Haitian Voodoo

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Vodou, called Sevis Gineh or "African Service" is the main culture and religion of nearly 7 million people in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. It is primarily rooted in the Fon-Ewe peoples of West Africa, the country now known as Benin, formerly the Kingdom of Dahomey. It also has strong elements from the Ibo and Kongo peoples of Central Africa and the Yoruba of Nigeria, though many different peoples or "nations" of Africa have representation in the operation of Sevis Gineh, as The Taino Indians, the original peoples of the island now known as Hispaniola. Haitian Vodou exists in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, parts of Cuba, the United States, France, Montreal and other places that Haitian immigrants are scattered in all these years.

Other New World traditions are closely linked to or bears resemblance to include Jeje Vaud in Brazil, La Regla Arara in Cuba, and the Black spiritualistic Christian churches in New Orleans. Haitian Vodou also bears superficial similarities in many ways the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria, from Orisha service, represented by La Regla de OCHA or Lukumi, aka Santeria, in Cuba, the United States and Puerto Rico, and Candomble in Brazil. Although widely regarded as related to Haitian Vodou, what is commonly referred to as "voodoo" in New Orleans and the southern U.S. is a variant of the word Hoodoo, also called rootwork or "doctoring root". This is a folk magical tradition from Central Africa, the Congo region in which the roots, leaves, minerals, and the spirits of the dead used to improve the lot of life, often including the recitation of psalms and other Biblical prayers. Rootwork also incorporates Native American knowledge of herbs and European and Jewish magical traditions. A folk magic tradition, New Orleans Voodoo and southern Hoodoo rootwork are distinct from the religion of Haitian Vodou and its siblings and cousins.

History of Haitian Voodoo

Vodou as we know it in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora today is the result of pressures from many different cultures and nationalities of people uprooted from Africa and imported to Hispaniola during the transatlantic African slave trade. (1) Under slavery, African culture and religion was suppressed, lineages were fragmented, and people gathered religious knowledge and out of this fragmentation became culturally unified. Apart from combining the spirits of many different African and Indian nations, are pieces of functioning Catholic incorporated to replace lost prayers or elements; Furthermore, it is images of Catholic saints used to represent various spirits or "misteh" ["mysteries"], and many saints themselves are honored in Haitian Vodou themselves. This syncretism allows Haitian Vodou to encompass the African, Indian and European ancestors in a whole and integrated manner. It is truly a Kreyol or Creole religion.

The most historically important Vodou ceremony in Haitian history was the Bwa Kayiman (Bois Caiman) ceremony in August 1791 near the city of Cap Haitien that began the Haitian Revolution, led by Vodou priest named Boukman. During this ceremony the spirit Ezili Dantor came and took a black pig as an offering, and all attendees are committed to the struggle for freedom. This ceremony ultimately resulted in the liberation of the Haitian people from French masters in 1804 and the founding of the first and only black Democratic Republic of the western hemisphere, the first democracy in world history. (2)Haitian Vodou came to the United States significantly since the late 1960's and early 1970's with the waves of Haitian immigrants under the oppressive Duvalier regime, taking root in Miami, New York, Chicago and other cities, especially on both coasts.

Roman Catholicism is the official religion of Haiti, but voodoo may be considered the country's national religion. The majority of Haitians believe in and practice at least some aspects of voodoo. Most voodooists believe that their religion can coexist with Catholicism. Most Protestants, however, strongly oppose voodoo. Voodoo

Misconceptions about voodoo have given Haiti a reputation for sorcery and zombies. Popular images of voodoo have ignored the religion's basis as a domestic cult of family spirits. Adherents of voodoo do not perceive themselves as members of a separate religion; they consider themselves Roman Catholics. In fact, the word for voodoo does not even exist in rural Haiti. The Creole word vodoun refers to a kind of dance and in some areas to a category of spirits. Roman Catholics who are active voodooists say that they "serve the spirits," but they do not consider that practice as something outside of Roman Catholicism. Haitians also distinguish between the service of family spirits and the practice of magic and sorcery.

Belief System

The belief system of voodoo revolves around family spirits (often called loua or mistè) who are inherited through maternal and paternal lines. Loa protect their "children" from misfortune. In return, families must "feed" the loua through periodic rituals in which food, drink, and other gifts are offered to the spirits. There are two kinds of services for the loua. The first is held once a year; the second is conducted much less frequently, usually only once a generation. Many poor families, however, wait until they feel a need to restore their relationship with their spirits before they conduct a service. Services are usually held at a sanctuary on family land.

In voodoo, there are many loa. Although there is considerable variation among families and regions, there are generally two groups of loa, the rada and the petro. The rada spirits are mostly seen as "sweet" loa, while the petro are seen as "bitter" because they are more demanding of their "children." Rada spirits appear to be of African origin while petro spirits appear to be of Haitian origin.

Loa are usually anthropomorphic and have distinct identities. They can be good, evil, capricious, or demanding. Loua most commonly show their displeasure by making people sick, and so voodoo is used to diagnose and treat illnesses. Loua are not nature spirits, and they do not make crops grow or bring rain. The loua of one family have no claim over members of other families, and they cannot protect or harm them. Voodooists are therefore not interested in the loua of other families.

Loa appear to family members in dreams and, more dramatically, through trances. Many Haitians believe that loua are capable of temporarily taking over the bodies of their "children." Men and women enter trances during which they assume the traits of particular loa. People in a trance feel giddy and usually remember nothing after they return to a normal state of consciousness. Voodooists say that the spirit temporarily replaces the human personality. Possession trances occur usually during rituals such as services for loua or a vodoun dance in honor of the loa. When loa appear to entranced people, they may bring warnings or explanations for the causes of illnesses or misfortune. Loua often engage the crowd around them through flirtation, jokes, or accusations.

Ancestors (le mò) rank with the family loa as the most important spiritual entities in voodoo. Elaborate funeral and mourning rites reflect the important role of the dead. Ornate tombs throughout the countryside reveal how much attention Haiti gives to its dead. Voodooists believe the dead are capable of forcing their survivors to construct tombs and sell land. In these cases, the dead act like family loua, which "hold" family members to make them ill or bring other misfortune. The dead also appear in dreams to provide their survivors with advice or warnings.

Voodooists also believe there are loa that can be paid to bring good fortune or protection from evil. And, they believe that souls can be paid to attack enemies by making them ill.

Folk belief includes zombies and witchcraft. Zombies are either spirits or people whose souls have been partially withdrawn from their bodies. Some Haitians resort to bokò, who are specialists in sorcery and magic. Haiti has several secret societies whose members practice sorcery.

Voodoo specialists, male houngan and female mambo, mediate between humans and spirits through divination and trance. They diagnose illnesses and reveal the origins of other misfortune. They can also perform rituals to appease spirits or ancestors or to repel magic. Many voodoo specialists are accomplished herbalists who treat a variety of illnesses.

Voodoo lacks a fixed theology and an organized hierarchy, unlike Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Each specialist develops his or her own reputation for helping people.

François Duvalier recruited voodoo specialists to serve as tonton makouts to help him control all aspects of Haitian life. Duvalier indicated that he retained power through sorcery, but because voodoo is essentially a family-based cult, Duvalier failed to politicize the religion to any great extent.