Haitian Vodou : "Pwen" (Magical Charge) in Ritual Context
Greenough-Hodges, Kimberly Ann
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The central focus of this dissertation “Haitian Vodou: Pwen (Magical Charge) in Ritual Practice” is to elucidate a central component of Haitian Vodou ritual, known as pwen, which literally means “point” or magical charge. This query begins with a theoretical discussion of what pwen is and is not. Common characteristics are outlined and serve as a means by which pwen is defined. All discussion about pwen returns to the strongest and most elaborate pwen in Haitian Vodou, which is the initiation ritual, called kanzo. Uniquely, my position is that of participant observer, as I am an initiated practitioner of Haitian Vodou. The second chapter establishes historical context as pwen (objects, spirits, and ceremonies) are traced from their West and Central African origins through space and time to modern Haitian Vodou practice. Focus was placed on pwen that transferred from Africa to Haiti, relatively unchanged and is easily identified in ritual. The third chapter examines pwen through a Roman Catholic lens, where Catholic venerations and devotions for the Virgin Mary are compared and contrasted to similar practices for the Haitian Vodou Dahomian Queen, Erzulie Freda. Catholic traditions of saying the Rosary and the celebration that accompanies the feast day for Mary’s May Crowning are contrasted to the Haitian Vodou practices of “tying a pwen” (ritual binding activity), altar-building, and marriage to a specific spiritual entity. The fourth chapter transitions the reader to literature, which presents pwen and pwen-like manifestations in a brilliantly descriptive excerpt taken from the Haitian magical realism work, Les Arbres Musiciens, by Jacques Stephen Alexis. This study examines the people, spaces, and important pwen in Alexis’s fictional Vodou ceremony and compares them to real-life Vodou pwen. Chapter 5 is a detailed description of a wanga or magical work done by a medsen fey (“leaf doctor”) in Jacmel, Haiti during my fieldwork in December 2008. This chapter presents the important function of the medsen fey in vodouisant communities and relates details about training and professional practice. The magical work was done for my husband and I served as a surrogate. It was an elaborate and spectacular ceremony. Methods to realize this project were: learning Haitian Creole, learning Haitian Vodou, going through a kanzo (Vodou initiation), traveling to Haiti on two different occasions for field work, interviewing and recording dozens of international and Haitian practitioners, attending Haitian dance workshops, attending Haitian drum workshops, and attending public ceremonies when possible. Upon completion of this research, it is the author’s opinion that Haitian Vodou: (a) reflects the dynamic evolution of Haitian history, while retaining an African core, (b) offers significant stability to the majority population of Haiti, as the country has been and continues to be plagued by lack of infrastructure, economic and political instability, and natural disaster, (c) is grossly misunderstood and merits accurate and unbiased explanation to those unfamiliar with it, and (d) should be universally recognized as a legitimate religion.