Vodun (aka Vodoun, Voudou, Vodou, Voodoo, Sevi Lwa) is an animist, or nature-based religion that originated in West Africa with the Fon and Yoruba people. The name Vodun is derived from the local african word for spirit, and can be traced back about 6,000 years.

Vodun was actively suppressed during colonial times, but at present it is openly followed. Today, Vodun is practised in Benin, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Haiti and Togo. It is the state religion of Benin and has recently been recognized as an official religion in Haiti.

Vodun can be found in many of the large cities in North America, particularly in the American South.

According to some estimates, over 60 million people today practice Vodun.

History of Vodun in the West

Slaves were baptized into the Roman Catholic Church upon their arrival in Haiti and other West Indian islands. However, there was little Christian infrastructure present during the early 19th century to maintain the faith. The result was that the slaves largely followed their original native faith. This they practiced in secret, even while attending Mass regularly.

An inaccurate and sensational book (S. St. John, "Haiti or the Black Republic") was written in 1884. It described Vodun as a profoundly evil religion, and included lurid descriptions of human sacrifice, cannibalism, etc., some of which had been extracted from Vodun priests by torture. This book caught the imagination of people outside the West Indies, and was responsible for much of the misunderstanding and fear that is present today. Hollywood found this a rich source for Vodun screen plays. Horror movies began in the 1930's and continue today to misrepresent Vodun. It is only since the late 1950's that accurate studies by anthropologists have been published.

Vodun Beliefs

Vodun, like Christianity, is a religion of many traditions. Each group follows a different spiritual path and worships a slightly different pantheon of spirits, called Loa or Lwa. The word means "mystery" in the Yoruba language.

Yoruba traditional belief included a chief God Olorun, who is remote and unknowable. He authorized a lesser God Obatala to create the earth and all life forms. A battle between the two Gods led to Obatala's temporary banishment.

There are hundreds of minor spirits. Those which originated from Dahomey are called Rada; those who were added later are often deceased leaders in the new world and are called Petro. Some of these are

  • Agwe: spirit of the sea
  • Aida Wedo: rainbow spirit
  • Ayza: protector
  • Baka: an evil spirit who takes the form of an animal
  • Baron Samedi: guardian of the grave
  • Dambala (or Damballah-wedo): serpent spirit
  • Erinle: spirit of the forests
  • Ezili (or Erzulie): female spirit of love
  • Mawu Lisa: spirit of creation
  • Ogou Balanjo: spirit of healing
  • Ogun (or Ogu Bodagris): spirit of war
  • Osun: spirit of healing streams
  • Sango (or Shango): spirit of storms
  • Yemanja: female spirit of waters
  • Zaka (or Oko): spirit of agriculture

Followers of Vodun believe that each person has a soul which is composed of two parts: a gros bon ange or "big guardian angel", and a ti bon ange or "little guardian angel". The latter leaves the body during sleep and when the person is possessed by a Loa during a ritual. There is a concern that the ti bon ange can be damaged or captured by evil sorcery while it is free of the body.

Vodun Rituals

The purpose of rituals is to make contact with a spirit, to gain their favor by offering them animal sacrifices and gifts, to obtain help in the form of more abundant food, higher standard of living, and improved health. Human and Loa depend upon each other; humans provide food and other materials; the Loa provide health, protection from evil spirits and good fortune. Rituals are held to celebrate lucky events, to attempt to escape a run of bad fortune, to celebrate a seasonal day of celebration associated with a Loa, for healing, at birth, marriage and death.

Vodun priests can be male (houngan or hungan), or female (mambo). A Voduno temple is called a hounfour (or humfort). At its center is a poteau-mitan a pole where the God and spirits communicate with the people. An altar will be elaborately decorated with candles, symbolic items related to the Loa, etc.

Rituals consist of some of the following components:

  • a feast before the main ceremony
  • creation of a veve, a pattern of flour or cornmeal on the floor which is unique to the Loa for whom the ritual is to be conducted
  • shaking a rattle and beating drums which have been cleansed and purified


  • dancing by the houngan and/or mambo and the hounsis (students studying Vodun).

The dancing will typically build in intensity until one of the dancers (usually a hounsis) becomes possessed by a Loa and falls. His or her ti bon ange has left their body and the spirit has taken control. The possessed dancer will behave as the Loa and is treated with respect and ceremony by the others present.

  • animal sacrifice; this may be a goat, sheep, chicken, or dog. They are usually humanely killed by slitting their throat; blood is collected in a vessel. The possessed dancer may drink some of the blood. The hunger of the Loa is then believed to be satisfied. The animal is usually cooked and eaten. Animal sacrifice is a method of consecrating food for consumption by followers of Vodun, their gods and ancestors.


Maya Deren. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti ISBN 0914232630

Alfred Metraux. Voodoo in Haiti ISBN 0805208941

Milo Rigaud. Secrets of Voodoo ISBN 0872861716

Shannon Turlington. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Voodoo ISBN 0028642368

External Links

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