Kenaz Filan, The Haitian Vodou Handbook, Vermont: Destiny Books, 2007

With the increased interest in Haitian spirituality has come increased concern over those who would incorporate elements of Vodou into their own practice. Critics have raised a number of questions, ranging from “isn’t that dangerous?” to “what gives you the right to co-opt the spirituality of oppressed people?” As you continue serving the lwa, you are likely to be confronted with some of these questions, if you haven’t heard them, or thought about them, already.

We might be tempted to dismiss these challenges out of hand, but we may be wise to give them careful consideration. Some critics may be misguided, and others may have ulterior motives—but others have raised valid questions that deserve honest replies. In answering these queries, we can help to deepen our own understanding of Vodou, and avoid stumbling into some ugly pitfalls.

The “Dangers” of Vodou

Some will caution you at great length about the dangers of Vodou. They will tell you that the lwa 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 in serving the lwa; the spirit love their children and would never do anything to hurt them.

The truth, as is often the cases, lies somewhere in the middle. Many of the horror stories are based on the old chestnuts about “blood-soaked devil worship” and “drum-driven Negro orgies.” Dire warnings about human sacrifice owe more to the Late Night Creature Feature than to anything taking place in Haiti or the Haitian diaspora. Still, not all the horror stories are apocryphal. When they are offended, the lwa can wreak a grighting vengeance. If you are used to more sedate spiritual paths, you may be in a bit intimidated by how forceful and direct the lwa can be. After seeing your first possession, you may de scared silly.

I will not tell you that the lwa are incapable of doing you harm, but I will tell you that you can avoid most lwa troubles with a little common sense, a dollop of injured in electrical accidents. We can say “electricity is bad”—or we can teach people how to use electricity safely and responsibly, while acknowledging that stupidty and carelessness can be hazardous and even fatal. If you take the same approach to serving the lwa, you’ll have no problems.

You must realize that the lwa come from a hierarchical society, where respect for the elders is expected and disrespect is seen as a major offence. If you try treating the lwa like trained animals jumping through hoops—ordering them around when you want something, then ignoring them until the next time you’re in need—they will (righty) get annoyed. If, on the other hand, you treat them with as much consideration as you would show for a parent or a dear friend, you’ll do just fine. You don’t have to approach them with trembling fear—but you must approach them with reverence and respect.

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