Vodun, Voodoo, Vaudun

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Vodun, Voodoo, Vaudun

Vodun is a syncretic religion with a history estimated by some anthropologists to date back more than 10,000 years. Having its philosophical and cosmological roots in ancient African rural societies established in Egypt, Asia Minor, East Africa, and Ionia, Vodun developed into one of the major African religions of the ancient world. After the conquest of the African societies that had built theocratic empires in these regions, practitioners of Vodun migrated to West Africa, where more than thirty ethnic groups continued to contribute to its development. From West Africa, specifically from Benin (ancient Dahomey), Vodun followers were traded as slaves to the New World. Consequently, Vodun is currently practiced not only in Benin, where it is the official religion, but also in the Caribbean, Latin America, the United States, and throughout the African diaspora. Since its ancient beginnings, Vodun has demonstrated a vigorous capacity for adapting itself to changing geographical, cultural, and political environments, including sustained and brutal governmental campaigns (especially in Haiti) aimed at its demise.

Derived from the Dahomean word vudu, which means "spirit," the term Vodun condenses a highly complex worldview predicated on the belief that human beings are influenced by divine spirits or "laos," who manifest the will of the one supreme God when they "possess" individuals during specific ritualistic rites, ceremonies, and consultations. The term also encompasses the notion that a metaphysical interrelationship exists between matter and spirit, the quality of life being dependent on the maintenance of harmony between the two and between human beings and spirits. According to this worldview, the spirits are intermediaries between individuals and God, who is immutable, inconceivable, and unapproachable; the universe is an indivisible, interrelated whole; and there is a sacred, organic interaction between the living and the dead (the ancestors), who are themselves spirits and who serve perpetually to ground the practitioners in their own history and tradition. The influence of spirits may be helpful or harmful to the lives of the folk. Accordingly, these spirits must be honored and consulted in meticulously structured ceremonies, where they are offered carefully chosen food and drink, the essence of which they consume during the act of possession.

European colonists used the term Voodun both as a reference to the African dances performed by devotees of the religion and also as a decidedly pejorative label for the religion's beliefs, values, practices, and ceremonies. Thus Vodun came to be widely regarded as evil, barbaric superstition and witchcraft, a perspective that is illustrated in many Western films and supported by definitions of the term in standard English dictionaries. Beginning in the 1950s, however, the Catholic Church in Haiti, after more than two centuries of attempting to obliterate Vodun, adopted a policy of accommodation. In the 1990s Pope John Paul II apologized for the Catholic Church's role in maligning African religions and invited Western institutions to be more tolerant of them. In 2003 Vodun's status as a religion was officially sanctioned by the Haitian government.

When documenting this religion's syncretic nature, Western scholars generally associate Vodun primarily with the Africans who were enslaved in Haiti and their descendants. These scholars emphasize the Christian influences—some spirits of Vodun, for example, are equated with specific angels or saints—that continue to testify to Vodun's syncretic aspect, its ability to modify itself to New World conditions. They tend to regard Haitian Vodun as a New World religion born out of the meshing of African and Christian worldviews. However, scholars who are themselves practitioners of this religion underscore that Haitian Vodun and the other African syncretic religions in the West—Santería in Cuba, Candomble in Brazil, and Obeah in the English-speaking Caribbean—derive from neighboring sects of the same religion and that, despite changes and differences in pantheon and rituals, they have retained their African cosmological essence. Generally speaking, scholars of Caribbean and Latin American religion are united in their findings that Vodun continues to play a major role in the shaping and perpetuation of folk culture and social mores, especially in Haiti, where it is absorbed into the national identity and interwoven into the fabric of Haitian literature, art, film, music, and folklore. It is estimated that, worldwide, there are more than 30 million adherents of Vodun.

See alsoLwa; Santería.


Courlander, Harold. The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Herskovits, Melville J. Life in a Haitian Valley. New York: Knopf, 1937. Repr., Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2007.

Hunter-Hindrew, Mamaissii Vivian. Mami Wata: Africa's Ancient God/dess Unveiled, 2nd edition. New York: MWHS, 2005.

Jahn, Janheinz. Muntu: An Outline of the New African Culture. Translated by Marjorie Grene. New York: Grove Press, 1961. Revised edition: Muntu: African Culture and the Western World. Translated by Marjorie Grene. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.

                                      Melvin B. Rahming