One of the elements of Vodou that are important and often challenges the understanding of the beginner is Pwen. In this article, I explore Kimberly Ann Grennough-Hodges' doctoral thesis to try to elucidate this element a little bit more.
In Krèyol pwen literally means point. From this simple analysis we can infer that this pwen is both the concentration of something and something that makes up a bigger thing. Grennough-Hodges says that pwen can be a physical point - an image, for example -, a focus of energy and that it is considered as something alive that participates in a delicate and dynamic balance that is part of the very orientation of the universe. Therefore, pwen is a point, but a point that dances and sways with the cosmic waves that bathe Vodou .
Kimberly also points out that pwens can be placed on objects (in a ritual object, for example), in people (in certain rituals) and that the Lwas are either pwens or are closely associated with them. Still, the author highlights that Vodou's very own ceremonies are pwens . In a way, pwen is something of magic or magic itself.
This association of pwen with magic is interesting as it allows us to think that pwen is a power. There are beneficial uses of pwen and there are uses that could be considered harmful. However, it is not appropriate to classify pwen within this limiting dichotomy. The pwen is this thing that is amoral. It is nature's own thing and a power that is both characterizing and expansive.
Grennough-Hodges says that when there is possession, the horse's body becomes a pwen for Lwa . Now, in this case, we have pwen literally as a point - a point that defines and that concentrates. But when we think of the relationship as a whole, we have to consider that in the possession there is also a connection between the horse and the Lwa, which in this case is a pwen - a meeting point, a gateway to a higher power - for the horse. Here is revealed the dynamic relationship that establishes the balance of Vodou . Nothing is one-sided, and the pwen must run back and forth - or there will simply be no power.
At this point we need to remind ourselves of the Vodou revolves around the relation of the visible with the invisible. When we talk about a relationship, we cannot interpret it as a one-way street. Therefore, it is common for elements in Vodou to have (at least) two faces. We are not talking about a religiosity that understands that unilateral power is dispensed upon the world.
Let us look at sacrifice - which falls into Mauss' gift and counter-gift - a power is given, a power is received. We have to see that pwen also fits this dynamic. The pwen concentrates and anchors, but it also serves as support for bigger things. Thus, if the sacrifice can be considered a pwen for the Lwas - the action of the Lwas which is expected to be triggered by the sacrifice is also pwen .
Certain pwens are temporary, others are perennial. For example, the Lwas will never be extinguished - however, a magical object can lose its pwen . A good example of this is one that Grennough-Hodges gives. She says that Kanzo is a ceremony that gives a lot of pwen and that it is never lost, except in prohibited conduct - for example, if the person has sex within 41 days after Kanzo (and it is worth mentioning that in some houses of Vodou such a restriction regarding sex is not considered).
There is much more to be discussed and presented on the subject, but I think that reading this text will greatly help those who are venturing into books and articles. Undoubtedly, better understanding pwen helps us to better understand the logic of Vodou itself .
Reference : Greenough-Hodges, KA Haitian Vodou : “ Pwen ” (magical charge) in ritual context.