Interview with a Manbo
As much as anything else, this was an attempt at proving that people with very different beliefs can still engage in civil discourse in 2018. Ms. Glassman and I did just that. It was my pleasure to talk with her in the Island of Salvation Botanica, in New Orleans, La.
The first thing of note about this shop is the lifesize statue and shrine to Marie Laveau outside the door. Ms. Laveau was a vodou priestess – called a Manbo, or Mambo, by practitioners – during the majority of the 1800’s. She was born in 1801, so she was in her 60’s in New Orleans during the Civil War. She was either feared or respected by most. Although her name has become a tourist attraction, with her tomb, a shop in her name, and a larger than life legend, she was a real woman with a real life and a sincere beliefs. This brings me to Ms. Glassman. Ms. Glassman was raised by atheist parents, and due to the influence of catholic friends became interested in the spiritual world as a child.
I started our conversation by explaining the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one God. She responded by explaining that Vodou, likewise, is monotheistic, having one god called BonDieu (french for Good God). She explained that this god is so vast and abstract that it can’t really be comprehended by man. While we agreed that there is one god, she holds to the belief that this one god goes by many names: Jehovah, Allah, BonDieu, etc, while I believe that these other names do not refer to my God at all. But we continued.
I also explained that I believe that God originally had His angels, but that one angel, Lucifer, was consumed with pride and rebellion and was cast out of heaven with 1/3 of the angels following him, thus establishing Satan and his demonic forces to be half the number of the angels. She followed with the belief that “intermediary ancestral spirits” called Lowa help vodouns to bridge the gap with Bon Dieu. “They are part of god’s life force but they are not god.” These are largely deceased ancestors who were slaves who now reside all around us and guide us according to Bon Dieu’s will. She denied the use of magic, hexes and spells in Vodou, and explained the her faith is simply natural rather than supernatural. She went on to explain that she recognizes that many people believe Vodou to be satanic or demonic, and laid out for me how african/caribbean slaves frightened their masters with such a strong faith and source of strength that the masters waged a campaign declaring their religion to be evil – and it stuck.
I asked if Vodou recognizes any spirits to be evil, like Satan, and she told me a story about an old houngan (vodou priest) in Haiti that she met once, and his explanation of Satan. Over a cup of tea, he claimed that he was going to show her a portrait of Satan. This piqued her interest then, as it did mine, and he retreated into his hut and came out with a U.S. dollar bill. “This is Satan.” The American religion worships this – the economy – he said, in effect denouncing America as not a Christian nation so much as a nation where wealth is god. To the vodouan, there are spirits – not good and bad – just spirits, and money is not worthy of worship. Of course any christian would say the same, about money.
We next addressed life after death. We agreed that the body deteriorates and the soul remains, but where I said there is a soul that goes to heaven or hell depending on your relationship with God, she claimed there are two separate parts of the soul: the globonage (sp?) and the tebonage (sp?). The globonage is an “over-soul” and the tebonage is more like a conscience, distinguishing right from wrong. Upon death, the globonage stays with the body for 9 days and then goes into “invisible waters” for a year and a day. To some degree this explains the old practices of a 9 day “wake” and a traditional year of mourning of some in south Louisiana. One of the most interesting beliefs I heard comes here. Ms. Glassman believes, and has performed ceremonies accordingly, that after the year and the day, a “reclamation” ceremony may be performed to draw the soul of the deceased back, to be placed in a clay jar in the home to be an ancestral advisor to the surviving family. Otherwise, the deceased can be forgotten about to float in the waters forevermore.
At this point we dealt with the Judeo-Christian exclusion of other faiths as legitimate, as compared to the Vodou inclusion of others. Where I believe she is incorrect about these matters and will someday see the truth, she believes there are multiple paths and truths, and Vodou has actually incorporated many different practices of other religions over the centuries. She considers herself a Christian, Vodouan, and Kabbalist.
Ms. Glassman explains that Vodou has no text, such as the Bible, because slaves weren’t allowed to maintain their own religion and they were largely kept illiterate. What they have, instead, is dance and art to maintain the traditions. Each tapestry represents a different spirit of the Lawo, and tells the story of that spirit. These are comparable to “patron saints” of catholicism.
There is a saying in Haiti that the population is 80% catholic and 100% vodou. These are not mutually exclusive to them.
While she had no criticism of Christians or Christianity in general, she did mention that there has been trouble with evangelicals who traveled to Haiti after the earthquakes and managed to convince people that Vodou leaders brought the disaster on the island by incurring God’s wrath through their demon worship. This incited people to kill several priests and priestesses, and she pointedly blames the evangelical missionaries for those deaths. CBS reported the story in 2010. She further explained that some missionaries would distribute food and clothing only on the condition that vodouans convert and accept Christ.
Ms. Glassman conducts some public and some private ceremonies, and some for fees, as do many clergy. She refuses to do “negative work” as in spells or hexes, though some Manbos do. She sells herbs and mixtures for healing, and candles to help spirits find the person lighting it.
Interestingly, vodouans speak of and accept Christ and the Holy Spirit by those names, and as spirits, but don’t really accept them as God, as I do as a christian.
We had a pleasant conversation, comparing and contrasting our beliefs without arguing, calling names, or condemning. If we can do this, I must hold out faith that people of different political persuasions or skin tones can do likewise.