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Haitian Vodou (//) is an African diasporic religion that developed in Haiti between the 16th and 19th centuries. It arose through a process of syncretism between several traditional religions of West and Central Africa and Roman Catholicism. There is no central authority in control of the religion and much diversity exists among practitioners, who are known as Vodouists, Vodouisants, or Serviteurs.
Vodou teaches the existence of a transcendent creator divinity, Bondye, under whom are spirits known as lwa. Typically deriving their names and attributes from traditional West and Central African deities, they are equated with Roman Catholic saints. The lwa divide into different groups, the nanchon ("nations"), most notably the Rada and the Petwo, about whom various myths and stories are told. This theology has been labelled both monotheistic and polytheistic. An initiatory tradition, Vodouists commonly venerate the lwa at an ounfò (temple), run by an oungan (priest) or manbo (priestess). Alternatively, Vodou is also practised within family groups or in secret societies like the Bizango. A central ritual involves practitioners drumming, singing, and dancing to encourage a lwa to possess one of their members and thus communicate with them. Offerings to the lwa, and to spirits of the dead, include fruit, liquor, and sacrificed animals. Several forms of divination are utilized to decipher messages from the lwa. Healing rituals and the preparation of herbal remedies and talismans also play a prominent role.
Vodou developed among Afro-Haitian communities amid the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. Its structure arose from the blending of the traditional religions of those enslaved West and Central Africans brought to the island of Hispaniola, among them Kongo, Fon, and Yoruba. There, it absorbed influences from the culture of the French colonialists who controlled the colony of Saint-Domingue, most notably Roman Catholicism but also Freemasonry. Many Vodouists were involved in the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1801 which overthrew the French colonial government, abolished slavery, and transformed Saint-Domingue into the republic of Haiti. The Roman Catholic Church left for several decades following the Revolution, allowing Vodou to become Haiti's dominant religion. In the 20th century, growing emigration spread Vodou abroad. The late 20th century saw growing links between Vodou and related traditions in West Africa and the Americas, such as Cuban Santería and Brazilian Candomblé, while some practitioners influenced by the Négritude movement have sought to remove Roman Catholic influences.
Most Haitians practice both Vodou and Roman Catholicism, seeing no contradiction in pursuing the two different systems simultaneously. Smaller Vodouist communities exist elsewhere, especially among Haitian diasporas in Cuba and the United States. Both in Haiti and abroad Vodou has spread beyond its Afro-Haitian origins and is practiced by individuals of various ethnicities. Having faced much criticism through its history, Vodou has been described as one of the world's most misunderstood religions.
Definitions and terminology
Vodou is a religion. More specifically, scholars have characterised it as an Afro-Haitian religion, and as Haiti's "national religion". Its main structure derives from the African traditional religions of West and Central Africa which were brought to Haiti by enslaved Africans between the 16th and 19th centuries. Of these, the greatest influences came from the Fon and Bakongo peoples. On the island, these African religions mixed with the iconography of European-derived traditions such as Roman Catholicism and Freemasonry, taking the form of Vodou around the mid-18th century. In combining varied influences, Vodou has often been described as syncretic, or a "symbiosis", a religion exhibiting diverse cultural influences.
As formed in Haiti, Vodou represented "a new religion", "a creolized New World system", one that differs in many ways from African traditional religions. The scholar Leslie Desmangles therefore called it an "African-derived tradition", Ina J. Fandrich termed it a "neo-African religion", and Markel Thylefors called it an "Afro-Latin American religion". Several other African diasporic religions found in the Americas formed in a similar way, and owing to their shared origins in West African traditional religion, Vodou has been characterized as a "sister religion" of Cuban Santería and Brazilian Candomblé.
Vodou has no central institutional authority, no single leader, and no developed body of doctrine. It thus has no orthodoxy, no central liturgy, and no formal creed. Developing over the course of several centuries, it has changed over time. It displays variation at both the regional and local level—including variation between Haiti and the Haitian diaspora—as well as among different congregations. It is practiced domestically, by families on their land, but also by congregations meeting communally, with the latter termed "temple Vodou".
In Haitian culture, religions are not generally deemed totally autonomous. Many Haitians thus practice both Vodou and Roman Catholicism, with Vodouists usually regarding themselves as Roman Catholics. In Haiti, Vodouists have also practiced Mormonism, or been involved in Freemasonry; in Cuba they have involved themselves in Santería, and in the United States with modern Paganism. Vodou has also absorbed elements from other contexts; in Cuba, some Vodouists have adopted elements from Spiritism. Influenced by the Négritude movement, other Vodouists have sought to remove Roman Catholic and other European influences from their practice of Vodou.
In English, Vodou's practitioners are termed Vodouists; in French and Haitian Creole, they are called Vodouisants or Vodouyizan. Another term for adherents is sèvitè (serviteurs, "devotees"), reflecting their self-description as people who sèvi lwa ("serve the lwa"), the supernatural beings that play a central role in Vodou.
Many words used in the religion derive from the Fon language of West Africa; this includes the word Vodou itself. First recorded in the 1658 Doctrina Christiana, the Fon word Vôdoun was used in the West African kingdom of Dahomey to signify a spirit or deity. In Haitian Creole, Vodou came to designate a specific style of dance and drumming, before outsiders to the religion adopted it as a generic term for much Afro-Haitian religion. The word Vodou now encompasses "a variety of Haiti's African-derived religious traditions and practices", incorporating "a bundle of practices that practitioners themselves do not aggregate". Vodou is thus a term primarily used by scholars and outsiders to the religion; many practitioners describe their belief system with the term Ginen, which especially denotes a moral philosophy and ethical code regarding how to live and to serve the spirits.
Vodou is the common spelling for the religion among scholars, in official Haitian Creole orthography, and by the United States Library of Congress. Some scholars prefer the spellings Vodoun, Voudoun, or Vodun, while in French the spellings vaudou or vaudoux also appear. The spelling Voodoo, once common, is now generally avoided by practitioners and scholars when referring to the Haitian religion. This is both to avoid confusion with Louisiana Voodoo, a related but distinct tradition, and to distinguish it from the negative connotations that the term Voodoo has in Western popular culture.
Bondye and the lwa
Vodou is monotheistic, teaching the existence of a single supreme God. This entity is called Bondye or Bonié, a name deriving from the French term Bon Dieu ("Good God"). Another term for it is the Gran Mèt, borrowed from Freemasonry. For Vodouists, Bondye is the ultimate source of power, the creator of the universe, and the maintainer of cosmic order. Haitians frequently use the phrase si Bondye vle ("if Bondye wishes"), suggesting a belief that all things occur in accordance with this divinity's will. Vodouists regard Bondye as being transcendent and remote; as the God is uninvolved in human affairs, they see little point in approaching it directly. While Vodouists often equate Bondye with the Christian God, Vodou does not incorporate belief in a powerful antagonist that opposes the supreme being akin to the Christian notion of Satan.
Vodou has also been characterized as polytheistic. It teaches the existence of beings called the lwa, a term varyingly translated into English as "spirits", "gods", or "geniuses". These lwa are also known as the mystères, anges, saints, and les invisibles, and are sometimes equated with the angels of Christian cosmology. Vodou teaches that there are over a thousand lwa. Serving as Bondye's intermediaries, they communicate with humans through their dreams or by directly possessing them. Vodouists believe the lwa are capable of offering people help, protection, and counsel in return for ritual service. Each lwa has its own personality, and is associated with specific colors, days of the week, and objects. They are however not seen as moral exemplars for practitioners to imitate. The lwa can be either loyal or capricious in their dealings with their devotees; they are easily offended, for instance if offered food they dislike. When angered, the lwa are believed to remove their protection from their devotees, or to inflict misfortune, illness, or madness on an individual.
Although there are exceptions, most lwa names derive from the Fon and Yoruba languages. New lwa are nevertheless added to the pantheon, with both talismans and certain humans thought capable of becoming lwa, in the latter case through their strength of personality or power. Vodouists often refer to the lwa living in the sea or in rivers, or alternatively in Guinea, a term encompassing a generalized understanding of Africa as the ancestral land of the Haitian people.
The lwa divide into nanchon or "nations". This classificatory system derives from the way in which enslaved Africans were divided into "nations" upon their arrival in Haiti, usually based on their African port of departure rather than their ethno-cultural identity. The term fanmi (family) is sometimes used synonymously with nanchon or alternatively as a sub-division of the latter category. It is often claimed that there are 17 nanchon, of which the Rada and the Petwo are the largest and most dominant.
The Rada lwa are seen as being 'cool'; the Petwo lwa as 'hot'. This means that the Rada are dous or doux, or sweet-tempered, while the Petwo are lwa cho, indicating that they can be forceful or violent and are associated with fire. Whereas the Rada are generally righteous, their Petwo counterparts are more morally ambiguous and associated with issues like money. The Rada owe more to Dahomeyan and Yoruba influences; their name probably comes from Arada, a city in the Dahomey kingdom of West Africa. The Petwo derive largely from Kongo religion, although also exhibit Dahomeyan and creolised influences. Some lwa exist andezo or en deux eaux, meaning that they are "in two waters" and are served in both Rada and Petwo rituals.
In Rada ceremonies, the first lwa saluted is Papa Legba, also known as Legba. Depicted as a feeble old man wearing rags and using a crutch, Papa Legba is the protector of gates and fences and thus of the home, as well as of roads, paths, and crossroads. In Petwo rites, the first lwa invoked is usually Mèt Kalfou. The second lwa usually greeted are the Marasa or sacred twins. In Vodou, every nanchon has its own Marasa, reflecting a belief that twins have special powers. Agwe, also known as Agwe-taroyo, is associated with aquatic life, and protector of ships and fishermen. Agwe is believed to rule the sea with his consort, La Sirène. She is a mermaid or siren, and is sometimes described as Èzili of the Waters because she is believed to bring good luck and wealth from the sea. Èzili Freda or Erzuli Freda is the lwa of love and luxury, personifying feminine beauty and grace. Ezili Dantor is a lwa who takes the form of a peasant woman.
Azaka is the lwa of crops and agriculture, usually addressed as "Papa" or "Cousin". His consort is the female lwa Kouzinn. Loco is the lwa of vegetation, and because he is seen to give healing properties to various plant species is considered the lwa of healing too. Ogou is a warrior lwa, associated with weapons. Sogbo is a lwa associated with lightning, while his companion, Bade, is associated with the wind. Danbala is a serpent lwa and is associated with water, being believed to frequent rivers, springs, and marshes; he is one of the most popular deities in the pantheon. Danbala and his consort Ayida-Weddo are often depicted as a pair of intertwining snakes. The Simbi are understood as the guardians of fountains and marshes.
Usually seen as a fanmi rather than a nanchon, the Gede are associated with the realm of the dead. The head of the family is Baron Samedi ("Baron Saturday"); his presence is often marked out in a Haitian cemetery with a large cross. His consort is Gran Brigit, who has authority over cemeteries and is mother to many of the other Gede. The Gede regularly satirise the ruling authorities, and are welcomed to rituals as they are thought to bring merriment. The Gede's symbol is an erect penis, while the banda dance associated with them involves sexual-style thrusting, and those possessed by these lwa typically make sexual innuendos.
The lwa and the saints
Most lwa are associated with specific Roman Catholic saints. These links are reliant on "analogies between their respective functions"; Azaka, the lwa of agriculture, is for instance associated with Saint Isidore the farmer. Similarly, because he is understood as the "key" to the spirit world, Papa Legba is typically associated with Saint Peter, who is visually depicted holding keys in traditional Roman Catholic imagery. The lwa of love and luxury, Èzili Freda, is associated with Mater Dolorosa. Danbala the serpent is often equated with Saint Patrick, who is traditionally depicted with snakes, or with Moses, whose staff turned into serpents. The Marasa, or sacred twins, are typically equated with the twin saints Cosmos and Damian.
Scholars like Desmangles have argued that Vodouists originally adopted the Roman Catholic saints to conceal lwa worship when the latter was illegal during the colonial period. Observing Vodou in the latter part of the 20th century, Donald J. Cosentino argued that by that point, the use of Roman Catholic saints reflected the genuine devotional expression of many Vodouists. The scholar Marc A. Christophe concurred, stating that most modern Vodouists genuinely see the saints and lwa as one, reflecting Vodou's "all-inclusive and harmonizing characteristics". Many Vodouists possess chromolithographic prints of the saints, while images of these Christian figures can also be found on temple walls, and on the drapo flags used in Vodou ritual. Vodouists also often adopt and reinterpret Biblical stories and theorise about the nature of Jesus of Nazareth.
Soul and afterlife
Vodou holds that Bondye created humanity in its image, fashioning humans from water and clay. It teaches the existence of a soul, the espri, or the nanm, which is divided in two parts. One of these is the ti bonnanj ("little good angel"), understood as the conscience that allows an individual to engage in self-reflection and self-criticism. The other part is the gwo bonnanj ("big good angel") and this constitutes the psyche, source of memory, intelligence, and personhood. Both parts are believed to reside within an individual's head, although the gwo bonnanj is thought capable of leaving the head and travelling while a person sleeps.
Vodouists believe that every individual is connected to a specific lwa, regarded as their mèt tèt (master of the head). They believe that this lwa informs the individual's personality. Vodou holds that the identity of a person's tutelary lwa can be identified through divination or by consulting lwa when they possess other humans. Some of the religion's priests and priestesses are deemed to have "the gift of eyes", capable of seeing the identity of a person's tutelary lwa.
Vodou holds that Bondye has preordained the time of everyone's death, but does not teach the existence of an afterlife realm akin to the Christian ideas of heaven and hell. Instead, a common belief is that at bodily death, the gwo bonnanj join the Ginen, or ancestral spirits, while the ti bonnanj proceeds to face judgement before Bondye. This idea of judgement is more common in urban areas, having been influenced by Roman Catholicism, while in the Haitian mountains it is more common for Vodouists to believe that the ti bonnanj dissolves into the navel of the earth nine days after death. The land of the Ginen is often identified as being located beneath the sea, under the earth, or above the sky. Some Vodouists believe that the gwo bonnanj stays in the land of the Ginen for a year and a day before being absorbed into the Gede family. However, Vodouists usually distinguish the spirits of the dead from the Gede proper, for the latter are lwa. Vodou also teaches that the dead continue to participate in human affairs, with these spirits often complaining that they suffer from hunger, cold, and damp, and thus requiring sacrifices from the living.
Morality, ethics, and gender roles
Vodou ethical standards correspond to its sense of cosmological order, with a belief in the interdependence of things playing a role in Vodou approaches to ethical issues. Serving the lwa is central to Vodou and its moral codes reflect the reciprocal relationship that practitioners have with these spirits; for Vodouists, virtue is maintained by ensuring a responsible relationship with the lwa. Vodou also promotes a belief in destiny, although individuals are still deemed to have freedom of choice. This view of destiny has been interpreted as encouraging a fatalistic outlook, something that the religion's critics, especially from Christian backgrounds, have argued has discouraged Vodouists from improving their society. This has been extended into an argument that Vodou is responsible for Haiti's poverty, a view that in turn has been accused of being rooted in European colonial prejudices towards Africans.
Although Vodou permeates every aspect of its adherent's lives, it offers no prescriptive code of ethics. Rather than being rule-based, Vodou morality is deemed contextual to the situation, with no clear binary division between good and evil. Vodou reflects people's everyday concerns, focusing on techniques for mitigating illness and misfortune; doing what one needs to in order to survive is considered a high ethic. Among Vodouists, a moral person is regarded as someone who lives in tune with their character and that of their tutelary lwa. In general, acts that reinforce Bondye's power are deemed good; those that undermine it are seen as bad. Maji, meaning the use of supernatural powers for self-serving and malevolent ends, are usually thought bad. The term is quite flexible; it is usually used to denigrate other Vodouists, although some practitioners have used it as a self-descriptor in reference to Petwo rites.
The extended family is of importance in Haitian society, with Vodou reinforcing family ties, and emphasising respect for the elderly. Vodou has been described as reflecting misogynistic elements of Haitian culture while simultaneously empowering women by allowing them to become priestesses, through which they can lay claim to moral authority as social and spiritual leaders. Vodou is also considered sympathetic to gay people, with many gay and bisexual individuals holding status as Vodou priests and priestesses, and some groups having largely gay congregations. Some Vodouists state that the lwa determined their sexual orientation, turning them homosexual, while the lwa Èzili is seen as the patron of masisi (gay men).