Haitian Vodou has a long and proud history that incorporates discoveries and insights into human nature and the place of a man within the realm of the environment. However, Haitian Vodou as a set of practices, traditions, and observations has been affected by the dominant culture for a while. As a result, the contemporary understanding of Haitian Vodou by people outside of the Haitian culture is plagued with misconceptions and myths. Addressing the ignorance about Haitian Vodou, its nature, the practice, in general, and its unique aspects, in particular, is essential for promoting a better understanding thereof.
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Haitian Vodou: Summary
At present, the Haitian culture suffers from heavy cultural appropriation, which results in Vodou being seen as a relic of the past and the symbol of what the Western culture deems as barbaric. The false notions of the noble savage and the barbaric savage and the idea of the transformation of the latter into the former have also affected the perception of Vodou, lessening its cultural significance and leading to the misrepresentations of the Haitian culture.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that the Haitian culture is becoming extinct or is under any danger posed by the dominant culture. The subject matter should be viewed as neither the culture that needs to be saved from the clutches of globalization nor the containment of false beliefs that represent the idea of the dangerous savage. Haitian people are very reluctant to share the mysteries of Vodou with strangers for the mere act of sharing cultures and engaging in cross-cultural interaction. Instead, Vodou is viewed as a combination of mystery and traditions that embrace the very essence of Haitian people.
“Vodou” is an anglicized version of “Vodu” or “Vodun,” which can be roughly translated to English as a spirit (Tann 20). Haitian Vodou, in turn, embraces the wide range of magical rituals practices by Haitian descendants of Vodu. Although the subject matter is often conflated with religion, it does not strictly qualify as such. Instead, Vodou represents the array of rituals that allow Vodouisants to practice their religious beliefs. In Vodou, the Creator is called Bondye and sends helpful spirits known as Lwa to assist people in their day-to-day lives. Similarly to other traditions and beliefs, Vodou is not accepted at a mature age but, instead, is taught to children in Vodouisant families. Adults explain to children the importance of serving the spirits that have been unleashed onto the world by Bondye, such as Lwa, Rada, Petro, and Gede.
However, to delve into the nature of Vodou, one must focus on its roots and origins. Contrary to similar practices, the nature of Vodou is not obscure enough to dismiss it. The concept of Zansèt-yo, or the ancestors, is held in high regard in the Vodou practice, which allows linking the subject matter to the history of Haiti. The European exploration of Vodou began in the era of Columbus. After his arrival to Ayiti, which was a small Haitian island, and the discovery that there was no gold to be found, colonization was started, with natives being forced into slavery, and African slaves shipped to Haiti (Tann 31). After King Charles I of Spain encouraged the transfer of the population from Africa to Haiti due to a massive number of deaths among residents, the emergence of Hispaniola slaves and the shift in cultural exchange was started.
It would be wrong to claim that Haitians did nothing to resist colonization. The local population defined the western world as Ginen and was willing to liberate themselves from the shackles of slavery. The unrest within the local community added to the overall tension within the colonized parts of the New World. Combined with the imbalance between White colonists and the enslaved population, the specified factors encouraged rebellions. The levels of cross-cultural tension piqued due to the contempt that gens de couleur had for African slaves and their social status. The air of hostility that the specified environment generated led to the provision of legal rights, including the right to own property and participate in elections, to gens de couleur in 1789. However, with further rebellions of gens de couleur being stifled violently, the levels of dissatisfaction and grudge were increasing consistently. Shortly after, maroon groups acting as rebellions started to emerge, François Makandal being one of the most prominent leaders thereof. Although in 1758, François Makandal was executed by burning, rebellions did not cease to occur, leading to the end of the revolt in 1791. While the actual events surrounding the end of the revolt remains a mystery, the shift in the social perspective was evident, with the local culture beginning to thrive again, and a large ceremony celebrating Petro spirits having been held in Bwa Kayiman. The ceremony opened a series of violent rebellions, which forced colonists to cease their attempts at enslaving Haiti people.
Despite the temporary lull in the Haiti environment, the potential of the local armed forces was increasing. General Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave who proclaimed himself the French loyalist and an heir of the king of Allada, the kingdom of the Rada nation, managed to free Saint Domingue from the British and Spanish soldiers. In 1801, L’Ouverture liberated the people of Santo Domingo, proclaiming Hispaniola as free people across not only St. Domingo but also the entire western civilization. The specified endeavors at obtaining independence were met with significant discontent by the French government, which was represented by Napoleon Bonaparte at the time. Unwilling to accept the independence, rights, and freedoms of the Hispaniola people and the Haitian nation, Bonaparte set a trap for L’Ouverture and continued his attempts at conquering the people of Haiti.
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However, even though L’Ouverture was removed from Bonaparte’s path to colonize the area, Jean-Jacques Dessalines took the position and responsibilities of L’Ouverture. After numerous bloodbaths, the first Black republic was established in 1804, and Haitians became the first independent Caribbean nation. Dessalines proclaimed himself as Emperor Jacques I and, later on, was killed in a revolt against the north, which was based on a race war between Haitians of light and dark skin tones. After Dessalines’ death, his friend Henri Christophe became the president of the Kingdom of Haiti. Afterward, General Alexandre Pétion took charge of the state, yet the discord between the south and the north has led to further revolts and the following declaration of the Republic of Haiti.
In 1820, as Pétion‘s successor, President Jean-Pierre Boyer united Haiti. He maintained control over Spanish Haiti as well from 1822 to 1843, yet his economic decisions, such as the 30 million francs loan, affected the state poorly, causing irreparable damage to the state economy. The next president, Charles Rivière-Hérard, also had very little success in managing state affairs since he was in charge of Haiti for less than a year. During most of the 19th century, Haiti remained torn apart by race wars, with very little change made in the 20th century, when the United States took an interest in the local resources. The inconsistency in the approaches toward managing the Haitian conflict, which the U.S. adopted, led to an even more drastic situation.
François Duvalier, also known as Papa Doc, promoted health management and supported the Haitian culture, papa Doc has made minor positive changes to the Haitian social environment. Particularly, his studies of Vodou showed his willingness to understand the needs of Haitian people. The following presidencies were marked by corruption, whereas Jean-Bertrand Aristide managed to change the situation slightly in 1990. However, because of the imbalance in the parliament, the race war was started again and aggravated by Bill Clinton’s invasion. As the conflict continued, the Haitian government asked the United Nations for help, which caused the creation of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The lack of agreement in MINUSTAH’s actions and the policy of Préval, Haiti’s new president, also made the situation more convoluted (Tann 53). The 2010 earthquake, in turn, topped the range of problems faced by the Haitian government.
Affected massively by the political and socio-economic challenges faced by Haitians, Vodou, nevertheless, remains an integral part of the Haitian culture. Although the specified practice has been viewed through the prism of the Western culture as malicious, actual Vodou has nothing to do with causing harm. Moreover, in the political turmoil that Haitians have been experiencing Vodou is the glue that holds the society together. Initially, the Taino and Ciboney tribes of Ayiti worshipped Yocahu, or the Creator, and the spirits that he sent, or zemi. It was believed that local authorities, particularly, caciques (queens) and boutiques (priests) could turn into zemi as they died. Painting images of zemi was a common practice shared by Taino and Ciboney. However, as African slaves were transported to Haiti, Vodou experienced a surge of influences of the African culture. As a result, a large number of spirits to which Haitians serve currently based on the principles of Vodou are inherently a part of the African culture, except some of the remnants of the European folklore.
Vodouisants typically serve Lwa as the key deity in the Vodou culture. The term “Vodou” is rarely mentioned due to its sacred meaning. Despite having suffered a vast range of cultural influences, Vodou as a religious practice remains monotheistic. Bondye is deemed as the superior being and the deity to which Vodouisants pray. The works that are related in some way to the ceremony of celebrating the deity are defined as “aprè Bondye” and is translated to “after God.” It would be wrong to parallel Bondye with the Christian God; instead, it is seen as the cosmic deity that manages the global order. Bondye is capable of summoning Lwa, or spirits. Although Lwa also possesses a certain amount of power, the Vodou beliefs are typically defined as monotheistic. There is also no general scripture in Vodou since the religion is not homogenous and may vary depending on the area where it is practiced. However, règlemans, or rules, that state-specific aspects of Vodou priests’ work exist.
Vodouists practice their religion in a temple, or house, where peril, or clear space, is used for performing ceremonies, with a badge, or altar, in the middle. The process of initiation known as djevo, however, is traditionally performed in a separate room. However, even being seemingly similar to its Christian equivalent, a house cannot be characterized by luxury and has a rather modest look. What is placed on the alter depends on the nature of Lwa to which a sacrifice is offered. Most ceremonies are based on rigid standards and guidelines, yet some of them, such as Manje Mè, are rather flexible in terms of where and how they are practiced. However, what makes the Vodou practice especially complex is its intricate ethics system. As a rule, the ethics of Vodou is summarized in the principle of what is given will be received, though there are a plethora of intricate details. The freedom of will combined with full responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences is seen as the cornerstone principle of Vodou, its ethics, and philosophy.
However, because of numerous misinterpretations, the western understanding of the Haitian Vodou is mostly erroneous. For instance, it is often conflated with the New Orleans Voodoo, which is an entirely different practice. The latter is influenced heavily by West African culture and traditions, whereas the former is based on the Haitian culture. Vodou is also often mistaken for Hoodoo or Conjure, which also belong to a different cultural tradition and philosophy. However, by far the greatest misconception about Vodou concerns the issue of sacrifice and its nature. In Vodou, animal sacrifice is supposed to signify a message to Bondye. Furthermore, the use of Vodou dolls is often misinterpreted as made solely to cause harm and be the Haitian tradition. Instead, the dolls are the relics of the European and African cultures in the Vodou practice. Similarly, the concept of a zombie has been appropriated by American and European cultures without the realization that being a zombie is a curse in the Haitian culture as the extension of the human trials and tribulations. The trance possessions that can be witnessed during Vodou ceremonies are also often misunderstood.
The concept of an outsider is another important aspect of the Vodou culture. Because of the tactless attempts of the European and American world to dissect Vodou and appropriate it, the image of an outsider has been cemented in the Haitian Vodou practice. At the same time, the specified element of the Haitian culture incorporates a vast range of European and American cultural elements, particularly, Catholic imagery, such as Lwa Ezili mirroring the image of the Virgin Mary. The future of Vodou remains misty, mostly due to the multiple influences that it has experienced throughout its existence.
Serving the Lwa is seen as the priority in the Vodou practice. The concept of Lwa is complex as it comprises twenty-one element. However, the important distinction between Lwa and Bondye is that Lwa cannot be worshipped similarly to how Bondye is. After Bondye is acknowledged, Lwa is addressed during a ceremony. The process of serving Lwa is traditionally defined as Sèvi Lwa in Vodou. However, apart from superior deities, Vodou incorporates the spirits that play the role of guardians. Known as Mèt Tè, they are often represented by Lwa. By performing Maryaj-Lwa, or spirit marriage, one can come into contact with spirits and thus receive their support and guidance. The Lwa spirits are often mentioned under the umbrella term of the Rada Lwa, although the specified term can also bear the notion of the elder spirits and thus imply hierarchical relationships. The Rada Lwa, is linked closely to traditions and ceremonies, which is why the order of the Rada service is fixed and rigid.
Although Bondye is usually regarded as the superior spirit, the Papa Legba spirit is also held in high regard. Papa Legba is a trickster character, which can also become Petro Lwa, or one of the senior Lwa spirits. Hierarchically, Marassa is below Papa Legba, although it also plays an important role in the Vodou philosophy. Papa Loko represents the spiritual part of the first Vodou priest, whereas Ayizan is the wife of Papa Loko. Danbala-Wedo is the spirit of the Wedo city, and he is accompanied by his wife Ayida-Wedo. Sobo and Badé are royal spirits, Agassou is a descendant of a king and a forest spirit, Mèt Agwe Tawoyo owns the sea and has a wife named Lasirèn; Ezili Freda Daomé, in turn, represents the female embodiment of power and authority. Bosou is the spirit of great strength and stamina, while Azaka is the spiritual cousin of a member of a Haitian community. The Vodou practice also recognizes the spirits of the Ogou family. However, it is the Petro Lwa division that has a special place in the Vodou practice. Similarly, Gede Lwa, which represents death, is seen as a crucial part of the Vodou culture. Other Lwa is minor and is typically seen as guardians.
The Haitian Vodou incorporates a range of ceremonies, the most important being the rite of passage. Using travay, which is roughly translated into English as “magic,” one performs the initiation, thus, preparing one to serve the Lwa. The magic of Vodou is contained in talismans called Wanga. The règleman may change depending on the area in which it is implemented. However, the standard Vodou ceremony typically incorporates a communal dance and a sacrifice. The Haitian Vodou practice is also linked closely to the local cuisine since there are specific meals that must be served for the Lwa ceremony. These include Riz ak Pwa, or rice and beans, a corn dish called tchaka, the La Bwi Bannann pudding, Bouyon Poul, which is chicken soup, Joumou, or pumpkin soup, and Sòs Ti-Malis, or a very spicy sauce. Other Vodou traditions and ceremonies include Iliminasyon, or the practice of Vodou praying. The process requires using a basin filled with water, coins, and a candle.
Sosyete is another essential concept that supports Vodou traditions. Sosyete means family and society, in general. In society, hierarchical distinctions are also very clear, with a thick line being drawn between Haitians and African descendants. Every member of society must undergo the Sèvis T èt Initiation, which is a rite of passage. However, not only residents but also members from other cultures may practice Vodou. Ceremonies do not impose specific rules on visitors, such as dress code or specific items to bring. Being respectful and tactful are general pieces of advice for anyone participating in a Vodou ritual. However, not all Vodou homes are trustworthy, which is why one should note certain red flags such as the focus on money. As long as a visitor shows appreciation and respect for the Haitian culture and citizens’ Vodou rituals, one is likely to be accepted and given a unique and memorable experience of a Vodou ceremony.
Tann, Mambo Chita. Haitian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition. Llewellyn Publications, 2012.