What is Voodoo and What Do They Believe?

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Voodoo is a Creole religion practiced on the island of Haiti and that also has a presence in New Orleans and New York (1). It emerged from the descendants of several African ethnic groups, such as the Congolese, Angolan, Sudanese, and Nigerians, who were enslaved and brought from Africa to Haiti (then known as Saint-Domingue) and then Christianized by Catholic missionaries during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (2). Due to its emergence under colonial conditions, Voodoo played a role in the struggle against slavery despite persecution by both the state and the Catholic Church.

Voodoo’s synthesis of Catholicism with traditional African beliefs was essentially to put, as one scholar states it, a white mask on over a black skin. The “policy of the [slave] masters was to force their slaves to give up their culture (language, work methods, religion) and to assimilate a new one; the only possible reaction was to reject or to reinterpret the culture forced on them” (3). Synthesis under colonial conditions by slaves, which numbered around half a million on the island colony of Haiti in 1789, involved an imaginative reinterpretation of Catholicism and traditional African religion.

Revitalizing African Roots

Voodoo is appropriately viewed as a syncretic religion because it combines elements of Roman Catholicism with African traditional beliefs. This in part led to Voodoo spirits becoming associated with Christian saints while some spirits brought from Africa to the New World received new personalities. Ninian Smart acknowledges the role Catholicism played in the emergence of Voodoo,

“In this belief system and practical way of ritual, Catholicism is not rejected, but used as a framework within which the African gods and spirits (some from Niger, others from Benin and Zaire) may be approached to help with ordinary problems and tribulations of life” (4).

Further, Voodoo was one of several religions to become increasingly explicit regarding the need to revitalize an African heritage through representing and reshaping religion in accordance with an ideal “African” tradition (5). This is called “reafricanization” and refers to a movement within the Caribbean that promoted the incorporation of religious principles brought more directly from Africa. It had the purpose of giving black people dignity and included studying the relevant literatures on the religious traditions of Africa.

Voodoo’s Concept of God and Spirits

Voodooists are monotheistic in that they believe in a Great Master or Supreme Being called Bondye who created the lesser spirits (lwa). The Great Master is believed to be the God of the Christian Bible and is the one who created the universe, human life, and the spirits. According to Smart, “The Christian God… presides and sends down his angels, the spirits, nearer to human beings on earth: but generally speaking we do not seek for him to do anything. He functions therefore very much as the High God of classical African religion” (6).

There are important differences between the Voodoo and Christian conceptions of God. As Smart noted, in Voodoo God is seen as more distant and he does not possess the same personal nature as does the Christian deity. In Voodoo, God can be conceived of as male, female, or genderless, and even as constituted by numerous spirits; in the words of one Voodoo devotee: “The spirits of Vodou are the limbs of God” (7). The lower spirits were made by God to help him govern humanity and the natural world. Voodooists thus believe that the human being not only has a spirit but that there also exists an unseen world populated by spirits, mysteries (mystè), invisibles (anvizib), angels (zanj), ancestors, and the recently deceased. Voodoo is animistic as a fundamental belief is that everything is spirit; according to Haitian sociologist Laënnec Hurbon,

“The spirits called Iwa are present in all realms of nature: trees, streams, mountains or in the elements (air, water, fire) and also represent various social activities. They take control of an individual’s life from birth to death. The faithful believe that the Iwa come from Guinea which is considered as a mythical Africa. The Iwa made the voyage out of Africa to the Caribbean, and descended to the body of the faithful through what one calls poto-mitan, which rises in the middle of the peristil (as the space for the ceremony). The poto-mitan links the invisible world to the Earth and to human beings, and links Africa to the Caribbean” (8).

A popular Voodoo spirit is Legba, believed to be God’s Universal interpreter. He is the guardian of houses whose symbols are evident in sacred plants in courtyards of houses, in small mounds capped with a phallic sign in front of houses, in the blue cross on doors, and in Legba shirts worn by children (this demonstrating the fact that a child is the most visible connecting link between two married people).

Voodoo’s Sacred Texts and Priesthood

The Voodoo religion is one without any writings or official texts, although it does have a priesthood that can be divided into four classes: Divino, Boko, Sevite-Ghede, and Houngan. Each priestly class is in charge of one compartment of reality. For example, the Divino’s specialty is divination. He interprets the mysteries of life, can access the invisible world, and can bring messages from the gods. It is also believed that he knows the future and can show the meaning of the past, which means he is consulted at the time of sickness, marriage, death, or departure on a voyage. The Boko is guided by the spirit Loko and is the manipulator of the mystical properties of leaves and herbs. He is primarily concerned with the health of the group, especially the group’s physical and supernatural well-being. The Sevite-Ghede is concerned with death and the afterlife. In Voodoo, death is viewed as the emergence to another life and it is the Sevite-Ghede’s purpose to help the dead avoid any impure and dangerous supernatural powers. The fourth class of priest is the Houngan. It is the lowest form of priesthood whose purpose it is to put an initiate into a relationship with the spirits. Roland Pierre summarizes the priesthood writing that the,

“The Divino is in charge of the world of Men. The Boko takes charge of the world of Nature (the bush). The Sevite-Ghede has jurisdiction in the domain of the Dead. The Houngan is connected with the Loua in a more general” (9).

Voodoo’s Rituals and Spirit Possession

Voodoo has no centralized governing body or hierarchy and no single leader, but its devotees have temples in which they conduct rituals under the guidance of a priest. Rituals such as singing, drumming, dancing, and gesturing have the purpose of refining and restoring balance between persons and between people and the spirits of the unseen world. Smart writes,

“Rituals range from the simplicity of lighting candles to animal sacrifices, and in the cities small temples are available. Drumming and singing are designed to bring on spirit-possessions which is an important function, for it serves as a main means of communication between spirits and humans, and enables spirits to participate in the celebrations” (10).

Serving the spirits (sevi lwa, “serve the spirits”) through offering prayers and performing rites and rituals directed to God and selected spirits is primary. The goal is to procure benefits such as health, protection, and favour. Devotees enter into trancelike states and how these manifest will depend on the spirit being summoned. While in this state devotees eat and drink, perform stylized dances, give supernaturally inspired advice to others, or perform medical cures. One dance, called the yanvalou imitates the movement of a serpent and can involve the performer making circular movements and contractions.

Spirit possession is believed to play a role in these performances. A witness of a Voodoo ritual writes of how “One woman falls to the ground, convulsing for a moment before she is helped back to her feet. She resumes the dance, moving differently now, and continues dancing for hours. It is perhaps no longer she who is dancing: She is in a trance, apparently possessed by Erzuli, the great mother spirit” (11). Here the devotee is believed to have opened herself up to being possessed by a spirit so that her community can directly interact with it. During rituals, symbols called vevers are drawn with powder or sand while the colours and images used are specific to the spirit being communicated with. Animal sacrifice is a common feature as its believed to provide spiritual sustenance to the spirit. The flesh of the sacrificed animal is then cooked and consumed by devotees. Another practice involving animals is the transference of the sickness of a human being to an animal, which might have the voodooist drag a bird across the body of an ill patient.

Unfavourable Views

Voodoo has been viewed unfavourably by outsiders. Largely inspired by Spenser St. John’s 1984 book Hayti, Or, the Black Republic, many came to see Voodoo devotees as engaging in nefarious activities such as human sacrifice, cannibalism, and other moral atrocities. A stigma was produced and it became increasingly common for some outsiders to view Voodoo practice and belief as sinister, such as is perceived of the occult, black magic, or Satanic practice. This perception has been further entrenched in light of entertainment media such as films, animations, video games, and books. In one popular video game and book series called Dead Island, black magic seemingly connected to Voodoo is represented as being the origin of an undead, zombie outbreak, which is a similar theme to be found in 1988’s film Zombie Flesh Eaters.

How Many Voodooists Are There?

There currently exists no accurate count of how many Voodooists there are in the world. According to a National Geographic article published in 2004 there is an estimated sixty million people practicing Voodoo worldwide (13). It is also thought that over half of Haiti’s roughly eleven million inhabitants are Voodooists.

References

1. Vodoo in New Orleans, see Brent Turner, Richard. 2002. “The Haiti-New Orleans Vodou Connection: Zora Neale Hurston as Initiate Observer.” Journal of Haitian Studies 8(1): 112-133; Vodoo in New York, see Wilcken, Lois. 2005. “The Sacred Music and Dance of Haitian Vodou from Temple to Stage and the Ethics of Representation.” Latin American Perspectives 32(1): 193-210.

2. Hurbon, Laënnec. 1999. “Haitian Vodou, Church, State and Anthropology.” Anthropological Journal on European Cultures 8(2): 27-37.

3. Pierre, Roland. 1977. “Caribbean Religion: The Voodoo Case.” Sociological Analysis 38(1):25-36. p. 29.

4. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge University Press. p. 568.

5. Thylefors, Markel. 2008. ““Modernizing God” in Haitian Vodou? Reflections on Olowoum and Reafricanization in Haiti.” Anthropos. p. 113-125.

6. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 568.

7. Pierre, Andre. 1995. “A World Created by Magic: Extracts from a conversation with André Pierre.” In Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, edited by Donald Consentino. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. pp. xxii.

8. Hurbon, Laënnec. 1999. Ibid.

9. Pierre, Roland. 1977. Ibid. p. 33.

10. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge University Press. p. 568.

11. National Geographic. 2004. Haiti: Possessed by Voodoo. Available.

12. National Geographic. 2004. Ibid.

13. National Geographic. 2004. Ibid.

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