Fet Gede - the Vodou Festival of the Ancestors
We carry the past around with us. It is in our memories, in the "ether" that surrounds us, in our family history - and, perhaps, in our cellular memory. Recent studies have shown that transplant patients inherit more than just organs when they take on the cells of some other person; they also take on the memories associated with the donor1. And yet, how often we deny the past and pretend we are mavericks, pioneers of the future. That is, until the past catches up with us and we must come face to face with the personal history we have denied ourselves.
It can be a shocking and sometimes painful experience to learn that you are not as free as you thought you were- that you are carrying around echoes of the past in your soul, even though your thoughts and intentions are pointed at the future. In one of the exercises I teach on my workshops, participants take a journey into their own ancestral history to meet with their forebears to understand the gifts and the burdens that these ancestors have passed down to them. In addition to discovering their talents and skills - and, sometimes, opportunities in life that these distant relatives have given them - it is not unusual to discover that current illnesses and life problems also have roots in the past. The shame of a long-past event can get lodged somehow in the cells of the body at the place corresponding to an earlier historical abuse. One woman discovered, for example, that her current problem of stress-related self-harming (to her stomach area, across the womb) had its cause in the rape of one of her ancestors four centuries before. In such ways, the past catches up with us. Only by confronting it can we become free to move into a healthier, more powerful, future.
Modern science and psychiatry is, at best, ambivalent (and, often, dismissive) of such historical connections. But traditional societies - which are more inclined to honour and understand the contribution our ancestors continue to make to our world - see clearly the therapeutic value of dealing with past issues through an ongoing relationship with those who have gone before us.
Fet Gede in Haiti is just such a past-honouring event. Known as the Festival of the Ancestors, Fet Gede (Fet = Festival, Gede = The Sacred Dead) is the Vodou equivalent of Mardi Gras, the Mexican Day of the Dead, and Halloween, all in one. People dress up, take to the streets, dance their communion with the ancestors, and walk in processions to the graveyards where they feed their ancestral dead with the gifts of their own table. In this way, spirits are honoured and their protection is gained for the coming year.
In peristyles (churches) up and down the country, there is music, dancing and feasting. The priests and the people come together, and there is enough drumming, singing, and laughter to ??" literally! ??" raise the dead. It is a time for celebration, for reconnecting with the past, and preparing for the future, with music, processions, sacred rituals and spiritual observances taking place throughout.
Connecting with the ancestors in this way opens new doors to understanding not only the past influences that have played their part in shaping our lives, but, often, the current issues we are facing. By reconnecting with our past, these issues are resolved through new insights into our lives. Our pathways into the future also become clearer. It is heartening to know that our ancestors are not lost to us, but continue to play a part in our lives by offering us their love and care from the world of the spirit.
During the ceremonies of Fet Gede, there is always a spiritual procession to the cemetery, with ancestral services at the Cross of Baron, the lwa who is guardian of the cemetery, the crossroads, the bridge between life and death, and head of the family of Gedes (the ancestors). With riotous good humour, Baron is a gentle protector of his people and of children. There is a story in Haiti of a mass manifestation of 30 Barons who marched fearlessly on the Presidential Palace to demand justice for the people during the turbulent days of the now long-gone Duvalier regime. Even the dictator Duvalier had to listen to the will of Baron, and the policy which offended the lwa was duly changed!
One of the most moving ceremonies of this week is an ancestral service at kay mo (House of the Ancestors) that each Houngan has as part of his peristyle. People often bring with them photographs or other images of ancestors they wish to honour, and any special offerings of food or drink enjoyed by those ancestors during their lives. They then make a personal service of reverence for their loved ones, which enables them to let go of unhelpful influences from the past as well as thanking the ancestors and accepting their helpful gifts for the future.
In order to be all that we can be in our lives, we must know where we have come from and what influences have shaped us and continue to play a part in our present. Only by truly knowing ourselves can we hope to be free.
The Western world has largely abandoned the past and become future-orientated and fixated on achievement. Very rarely do we look ??" and learn ??" from the past and where we have come from. Perhaps if we did, we could avoid some of the personal and global problems we experience in the world today. If we embraced an understanding of the true impact of the last war, for example, perhaps we would be less inclined to run headlong into the next one.
Paradoxically, we call ourselves "developed" and "civilized" in the Western world. But it is traditional societies ??" those which are "undeveloped" and "uncivilised" ??" which often hold the key to a real understanding of the world.
By offering insight into the past, Fet Gede frees people from the patterns and habits they can so easily and thoughtlessly repeat, and prepares them for a better future where they can achieve happiness and greater richness in their lives.
1 Heaven, R. The Journey To You: A Shaman’s Path to Empowerment. Bantam Books, 2001
Ross Heaven is a psychologist, author, therapist, TV, radio and magazine contributor, workshop facilitator, and Europe’s first white priest of Haitian Vodou, having initiated into the tradition in January 2000 as part of the research for his books.
He has written numerous articles on psychology, shamanism, Vodou, and the healing traditions, for magazines in America, Europe and the UK, been interviewed by and been reviewed in a number of national newspapers, and been a guest on several radio and television programmes. He has also been called as an expert witness in cases concerning trance states and ritual and acted as a consultant to feature films such as 2004’s London Voodoo. He presents widely on his work and runs workshops in personal development and healing.
He is the author of four widely-acclaimed books on personal development psychology and modern spirituality, including Vodou Shaman, his book on Haitian Vodou, and Darkness Visible, to be published in 2005, which concerns his unique workshops in ceremonial darkness, where participants remain blindfolded for the entire five days of the course.
As well his qualifications in psychology, Ross has trained in various therapeutic approaches and has a healing practice near Brighton in the UK. He has a web site, where you can read articles and book extracts, find out about workshops and catch up on news, at www.VodouShaman.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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