The religion of Vodoun as currently practiced bears little resemblance to its ancestral practice. Presently there are an estimated 50 million worshippers worldwide. The central belief of the religion is in spirit possession, through which the gods speak to the devotees only for a short time during the ceremonies. However, the faithful believe that the work of the gods is present in all aspects of daily life, and that pleasing the gods will gain them health, wealth, and spiritual commitment. Vodoun is almost universally practiced in Haiti, but also is practiced in many cities of the United States such as New York, New Orleans (Marie Laveau), Houston, Charleston, South Carolina, and Los Angeles. In the United States it is recognized as a legitimate religion. The major portion of this article describes Haitian Vodoun.
The origins of the word vodoun, according to etymologists, stems from the term vodu, meaning “spirit” or “deity” in the Fon language of the West African kingdom of Dahomey, which is now Benin, and some parts of Togo West Africa. In the 18th century, the Creoles (whites born in the New World, usually of Spanish or French ancestry or perhaps being of mixed blood), masters of the Dahomean slaves, translated the word into vaudau. The Creole language was derived from French, with distinct African patterns of phonetics and grammar. Eventually from this came various spellings of the word, some which were considered derogatory. Vodoun or Vodoun is preferred by the faithful who not only consider their practice a religion, but also a way of life.
Mainly slaves brought the religion of Vodoun to the New World from the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Saint Domingue, now divided into the nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. This black population of millions encompassed members from the Bambara, Foula, Arada or Arda, Mandingue, Fon, Nago, Iwe, Ibo, Yoruba, and other Congo tribes.
The religion of the slaves at first fascinated their masters, but soon the whites became fearful of the strange practices and forbade the slave from their religious practices and from gathering in any type of congregations. Penalties for violations were sadistic and severe, including mutilation, sexual disfigurement, flaying alive and burial alive. Any slave found possessing a fetish could be imprisoned, hanged or flayed alive.
Slaves often experienced confiscation of fetishes before and after reaching America. Their holders, or even priests, would take these images from the frighten slaves, telling them that they should not put trust in these idols, but in Jesus Christ who would help them. No one ever thought in most cases that these frighten slaves hardly knew, or did not know, who Jesus Christ was; the only things being accomplished was that this frighten individual was being stripped of the only security that he or she had.
Many master hurriedly baptized their new slaves as Catholic Christians in order to dispossess them of the “animal” nature that they were supposed to have. This and other practices of slaveholders quickly forced the slaves took their native practices underground. They practiced Catholicism in front of their masters, but whenever they could, the secretly gathered together to worship the gods of their ancestors. Occasionally rites were held deep in woods, while prayers were transmitted into work songs and the worship of saints became a secret prayer to their previous gods. Secretly through unique variations old traditions were kept alive.
As for example, this worked well with St. Patrick, who supposedly banished snakes from Ireland. A slave could publicly be thought to be begging the intercession of St. Patrick while secretly praying to the snake-god Danbhalah-Waldo. Fetishes became unnecessary, even masters were tolerant of slaves keeping a tame snake and lighting candles for the saints. A syncretism evolved: a blending of the traditional Catholic worship of the saints and Christ with the gods of Africa. Eventually Vodounists did not regard this as profaning either Christianity or Vodoun but as an enrichment of their faith.
The pantheon of gods, called loas or mysteres, associated with the religion of Vodoun is enormous and is forever increasing with local deities and ancestral spirits. Vodounists recognize a Supreme Being, called Gran Met, who made the world, but he has long ago completed his work, and is believed to have returned to other worlds, or perhaps to eternal contemplation. His remoteness precludes active worship.
Devotees are those “who serve the loas,” and depending on the rites observed, the loas can be kind, beneficent, wise, violent, sexual, vindictive, generous, or mean.
Danbhala-Wedo, or the Grand Serpent (also called Danballah or Damballah), is the “father” of the loas, which brought forth creation. Before the days of slavery, Africans worshipped a large python, called Danh-gbwe, as an embodiment of the gods. The snake was harmless to humans, and devotees believed that any child touched by the serpent had been chosen to be a priest or priestess by god himself. After being transported to the Americas, the blacks found a substitute in a type of boa. Danbhalah is the oldest of the ancestors and does not speak, only hisses. Langage the sacred language of Vodoun, which represents the long-forgotten African litungy, originates from Danbhalah’s hissing. Danbhalah governs the waters of the earth and is also associated with Legba the god of the sun and the way of spiritual communication.
Aida-Wedo, the Rainbow, which arouse out of the waters of the earth serves as a many-colored way of the gods’ message to the earth and is the wife of Danbhalah. She, also, is a serpent: a short-coiled snake that feeds upon bananas and lives principally in the water. Her bright spectrum decorates the Vodoun temples, especially the central support pole. Aida-Wedo is only one manifestation of the goddess Erzulie, the deity of beauty, love, wealth, and prosperity, who is normally referred to as Maitresse Erzulie, the lunar wife of Legba, the sun. As the moon, Erzulie is pure, virginal. The contact with her heated husband burned her skin, so Erzulie is usually depicted as a beautiful dark-skinned Ethiopian. Erzulie is thought of in a variety of ways, which do not always encompass the better virtues of love and good will. It is believed that she can have the vices of jealousy, discord, and vengeance. She can be vain, likes pretty jewelry and perfume, and angers easily.
Vodoun, like other religions, has a creation myth; and according to it, Danbhalah, the Serpent, and Aida-Wedo, the Rainbow, taught men and women, how to procreate, and how to make blood sacrifices so they could become the spirit and obtain the wisdom of the Serpent.
Even though it is believed that Danbhalah represents the ancestral knowledge of Vodoun, it is acknowledged that no communication may occur between the gods and worshipper without the offices of Legba. He is the Orient, the East, the sun and the place the sun rises. He controls gates, fences, and entryways; no deity may join a Vodoun ceremony unless Legba has been asked to open the “door.” He governs all actions of the spirits. Legba is depicted both as a man sprinkling water and as an old man walking with a stick or crutch. He personifies the ritual waters and the consolidation of the Vodoun mysteries. He is called Papa; and through syncretism has become identified with St. Peter, the gate keeper, the man to whom Christ gave the keys to the Kingdom. Still others liken Legba to Christ, a mulatto man born of the sun and moon. He also guards crossroads, and as Matre Carrefour (master of the four roads, or crossroads) is the patron of sorcery.
There are other important deities in the pantheon all of who display manifestations. They include Ogou Fer or Ogoun, the god of war and armor, iron and metalworking, wisdom and fire, and is associated with St. James; Agwe or Agoueh, the spirit of the sea, who presides over all fish and sea life and those sailing upon it; Zoka, the god of agriculture, who manifests himself in the clothes and course speech of peasants; and Erzulie Freda, the goddess’s most feminine and flirtatious persona. As Venus was the lover of Mars, so Ogou takes Erzuli Freda. The entire Vodoun pantheon includes hundreds of gods and goddesses and increases each time an ancestor becomes divine. This is very important because a central feature of Vodoun is spiritual growth through communication with ancestors and serving the vodou gods.
A separate classification of the loas is the Guedes, the various spirits of death and dying, debauchery and lewdness, graveyards and gravediggers. Also, as sexual spirits the Guedes govern the renewal of life and protect children. Depictions of Guedes, usually referred to as Guede Nibbho or Nimbo, Baron Samedi (Saturday, the day of death) or Baron Cimetiere (cemetery), show the loa in a tailcoat sand a tall hat resembling an undertaker. His symbols are coffins and phalluses. Individuals possessed by the Baron Samedi tell lewd jokes, wear dark glasses, smoke cigarettes or cigars, eat voraciously, and drink copious amounts of alcohol. Entire sects of Vodounists worship Guedes.
There are several rites and practices in Vodounism. These come from tribal rites and display or honor different manifestations of the loas. The two main rite of Vodounism are Rada or Petro or Pethro. Rada rites follow the more traditional African patterns emphasizing the gentler, more positive attributes of the loas. Devotees were all white clothing during these ceremonies. Animal sacrifices, which represents the “partaking of the blood, include chicken, goats, and bulls. Three oxhide-covered drums provide the rhythms for the chanting, representing three atmospheres of the sun, or Legba: the largest, called Manman, related to the chromosphere; the next, called simply Second, related to the photosphere; and the smallest one, called Bou-Lah, which is the solar nucleus. These drums provide the resonant combinations of musical rhythm of any rite and are struck with drumsticks. The drummers are called houn’torguiers.
The Petro rites appear to have originated in Haiti during the slavery days. The name Petro allegedly comes from Don Juan Felipe Pedro, a Spanish Vodoun priest and former slave who contributed a rather violent style of dance to the ceremonies. Many of the Petro practices, including more violent worship services, and the use of red in the ceremonial clothing and on the face, which came from the Awak and Carib Indians who then lived on Saint Dominque. The Petro loas tend to be more menacing, deadly, and ill-tempered than other loas; many of their names simply have the appellation GeRouge (Red Eyes) after a Rada name to signify the Petro form. Pigs are sacrificed for the benefit of the Petro loas.
Petro worshippers only use two drums, and they are covered with goatskin and struck only with the hands. Rigaud reports the drums are considered cannibalistic, even demonic, and their syncopated rhythms are difficult to control in magic operations rendering them dangerous. The first drum is identified with thunderbolts, and their patron Quebiesou Den-Lah; the second and smaller drum with Guinee or the extremity of the world which receives the thunderbolt.
Guinee or Ian Guinee or Ginen represents the symbolic homeland of the African in disposa. The sacred city of Guinee is Ife, the Mecca of Vodoun. An actual Ife exists in southern Nigeria, but the Ife of Vodoun is a legendary place where the revelations of the loas descended to the faithful. Vodoun worshippers refer to themselves as the sons and daughters of the Guinee “ti quinin”. Vodooists believe in all aspects of life–administrative, religious, social, political, agricultural, artistic–originate in Ife, but most especially the art of divination. Since Africa is east of the New World, Ife represents the celestial position of the sun. Devotees gain spiritual strength from Ife; they are sent to Ife in a very solemn ceremony signifying death, burial, and resurrection.
Some aspects of the Vodoun worship appear fairly constant, with local alterations for all rites. The temple, which can be anything from a formal structure to a designated place behind a house, is called a hounfour, humbo or oun’phor. Within the temple, also known as the “holy of holies,” are the altar and perhaps rooms for solitary mediation by initiates. The altar stone, called a pe, is covered with candles and govis, small jars believed containing spirits of ancestors. Offerings of food, drink, and money may also grace the altar, as well as ritual rattles, charms, flags, sacred stones, and other paraphernalia. Years ago, the sacred snakes symbolizing Danbhalah lived in the pe’s hollow interior, but no longer.
The walls and floors are decorated in elaborated colored designs, called veves, symbolizing the gods. These drawings can be permanent or created in cornmeal, flour, powdered brick, gun powder, or face powder just before a ceremony. They are quite beautiful and incorporate the symbols and occult signs of the loas being worshipped: a for Legba shows a cross; one for Erzulie, a heart; Danbhalah a serpent; and for Baron Samedi, a coffin. Usually drawn around the center post, or the place of sacrifice, the veve serves as a ritual “magnet” for the loa’s entrance, obliging the loa to descend to the earth.
Outside the main temple is the paristyle, the roofed and sometimes encircled courtyard adjacent to the holy of holies. Since the hounfour probably cannot accommodate all of the Vodoun participants and onlookers most of the ceremonies are held in the open-air paristyles, as is the treatment of the sick. A low wall encircles the area, allowing those who are not dressed properly, or merely curious, to watch less conspicuously. The paristyle floor is always made of hard-
packed earth without paving or tile.
Holding up the paristyle is the poteau-mitan, or center post. The poteau-mitan symbolizes the center of Vodoun from the sky to hell and is the cosmic axis of all Vodoun magic. Usually made of wood it is set in a masonary base called the socle. The post bears colorful decorations and designs representing the serpent Danbhalah and his wife Aida-Wedo. The poteau-mitan also symbolizes Legba Ali-Bon (“wood of justice” or Legba Tree-of-the-Good), the way of all Vodoun knowledge and communion with the gods. Geometrically the placement of the center post forms perfect squares, circles, crosses and triangles with the socle adding to its magical powers. All Vodoun temples have a poteau-mitan, or center, even if the post exists symbolically.
Outside the paristyle, the trees surrounding the courtyard serve as reposoirs or sancturaries for gods. Vodoun devotees believe that all things serve the loa, and are by definition expressions and extensions of God, especially the trees. They are revered as divinities themselves, and receive offerings of food, drink, and money. Like cathedrals they are places to be in the presence of the holy spirit, banana trees are particularly revered.
Calling the loa, True communion comes through divine possession. When summoned, the gods may enter a govi, or “mount a horse”–assume a person’s mind or body. The possessed loses all consciousness, totally becoming the possessing loa with his or her desires and eccentricities. Young women possessed by older spirits seem frail and decrepit, while the infirm possessed by young, virile gods dance and carvot with no thought of their disabilities. Even facial expressions change to resemble those of the god or goddess. Although there exists a sacred interaction between the loa and devotee, possession can be frightening and even dangerous. Some worshippers unable to control the loa have gone insane and died.
The loas manifest to protect, punish, confer skills and talents, prophesy, cure illness, exorcise spirits, give counsel, assist with rituals, and take sacrificial offerings.
The priest or priestess, called the houngan or mambo respectively, is an intermediary to summon the loa and helps the loa depart when his or her business is finished. The houngan and mambo receive total authority from the loas, and therefore, their roles could be compared to that of the Pope says Rigaud. Indeed, the houngan is often called papa or papa-loa, while the mambo is called mamman or mama. The houngan and mambo serve as healers, diviners, psychologists, counselors, and spiritual leaders.
Like the ruler’s sceptre, the most important symbol of the houngan’s or mambo’s office is the asson, a large ritual rattle, made from the calabash, a type of squash with a bulbous end and a long handle. Symbolically the asson represents the joining of the two most important magic principles: the circle at the round end and the wand at the handle. The handle also symbolizes the poteau-mitan, or central post. Inside the dried calbash are sacred stones and serpent vertebrae, considered bones of African ancestors. Eight different stones in eight different colors are used to symbolize eight ancestor gods (eight signifies eternity). Chains of colored beads symbolizing the rainbow of Aida-Wedo, or more snake vertebrea encircle the round end of the calabash. When the vertebrae rattle making the asson “speak,” the spirits come down to the faithful through Danbhalah, the oldest of the ancestors. Once the houngan or mambo has attracted the loa through the deity’s symbol, or veve, appealed to Legba for intercession, and performed the water rituals and prayers, shaking the asson or striking it on the veve releases the power of the loas and brings them into the ceremony.
Other important members of the worship are the la place or commandant la place, the master of ceremonies who orchestrates the flag waving ceremonies, and frequently the the choral singing, the chanting, and the drum beating. The la place carries the ritual sword usually decorated with geometrical symbols and designs. The sword is called ku-bah-sah meaning “cutting away all that is material. The la place swings or waves the sword east to west cutting away all that is material so the worshippers might more freely come into the divine presence.
The chorus or carizo made up of hounsihs or hounsis under the direction of the hounguenicon or hounguenikon, usually a woman and second most powerful member after the houngan or mambo, because they send the chants to the loas on the astral plane which demand that the come down to earth.
Novices who are not completely in the power of the loas are called hounsih bossales. The initiate who obtains the sacrificial animals are the hounsih ventallier, and the sacrificial cook is the hounsih cuisiniere. The hounguenicon quartier-maitre oversees the distribution of sacrificial food not reserved for the loas.
Magic, used for both good and evil purposes, is an integral part of Vodoun. Vodoun recognizes no dichotomy between good and evil, as expressed within the Judeo-Christian philosophy, but sees evil as the mirror image of good. Devotees feel that the magic of the spirits is there to be used, if that magic is evil, so be it. A houngan who practices more black magic sorcery than healing is referred to as a bokor or boko or “one who serves the loa with both hands.” A.G.H.
Source: 4, 349-353.
For further information see: West African Dahomean Vodoun