Possessions and Performances or, Is the Play the Thing?

In Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, Mambo Karen McCarthy-Brown spoke of “possession-performances, which blend pro forma actions and attitudes with those responsive to the immediate situation.” (McCarthy-Brown, Mama Lola, 6).  In a footnote she emphasized that she used possession-performance “not to indicate that possession is playacting, but to emphasize the theatrical quality of visits from the Vodou spirits.” Brown left it to the reader to determine just who was performing and focused instead on the role these possession-performances played within Vodou and within Haitian culture.

Brown’s decision is understandable. Within academia the lwa can be nothing more than social constructs. Incorporeal beings who temporarily hijack human bodies are the stuff of science fiction, not social science. They are an integral part of Haitian culture: fitting the lwa qua lwa into a Western paradigm would require a profound redecorating of our reality tunnel.  Mama Lola is an intelligent, nuanced and sensitive portrait of a Haitian Mambo living in Brooklyn with her family.  It describes the challenges they and their community face in maintaining their Haitian and American identities, and shows how Vodou provides them strength, guidance and comfort.  But Brown’s scholarly detachment gave her peers and readers an escape hatch that allowed them to explore Vodou’s worldview without unduly challenging their own.

Even with Brown’s disclaimer the word “performance” carries the implication of agency. Are the lwa a role which a chwal (literally “horse,” the Kreyol word for a possessed person) takes on and personalizes the way a jazz musician riffs on a standard?  Or is the chwal the instrument a lwa uses to reach an audience? While Brown suggests possession is more than play-acting, in a world without lwa it is difficult to imagine what else it might be.  The metaphysics of Vodou may appear at first glance less important than its sociology. But if we are to understand sevis gineh (Service to Ancestral Africa, Vodou’s formal name among adherents), we must consider who we are serving.

I am Houngan si pwen Coquille du Mer, initiated in Société la Belle Venus #2 (Brooklyn, New York) in March 2003 by Mambo Azan Taye (Edeline St-Amand) and Houngan Si Gan Temps (Hugue Pierre).  I cannot speak with certainty on the nature of the lwa: Vodouisants call them les Mistés, the Mysteries, for a reason. All I can tell you is what I have seen, what I have experienced, what I have felt.

* * * *

ezilidantoIt’s the opening night of the Kanzo ceremony and I’ve been falling to the floor and rising to salute the lwa for what feels like forever. Everything is spinning.  Through the blindfold the world is swallowed up in a dirty linen fog, with drumbeats stabbing at me as sweat stings my hoodwinked eyes. Someone is holding me, they’re pulling me somewhere, I’m going into the initiatory chamber now I realize as I stumble to my knees and try to rise again.  Somebody grabs me and starts pulling me forward and that’s when I hear Ezili Danto scream “DE-DE-DE-DE-DE!” and I’m moving toward her scream and then the fog goes dark and I am behind the curtain.  

The next morning I ask who was possessed by Danto and find out it was me.

* * * *

The lwa come in response to particular cues: their songs are sung in a particular order (the reglamen) and accompanied by intricate rhythms.  Their offerings are presented at the altar, at the drums and at the doors of the rooms which hold their supplies: as the celebrants salute the directions a houngenikon sings the chante lwa as the crowd joins in the call-and-response.  Often the person leading the salute will be the first possessed: traditionally those who “have” the lwa, or who are known to be possessed by that lwa, will be chosen to salute the spirit or carry offerings.

For me it begins with a stumble. My feet become awkward and my flesh hangs heavy on my bones like an ill-fitting parka.  My head drifts on my shoulders: an electric tingle begins on the back of my neck then comes rushing into my head like lightning shimmering in time with the drumbeats.  I begin trembling, alternately trying to let it happen and trying to push away the swirling nausea. Then a scream comes out of the whirlpool and everything breaks into fever dream fragments and slams back together as I fall to the floor.

When the possession begins, other Houngans and Mambos will rush to the prospective horse and begin working to call down the lwa.   They will sprinkle the horse with rum or perfume and rattle their assons (ceremonial rattles) in his ear: they remove her shoes so her feet are touching the floor.  As the lwa mounts a scarf in the spirit’s color will be tied around the horse’s waist or arm: this is said to “tie” them to the horse and make it easier for them to control the body.  Afterwards the horse is offered care: they are typically disoriented and tired when the lwa goes although that feeling usually goes away in a few minutes.

This is not a performance — or at least it is not the horse’s performance! There are things one can do to help speed the possession along, the most helpful being to relax and allow it to happen.  (This is sometimes easier said than done, especially if you are dealing with a “hot” or fierce spirit).  But ultimately the possession happens when the lwa wants it to happen, and when the lwa show up they are in charge of the show.  Horses may remember bits and pieces of what the lwa did (though typically even these fade quickly the way dreams vanish a moment after waking), or they remember nothing at all.  This is my experience: I have received near-identical reports from many other Vodouisants who have horsed the lwa.

In Haiti I saw a man possessed by Ti-Jan Danto eat fire from a flaming log.   Hot embers were bouncing off his chin and rolling off his chest before falling to the floor.  His face should have been a mass of blisters yet he kept smacking at that log with wide-open unseeing eyes and a grin I will never forget.  A few years later in Brooklyn I saw a small, elderly man possessed by Bossou: I was tasked with getting his shoes off.   While I was doing that he picked me up over his shoulder and took off running around the basement at full speed.  Another man came to help: he weighed close to 300 pounds, more than twice Papi Hector’s weight. And Bossou/Papi Hector flipped him up on his shoulder and took off as if he were nothing, running several more laps before falling to the ground.

These could be explained away as parlor tricks or self-hypnosis, sure.  But you tell me what kind of self-hypnosis lets a man eat hot coals.  And what kind of parlor trick lets a little man run laps with thrice his weight on his shoulders.  Those “explanations” are no explanation at all, just pretty tunes to whistle as you walk past the boneyard.  For Haitian Vodouisants there’s no need for explanation: the lwa came down as they always have and engaged their community the way they always do. And the more time I spent among Vodouisants, and the more lwa I saw come down, the more sense that explanation made.  Instead of denying my lived experience and creating convoluted tales of autosuggestion, self-hypnosis and viewer bias, I chose to trust my teachers and my reality.

I believe there is a performative element to trance possession. But I believe that it is an external force, not the chwal, performing.  I do not understand how it works or why it works, though I’ve noticed some interesting parallels in trance possession experiences around the world.  But based on what I have studied and what I have seen I feel comfortable saying — not through faith but through data for which I can find no better explanation — the Gods are Real, the Gods are Many, the Gods are Here.

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