Haitian Vodou is an African diasporic religion that developed in Haiti between the 16th and 19th centuries. It arose through a process of syncretism between the traditional religions of West Africa and the Roman Catholic form of Christianity. Adherents are known as Vodouists (French: vodouisants [vodwizɑ̃]) or "servants of the spirits" (Haitian Creole: sèvitè). There is no central authority in control of Vodou, which is organised through autonomous groups.
Vodou is polytheistic and revolves around deities known as lwa. Deriving their names and attributes from traditional West African divinities, they are equated with Roman Catholic saints and divided up into different nanchon ("nations") such as the Rada and the Petwo. Various myths and stories are told about these lwa, which are regarded as subservient to a transcendent creator deity, Bondyé. An initiatory tradition, Vodouists usually meet to venerate the lwa in ounfòs, temples run by oungans (priests) or manbos (priestesses). A central ritual involves practitioners drumming, singing, and dancing to encourage a lwa to possess one of their members and thus communicate with them. Offerings to the lwa include fruit and sacrificed animals. Offerings are also given to the spirits of the dead. Several forms of divination are utilized to decipher messages from the lwa. Healing rituals and the preparation of herbal remedies, amulets, and charms, also play a prominent role.
Vodou developed among Afro-Haitian communities amid the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. It arose through the blending of the traditional religions brought to the island of Hispaniola by enslaved West Africans, many of them Yoruba or Fon, and the Roman Catholic teachings of the French colonialists who controlled the island. Many Vodouists were involved in the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804 which overthrew the French colonial government, abolished slavery, and established modern Haiti. The Roman Catholic Church left for several decades following the Revolution, allowing Vodou to become Haiti's dominant religion. In the 20th century, growing emigration spread Vodou abroad. The late 20th century saw growing links between Vodou and related traditions in West Africa and the Americas, such as Cuban Santería and Brazilian Candomblé.
Many Haitians practice Vodou to some extent, although typically also practice Roman Catholicism, seeing no issue in pursuing the two different systems simultaneously. Smaller Vodouist communities exist elsewhere, especially among the Haitian diaspora in the United States. Both in Haiti and abroad Vodou has spread beyond its Afro-Haitian origins and is practiced by individuals of various ethnicities. Vodou has faced much criticism through its history, having repeatedly been described as one of the world's most misunderstood religions.
Names and etymology
The term Vodou "encompasses a variety of Haiti's African-derived religious traditions and practices". It is West African in form but with considerable Roman Catholic borrowings. In combining these differing traditions it has often been described as syncretic, while the scholar of religion Leslie G. Desmangles termed it a "symbiosis". The Haitian Creole term Vodou derives from the West African kingdom of Dahomey, where the term Vôdoun signified a spirit or deity. In Haiti, Vodou came to refer to a small subset of rituals, usually a specific style of dance and drumming, rather than a broader religious system.
Vodou is the commonly used term for the religion among scholars and in official Haitian Creole orthography, although some scholars prefer the spellings Vodoun or Vodun, and in French the spellings vaudou or le vaudoux are also used. The spelling Voodoo, once common, is now generally avoided by practitioners and scholars when referring to the Haitian religion. This is both to avoid confusion with Louisiana Voodoo, a related but distinct set of religious practices, and to distinguish the tradition from the highly negative and (in some views) offensive connotations that the term "Voodoo" has in Western popular culture. Many practitioners instead use the term Ginen to describe the broader framework of their beliefs; this term refers particularly to a moral philosophy and ethical code regarding how to live and to serve the spirits.
Vodou is a religion, and more specifically an Afro-Haitian religion. It has been described as the "folk religion of Haiti," and the "national religion" of Haiti. Many Haitians take the view that to be Haitian is to practice Vodou. Vodou is one of the most complex of the Afro-American traditions; the scholar Ina J. Fandrich has called it a "neo-African religion". The anthropologist Paul Christopher Johnson characterized Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, and Brazilian Candomblé as "sister religions" due to their shared origins in Yoruba traditional belief systems.
Practitioners have been termed Vodouisants. Many of the religion's practitioners will not describe themselves as an adherent of a distinct religion but rather will describe how they sèvi lwa ("serve the lwa"). Practitioners are also referred to as serviteurs ("devotees"). In Haitian society, religions are rarely considered totally autonomous from one another, with people not regarding it as a problem to attend both a Vodou ceremony and a Roman Catholic mass. Many Haitians practice both Vodou and Roman Catholicism, with Vodouists usually regarding themselves as Catholics; the Vodou priest and painter Andre Pierre stated that "To be a good practitioner of Vodou, one must first be a good Catholic." This engagement in different religious practices can also be seen elsewhere in Haitian society, with some members of the country's Mormon community also continuing to engage in Vodou practices. Vodou has been referred to as a syncretic religion. It has no canon, creed, or single leader.
Vodou has no central institutional authority, and thus no orthodoxy. It has no central liturgy, nor a formal creed. It displays variation at both the regional and local level—including variation between Haiti and the Haitian diaspora—as well as variation among different congregations. In rural areas especially, a congregation may consist of an extended family, especially in rural areas of Haiti. In other examples, particularly in urban areas, an ounfo can act as an initiatory family. It takes both domestic and communal forms.
Bondyé and the Lwa
Teaching the existence of single supreme God, Vodou has been described as a monotheistic religion. This entity, which is believed to have created the universe, is known as the Grand Mèt, Bondyé, or Bonié. The latter names derive from the French Bon Dieu ("Good God"). For Vodouists, Bondyé is regarded as being remote and transcendent, not involving itself in human affairs; there is thus little point in approaching it directly. Haitians will frequently use the phrase si Bondye vie ("if Bondye is willing"), suggesting a broader belief that all things occur in accordance with this deity's will. While Vodouists often equate Bondyé with the Christian God, Vodou does not incorporate belief in a powerful antagonist that opposes the supreme being akin to the Christian notion of Satan.
Vodou has also been characterised as polytheistic. It teaches the existence of a pantheon of deities known as the lwa or loa, a term that can varyingly be translated into English as "gods", "spirits", or "geniuses". These lwa are also known as the mystères, anges, saints, and les invisibles, and are sometimes equated with the angels of Christian cosmology. The lwa can offer help, protection, and counsel to humans, in return for ritual service. The lwa are regarded as the intermediaries of Bondyé, although they are not seen as moral exemplars which practitioners should imitate. Each lwa is viewed as having its own personality, and is associated with specific colors, days of the week, and objects. The lwa can be either loyal or capricious in their dealings with their devotees; Vodouists believe that the lwa are easily offended, for instance if they are offered food that they dislike. When angered, the lwa are believed to remove their protection from their devotees, or to inflict misfortune, illness, or madness on an individual.
Although there are exceptions, most lwa have names deriving from the Fon and Yoruba languages. New lwa are nevertheless added to the pantheon. It is for instance believed that some Vodou priests and priestesses become lwa upon their deaths, and that some objects used as talismans become lwa. Vodouists often refer to the lwa residing in "Guinea", but this is not intended as a precise geographical location. Many lwa are also understood to live under the water, at the bottom of the sea or in rivers. Vodouists believe that the lwa communicate with humans through dreams and through the possession of human beings.
The lwa are divided into nanchon or "nations". This classificatory system derives from the way in which enslaved West Africans were divided into distinct "nations" upon their arrival in Haiti, usually based on their African port of departure rather than any ethno-cultural grouping they had previously belonged to. The term fanmi (family) is sometimes used synonymously with "nation" or alternatively as a sub-division within the latter category. Of these nations, the Rada and the Petwo are the largest and most dominant. The Rada derive their name from Arada, a city in the Dahomey kingdom of West Africa. The Rada lwa are usually regarded as dous or doux, meaning that they are sweet-tempered. The Petwo lwa are conversely seen as lwa cho or lwa chaud, indicating that they can be forceful or violent and are associated with fire; they are generally regarded as being socially transgressive and subversive. The Rada lwa are seen as being 'cool'; the Petwo lwa as 'hot'. The Rada lwa are generally regarded as being righteous, whereas their Petwo counterparts are thought of as being more morally ambiguous, associated with issues like money. At the same time, the Rada lwa are regarded as being less effective or powerful than those of the Petwo nation. The Petwo lwa derive from various backgrounds, including Creole, Kongo, and Dahomeyan. Many lwa exist andezo or en deux eaux, meaning that they are "in two waters" and are served in both Rada and Petwo rituals.
Papa Legba, also known as Legba, is the first lwa saluted during ceremonies. He is depicted as a feeble old man wearing rags and using a crutch. Papa Legba is regarded as the protector of gates and fences and thus of the home, as well as of roads, paths, and crossroads. The second lwa that are usually greeted are the Marasa or sacred twins. In Vodou, every nation has its own Marasa, reflecting a belief that twins have special powers. Agwé, also known as Agwé-taroyo, is associated with aquatic life, and protector of ships and fishermen. Agwé is believed to rule the sea with his consort, Lasiren. She is a mermaid or siren, and is sometimes described as Ezili of the Waters because she is believed to bring good luck and wealth from the sea. Ezili Freda or Erzuli Freda is the lwa of love and luxury, personifying feminine beauty and grace. Ezili Danto or Ezili Banto is a lwa who takes the form of a peasant woman.
Zaka or Azaka is the lwa of crops and agriculture, usually addressed as "Papa" or "Cousin". His consort is the female lwa Kouzinn. Loco is the lwa of vegetation, and because he is seen to give healing properties to various plant species is considered the lwa of healing too. Ogu is a warrior lwa, associated with weapons. Sogbo is a lwa associated with lightning, while his companion, Badé, is associated with the wind. Damballa or Danbala is a serpent lwa and is associated with water, being believed to frequent rivers, springs, and marshes; he is one of the most popular deities within the pantheon. Danbala and his consort Ayida Wedo are often depicted as a pair of intertwining snakes. The Simbi are understood as the guardians of fountains and marshes.
The Guédé or Gede family of lwa are associated with the realm of the dead. The head of the family is Bawon Samdi or Baron Samedi ("Baron Saturday"). His consort is Grand Brigitte; she has authority over cemeteries and is regarded as the mother of many of the other Guédé. When the Guédé are believed to have arrived at a Vodou ceremony they are usually greeted with joy because they bring merriment. Those possessed by the Guédé at these ceremonies are known for making sexual innuendos; the Guédé's symbol is an erect penis, while the banda dance associated with them involves sexual-style thrusting.
The lwa are associated with specific Roman Catholic saints. For instance, Azaka, the lwa of agriculture, is associated with Saint Isidore the farmer. Similarly, because he is understood as the "key" to the spirit world, Papa Legba is typically associated with Saint Peter, who is visually depicted holding keys in traditional Roman Catholic imagery. The lwa of love and luxury, Ezili Frida, is associated with Mater Dolorosa. Danbala, who is a serpent, is often equated with Saint Patrick, who is traditionally depicted in a scene with snakes; alternatively he is often associated with Moses. The Marasa, or sacred twins, are typically equated with the twin saints Cosmos and Damian.
Vodou holds that Bondyé created humanity in his image, fashioning humans out of water and clay. It teaches the existence of a spirit or soul, the espri, which is divided in two parts. One of these is the ti bònanj or ti bon ange ("little good angel"), and it is understood as the conscience that allows an individual to engage in self-reflection and self-criticism. The other part is the gwo bònanje or gros bon ange ("big good angel") and this constitutes the psyche, source of memory, intelligence, and personhood. These are both believed to reside within an individual's head. Vodouists believe that the gwo bònanje can leave the head and go travelling while a person is sleeping. At bodily death, the gwo bònanje joins the Ginen, or ancestral spirits, while the ti bònanj proceeds to the afterlife to face judgement before Bondyé.
Vodouists believe that every individual is intrinsically connected to a specific lwa. This lwa is their mèt tèt (master of the head). They believe that this lwa informs the individual's personality. Vodou holds that the identity of a person's tutelary lwa can be identified through divination or through consulting lwa when they possess other humans. Some of the religion's priests and priestesses are deemed to have "the gift of eyes", in that they can directly see what an individual's tutelary lwa is.
Vodouists hold that the spirits of dead humans are different from the Guédé, who are regarded as lwa. Vodouists believe that the dead continue to participate in human affairs, requiring sacrifices. It does not teach the existence of any afterlife realm akin to the Christian ideas of Heaven and Hell. Rather, in Vodou the spirits of the dead are believed to often complain that their own realm is cold and damp and that they suffer from hunger.
Morality, ethics, and gender roles
Vodou permeates every aspect of its adherent's lives. As a religion, it reflects people's everyday concerns, focusing on techniques for mitigating illness and misfortune; doing what one needs to in order to survive is considered a high ethic. Vodou morality is not rule-based, but contextual to both the individual and the situation. Among Vodouists, a moral person is regarded as someone who lives in tune with their character and that of their tutelary lwa.
Service to the lwa is a fundamental premise in Vodou and the religion features a moral code that imposes obligations toward the lwa as part of a broader reciprocal relationship with them. A belief in the interdependence of things plays a role in Vodou approaches to ethical issues. For practitioners, virtue is maintained by ensuring that one has a responsible relationship with the lwa. However, it includes no prescriptive code of ethics. Rather, the scholar of religion Claudine Michel suggesting that Vodou offers "no absolutes or generalities, only thematic possibilities for how life ought to be lived." She added that Vodou's cosmology emphasises "uniformity, conformity, group cohesion, and support for one another." Vodou reinforces family ties; respect for the elderly is a key value among Vodouists, with the extended family being of importance in Haitian society.
Vodou has been described as reflecting misogynistic elements of Haitian culture while at the same time empowering women to a greater extent than in many religions by allowing them to become priestesses. The scholar of Africana studies Felix Germain suggested that Vodou "defies patriarchy" by rejecting French colonial gender norms. As social and spiritual leaders, women can also lay claim to moral authority in Vodou. Some practitioners state that the lwa determined their sexual orientation, turning them homosexual; various priests are homosexual.
Critics, especially those from Christian backgrounds, have accused Vodou of promoting a fatalistic outlook that discourages practitioners from improving their society. This has been extended into an argument that Vodou is responsible for Haiti's poverty. Benjamin Hebblethwaite argued that this claim was a form of scapegoating that replicated old colonial tropes about African-descended people and overlooked the complex range of historical and environmental factors that have maintained poverty in Haiti.
Practitioners are usually critical of maji, which refers to the use of supernatural powers for self-serving and malevolent ends. The term is quite flexible; it is usually used to denigrate other Vodouists, although some practitioners have used it as a self-descriptor in reference to Petwo rites. Externally, Vodou has often been stereotyped as an antithesis to morality.
Mostly revolving around interactions with the lwa, Vodou ceremonies make use of song, drumming, dance, prayer, possession, and animal sacrifice. Practitioners gather together for sèvices (services) in which they commune with the lwa. Ceremonies for a particular lwa often coincide with the feast day of the Roman Catholic saint that that lwa is associated with. The mastery of ritual forms is considered imperative in Vodou. The purpose of ritual is to echofe (heat things up), thus bringing about change whether that be to remove barriers or to facilitate healing.
Secrecy is important in Vodou, and prior to the late 20th century it was typically practiced in secret. It is an initiatory tradition, operating through a system of graded induction or initiation. When an individual agrees to serve a lwa, it is deemed a lifelong commitment. Vodou has a strong oral culture and its teachings are primarily disseminated through oral transmission. Texts began appearing in the mid-twentieth century, at which point they were utilised by Vodouists. Métraux described Vodou as "a practical and utilitarian religion".
Oungan and Manbo
Male priests are referred to as oungan, alternatively spelled houngan or hungan, while their female counterparts are manbo, alternatively spelled mambo. Oungan numerically dominate in rural Haiti, while there is a more equitable balance of priests and priestesses in urban areas. The oungan and manbo are tasked with organising liturgies, preparing initiations, offering consultations with clients using divination, and preparing remedies for the sick. There is no priestly hierarchy, with oungan and manbo being largely self-sufficient. In many cases, the role is hereditary. Historical evidence suggests that the role of the oungan and manbo intensified over the course of the 20th century. As a result, "temple Vodou" is now more common in rural areas of Haiti than it was in historical periods.
Vodou teaches that the lwa call an individual to become an oungan or manbo, and if the latter refuses then misfortune may befall them. A prospective oungan or manbo must normally rise through the other roles in a Vodou congregation before undergoing an apprenticeship with a pre-existing oungan or manbo lasting several months or years. After this apprenticeship, they undergo an initiation ceremony, the details of which are kept secret from non-initiates. Other oungan and manbo do not undergo any apprenticeship, but claim that they have gained their training directly from the lwa. Their authenticity is often challenged, and they are referred to as hungan-macoutte, a term bearing some disparaging connotations. Becoming an oungan or manbo is expensive, often requiring the purchase of ritual paraphernalia and land on which to build a temple. To finance this, many save up for a long time.
The role of the oungan is believed by practitioners to be modelled on the lwa Loco, the chief of Legba's escorts. According to Vodou, Loco and his consort Ayizan were the first oungan and manbo, providing humanity with knowledge of the konnesans. The oungan and manbo are expected to display the power of second sight, something that is regarded as a gift from the creator deity that can be revealed to the individual through visions or dreams. Many priests and priestesses are often attributed fantastical powers in stories told about them, such as that they could spend several days underwater. Priests and priestess also bolster their status with claims that they have received spiritual revelations from the lwa, sometimes via visits to the lwa's own abode.
There is often bitter competition between different oungan and manbo. Their main income derives from healing the sick, supplemented with payments received for overseeing initiations and selling talismans and amulets. In many cases, these oungan and manbo become wealthier than their clients. Oungan and manbo are generally powerful and well-respected members of Haitian society. Being an oungan or manbo provides an individual with both social status and material profit, although the fame and reputation of individual priests and priestesses can vary widely. Respected Vodou priests and priestesses are often literate in a society where semi-literacy and illiteracy are common. They can recite from printed sacred texts and write letters for illiterate members of their community. Due to their prominence in a community, the oungan and manbo can effectively become political leaders, or otherwise exert an influence on local politics. Some oungan and manbo have linked themselves closely with professional politicians, for instance during the reign of the Duvaliers.
A Vodou temple is called an ounfò, varyingly spelled hounfò, hounfort, or humfo. An alternative term is gangan, although the connotations of this term vary regionally in Haiti. In Vodou, most communal activities center around this temple, forming what is called "temple Vodou". The size and shape of ounfòs vary, from basic shacks to more lavish structures, the latter being more common in Port au Prince than elsewhere in Haiti; their designs are dependent on the resources and tastes of the oungan or manbo running them. Ounfòs are autonomous of one another, and may have their own unique customs.
The main ceremonial space within the ounfò is the peristil or peristyle. In the peristil, brightly painted posts hold up the roof, which is often made of corrugated iron but sometimes thatched. The central one of these posts is the poto mitan or poteau mitan, which is used as a pivot during ritual dances and serves as the "passage of the spirits" by which the lwa enter the room during ceremonies. It is around this central post that offerings, including both vèvè and animal sacrifices, are made. However, in the Haitian diaspora many Vodouists perform their rites in basements, where no poto mitan are available. The peristil typically has an earthen floor, allowing libations to the lwa to drain directly into the soil, although outside Haiti this is often not possible, with libations instead poured into an enamel basin. Some peristil include seating around the walls.
Adjacent rooms in the ounfò include the caye-mystéres, which is also known as the bagi, badji, or sobadji. This is where stonework altars, known as pè, stand against the wall or are arranged in tiers. The caye-mystéres is also used to store clothing associated with the possessing lwa that is placed onto the individual experiencing possession during the rituals in the peristil. Many pè also have a sink sacred to the lwa Danbala-Wedo. If space is available, the ounfò may also have a room set aside for the patron lwa of that temple. Many ounfòs have a room known as the djévo in which the initiate is confined during their initiatory ceremony. Every ounfò usually has a room or corner of a room devoted to Erzuli Freda. Some ounfò will also have additional rooms in which the oungan or manbo lives.
The area around the ounfò often contains sacred objects, such as a pool of water for Danbala, a black cross for Baron Samedi, and a pince (iron bar) embedded in a brazier for Criminel. Sacred trees, known as arbres-reposoirs, sometimes mark the external boundary of the ounfò, and are encircled by stone-work edging. Hanging from these trees can be found macounte straw sacks, strips of material, and animal skulls. Various animals, particularly birds but also some mammal species such as goats, are sometimes kept within the perimeter of the ounfò for use as sacrifices.
Forming a spiritual community of practitioners, those who congregate at the ounfò are known as the pititt-caye (children of the house). They worship under the authority of an oungan or manbo, below whom is ranked the ounsi, individuals who make a lifetime commitment to serving the lwa. Members of either sex can join the ounsi, although the majority are female. The ounsi have many duties, such as cleaning the peristil, sacrificing animals, and taking part in the dances at which they must be prepared to be possessed by a lwa. The oungan and manbo oversee initiatory ceremonies whereby people become ounsi, oversee their training, and act as their counsellor, healer, and protector. In turn, the ounsi are expected to be obedient to their oungan or manbo.
One of the ounsi becomes the hungenikon or reine-chanterelle, the mistress of the choir. This individual is responsible for overseeing the liturgical singing and shaking the chacha rattle which is used to control the rhythm during ceremonies. They are aided by the hungenikon-la-place, commandant general de la place, or quartermaster, who is charged with overseeing offerings and keeping order during the ceremonies. Another figure is le confiance (the confidant), the ounsi who oversees the ounfò's administrative functions. The initiates of a particular priest/priestess form "families." A priest becomes the papa ("father") while the priestess becomes the manman ("mother") to the initiate; the initiate becomes their initiator's pitit (spiritual child). Those who share an initiator refer to themselves as "brother" and "sister."
Individuals may join a particular ounfò because it exists in their locality or because their family are already members. Alternatively, it may be that the ounfò places particular focus on a lwa whom they are devoted to, or that they are impressed by the oungan or manbo who runs the ounfò in question, perhaps having been treated by them.
Congregants often form a société soutien (support society), through which subscriptions are paid to help maintain the ounfò and organize the major religious feasts. In rural Haiti, it is often the patriarch of an extended family who serves as the priest for said family. Families, particularly in rural areas, often believe that through their zansèt (ancestors) they are tied to a prenmye mèt bitasyon' (original founder); their descent from this figure is seen as giving them their inheritance both of the land and of familial spirits.
Vodou is hierarchical and includes a series of initiations. There are typically four levels of initiation, the fourth of which makes someone an oungan or manbo. The initial initiation rite is known as the kanzo; this term also describes the initiate themselves. There is much variation in what these initiation ceremonies entail, and the details are kept secret. Vodou entails practitioners being encouraged to undertake stages of initiation into a state of mind called konesans (conaissance or knowledge). Successive initiations are required to move through the various konesans, and it is in these konesans that priestly power is believed to reside. Initiation is generally expensive, complex, and requires significant preparation. Prospective initiates are for instance required to memorise many songs and learn the characteristics of various lwa.
The first part of the initiation rite is known as the kouche, coucher, or huño. This begins with the chiré aizan, a ceremony in which palm leaves are frayed, after which they are worn by the initiate, either in front of their face or over their shoulder. Sometimes the bat ge or batter guerre ("beating war") is performed instead, designed to beat away the old. During the rite, the initiate comes to be regarded as the child of a particular lwa, their mèt tèt.
This is followed by a period of seclusion within the djèvo known as the kouche. The kouche is meant to be an uncomfortable experience for the initiate. It includes a lav tét ("head washing") to prepare the initiate for having the lwa enter and reside in their head. Voudoists believe that one of the two parts of the human soul, the gros bònanj, is removed from the initiate's head, thus making space for the lwa to enter and reside there.
The initiation ceremony requires the preparation of pot tèts (head pots), usually white porcelain cups with a lid in which a range of items are placed, including hair, food, herbs, and oils. These are then regarded as a home for the spirits. After the period of seclusion in the djèvo, the new initiate is brought out and presented to the congregation; they are now referred to as ounsi lave tèt. When the new initiate is presented to the rest of the community, they carry their pot tèt on their head, before placing it on the altar. The final stage of the process involves the initiate being given an ason rattle. The initiation process is seen to have ended when the new initiate is first possessed by a lwa.
Shrines and altars
An altar, or pè, will often contain images (typically lithographs) of Roman Catholic saints. Since developing in the mid-nineteenth century, chromolithography has also had an impact on Vodou imagery, facilitating the widespread availability of images of the Roman Catholic saints who are equated with the lwa. Various Vodouists have made use of varied available materials in constructing their shrines. Cosentino encountered a shrine in Port au Prince where Baron Samedi was represented by a plastic statue of Santa Claus wearing a black sombrero.
Various spaces other than the temple are used for Vodou ritual. Cemeteries are seen as places where spirits reside, making them suitable for certain rituals, especially to approach the spirits of the dead. In rural Haiti, cemeteries are often family owned and play a key role in family rituals. Crossroads are also ritual locations, selected as they are believed to be points of access to the spirit world. Other spaces used for Vodou rituals include Christian churches, rivers, the sea, fields, and markets. Certain trees are regarded as having spirits resident in them and are used as natural altars. Different species of tree are associated with different lwa; Oyu is for linked with mango trees, and Danballa with bougainvillea. Selected trees in Haiti have had metal items affixed to them, serving as shrines to Ogou, who is associated with both iron and the roads. Spaces for ritual also appear in the homes of many Vodouists. These may vary from complex altars to more simple variants including only images of saints alongside candles and a rosary.
The creation of sacred works is important in Vodou. Drawings known as vèvè are sketched onto the floor of the peristil using cornmeal, ash, coffee grounds, or powdered eggshells. Usually arranged symetrically around the poteau-mitan, these designs sometimes incorporate letters; their purpose is to summon lwa. Inside the peristil, practitioners also unfurl sequined ceremonial flags known as drapo (flags) at the start of a ceremony. Often made of silk or velvet and decorated with shiny objects, these drapo are understood as points of entry through which the lwa can enter the peristil.
Objects consecrated for ritual use are believed to contain a spiritual essence or power called nanm. The asson or ason is a sacred rattle used in summoning the lwa. It consists of an empty, dried gourd covered in beads and snake vertebra. Prior to being used in ritual it requires consecration. It is a symbol of the priesthood; assuming the duties of a manbo or oungan is referred to as "taking the asson." Another type of sacred object are the "thunder stones", often prehistoric axe-heads, which are associated with specific lwa and kept in oil to preserve their power.
Offerings and animal sacrifice
Feeding the lwa is of great importance in Vodou, with rites often termed mangers-loa ("feeding the lwa"). Offering food and drink to the lwa is the most common ritual within the religion, conducted both communally and in the home. An oungan or manbo will also organize an annual feast for their congregation in which animal sacrifices to various lwa will be made. The choice of food and drink offered varies depending on the lwa in question, with different lwa believed to favour different foodstuffs. Danbala for instance requires white foods, especially eggs. Foods offered to Legba, whether meat, tubers, or vegetables, need to be grilled on a fire. The lwa of the Ogu and Nago nations prefer raw rum or clairin as an offering.
A mange sèc (dry meal) is an offering of grains, fruit, and vegetables that often precedes a simple ceremony; it takes its name from the absence of blood. Species used for sacrifice include chickens, goats, and bulls, with pigs often favored for petwo lwa. The animal may be washed, dressed in the color of the specific lwa, and marked with food or water. Often, the animal's throat will be cut and the blood collected in a calabash. Chickens are often killed by the pulling off of their heads; their limbs may be broken beforehand. The organs are removed and placed on the altar or vèvè. The flesh will be cooked and placed on the altar, subsequently often being buried. Maya Deren wrote that: "The intent and emphasis of sacrifice is not upon the death of the animal, it is upon the transfusion of its life to the loa; for the understanding is that flesh and blood are of the essence of life and vigor, and these will restore the divine energy of the god." Because Agwé is believed to reside in the sea, rituals devoted to him often take place beside a large body of water such as a lake, river, or sea. His devotees sometimes sail out to Trois Ilets, drumming and singing, where they throw a white sheep overboard as a sacrifice to him.
The food is typically offered when it is cool; it remains there for a while before humans can then eat it. The food is often placed within a kwi, a calabash shell bowl. Once selected, the food is placed on special calabashes known as assiettes de Guinée which are located on the altar. Offerings not consumed by the celebrants are then often buried or left at a crossroads. Libations might be poured into the ground. Vodouists believe that the lwa then consume the essence of the food. Certain foods are also offered in the belief that they are intrinsically virtuous, such as grilled maize, peanuts, and cassava. These are sometimes sprinkled over animals that are about to be sacrificed or piled upon the vèvè designs on the floor of the peristil.
Vodou's nocturnal gatherings are often referred to as the dans ("dance"), reflecting the prominent role that dancing has in such ceremonies. Their purpose is to invite a lwa to enter the ritual space and possess one of the worshippers, through whom they can communicate with the congregation. The success of this procedure is predicated on mastering the different ritual actions and on getting the aesthetic right to please the lwa. The proceedings can last for the entirety of the night.
On arriving, the congregation typically disperse along the perimeter of the peristil. The ritual often begins with Roman Catholic prayers and hymns. This is followed by the shaking of the asson rattle to summon the lwa. Two Haitian Creole songs, the Priyè Deyò ("Outside Prayers"), may then be sung, lasting from 45 minutes to an hour. The main lwa are then saluted, individually, in a specific order. Legba always comes first, as he is believed to open the way for the others. Each lwa may be offered either three or seven songs, which are specific to them.
The rites employed to call down the lwa vary depending on the nation in question. During large-scale ceremonies, the lwa are invited to appear through the drawing of patterns, known as vèvè, on the ground using cornmeal. Also used to call down the spirits is a process of drumming, singing, prayers, and dances. Libations and offerings of food are made to the lwa, which includes animal sacrifices. The order and protocol for welcoming the lwa is referred to as regleman.
A symbol of the religion, the drum is perhaps the most sacred item in Vodou. Vodouists believe that ritual drums contain an etheric force, the nam or nanm, and a spirit called huntò. Specific ceremonies accompany the construction of a drum so that it is considered suitable for use in Vodou ritual. In the bay manger tambour ("feeding of the drum") ritual, offerings are given to the drum itself. Reflecting its status, when Vodouists enter the peristil they customarily bow before the drums. Different types of drum are used, sometimes reserved for rituals devoted to specific lwa; petwo rites for instance involve two types of drum, whereas rada rituals require three. In Vodou ritual, drummers are called tambouriers, and becoming one requires a lengthy apprenticeship. The drumming style, choice of rhythm, and composition of the orchestra differs depending on which nation of lwa are being invoked. The drum rhythms typically generate a kase ("break"), which the master drummer will initiate to oppose the main rhythm being played by the rest of the drummers. This is seen as having a destabilising effect on the dancers and helping to facilitate their possession.
The drumming is typically accompanied by singing, usually in Haitian Kreyol. These songs are often structured around a call and response, with a soloist singing a line and the chorus responding with either the same line or an abbreviated version. The soloist is the hungenikon, who maintains the rhythm with a rattle. Lyrically simple and repetitive, these songs are invocations to summon a lwa. As well as drumming, dancing plays a major role in ritual, with the drumming providing the rhythm for the dance. The dances are simple, lacking complex choreography, and usually involve the dancers moving counter-clockwise around the poto mitan. Specific dance movements can indicate the lwa or their nation being summoned; dances for Agwé for instance imitate swimming motions. Vodouists believe that the lwa renew themselves through the vitality of the dancers.
Spirit possession constitutes an important element of Vodou, being at the heart of many of its rituals. The person being possessed is referred to as the chwal or chual (horse); the act of possession is called "mounting a horse". Vodou teaches that a lwa can possess an individual regardless of gender; both male and female lwa can possess either men or women. Although children are often present at these ceremonies, they are rarely possessed as it is considered too dangerous. While the specific drums and songs used are designed to encourage a specific lwa to possess someone, sometimes an unexpected lwa appears and takes possession instead. In some instances a succession of lwa possess the same individual, one after the other.
The trance of possession is known as the crise de lwa. Vodouists believe that during this process, the lwa enters the head of the chwal and displaces their gwo bon anj. This displacement is believed to cause the chwal to tremble and convulse; Maya Deren described a look of "anguish, ordeal and blind terror" on the faces of those as they became possessed. Because their consciousness has been removed from their head during the possession, Vodouists believe that the chwal will have no memory of what occurs during the incident. The length of the possession varies, often lasting a few hours but sometimes several days. It may end with the chwal collapsing in a semi-conscious state; they are typically left physically exhausted. Some individuals attending the dance will put a certain item, often wax, in their hair or headgear to prevent possession.
Once the lwa possesses an individual, the congregation greet it with a burst of song and dance. The chwal will typically bow before the officiating priest or priestess and prostrate before the poto mitan. The chwal is often escorted into an adjacent room where they are dressed in clothing associated with the possessing lwa. Alternatively, the clothes are brought out and they are dressed in the peristil itself. Once the chwal has been dressed, congregants kiss the floor before them. These costumes and props help the chwal take on the appearance of the lwa. Many ounfo have a large wooden phallus on hand which is used by those possessed by Gede lwa during their dances.
The chwal takes on the behaviour and expressions of the possessing lwa; their performance can be very theatrical. Those believing themselves possessed by the serpent Danbala, for instance, often slither on the floor, dart out their tongue, and climb the posts of the peristil. Those possessed by Zaka, lwa of agriculture, will dress as a peasant in a straw hat with a clay pipe and will often speak in a rustic accent. The chwal will often then join in with the dances, dancing with anyone whom they wish to, or sometimes eating and drinking. Sometimes the lwa, through the chwal, will engage in financial transactions with members of the congregation, for instance by selling them food that has been given as an offering or lending them money.
Possession facilitates direct communication between the lwa and its followers; through the chwal, the lwa communicates with their devotees, offering counsel, chastisement, blessings, warnings about the future, and healing. Lwa possession has a healing function, with the possessed individual expected to reveal possible cures to the ailments of those assembled. Clothing that the chwal touches is regarded as bringing luck. The lwa may also offer advice to the individual they are possessing; because the latter is not believed to retain any memory of the events, it is expected that other members of the congregation will pass along the lwa's message. In some instances, practitioners have reported being possessed at other times of ordinary life, such as when someone is in the middle of the market, or when they are asleep.
Healing and harming
Healing plays an important role in Vodou. Manbo and oungan often provide charms and amulets, often called pwen (points). They typically have a wide knowledge of plants and their uses in healing. They will often prescribe baths involving various different ingredients as part of the healing process. In Haiti, there are also "herb doctors" who offer herbal remedies for various ailments; separate from the oungan and manbo, they have a more limited range in the problems that they deal with.
Vodou teaches that supernatural factors cause or exacerbate many problems. It is believed that humans can cause supernatural harm to others, either unintentionally or deliberately. In Haiti, oungan or manbo may advise their clients to seek assistance from medical professionals, while the latter may also send their patients to see an oungan or manbo. Amid the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus in Haiti during the late twentieth century, health care professionals raised concerns that Vodou was contributing to the spread of the disease, both by sanctioning sexual activity among a range of partners and by having individuals consult oungan and manbo for medical advice rather than doctors. By the early twenty-first century, various NGOs and other groups were working on bringing Vodou officiants into the broader campaign against HIV/AIDS.
Bòko and zombies
An individual who turns to the lwa to harm others is a bòkò or bokor, and described as someone who sert des deux mains ("serves with both hands"), or is travaillant des deux mains ("working with both hands"). These practitioners deal in baka, malevolent spirits sometimes contained in animal form. Bòko are also believed to work with lwa acheté ("bought lwa"), because the good lwa have rejected them as unworthy. Their rituals are often linked with Petwo rites, and are similar to Jamaican obeah. According to Haitian popular belief, these bòkò engage in envoimorts or expeditions, setting the dead against an individual to cause the latter's the sudden illness and death. In Haitian religion, it is commonly believed that an object can be imbued with supernatural qualities, making it a wanga, which then generates misfortune and illness. In Haiti, there is much suspicion and censure toward those suspected of being bòkò. The curses of the bòkò are believed to be countered by the actions of the oungan and manbo, who can revert the curse through an exorcism that incorporates invocations of protective lwa, massages, and baths. In Haiti, some oungan and manbo have been accused of actively working with bòkò, organising for the latter to curse individuals so that they can financially profit from removing these curses.
Zombies are among the most sensationalised aspects of Haitian religion. A popular belief is that a bòkò can cause a person's death and then seize their ti bon ange, leaving the victim pliant and willing to obey the bòkò's commands. Haitians generally do not fear zombies, but rather fear being zombified themselves. The anthropologist Wade Davis argued that this belief was rooted in a real practice, whereby the Bizango secret society used a particular concoction to render their victim into a state that resembled death. After the individual was then assumed dead, Wade argued, the Bizango would administer another drug to revive them, giving the impression of resurrection.
Festival and Pilgrimage
On the saints' days of the Roman Catholic calendar, Vodouists often hold "birthday parties" for the lwa associated with the saint whose day it is. During these, special altars for the lwa being celebrated may be made, and their preferred food will be prepared. Devotions to the Guédé are particularly common around the days of the dead, All Saints (1 November) and All Souls (2 November). Honoring the dead, these celebrations largely take place in the cemeteries of Port au Prince. At this festival, those devoted to the Gede spirits dress in a manner linking in with the Gede's associations with death. This includes wearing black and purple clothing, funeral frock coats, black veils, top hats, and sunglasses.
Pilgrimage is a part of Haitian religious culture. In late July, Voudoist pilgrims visit Plaine du Nord near Bwa Caiman, where according to legend the Haitian Revolution began. There, sacrifices are made and pilgrims immerse themselves in the trou (mud pits). The pilgrims often mass before the Church of Saint Jacques, with Saint Jacques perceived as being the lwa Ogou. Another pilgrimage site is Saint d'Eau, a mountain associated with the lwa Ezili Danto. Haitian pilgrims commonly wear coloured ropes around their head or waist while undertaking their pilgrimage. The scholars of religion Terry Rey and Karen Richman argued that this may derive from a Kongolese custom, kanga ("to tie"), during which sacred objects were ritually bound with rope.
Before the Revolution
In 1492, Christopher Columbus' Spanish expedition established the first European colony on Hispaniola; although soon wiped out, probably by indigenous communities, a second was soon established. Hispaniola's indigenous people were probably Taino and had settled there from the mainland Americas several centuries prior. A growing European presence decimated the indigenous population, both through introduced diseases and exploitation as laborers. The European colonists then turned to imported West African slaves as a new source of labor; Africans first arrived on Hispaniola circa 1512. Most of the enslaved people were prisoners of war. Some were probably priests of traditional religions, helping to transport their rites to the Americas. Among the enslaved West Africans brought to Hispaniola were probably also Muslims, although Islam exerted little influence on the formation of Vodou. West African slaves associated their traditional deities with saints from the Roman Catholic pantheon. Andrew Apter referred to this as a form of "collective appropriation" by enslaved Africans.
By the late 16th century, French colonists were settling in western Hispaniola, with Spain recognising French sovereignty over that part of the island in 1697. Moving away from its previous subsistence economy, in the 18th century the French colony of Saint-Domingue refocused its economy around the mass export of indigo, coffee, sugar, and cocoa to Europe. To work the plantations, the French colonists sought labor from various sources, including a renewed emphasis on importing enslaved Africans; ultimately, Saint-Domingue became the colony with the largest number of slaves in the Caribbean. Some enslaved people escaped, becoming Maroons, forming groups with their own traditions.
Two keys provisions of the Code Noir by King Louis XIV of France in 1685 forbade the open practice of all African religions. This Code compelled slave-owners to have their slaves baptised as Roman Catholics and then instructed in the religion; the fact that the process of enslavement led to these Africans becoming Christian was a key way in which the slave-owners sought to morally legitimate their actions. However, many slave-owners took little interest in having their slaves instructed in Roman Catholic teaching; they often did not want their slaves to spend time celebrating saints' days rather than labouring and were also concerned that black congregations could provide scope to foment revolt. While Catholicism was used as a tool for suppression, enslaved Haitians, partly out of necessity, would go on to incorporate aspects of Christianity into their Vodou. Vodou rituals had to take place in secret, usually at night; one such rite was observed and reported on during the 18th century by a white man, Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry.
The Haitian Revolution and the 19th century
Vodou would be closely linked with the Haitian Revolution. Two of the revolution's early leaders, Boukman and Francois Mackandal, were reputed to be powerful oungans. According to legend, it was on 14 August 1791 that a Vodou ritual took place in Bois-Caïman where the participants swore to overthrow the slave owners. After this ritual they massacred whites living in the local area. Although a popular tale in Haitian folklore, it has scant historical evidence to support it. Amid growing rebellion, the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte ordered troops, led by Charles Leclerc, into the colony in 1801. In 1803 the French military conceded defeat and the rebel leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed Saint-Domingue to be a new republic named Haiti. After Dessalines died in 1806, Haiti split into two countries before reuniting in 1822.
The Revolution broke up the large land-ownings and created a society of small subsistence farmers. Haitians largely began living in lakous, or extended family compounds, which enabled the preservation of African-derived Creole religions. These lakous often had their own lwa rasin (root lwa). Many Roman Catholic missionaries had been killed during the Revolution, and after its victory Dessalines declared himself head of the Church in Haiti. In protest at these actions, the Roman Catholic Church refused to recognise the republic and cut ties with Haiti in 1805; this allowed Vodou to predominate in the country. Many churches left abandoned by Roman Catholic congregations were adopted for Vodou rites, continuing the sycretisation between the different systems. The Roman Catholic Church re-established its formal presence in Haiti in 1860.
Haiti's first three presidents sought to suppress Vodou, using police to break-up nocturnal rituals; they feared it as a source of rebellion. In 1847, Faustin Soulouque became president; he was sympathetic to Vodou and allowed it to be practiced more openly. In the Bizoton Affair of 1863, several Vodou practitioners were accused of ritually killing a child before eating it. Historical sources suggest that they may have been tortured prior to confessing to the crime, at which they were executed. The affair received much attention.
20th century to the present
The U.S. military occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934. This encouraged international interest in Vodou, with some practitioners arranging shows based on Vodou rituals to entertain holidaymakers, especially in Port au Prince. The period also saw growing rural to urban migration in Haiti, and the increasing influence of the Roman Catholic Church. 1941 saw the launch of Operation Nettoyage (Operation Cleanup), a process backed by the Roman Catholic Church to expunge Vodou, resulting in the destruction of many ounfos. Violent responses from Vodouists led President Élie Lescot to abandon the Operation. The Church's influence in Haiti was curtailed by François Duvalier, the President of Haiti from 1957 to 1971, who associated himself with Vodou and utilised it for his own purposes. Duvalier's administration helped Vodou rise to the role of national doctrine, calling it "the supreme factor of Haitian unity". Under his government, regional networks of oungans doubled as the country's chefs-de-sections (rural section chiefs). After his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, was ousted from office in 1986, there were attacks on Vodouists perceived to have supported the Duvaliers, partly motivated by Protestant anti-Vodou campaigns. Two groups, the Zantray and Bode Nasyonal, were formed to defend the rights of Vodouizans to practice their religion. These groups held several rallies and demonstrations in Haiti.
In March 1987, a new Haitian constitution was introduced; Article 30 enshrined freedom of religion in the country. In 2003, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide granted Vodou official recognition, characterising it as an "essential constitutive element of national identity." This allowed Vodou specialists to register to officiate at civil ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. Since the 1990s, evangelical Protestantism has grown in Haiti, generating tensions with Vodouists; these Protestants regard Vodou as Satanic, and unlike the Roman Catholic authorities have generally refused to compromise with Vodouists. These Protestants have opened a range of medical clinics, schools, orphanages, and other facilities to assist Haiti's poor, with those who join the Protestant churches typically abandoning their practice of Vodou. Protestant groups have focused on seeing to convert oungan and manbo in the hope that the impact filters through the population. The 2010 Haiti earthquake has also fuelled conversion from Vodou to Protestantism in Haiti. Many Protestants, including the U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson, argued that the earthquake was punishment for the sins of the Haitian population, including their practice of Vodou. Mob attacks on Vodou practitioners followed in the wake of the earthquake, and again in the wake of the 2010 cholera outbreak, during which several Vodou priests were lynched.
Haitian emigration began in 1957 as largely upper and middle-class Haitians fled Duvalier's government, and intensified after 1971 when many poorer Haitians also tried to escape abroad. Many of these migrants took Vodou with them. In the U.S., Vodou has attracted non-Haitians, especially African Americans and migrants from other parts of the Caribbean region. There, Vodou has syncretized with other religious systems such as Santería and Espiritismo. In the U.S., those seeking to revive Louisiana Voodoo during the latter part of the 20th century initiated practices that brought the religion closer to Haitian Vodou or Santería that Louisiana Voodoo appears to have been early in that century. Related forms of Vodou exist in other countries in the forms of Dominican Vudú and Cuban Vodú.
It is difficult to determine how many Haitians practice Vodou, largely because the country has never had an accurate census and many Vodouists will not openly admit they practice the religion. Most Haitians practice both Vodou and Roman Catholicism. An often used joke about Haiti holds that the island's population is 85% Roman Catholic, 15% Protestant, and 100% Vodou. In the mid-twentieth century Métraux noted that Vodou was practiced by the majority of peasants and urban proletariat in Haiti. An estimated 80% of Haitians practice Vodou; Desmangles put the number of Haitian practitioners at six million. Not all take part in the religion at all times, but many will turn to the assistance of Vodou priests and priestesses when in times of need.
Vodou does not focus on proselytizing. Individuals learn about the religion through their involvement in its rituals, either domestically or at the temple, rather than through special classes. Children learn how to take part in the religion largely from observing adults.
Major ounfo exist in U.S. cities such as Miami, New York City, Washington DC, and Boston.
Various scholars describe Vodou as one of the world's most maligned and misunderstood religions. Its reputation is notorious; in broader Anglophone and Francophone society, Haitian Vodou has been widely associated with sorcery, witchcraft, and black magic. In U.S. popular culture, for instance, Haitian Vodou is usually portrayed as destructive and malevolent, attitudes sometimes linked with anti-black racism. Non-practitioners have often depicted Vodou in literature, theater, and film; in many cases, such as the films White Zombie (1932) and London Voodoo (2004), these promote sensationalist views of the religion. The lack of any central Vodou authority has hindered efforts to combat these negative representations, although in 2005 the Vodou priest Max Beauvoir established the National Confederation of Haitian Vodou to defend the religion from defamation and persecution.
Humanity's relationship with the lwa has been a recurring theme in Haitian art, and the Vodou pantheon was a major topic for the mid-twentieth century artists of what came to be known as the "Haitian Renaissance." Exhibits of Vodou ritual material have been displayed abroad; the Fowler Museum's exhibit on "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou" for instance traveled around the U.S. for three years in the 1990s. Ritual paraphernalia has also been commodified for sale abroad, while theatre troupes have performed simulated Vodou rituals for a broader, non-Vodou audience outside Haiti. Documentaries focusing on Vodou have appeared—such as Maya Deren's 1985 film Divine Horsemen or Anne Lescot and Laurence Magloire's 2002 work Of Men and Gods—which have in turn encouraged some viewers to take a practical interest in the religion.
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