By Mike Gleason
The Haitian Vodou Handbook: Protocols for Riding with the Lwa, by Kenaz Filan
Destiny Books, 1594771251, 204 pp., 2007
I have a certain level of trepidation as I read any book devoted to a religion which actively incorporates the use of magic in the daily life of its followers. The gods (or in this case, the lwa) know that there exists a surplus of spell books on the market today. There are plenty of books which reveal the inner workings of non-traditional (read: mainstream) religions. And the number of authors out there who claim high degrees of initiation which prohibit them from saying anything intelligible is legion. This is not one of those books and/or authors.
Filan carefully draws a distinction between the lwa, angels, and God, which may be surprising to many in the Neo-Pagan community as well as the more accepted Christian community. He does point out, however, that his beliefs may not be shared by all Vodouisants. He is honest enough to state that disagreements do not mean one side is right and the other is wrong, merely that they differ.
Filan spells certain names in ways I am not familiar with from my previous readings on the subject of Vodou, but that may simply be an evolution of understanding, much like Peking became Beijing. While it was a trifle disconcerting at first, it isn’t a major stumbling point.
Although he disclaims any intimate knowledge of, or association with, Neo-Pagan religions he admits to a basic knowledge of a variety of them. He displays this knowledge in subtle ways, but without any attempt to disguise the knowledge. The Vodou he describes is quite eclectic and flexible, as any truly living religion should be.
As well as providing extensive (albeit basic) background on the tools and lwa he also provides a very basic history of the conditions which led to the development and dispersion of this belief system. Such information is vital to understanding why such ceremonies are effective.
There is no attempt made to mystify or conceal. Even less is there an attempt to denigrate the sources. The explanations, and descriptions, of the law given by the author are clear and concise, albeit necessarily short. As he explains “A comprehensive listing of all of the law revered in Haiti could easily fill several volumes. If you included the regional and house variations in their images, offerings, and names, and all of the different oral legends that have arisen around each of the spirits, it might fill a library.” Obviously such detail is not needed in an introductory work, which this is. You may be inspired to further research after reading this work, and giving you a foundation is what this book is all about.
His approach to working with the lwa is sure to offend, if not infuriate, a lot of readers of this book. First of all, it emphasizes the importance of respect versus awe; then, to make things ‘worse’ he downplays the ‘an it harm none’ so beloved of Wiccans and Neo-Pagans. Finally, he does not object to the use of magic for personal gain and/or revenge. All I can say to those offended readers is “Get over it.” Life in Haiti, even today, is not like life in the U.S. It is a hardscrabble existence and you would be silly not to use every advantage you can get.
Many of the attributes which Filan advances will, undoubtedly, seem wrong to many Pagan and Wiccan readers. They fly in the face of “sacred” traditions. Well, all I can say is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” If you approach the lwa for a favour (or a working of any sort) you must respect their culture. That includes the concepts of bargaining with the lwa; doing much of the work yourself; and generally being respectful. Only the first of these should cause any consternation to Western trained magick users.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got this book, but I was very pleased with it, even the parts I disagreed with. It is informative, well-written, and well worth the price.