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A Review of the Haitian Voodoo Handbook

Guest Author - Elizabeth Bissette

I've never read a book that starts with a warning before. Well, maybe a Victorian cautionary tale or two did but it seems to me the warnings usually come at the end of those books, like the morals in fables. Kenaz Filan, author of, "The Haitian Vodou Handbook", doesn't want to take the chance of letting you wait till the end of the book to find the reason for caution. The consequences might be rather dire if he did.

What is the warning? And what would the consequences be? Am I joking? Am I just perpetuating the idea that some believe, that Vodou works mostly because people are afraid of it to begin with?

The answers, in reverse order, are: no I don't think that's why Vodou works, though I've no idea what would feed into the concept; no, I'm in no way joking; I'm not joking because weird things started happening, as Filan says they well may, when I started paying close attention to the book; I'm not sure what to say about consesquences but they seem to be relative and last, but by no means least, the authors warning is as follows:

(From Page 1 of Chapter 1 - Chapter heading, "Some Words of Caution: The Dangers of Haitian Vodou")

"Some will caution you at great length about the dangers of Vodou. They will tell you that the Lwa, (guardian spirits of Vodou), are jealous, thin-skinned, and hot-tempered. Only those with years of training can serve them properly, they claim - and if you miss one minute detail, you run the risk of being ruined body and soul. Others will tell you there is no danger at all...the truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere in the middle..."

Filan, (Houngan Coquille du Mer), was initiated into New York's Societe la Belle Venus in 2003, following ten years of serving the Lwa as a solitary practitioner. I had no idea there was such a thing as a solitary Vodou practitioner until I encountered this book, let alone one who could then go on to be a leader in a religious community. But, after reading his book, I've begun to suspect that Vodou is rather full of surprises.

Rooted in the West African religious tradition of Vodun, Vodou is quite possibly the oldest living religion in the world. (See other features here about Vodoo, Vodun and the Loa to understand more about the original belief system and those that sprung from it.) In Vodou, both an all-powerful God, for the most part distant from human beings and interactive, demi-God/Goddess-like powers called Lwa (or Loa) are revered. It is not dissimilar from Catholicism with it's tradition of revering both God and Saints. Filan's book examines these dieties closely, along with the protocols for interacting with them.

And in Vodou one is definitely interacting as much as one can be said to worship or serve the members of the pantheon. These include not only God/Saint-like personalities but the spirits of the dead, ancestors in particular, as well. And they are not only believed to be actively involved in the lives of human beings, but change/evolve as people do to some extent as well. They wear contemporary clothes, like to drink, smoke, eat and/or have sex (depending on the Lwa), and are not only offerred incense and other things traditionaly left as tokens of prayer or thanks to Gods/Saints, (like candles), but rum, cigarettes, Vogue magazine. Seriously, what appeases or displease seems to depend to some rather active extent on the Lwa and the individual invoking him/her rather than upon etched in stone tradition.

Filan's book explains how to do this, along with some of the history of Vodou, some of his own personal experience and he also provides the reader with further resources should they choose to continue to pursue the study of Vodou. He warns, however, that studying and doing tend to become the same thing, with the time this takes to occur being something that happens quickly or slowly on a case by case basis. It does not seem, as with most religions, that one can simply decide to practice it and have it work or not work at will, regardless of dedication or even disinclination. In Vodou, the Lwa choose you more than you choose the Lwa.

A number of strange things began to happen and continued to happen as I read this book. Which is just what Filan says may occur. I don't know which, if any, were real and which, if any, were coincidence and/or conjecture. My suspicion inclines far more heavily towards the reality of what I experienced. As to my pursual of the resources section at the end of the book, well, I'm not quite sure. I have a feeling that if the Gods/Lwa invoked by the focus on them the book draws you into the habit of want me to pursue them, I will one way or another even if I tried to avoid it.

All this from a book? yep. All this from a book. I think Filan has written not only a significant but truly powerful one. The type of book that, like the Lwa themselves, takes on something of a life of it's own for the reader.

I think you'll find "The Haitian Vodou Handbook" to be informative, rather compelling and comprehensive without being over-complicated. I think you'll find yourself re-reading it and gaining new insight into the tradition each time you do, whether you believe what I'm saying about his warnings being true or not, have experienced the Lwa yourself already, are simply curious or are already well informed.

It's hard to write a book that pulls all that off. To tell the truth, it's hard to write a book that I not only have a hard time putting down but read repeatedly. Filan has accomplished all of these things.

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