Intro to Haitian Vodou: What it Is, and What it Definitely Is Not

When someone says “voodoo” to you, what do you think of?

Zombies? Blood sacrifice? Moonlight orgies? That James Bond film where the pretty white lady is tied up as the scary Haitians invoke their nefarious Baron Samedi?

This is the image of Haiti and its religion that has been portrayed in pop culture. It’s bloody, it’s scary, and frankly, it was invented by white people who didn’t understand.

(Yes, I know Not All White People, etc, etc, blah blah. This is my blog and I’m going to call it like I see it. I’m white, by the way 🙂 )

I am not Haitian or black. I never will be. I came to this religion as an outsider and, in a way, I will always be a bit of an outsider. That’s OK by me. Haitians have every reason to distrust outsiders. Outsiders have this bad habit of being “seagulls”. As in, they fly in, shit all over everything, and fly out again.

So how to explain this beautiful and complex faith? Let’s start with some basics about what Vodou is and isn’t.

  1. Vodou is a monotheistic faith – Vodouisants (pronounced “voo-dwee-ZANT”, people who practice Vodou) worship one God, the same God that Christians worship. He is Bondye (bohn-DYAY), or “Good God”. He created the universe and everything (and everyone) in it. However, He is so busy running life, the universe, and everything that He doesn’t have much time to deal with humans. So Bondye created the Lwa.
  2. Vodou believes in many spirits, called Lwa – Lwa is single and plural (one lwa, two lwa, etc). The word means “spirit”. Lwa are the intermediaries between Bondye and humans. There are hundreds and hundreds of lwa. They come from all different places: some from the Dahomey people of Africa, some from the Congo, some from Benin, some from the native Arawak Indians in Haiti. They are vast and powerful, yet they will readily come down to interact with and help humans.
  3. Haitian Vodou started in Africa – It started with the Fon and Dahomey people in what is now the country of Benin. It has Congo and Ibo influences. African Vodou became Haitian with the arrival of millions of slaves in the Western Hemisphere. They were forced to practice Catholicism, but they secretly maintained their beliefs in spirits.
  4. Haitian Vodou does involve spirit possession and animal sacrifice – Possession and animal sacrifice are going to each take up at least one blog entry, but these two components are definitely a part of Haitian Vodou. But it’s not as scary as it sounds!
  5. Haitian Vodou is a community faith, a family faith – You cannot practice Vodou on your own. You need a community to back you up. The pain and torture of slavery tore apart many families, so Haitians banded together into Vodou houses (a house, sosyete, and family are all synonyms for a group of Vodou practitioners of a particular lineage) which became the only families these slaves had. The tradition continues today where member initiates of the same house will call each other brother and sister, and the head of the house will be the mama or papa.

Let’s look at a few of the things that Vodou is NOT.

  1. Vodou is not devil worship – The Devil is a Christian invention. The lwa are not “evil” or devils. Vodouisants worship God and God alone.
  2. Vodou is not Hoodoo – Hoodoo is a magical practice based on African-American Protestant Christian beliefs. It is not a religion; most practitioners of Hoodoo have Christian beliefs.
  3. Santeria, Lukumi, Wicca, Witchcraft – Those are all separate religions and practices. Lukumi (or Santeria, as it’s been called) is an African diasporic religion, which means it was brought to what is now Cuba by African slaves, in the same way slaves brought Vodou to Haiti. But the lwa and the orisha (Lukumi spirits) are different spirits from different parts of Africa.
  4. Vodou does not practice human sacrifice – Vodou is about healing humanity; how can you do that through killing people? Human sacrifice belongs in horror movies, not Vodou.
  5. Vodou is not necessarily a democratic faith – There is hierarchy and rank in Vodou, amongst the spirits and amongst the human participants. This isn’t like Wicca where everyone can become a priest. Initiation and priesthood is not for everyone in Vodou; indeed, most practitioners are not initiates. Just like anyone can be a Catholic but not everyone can be a Catholic priest, it works the same way in Vodou.

Those are some basics. I will be expanding upon many of these points in later blog entries, but feel free to ask questions in the comments or you can email me: manbomary at gmail dot com.

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