The term hounsi (also spelled ounsi) has its origin in the Fon language of Dahomey, where it means that one has become the spouse of a spirit (Vodun or Lwa in Haiti). In accepting the call of the Vodun or Lwa to become a hounsi, one becomes accepted as a member of a oumfò (temple) with all the religious and communal responsibilities that such a position requires, but, more important, one becomes a serviteur (servant) of the divinity.
It is the Lwa who ultimately call the individual to become their wife or husband. The primary function of the hounsi is to assist the mambo (priestess) and oungan (priest). Hounsi are in fact indispensable to the overall success of the oumfò. They comprise the liturgical hierarchy that also includes the hougan (ougan) and mambo, who are the primary leaders within the religious community. It is the hougan and mambo that ensure that the proper religious protocol is adhered to throughout the initiation process that leads one to the title of hounsi and thus ultimately allowing one to become a member of the oumfò.
Those who are initiated as hounsi are called into this sacred service by the lwa. Spirit possession of the individual is usually a sign that the lwa has chosen one to become a serviteur. The individual called into service is initially referred to as an ounsi basal. The ounsi basal is not a rank, but simply a term synonymous with one who regularly attends a Vodou service, but has not yet become a member.
The ounsi bosal must first have their heads “washed” in preparation to receive their lwa. This head “washing” also serves to awaken and prepare them to fully and faithfully serve their lwa and community. After education and training as an ounsi lave tet, one prepares for the kanzo rites, which lead to the rank of ounsi. It is not until the ounsi kanzo rites are completed that one becomes fully married to their lwa or true serviteurs of the spirit and permanent members of the oumfò.
Ideally, the traditional nature of these rites maintains a certain historical continuity and authenticity if performed in Haiti. Therefore, many seeking to undergo such an initiation are encouraged to travel to Haiti to ensure strict adherence in following out of these sacred time honored customs.
For instance, during a Voodoo service, the ounsi can be seen singing particular songs to invoke the lwa that have been invited to the service. The ounsi are familiar with the colors, songs, and characteristics of each lwa out of a pantheon numbering more than 1,000. Usually it is one's primarily lwa that becomes the mait tete (master of one's head), although one can serve more than one lwa. It is in the cultivation of the relationship between the lwa and the ounsi that spiritual progress is attained. When the lwa “mount” the ounsi, not only do they possess their “horse,” but they also provide them with information and knowledge that remain hidden from the noniniti-ate. It is the marriage between the lwa and the human being that completes the human process. The lwa provides one with wholeness. “The lwa is the key to understanding one's own character, and the relationship with the lwa represents knowledge of self.”
- Metraux, A. (1972). Voodoo in Haiti. New York: Schocken Books.
- Murphy, J. M. (1994). forking the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Thomas, D. (2005). African Traditional Religion in the Modern World. London: McFarland.