Govi

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A govi is a jar or bottle usually made of red clay. It is a sacred ritualistic item in Vodu in Haiti, where it plays a significant role in reclamation ceremonies at the time of death. The word govi is of Fon origin. This should come as no surprise because Vodu originated among the Fon people of West Africa. Many have noticed that the Fon engage in rituals of reclamation similar to those one may observe in Haiti.
According to Vodu ontology, the human being is made up of three parts: In addition to the most obvious one, that is, the physical body, it also has a bipartite spiritual component, the tibonanj (one's personality, conscience), and the gwobo-nanj, which is the immortal spirit, of divine origin.
At the time of death, Voduists believe that the gwobonanj, thanks to carefully followed and executed funerary rituals, will join the abyssal waters of the ancestral world, Ginen. However, the gowbonanj must be reclaimed from Ginen 1 year and 1 day after death has occurred. Failure to do so could have dire consequences for the relatives of the deceased. This reclamation happens through an elaborate ritual known as Wete mò anba dio (literally, “removing the dead from under the water”). The ceremony that accompanies the ritual will last all night long and, like most Vodu ceremonies, will involve intense drumming, singing, and dancing.
The purpose of reclaiming the gwobonanj is simply to separate it from the world of the living dead, thus allowing it to become again an active member of the community of the living, with the govi, the receptacle of the gwobonanj, acting as a substitute for the now decayed physical body. In other words, the govi can be thought of as a vessel that allows the deceased to resume their active involvement in the affairs of their original community.
As such, the govi is quite precious to the living because, when called on, the spirit will be able to dispense advice, guidance, warnings, protection, wisdom, and so on, to the living from the govi. The gwobonanj in the govi is regarded as most sacred, and its power is only beneath that of the Lwa and Gwanmèt (God). Govis are regularly fed, that is, they receive food offerings and sacrifices from the living. At some point, several generations later, when the direct descendants of the person whose gwobonanj is in the govi have themselves made their transition into the spiritual realm, then the spirit is returned, through immolation, to the world of the ancestors, Ginen.
The importance and significance of the govi can hardly be overstressed because it enables as well as brings to light the Voduists' reverence for their ancestors, a ubiquitous and fundamental feature of African religion in general.

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Further Reading

  • Deren, M. (1972). The Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti. New York: Delta.
  • Desmangles, L. (1994). Faces of the Gods. Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Métraux, A. (1958). Le Vaudou Haïtien. Paris: Gallimard.