An Interview with Ya Sezi bo Oungan / Joseph Alexander Robicheaux
In a new series of interfaith articles for Sacred Well Ministries we will be exploring spiritual traditions around the world and interviewing the people who are part of them today. Our third interview is with author, diviner, and Vodou priest Ya Sezi bo Oungan
In a number of spiritual traditions, from the end of October through mid November it is the time that the dead walk amongst us. All over the world there are cultural traditions of celebrating these special days, a liminal time when the boundary between our world and the otherworld can be accessed easily. The fascinating thing is that in almost every culture, there is a day specifically allotted to honoring the dead, and paying respect. The tone and festivities of each culture’s rituals vary, yet they all share the belief that during a specific time the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest, and respect must be paid.
Grief and celebration seem like strange bedfellows at first glance, but both are emotions that overflow. The ritual practices that surround death and mourning as rites of passage help individuals and their communities make sense of loss through a renewed focus on continuity.
By performing the same acts as ancestors have done, we engage in venerated traditions to connect with something enduring and eternal. Boundaries between life and death, the sacred and the profane, are permeable. The dead seem less far away and less forgotten. It is a comfort to know that our beloved dead are nearby to guide us with their wisdom.
Ya Sezi bo Oungan / Joseph Robicheaux is intimately acquainted with these permeable boundaries in the context of several cultural traditions. As an Oungan of Haitian Vodou he serves and honors the Spirits and Ancestors which include the iconic Lwa known as the Guede. The celebration known as Fet Guede starts at the beginning of November.
Joseph is full of surprises, and one of them is that he also walks the path of Irish pagan spirituality. He is an accomplished diviner of the Ogham, an oracular system of the Celtic people. The fire festival called Samhain also falls on the dates at the end of October and beginning of November, and is also a time of honoring the Ancestors and the Beloved Dead.
Please tell us how and why these two paths came to intersect in your life. What does that look like for you?
My Identity as a Biracial man and the necessity to be evenly balanced between the two outwardly opposed worlds of White Irish and Scottish heritage, and the African descended, Creole heritage and ancestors of my Father’s family. Nothing is possible without the ancestors, and as someone who had to pick and choose how my interests in the rich cultures of my family would manifest, I do not spare anything when it comes to the spiritual celebration of either side of the ancestors, or my spirituality.
For me there is a near seamless interaction, there are many many examples from the spoken word poems – the Rosc poems of Ireland, and the Oriki poetry of West Africa. Everyone the world over saw the divine in nature. I think there are a lot of mutual agreements in how the divine is experienced in nature between the Celtic and African experience.
How do you celebrate Fet Guede?
Fet Guede for me is usually two parts, my own private observation of the Guede and Bawons. I make make a little table for them, cook some food, sing, pray, refresh old pacts and make new ones. All of November is for the Guede. I consider my Fete Guede day the 15th of November which is the feast Day of St. Martin of Porres, who is one of the Masks of Bawon La Kwa, the owner of the tombs, and head stones the one who keeps the cemetery full.
When I can, I will attend or host *One* Tambou/Drumming or Fete/Celebration for Guede. When I was first starting out in the tradition the Guede were my favorite. Even with doing Lesson Vodou/Readings they are still my go to. However the dead have no, little, or few boundaries, and they are not subject to the Morals of Guinea, so there’s no telling what the consequences are nor telling how high the Invoice is gonna be. I respect Guede, love Guede, in spirit much better than in my face as it turns out.
(an interesting syncretic observation – many followers of Celtic traditions believe that the Sidhe have similar tendencies toward lack of boundaries and unpredictability. K.B.)
Do you also celebrate Samhain? If so, what does that include?
The day before Samhain, the day of and the day after are reserved for my Ancestors and the Sídhe. Each day I offer very simple food offerings. The day before I offer Honey, Salt, Water, and alcohol. The day of, I offer game meat, beef, and pork, and the last day I offer butter, milk, and barley or another grain. I usually visit the cemetery the first day, some liminal space on the second and I see what opportunity the third day presents. One tradition I like to observe is keeping the fire lit throughout my three days of observation, and especially so throughout the night of Samhain.
Some scholars have suggested that Ancient Samhain took place around the 14, or 15th of the month. To me there is not a lot of difference between Samhain and Fete Guede. In the Tale Tochmarc Étaíne (the wooing of Étaíne) Mider, a Foster of Angus is discussing the sticky situation of his birth and his inheritance, he is told to go and discuss this with his Father on Samhain because it is a day of peace and friendship amongst the men of Ireland. However he is told to be armed because just like Fete Guede, you never know what’s going to happen.
Guede is not an ancestor while being your ancestor: helpful tips when serving the Guede ‘Bosal’ or uninitiated
Guede is the dead that talks, and tells the truth within our grasp of time and space. In pretty much every culture save Victorian England (or so it seems) society tends to think the dead live out of time, and or entirely lose the sense of time passed, like why some early modern period Spiritualists get mistaken for Socrates or Solomon, for lack of understanding that time has moved on.
In the cosmology of Vodou, a deceased person is understood to lose their sense of individualism and grasp of time over a period of 40 days to a year after death. A deceased person ( Mô), can become Guede by telling you useful information. One of the classical signs is winning the lottery, but I’ll take virtually anything that is obviously real, and distinct enough in description. To make a deceased person a Guede you have to attend a ceremony called Recleman Anba D’lo, this is done for Assogwe Mambos and Oungans as a way of preserving their knowledge and practice.
Before the Guede were lascivious drunkards they were healers, they were the backed up information on the cloud of Vodou, life culture and personal matters. They oversee the ancestors coming home and the ancestors going to the Marketplace.
Regarding Maman Brijite – I’m not about to dissect the Irish thing.
(the popularly held belief that the Guede Maman Brijite originated from Saint Bridget / Brighid – it makes as little sense as the Ishtar/Easter connection in Western paganism, IMO. K.B.)
I’m going to offer you another origin story that to me makes a touch more sense. Makendal was a famous sorcerer and leader of Maroon people, or runaway slaves who lived in the mountains of Haiti. Makendal was married to a woman named Brijite. She would see and hear all the things that would go on in the camp. The man or woman who ran away, who’s wife, husband, or brother or son did not join him, can for now never join him. Trying to return to get them may jeopardize the individual or the whole group. She listened to people and saw who they were. The trustworthy and the weak, promises made and kept, or made and broken.
Maman Brijite is the prosecutor of the Dead, appealing to the court of Bawons on the actions of your life, to determine your usefulness in the world of the spirits or anything else that may be waiting in the beyond.
The Guede are usually the forgotten Dead, so that’s everyone that has ever died and not received last rites or peace.
When you want luck and love and a happy good life you go to Bawon Samedi, when you want to do anything in the cemetery you first ask Bawon Samedi, when you want to learn some Maji/travay you talk to Bawon La Kwa or Bawon Cimiteir.
Guede is not the name of any one spirit, it’s a classification name and quality.
Check out my book Guede, et Mô : A Workbook for more helpful tips, tricks and information:
Joseph, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and spiritual practices of Fete Guede and Samhain. You have such a depth of knowledge about both of these Festivals of the Dead, and great advice for those who would like to learn more. If we have people who are interested in consultations or readings, here are the best ways to make contact: