Monday, May 4, 2015

Magical Names in Haitian Vodou

This is a photo of me, taken during one of the nights of my Kanzo in 2003. I am sitting with Enose, a 17 year old girl-child. Legba has just taken my head and I am speaking Creole, and looking for rum. I later was told that Enose came over and wept in my arms. I have no knowledge of this moment -- I was gone, baby gone -- but I love the shot nonetheless, for its inclusiveness and for Enose looking calm for a change.

I was told later that Legba kept saying a word. No one could tell me what the word was, but I have an idea. I believe it was my first magical name.

(left: Mambo Vye Zo and Hounsi Enose, Jacmel, Haiti, 2003)

Kanzo is the collective name for the ordination rites of Haitian Vodou.  These rituals culminate in priests being made by the hand of Papa Loko. Despite all the advertisements, picture essays and hawking of kanzo proliferating on the web, Kanzo is performed by the spirits. Mambos and Houngans facilitate the work, but it is the spirits themselves who come down and make the magic.  One way in which mambo and houngan do help is by choosing a name for their godchild to be given at their Batem (baptism). This is the ritual following the conclusion of their djevo ceremonies.

Names have power, whether we are speaking about naming your own child or choosing a throne name for a royal prince.  There is a tradition in Africa of giving two names – one that is used publicly and one that is used privately for the family.  The reason two names are used is to protect the specific individual from harm. When you know someone’s true name, you can (supposedly) control them.  Naming is also employed this way in the occult. In certain traditions, a name is given to the initiate that can be used publicly.  They are also given a secret name, one that they only use with the spirits. This name is never spoken out loud to anyone, no matter how close the initiate maybe to someone. The power of this name only works when it is used between the initiate and the spirits. For example, you request an audience with “Legba.”  A spirit presents itself to you saying it is Legba. You would then demand that the spirit say your “spirit name”.  Providing you only spoke it on the astral, the spirit would know the name, and use it. If the spirit did not know your name, then you could safely assume it was a false Lwa, and you would banished it on the spot. However, if it did know your name, then you could be assured you were talking to the real Legba.

True names often bespoke the nature of their source.  Containers have names such as Hidden Within or Covered with Pride. These names allude to work the container performs in a temple.  Rara bands baptize their instruments and name them before marching out.  The belief is that the instrument will not play well if it is not correctly blessed and named.  Items like paket kongo, machetes and drums are also consecrated in this manner.  The most important naming ceremony is the nom vayan of Kanzo.

Nom Vayan is Creole for “valiant name.” The act of giving someone a nom vayan has a root in the magic of the revolution.  A valiant name is a statement of intent.  It is meant to be a call to the spirits so that they will join in the work.  Nom vayans were yelled out in the heat of battle, as a magical evocation to call forth the spirits: those spirit would then engage through their servitors to win against all odds. With cannonballs whizzing overhead and shrapnel exploding at one’s feet, a multi-word nom vayan would not have been possible to use. Nom vayans often get shortened. My long name is generally shortened to just Vye Zo.  In the heat of a busy battle, that would be easy to remember.  If my name had been one of the long and oddly assembled ones such as K ap flote bwa janbe nan soufrans ak doulè (Floating Wood Jumps at Pain and Suffering,) I am not sure I would remember it.

Some Nom Vayans are so unique they are handed down through generations of a family. A friend is named Chita Tann (sits quietly) for her grandmother in the tradition. My grandfather Luc Gedeon’s name was Janbe Malheur (Step over Evil), a name that had been in his grandfather’s name.  Other names are meant to be formulas for engaging the spirits directly. My own name – Vye Zo Komande LaMenfo means “Old Bones commands with a strong hand.”  It is a two way statement about my relationship with my spirit and he with me. Names also tell the listener how the priest is aligned with his constellation.  My Kanzo father’s name was Dye di Don, “God’s Gift” and he was indeed a gift to everyone.  Many houngans have Dye or God in their praise name as a sign of their calling.  In all cases, the nom vanyan is a statement about the individual and their relationship with their spirits.

Nom vayans can also be formulas that may be invoked in everyday life. I chose the name Azouké Kreyé Vizyon for my godchild, so that their spirits would give them creative vision as well as the ability to bring that vision to manifestation.  They recently reported that the artwork they had finished for a show seemed to flow effortlessly off their hands. Before the name, they would spend time doing something over and over again.  This time it happened of its own accord and was exactly as planned.  I must say I am very pleased to hear this. I had spent a lot of time thinking about the name and wanted it to be a powerhouse for them, opening pathways and possibilities as yet experienced. The feedback I received showed me I had gotten the result I was looking for. Such is the power of a properly chosen nom vayan.

There are some priests who will choose a bad name deliberately for their godchildren. But in my opinion, that shows poor judgment on the part of the priest. To place a bad name on a child is to infer that you are ignorant of the tradition and have no ability.  Only a talentless fool would do such a thing. My godchildren are proof that I am a powerful mambo. I gave them the best, most effective names I could create. I spent hours researching the words and whispering them to my own spirits at my altar. I tested them, like formulas in a laboratory.  And when I achieved the result I was looking for, I graced my child with the invocation, fully aware that it is a link between us; a spiritual chain connecting our hearts and souls forever. And just like any mother who has delivered a biological child, I deliver my manifested soul children into the world as powerful, empowered and magical beings. I give them the tools to rise up and be respected for their work, both sacred and secular. I give thanks to God for the ability to do so. I give thanks for the children whom I call my loves. And I give thanks for the spirits who work with me to empower the names I have chosen and who empower the children who wear these names with pride. Ayibobo.

Vye Zo! M’ Komande la Menfo! Old Bones! I command you with a strong hand of Ginen! Ayibobo!

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