Introduction to Voodoo in Haiti'
By Bob Corbett, March 1988
Note of July 16, 1995. This paper is 7 years old. It is due for a revamping. I decided to use it here and then revise it partially on the basis of the responses to it. It's not that I think there's anything wrong with the position here, it's just that I've read a great deal since 1988, been to more services, talked with more serveteurs and so on. So, I'm ready to update. Soon.
First and foremost Voodoo is a religion. It is the dominant religion of Haiti. Many of the practices and descriptions of Voodoo belief may sound to us like rank superstition, but then, imagine the beliefs of Christianity to people who know nothing about it. Tell them about the trinity or the resurrection, or the presence of Jesus in the eucharist. Any of these practices which very intelligent Christians believe in the fullest would seem no less superstitious to someone unfamiliar with Christianity.
Thus I urge you to recognize that Voodoo is Haiti's religion, it is taken very seriously not merely by unlettered peasants, but many intelligent and learned members of the Haitian society believe as sincerely in Voodoo as do German theology professors in their Christianity. In no way do I expect you to believe in Voodoo; no more than I would expect you to convert to Islam if I taught a course on that religion. But, please do recognize that it is every bit as real a religion as the major religions of the world.
1. The most basic concepts of Voodoo
1. There is one God, Bondye. This God is very similar to the God of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. There is only one God.
2. There are three important categories of other spiritual beings:
*Loa. These are the various spirits of family members; the spirits of the major forces of the universe--good, evil, reproduction, health, all aspects of daily life.
-Loa interact with the people of earth.
-They mount people now and again during religious ceremonies and they give messages, and even cause various good and bad things to happen to people.
*The twins. A curious and rather mysterious set of forces of contradictories: good and evil, happy and sad etc. If honored now and again in religious services they will tend to help you have the better side of life.
*The dead. Mainly the souls of one's own family members who have died but have not yet been reclaimed by the family. Ignored family dead are dangerous. Honored and cared for family dead are helpful.
3. The central and key aspect of Voodoo is healing people from illness. Such healing activities probably constitute 60% of all Voodoo activity. Healers heal with herbs, faith healing (with the help of loa and other spirits) and, today, even with western medicine!
4. The priesthood of Voodoo contains both men (houngan) and women (mambo). Their functions are:
*performing religious ceremonies to call or pacify the spirits.
*holding initiations for new priests(tesses) (kanzo service and *taking the ason).
*telling the future and reading dreams.
*casting spells and creating protections.
creating potions for various purposes (From love spells to death spells).
For any of these they may receive fees. But, they may not too. This differs from one houngan and mambo to another. (Note his is similar to fees paid to rabbis, mullahs, priests and ministers.)
5. Another central feature of Voodoo is the service, the religious rites of the religion.
*These are usually held outside, under a rough roof and around the poto mitan, the center pole. A houngan or mambo almost always directs these.
*Drums are used extensively to provide music and dancing is absolutely essential to the whole service.
*Services are fully participatory. Not only the houngan and mambo participate but nearly everyone present.
-A master of ceremonies (La Place) is often present.
-A hounganikon directs the music and motion.
-Hounsi (women only) are serving ladies, usually dressed in white.
-Those in attendance are nearly all participants and most can be mounted by loa.
*In most services the loa mount people. That is, they come and take over a person's body for a time. When the loa come the person is gone. (It's not clear where the person goes.) The body is the body of the person, but it is really the loa. If a male loa mounts a female person, he is referred to as he, not she, during the mounting.
*Nearly every Voodoo service has animal sacrifice. By killing the animal one releases life. The loa are exhausted by the taxing task of running the universe. Thus they can receive this life sacrificed to them and are re-juvenated. They are usually quite happy about this.
6. There are two primary sorts of Voodoo.
*Rada. This is a family spirit Voodoo and the Voodoo of the relatively peaceful and happy loa.
*Petro (in some areas called Congo.) This is a black magic Voodoo and the Voodoo of angry, mean and nasty loa. *Dangerous things happen in Petro including death curses, the making of zombi and wild sexual orgies.
SPECIAL NOTE By virtually all scholarly estimates one can find, rada accounts for about 95% of Voodoo, if not more. Thus the spectacular tales of black magic, while very real, are extremely limited. Petro is not the typical Voodoo, but it does exist.
7. The analysis of humans. Humans have two spirits and a body.
*ti-bon-ange (little good angel). This is similar to the conscience in the Western understanding of people.
*gros-bon-ange (big good angel). This is similar to the soul in Western theories of person, except the soul is much more separate from the person than is a western soul. For example, when the person goes before God for judgment it is the gros-bon-ange which presents the person to God and makes the person's case.
Key terms in Voodoo
the parish or region of a houngan or mambo's influence.
a small earthen bottle into which the gros-bon-ange of dead ancestors can rescued. After a person dies the gros-bon-ange goes to the underwater place. A year and a day after he or she goes their the relatives can recall the gros-bon-ange. Unfortunately this is a very expensive service, requiring a significant animal sacrifice, often an ox. Thus it is often considerable time before the service can be done. If too much time passes the ancestor may get a bit restless and cause trouble--illness etc.
serious practitioners of Voodoo.
the magic rattle of the houngan or mambo.
(washing of the head) an initiation ceremony held for serviteurs after they have been mounted for the first time.
the initiation ceremonies for those moving into a very serious level of Voodoo practice.
taking of the ason
the final initiation into being a houngan or mambo.
NOTE: Both kanzo and the taking of the ason are very secret services. However, in Alfred Mtraux's book (VOODOO IN HAITI), through observation and talking with people who were not too careful about the secrecy of kanzo, he has pieced together a detailed account of the ceremony.
ceremonial drawings done in flour, of the various loa.
the Voodoo temple. A tiny tiny place.
the center pole in a Voodoo peristyle. It represents the center of the universe and all dancing revolves around the poto mitan.
1--the loa themselves.
2--sacred knowledge. Also called konesans.
A central image in Voodoo. This is the place where the two worlds (earth and spirit world) meet. Virtually all Voodoo acts, even healing, begin with the acknowledgment of the crossroads.
Some of the central loa in the Voodoo pantheon
An old man who is the gatekeeper between the two worlds, world of earth and the world of the Invisibles. He is the origin of life. The sun is one of his symbols, but he is also the source of regeneration and uses the symbol of the phallus.
(crossroads) is the Petro counterpart to Legba. He is the spirit of the night, the origins of darkness. The moon is his symbol. He can be placated, but is a dangerous loa.
Loa of death and resurrection. A total clown. Very erotic and comic. He is the lord of eroticism.
The father figure. He is the good snake. The source of peace and tranquillity. The egg is offered to him when he comes to mount a person. He is much loved and sought after. His wife Aida-wedo attends him.
The sovereign of the seas. Especially honored, as one might well expect, by people who live near the sea.
The warrior. Today, too, the force of politics. Violent.
The earth mother. Spirit of the goddess of love. The muse of beauty. (Strongly identified with the Virgin Mary.) Her appearance (when she mounts someone) is one of cleansing, dressing, delicate foods daintily eaten. She can read the future in dreams. A much loved loa.
The FATALISM of Voodoo
Voodoo is much criticized by foreigners in Haiti. Sometimes it is simply because they profess a competing religion and don't want the people to stay with Voodoo. At other times they charge that it is devil worship. This claim is sheer nonsense when speaking of Rada Voodoo, the numerically primary form. It is less clear how to describe Petro. There are no devils in Voodoo, but Petro ultivates the evil spirits.
However, many of the non-religious aspects of Voodoo which people often criticize really seem to me to be more the result of Voodoo's overwhelming fatalism. The view is that to an astonishing degree the loa determine our lives. The Haitian serviteur has little use for anything like the Western idea of free will and personal responsibility. Rather, whatever has happened it is the loa who have caused it.
If one would like to change anything in one's life, from a current illness to the fundaments of the social system, one must ask the loa. One does not ACT on one's own. This would be counter-productive since it is the loa who decide these things anyway.
Further, the loa are not very changeable. Things are the way they are because the loa have decided it. This fatalism contributes significantly to the peasants' unwillingness to struggle for liberation. However, one can must the hard question: Is it Voodoo that has caused Haitian fatalism, or is it the history of the African/Haitian experience that has created Voodoo's fatalism?
Voodoo's relationship to Christianity
1. The Catholic experience.
*Under the French slaves were forbidden from practicing Voodoo. Nonetheless Voodoo survived. The colonists did allow occasional dances on the weekends. These dances were actually Voodoo services!
*After the liberation of 1804 all white people were kicked out of Haiti and many were killed. This included Roman Catholic priests. Thus in 1804 the Vatican broke with Haiti and did not establish relations with her again until 1860.
*During this 56 year period houngans and mambos built up the public religion of Haiti, Voodoo, in a weird amalgamation of African spirit religion and Catholicism. Virtually all loa became associated with Catholic saints (Dumballah the snake loa is St. Patrick; Erzulie, the earth mother is the Virgin Mary). The most important consequence of this is that Haitians see nothing odd at all with practicing Voodoo and Catholicism side by side and are often very devout about each of them.
I can't explain this, I only describe it.
*From time to time from 1860 until the late 1940s the Catholic Church waged campaigns against Voodoo. They never came to anything.
*In 1949 some elements of the Catholic Church waged an all out physical, holy war against Voodoo. They burned peristyle, Voodoo shrines, beat (some say even killed) houngans and mambo, demanded their ostracism from society and shot things up. But, they lost. Voodoo went under-ground to some extent, but it grew in popularity, in large measure because of the oppression.
*By the early 1950s the Catholic hierarchy halted this war, got rid of these priest warriors and made their peace with Voodoo. Voodoo drums and melodies were incorporated into Catholic church services. The Catholics took the position, if you can't defeat them, co-opt them. Relative peace has held between the Catholics and serviteurs ever since.
2. The Protestants.
*Until the 1970s Haiti was nearly 100% Catholic.
*In the 1970s evangelical Protestantism came to Haiti. After Reagan came to power evangelization mushroomed.
*Evangelical Protestants are bitter enemies of Voodoo and denounce it all the time as devil worship. Many of these people claim that Haiti's misery is because she is being punished by God for the sins of her Voodoo serviteurs.
*Protestantism has come to Haiti as a serious business. Evangelical Protestants groups own 7 of Haiti's 11 radio stations and have made significant gains in conversions.
*Today most observers believe that at least 15% of the Christians in Haiti are Protestant evangelicals.