Religion in Haiti goes along with the history of Haiti. In the 18th century, European traders needed slaves to work on the sugar and coffee in Haiti. Most of the slaves were from West and Central Africa so it is in these parts that the roots of Haitian vodou can be found. The Fon and Kongo kingdoms of West Africa are where much of vodou’s basic vocabulary and content comes from, for example the term “vodou” meaning “sacred” comes from the Fon language. The basic structure of the religion also comes from Central Africa, particularly the Kongo, which is where most of the customs and inherent beliefs such as magic and spiritual healing take root.
When the Europeans brought the slaves from Africa, they forced them to convert to Christianity as a way of subjugation. So, the slaves began equating and merging Vodou and Catholicism. In vodou, there is a main, all-powerful God, or a Bondye, just like in Christianity who is unreachable to humans. In order to have their prayers heard vodou practitioners pray to Lwa or spirits who intervene on their behalf, these Lwa were equated to saints. For example, St. Patrick who mastered serpents in Ireland came to represent Danbala, a vodou patriarchal serpent divinity. These Lwa can sometimes take over a worshipper’s body and give advice or admonish those who have displeased them.
Though for Haitians vodou and Catholicism could coexist harmoniously, Catholic authorities consistently tried to repress vodou practices. In 1805, on year after the Haitian revolution ended, the Catholic Church left Haiti in response to constraints set by the new leaders. During this time, vodou was able to develop into the main religion of Haiti. Then in 1860 the Catholic Church returned and collaborated with the government to repress vodou. Throughout the 1900s vodou temples were destroyed and hundreds of practitioners were massacred, this was exacerbated during the US occupation and post-Duvalier era. After years of persecution, the Constitution of 1987 passed the freedom of religion act which allowed vodou and Catholicism to coexist. In the 1990s, Evangelical Protestantism became a part of Haitian culture. However, the Protestant church expected converts to completely severe ties from Vodou, rather than parallel the hybrid faith many Haitians find in Catholicism and Vodou. Today the make-up of religion in Haiti is 80% Catholicism, 16% Protestantism and 4% other. It is important to note that at least 50% of the population also practices Vodou.
Vodou has spread with the Haitian Diaspora, especially to America, with a large concentration of practicers in New Orleans. A strong presence of Vodou can now be found outside of its Afro-Carribean origins.
Most Vodouists have a central belief in an all-powerful god, Bondye, who cannot be reached by humans. Rather, a multitude of spirits called Lwa intervenes in human affairs, and acts as mediator. These spirits are usually split into three classifications: the souls of ancestors, the souls of twins, and “mysteries”, or spiritual personifications of nature or emotions. Many Vodou communities consider twins to be two people who share one soul. If one twin dies, sometimes the other carries a twin doll in order to keep the soul intact. Twins are also thought to be potentially dangerous, and often a ceremony is performed to prevent them from doing any harm.
Rather than asking the all-powerful Bondye, Vodouists typically seek guidance from the hundreds of Lwa surrounding them. These Lwa are so plentiful that they are split into several different nations and communities, the two largest nations being the Rada and the Petwo. The Petwo nation is characterized by fiery or hot spirits, and the Rada nation by benign or cool spirits. A detailed list of Lwa can be found here.
There are many tools used for worship and connecting with the Lwa. These tools include highly decorated flags, or drapos, that represent the Lwa’s attributes. There are also specific offerings which appease, repositories that contain them, symbols that represent them, and objects (mostly instruments) that can summon them. Every Lwa has a specific tool or several specific tools related to it, for example a specific repository will only hold one Lwa and no other. The same is true for the instruments used to summon the Lwa; each summoning ceremony uses specific types of drums or drumbeats dedicated to a specific Lwa. During summoning ceremonies, an Lwa will generally “mount” a person. They come and take over a person’s body for a short amount of time. The Lwa can give advice, warnings, prophecies, or other messages while the person is mounted.
Drapos, Vodou Flags
Priests have specific duties within the religion. They are either called houngan(male) or mambo(female), and both genders are supposed to have equal spiritual power although there are significantly more houngan practicing than mambos. The houngan can offer medical help, preform religious ceremonies, tell the future or read dreams, cast spells, and create protections or potions for various purposes. Most of their services are concerned with healing those that are ill.
Interview with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, a scholar of Africology and a Vodou priest. He gives insight on the inner lives of Haitians, as well as the philosophical and spiritual world of Vodou. A very informational in-depth look at the religion from a practicer’s perspective.
Vodou in the Media
Vodou as a religion often misunderstood because of its exoticism and dissimiliarty to larger world religions. Because of this, Vodou is often portrayed very differently from the healing-based religion that it is. Especially in the media in the United States, vodou is popularized as being mystical, malevolent, and filled with black magic. These ideas originated with the film White Zombie, which portrays a young couple traveling to Haiti to get married, but an evil voodoo priest turns the woman into a zombie instead. Since then vodou has been a staple in horror, movies such The Serpent and the Rainbow use evil vodou magic to drive the plot. Many commercials also feature vodou dolls used for vengeful violence. Overall vodou has a bad reputation in the media, which directly corresponds to the misunderstanding of what the actual religion is.
1) A compilation of statistics and fact regarding Haiti collected by the CIA:
2) This webpage offers a backgorund on the cultural and moral background of Vodou.
3) This page offers several pages on the individual gods in addition to several specific ceremonies.
4) This is a website for the Haiti Support Group. The HSG is non-profit organization that works with local Haitian civil society groups like trade unions and women’s’ empowerment organizations.
5) This is a National Geographic article that provides a background on the history and practices of Vodou. It also discusses the many misconceptions of Vodou in America.
6) This is a NPR (National Public Radio) article that discusses the roots and different influences of Haitian Vodou.
7)KOSANBA: A scholarly association for the study of Haitian Vodou
An association made up of Haitian scholars dedicated to providing quality research on Vodou and giving that research to the public. Contains links to books, art, and radio shows. The website is maintained through University of California Santa Barbara.
1)This is an interview about Haitian’s use of vodou as a comfort through the ordeal of the earthquake and the way that Americans view vodou. Wade Davis, the man interviewed, is an anthropologist and professor at the University of California.
2)This is an article on BBC that explores the religious response in Haiti to the Earthquake. This gives a current perspective on the sometimes unclear religious background of the nation. This article presents Catholicism and Protestant groups as much more active in providing aid to the survivors, and Voodoo as almost absent in the country.
3) This article, by The Guardian, analyzes religion in Haiti after the earthquake. However, this one looks at the message religious groups are spreading within the camps and how they are influencing the inhabitants of a hopeless environment.
1)Tell my Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by Zora Neale Hurston
Based on Hurston’s first hand experiences in Haiti and Jamaica participating as an initiate in vodoo practices during the 1930s
2) Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti by Maya Deren
This book is a documentation of Maya Deren’s time spent in Haiti, focusing on the culture and spirituality of Haitian Vodou.
3) The Faces of Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti by Leslie G. Desmangles
Desmangles analyzes the mythology and rituals of Vodou along with its relationship to Catholicism in conjunction with a 17th and 18th century environment.
Videos and Other Media:
A brief video following a Vodou priest in Haiti preforming a ceremony to try and restore the sanity of a cousin. He also performs another ritual to determine what spirit will guide the village for the next year. This video is made by National Geographic.
This video explores Haitian-Americans practicing Vodou in Brooklyn. It shows an interview with Dwoti Desir, a vodou high priestess and ivy league educated anthropologist and designer, as well as a glimpse at a ceremony in the basement of a building. The video is made by the New York Times.
A quick overview of Vodou, controversy, and death after the 2010 Earthquake. It shows some controversial statements made by Protestant preachers, and the role of vodou in mourning. This radio segment is made by the National Public Radio.