Voodoo is a religion practiced by people of African descent in Haiti, and by people who have emigrated from Haiti. Haiti is a country that occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic occupies the other two-thirds. The name comes from vodun. This word means spirit in a language spoken in the nation of Benin, West Africa. Outsiders coined the name. They have also spread many rumors about the religion. The origin of the name does, however, indicate something important.
Voodoo preserves and adapts many African religious beliefs and practices. Those who practice the religion say they are “serving the spirits.” Haiti was a French colony (established in 1697) that produced sugar. It was home to a large number of slaves originally from West Africa. Inspired by the French Revolution (1789), the slaves revolted.
In 1804 they established their own country, the ﬁrst republic ever established by Africans. Records from this time are scarce. Nevertheless, it seems that Voodoo played a part in the slave revolt. The religion combines African spirit worship with aspects of ROMAN CATHOLICISM, the ofﬁcial religion of Haiti.
Those who practice Voodoo believe in a supreme GOD. They call that God Bondye, from the French phrase for “good God.” But Voodoo practitioners consider Bondye distant and inaccessible. Their religious life centers instead on various spirits. (See the entry forLwa ) These spirits are above human beings, but not so high as Bondye.
Some spirits are ancestors; others are associated with natural phenomena. They are organized into “nations.” One common system speaks of two nations of spirits: sweet spirits, which are kindly, and hot ones, which are powerful and energetic. People serve spirits that their mothers and fathers served. They also serve the spirits of the areas where they live.
At its simplest, one serves spirits by lighting candles, saying PRAYERS, and giving offerings. But Voodoo knows larger observances, too. The Rituals at major festivals include the sacriﬁce of an animal (often a chicken), feasts, drumming, dancing, and singing. The goal of the drumming, dancing, and singing is to bring about spirit-possession.
A spirit takes control of a human body, uses it as its “horse,” and in that way communicates with human beings. Major spirits have their counterparts among the Catholic SAINTS, and Voodoo festivals often take place in conjunction with Catholic festivals.
At times the Catholic Church has attempted to suppress Voodoo, because it found the mingling of African spirits and Christian saints offensive. Although it is possible to serve the spirits on one’s own, Voodoo also has its own religious specialists. A male priest is called a houngan; a female priest is called a mambo. They oversee festivals, practice divination, bless, and heal. Voodoo also has its anti-social side.
Those who practice Voodoo call that side the “work of the left hand.” It involves serving spirits that one has bought and using the bodies of the recently deceased for slave labor (zombies). Toward the end of the 20th century economic deprivation and political instability forced many people to ﬂee Haiti for North America. As a result, Voodoo spread to Miami, New York City, and other places in the United States.
Taken from : The Encyclopedia of World Religions – Revised Edition – written by DWJ BOOKS LLC.
General Editor: Robert S. Ellwood – Associate Editor: Gregory D. Alles – Copyright © 2007, 1998 by DWJ BOOKS LLC
Vodun (also Voodoo) Vodun, recognized as a religion, bears little resemblance to the lurid snake-and-sex orgies, complete with pin-stuck dolls and zombielike followers depicted in the movies. An estimated 50 million worshipers worldwide believe that the work of the gods appears in every facet of daily life and that pleasing the gods will gain the faithful health, wealth and spiritual contentment. The gods “speak” to their devotees through spIrIt possession but only for a short time during ceremonies. Vodun is almost synonymous with Haiti, but the
rites also flourish in New Orleans, New York, Houston and Charleston, South Carolina.
Etymologists trace the origins of the word vodun to the term vodun, meaning “spirit” or “deity” in the Fon language of the West African kingdom of Dahomey, now part of Nigeria. Eighteenth-century Creoles (whites born in the New World, usually of Spanish or French ancestry, but also meaning native-born persons of mixed ancestry), masters of the Dahomean slaves, translated the word into vaudau. The Creole language derives from French, with definite African patterns of phonetics and grammar. Eventually, the word became voudou, voudoun, vodun, voodoo or even hoodoo. most current practitioners of the ancient rites regard the terms voodoo and hoodoo as pejorative, however, preferring one of the other spellings. To the faithful, Vodun is not only a religion but also a way of life.
Vodun came to the New World—especially to the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Saint-Domingue, now divided into the nations of Dominican republic and Haiti— with the millions of black African slaves, encompassing members of the Bambara, Foula, Arada or Ardra, mandingue, Fon, Nago, Iwe, Ibo, Yoruba and Congo tribes. Their strange religious practices perhaps first amused their white masters, but soon fearful whites forbade their slaves not only from practicing their religion but also from gathering in any type of congregation. Penalties were sadistic and severe, including mutilation, sexual disfigurement, flaying alive and burial alive. Any slave found possessing a FetIsh (a figurine or carved image of a god) was to be imprisoned, hanged or flayed alive.
To save the blacks from the “animal” nature they were believed to possess, the masters baptized the slaves as Catholic Christians, which only forced native practices underground. In front of whites, blacks practiced Catholicism, but among each other, the gods of their ancestors were not forgotten. rites held deep in the woods, prayers transmitted in work songs and worship of saints while secretly praying to the gods preserved the old traditions while giving them a new twist.
What evolved was syncretism: the blending of traditional Catholic worship of saints and Christ with the gods of Africa. Blacks could beg for intercession from St. Patrick, who banished the snakes from Ireland, and really be calling on their serpent god, Danbhalah-Wedo. Fetishes became unnecessary: even the masters tolerated a “poor idiot slave” keeping a tame snake or lighting candles for the “saints.” Vodunists do not view such blending as profaning Christianity or Vodun but as enrichment of their faith.
Serving the loa.
The Vodun pantheon of gods, called loas or mystères, is enormous and can accommodate additional local deities or ancestral spirits as needs arise. Vodunists acknowledge an original Supreme Being, called Gran met, who made the world, but he has long since finished his work and returned to other worlds or perhaps to eternal contemplation. His remoteness precludes active worship. Devotees are those “who serve the loa,” and depending on the rites observed, the loas can be kind, beneficent, wise, violent, sexual, vindictive, generous or mean.
The “father” of the loas is Danbhalah-Wedo, or the Great Serpent (also called Danbhallah or Damballah), which brought forth creation. Prior to the days of slavery, Africans worshiped a large python, called Danh-gbwe, as the embodiment of gods. The snake was harmless to humans, and devotees believed that any child touched by the serpent had been chosen as a priest or priestess by the god himself. After transportation to the Americas, the blacks found a substitute in a type of boa. Danbhalah is the oldest of the ancestors and does not speak, only hisses. Langage, the sacred language of Vodun, which represents long-forgotten African liturgy, originated with Danbhalah’s hissing. Danbhalah governs the waters of the earth and is also associated with LegbA, the god of the sun and the way of all spiritual communion.
Aida-Wedo, the rainbow, which arose from the waters of earth serves as the many-colored way of the gods’ message to earth and is Danbhalah’s wife. She, too, is a serpent: a short coiled snake who feeds upon bananas and lives mainly in the water. Her bright spectrum decorates Vodun temples, especially the central support pole. AidaWedo is only one manifestation of the goddess Erzulie, the deity of beauty, love, wealth and prosperity. Normally referred to as maîtresse Erzulie, she is the lunar wife of Legba, the Sun. And as the moon, Erzulie is pure, virginal. Contact with her heated husband burned her skin, so Erzulie is usually depicted as a beautiful, dark-skinned Ethiopian. There are many different Erzulies, encompassing not only the better virtues of love and good will but also the vices of jealousy, discord and vengeance. She can be vain, likes pretty jewelry and perfume and angers easily.
According to the creation myth, Danbhalah, the Serpent, and Aida-Wedo, the rainbow, taught men and women how to procreate, and how to make blood sacrifices so that they could become the spirit and obtain the wisdom of the Serpent.
Although Danbhalah represents the ancestral knowledge of Vodun, no communion of god and worshiper can take place without the offices of Legba. He is the Orient, the East, the Sun and the place the Sun rises. He governs gates, fences and entryways; no other deity may join a Vodun ceremony unless Legba has been asked to open the “door.” He controls the actions of all other spirits. Depicted both as a man sprinkling water and as an old man walking with a stick or crutch, Legba personifies the ritual waters and the consolidation of Vodun mysteries. He is called Papa, and through syncretization has become identified with St. Peter, the gatekeeper of heaven and the man to whom Christ gave the keys to the kingdom. Others see Legba as Christ, a mulatto man born of the Sun and the moon. Legba also guards CrossroAds, and as Maître Carrefour (master of the four roads, or crossroads) is the patron of sorcery.
Other important deities—all of whom have various manifestations—include Ogou Fer or Ogoun, the god of war and armor, iron and metalworking, wisdom and fire, who is associated with St. James; Agwe or Agoueh, the spirit of the sea, who presides over all fish and sea life and those who sail upon it; Zaka, the god of agriculture, who manifests himself in the clothes and coarse speech of the peasant; and Erzulie Freda, the goddess’s most feminine and flirtatious persona. As Venus was mars’ lover, so Ogou takes Erzulie Freda. The total pantheon of Vodun loas encompasses hundreds of gods and goddesses and grows each time the spirit of an ancestor becomes divine.
A separate classification of loas are the Guedes, the various spirits of death and dying, debauchery and lewdness, graveyards and grave diggers. As sexual spirits, the Guedes also govern the preservation and renewal of life and protect the children. Depictions of the Guedes, usually referred to as Guede Nibbho or Nimbo, Baron Samedi (Saturday, the day of death) or Baron Cimetière (cemetery), show the loa in a dark tailcoat and tall hat like an undertaker. His symbols are coffins and phalluses. Those possessed by Baron Samedi tell lewd jokes, wear dark glasses and smoke cigarettes or cigars. They eat voraciously and drink copious amounts of alcohol. Entire cults of Vodun revolve around the worship of the Guedes.
Rites and practices.
Each tribal rite, whether rada (Arada), Congo, Petro, Ibo, etc., has its own manifestations of the loas and different rituals and ceremonies, although most of the primary loas appear in each one. The Guedes, using many names to hide their true personalities or intents, move freely among each Vodun division. The two main rites of Vodun worship are rada and Petro or Pethro. rada rites follow more traditional African patterns and emphasize the gentler, more positive attributes of the loas. Devotees wear all-white clothing for the ceremonies. Animals sacrificed—the “partaking of the blood”—include chickens, goats and bulls (see sACrIFICe). Three oxhidecovered drums provide the rhythms for the ChAntIng, representing three atmospheres of the Sun, or Legba: the largest, called manman, related to the chromosphere; the next, called simply Second, related to the photosphere; and the smallest one, called Bou-Lah, which is the solar nucleus. These drums provide the most resonant combinations of musical rhythm of any rite and are struck with drumsticks. The drummers are called houn’torguiers.
The Petro rites appear to have originated in Haiti during the slavery days. The Petro allegedly comes from Don Juan Felipe Pedro, a Spanish Vodun priest and former slave who contributed a rather violent style of dance to the ceremonies. many of the Petro practices, including more violent worship services and the use of red in ceremonial clothing and on the face, come from the Arawak and Carib Indians who then lived on Saint-Domingue. Petro loas tend to be more menacing, deadly and ill-tempered than other loas; many of their names simply have the appellation Ge-rouge (red Eyes) after a rada name to signify the Petro form. Pigs are sacrificed for the benefit of Petro loas.
Petro devotees use only two drums, and they are covered in goatskin and struck only with the hands. rigaud reports that the drums are considered cannibalistic, even Demonic, and their syncopated rhythms are difficult to control in Magic operations, rendering them dangerous. The first drum is identified with thunderbolts and their patron, Quebiesou Dan Leh; the second and smaller with Guinee, or the extremity of the world that receives the thunderbolt.
Guinee, or lan Guinée or Ginen, represents the symbolic homeland of the Africans in diaspora. The sacred city of Guinée is Ifé, the mecca of Vodun. An actual Ifé exists in southern Nigeria, but the Ifé of Vodun is a legendary place where the revelations of the loas descended unto the first faithful. Vodun devotees refer to themselves as sons or daughters of Guinée: “ti guinin.” Vodunists believe all aspects of life—administrative, religious, social, political, agricultural, artistic—originated in Ifé, but most especially the art of Divination. Since Africa is east of the New World, Ifé represents the celestial position of the Sun. Devotees gain spiritual strength from Ifé; when the sacred drums need divine refreshment, they are “sent to Ifé” in a very solemn ceremony signifying death, burial and resurrection.
Some aspects of Vodun worship appear fairly constant, with local alterations, for all rites. The temple, which can be anything from a formal structure to a designated place behind the house, is called a hounfour, humfo or oum’phor. Within the temple, also known as the “holy of holies,” are an AltAr and perhaps rooms for solitary meditation by initiates. The altar stone, called a pe, is covered in candles and govis, small jars believed to contain the spirits of revered ancestors. Offerings of food, drink or money may grace the altar, as well as ritual rattles, charms, flags, sacred stones and other paraphernalia. Years ago, the sacred snakes symbolizing Danbhalah lived in the pe’s hollow interior, but no longer.
The walls and floors are covered in elaborate, colored designs symbolizing the gods, called veves. These drawings can be permanent or created in cornmeal, flour, powdered brick, gunpowder or face powder just before a ceremony. They are quite beautiful and incorporate the symbols and occult signs of the loa being worshiped: a veve for Legba shows a cross, one for Erzulie a heart, Danbhalah a serpent, and Baron Samedi a coffin. Usually drawn around the center post or the place of sacrifice, the veve serves as a ritual “magnet” for the loa’s entrance, obliging the loa to descend to earth.
Ritual flags may hang on the walls or from the ceiling. There are usually pictures of the Catholic saints, believed to be incarnations of lower Vodun deities. Most hounfours even display photographs of government officials. Since every chief of state is the gods’ representative on earth, portraits of former dictators Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier use to occupy important positions. A model boat completes the decorations, representing maîtresse Erzulie and the ritual waters.
Outside the main temple is the peristyle, the roofed and sometimes partially enclosed courtyard adjacent to the holy of holies. Since the hounfour probably cannot accommodate all the Vodun participants and onlookers, most ceremonies are conducted in the open-air peristyle, as is treatment of the sick. A low wall encircles the area, allowing those who are not dressed properly or are merely curious to watch less conspicuously. The peristyle’s floor is always made of hard-packed earth without paving or tile.
Holding up the peristyle is the poteau-mitan, or center post. The poteau-mitan symbolizes the center of Vodun, from the sky to hell, and is the cosmic axis of all Vodun magic. Usually made of wood and set in a circular masonry base called the socle, the post bears colorful decorations and designs representing the serpent Danbhalah and his wife Aida-Wedo. The poteau-mitan also symbolizes Legba Ati-Bon (“wood of justice,” or Legba Tree-of-theGood), the way of all Vodun knowledge and communion with the gods. Geometrically, the placement of the center post forms perfect squares, circles, crosses and triangles with the socle and the roof of the peristyle, adding to its magical powers. All Vodun temples have a poteau-mitan, or center, even if the post exists only symbolically.
Outside the peristyle, the trees surrounding the courtyard serve as sacred reposoirs, or sanctuaries, for the gods. Vodun devotees believe all things serve the loa and by definition are expressions and extensions of God, especially the trees. They are revered as divinities themselves and receive offerings of food, drink and money. Like cathedrals, they are places to be in the presence of the holy spirit; banana trees are particularly revered.
Calling the loas.
True communion comes through divine possession. When summoned, the gods may enter a govi or “mount a horse”—assume a person’s mind and body. The possessed loses all consciousness, totally becoming the possessing loa with all his or her desires and eccentricities. Young women possessed by the older spirits seem frail and decrepit, while the infirm possessed by young, virile gods dance and cavort with no thought to their disabilities. Even facial expressions change to resemble the god or goddess. Although a sacred interaction between loa and devotee, possession can be frightening and even dangerous. Some worshipers, unable to control the loa, have gone insane or died.
The loas manifest to protect, punish, confer skills and talents, prophesy, cure illness, exorcise spirits, give counsel, assist with rituals and take sacrificial offerings.
The priest or priestess, called houngan and mambo, respectively, acts as an intermediary to summon the loa and helps the loa to depart when his or her business is finished. The houngan and mambo receive total authority from the loas, and therefore their roles could be compared to that of the Pope, says rigaud. Indeed, the houngan is often called papa or papa-loa, while the mambo is called manman, or mama. The houngano and mambo serve as healers, diviners, psychologists, musicians and spiritual leaders.
Like a ruler’s scepter, the most important symbol of the houngan’s or mambo’s office is the asson, a large ritual rattle made from the calabash, a type of squash with a bulbous end and a long handle. Symbolically, the asson represents the joining of the two most active magic principles: the circle at the round end and the wand at the handle. The handle also symbolizes the poteau-mitan, or vertical post. Inside the dried calabash are sacred stones and serpent vertebrae, considered the bones of African ancestors. Eight different stones in eight colors are used to symbolize eight ancestor gods (eight signifies eternity). Chains of colored beads, symbolizing the rainbow of Aida-Wedo, or more snake vertebrae encircle the round end of the calabash. When the vertebrae rattle, making the asson “speak,” the spirits come down to the faithful through Danbhalah, the oldest of the ancestors. Once the houngan has attracted the loa through the deity’s symbol, or veve, appealed to Legba for intercession and performed the water rituals and prayers, shaking the asson or striking it upon the veve releases the power of the loas and brings them into the ceremony.
Other important members of the worship service include la place or commandant la place, the master of ceremonies, who orchestrates the flag-waving ceremonies, the choral singing and chanting and the drum beating. La place carries a ritual sword made of the finest iron and sometimes decorated with geometric designs and symbols. The sword’s name is ku-bha-sah, which means “cutting away all that is material.” Brandishing his sword from east to west during the ceremonies, la place cuts away the material world, leaving the faithful open for the divine presences. La place’s sword also symbolizes the loa Ogou, god of iron and weaponry.
The chorus or canzo, composed of fully initiated Vodun members called hounsihs or hounsis, performs under the direction of the hounguenicon or hounguenikon, usually a woman and the second-most powerful member after the houngan or mambo. By sending the chants to the loas in the astral plane, the hounguenicon calls the loas and demands their presence on earth.
Novices not yet completely in the loas’ power are called hounsih bossales. The initiate who obtains the sacrificial animals is the hounsih ventailleur, and the sacrificial cook is the hounsih cuisiniere. The hounguenicon quartier-maitre oversees distribution of sacrificial food not reserved for the loas.
Vodun and Magic.
Magic, for both good and evil purposes, is an integral part of Vodun. Unlike the dichotomy of good and evil expressed in Judeo-Christian philosophy, evil in Vodun is merely the mirror image of good. The magic of the spirits is there to be used, and if that is for evil, then so be it. A houngan more involved in blackmagic sorcery than healing is known as a bokor or boko, or “one who serves the loa with both hands.”
Dating back to the days of slavery and probably beyond to the tribal kingdoms of Africa, the real Vodun power resided in the secret societies. Membership in the societies means total commitment to Vodun and complete secrecy about its practices and rituals. Oaths are made in blood, and like the Sicilian code of omerta, or silence, transgressors can expect death if they reveal any of the society’s secrets.
The most feared secret society is the Bizango, a sect that dates back to the bands of escaped slaves, called maroons, hiding in the mountains. Also called Cochon Gris (Gray Pigs), Sect rouge and Vrinbrindingue or Vin’BainDing (Blood, Pain, Excrement), the Bizango reputedly meet at night, secretly, recognizing the other members through elaborate rituals and passwords. All through the night, according to some reports, Bizango initiates travel through the countryside, picking up members as they go, then hold frenzied dances dedicated to Baron Samedi, the loa of the graveyard. A nocturnal traveler who cannot give the password supposedly becomes the sect’s human sacrifice—a “goat without horns”—or a candidate for zombification. Some members of these red sects believe that Legba, the Vodun Jesus, died upon the cross to serve as an edible human sacrifice, symbolized by the sacraments, “This is my Body . . . This is my Blood. Take and eat in remembrance of me.”
Politics and Vodun.
Few understood the political nature of the Vodun societies better than Haitian dictator François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, a physician who was president of Haiti from 1957 until his death in 1971. Allying himself with the houngan, he used the trappings of Vodun to secure his power base, such as changing the Haitian flag to red and black, the Bizango colors, from its original red and blue. Papa Doc dressed in black suits with narrow black ties, the traditional clothing of Baron Samedi, until the people began to believe he was the loa. Stories circulated that Papa Doc could read goat entrails, that he slept in a tomb once a year to commune with the spirits and that he kept the head of an enemy on his desk.
When a Graham Greene story about Haiti, The Comedians, was made into a movie in 1967, Papa Doc reputedly stuck pins into effigies of actors Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Alec Guinness because he hated the film’s discussion of his role in Haiti and Vodun. One story says that Papa Doc sent an emissary to collect a pinch of earth, a withered flower and a vial of air from John F. kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery so that he could capture the late president’s soul and control U.S. foreign policy. Even Papa Doc’s secret police, the Tonton macoutes, depended on folk tales and fears of the spirits: children were told that unless they were good, their uncle, or ton ton, would carry them off in his macoute, or knapsack. Thousands of people were spirited away to be tortured and never seen again.
When Papa Doc died in 1971, his son Jean-Claude, called Baby Doc, declared himself President for Life and managed to hold on until his overthrow in February 1986. Because the Duvaliers had such intricate ties to the Vodun societies, many houngan and mambos were murdered or forced to publicly recant their beliefs and become Christians following his departure. Yet many Haitians believe that the societies finally grew sick of Baby Doc and his excesses; when they turned the spirits against him, he had no other options but to go. One of the new junta’s first acts was to reinstate the old red and blue flag. Vodun was declared an official religion in Haiti by a decree of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s on April 4, 2003.
See also : About Voodoo
- Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.
- Hill, Douglas, and Pat Williams. The Supernatural. London: Aldus Books, 1965.
- Rigaud, Milo. Secrets of Voodoo. San Francisco: City Light Books, 1985.
Back to World Religions