Legba pulled a strong card for November: Mange Mo’, literally Feed the Dead. Very apropos for this time of year! November heralds the month long celebration in Haiti called Fet Ghede. It is an opportunity to clean up the family grave site, serve the ancestor’s favorite food and drink, light candles for warmth and energy, while celebrating the life of the ancestors through service, prayers and songs they enjoyed when alive. Beginning on October 31 (which is a more American affectation than Haitian) and running through November 30, Fet Ghede is a national holiday in Haiti and is celebrated the length and breadth of the country. Offices shut down, people take a holiday from work, and everyone heads down to the cemetery to celebrate, to cry, and to remember. It is such a strong and powerful reminder of one’s past, I am surprised that it is just this one month.
Feeding the dead should not just be a once a year practice. In a place like Haiti where food can be problematic at best, feeding the ancestors is a routinely engaged gesture, one that is so normal it is done automatically. At dinner tables all over the country, a tiny bite is set aside for the ancestors, so that they can also eat with the family. A tip of a cup offers liquid refreshment and no one would dare begin a meal without making this inclusive and universal gesture of greeting.
Including the ancestors is so strong and prevalent, that during our Kanzo, one of the houngans was instructed to offer food and drink to his dead godmother from a Santeria tradition, so that she would look kindly on his making the passage into Haitian Vodou. The godmother was installed with all the pomp and circumstance she would have received, had she been alive. A govi was produced and with blessings, songs, and offerings, her ti-Bon Ange was invited to sit within it. A tiny chair was set up on the pe (the circular altar at the foot of the poto mitan) where the govi was reverently seated, and a tiny kolye placed around the neck of her clay vessel. With a ring side seat, she got to view up close and personal all the rituals being performed for her godchild.. It would have been unthinkable to kanzo her godchild without her direct consent. The presence of the Govi was significant in this circumstance as a stand-in for the deceased godmother. When we ate, the govi was fed bits of the meal. When we slept, the govi was covered to signal the spirit within that it was a time of rest. And when we processed out of the djevo on our batem day, the govi was decked out in white satin and beads, just like her godson. The inclusiveness of the govi during Kanzo was just one of many rites that Vodou provides to keep the ancestors close by.
Here in America, we put our ancestors away, locking their physical remains up in strange places with people they don’t know. We buy land in tiny plots, symbolic of larger domains that are no longer the available to the ancestor. We interr their remains in vaults of concrete or marble, lock iron gates to keep out strangers (and family) or lock in the dead. Sometimes, they are not laid to rest at all. More often than not, due to rising land cost or the lack of available land, Cremation has become the norm. Cremains are placed in govi-like vessels that are then installed in large mausoleums, alongside strangers. And again, when the iron gates closed, our beloved family members are left lying in strange ground. No wonder we love zombies so much these days – they are our own ancestors rising, looking for sustenance and family to keep them company.
The forgotten dead trouble us all the time – we just don’t know how to interpret the signs. I get calls about family troubles all the time. The story is almost universally the same. The father / mother is upset or having trouble sleeping/working/having relations with the spouse. They’ve tried everything (they say) and to no avail. Nothing they do seem to help or abate the signs and symptoms they are experiencing. But when we talk further, it is revealed that the ancestors are hungry. I interpret this from the conversations which go something like this:
“I can’t sleep! My legs are heavy and restless.”
“I feel like someone is sitting on my chest.”
“My mind won’t stop running,” or “I can’t shut off my mind.”
“The house feels ‘hot,’ ‘cold,’ ‘weird,’ ‘unusual.”
All these statements are indications that the Ancestors are on the prowl. Restless legs are indicative of walking spirits. Feeling heavy pressure on the chest, legs or face is ancestrally based energies, vying for your attention. A busy mind or unusual energy in a home is also a sign that the family is troubled, and like any family issue, when the elders are rumbling, we all feel it on the earth plane.
The simplest solution is to pay attention when these things occur. Ancestors are the heart and soul of our work as Vodouisants. Keeping the family running smooth requires effort, but nothing that is difficult. Repetition of the following gestures will make ensure you do it often and regularly, thus keep the spirits happy.
Most months, on Monday night, offer a small coffee saucer with a single bite from your meal and a shot glass of water or coffee is the simplest way to feed the spirits. They really don’t require much – just your continual devotion to their spiritual amelioration. For the month of November, when the entire month is devoted to the Ancestors, you would do best to make a plate each night. This card indicates that they are really hungry this year. Have you been to the cemetery lately, to clean and clear their gravesites? It is traditional to do so, and you can gain mucho respect from them for the gesture. Consider it a pilgrimage. Make a gravestone rubbing of their headstone. Plant flowers like mums and winter cabbage to keep it looking great. At home, use the gravestone rubbing as a centerpiece for your altar. Set out purple and black candles. Place ancestral foods they liked on white china plates. I usually buy Italian cookies for Dad’s side, maple candies for Mom and set out two cups of coffee – one black, one with cream and sugar.. I change the coffee daily and keep the altar fresh. I also use flowers, incense and perfume that my mother loved. The dead are rising and want their time with you. Spend it well with them, to ensure a solid year going forward for you and yours.
The shadow card for November is Holy Death. This can mean both a metaphysical death such as the end of a job or a relationship, or the actual death of someone. The Ghede may laugh loudly, and clown around, but they are deadly serious. In another tradition I once carried, this month heralded the beginning of many crossings. The Baron is coming and he does not fool around. Deadly serious, fiercely riding the raunchy clan of ghedes who accompany him, he is a takes no prisoner kind of guy. He is the final harvest of souls, and he comes for anyone he chooses. That is the truth he carries from Bon Dieu. You will feel his cold touch this month. Be wary of odd places, strange people or late night forays to locations unfamiliar. Stay small, feed your dead, but remember to honor the Baron this month. Wear purple and black, even if it is just a scarf, a ring or a pin. Pour water faithfully each night and light candles so that the Ghedes will come only for those who deserve their steely-eyed interest. May all your Dead feed well this cold month of November! Kwa senbo!