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Haitian Vodou

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Haitian Vodou[1][2]; also written as Vodun[3][4], or Vodoun[1][3], and frequently rendered in English as Voodoo) is a syncretic[5] religion that originates in the Caribbean country of Haiti. It is based upon a merging of the beliefs and practices of West African peoples (mainly the Fon and Ewe; see West African Vodun), with Arawakian religious beliefs, and Roman Catholic Christianity. Vodou was created by African slaves who were brought to Haiti in the 16th century and still followed theirtraditional African beliefs, but were forced to convert to the religion of their slavers.[6] Practitioners are commonly described as Vodouisants.


The principal belief in Haitian Vodou is that deities called Lwa (or Loa) are subordinates to a god called Bondyè. This supreme being does not intercede in human affairs, and it is to the Lwa that Vodou worship is directed.[7] Other characteristics of Vodou include veneration of the dead and protection against evil witchcraft.[8]

Haitian Vodou shares many traits with other faiths of the African diaspora, including the Louisiana Voodoo of New Orleans, Santería and Arará of Cuba, and Candomblé and Umbanda of Brazil. A Haitian Vodou temple is called an Hounfour..[9]

In Haitian Vodou Sèvis Lwa in Creole ("Service to the Lwa"), there are strong elements from the Bakongo of Central Africa and the Igbo and Yoruba of Nigeria, although many other African nations have contributed to the liturgy of the Sèvis Lwa. A significant portion of Haitian Vodou often overlooked by scholars until recently is the input from the Kongo. The entire northern area of Haiti is heavily influenced by Kongo practices. In northern Haiti, it is often called the Kongo Rite or Lemba, from the Lemba rituals of the Loango area and Mayombe. In the south, Kongo influence is called Petwo (Petro). Many lwa (a Kikongo term) are of Kongo origin, such as Basimbi, Lemba, etc.

Haitian creole forms of Vodou exist in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, eastern Cuba,[10] some of the outer islands of the Bahamas, the United States, and anywhere that Haitians have emigrated to. However, it is important to note that the Vodun religion (separate from Haitian Vodou) already existed in the United States, having been brought by enslaved West Africans, specifically from the Ewe, Fon, Mina, Kabaye, and Nago groups. Some of the more enduring forms survive in the Gullah Islands. There has been a re-emergence of the Vodun traditions in the United States, maintaining the same ritual and cosmological elements as in West Africa. These and other African-diasporic religions, such as Lukumi or Regla de Ocha (also known as Santería) in Cuba, and Candomblé and Umbanda in Brazil, have evolved among descendants of transplanted Africans in the Americas.


The English transliteration voodoo has acquired negative connotations, and is therefore often avoided by scholars and practitioners in preference to the Haitian form vodou.[3][11][12] The latter word has traditionally been used in English (spelled vodu, vodun) to mean a fetish within the Vodou religion. Variant spellings in vau- reflect French orthography, and a final -n reflects the nasal vowel in West African pronunciations.



Vodouisants believe in a supreme being called Bondye, but also worship many lesser spirits, as the loa. This belief is held in several West African religions, such as that of the Yoruba, Odinani, and Vodun. When it came in contact with Roman Catholicism, the supreme being was associated with the Judeo-Christian God, the loa becoming the saints.


Bondye is the supreme god in Haitian Vodou. The word is derived from the French bon Dieu (good God).[7] Vodouisants regard Bondye as the creator of everything. Bondye is distant from its creation, being a pandeist deity. He is aloof from every day affairs and Vodouisants do not believe they can contact Him for help.


Bondye being unreachable, Vodouisants aim their prayers to lesser entities, the spirits known as loa, or mistè. The most notable loa include Papa Legba (guardian of the crossroads), Erzulie Freda (the spirit of love), Simbi (the spirit of rain and magicians), Kouzin Zaka (the spirit of agriculture), and The Marasa, divine twins considered to be the first children of Bondye.[13]

These loa can be divided into 21 nations, which include the Petro, Rada, Congo and Nago [14] The Petro and the Rada contrast most with one another, because the Petro are hot or aggressive and restless, whereas the Rada are cool or calm and peaceful.

The loa also fall into family groups, who share a surname, such as Ogou, Ezili, Azaka or Ghede. For instance, "Ezili" is a family, Ezili Danto and Ezili Freda are two individual spirits in that family. Each family is associated with a specific aspect, for instance 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. Each of the loa is associated with a particular Roman Catholic saint.


Vodou's moral code focuses on the vices of dishonour and greed. 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 seem to be the most important considerations. Generosity in giving to the community and to the poor is also an important value. One's blessings come through the community, and one should be willing to give back. 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 does not practice Vodou as it is understood in Haiti and among Haitians.

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 initiation – kanzo senp, si pwen, and asogwe – and the latter is the most familiar mode of practice outside of Haiti. Some lineages combine both, as Mambo Katherine Dunham reports from her personal experience in her book Island Possessed.

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 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.


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 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 Hounto, the spirit of the drums, 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, participants believe that spirits come to visit the ceremony, by taking possession of individuals and speaking and acting through them. When a ceremony is made, only the family of those possessed is benefited. At this time it is believed that devious mambo or houngan can take away the luck of the worshippers through particular actions. For instance, if a priest asks for a drink of champagne, a wise participant refuses. Sometimes these ceremonies may include dispute among the singers as to how a hymn is to be sung. In Haiti, these Vodou ceremonies, depending on the priest or priestess, may be more organized. However, in the United States, many Vodou practitioners and clergy take it as a sort of non-serious party or "folly".

In a serious rite, each spirit is saluted and greeted by the initiates present and gives readings, advice, and cures to those who ask for help. Many hours later, as morning dawns, the last song is sung, the guests leave, and the exhausted hounsis, 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 as an elder family member. Ancestors are approached directly, without the mediating of Papa Legba, since they are said to be "in the blood".


Houngans (Male Vodou Priest) or Mambos (Female Vodou Priest) are usually people who were chosen by the dead ancestors (loas) and received the divination from the deities while he or she was possessed. His or her tendency is to do good by helping and protecting others from spells, however they sometimes use their supernatural power to hurt or kill people. They also conduct ceremonies that usually take place "Amba Peristil" (under a Vodou Temple). However, non-Houngan or non-Mambo as Vodouisants are not initiated, and are referred to as being "bossale"; it is not a requirement to be an initiate 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. Sometimes they are "called" to serve in a process called "being reclaimed," which they may resist at first.[15] 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.


African origins

The word vodou derives from vodũ, which in Fon, Ewe, and related language (distributed from contemporary South Eastern Ghana beyond the Volta River 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.

West African Vodun has its primary emphasis on ancestors, with each family of spirits having its own specialized priest and priestess, 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 Vodun 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.

Haitian Revolution

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. 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.[10] Two important factors, however, characterize the uniqueness of Haitian Vodou as compared to African Vodun; the transplanted Africans of Haiti, similar to those of Cuba and Brazil, were obliged to disguise their loa (sometimes spelled lwa) or spirits as Roman Catholic saints, an element of a process called syncretism.

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. Thus Vodou incorporated some formal elements of Roman Catholicism, while remaining totally unChristian in its essence. Throughout the history of the island from independence in 1804 to the present, missionaries repeatedly came to the island to convert the Haitians back to the Christian religion previously forced on them. This missionary influence—as well as experience with abusive practitioners—has made many Haitians regard Voudu as evil.

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 who were 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.[16] 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.


Today Vodou is practiced not only by Haitians but by Americans and people of many other nations who have been exposed to Haitian culture.

Many Haitians involved in the practice of Vodou have been initiated as Houngans or Mambos. In Haiti, a houngan or mambo is considered a person of possible high power and status who acquire much money; it now is a growing occupation in Haiti, attracting many an impoverished citizen to its practice, not only to gain power but to gain money as well. Some Vodou practitioners with a hunger to live a life of wealth and power became practitioners so they could exploit foreigners and Haitians who are uneducated about Vodou, bringing them into a web of deceptions to collect large incomes in exchange for poor quality work.

In January 2010, after the Haiti earthquake there was an outburst of solidarity prayers in Benin with the victims. Traditional ceremonies were organized to appease the spirits and seek the blessing of ancestors for the Haitians. Also a "purification ceremony" was planned for Haiti.[17] In a 2010 news story, CNN reported, "At least 45 people, most of them voodoo priests, have been lynched in Haiti since the beginning of the cholera epidemic by angry mobs blaming them for the spread of the disease, officials said."[18]

Myths and misconceptions

Vodou has come to be associated in popular culture with the lore of Satanism, zombies and "voodoo dolls". Zombie creation has been referenced within rural Haitian culture,[19] but it is not a part of the Vodou religion proper. Such manifestations 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 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 unknown. This practice is not unique to Voodoo or Hoodoo, however, and has as much basis in 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 is called 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 Vodou worshippers in popular media and imagination, i.e. 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 Vodou is often associated with Satanism, Satan is rarely incorporated in Vodou tradition. Mississippi Delta folksongs mix references to Vodou and to Satan.

Further adding to the dark reputation of Vodou were films such as The Serpent and the Rainbow and Live and Let Die (part of Ian Fleming's widely successful James Bond series). Fleming's depiction of the schemings of a fiendish Soviet agent using Vodou to intimidate and control a vast network of submissive black followers reached an incomparably greater audience than any careful scholarly work on the subject of Vodou.

To address the myths and misconceptions that have historically maligned the practice and present a more constructive view of the religion, in April 1997, fifteen scholars gathered at UCSB for a colloquium on Haitian Vodou, The Spirit and The Reality: Voodoo and Haiti created a new association under the name, the Congress of Santa Barbara also known as KOSANBA.[20]


In the aftermath of the Duvalier dictatorship, a number of individuals, including many houngan, sought to organize means of defense for Haitian Vodou from defamation by evangelical Christian missionaries and congregations. One of the first leading houngan to formally organize other houngan in solidarity was Wesner Morency (1959–2007), who established the Vodou Church of Haiti in 1998 (registered in 2001 by the Ministry of Justice) and the Commission Nationale pour la Structuration de Vodou (CONAVO). Another individual who has pursued the organization of houngan is Max Beauvoir, who established and heads the National Confederation of Haitian Vodou.

However, the ability to organize and speak on behalf of most, if not all Vodouisants is hampered by the spirituality's historically-decentralized nature.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Cosentino, Henrietta B. (1995). "The Sacred Arts of What?". in Cosentino, Donald J.. Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. pp. xii-xiv. 
  2. Brown, Karen McCarthy (1991). Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Courlander, Harold (1988). "The Word Voodoo" (PDF). African Arts 21 (2 (February)): 88. Retrieved 2011-01-14. 
  4. Thompson, Robert Farris (1983). Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy. New York: Vintage. 
  5. Stevens-Arroyo, Anthony M. (2002). "The Contribution of Catholic Orthodoxy to Caribbean Syncretism" (PDF). Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions 19 (117 (January–March)): 37–58. Retrieved 2009-04-26. 
  6. The Book of Vodou, Leah Gordon, page 10
  7. 7.0 7.1 The Book of Vodou, Leah Gordon, page 48
  8. The Book of Vodou, Leah Gordon, page 16
  9. The African Diaspora: Interpretive Essays, Martin Kilson, Robert I. Rotberg, page 345
  10. 10.0 10.1 Stevens-Arroyo, Anthony M. (2002). "The Contribution of Catholic Orthodoxy to Caribbean Syncretism" (PDF). Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions 19 (117 (January–March)): 37–58. Retrieved 2009-04-26. 
  11. Cosentino, Donald J. (1988). "More On Voodoo" (PDF). African Arts 21 (3 (May)): 77. Retrieved 2011-01-14. 
  12. Lane, Maria J., ed (1949). "Vodou". Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row. pp. 1162. 
  13. The Book of Vodoo, Leah Gordon, page 54
  14. Alvarado, D. (2008). The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook, The Mystic Voodoo.
  15. *McAlister, Elizabeth. 1993.“Sacred Stories from the Haitian Diaspora: A Collective Biography of Seven Vodou Priestesses in New York City.” Journal of Caribbean Studies, Vol. 9, Nos 1 & 2 (Winter 1993): 10-27.
  16. Thylefors, Markel (March 2009). "'Our Government is in Bwa Kayiman:' a Voodoo Ceremony in 1791 and its Contemporary Signifcations" STOCKHOLM REVIEW OF LATIN AMERICAN STUDIES, Issue No. 4
  17. "Benin voodoo to calm evil spirits in Haiti". Retrieved 2010-06-29. 
  18. "Officials: 45 people lynched in Haiti amid cholera fears". December 24, 2010
  19. Davis, Wade. Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie.
  20. "KOSANBA: A Scholarly Association for the Study of Haitian Vodou". Retrieved 2010-06-29. 


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This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Haitian Vodou. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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