Initiation into voodoo is an important time that unequivocally marks the life of a person. It has the purpose of gradually calling the profane person from non-existence to existence as a sacred person, to make them become a voduni, the spouse of the voodoo (regardless of whether man or woman). This process is carried out with greater intensity during the first seven days of belonging to the voodoo and afterwards, throughout the entire time of initiation, there is something of a passage from infancy to adulthood.
Initiation may be voluntary, the fruit of a spontaneous choice by an individual who decides to become a minister of voodoo; or it may be forced when the voodoo chooses someone independently of his will or desire. There is also a hereditary initiation when, in order to protect the entire family group, a person may undergo initiation in the name of the whole family.
On the death of the initiated person, another member of the family must undergo initiation to continue the tradition: it is then said that the newly-initiated person has grasped the ‘blood-line’ (huka) of his ancestor and that they enter the compound of voodoo to substitute the deceased person.
When the candidate enters the voodoo compound, they must be willing to submit to everything they are told, to the extent of losing their personality as a profane person. They immediately fall into a sort of trance (the voodoo has struck them, it is said) and they come out of it on the seventh day: this is the resurrection of the individual who is now born as a sacred person.
The event is celebrated with solemnity: the ‘corpse’, in the case of the Toxosu voodoo, is carried in public. At the seventh beating of the drums they must quickly jump up and throw off the mat and the sheet they are wrapped in, to show everyone they are alive. Then they are lead into the sacred compound.
The following day they are dressed in the white (or black) garment of the voodoo, the cord showing they belong to the voodoo is tied round their neck and they are given a new name. Their old name will be forgotten and no-one will have the right to remind them of it. The vodussi will reassume their profane name only after they die and before they are buried.
Sitting in their heels, head bent forward and with hands behind their backs, they listen to the prohibitions of the voodoo, indicating all they must avoid from then on. They are taught like a child: ‘The spouse of the voodoo does not run, does not behave like the profane. From today, you will start to learn the language of the voodoo. You will always sit on a mat and not look at anyone. The spouse of the voodoo does not wear ordinary clothes. The spouse of the voodoo does not speak the language of the profane. Even if the serpent should attack you, you must not run away. The spouse of the voodoo must never show his umbilical to others. You must not wash yourself with the profane. The spouse of the voodoo must not sleep on the same mat as the profane, must not eat catfish or crocodile. You must not eat any of this since it is used to practice voodoo and, if you eat this, you will be eating your father, the voodoo. If you see a hoe, you must not stare at it or carry it. You will not carry anything made of metal on your head’.
Of all these duties, the first is to learn the language of the voodoo and to speak it all during the time of initiation, both with companions and with outsiders. They are totally cut off from their family and the world of profane people and must avoid any contact whatever with them. They must also give up using utensils and modern trinkets (mirrors, combs, footwear etc.). The time passed in the compound is mostly dedicated to learning sacred dances and songs; the continual repetition of songs must certainly facilitate learning the language and acquiring a new mentality. In all things and for all things, the novice must depend upon others and ask for what they need, even a drink of water. Sometimes they have to beg for food in the village. If they make a mistake, they are beaten and corrected like a child: sometimes they are forced to kneel on pieces of palm nuts. Not even if their parents die are the novices (kpemetowo, ‘those who live in the compound’) allowed to take part in their funerals. If a candidate dies during the initiation period, his family has no right to see him: they are merely given a piece of cloth from the garment of the novice.
During the daytime, the novice is kept busy weaving mats or goes to work in the field of the servants (hunovl) of the voodoo to receive some food or a small sum of money to buy small items in the market. The female novices are charged with cleaning the sacred compound and the house of the huno, while the boys have to repair the fence of the compound or that of their houses. Each day begins and ends with a greeting to the voodoo: a sound like i-i-i-o repeated, kneeling, seven times at dawn and at sunset, facing away from the house of the voodoo. It is a greeting heard by the entire village and reminds the profane of the presence of the novices in the sacred compound. When the novices leave their compound to go to the well or to visit one of those in charge of them, they walk one behind the other with heads low and their left arms behind their backs, along the edge of the road; if they pass through an inhabited place, they repeat their greeting cry: i-i-i-o.
One important stage is represented by the tattoos placed on the foreheads, the back and the arms of the initiates. Each voodoo has its own signs that identify its initiates. The tattoos that show membership of the voodoo remain on the body of the initiate and identify them wherever they go. The operation is very simple: using a sharp blade, the skin is cut vertically and some powder, similar to charcoal dust, is put on the wound. In this way, the sign becomes indelible. After this rite, the novices are ready to leave the compound and spend the rest of the initiation time with their families. During a dance in the village square, they show themselves in public for the first time and in the evening they are accompanied to their homes by an elderly initiate who presents them to their parents, ordering them to stay at home and not to roam about. The novices must pretend not to know their homes or their parents: this shows even more the newness of their existence and their break with their former families. This lesser rite is called afodafe (‘setting foot in the home’). Though living with their parents, the novices are bound to respect all the commands of the voodoo, especially that of continuing to speak the sacred language, dress like novices and stay away from profane dances. Those married before being taken by the voodoo must abstain from conjugal relations until the end of the period of initiation. A brief ceremony called azakplikpli restores this right.(B.G.)