Vodou and Obeah

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Vodou and Obeah

Vodou and obeah are the most prominent examples of creolized Caribbean spiritual systems, which played a large role in the daily life of many slaves. Vodou—sometimes spelled vodoun—became more popularly known to nineteenth- and twentieth—century Americans as voodoo. Scholars (and practitioners) prefer the spelling vodou because of the negative stereotypes attached to the Americanized spelling voodoo, which the general public often associates with zombies, primitivism, bad horror movies, and anything incomprehensible (such as certain economic theories). Vodou must also be differentiated from hoodoo ("conjure"), a term that describes the various sorts of African American folk magic found in the southeastern United States and that was popularized by blues musicians in the early twentieth century. Although some hoodoo rituals may have had similar African roots to vodou, or may have been influenced by vodou when it was carried into New Orleans and other Southern port cities by Haitian slaves, there are significant differences—foremost among them the fact that vodou is a structured religious system, whereas hoodoo is more of an umbrella term for many, often unrelated, practices and beliefs.

Slaves who found themselves transported to a new life in the Caribbean made many adaptations to survive. One of these adaptations was the syncretic revision of religious beliefs. Systems of spirituality came into being that, though retaining strong elements of Africa, were uniquely Caribbean. Sometimes several different African belief components were involved; often, though, the predominance of particular African peoples in certain locations led to those peoples' faiths guiding the ultimate syncretic formation. For example, obeah was widely practiced in British and Dutch possessions, which were peopled by many Akan-speaking slaves. On the other hand, areas in which slaves were primarily composed of Yoruba, Ewe, and various other ethnic groups were more likely to practice vodou or santeria than obeah. As Walter Rucker notes in his 2001 article, in the Caribbean these African elements were attached to Roman Catholic practices—perhaps initially as a means of disguising spiritual activities from slave owners, but eventually as a synthesis. African deities and Catholic saints became, to believers, different incarnations of the same beings.


The white Martinican-born lawyer Médéric-Louis-Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry described a voodoo ceremony while visiting Saint-Domingue in 1797 as follows:

Then the crowd makes way, and each person comes to implore the Vaudoux according to his or her needs and following the order of their seniority in the sect. The majority ask for the ability to control the spirit of their masters, but that is not enough: one asks for more money, another for the ability to please an uninterested woman, this one to bring back an unfaithful mistress; another wants to heal quickly or live a long life … There is no passion which does not produce a wish. Even those planning crimes do not always disguise their prayers for success.

At each of these convocations, the Vaudoux king meditates; the spirit moves within him. Suddenly he takes the box with the snake in it, places it on the ground, and has the Vaudoux queen stand on it. As soon as the sacred sanctuary is underneath her, she becomes a new python, penetrated by god. She moves; her entire body is in a convulsive state, and the oracle speaks through her mouth. Sometimes she flatters and promises happiness; sometimes she thunders and explodes with reproaches …

After all questions have received some response from the oracle, which is also sometimes ambiguous, a circle is formed, and the snake is placed back on the altar. It is the moment when each person brings an offering, which they have sought to make worthy of her …

After this, the Vaudoux dance begins. (p. 57)

SOURCE: Moreau de Saint-Méry, Médéric-Louis-Élie "Description Topographique, Physique, Civile, Politique et Historique de la Partie Française de l'Isle Saint-Domingue." In Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789–1804: A Brief History with Documents, eds. Laurent Dubois and John D. Garrigus. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2006.

Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, in their 2003 work Creole Religions of the Caribbean, list several elements that creolized Caribbean religions have in common, including:

  • Belief in a Supreme Being, complemented by lesser deities who act as intermediaries or intercessors with humans.
  • A cult of dead ancestors.
  • Power that can be imbued in objects; not necessarily inherent in the objects themselves.
  • Belief that all living things have "will and soul."
  • The practice of magic spells.
  • The integral role of music and dance.
  • The belief that individuals can become possessed by spirits.

Vodou in St. Domingue

The word vodou, which means spirit, and most of the other words associated with the religion came from the Arada/Fon in what is now Benin. The Nago, who lived east of Benin and were a Yoruba people, also heavily influenced the religion. Many members of these and other groups found themselves enslaved in the French colony of St. Domingue, which would later be renamed Haiti, the name the Arawak Indians had originally called it. In time they developed a belief system that reflected both their own distinct African heritages and the new realities of slavery. Devotees would meet together in secret; masters feared that such congregations would lead to revolt. Practicing their religion was in itself a subversive and revolutionary act. When revolt did come, in 1791, it was inaugurated by a vodou gathering in the woods at Bois-Caïman. A slave named Boukman—who was also a houngan, or vodou priest—led several followers in a sacred oath, sealed by drinking the blood of a sacrificed pig. Boukman would be the most visible leader in the early stage of the revolt, aptly demonstrated by his reported words at the gathering:

The god of the white man calls him to commit crimes; our god asks only good works of us. But this god who is so good orders revenge! He will direct our hands; he will aid us. Throw away the image of the god of the whites who thirsts for our tears and listen to the voice of liberty that speaks in the hearts of all of us. (Dubois 2004, p. 100)

The French surgeon Antoine Dalmas wrote disparagingly of the sacrifice:

The religious ceremonies that the blacks practiced in slitting the pig's throat, the eagerness with which they drank its blood, the value they placed on possessing some of its hairs—a kind of talisman that, according to them, would make them invulnerable—serves to characterize the African … it was natural for such an ignorant and stupid class to take part in the superstitious rituals of an absurd and bloody religion before taking part in the most horrible of assassinations. (Dubois 2004, p. 100)

Despite this attack on the slaves' religion, they themselves were not only collating diverse rituals into a new whole, but also, according to the historian Laurent Dubois, "imbuing them with revolutionary significance" (2001, p. 94).

Characteristics of Vodou

Vodou's Supreme Being, Bondié, or "Good God," does not often involve himself directly in human affairs. Below that Good God is a pantheon of other beings, sometimes called saints, mystères, or les invisibles, but more commonly called loa or lwa. In return for ritual service, the loa offer humans various kinds of supernatural assistance. Different loa have different personalities, approaches, ritual colors, even different favorite foods which may be offered to them as a sacrifice. Worshipers meet at an ounfo or hounfort, or temple. Priests (houngans or oungans) and/or priestesses (manbos or mambos) lead the devotees in ritual service, and also offer individual services, summoning the loa with a special rattle (assan—"taking the assan" means joining the Vodou priesthood). Houngans and manbos are assisted by ounsis, "spouses of the loa," who have devoted themselves to service and are led by the priests to a higher level of konesans (or connaisances) or knowledge. Ounsis fill various roles, from choir leader to administrator; they are usually (but not always) female. Below them in the hierarchy are the pittit-caye, "children of the house," who, while also devoted, have not committed themselves to the extent the ounsis have. Ceremonies revolve around song, dance, prayer, and the sacred drums. Priests, ounsis, devotees, and loas together form a spiritual community. Loas enter into—or "mount"—devotees during ceremonies. The individual thus possessed is referred to as a "horse," and serves as mouthpiece for the spirit in imparting knowledge to the assembly. (The novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote a book about her 1930s experiences as a vodou initiate, titled Tell My Horse.)

Prominent loa include:

  • Legba, or Papa Legba, represented as an old man with a crutch. Legba is the gatekeeper, the guardian of homes and roads. He is perhaps the most important loa for devotees can open a communication with their own loa only by first approaching him and asking his permission.
  • Agwe, or Admiral Agwe, loa of the sea and all marine life. He is represented by St. Ulrich holding a fish. His chwal, or "horses," must be prevented from throwing themselves into the water and drowning when he mounts them. He is sometimes appeased by throwing a white sheep into the sea.
  • Erzuli Freda, who appears as a flirty and beautiful light-skinned Creole woman who adores luxury and love. Her favorite offerings include sweets and mild cigarettes; those mounted by her, no matter their gender, will often flirt with men and invite kisses and caresses.
  • Bawon Samdi, or, in French, Baron Samedi (Baron Saturday), and those lesser spirits associated with him personify the world of the dead. Bawon Samdi is often unruly or lewd, and prefers dark-skinned initiates over lighter-skinned—his jokes are most often pulled on the upper classes. His devotees wear top hats, frock coats, and sunglasses.
  • Danbala, the Serpent; his wife, Ayida Wedo, is the Rainbow. Danbala is master of marshes and rivers, and of silver; his food offerings must all be white. His devotees sometimes behave like snakes when mounted by him. He is represented by St. Patrick, or by Moses.
  • Erzuli Danto, sister of Erzuli Freda, represented as a dark-skinned, lower-class woman. She can either appear in the guise of a loving mother, or as a redeyed woman with a knife. Her offerings include raw rum and unfiltered Camel cigarettes.

The Zombi

Nondevotees are usually less attracted by such systematized rituals outlined above as they are by the more sensationalized, and frequently stereotyped, sorceryrelated practices that are peripheral to vodou and Haitian life but are magnified by Hollywood. Those aspects in many cases have more in common with folk magic than with the structured religion of Vodou. The zombi, however, has played a prominent role in Haitian culture. Zombis are not the flesh-eating ghouls of Hollywood, but rather people caught between life and death, perhaps as the result of a spell or potion, who become empty vessels in the hands of the sorcerer (or bokor) who ensnared them.

This is symbolic, in many ways, of the whole experience of slavery, and can perhaps best be understood within that framework. Dubois (1995) cites Joan Dayan's argument that the rituals of vodou practices speak more directly to Haiti's colonial past than to the more distant past retained from Africa. And as Olmos and Paravasini-Gebert note, quoting the Haitian author René Depestre, colonization is "the process of man's general zombification" (2003, p. 130).


Obeah, unlike vodou, is not an organized religion, nor is it necessarily a community endeavor. Individual practitioners—obeah-men or obeah-women—offer to intercede on behalf of their clients, either through casting spells or healing. The etymology of the word can be linked to Ashanti terms for wizard or witch (obayifo and obeye.) The Ashanti were the largest group of slaves exported to the British colonies; the French and Spanish preferred Ewe, as they deemed the Ashanti too rebellious. Thus, obeah was predominantly found (by the early seventeenth century) in Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Antigua, and Surinam. British masters were immediately suspicious when they became aware of the practice. Perhaps the act of purchasing spiritual power seemed like too much autonomy for a slave; or perhaps slave owners had a good idea against whom that power would be used. Obeah was strictly forbidden, which might help explain why it developed as a one-on-one practice instead of a community ritual. A 1788 law enacted in Jamaica, so as "to prevent the many mischiefs that may hereafter arise from the wicked art of negroes going under the appellation of obeah men and women, pretending to have communication with the devil and other evil spirits, whereby the weak and superstitious are deluded into a belief of their having full power to exempt them … from any evils that might otherwise happen," stipulated the death penalty for "any slave who shall pretend to any supernatural power."

Obeah practitioners are commonly believed to have a gift from birth, although it might not manifest itself until adolescence or adulthood. The attendant skills—mostly herbal—can be learned through an apprenticeship, often with a relative. Those who consult an obeah man or woman usually want to achieve some change in their life, and seek a spell, charm, or potion to effect that change. Unlike in vodou, obeah spirits—or ghosts, or duppies—can be harnessed for specific purposes, rather than engaged in a symbiotic, and revelatory, relationship. For example, the spirits can be called upon when one's love is unrequited, or when a court case is imminent. It is usually a one-time transaction, not the sort of commitment—from either spirit or human—that vodou involves.

Vodou and Obeah Today

Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert (2003) give a modern-day example of two Jamaican bank robbers, having emigrated to Canada and killed a young woman in a robbery, who then consult an obeah man to prevent her from haunting them as a duppy. Because obeah—at least in the Canadian government's view—is a healing medium rather than a religion, no laws of confidentiality applied, and the men were prosecuted. This illustrates the sort of power obeah can still have in the eyes of its practitioners. Vodou, also, is alive and well, with 80 percent of Haitians saying they practice. Waves of Haitian immigration to New Orleans in the nineteenth century, and to southern Florida and New York and New Jersey in the twentieth—have led to the religion's firm entrenchment in the United States, as well.


Dayan, Joan. Haiti, History, and the Gods. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Dubois, Laurent. "Vodou and History." Comparative Studies in Society and History 43, no. 1 (2001): pp. 92-100.

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2004.

Olmos, Margarite Fernández, and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Rucker, Walter. "Conjure, Magic, and Power: The Influence of Afro-Atlantic Religious Practices on Slave Resistance and Rebellion." Journal of Black Studies 32, no. 1 (2001): 84-103.

                                        Troy D. Smith