Haitian Vodou (/ˈvoʊ.duː/, French: [vodu], also written as Vaudou;/ˈvoʊ.duː/ Vodun or Vodoun/ˈvoʊ.duːn/; and Voodoo /ˈvuː.duː/) is a syncretic religion practiced chiefly in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. Practitioners are called “vodouists” (French: vodouisants [voduisɑ̃]) or “servants of the spirits” (Haitian Creole: sèvitè).
Vodouists believe in a distant and unknowable Supreme Creator, Bondye (derived from the French term Bon Dieu, meaning “good God”). According to Vodouists, Bondye does not intercede in human affairs, and thus direct their worship toward spirits subservient to Bondye, called loa. Every loa is responsible for a particular aspect of life, with the dynamic and changing personalities of each loa reflecting the many possibilities inherent to the aspects of life over which they preside. In order to navigate daily life, vodouists cultivate personal relationships with the loa through the presentation of offerings, the creation of personal altars and devotional objects, and participation in elaborate ceremonies of music, dance, and spirit possession.
Vodou originated in the Caribbean and developed in the French Empire in the 18th century among West African slaves when African religious practice was actively suppressed, and enslaved Africans were forced to convert to Christianity. Religious practices of contemporary Vodou are descended from, and closely related to, West African Vodun as practiced by the Fon and Ewe. Vodou also incorporates elements and symbolism from other African peoples including the Yoruba and Kongo; as well as Taíno religious beliefs, Roman Catholicism, and European spirituality including mysticism, Freemasonry, and other influences.
Vodou is a Haitian Creole word that formerly referred to only a small subset of Haitian rituals. It is descended from an Ayizo word referring to “mysterious forces or powers that govern the world and the lives of those who reside within it, but also a range of artistic forms that function in conjunction with these vodun energies.” In Haiti, practitioners occasionally use “Vodou” to refer to Haitian religion generically, but it is more common for practitioners to refer to themselves as those who “serve the spirits” (sèvitè) by participating in ritual ceremonies, usually called a “service to the loa” (sèvis loa) or an “African service” (sèvis gineh). These terms can also be used to refer to the religion as a whole.
Outside of Haiti, the term Vodou refers to the entirety of traditional Haitian religious practice. Originally written as vodun, it is first recorded in Doctrina Christiana, a 1658 document written by the King of Allada’s ambassador to the court of Philip IV of Spain. In the following centuries, Vodou was eventually taken up by non-Haitians as a generic descriptive term for traditional Haitian religion. There are many used orthographies for this word. Today, the spelling Vodou is the most commonly accepted orthography in English. Other potential spellings include Vodou, Vodoun, vaudou, and voodoo, with vau- or vou- prefix variants reflecting French orthography, and a final -n reflecting the nasal vowel in West African or older, non-urbanized, Haitian Creole pronunciations.
The spelling voodoo, once very common, is now generally avoided by Haitian 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, as well as to separate Haitian Vodou from the negative connotations and misconceptions the term “voodoo” has acquired in popular culture.
Over the years, practitioners and their supporters have called on various institutions including the Associated Press to redress this misrepresentation by adopting Vodou in reference to the Haitian religion. In October 2012, the Library of Congress decided to change their subject heading from “Voodooism” to Vodou in response to a petition by a group of scholars and practitioners in collaboration with KOSANBA, the scholarly association for the study of Haitian Vodou based at University of California Santa Barbara.
Vodou’s moral code focuses on the vices of dishonor 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 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 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 mambo 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.
According to Vodou, the soul consists of two aspects, in a type of soul dualism: the gros bon ange (big good angel) and the ti bon ange (little good angel). The gros bon ange is the part of the soul that’s essentially responsible for the basic biological functions, such as the flow of blood through the body and breathing. On the other hand, the ti bon ange is the source of personality, character and willpower. “As the gros bon ange provides each person with the power to act, it is the ti bon ange that molds the individual sentiment within each act”. While the latter is an essential element for the survival of one’s individual identity, it’s not necessary to keep the body functioning properly in biological terms, and therefore a person can continue to exist without it.
Liturgy and practice
A Haitian Vodou temple is called an Hounfour. After a day or two of preparation setting up altars at an Hounfour, 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 loa 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 Petro 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. But in the United States, many vodouists 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 mambos can go to sleep.
Vodou practitioners believe that if one follows all taboos imposed by their particular loa and is punctilious about all offerings and ceremonies, the loa will aid them. Vodou practitioners also believe that if someone ignores their loa it can result in sickness, the failure of crops, the death of relatives, and other misfortunes.
Animals are sometimes sacrificed in Haitian Vodou. A variety of animals are sacrificed, such as pigs, goats, chickens, and bulls. “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.”
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”.
In a Vodou home, often, the only recognizable religious items are images of saints and candles with a rosary. In other homes, where people may more openly show their devotion to the spirits, noticeable items may include an altar with Catholic saints and iconographies, rosaries, bottles, jars, rattles, perfumes, oils, and dolls.
Some Vodou devotees have less paraphernalia in their homes because until recently Vodou practitioners had no option but to hide their beliefs. Haiti is a rural society and the cult of ancestors guard the traditional values of the peasant class. The ancestors are linked to family life and the land.
Haitian peasants serve the spirits daily and sometime gather with their extended family on special occasions for ceremonies, which may celebrate the birthday of a spirit or a particular event. In very remote areas, people may walk for days to partake in ceremonies that take place as often as several times a month. Vodou is closely tied to the division and administration of land as well as to the residential economy. The cemeteries and many crossroads are meaningful places for worship: the cemetery acts as a repository of spirits and the crossroads acts as points of access to the world of the invisible.
Houngans (Male Vodou Priest) or Mambos (Female Vodou Priest) are usually people who were chosen by the dead ancestors 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.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.
The asson (calabash rattle) is the symbol for one who has acquired the status of houngan or mambo (priest or priestess) in Haitian Vodou. The calabash is taken from the calabasse courante or calabasse ordinaire tree which is associated with Danbhalah-Wédo. A houngan or mambo traditionally holds the asson in their hand along with a clochette (bell). Inside of the asson are stones and snake vertebrae which give the asson its sound. The asson is covered with a web of porcelain beads.
A “bokor” is a sorcerer or magician who casts spells upon request. They are not necessarily priests, and may be practitioners of “darker” things and often not even accepted by the mambo or the houngan. Or, a “Bokor” would be the Haitian term for a Vodou priest or other, working both the light and dark arts of magic. The “Bokor” deals in “baka” (malevolent spirits contained in the form of various animals).
Death and the afterlife
The practitioners of Vodou revere death, and believe it to be a great transition from one life to another, or to the afterlife. In some Vodou families, it is believed that a person’s spirit leaves the body, but is trapped in water, over mountains, in grottoes, or anywhere else a voice may call out and echo for a span of one full year and one day.
After this period, there is a ceremonial celebration to commemorate the deceased for being released into the world to “live again”. In the words of Edwidge Danticat, author of “A Year and a Day” – an article about death in Haitian society published in the New Yorker – and a practitioner of Vodou, “The year-and-a-day commemoration is seen, in families that believe in it and practice it, as a tremendous obligation, an honorable duty, in part because it assures a transcendental continuity of the kind that has kept us Haitians, no matter where we live, linked to our ancestors for generations.” After the soul of the deceased leaves its resting place, it can occupy trees, and even become a hushed voice on the wind.
Before 1685: From Africa to the Caribbean
Area of West African Vodun practice, the religion with the greatest influence on Haitian Vodou. 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 voduns(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 voduns(s) are the God-Actor(s) who actually govern earthly issues. The pantheon of vodoun is quite large and complex.
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.
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 loa (a Kikongo term) are of Kongo origin, such as Basimbi, Lemba, etc.
In addition, the Vodun religion (distinct from Haitian Vodou) already existed in the United States previously to Haitian immigration, 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.
European colonialism, followed by totalitarian regimes in West Africa, suppressed Vodou as well as other forms of the religion. However, because the Vodou 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.
1685-1791: Vodou in colonial Saint-Domingue
The majority of the Africans who were brought as slaves to Haiti were from Western and Central Africa. 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. 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 or spirits as Roman Catholic saints, an element of a process called syncretism.
Two keys provisions of the Code Noir by King Louis XIV of France in 1685 severely limited the ability of enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue to practice African religions. First, the Code Noir explicitly forbade the open practice of all African religions. Second, it forced all slaveholders to convert their slaves to Catholicism within eight days of their arrival in Saint-Domingue. As a result, over the course of the 18th century, African religious practice in Saint-Domingue adapted to each of these provisions.
First, African religious practice largely went underground, outside of the control of colonial authorities. Second, the diverse pantheon of African spirits that had already been incorporated into religious practice in Saint-Domingue was overlaid with images, practices, and rituals borrowed from Catholicism.
Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, a French observer writing in 1797, noted this religious syncretism, commenting that the Catholic-style altars and votive candles used by Africans in Haiti were meant to conceal the Africanness of the religion.
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 Haiti in 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.
1791–1804: The Haitian Revolution
The most historically important Vodou ceremony in Haitian history was the 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.
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. Haitian nationalists have frequently drawn inspiration by imagining their ancestors’ gathering of unity and courage. Since the 1990s, some neo-evangelicals have interpreted the politico-religious ceremony at Bois Caïman to have been a pact with demons. This extremist view is not considered credible by most Haitians.
Vodou in 19th century Haiti
1804: Liberty, Isolation, Boycott
On 1 January 1804 the former slave Jean-Jaqcues Dessalines (as Jacques I) declared the independence of St. Domingue as the First Black Empire; two years later, after his assassination, it became the Republic of Haiti. This was the second nation to gain independence from European rule (after the United States), and the only state to have arisen from the liberation of slaves. No nation recognised the new state, which was instead met with isolation and boycotts. This exclusion from the global market led to major economic difficulties for the new state Many of the leaders of the revolt disassociated themselves from Vodou. They strived to be accepted as Frenchmen and good Catholics rather than as free Haitians. Yet most practitioners of Vodou saw, and still see, no contradiction between Vodou and Catholicism, and also take part in Catholic masses.
1825: Compensation to France
In order to be allowed to resume trade with France, Haiti was forced to pay 150 million francs to France as compensation for the loss of its slaves. This corresponded to ten years’ total production in Haiti. Haiti was forced to take out expensive loans in order to pay these damages.
1835: Vodou made punishable, secret societies
Vodou was not recognised as an official religion by the Haitian state. In 1835 the practising of Vodou was made punishable. Secret Voodoo societies therefore continued to be important. These societies also served to provide the poor with protection and solidarity against the exercising of power by the elite. They had their own symbols and codes.
20th century to the present
Today, Vodou is practiced not only by Haitians but by Americans and people of many other nations who have been exposed to Haitian culture. Haitian creole forms of Vodou exist in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, some of the outer islands of the Bahamas, the United States, and other places to which Haitians have immigrated. 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.
Former president of Haiti François Duvalier (also known as Papa Doc) played a role in elevating the status of Vodou into a national doctrine. Duvalier was involved in the noirisme movement and hoped to re-value cultural practices that had their origins in Africa. Duvalier manipulated Vodou to suit his purposes throughout his Reign of Terror. He organized the Vodou priests in the countryside and had them advance his agenda, instilling fear through promoting the belief that he had supernatural powers playing into the religion’s mysticism.
Many Haitians involved in the practice of Vodou have been initiated as Houngans or Mambos. 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.
Myths and misconceptions
Vodou has often been associated in popular culture with Satanism, witchcraft, zombies and “voodoo dolls”. Zombie creation has been referenced within rural Haitian culture, but is not a part of Vodou. Such manifestations fall under the auspices of the bokor or sorcerer, rather than the priest of the loa. The practice of sticking pins in voodoo dolls has history in folk magic. “Voodoo dolls” are often associated with New Orleans Voodoo and Hoodoo as well the magical devices of the poppet and the nkisi or bocio of West and Central Africa.
The general fear of Vodou in the US can be traced back to the End of the Haitian Revolution (1791). There is a legend that Haitians were able to beat the French during the Haitian Revolution because their Vodou deities made them invincible. The US, seeing the tremendous potential Vodou had for rallying its followers and inciting them to action, feared the events at Bois Caïman could spill over onto American soil.
Fearing an uprising in opposition to the US occupation of Haiti, political and religious elites, along with Hollywood and the film industry, sought to trivialize the practice of Vodou. After the Haitian Revolution many Haitians fled as refugees to New Orleans. Free and enslaved Haitians who moved to New Orleans brought their religious beliefs with them and reinvigorated the Voodoo practices that were already present in the city. Eventually, Voodoo in New Orleans became hidden and the magical components were left present in the public sphere. This created what is called hoodoo in the southern part of the United States.
Because hoodoo is folk magic, Voodoo and Afro-diasporic religions in the U.S. became synonymous with fraud. This is one origin of the stereotype that Haitian Vodou, New Orleans Voodoo, and hoodoo are all tricks used to make money off of the gullible.
The elites preferred to view it as folklore in an attempt to render it relatively harmless as a curiosity that might continue to inspire music and dance.”
In the aftermath of the François Duvalier dictatorship, a number of individuals, including many houngan, sought to organize means of defense for Haitian Vodou from defamation by 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.
In the fall of 2012, KOSANBA successfully petitioned the Library of Congress to change the terms “voodoo” and “voodooism” to the correct spelling “Vodou”