ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

What Is Haitian Vodou (Voodoo)?

Updated on January 12, 2015
Source

Vodou, a Religion of the African Diaspora

Haitian Vodou (Anglicized as Voodoo) is a religion brought to the island of Haiti by African slaves. It is a fusion of African traditions (primarily West African) from several different tribes, including the Fon, Yoruba, Ewe, and Kongo. The slaves also found allies in the native Caribbean tribes enslaved alongside them, and adapted some of their spiritual traditions.

Haitian Vodou gave these exploited peoples solace, self-empowerment, and a sense of communal identity during their war of independence. Despite the efforts of Christian missionaries, Vodou continues to be practiced by many Haitians to this day. They consider themselves Christian, but retain their family traditions which identify Catholic saints with African loas.

"Guinée" -- Africa Remembered

Slaves remembered Africa, Guinée, as their ancestral and spiritual home, lost beneath the sea like corpses tossed from slave-ships. There they hoped they would return after death, going "under the sea."

Their gods came with them into exile. Loas were the only birthright that slaveowners could not strip from them. Their own heads became the homeland where ancestral spirits dwelt.

Introduction to the Vodou Religion - One God, many gods (Loas)

In Vodou, God is respected as a kindly but distant Creator. Ordinary people do not have contact with God. Instead, Vodouisants (followers of Vodou) interact with loas, spirits which occupy a position analogous to angels or saints in Christian traditions.

Many loas can be traced all the way back to African gods: Ogoun the warrior/blacksmith god, Erzulie the goddess of love. Other loas are ancestor spirits, spirits of the dead (although really, even African gods like Ogoun are primordial ancestor spirits). Traditional loas like Ogoun and Erzulie are often represented as Catholic saints more for their visual attributes than spiritual similarities. So Damballah the snake god is associated with St. Patrick (depicted treading on a snake), while Erzulie is represented as the Virgin Mary.

Loas have many different versions, somewhat like Hindu avatars. There is not just one Erzulie. There is Erzulie Freda, a flirtatious spirit of love, luxury and beauty. There is the scarred, dark-skinned Erzulie Dantor (pictured above, the central figure), an avenging mother and warrior who was said to have fought alongside the slaves, her "children," during the Haitian war of independence. There are other Erzulies, too.

Haiti's War of Independence

In 1791, organized by a vodou priest, slaves revolted in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. It was the only successful slave revolt in history.

In 1804, rebel leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared the country's independence and called it Haiti, using its old native Arawak name.

He became dictator-for-life. Alas, that tradition continued, as did poverty, lack of education, and civil unrest.

Vodou Ceremony (Wikimedia Commons)
Vodou Ceremony (Wikimedia Commons)

Sacred Possession

Many West and Central African religions involve sacred possession. In Vodou, one who is possessed is known as a cheval, a horse. This is not an involuntary possession by a malignant spirit seizing on an unlucky victim. Instead, it is a way to communicate with the loas.

During certain festivals and gatherings, which include prayers, dancing and drumming, trained initiates may fall into a trance and be possessed by one of the loas. They act and speak for that loa for the duration of the ritual. In some temples, they are given clothes and props to play the part. Sometimes they prophesy. The priest (houngan), priestess (mambo) and/or trained assistants (hounsi) monitor those in trance to make sure they come back safely.

This must have been an empowering ritual for slaves who were robbed of their names, family members, material possessions and cultural identities. As slaves they were powerless, owned against their will by strangers. Yet in a secret meeting, supported by friends and their community, they could become mouthpieces for the loas, respected and heard by everyone. The loas do not discriminate by age or gender. A man can become Erzulie, beautiful and loved. A woman can become the warrior Ogoun. For a time, anyone can be a god.

Even today, in a country beset by natural disasters, extreme poverty, and a weak government, possession by loas helps some Haitians feel like agents rather than victims. Ritual possession also lets them express what lies buried deep in their hearts. To a skeptic, it can be seen as a form of role-playing therapy.

Photo Credit: Doron. Wikimedia Commons, GNU License.

Source

Why Do We Fear Voodoo?

Vodou is a religion with communal ceremonies honoring loas and their ancestors. Worshipers gather to sing, dance and worship, not stick pins in dolls. So where did Hollywood's bizarre image of Voodoo come from?

From a Christian point of view, Vodou is idolatry. A few festivals and ceremonies include animal sacrifice (the animal is cooked and shared in a communal feast like Thanskgiving dinner). Sacred possession is divine inspiration for those who believe in it, but some Christians claim it's "a pact with the devil." Once you've decided people are devil-worshipers, aill sorts of wild rumors start circulating -- that's why so many "witches" were burned right up into the 1700s, accused of acts which we know are quite impossible (flying on brooms?)

Second, portraits of loas look alien to blancs (outsiders, in Haitian) when they're not portrayed as Catholic saints. They often have horns, large eyes or dark colors meant to convey nature, power, and African skin tones. Some spirits of the dead are depicted as skeletal, while others are warrior spirits. The horns of a bull may represent warrior's strength in a nature-based religion. But in Christianity, horns are equated with the devil. Christians and Vodouisants "read" the same image very differently, just as the sound "Sí­" means "yes" in Spanish but "see" in English.

The American Occupation

"It should not surprise us that during the American occupation, from 1915 to 1934, tales of cannibalism, torture, and zombis were published in this country. What better way to justify the 'civilizing' presence of Marines in Haiti than to project the phantasm of Barbarism?"

-- Joan Dayan, "Voudoun, or the Voice of the Gods," Sacred Possessions

Vengeful Spirits, Zombies and Magic

Third, Vodou has a darker side reflecting the cruel lessons of slavery, poverty and hurricanes. Vodou doesn't sugar-coat the age-old question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Vodou teaches that dangerous, unfriendly spirits may cause misfortune. Even "friendly" loas may become angry and resentful when neglected. Erzulie Fréda is a gentle virgin goddess, but Erzulie Dantor is an avenging mother who gave slaves the courage to revolt.

Fourth, as with almost any religion, there are scammers who have exploited people's belief in Vodou by extorting money from them, playing on their spiritual fears and fervor, or using religious symbols as a political tool. Worst among these abusers is the dreaded bokor, the sorcerer. Supposedly, a bokor can rip away someone's soul, leaving nothing but a mindless body, a zombie. In traditional Vodou belief, a zombie doesn't attack other people. Instead, it is forced to serve a bokor as a manual laborer, enslaved to his will. No wonder zombies stories are so full of horror: they embody the racial fear of slavery.

Finally, followers of Vodou may seek help via folk magic and home remedies, which again is disturbing to many Christians. In America, these practices are often called hoodoo. Dolls are part of some hoodoo traditions, but their use as tools in spells and hexes arose in the States. In Haiti, dolls are usually offerings to Erzulie, small portraits of loas, or (more recently) made as souvenirs catering to the expectations of tourists. However, folk magic is not Vodou, any more than the custom of tossing a bouquet at a wedding is what Christianity is all about. It's something people do, but it's not closely connected with the tenets and gods of their religion.


Vodou: The Bottom Line

Vodou is a unique fusion of old nature-based religious traditions.

It has given dignity and courage to poor and exploited peoples. It has given them self-identity and a way to support each other against slaveowners and corrupt leaders.

It also has a scary side reflecting the difficulties of life in Haiti. Like Haiti, Vodou is full of joy and fear.

Above all, it is a religion honoring the ancestors and spiritual heritage of Africans in the New World.

Good Books on Haitian Vodou

Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn Updated and Expanded Edition (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society)
Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn Updated and Expanded Edition (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society)

An American anthropologist interviewing a modern Vodou priestess about her religion. This well-known book is one of the most widely-recommended introductions to Vodou for outsiders trying to understand the religion.

 
Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santerfa, Obeah, and the Caribbean (Studies of Great Texts in Science)
Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santerfa, Obeah, and the Caribbean (Studies of Great Texts in Science)

Excellent, well-researched scholarly work on the religions of Vodou, Santerí­a and Obeah. It was the main textbook for my religious studies class on "Spiritual Traditions of the African Diaspora," and the main source I used to write this lens.

 
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti

Famous, popular work by filmmaker Maya Deren who went to Haiti in 1953 and wrote on the religious traditions of Haitian Vodou by participating in local rituals. Somewhat unscholarly and inaccurate in places, but this is an amazing and gripping book.

 

Disclaimer: I am a student of world mythologies and religion, NOT an expert on Vodou. If I have made any mistakes, I apologize! I created this page as my offering to Haiti, one small way to help raise money for relief efforts.

Guestbook - Well, What Do You Think?

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Marelisa 7 years ago

      Very nice lens GreekGeek. Vodoo does get a bad rap; I guess people are quick to criticize what they don't understand. I've added "Hope for Haiti" to my "Haiti Devastated by Earthquake: How You Can Help" lens.

    • Everyday-Miracles profile image

      Everyday-Miracles 7 years ago

      When I was a pagan, the pagans that I knew also very much feared Vodou. Everything that I knew about it was as you described above, but I felt as though I was being disrespectful to my mentors in disagreeing with their obvious points of view on the subject.

      So what is HOODOO then? I've often wondered if the two are somehow confused, because I keep getting told that I'm wrong about the Catholic fusion and the fact that Vodouists believe that they are Christian. Clearly my own understanding is as you have stated above, which leaves me feeling *more* confused than when I started.

      Not your fault of course. Great lens!

    • profile image

      happynutritionist 7 years ago

      Interesting history you have shared. I will share what I think...as a Christian who has talked to Missionaries that work in countries that practice voodoo, etc., I know the people live in much more fear than peace, some because of the reasons mentioned in the last module...never knowing when fearful spirits will do them harm. I have listened as Missionaries who share the Gospel of Christ speak of the positive transformation that comes to these people when they let the Spirit of God invade their hearts and minds, because they no longer need to fear, they are free, it is a beautiful thing!

      Thank you for this lens to support the people in Haiti, and for submitting it to "RocketMoms Help for Haiti", I woke up praying for them today...can't get them off my mind. ~claudia

    • mythphile profile image
      Author

      Ellen Brundige 7 years ago from California

      @Everyday-Miracles: I'm afraid to answer that question too precisely because I have only an outsider's perspective... a semester of study in a mythology and religions program is no substitute for real knowledge and experience.

      I think Hoodoo is folk medicine: spells, charms, hexes (used by only some), herbal remedies. My reading in Sacred Possessions suggests it's less common in Haiti than in America, where it's mixed with various other folk traditions and evolved slightly differently. (Often, personal folk magic endures after the religious beliefs and sacred traditions of a community are lost). Whereas Vodou is a word for a loose set of religious practices and beliefs -- practices which may involve some Hoodoo elements.

      The problem is that many people use "Voodoo" or "Vodoun" (not usually Vodou) as a catch-all term for folk magic as well as the religious tradition. It varies by individual, priest/preistess, and group. You know how much customs, terms and beliefs can vary in non-organized religions!

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      @Everyday-Miracles: Hoodoo is American Folk Magic. A good site for more information on Hoodoo is http://www.luckymojo.com

    • mythphile profile image
      Author

      Ellen Brundige 7 years ago from California

      @anonymous: Thanks, J! I should really know that, eh, considering we know someone who's well-versed in it!

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Wonderful informative page. I hope that this will be a great help for Haiti.

      It is such a tragedy and people need so much help right now.

      Bless your big heart for doing what you can. May God Bless Haiti!

      Susie

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      @happynutritionist: In general, one cannot practice vodou without being Christian as well. Vodou exists side-by-side with Christianity. Like most of the African diaspora religions (such as santeria), vodou is a syncretic religion that people practice simultaneously. In this country, white people who are Christian are often also believers in New Age practices, or might belong to the Spiritualist church (Christian + spiritualist practices) or might practice speaking in tongues. It is a particular slant to the practice of the religion.

      Vodou empowers participants to speak with and sometimes channel the "smaller" gods who are closer to them and more concerned about their woes than the giant impersonal Christian god. The idea that this causes people more fear than peace is likely propaganda that is at best ethnocentric and at worst racist.

    • mythphile profile image
      Author

      Ellen Brundige 7 years ago from California

      @anonymous: In some cases it may be ethnocentric and racist, and I know full well my own ignorance of the subject is probably showing. However, I was trying to summarize a section of "Vodou, or the Voice of the Gods" by Joan Dayan introducion Vodou in the book Sacred Possessions (1997) in which the people being interviewed are Haitians who are in families with Vodou traditions. The author's friend describes her grandmother abandoning the family tradition and becoming a Seven-Day-Adventist. The friend has returned to family traditions, but speaks of the feeling of being out of control, of having one foot in both worlds -- she is attached to her family loas, but obviously feels turmoil. There is also a section in which several different Vodouisants speak of how they feel some loas have become restive because many have turned away from the traditions and neglected them. It is hard for me to judge how representative these accounts are. Obviously they are not speaking for everybody -- different people have different experiences.

    • sheriangell profile image

      sheriangell 7 years ago

      I really enjoyed reading this, Vodou has always been a mystery to me. I would have never guessed you weren't an expert by reading this. Thank you so much for the link to my Hope for Haiti lens. I included you on my lens.

    • Brookelorren LM profile image

      Brookelorren LM 7 years ago

      The flavor of Christianity that I believe in is not compatible with Vodou, as I believe in only one God, and any possession by spirits is dangerous. However, I do care for the people in Haiti, and I pray that they will get the help that they need, and quickly.

    • profile image

      kcbaker1 7 years ago

      Very good job covering the subject. Voodoo is not at all what people think it is.

    • mythphile profile image
      Author

      Ellen Brundige 7 years ago from California

      @kcbaker1: I'm very glad to have your own comment, since you're living there and know these peole. I am a book-learner and a student.

      Stay safe and good luck! We are praying for everyone down there.

    • mythphile profile image
      Author

      Ellen Brundige 7 years ago from California

      @Brookelorren LM: Yep, even if it's not Satanic, it still doesn't square with orthodox Christian belief.

      But whatever our religion, any good-hearted person must feel compassion for the Haitian people and horror at what is happening down there.

    • lasertek lm profile image

      lasertek lm 7 years ago

      Interesting and informative. A lot of people are frightened with Voodoo because some believed it is evil. But I think it is just another religion or culture (whatever it may be) that most of us do not understand. Great lens! 5*

      Hope you could visit my lenses. Thanks

    • verymary profile image

      Mary 7 years ago from Chicago area

      "like Haiti, Vodou is full of joy and fear" -- great line. 5* and rolling to squidoo.com/haiti-best-charities

    • profile image

      poutine 7 years ago

      Thanks for the excellent description of this controversial subject.Z

    • profile image

      rjm1969 7 years ago

      Vodou has one God, the same God as we all do, but they have spirits (saints) that they speak to ,as our God is very busy. Just like Catholics pray to the Virgin Mary, or Jesus Christ, etc. I was raised Baptist and then raise my own children Catholic, but i've studies many religions and Vodou gets a bad rap from those that have never took the time to know what it really is. Also, African Voodoo, Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo may honor the same lwas (loas-saints) they are all three very different things.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Kiss Me, I'm Irish! Lucky Leprechaun Blessings by a Squidoo Angel

    • profile image

      miaalien 5 years ago

      Happy to see a great description of our culture & religion. Its nice to know that there are some out there not spoiled by the media perception. Haiti is a place of beauty & angst, just like the rest of the world. The African Culture of Vodou that has passed on to us is a glorious empowerment tool, I can only pray that missionaries & extremist fundamentalists stop "culturally cleansing" our nation by luring the poor with food & amenities if they convert to a traditional Anglican religion. Haiti now & forever.

    • mythphile profile image
      Author

      Ellen Brundige 5 years ago from California

      @miaalien: Oh, good! I'm always afraid of screwing up when I talk about the religions I've studied. It's one thing to be a student; it's another to be a member of that religion!

      My heart goes out to Haiti: you just can't get a break. Tying aid to conversion stinks. Keep holding onto your beautiful heritage. Good luck and god(s) ;) bless.

    • Nightcat profile image

      Nightcat 5 years ago

      All religions have a scary dark side. Try growing up Roman Catholic. You are so right about the money thing. But I don't find the lwa being tough scary. We humans need our sorry assets kicked or we will never improve ourselves. Lovely work and will lensroll you honey! Thumbs up!

    • remidongo profile image

      REMI DONGO 5 years ago from Bruxelles

      @kcbaker1: indeed good job

      chek this site about voodoo history

      http://www.bondye.com/

    • DeniseAlvarado profile image

      Denise M Alvarado 5 years ago from Southwest

      Blessed!

    • profile image

      vodou lm 5 years ago

      You did a nice job. :) Mesi anpil, and for helping Haiti with your donations.

    • allenwebstarme profile image

      allenwebstarme 5 years ago

      Never knew about this scary religion, very good information.

    • profile image

      jithinseb 5 years ago

      its really good!

    • Bluemoongoddess1 profile image

      Lisa Musser 5 years ago from Kansa, USA

      Thank you for providing this information about Vodou. People fear what they don't understand so by educating them you are helping spread acceptance of other religions. I have done some research on the subject and I see a lot of the same aspects of Vodou in Christianity. Spirit possession (The Holy Spirit in Christianity) and animal sacrifice was in the bible as preparation for a celebration or feast. What people are afraid of is the magic. But all magic really is, is a prayer set into motion by action. We light candles, we say prayers and then we try to do something positive to reinforce our will for the spell to succeed. Spells were made for employment, a good harvest, for help to conceive a child, and etc. Magic is not all bad, it depends largely on your intent.

    Click to Rate This Article