Voudou
The African-based religion of Haiti. Voudou can be traced
to the first Africans brought to Haiti in the sixteenth century.
However, it was during the years of French acquisition of land
in Haiti that the bulk of African people were brought to the island.
Between 1664 and 1830 some 1,650,000 Africans arrived
in Haiti. The dominant group came from Dahomey, and the
Dahomean religion became the most important element in the
emergence of Voudou.
The Africans brought with them beliefs found throughout
West Africa, including a belief in a supreme deity or divine
power. In Haiti that deity came to be known as le Bon Diei (the
Good God). This deity had largely withdrawn from human affairs,
but under him were a number of greater and lesser deities.
Among the major deities were Legba, Erzulie, and Damballah.
The lesser deities (loas) are numerous, and are of two
varieties, those of African origin (the Rada) and those of Haitian
origin (Pétro). Many of the African deities, especially those
tied to local sites, did not survive the Atlantic crossing, and they
were replaced with new local deities. The name Pétro derived,
according to oral tradition, from a man named Don Pédro who
introduced a distinctive dance into Haitian religion.
The plantation owners in Haiti attempted to impose Catholicism
on the slave population. One of the means by which Voudou
survived was in the identification of the loas with various
Catholic saints. Thus Legba was identified with Saint Anthony,
Erzulie with the Virgin Mary, and Damballah with Saint Patrick.
Damballah is pictured as a snake, and, as in Ireland, there
are practically no snakes in Haiti. Hence the association with
St. Patrick.
Voudou worship and practice is conducted by male (oungan)
and female (manbo) priests. They operate out of a worship center
called ounfo. In the center of the ounfo is a peristil, a pole
that usually has a representation of Damballah coiled around
it. Worship includes honoring the deities (which may involve
the sacrifice of various animals), lively dancing with drum accompaniment,
and the possession of priests or others in attendance
by loas.
Like all West African religion, Voudou includes the practice
of magic. Voudou has a particularly bad image, even among
other African-based religions, as the home to much sorcery
(malevolent magic), even to the extent of the calling forth of
zombies, dead people brought back to life to handle menial
labor in the fields.
The image of evil attached to Voudou in the popular imagination
seems to have begun with what is known as the Affaire
de Bizoton. On December 27, 1863, a little girl of the town of
Bizoton was kidnapped and used in a sinister cannibalistic ritual.
Eventually the perpetrators were caught, tried, and convicted.
While the actions of the people who had killed the girl were
offensive to all, in the popular press, especially the foreign
press, the actions of the murderers were identified with the
Voudou community. Besides the gruesome stories printed at
the time, in the 1880s a volume on Haiti by Sir Spenser St. John
describes the incident in vivid detail and uses it in a diatribe
against Voudou. His work has been followed by a variety of writings,
varying from the academic to the journalistic to the merely
exploitive, that point a self-righteous finger at Voudou adherents.
There is, of course, an element of magic, even of black
magic in Voudou, but it operates quite differently than outsiders
have usually presented it. Besides the oungans and manbos,
there are bocors (sorcerers), and caplatas (lesser magical functionaries).
Most magic is used to ward off evil. Charms ward off
the evil eye and various loas are seen as the cause of the different
ills people suffer. Magic will be applied to discover the loa
responsible and the means of getting the loa to go away. There
are also accounts of evil spirits, creatures such as vampires and
werewolves.
During the eighteenth century, the ruling class did not take
particular notice of Voudou. They tended to identify it with the
nocturnal gatherings most notable for dancing. The dancing
drums, however, served as a communication system across
Haiti, and in 1804 they became the means of organizing a massive
and successful revolt. Haitians were able to pull off the revolution
without the aid of a great leader because they were united
by their religious beliefs. Those beliefs, including the
protection of the loas, allowed them to rise against the betterarmed
rulers.
The use of Voudou in this revolt led the first black ruler of
Haiti to oppose it. Later rulers embraced Voudou, most notably
Jean-Claude Duvalier, who promoted his own image as a great
Voudou magician and his use of Voudou priests in his militia.
Voudou was brought to the United States in 1804 and the
years following the Haitian revolt. It spread through the black
population of New Orleans and the surrounding countryside.
It found its most famous practitioner in Marie Laveau in the
mid-nineteenth century. Legal measures were taken to curb its
power in the years prior to the Civil War, but they merely drove
the practice underground. It survives today, both in a public
mode accessible to tourists and as a semisecret religious community.
In the 1920s it provided inspiration for the development
of African American Spiritualism and the Spiritual
Church movement.
Sources
Bisnauth, Dale. History of Religion in the Caribbean. Kingston,
Jamaica Kingston Publishers, 1989.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Voudou
1641
David, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York Warner,
1985.
Denning, Melita, and Osborne Phillips. Voudou Fire The Living
Reality of Mystical Religion. St. Paul Llewellyn Publications,
1979.
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen The Voodoo Gods of Haiti. New
York Chelsea House, 1970.
Leyburn, James G. The Haitian People. New Haven, Conn.
Yale University Press, 1966.
Selden, Rodman. Spirits of the Night. Dallas Spring, 1992.