn) the wife of Loko and the original Vodou priestess, she is in charge of many things, initiations, and marketplaces.
B: And the other Lwa you called that day. Can you tell me a few of them?
SG: Yes, we did. They were Lasiren (lah-see-REHN) and Agwe (AHG-way) . Lasiren is a Lwa who rules under the sea. Half woman and half fish, she is the source of the siren’s song sometimes heard at sea. She is the patron of song and music. We also called her husband Agwe. He is the guardian of ships at sea.
(Our interview was interrupted by a distinct noise in the room. It was not a visiting Lwa, only the loud snoring of her dog sleeping on the floor. We both laughed as I moved my recorder away from the dog. We returned to my video of the Gulf ritual.)
B: A conch shell was blown, then a drum roll, and your lead vocalist called out, “Anonsé! Anonsé! Anonsé!”
SG: She was calling out to the people, announcing that the major portion of the ceremony is about to take place.
B: And what were the movements of the young man within the circle swinging the machete?
SG: He is the Laplas (lah-PLAHS) the Master of Ceremonies and the sword bearer. He has specific duties to perform within the ritual space. He uses a machete to cut the crossroads in the visible world so that the Lwa can connect to the worshippers inside the ritual space. It is similar to Wiccans casting a circle. The Laplas also represents the Lwa Ogou (oh-GOU) who is the iron forge master and the warrior. He brings the force and the power into the ceremony
B: Can you tell me about the pirouettes that you performed with the members of the circle? You linked the small finger of your hand with the small finger of your partner. Then you pirouetted and curtsied. You were spinning in different directions.
SG: It is a way of saluting each member of the group. It is also another way of showing how the visible world reflects the invisible world. Every time we spin, we are creating a mirror image on the other side. If you notice, we always spin opposite to each other as if we are facing a mirror. Also, we spin and curtsey three times. If it were two spins, it might be coincidental, but to do it three times means that we are moving into the realm of ritual. There is an historical element to it as well. The slaves saw the French minuet dances and thought they were very elegant and graceful. They incorporated those movements into Vodou ritual as a way to honor the Lwa.
B: And how does it affect you personally?
SG: These ritual procedures exist not only to coax the spirit out of the invisible realm, but also to prepare us to receive them. The procedures are designed to allow the participants to achieve an altered state of awareness, so that they can interact with the invisible world and feel the presence of the Lwa. The procedures call for specific gestures in a specific order. These regulations have evolved over time, as each community sought the best ways to create the crossroads and interact with the Lwa. We spin and curtsey in patterns of three. First counterclockwise, then clockwise, then counterclockwise again to show the mirror perception of the spirits in the visible world.
B: I noticed that you danced in a different manner with some of the members of your circle.
SG: Yes, the way that you salute the person indicates their level of initiation in the group or their seniority. I saluted differently with the (h) ounjenikon (oun-GEH-nee-kahn) our lead singer and my konfeyons (KAWN-fay-awns) or right-hand assistant.
B: Which is similar to our Handmaidens. Except that the position of Handmaiden can change with every Wiccan ritual, because different people can be assigned those duties. They are assistants to the Priestess.
SG: My ounjenikon and my konfeyons are the same person for every ritual.
B: The men were fingering their shirts and the ladies were slightly lifting their skirts. Did that mean something?
SG: There are several ritual gestures that are used. Again, it is usually a movement specific to the ritual, specific to the Lwa. Those gestures are also considered graceful and a sign of respect to the Lwa. For the Gulf ritual that day we were calling on Lwa associated with water. You will notice that we were rolling our shoulders as we danced. That undulating movement is like the rolling motion of the waves. Other song gestures include shaking our shoulders. Just as there are songs to welcome the Lwa, there are also songs sung to let them go. When a Lwa possesses a person, you will see us curtsey and pirouette again to that person. We do so to honor the Lwa who has just arrived and welcome them to the ceremony.
B: I noticed that when the Lwa departed, the person fell to the ground exhausted.
SG: (chuckling) Yes, the Lwa sometimes leave us limp!
B: I am always intrigued by the music in your rituals. Can you tell me more about the words being sung?
SG: When it comes to using the Kreyol, that language doesn’t have a huge vocabulary; so many of their words have double and even triple entendres and multiple meanings. It can be very hard to translate the phrases. But all of the meanings are very encoded. They might say just three words, but it means all this other stuff! The words may seem incoherent or appear to contain very minimum amount of information. But the more you understand about Kreyòl, the more you realize the multiple levels of meaning in each word. The songs encode all the information about the Lwa, the ritual, Vodou, the history of the people and the true nature of life. Also, many of these songs evolved among the slave populations where secrecy was necessary. Here in New Orleans, many of the rituals and songs evolved in public gatherings in Congo Square. To the rest of the population of the city, it appeared on the surface to be a gathering for music and dancing. But what was really taking place was the continuation of the old religion and the creation of new customs. Their songs and dance steps encapsulated what Vodou was all about and in this way, Vodou survived. Those early spiritual gatherings evolved into the Vodou ceremonies we see today in this city.
B: Can you describe the ritual confrontation that took place between the Manbo shaking her asson (ritual rattle) and the Laplas brandishing the machete?
SG: That signifies the battle between the Lwa and the Manbo. The spirits challenge her and she must prove to them that she is strong enough to control the ceremony. And this is something that you wouldn’t see in Haiti—this extended battle. The mock battle goes on longer in our rituals, because as Americans and Westerners, we need an extra step to get through that resistance—the point where we accept Spirit and we get past our ego/identities and go deeper in. The Priest or Priestess has to be strong enough and knowledgeable enough to contact the Lwa, gain their respect and secure their cooperation. But always acknowledging where that power is coming from, that this power is borrowed from Spirit and it is not ours to keep.
Once the Lwa are contacted, the Manbo intercedes so that they don’t hurt people. The Gods play hardball. Possession is not an easy experience. -- (Vodou Visions 21)
B: In traditional Wicca, we don’t routinely engage in acts of spirit possession as in Vodou. Sometimes we do “channel” the energy of the God or Goddess. But not at every ritual, only at certain ceremonies. “Drawing Down the Moon” is one instance. And there are other rituals where we invoke the three separate aspects of the Goddess as Maiden, Mother, or Crone.
It is a procedure that involves opening your mind to the will of the Goddess. You invite her to speak and act through you for the benefit of the circle. It is a ritual act that is taught by the High Priestess to the other Priestesses. Some call it channeling and others call it a trance state. It is an advanced spiritual duty that is usually reserved for the 3rd degree level of training. When you offer yourself to the Goddess like this, you usually don’t have any memory of what you said and did. -- (Susan Kagen, 3rd Degree High Priestess, CPWC)
B: Please describe the movements of the Laplas around in the circle, flanked by the two assistants holding flags.
SG: The flags are called drapo (drah-POH) . They each represent one of the Lwa; they incorporate certain colors and symbols. Two assistants accompany the Laplas and present the drapo to each of the cardinal directions within the circle. This action is similar to the special ceremonial flags used to greet heads of state or military leaders. The presentation of special flags is a way to announce that someone important and powerful is coming. In the same way that modern countries honor dignitaries by presenting flags, the Vodou community honors their Lwa with the presentation of the drapo. If you notice, everyone in the group knelt down and kissed the drapo. It is a show of devotion and respect, an acknowledgement of the power and might of the Lwa and their connection to the community. The movement of the flags around in the circle represents the movement of Spirit throughout the Vodou community.
B: Both of our religions have been marginalized by more mainstream religions here in America. Often our spiritual beliefs were actively suppressed. To escape detection, Wiccans used standard household items as ritual tools. To prying eyes they would be seen simply as brooms and cooking pots, with no indication of their metaphysical nature. You do this also?
SG: Yes, we use cornmeal to create vèvès and we use a machete to cut open the crossroads. Also, remember that the early Vodou practitioners came to America as slaves. Their ritual tools, like the machete, were simple because of their extreme poverty.
B: The person leading your music had a powerful voice. I really admired her performance of the ritual songs.
SG: She is our ounjenikon, our choir leader. She memorizes all of the community’s sacred songs, the songs for each vèvè, each Lwa, each ceremony and each stage of the ritual.
B: Both of our religions are relatively free of dogma. Rather than follow a strict book of rules, each Wiccan evolves their own personal method of connection to Spirit. Both Wiccans and Vodoun embrace the idea of shamanism and the achievement of altered states of awareness in order to experience a personal connection to the divine.
SG: Yes, and I would also state that Vodou is monotheistic; it recognizes a single supreme being. But that god is so vast that we have difficulty relating to it. So, there are all these other intermediaries and ancestral spirits, the Lwa. But they are not just archetypal principles; they are actual forces of nature. They are seen as aspects of God’s life force, Ashé (ah-SHAY) , embodied in the natural world around us. It is not that we are worshipping say…water. We are worshipping the indwelling of the spirit that is imminent in the water. As the Lwa, we call them Lasiren and Agwe. We don’t worship them as gods or goddesses; we serve them. To us they are guiding spirits who steer the universe under God. They help us to make connections to the divine.
B: Both of our religions devise rituals that encourage improvisation. Most of our public Wiccan rituals are limited to about an hour. Our private rituals can go on much longer. Are there similar time elements in public Vodou rituals?
SG: Yes, we sometimes shorten our open rituals, those that are attended by the general public. Our closed rituals go on much, much longer.
B: I really enjoyed reading your book, it explained a great deal and answered so many questions that I had about Vodou.
SG: Thanks. I wrote it to help clear up some of the misconceptions about Vodou. There is still so much fear and misunderstanding out there. People are so wary of Vodou. I still remember first seeing books on Vodou and thinking, “Oh, stay away from that! I don’t want to read that and jeopardize my immortal soul!” But the more I learned about it, by reading authors like Maya Daren (1917-1961) , the more I came to realize that all my arguments against Vodou were unfounded. I knew then that my notions about Vodou were all wrong and that this religion was ancient and powerful. And then when I travelled to Haiti and saw how the people lived and breathed their faith every day, continuously talking to and interacting with their spirits, so integrated into their world, their reality. The experience for me was just so real that I ate it up! I knew I was seeing religion as it ought to be. It’s all about spontaneity and improvisation. Which is what you know in your head, but are you just saying it or are you really living it? For me, there is sometimes a difficulty with people who are fundamentalists about Vodou. They are literalists. They say, “It’s gotta be this way; these are the rules!” They can’t understand the creative essence within it.
B: I can relate to that. In the Wiccan world we sometimes have “witch wars” where folks will argue the merits of the various spiritual paths and say, “Unless you follow these rules, you’re not really Wiccan!” Ultimately, you have to walk your path alone. And for everyone that process is different.
SG: Yes, and you have to be willing enough to get out of your comfort zone and not be acting by rote. Your experience has to be raw, spontaneous and unscripted. You must be present in the moment or it’s not real. It’s no surprise that Vodou has thrived and flourished here in New Orleans. Many of our city’s cultural traditions, like jazz and second-line parades, encourage improvisation and spontaneity. That sensibility has allowed Vodou to flourish here.
B: Wiccans usually want to stage our ritual outdoors. We like to feel the specific energy of the season.
SG: Yes, and sometimes we REALLY get to feel the energy of the season, like we did on the day of the Gulf ritual. (Laughing.) The sky opened up and we were soaked!
B: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today. And bright blessings in your new space in the New Orleans Healing Center.
SG: Thanks; we are very happy to be here.
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. McPherson and Company, 1983.
Glassman, Sallie Ann. Vodou Visions: An Encounter with Divine Mystery, 2nd ed. Island of Salvation Botanica, 2007.
Hurbon, Laënnec. Voodoo: Search for the Spirit. (Abrams Discoveries) Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.
Holloway, Joseph E., ed. Africanisms in American Culture, 2nd ed. Indiana University Press, 2005.
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana
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