The term Mambo refers to a high priestess of the Vodu religion as it is practiced in the Republic of Haiti in the Eastern Caribbean. Along with Houngans, their male counterparts, Mambos thus occupy the highest position in the Vodu hierarchy, at least as far as humans are concerned. This entry looks at the initiation process, the role of the mambo, and her worship community.
How does one become a Mambo? This happens often through blood lineage, that is, as a spiritual family inheritance and charge passed from a mother or father to their daughter. However, one may also become a Mambo as result of having been called—that is, chosen by a Lwa, a Vodu divinity, to serve him or her. The Lwa typically makes his or her wish known through divination, recurrent dreams, or a series of misfortunes that are later interpreted as a spiritual call.
Vodu, like all other African religious traditions, is an initiatory religion. Thus, to become a Mambo, one must undergo initiation. In addition to the period of isolation and seclusion typical of African initiation, and known as Kouche Kanzo, initiation into the Vodu priesthood includes, most significandy, a “visit” to Papa Loko, the patron of Mambos and Houngans. It is indeed from Papa Loko that Mambos (and Houngans) receive their Ason, a sacred beaded calabash used as a ratde and as the mark of the priesthood. When they take possession of their ason, the women become known by the full title of Mambos Asongwe. These are the only true Vodu priestesses. Mambos and Houngans also receive from Papa Loko a spiritual name, which they will use to identify themselves while in the company of their spiritual brothers and sisters, that is, other Houngans and Mambos.
Initiation into the priesthood is always an expensive proposition, and many may have to delay it until they have raised the necessary funds. Indeed, many sacrifices will have to be made and numerous items will have to be purchased; for example, the Lwa's favorite food and drinks to be presented to them during the initiation rituals; food and drinks for the visitors and other participants; and special clothes for the different ceremonies, which must be sewn. The drummers, who will be playing for several nights in a row, until sunrise, will also have to be paid. Until one is financially ready, they may undergo the first part of the initiation known as Lave tèt (“the washing of the head”), a ceremony during which one's hair will be washed seven times with a special mixture made with plants, as one cleans oneself spiritually in order to be able to receive the Lwa.
A Servant's Role
To become a Mambo means that one agrees to act as an intermediary between the Lwa and the people. In actuality, being a Mambo equates with being both a servant of the Lwa and a servant of the people. One of the functions of a Mambo is to perform divination. This allows the living to find out what may be going on or going wrong in their lives. It also allows the Lwa to inform the living of what they need to do to restore harmony and peace in their lives, if necessary. It is the Mambo's responsibility to assist the living in following the Lwa's recommendations. Thus, they must be willing to organize and lead whatever formal ritual may be required.
They must, for instance, hold ceremonies aimed at feeding the Lwa, or they may have to preside over the wedding of a Lwa and a human being if the situation demands it. Mambos must also be healers. They must prepare medicines, often following recipes dictated to them by the Lwa, to restore someone's health or good luck. They may also have to give purifying baths. They may also have to prepare amulets to protect someone, or they may be asked to perform magic to attempt to change the course of things. All this, however, they will do with the assistance of the Lwa.
Another important and obvious responsibility of Mambos is initiation of new members into the Vodu religion and the teaching of the tradition. For this, they must seek the assistance of other Mambos and Houngans.
Whatever ritual a Mambo may perform, it will most likely take place within the confines of her oumfò, that is, her Vodu temple or spiritual center. However, in addition to being a place where spiritual ceremonies are held, an oumfò also functions as a commune. Indeed, attached to the Mambo who presides over the oumfò are a number of persons who were initiated by her or who have come to gravitate toward her, that is, Hounsis. The latter owe total respect and complete devotion to the Mambo, whom they call Manman (“Mother”), out of respect.
In fact, they form a society with clear rules centered on the Mambo. They usually spend a significant amount of time at the oumfò, may even sleep there at times, and certainly must come when called for help, especially during ceremonies, when dancers and singers are needed. They may also be called on to cook for the Lwa or the Mambo, to clean the peristyle, and, generally speaking, to get things ready for ceremonies.
In return for their loyalty, the Mambo must act as their counselor and protector and is ultimately responsible for their needs. If necessary, she must feed them and help pay for their hospital bill or children's school tuition. In other words, the Mambo is at the center of a network providing spiritual, social, and psychological comfort and support to all attached to it. Indeed, the Mambo, with the assistance of the Lwa whom she serves diligently, is ultimately responsible for the welfare of the members of her society.
Furthermore, Mambos are known to have played a critical role during the Haitian Revolutionary War in the 19th century. Mention is made, for instance, of the participation of Mambo Cécile Fatiman in the famous ceremony of Bois Caiman held on August 14, 1791. In conclusion, it must be remarked that African religion in general, and Vodu in particular, seems to be the only religion that allows women to reach the highest positions of authority. In Haiti, as a matter of fact, there are more Mambos than Houngans.
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- Desmangles, L. (1992). The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Mazama, A. (2005). Vodu. In M. K. Asante, and A. Mazama (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Black Studies (pp. 468–472). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- McCarthy Brown, K. (1991). Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Métraux, A. (1958). Le Vaudou haïtien. Paris: Gallimard.