An Introduction to Vodou - a Traditional African Religion Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

An Introduction to Vodou - a Traditional African Religion

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A Vodoun practitioner

'Voodoo curses', pin-sticking dolls, flesh-eating zombies and devil worship... if any religion has been deliberately maligned, it's Vodou. In fact, the anti-Vodou propaganda machine has been so effective that many people don't even know that Vodou is a religion and not simply a system of harmful magic. This entry provides some very basic information about the sophisticated religious tradition that became an integral part of the African diaspora. The terminology of Haitian Vodou will be used throughout, except when referring to specific traditions.

A Traditional African Religion

Vodou (also spelled Voudoun, Vodun, and Voodoo in various parts of the world) is a traditional African religion that spread from West Africa across the world with the slave trade. The word Vodou appears to derive from the Fon word for 'spirit', describing the concept of a world alive with spirit and energy, and anthropologists estimate the religion to be 6-10,000 years old.

The benevolent but distant Creator God Papa Bon Dieux (Good God), or Bondeye in Haitian Creole, allows spirits (the lwa/loa - pronounced 'low-a') to work directly with humans in a capacity similar to angels or saints in Christian beliefs. Some of the loa may be ancestors (Ghede or Guede - pronounced 'Gay-day'), the older being from Africa (the Rada), others added in the New World (the Petro) and others of more uncertain origin, but it is the loa who communicate with humans through Vodou's characteristic possessory trance, usually induced by singing and dancing and the complex rhythms of the accompanying drums. It is believed that each person has a met tet ('master of the head'), a loa who acts rather like a patron saint or guardian angel. Adherents of Vodou gather on a regular basis to praise Papa Bon Dieux and the loa, and to make offerings, pray, and sing and dance in their honour.

If this sounds rather unlike the dark, frightening, and even evil 'Voodoo' of Hollywood notoriety, that is because Vodou has been the victim of an extremely successful smear-campaign since slave traders first realised that the indigenous African religious beliefs were the locus of slaves' self-definition and rebelliousness. Determined to ensure obedience and to humiliate and strip their slaves of any sense of self, slave owners took to smashing and destroying all Vodou altars, offerings, and ritual gear, and often murdered Vodou priests (Houngans) and priestesses (Mambos). Most slave owners forcibly baptised their slaves, and others beat their slaves (even to the point of death) if they caught them practising any religion whatsoever. The concept of Africans as barbarous savages, inherently morally inferior to Europeans; the idea that any religion other than Christianity derived from the Devil; scriptural sanction for the slave trade; and the realisation that the most effective way to break a people is to destroy their most cherished beliefs all resulted in the indescribably vicious treatment of African slaves by their European owners, and continuous attempts to destroy Vodou.

In Haiti, it was indeed a Houngan who led the slave rebellion in 1791 that finally defeated the French and led to independence for the island. Vodou has remained an integral part of Haiti's troubled history and culture; it was in danger of being stamped out after the fall of the repressive Duvalier regime, but was rescued and is flourishing once more.

The beliefs, practices and cosmologies of Africans brought to the Americas were often similar to those held by indigenous American peoples. Many indigenous peoples took in runaway slaves; many of the indigenous peoples were themselves enslaved and lived with Africans in captivity. It is highly likely that there was a mutual cultural and religious influence, but because of the overlap in worldview and religious practices, it's almost impossible to ascertain who influenced whom, how, and to what extent.

A Religion in Disguise

Most of the slave owners in the Caribbean and Latin America were Roman Catholics, and so their African slaves shrewdly took to disguising their faith as reverence for the Christian saints based on the similarities between them and the loa: thus, the serpent Damballah is represented by the iconography of St Patrick; the loa associated with water and love, beautiful Erzulie, is represented by the iconography of the Virgin Mary; the trickster Legba, who holds the keys to the gate between the worlds is represented by the iconography of St Peter.

As is the way of all religions, when transplanted to new lands and new circumstances, the paths of Vodou diverged, becoming the separate but related traditions of:

  • Candomble Jege-Nago (or Candomble) in Brazil

  • Obeah in Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago

  • Santeria (also called Regla de Ocha, Lukumi, or La Regla Lucumi) in Cuba and other Caribbean islands, Argentina, Venezuela, Columbia, and Mexico, where the loa are called orisha

  • Vodou in Haiti and other Caribbean islands

  • Dahomean or West African Vodun in Africa

  • Louisiana Voodoo, which developed a less overtly religious form, though this has been changing as more people become more deeply interested in the religious aspects.

Of course, within these basic groups many different approaches are taken - in some, a genuine syncretism of Vodou, Catholicism, and the indigenous beliefs of the country has occurred; in others, only some aspects of local beliefs and Christianity or Islam have been blended in. Vodou in its many forms has spread across the world - wherever there is an African population, there is Vodou.

In many places, practitioners of Vodou are also members of other religions. Across Africa, due to colonial influences, most people identify as Christian or Muslim but practice the religion of their ancestors (there is a joke that the African population is 30% Christian, 20% Muslim, and 100% Vodou!); in the Caribbean and the Americas, many practitioners (vodouisants in Haiti, voodooiennes in Louisiana parlance, and vodoun, vodun or voudou elsewhere) are also practicing Catholics. However, not all adherents of Vodou engage in any other religious practice, and the African nation of Benin recognises Vodun as its official religion.

Religious Organisation

There is no central organisation in Vodou - no 'Vodou Pope', so to speak - but there is a definite religious hierarchy. Most Vodouisants are non-initiates ('bosal'), but most of those who have taken initiation remain at the first level, with no ritual or community responsibilities beyond serving the loa in their private lives. According to the religious form, there follow other levels of initiation, each conferring more ritual and community responsibilities upon the initiate. The Dahomean1, Haitian, and Santeria traditions all have different initiatory structures2. Only fully-trained and installed Houngans and Mambos can officiate at ceremonies, including initiations. Vodouisants take the lineage of the initiator and reputation of the House or Peristyle (similar to a church) very seriously.

In Dahomean Vodou, anyone can become an initiate, an adherent of the religion, and even a ritual assistant; however, the priesthood is generally reserved for the descendants of the royal priesthood. The office can only be conferred through the maternal bloodline, apart from the very rare occasions when spirit sends someone outside that bloodline to the priesthood.

Because of the practical difficulties facing slaves in the New World, the retention of an inherited priesthood was impossible. Initiation and installation as a priest (Houngan) or priestess (Mambo) can often be traced through family lines, but a blood lineage is not required. In the Caribbean and the American South, the practice of keeping female slaves and selling male slaves for stud resulted in the dominance of Mambos in Vodou and Voodoo. In Africa, men remained more dominant, and in Santeria, many ritual acts and initiations remained the province of men.

Houngans and Mambos are expected to lead ceremonies, provide counselling and spiritual services, provide space for temples (hounforts), teach initiates, heal the sick, and often pay for the education and healthcare of their initiates. In areas where there is no police force or available legal system, it is the Houngans and Mambos who mediate disputes, protect the vulnerable, and mete out justice. They do so without the salaries paid by organised religions to ministers, and so usually ask fees for their services.

The widespread idea of Vodou priests as morally dubious at best is hardly accurate; however, there are Vodou practitioners known as malfacteurs, untrained as priests, who make a living through divination and harmful magic. The stereotypical 'voodoo curse' is the province of the malfacteurs, who are generally regarded as dangerous by neighbours and are deeply disapproved of in the religion as a whole. Sadly, as long as humans are greedy, angry, hurt, jealous, or insecure, they will seek out the means to harm others, including magical means. Houngans and Mambos are trained in the practices of the malfacteurs in order to counteract their harmful spells and potions.

Some Houngans and Mambos refuse to initiate non-Africans on the grounds that their beliefs and cultures have been stolen and co-opted for centuries, and they fear that the core of their African heritage may be stolen and distorted by people who do not truly respect it. Others take the view that if the loa have chosen someone to serve them - which can be determined through divination and communication with the loa - that person cannot in good conscience be denied. There is genuine concern at the rise in interest in Vodoun among white people who 'collect' traditions, and some feel that Vodoun has become the latter-day equivalent of the Eastern philosophy craze of the 1960s, an exotic idea to be embraced for its difference and dropped later. That said, as part of the responsibility of Houngans and Mambos is to ensure the continuation of the Vodou traditions by initiating and installing new Houngans and Mambos, sincere seekers who appear to be genuinely called by the loa and who respect the history and tradition of Vodoun and its African heritage can find reputable initiators. It is hypothesised by some Houngans and Mambos in Haiti that a handful of Haitian loa are of European origin, apparently the result of mixing African beliefs with the traditional beliefs of British and Irish indentured servants, though there is no documented proof of this.

The Loa

The loa are many and varied, depending on tradition and location. As the best-known Vodou tradition is the Haitian, here are the three basic types of Haitian loa:

Loa Rada - African Loa

The loa Rada are the ancestral loa of Africa. They are generally fairly stately, regal and benevolent in nature, and act on a more cosmic scale that the loa Ghede. The Rada are usually of an elemental nature, their songs and dances are decorous and graceful, and the drumming that accompanies them is of an even beat. Vodouisants possessed by the Rada sing and dance beautifully.

Loa Ghede - Ancestral Loa

The loa Ghede are often quite rowdy and raunchy, sprinkling their conversation with profanities and sexual innuendo. Haitian culture is generally very conservative and does not normally reward such behaviour, but the loa Ghede can commit such social transgressions with impunity - being dead, they are beyond punishment, and they seem to feel that shocking people is perfectly reasonable. They typically do not use profanity in an abusive manner, but prefer to make people laugh at their over-the-top behaviour. Predominantly male, and praised with raucous songs and enthusiastic dances, the loa Ghede are the ancestors who bridge the gap between 'Gine' (Africa) and the living of Haiti. The Ghede's names all end in La Croix in honour of Baron and Maman Brigitte who reclaim the souls of the ancestors and make them into loa; both Baron and Maman Brigitte's symbol is the cross. Vodouisants possessed by the Ghede often dance suggestively (though without desire - it is a paradox that the Ghede represent both eroticism and death), drink strong spirits, and behave outrageously.

Loa Petro - New World Loa

The Petro originate in the times of slavery and represent the rage of enslaved African ancestors. Generally more aggressive than the Rada, the Petro dances and songs are based around uneven drumbeats, which highlight the frustrated and angry natures of these loa. Vodouisants possessed by the Petro may cough up blood, stick themselves with pins or knives, or eat glass - all, apparently, without being harmed when they come to themselves again.

Ritual

All religious rituals seek to provide communion between the individual or community and the divine and/or spirit(s). Just as in any religion, Vodou rituals take different forms depending on their intent. Private devotions may be made at small altars in the home or elaborate altars in specially built rooms. Altars typically hold candles, cloth, herbs, items associated with the loa, veves (pronounced 'Vay-vay' - the symbols or sigils of the loa), and offerings of food and drink. Individuals might sing and dance, light candles, make offerings, or simply pray quietly. Altars are exceptionally important in Vodou, and are generally correspondingly elaborate. Vodou altars are often works of art in and of themselves.

Public rituals are more dramatic in nature. They take place in the hounfort (temple) or peristyle (an open but roofed sacred space). Both have a central pole dedicated to Legba, around which all the activities revolve. The hounfort is decorated with the veves of the loa and altars. Beginning with a salute to Legba, keeper of the gate between worlds, the congregation is led through a pre-ritual feast and then songs and dances for the Rada, the Ghede, and the Petro. Vodouisants may become possessed3 by loa during the ceremony; the loa may wish to pass on specific messages, or simply manifest to enjoy the music and dancing.

Vodou is well-known for its animal sacrifice (somewhat unfairly, as this is only part of the Vodou tradition), though it is not unusual for Vodou groups in America and Europe to have abandoned animal sacrifice altogether. Generally, large amounts of food are offered to the loa during ceremonies, and in more traditional groups, the sacrifice of animals (mostly birds) may play a part. It is important to note that these animals have been pampered, are kept calm, and are killed quickly and with as little pain as possible - it is emphatically stated by Vodou Houngans and Mambos that only people properly trained for this should commit such sacrifices, as an untrained person might cause the animals real pain and distress, which would be unacceptable. The blood of the animals is splashed on the altars, thereby 'feeding' the loa the lifeforce of the animal, and the tremendous burst of lifeforce helps carry the prayers of the congregation to the loa. The animals are then cooked and shared among the congregation in a ritual meal. Many would argue that this procedure is infinitely more humane than the process by which most meat ends up on plates4.

Other rituals are the initiation of a vodouisant into the religion, or their installation as ritual assistants or members of the priesthood. Funerary rites, which in Haiti take the form of a nine-day wake after the Catholic funeral, and rituals such as the lave tet (pronounced 'Lav-AY Tet'), or washing of the head (a ritual of cleansing and purification) are all examples of these rituals.

Hoodoo, Zombies and Voodoo Dolls

Vodou has often been referred to in America as Hoodoo; however, the two terms are not interchangeable. Hoodoo is a kind of folk magic based in African traditions, but often with a blending of Native American and European traditions thrown in. Hoodoo is a magical practice that usually takes place outside of a genuinely religious framework, and is practised by people who are not trained as Houngans or Mambos, though who are not necessarily malfacteurs. 'Root doctors', or folk healers, have often unfairly been referred to as 'hoodoo wo/men'. Root doctors, though not Houngans or Mambos, are skilled in the use of herbs and folk remedies - one root doctor told an anthropologist that a hoodoo man might know to use a root for a certain condition, but a root doctor would know why that root should be used, implying a wide gap in knowledge between the two practices. Root doctoring in the USA is proof of the impact that Africans had on American herbalism, introducing many new herbs to the continent, and bringing many effective remedies from their homelands.

In African Vodou, ritual carvings are made of the loa, and are known by the Portuguese word fetische. Africans taken by slavers were not allowed to make or keep their fetishes, but quickly realised that the poppets5 of European folk magic could be used in a similar way. The concept of using these poppets for sympathetic magic then made its way into Vodou from the European tradition. Though it did not much catch on among reputable Houngans and Mambos, it did among malfacteurs, and in Louisiana Voodoo where it was also often used for healing. It is ironic that one of the practices for which Vodou is most famous and most excoriated came actually from European folk magic.

Finally, it is impossible to discuss Vodou without discussing zombies. The zombie is, according to the Vodou worldview, a person whose soul has been fractured and part of it stolen. The soul consists (in basic terms) of that which is shared between all sentient beings and is constantly recycled; that which allows the body to stay alive, and that which is the seat of personality and spirit. In Vodou, a zombie has had this latter part of the soul removed by a malfacteur. It is theorised that malfacteurs skilled in the use of herbs and poisons may use dried parts of the blowfish to induce temporary paralysis followed by brain damage that would deprive a person of their ability to think for themselves. However, regardless of the rumours, there are very few documented cases of zombification - it may well be that the human desire to be scared stupid is a greater factor in the zombie mythos.

Vodou Resources

Books

  • Mama Lola - Karen McCarthy Brown
  • Divine Horsemen - Maya Derin
  • Islands Possessed - Katherine Dunham
  • Flesh of the Spirit - Robert Ferris Thompson

Links

1Dahomey is the former name of Benin.2To learn more about how very different these structures are, Researchers are recommended to follow the links in the reference section and learn for themselves.3The loa are described 'jumping on the head' of or 'mounting' the vodouisant; the possessed person is described as a 'horse', being 'ridden' by the loa.4In the USA, legislation covering religious freedom allows for the humane treatment and killing of animals as part of the rituals of recognised religions. Ill-treatment of animals results in the animals being removed to shelters and the owners being fined.5Dolls made of cloth scraps, carved wood, or wax used as the focus of beneficial or harmful magic aimed at a specific person.

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