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A mambo (also written as manbo) is a female priestess (as opposed to the houngan, or male priest) in the Haitian Vodou religion. Haitian Vodou's conceptions of priesthood stem from the religious traditions of enslaved people from Dahomey, in what is today Benin. For instance, the term mambo derives from the Fon word nanbo ("mother of magic"). Like its West African counterpart, Haitian mambos are female leaders in Vodou temples who perform healing work and guide others during complex rituals. This form of female leadership is prevalent in urban centers such as Port-au-Prince (the capital of Haiti). Typically, there is no hierarchy among mambos and houngans. These priestesses and priests serve as the heads of autonomous religious groups and exert their authority over the devotees or spiritual servants in their hounfo (temples). Mambos and houngans are called into power via spirit possession or the revelations in a dream. They become qualified after completing several initiation rituals and technical trainings where they learn the Vodou spirits by their names, attributes, and symbols. The first step in initiation is lave tèt (head washing), which is aimed at the spirits housed in an individual's head. The second step is known as kouche (to lie down), which is when the initiate enters a period of seclusion. Typically, the final step is the possession of the ason (sacred rattle), which enables the mambo or houngan to begin their work. One of the main goals of Vodou initiation ceremonies is to strengthen the mambo's konesans—knowledge that determines priestly power.
The specific skills and knowledge gained by mambos enable them to mediate between the physical and spiritual realms. They use this information to call upon the spirits through song, dance, prayer, offerings, and/or the drawing of vèvès (spiritual symbols). During these rituals, mambos may either be possessed by a loa (also spelled lwa, Vodou spirits) themselves, or may oversee the possession of other devotees. Spirit possession plays an important role in Vodou because it establishes a connection between human beings and the Vodou deities or spirits. Although loas can "mount" whomever they choose, those outside the Vodou priesthood do not have the skills to directly communicate with the spirits or gods. This is because the human body is merely flesh, which the spirits can borrow to reveal themselves via possession. Mambos, on the other hand, can speak to and hear from the Vodou spirits. As a result, they can interpret the advice or warnings sent by a spirit to specific individuals or communities.
Cécile Fatiman is a Haitian mambo famously known for sacrificing a black pig in the August 1791 Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman—an act that is said to have ignited the Haitian Revolution. There are notable mambos within the United States as well. Marie Laveau (1801-1888), for example, gained fame in New Orleans, Louisiana, for her personal charm and Voodoo practices. Renowned as Louisiana's "voodoo queen," Laveau's legacy is kept alive in American popular culture (e.g., the television series America Horror Story: Coven). Mama Lola is another prominent mambo and Vodou spiritual leader in the United States who rose to fame after the publication of Karen McCarthy Brown's ethnographic account Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Mama Lola's success provided her a platform to challenge Western misconceptions of Haitian Vodou and make television appearances.
Etymology and history
Haitian Vodou gains its historic roots from the former West African kingdom of Dahomey, which Europeans also called the "Bight of Benin." Populated by the Fon, Ewe, and Yoruba people, this region roughly covers what is currently known today as Benin and western Nigeria. During the slave trade, many Fon and Ewe-speaking Dahomeyans were enslaved and used as the labor force for the sugar industry of French Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti). As a result, Vodou has elements that can be traced back to the Fon people. For instance, the term mambo stems from the Fon term nanbo, which means "mother of magic." Like the nanbo in West African Vodun, Haitian mambos play a vital role in Vodou temples and rituals.
Contact with deities or spirits is considered dangerous business. For this reason, many West African religions require male and/or female professionals (priests, priestesses, diviners, herbalists, etc.) who know the rituals, dances, songs, and objects that can be used to approach deities or spirits without upsetting them. Enslaved Africans brought these gendered notions of religious leadership with them into the New World. As a result, we see female religious figures in religions of the African Diaspora (e.g., mambos in Haitian Vodou). The dominance of Vodou female practitioners later became prevalent in the urban contexts of Haiti and nineteenth-century New Orleans in French Louisiana.
Generally, mambos and houngans serve as the heads of autonomous Vodou religious groups—rather than clerical hierarchies—and exert their authority over the devotees or spiritual servants in their temples. They have the ability to call upon deities or spirits to remove barriers between the spiritual realm and earthly realm. Before they can put these skills to practice, these priests and priestesses receive a technical education wherein they learn about the different Vodou spirits and ritualistic practices. They must also cultivate a konesans (knowledge)—typically regarded as intuition, psychic power, or the "gift of eyes." Stemming from supernatural gifts, a konesans affords Vodou priests and priestesses the ability to read people and heal them. This in turn allows them to diagnose and treat human sufferings, which they ascribe to the living, the dead, or the spirit world.
The Vodou spirits choose mambos and houngans either through revelations in a dream or the utterances of a possessed person. These candidates for priesthood are then taken under the wing of a mambo or houngan for days, months or even years. Although anyone can receive the call from the spirits to enter priesthood, the houngan and mambo profession is oftentimes hereditary. Nevertheless, those called to be a mambo or houngan will rarely refuse the position in fear of being severely punished by the gods.
In a humfo (Vodou temple), mambos and houngans are commonly referred to as manman (mother) and papa (father) respectively." Hounfos are highly decorated religious places of worship and contain one or more stone alters for deities or spirits. Some priests or priestesses draw large followings in their hounfo, which aid them in establishing notable reputations. Thus, with the office of the houngan or mambo comes power, prestige, and wealth. There are, however, other positions and roles that are meant to help a head priest or priestess. For instance, hunsi are devotees that have gone through the rite of fire, and are qualified to assist with ritual activities and abide to the orders of the mambo. The hunsi are further subdivided based on particular tasks (e.g., the hungenikon (song leader) and laplace (master of ceremonies and sword holder)).
Patriarchal structures with male priesthood often prevail in rural areas of Haiti. Female leadership, on the other hand, is often seen in urban centers such as Port-au-Prince (the capital of Haiti). The autonomous nature of the Vodou priesthood enables mambos to exercise leadership that is entirely independent of male control. Despite providing female practitioners a greater extent of social mobility, Vodou still mirrors aspects of misogyny in Haitian culture. For instance, houngans are more prone to undergo scrutiny for the mistreatment of female hunsi in their temples.
Mambos must undergo a multi-step initiation process to enter priesthood and establish their communication with the Vodou spirits. One of the main goals of Vodou initiation ceremonies is to strengthen the mambo's konesans. The first step in initiation is lave tèt (head washing), which is aimed at the spirits housed in an individual's head. It is believed that the head contains the gwo bonanj (big guardian angel)—a spirit that directs a person's consciousness and provides ancestral/spiritual wisdom. An agitated gwo bonanj can cause an individual to lose their insight and understanding. Head washing works to circumvent this issue by "refreshing" these restive head spirits.
Kanzo, a trial by fire, is the second step of initiation. During this rite of passage, hot materials from boiling pots are pressed into the initiate's left hand and left foot. This step is used to purify the initiate and transform their suffering into power. The kanzo ritual is important because it places the initiate under the direct care of a loa (also spelled lwa, Vodou spirits).
The next step is known as kouche (to lie down), which is when the initiate enters a period of seclusion. The future mambo is locked into the djévò (initiation room) for nine days with an ason. The ason is a beaded rattle that mambos and houngans use in Southern Haiti to give them leverage in the spirit realm. The final step of initiation is the transferred ownership of the ason to the mambo or houngan in training. Possession of the ason enables the initiates to take on their formal roles and start their healing work.
There are varieties of reasons as to why Vodou practitioners perform rituals and ceremonies. Some believers view their relationship with the gods and spirits as a binding contract in which humans are obliged to provide the spirits rituals or ceremonies in exchange for protection. By serving and communicating with the spirits via rituals, devotees can bring about good luck, ward off evil, and heal the sick. As religious specialists, mambos know the Vodou spirits by their names, attributes, and symbols. They utilize this information during rituals to call upon the spirits and interact with them—whether it be through song, dance, prayer, offerings, and the drawing of vèvès (spiritual symbols). Theatrical aspects such as drumming, singing, and dancing are used by mambos as a means of "heating up" the process through which a person enters a state of possession or trance.
During rituals, mambos may either be possessed by a loa themselves, or may oversee the possession of other devotees. Spirit possession is one of the most important goals in Vodou rituals because it puts human beings in direct contact with the spirits. During possession, an individual's consciousness and sense of control leaves their body, which increases mental and corporeal reception of the spirits. The possessed individual becomes a vessel for the spirit to reveal its persona and cosmic knowledge. This is important because Vodou spirits can offer advice, healing, or even warnings to the individuals in a place of worship. Although loa can incarnate themselves in whomever they choose, the intimacy afforded to the devotees does not include a direct communication with the spirits or gods. This is because the human body is merely flesh, which the spirits can borrow to reveal themselves via possession. Mambos, on the other hand, have the knowledge and training necessary to speak to and hear from the Vodou spirits. Since human contact with the spiritual realm can be a dangerous endeavor, mambos use their skills to supervise possessions and actively direct individuals back to consciousness.
Notable mambos and popular culture
Cécile Fatiman is famously known for her participation in the August 1791 Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman, which is considered to be a catalyst for the Haitian Revolution. This historical Vodou priestess inspired the first act of the uprising by sacrificing a black pig and sharing the blood with other slaves. Following the ceremony at Bois Caïman, a slave revolt began on August 21, 1971—resulting in the destruction of plantations surrounding Cap Francais (modern-day Cap Haitien) and the deaths of thousands of Frenchmen.
Another notable mambo was Marie Laveau (1801–1888), a Louisiana Creole women who became a legendary Voodoo practitioner in New Orleans. Like its Haitian counterpart, New Orleans Voodoo was brought by enslaved Africans from West Africa to French Louisiana during the slave trade. Contrary to popular belief, Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo are not the same–these two African diaspora religions have their own unique history and identity. From its beginning, female practitioners played a dominant role in New Orleans Voodoo. Approximately eighty percent of Voodoo leaders were said to be women during Laveau's time. Laveau herself gained great fame for her personal charm and Voodoo practices. Today, she is still renowned as Louisiana's "voodoo queen." Her legacy and image as a Voodoo practitioner lives on in modern-day popular culture. For instance, a fictionalized Marie Laveau (played by actress Angela Bassett) appears in the third season of America Horror Story: Coven.
Marie Thérèse Alourdes Macena Champagne Lovinski, commonly known as Mama Lola, is a prominent mambo and Vodou spiritual leader in the United States who rose to fame after the publication of Karen McCarthy Brown's ethnographic account Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. In 1962, Mama Lola left her native country (Haiti) and immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, in search of a better life. In a return trip back to Haiti, the warrior spirit Ogou possessed Mama Lola's mother and revealed Mama Lola's calling into the Vodou priesthood. She underwent a long series of initiation rituals in Haiti to complete this spiritual transition. Brown notes that as a practicing mambo, Mama Lola "combines the skills of a medical doctor, a psychotherapist, a social worker, and a priest." Her successful reputation has led her to perform rituals and healing work throughout the eastern United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and Benin. The attention afforded to Mama Lola after the publication of Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn provided her a platform to reshape American perceptions of Vodou and establish a role as a public figure in New York's Haitian community. In 2007, Mama Lola made a guest appearance on Season 2 Episode 7 (Mama Lola Knows Best) of the reality TV show Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood.
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