Desounen (also sometimes written dessounin) is an important ritual of death that is observed by Vodu practitioners in Haiti. It has its origins, like much of the Vodu religion practiced in Haiti, among the Fon people of Dahomey (Republic of Benin), West Africa. It is the first among several rituals performed after the death of a Vodu initiate and can only be conducted by a Houngan (priest) or a Mambo (priestess). This entry looks at the belief and practice and its roots in Fon cosmology.
The word desounen is French in origin and implies the extraction of sound from a voice and, by extension within the world of Vodu, the removal of the life substance from the body. The life substance or spiritual entity is removed or extracted immediately following the death of a Vodun practitioner. This delicate ritual is meticulously carried out by a priest who is familiar with the guardian entity that first possessed the deceased. The main purpose of this ritual is to properly remove the guardian Iwa and mèt tèt that were placed into the practitioners' head when they were initiated or called out by the lwa/loa. This process has also been referred to as the dispossession of the gwobonanj, which is the essence of one's soul.
According to Vodu belief, the soul resides in the body and consists of at least two aspects that are of particular relevance for the desounen ceremony. The gros-bon ange and the tibonanj comprise the soul and represent the spiritual and physical natures of an individual. The ti-bon-age is responsible for one's personal character, and it is this aspect of the soul that stands in judgment to account for the life one has lived. The ti-bon-age is related to the Egyptians' Ka or one's double, which is responsible for bestowing personality; it possesses an independent existence. It is one's tibonanj that lingers around the body for 9 days after the funeral and finally goes to a place to receive judgment. After this, the tibonanj will not “mount” another horse (any living person in spirit possession), nor can its powers be accessed for any use.
The gwobonanj, in contrast, is the primal substance that gives life to a human being. It is the divine essence of an individual, and it derives its force directly from Bondyé, the Supreme Being, whose presence permeates the cosmos. Unlike the tibonanj, the gwobonanj is recycled and given a new life to continue its eternal mission, which is to carry out the will of the Creator. The desounen ceremony, therefore, aims to extract this sacred nature or vital force from the deceased to ensure that it ends up in the proper place.
Extracting the gwobonanj from the deceased properly removes the force and sacred substance that makes one fully human. Releasing the gwobonanj provides for a new body to be given the mission of the Iwa and, on the completion of its obligations, it too will be received among the community of spirits in Ginen, only to be rebirthed again in another's soul. Hence, death is not the ending, but simply an essential part of the cycle of life.
The performance of the desounen ritual requires the direction of a person initiated at the highest level, that is, a Houngan or Mambo. Pieces of the physical body, such as pieces of nails or hair, are removed and placed in the deceased's govi. The Iwa who was the mèt-tèt of the deceased is then called on and invited to mount him or her one last time. Sacrifices are made, blood is sprinkled on the deceased's body, and the Iwa is asked to permanently leave the body and settle in the deceased's sacred necklace, an important item during the initiation process also kept in the govi.
Roots in Dahomey
The theology and practices governing the Voduists' beliefs and behaviors have their origins in Dahomey. In the late 15th century, French seamen began patrolling off the coast of Dahomey, and by 1505, they had kidnapped a sizeable number of Africans and taken them to the French colony of Saint Domingue. This trend was to continue, and, thus, it is commonly admitted that a large number of enslaved Africans were taken from Dahomey to Haiti. As a result, the religion or the theological tenets governing Vodu were brought to the American hemisphere by West Africans primarily from the Dahomey region. Therefore, one must look to Fon cosmology to acquire a historical and philosophical understanding of desounen, which is only a small part of an elaborate death ritual.
According to Fon cosmology, every individual is made from clay and water. The Fon referred to the soul as “se,” and it is equivalent to the gros-bon-age, which continues throughout eternity. The se is an immaterial divine substance that comes directly from Mawu Lisa (Godhead). Upon dying, one's se is returned to Mawu Lisa and replanted into a newborn of the deceased's family. Therefore, according to Vodun cosmology, in both Africa and Haiti, an individual's life is part of a continuum that links them to an unbroken heritage connecting grandfather to father to son, extending throughout space and time as a single-branching organism. Thus, in traditional African families on the continent and throughout the diaspora, following the death of a grandfather, it is expected that his spirit will be transplanted in the soul of the next male entering the family.
Death is an important time in traditional Haitian culture, as well as in most African societies, because, according to Dahomean cosmology, upon death one is reconnected to one's essential nature. This is the time when the immortal spirit returns to Ginen (Africa), where it awaits replantation into a new physical body. While in Ginen, it is reunited with the lwa, assigned a body, and continues the mission it was ordained to complete before the beginning of time. Thus, death is not the end, but a new opportunity for the cycle of life to continue birthing new energy to carry out the will of the ancestors and divinities. The desounen ritual plays a critical role in protecting the integrity of this life cycle.
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