Haitian Vodou

Haitian Vodou

Vodou (Anglicized: Voodoo) or Vaudoo [ [http://www.absolutearts.com/artsnews/2003/05/26/31065.html Vaudoo as other name for haitian voodoo] ] is a family of New World syncretistic religions primarily based on the faiths of the Fon, Ewe, and related peoples of West Africa (see West African Vodun), of the Kongo people of Central Africa (see Lemba), and of Christianity.

It is found in areas of the African diaspora, especially Brazil, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Cuba. This article is primarily concerned with the form of the religion as it is practiced in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. See Louisiana Voodoo for the Afro-creole tradition of New Orleans, Santería and Arará for the forms local to Cuba, and Candomblé and Umbanda for Brazil.

Vodou bears strong oral tradition, adherents place great honor to deities and venerate ancestors, both ancient and recent.

When the word "Vodou" is capitalized, it denotes the religion. In lower case, it means the spirits of the religion.

African origins

The word "voodoo" derives from "vodũ," which in Fon, Ewe, and related language (distributed from contemporary Ghana to Benin) means "spirit" or "divine creature" (in the sense of "divine creation").

The cultural area of the Fon, Ewe, and Yoruba peoples share common metaphysical conceptions around a dual cosmological divine principle Nana Buluku, the God-Creator, and the vodou(s) or God-Actor(s), daughters and sons of the Creator's twin children Mawu (goddess of the moon) and Lisa (god of the sun). The God-Creator is the cosmogonical principle and does not trifle with the mundane; the vodou(s) are the God-Actor(s) who actually govern earthly issues. The pantheon of vodoun is quite large and complex. In one version, there are seven male and female twins of Mawu, interethnic and related to natural phenomena or historical or mythical individuals, and dozens of ethnic vodous, defenders of a certain clan or tribe.Fact|date=January 2007

West African Vodun has its primary emphasis on the ancestors, with each family of spirits having its own specialized priest- and priestesshood which are often hereditary. In many African clans, deities might include Mami Wata, who are gods and goddesses of the waters; Legba, who in some clans is virile and young in contrast to the old man form he takes in Haiti and in many parts of Togo; Gu (or Ogoun), ruling iron and smithcraft; Sakpata, who rules diseases; and many other spirits distinct in their own way to West Africa.

European colonialism, followed by totalitarian regimes in West Africa, suppressed Vodun as well as other forms of the religion. However, because the Vodou deities are born to each African clan-group, and its clergy is central to maintaining the moral, social, and political order and ancestral foundation of its villagers, it proved to be impossible to eradicate the religion. Though permitted by Haiti's 1987 constitution, which recognizes religious equality, many books and films have sensationalized voodoo as black magic based on animal and human sacrifices to summon zombies and evil spirits.

Haitian Vodou

In Haitian Vodou (Sèvis Lwa in Creole or "Service to the Spirits"), there are strong elements from the Bakongo of Central Africa and the Igbo and Yoruba of Nigeria, although many different nations of Africa have representation in the liturgy of the Sèvis Lwa. An often overlooked yet significant element was that of the Taíno Indians, venerated as the indigenous population (and hence, a form of ancestors) of the island now known as Hispaniola. The Taíno contributed considerable influence to the belief system of Haitian Vodou, most notably the Petro (Petwo in Creole) sect, a sect of the religion with virtually no counterpart and origin from the African continent. Characterized by the aggression of the loas, the sect bears influence from the zemis of Amerindian folklore. A large and significant portion of Haitian Vodou most often overlooked by scholars, until recently is the Kongo component. The entire Northern area of Haiti is especially influenced by Kongo practice. In the North, it is more often called Kongo Rite or Lemba, from the Lemba rites of the Loango area and Mayombe. In the south, Kongo influence is called Petwo (Petro). Many loas or lwas (also a Kikongo term) are of Kongo origin such as Basimbi, Lemba, etc.

Haitian creole forms of Vodou exist in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, parts of Cuba, the United States, and other places that Haitian immigrants dispersed to over the years. However, it is important to note that the Vodun religion (separate from Haitian Vodou) existed in the United States, having been brought over by West Africans enslaved in America, specifically from the Ewe, Fon, Mina, Kabaye, and Nago groups. Some of its more enduring forms still exist in the Gullah Islands. There is a re-emergence of these Vodun traditions in America, which maintains the same ritual and cosmological elements as is practiced in West Africa. These and other African-diasporic religions such as Lukumi or Regla de Ocha (also known as Santería) in Cuba, Candomblé and Umbanda in Brazil, all religions that evolved among descendants of transplanted Africans in the Americas.


The majority of the Africans who were brought as slaves to Haiti were from Western and Central Africa. The Vodun practitioners brought over and enslaved in the United States primarily descend from the Ewe, Anlo-Ewe, and other West African groups.Fact|date=February 2007 The survival of the belief systems in the New World is remarkable, although the traditions have changed with time and have even taken on some Catholic forms of worship. Two important factors, however, characterize the uniqueness of Haitian Vodou as compared to African Vodun; the transplanted Africans of Haiti were obliged to disguise their loa (sometimes spelled "lwa") or spirits as Roman Catholic saints, an element of a process called syncretism. The Taíno contribution brought on by the cultural and racial mixing between surviving Amerindians and escaped African maroons in the mountains of Haiti.

Roman Catholicism was mixed into the religion to hide their "pagan" religion from their masters, who had forbidden them to practice it. Thus, Haitian Vodou has roots in several West African religions, and incorporates some Roman Catholic and Arawak Amerindian influences. It is common for Haitians followers of the Vodou religion to integrate Roman Catholic practices by including Catholic prayers in Vodou worship. Throughout the history of the island from the day of independence of 1804 to the present, missionaries repeatedly came over to the island to convert the Haitians back to the Christian religion which previously had been forced on them. This has set many Haitians to project vodou as an evil religion, from the influence of the missionaries to abusive practitioners who use vodou to persecute.

Vodou, as it is known in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora, is the result of the pressures of many different cultures and ethnicities of people being uprooted from Africa and imported to Hispaniola during the African slave trade. Under slavery, African culture and religion was suppressed, lineages were fragmented, and people pooled their religious knowledge and from this fragmentation became culturally unified. In addition to combining the spirits of many different African and Amerindian nations, Vodou has incorporated pieces of Roman Catholic liturgy to replace lost prayers or elements. Images of Catholic saints are used to represent various spirits or "mistè" ("mysteries", actually the preferred term in Haiti), and many saints themselves are honored in Vodou in their own right. This syncretism allows Vodou to encompass the African, the Indian, and the European ancestors in a whole and complete way. It is truly a "Kreyòl" religion.

The most historically important Vodou ceremony in Haitian history was the Bwa Kayiman or Bois Caïman ceremony of August 1791 that began the Haitian Revolution, in which the spirit Ezili Dantor possessed a priestess and received a black pig as an offering, and all those present pledged themselves to the fight for freedom. This ceremony ultimately resulted in the liberation of the Haitian people from French colonial rule in 1804, and the establishment of the first black people's republic in the history of the world and the second independent nation in the Americas.

Haitian vodou crossed over in the United States as early as the 1800s, but surfaced mainly in New Orleans. One practitioner that popularized it in the area was the famed Vodou Queen Marie Laveau, but other forms of vodou existed in the United States dating before the 1776 revolution. Because of the system imposed to slaves in all of the British colonies in the western hemisphere, many masters were able to control their slaves to make absolutely no attempt to practice any religion of African origin. Drum beats heard by the master in the American territory would cause slaves to be subject to punishment.

Over the years Haitian Vodou had received a negative reputation by the ignorance of the Americans, Europeans and people throughout the world that were exposed to Haitians. Missionaries had reported it, but it wasn't until the latter half of the 19th century that a book written in 1886 by Sir Spencer St. Johns, "Hayti, or the Black Republic", accused Haitian Vodou practitioners of practicing cannibalism. Throughout the 20th century, Haitian Vodou was depicted by Hollywood as being an evil and menacing religion with spells by witch doctors and tales of zombies. However, by 1950, the film director Maya Deren did a three-year research project from 1947 to 1950 in which she showed vodou as a religion of beauty and magnificence. She even wrote the book "The Divine Horseman", which gives details about the religion.

Though Vodou had a bad reputation in the early half of the 20th century in America and Haiti, by the 1960s Haitians migrating to the United Stated began to grow in greater numbers. Though the practice was acceptable but did not constitute a religion, Haitians began to expose its practice in the larger Haitian communities in New York, Miami, Chicago, and Philadelphia and even in Montreal and Paris. Though Haitians practiced and showed their vodou pride throughout the country and even during Mardi Gras, Haiti did not recognize vodou as a religion until April 4, 2003.

Today Vodou is practiced not only by Haitians, but by Americans and people of many nationalities that are exposed to the Haitian culture. However, because of the demand some impose on vodou, high priests and priestesses began the abuse of exploiting their clients and asking high monetary funds for work that brings no result. It can be said that the culture of vodou is becoming a dying religion due to the greed of many who practice. It is known that the majority of Haitians involved in the practice have been initiated to become a Houngan or Mambo. In Haiti, a houngan or mambo is considered a person of possible high power and status who can make a significant amount of money. It's a growing occupation in Haiti that attracts many impoverished citizen to practice this field, not only to have power but to have money as well. Many vodou practitioners with a hunger to live a life of money and power go into this field to exploit foreigners and Haitians who are uneducated about vodou into their web of scams to collect many monetary funds with exchange of poor quality work.

Vodou and spiritualism

Vodou is a religion/practice that is greatly concerned with spirits. Practitioners that participate may be exposed to the spirits carried by their ancestors that they once served. Those who don’t practice may be involved with great exposure to spiritual experiences. One way that those who participate or practice can have the spiritual experience is when one is possessed by the lwa. When the lwa comes on the practitioner, their body is being used by the spirit. At this point the spirit will perform acts that it desires to do. Some spirits can give prophecies of upcoming events or situation around the possessed one, also called "Chwal" or the "Horse of the Spirit." When one is possessed, the possessed one has no conscious memory of what has occurred. There is no such thing as a partial possession but only full. Practitioners experience this as being a beautiful but very tiring experience. Most people who are possessed by the spirit get a feeling of blackness or energy flowing through their body as if they were being electrocuted. When this occurs, it is a sign that a possession is in the works. The practitioner has absolutely no recollection and in fact when the possessing spirit leaves the body, the possessed one is tired and wonders what has happened during the possession. Practitioners with this gift do not like being overexposed because it drains immense energy from them. Not many can have or do have this gift. This gift cannot be purchased but only the spirit/lwa can choose who it wants to possess, for the spirit may have a mission that it can carry out spiritually. Also, those possessed by the lwa may be at a very high spiritual level that their soul is at a mature advanced status.


Haitian Vodouisants believe, in accordance with widespread African tradition, that there is one God who is the creator of all, referred to as "Bondyè" (from the French "Bon Dieu" or "Good God"). Bondyè is distinguished from the God of "the whites" in a dramatic speech by the houngan Boukman at Bwa Kayiman, but is often considered the same God of other religions, such as Christianity and Islam. Bondyè is distant from His/Her/Its creation though, and so it is the spirits or the "mysteries", "saints", or "angels" that the Vodouisant turns to for help, as well as to the ancestors. Some Vodouisants do not believe in Bondyè, instead referring to Damballa as the Creator. Others will believe in both: with Damballa having a lesser role in creation. A Vodouisant will usually have an idea God, regardless of the relationship with Damballa (from identity with God, to Damballa being a lesser spirit).

There are said to be twenty-one nations or "Nation" of spirits, also sometimes called "lwa-yo". Some of the more important nations of lwa are the Rada (corresponding to the Gbe-speaking ethnic groups in the modern-day Republic of Benin, Nigeria, and Togo); the Nago (synonymous with the Yoruba-speaking ethnicities in Nigeria, the Republic of Benin, and Togo); and the numerous West-Central African ethnicities united under the ethnonym Kongo. The spirits also come in "families" that all share a surname, like Ogou, or Ezili, or Azaka or Ghede. For instance, "Ezili" is a family, Ezili Dantor and Ezili Freda are two individual spirits in that family. The Ogou family are soldiers, the Ezili govern the feminine spheres of life, the Azaka govern agriculture, the Ghede govern the sphere of death and fertility. In Dominican Vodou, there is also an Agua Dulce or "Sweet Waters" family, which encompasses all Amerindian spirits. There are literally hundreds of lwa. Well known individual lwa include Danbala Wedo, Papa Legba Atibon, and Agwe Tawoyo.

In Haitian Vodou, spirits are divided according to their nature of their nations. There are the nation of the Congo, Rada, Petwo, Nago, Dahomey, Ghede, and etc. The two popular categories the Haitian believers utilizes are the nation of the Petwo, the more aggressive and the Rada, the calmer spirits.

Rada spirits are familial and congenial, while Petwo spirits are more combative and restless. Both can be dangerous if angry or upset, and despite claims to the contrary, neither is "good" or "evil" in relation to the other. Everyone is said to have spirits, and each person is considered to have a special relationship with one particular spirit who is said to "own their head", however each person may have many lwa, and the one that owns their head, or the "met tet", may or may not be the most active spirit in a person's life in Haitian belief.

In serving the spirits, the Vodouisant seeks to achieve harmony with their own individual nature and the world around them, manifested as personal power and resourcefulness in dealing with life. Part of this harmony is membership in and maintaining relationships within the context of family and community. A Vodou house or society is organized on the metaphor of an extended family, and initiates are the "children" of their initiators, with the sense of hierarchy and mutual obligation that implies.

Most Vodouisants are not initiated, referred to as being "bossale"; it is not a requirement to be an initiate in order to serve one's spirits. There are clergy in Haitian Vodou whose responsibility it is to preserve the rituals and songs and maintain the relationship between the spirits and the community as a whole (though some of this is the responsibility of the whole community as well). They are entrusted with leading the service of all of the spirits of their lineage. Priests are referred to as "Houngans" and priestesses as "Mambos". Below the houngans and mambos are the hounsis, who are initiates who act as assistants during ceremonies and who are dedicated to their own personal mysteries.

One does not serve just any lwa but only the ones they "have" according to one's destiny or nature. Which spirits a person "has" may be revealed at a ceremony, in a reading, or in dreams. However all Vodouisants also serve the spirits of their own blood ancestors, and this important aspect of Vodou practice is often glossed over or minimized in importance by commentators who do not understand the significance of it. The ancestor cult is in fact the basis of Vodou religion, and many lwa like Agasou (formerly a king of Dahomey) for example are in fact ancestors who are said to have been raised up to divinity.

Liturgy and practice

After a day or two of preparation setting up altars, ritually preparing and cooking fowl and other foods, etc., a Haitian Vodou service begins with a series of Catholic prayers and songs in French, then a litany in Kreyòl and African "langaj" that goes through all the European and African saints and lwa honored by the house, and then a series of verses for all the main spirits of the house. This is called the "Priyè Gine" or the African Prayer. After more introductory songs, beginning with saluting the spirit of the drums named Hounto, the songs for all the individual spirits are sung, starting with the Legba family through all the Rada spirits, then there is a break and the Petwo part of the service begins, which ends with the songs for the Gede family. As the songs are sung spirits will come to visit those present by taking possession of individuals and speaking and acting through them. There are some cases where some practitioners who seek attention would pretend to get possessed. There are times when the houngan would drink until he is very drunk at the end of the ceremony. Some practitioners of these vodou ceremony fall into being fooled by the vodou priest. When a ceremony is made, only the family of those possessed is benefited. This is the greatest time these mambo or houngan can take your luck if they ask for champagne from you. Beware when that occurs. Sometimes these ceremony have some dispute going among the singers because of the way its sung. In Haiti, these vodou ceremonies, depending on the Priest or Priestess, may be more organized. But in the United States, vodou practitioner and the priests/priestess takes it as a folly party. Each spirit is saluted and greeted by the initiates present and will give readings, advice and cures to those who approach them for help. Many hours later in morning, the last song is sung, guests leave, and all the exhausted hounsis and houngans and manbos can go to sleep.

On the individual's household level, a Vodouisant or "sèvitè"/"serviteur" may have one or more tables set out for their ancestors and the spirit or spirits that they serve with pictures or statues of the spirits, perfumes, foods, and other things favored by their spirits. The most basic set up is just a white candle and a clear glass of water and perhaps flowers. On a particular spirit's day, one lights a candle and says an Our Father and Hail Mary, salutes Papa Legba and asks him to open the gate, and then one salutes and speaks to the particular spirit like an elder family member. Ancestors are approached directly, without the mediating of Papa Legba, since they are said to be "in the blood".

Values and ethics

The cultural values that Vodou embraces center around ideas of dishonor and greed - to the family and society, and to oneself. There is also a notion of relative propriety — and what is appropriate to someone with Dambala Wedo as their head may be different from someone with Ogou Feray as their head. For example, one spirit is very cool and the other is very hot. Coolness overall is valued, and so is the ability and inclination to protect oneself and one's own if necessary. Love and support within the family of the Vodou society seems to be the most important consideration. Generosity in giving to the community and to the poor is also an important value. One's blessings come through the community and there is the idea that one should be willing to give back to it in turn. There are no "solitaries" in Vodou, only people separated geographically from their elders and house. A person without a relationship of some kind with elders will not be practicing Vodou as it is understood in Haiti and among Haitians.

In the view of some the Haitian Vodou religion is an ecstatic rather than a fertility based tradition and because of this, the religion has technically no prohibitions against gay men and lesbian women. Although homophobia is a worldwide phenomenon and may be prevalent in Vodou-practicing countries, a homosexual can practise Vodou with no doctrinal issues. In Haiti, for example, Vodou is normally the only spiritual outlet a homosexual will have.

Orthodoxy and diversity

There is a diversity of practice in Vodou across the country of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. For instance in the north of Haiti the lave tèt ("head washing") or kanzwe may be the only initiation, as it is in the Dominican Republic and Cuba, whereas in Port-au-Prince and the south they practice the kanzo rites with three grades of initiationndash kanzo senp, si pwen, and asogwendash and the latter is the most familiar mode of practice outside of Haiti. Some lineages combine both, as Manbo Katherine Dunham reports from her personal experience in her book "the Possessed Island".

While the overall tendency in Vodou is very conservative in accord with its African roots, there is no singular, definitive form, only what is right in a particular house or lineage. Small details of service and the spirits served will vary from house to house, and information in books or on the internet therefore may seem contradictory. There is no central authority or "pope" in Haitian Vodou since "every manbo and houngan is the head of their own house", as a popular saying in Haiti goes. Another consideration in terms of Haitian diversity are the many sects besides the Sèvi Gine in Haiti such as the Makaya, Rara, and other secret societies, each of which has its own distinct pantheon of spirits.

Myths and misconceptions

Vodou has come to be associated in the popular mind with the lore about Satanism, zombies and "voodoo dolls." While there is evidence of zombie creation, [Davis, Wade. "Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie".] it is a minor phenomenon within rural Haitian culture and not a part of the Vodou religion as such. Such things fall under the auspices of the "bokor" or sorcerer rather than the priest of the Loa.

The practice of sticking pins in dolls has history in European folk magic, but its exact origins are unclear. How it became known as a method of cursing an individual by some followers of what has come to be called New Orleans Voodoo, but more appropriately Hoodoo (folk magic), is a mystery. Some speculate that it was used as a means of self defense to intimidate superstitious slave ownersFact|date=April 2007. This practice is not unique to voodoo or hoodoo, however, and has as much basis in European-based magical devices such as the poppet and the "nkisi" or "bocio" of West and Central Africa.

These are in fact power objects, what in Haiti would be referred to as "pwen", rather than magical surrogates for an intended target of sorcery whether for boon or for bane. Such voodoo dolls are not a feature of Haitian religion, although dolls intended for tourists may be found in the Iron Market in Port au Prince. The practice became closely associated with the Vodou religions in the public mind through the vehicle of horror movies and popular novels.

There is a practice in Haiti of nailing crude poppets with a discarded shoe on trees near the cemetery to act as messengers to the otherworld, which is very different in function from how poppets are portrayed as being used by voodoo worshippers in popular media and imagination, ie. for purposes of sympathetic magic towards another person. Another use of dolls in authentic Vodou practice is the incorporation of plastic doll babies in altars and objects used to represent or honor the spirits, or in "pwen", which recalls the aforementioned use of "bocio" and "nkisi" figures in Africa.

Although Voodoo is often associated with Satanism, Satan is rarely incorporated in Voodoo tradition. When Mississippi Delta folksongs mix references to Voodoo and to Satan, it may represent social pain such as from racism, although some crossover due to syncretism is bound to occur.

Further adding to the dark reputation of Voodoo was the 1973 film adaptation of the thriller "Live and Let Die", part of Ian Fleming's widely successful James Bond series, which had been continually in print in both the English original and translations to numerous languages. Fleming's depiction of the schemings of a fiendish Soviet agent (see Mr. Big, Baron Samedi) using Voodoo to intimidate and control a vast network of submissive black followers got an incomparably greater audience than any careful scholarly work on the subject of Voodoo.



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*Chireau, Yvonne. 2003. "Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition". Berkeley: University of California Press.
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*Warren, Dennis, D., The Akan of Ghana, Accra, Pointer Limited, 1973. 9.

ee also

*Afro-American religion
*Baron Samedi
*Haitian mythology
*Homosexuality and Voodoo
*Louisiana Voodoo
*West African Vodun
*Paket kongo

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