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Haitian Culture: Vodou
A Haitian Perspective

by Dr. Leslie Desmangles

Popular novels, films, and spurious travel accounts by tourists have identified Vodou (or its derivative, Voodoo or Hoodoo) incorrectly with evil spells cast by witches who make images of other persons, and perforate these images with pins. Other popular notions have related it to cannibalism and zombification. These characterizations could not be farther from the truth. They derive undoubtedly from many foreigners' racist attitudes, as well as fears caused by the slave rebellions that freed Haiti from French rule in 1804, and the guerilla rebellions that liberated Haiti from the United States' Marine occupation in 1934. The American Occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) followed a period of civil disorders, and was inspired by the Monroe Doctrine to protect American interests abroad.

Whatever the motives may have been in popularizing such derisive notions of Vodou, a serious examination of it reveals that none of its rituals confirms these popular views about it. Voodoo is a deterioration of the Dahomean term vodu or vodun, meaning deity or spirit. Hence, Vodou is a religion that, through a complex system of myths and rituals, relates the life of the devotee to hundreds of incommensurable spirits called lwas (from a Yoruba word for spirit), who govern all of life as well as the entire cosmos. These lwas (pronounced loa) are believed to manifest themselves not only in all of nature but specifically through the bodies of their devotees in spirit or trance possessions, a non-material achievement that allows these devotees to embody divine powers whom they believe free them from scarcity and anguish. Moreover, like many other religions of the world, Vodou is a system of beliefs and practices that gives meaning to life: it instills in its devotees a need for solace and self-examination, provides an explanation for death, which is treated as a spiritual transformation, a portal to the sacred world beyond, where productive and morally upright individuals, perceived by devotees to be powerful ancestral figures, can exercise significant influences on their progeny by possessing them. In short, it is an expression of a people's longing for meaning and purpose in their lives. By extension, the use of the term Vodou in Haiti is also generic, referring to a whole assortment of cultural elements: personal creeds and practices, including an elaborate system of folk medical practices; a system of ethics transmitted across generations, which encompass numerous proverbs and stories, songs and folklore; and various other forms of artistic expressions including painting , music, dance and sculpture.

Despite its various manifestations, Vodou is more than belief; it is a way of life. It is practiced primarily in the home, and maintains a religious calendar with special feast days that require of its devotees their attendance at special ceremonies in the temples or ounfòs (pronounced unfo), and at pilgrimages in sacred places throughout Haiti. These ceremonies are officiated by priests or oungans (pronounced unga) and priestesses or mambos who constitute a loosely organized, but powerful local religious hierarchies. Vodou maintains neither theological nor ecumenical centers; hence, its religious specialists are trained informally by other practitioners, either through inheritance or through social contacts.

The focus of Vodou's theology is the spirits whom Vodouisants revere and who, they believe, are active in their lives. Vodouisants regard their devotion to these lwas a ÒserviceÓ to them, and see themselves as these lwasÕ servants. They also conceive of them in practical terms, expecting them, not only to be the fount of wisdom in coping with lifeÕs problems but to attend to their daily needs; the lwas must provide food, guard their devotees against disease, and offer their assistance in practical matters of life in general.

African Influence

The theology of Vodou was born on the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was called during the French colonial period (1697-1804). Little is known about the slave communities that composed Haitian society during that period, but it is evident that they were critical in preserving African religious traditions on the island. Glimpses from the colonial writings that survive note that the slaves' rituals were held in secret and at night, presumably to avoid their interference by the police. Colonial masters feared the slaves' religious meetings, for they often incited slave insurrections that were not only bloody, but threatened the political and social stability of the tiny colony.

Moreover, the brutal treatment of slaves caused thousands to flee the plantations, joining others in the interior of the island, congregating there to form what many scholars have called the maroon republics (Roger Bastide African Civilisations in the New World. New York: Harper and Row, 1971). Marronnage has had a far-reaching impact on Haitian history, for it was not only instrumental in fostering the slave rebellions that liberated Haiti from French rule in 1804, but also contributed to the preservation of many African religious traditions from different ethnic nations that blended with each other with time to shape VodouÕs theology today. These included among others many of the people of Dahomey (presently known as Benin), Kongo, Angola, and Nigeria. No one knows how many of these maroon republics existed in Saint-Domingue, but it can be estimated that their numbers multiplied to several hundreds by the end of the eighteenth century. They also varied widely politically, socially, and theologically, and their organizational forms depended on the numbers of African ethnic nations (or tribes) represented in each of them. Hence, the degree to which Vodou in colonial Haiti incorporated particular tribal or ethnic beliefs and practices in its theology depended upon the demographic composition of these republics. This religious diversity in the republics has left an indelible mark on Vodou, and has contributed to the striking geographical divergence in beliefs and practices found in Vodou theology throughout Haiti today.

Most of the Africans imported into the colony were agricultural and pastoral peoples whose mythologies functioned as a means of establishing an intimate, mystic relationship with the land. Saint-Domingue's economic history of social oppression altered African religious traditions on Haitian soil permanently, making Vodou a New World religion. Many of the African spirits were adapted to the their new milieu in the New World. Ogun for instance, the Nigerian spirit of ironsmiths and other activities associated with metals such as hunting and warfare, took a new persona in colonial Saint-Domingue. He became Ogou, the military leader who has led phalanxes into battle against oppression. In Haiti today, Ogou inspires many political revolutions that oust oppressive regimes.

Catholic Influence

The majority of Europeans who came to Saint-Domingue were Roman Catholics who regarded Vodou as an aberration, and sought to extricate it from colonial society. They were quick to enact a number of edicts that regulated the religious lives of the slaves throughout the colony. One such edict, the Code Noir of 1685, made it illegal for the slaves to practice their African religions openly and, under stiff penalties to the contrary, ordered all masters to have their slaves converted to Christianity within eight days after their arrival to the colony.

The severity of such laws drove African rituals underground. To circumvent the officious interference in their rituals by their masters, the slaves held religious ceremonies in secret, and learned to overlay their African practices with the veneer of Roman Catholic symbols and rituals. They used the Catholic symbols in their rituals as "white masks over black faces", veils behind which they concealed their African practices, and succeeded in achieving a blending of African and European religious traditions. This blending in Vodou's theology can be seen in the use of Catholic prayers and symbols in Vodou rituals and in the correspondences between the African spirits and the Roman Catholic saints. These correspondences continue to exist in Vodou today, and consist of a system of reinterpretations by which particular symbols associated with the African spirits were made to correspond to similar symbols associated with the saints in Catholic hagiology. Thus for example, the Dahomean snake spirit Damballah was made to correspond with Saint Patrick because of the Catholic legend about Saint Patrick and the snakes of Ireland. Likewise Ezili, the Dahomean and Vodou water spirit who is the symbol of love, was identified with to the Virgin Mary, not only because of her beauty but because of the colors blue and pink as well as many other symbols with which both Ezili and Mary are associated.

Like Santeria in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil, the blending of African and Catholic beliefs and practices has caused Vodou to incorporate both religious traditions in its theology. Hence, Vodou devotees practice two religions simultaneously, and maintain their allegiance to them in parallel ways. An often quoted Haitian proverb is that one must be Catholic to serve the Vodou lwas. The truth of that statement illustrates the distinct roles that both religions play in Haitian society. It also illustrates what seems logical to Vodouisants (Vodou devotees, pronounced Voduizan) that the world is governed by the Godhead and the lwas (and by extension the Catholic saints) who can be represented in two ways. For them, the priest in his celebration of the mass functions as a point of contact with an impersonal Godhead (Bondye) who rules the universe. They regard him as the conduit through which they can gain access to the sacred world; in his role as the sole dispenser of grace, he stands at the crossroads between the sacred and the profane worlds. By contrast the Vodou priests (male or female) establish contact with personal, yet mysterious spirits who reveal themselves to their servants in trance possession. Moreover, unlike the Catholic priest, they do not control their flocks' contact with the world of the lwas, but they allow each believer in the Vodou ceremonies to gain direct access to the spirit world through trance possession, an altered state of consciousness during which a person's body is said to be invaded by a spirit. This intrusion of one's person by a lwa results in the temporary displacement of oneÕs persona by that of the invading spirits. In short, Vodou devotees believe that they to go to Catholic Mass to worship God, but go to a Vodou ritual to become God.

Vodou in the Diaspora

Unfavorable political and economic circumstances in Haiti since the 1970s have caused substantial numbers of Haitians to immigrate into many parts of the world. Living in the diaspora, as many Haitians living abroad refer to themselves, they inhabit many of the world's largest cities (namely New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Québec, Montréal, or Paris). Despite the stresses of urban life and the lingering suspicions by outsiders of Vodou as mere superstition and devil worship, Haitians in the diaspora have managed to maintain their religious beliefs and practices.

Forced to adapt themselves new cultures, Haitians in the diaspora have brought many changes to Vodou. One significant change since the 1970s is that it has become for the most part an urban phenomenon in the diaspora. This new trait makes it different from the largely rural milieu in which it has existed in Haiti. But it has adapted well to the city. Its rituals have attracted members of other cultural and ethnic groups, and the abundance of goods in these cities makes it possible for devotees to find most of the paraphernalia that they need for the rituals. Even pilgrimages are reproduced. For instance, All Souls' Day in the Christian liturgical calendar (November 1) corresponds to Halloween in North America, the day consecrated to the souls of the dead in the Catholic liturgical calendar. Similarly July 16, the day devoted to the Virgin Mary in the Catholic liturgical calendar, is reserved for Ezili, the Vodou spirit of love. On that day, many Vodou devotees in Eastern Canada make a pilgrimage to Sainte Anne de Beaupré near the city of Quebec.

Leslie G. Desmangles, Ph.D.
Department of Religion and International Studies
Trinity College
Hartford, Connecticut

Suggested reading and viewing: Erika Bourguignon. Possession. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1976; Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991; Etzel Carde–a. Variety of Possession Experience. AASC Quarterly, 5: 1989, 5-17; Harold Courlander. The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People. Berkeley: the University of California Press, 1960; Maya Deren. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. New York: Delta Publishing Company, 1972; Leslie G. Desmangles. The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill: the University of North Carolina Press, 1992; Leslie G. Desmangles and Etzel Carde–a. Trance Possession and Vodou Rituals in Haiti. Jahrbuch fur Transkulturelle Medizin und Psychotherapie. Internationalen Instituts fur Kulturvergleichende Therapieforshung, Universitat Koblenz/ Landau; 6, 1994. Melville Herskovits. Life in a Haitian Valley. New York: Doubleday, 1972; Michel Laguerre. Urban Life in the Caribbean: A Study of a Haitian Urban Community. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982. James Leyburn. The Haitian People. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966; Alfred Métraux. Voodoo in Haiti. New York, Shocken Press, 1978. Film: The Legacy of the Spirits. Produced and narrated by Karen Kramer, 1982. This documentary film is an excellent one-hour presentation about the practice of Vodou in New York City.

*Omfort : temple vaudou.
** Loas : Dieux, divinités vaudou. Génie,démon ou esprit.
*** Vévés : Dessins symboliques représentant les attribus d'un "loa"

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