What Is Haitian Vodou (Voodoo)?
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.
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.
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 FrÃ©da 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.
Where to Go to Learn More about Haitian Vodou
- Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou | American Museum of Natural History
The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou exhibition, hosted by the American Museum of Natural History from October 1998 until January 1999, with an overview of the arts and culture of the Afro-Caribbean religion of Vodou.
- Introduction to Vodou -- International Vodou Society
This site by and for followers of the Haitian Vodou religion includes descriptions and images of the major loas (lwas), initiations, ceremonies, magick, and a short FAQ.
- Roots Without End Vodou Congregation
A Haiti congregation based in Jacmal with beginning lessons about what Vodou is and some interesting essays on how Vodou has been treated by various governments -- including the U.S. -- plus Protestants trying to "exorcise" the most sacred site in Ha
- Haitian Vodou Loas - Photobucket Gallery
Small photo gallery of of Vodou Loas, in their guises as Catholic saints, as veves (geometric patterns drawn on the ground to invoke them), and some modern depictions.
- What Is Hoodoo? By the Lucky Mojo website
Hoodoo, American folk magic with Afro-Caribbean roots, is NOT Vodou, although it draws on some of the same symbols and beliefs. This article explains the difference.
Good Books on Haitian Vodou
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.
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.
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.