Especially when referred to as 'Voodoo,' this is a widely misrepresented religion, misinterpreted as an evil and vindictive practice. There is an unwelcomed, non-priestly element within Vodou that practices 'black magic,' a kind of dark art that seeks to frighten and do harm, but these malfacteurs are not accepted by Vodou's true practitioners and followers.
Vodou - religion of Haiti
The name Vodou comes from an African word meaning 'spirit.' Its followers worship Papa Bon Dieu (literally, 'father good god') and spirits who are roughly comparable to saints. In fact, Vodou liberally borrows images of saints outside of its own religion for use in its imagery. Of necessity, in this and other ways this elaborate religion has been adapted by its practitioners and followers to fit the foreign worlds in which its followers were enslaved.
Followers of Vodou, called voduisants, are guided by mambos (female priests) and houngans (male priests) who are trained in the minutiae of the religion. ("Mambos" predominate, priestly lineage most often being passed along matrilineally.) Once initiated into the priesthood, the priests care for their flocks much as the leaders of other religions do. Besides conducting various traditional ceremonies which include highly elaborate rituals, their other priestly responsibilities may include such acts as counseling their 'parishoners,' healing the sick, and passing on their knowledge to future priests. They also are called on within the non-religious community for tasks like mediating disputes and deciding matters of justice.
Because there is no central Vodun organization through which they might be paid, mambos and houngans charge accepted fees for their services. (One way of picking out unscrupulous practitioners is to note those who charge exorbitant fees.) Ordinary Vodou ceremonies are free and open to anyone who wants to watch, though donations are accepted to offset such costs of doing business as shared food, room rental, some compensation for the mambo or houngan, etc.
Voudisants honor their ancestors and believe that they receive guidance and support from them. They also believe that a complex network of spirits guides their lives. Some of these spirits can be capricious, some are notorious for their mood swings, and the occasional one is even dangerous. Benevolent spirits counterbalance those. Whatever their nature, spirits rule every feature of a voduisant's life, from fertility to death.
Contrary to the impression that a litany of these spirits can convey, voduisants are guided by positive motivations. They're expected to be worthy of the blessings that the spirits bestow on them -- or that they wish for the spirits to give them. They're expected to maintain a close and loving family, to be honorable, generous and appropriately respectful.
Altars and humane sacrifices, perhaps two of the elements of Vodou most often subject to misinterpretation and most likely to provoke alarm in those untutored in the religion, are simply considered necessary routes to communication with the spirits. Their association with Vodou -- largely based on distorted renditions of the religion which have been created primarily out of either unfounded fear or with the intention of obliterating the religion -- may be primarily what disturbs non-voduisants, for in fact most religions use altars of one kind or another, and Vodun is not the only one that calls for sacrifices.
While called Vodou in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean, this religion took other forms and other names in other locations. For example, it became Obeah in Jamaica and Trinidad-and-Tobago; and Santeria in Cuba, Argentina, Mexico and elsewhere. Vodou has separate disciplines within it, just as is true for Protestantism and other broad religious groupings. Orthodox Vodou itself (predominant in Saint-Domingue) has divisions, with three groups of loa (spirits; or 'mystery' in the Yoruba language of West Africa). These include the beneficient Radas, the magnanimous Ghedes and the passionate Petros. (Note: Vodou as practiced in New Orleans, La., USA, is not the same as that practiced in Saint-Domingue, now Haiti.)
Interestingly, practitioners of Vodou openly welcome people of all faiths and may themselves be members of more conventional religions as well as Vodou.
Where did this religion come from? Primarily, Vodou arose in Saint-Domingue and elsewhere in the West Indies as Caribbean island-owning nations with a voracious need for cheap labor to power their plantation economics began importing increasing numbers of slaves mainly from Africa. Typical of migrating populations, the slaves brought their religion with them. Forbidden to express or practice their beliefs outright, they invented ingenious ways of keeping their religion alive surreptitiously. Along the way they incorporated elements of other beliefs, such as Catholicism and Protestantism, mixed with Caribbean folk ways and pure imagination.
Vodou was widely practiced on Saint-Domingue. Of necessity, this was done in secret, often at night. Anyone caught at it was guaranteed at least severe punishment, though more likely death. Slave-owners depended on total control of their slaves, including any form of worship. By law, Catholicism was the official religion of Saint-Domingue. To that end, slaves typically were forced to deny their own religion and were converted to Catholicism whether they wanted to do it or not, thereby making it that much more difficult and dangerous to practice Vodou.Bois Caïman, near Cap Haitien, on 21 August 1791. It was led by the strong and influential Vodun priest Dutty Boukman.
As trampled as it was, Vodou survived the harsh conditions on Saint-Domingue. It survived Toussaint, who was a strong Roman Catholic, and it has survived every transition of power since Toussaint was captured and exiled. It is not much better understood now than it was in Toussaint's day, but -- again as is true for other religions -- it still fills a primal need in those who adhere to its tenets. Some 60 million people are said to practice Vodun worldwide.
Vodou in Haiti today
In May of 2003, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide issued a decree fully recognizing Voudou as a religion. With the decree, Haiti recognized baptisms, marriages and funerals performed by mambos and houngans. A majority of Haitians practice Christianity and Vodou side by side and the Catholic Church has increasingly allowed their churches to be used for Vodou related activities. Protestant churches have been far less tolerant and many missionaries openly combat traditional Haitian belief systems and cultural practices.
- Bois Caïman - The location of the ceremonies that preceded the Haitian Revolution.
- Book: The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou
- Donald J. Cosentino, editor (1995) "The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou" Los Angeles, CA: University of California, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. ISBN 0-930741-47-1 (paper).
- BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/alabaster/A1019666
- Rock, Michael. Haitian Vodou: Serving the Spirits. http://www.witchvox.com/trads/trad_vodou.html
- Calling on the Gods: The Embodied Aesthetic of Haitian Vodou http://www.ux1.eiu.edu/~cfrb/haitianvodou.htm
- Vodun and related religions. http://www.religioustolerance.org/voodoo.htm
- Wikipedia: Vodoun
- Night-time Slave Meetings in Saint-Domingue - Saint-Domingue text from 1786.
- La Médiathèque Caraïbe: Vodou music in Haiti - Information and background on Haitian Vodou music by Dr. Lois Wilcken, the Executive Director of La Troupe Mackandal.
- Leah Gordon Photography - Images of Haitian vodou.