VODOU is a sometimes misleading, but nevertheless common, name for the religious practices of the majority of Haitians. Outsiders have given the name Vodou to the complex web of traditional religious practices followed in Haiti. Only recently, and still to a limited extent, have Haitians come to use the term as others do. Haitians prefer a verb to identify their religion: they speak of "serving the spirits."
A mountainous, poverty-stricken, largely agricultural country of approximately eight million people, Haiti has a land area of 10,700 square miles and occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic.
This is where Caribbean Vodou began, but Haiti is not the only place Vodou in practiced. Vodou is also a central part of everyday life in Haitian diaspora communities in New Orleans and Santiago, Cuba, both products of the upheaval caused by the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). More recent political and economic struggles in Haiti have also led to Vodou communities in New York City, Miami, Montreal, and Paris.
In Haiti, vodou originally referred to one ritual style among many in their syncretic religious system, the style most closely connected to Dahomey and the Fon language. The word vodou is derived from the Fon vodun, which means "god" or "spirit." Hoodoo is a related term from the same Fon word, yet, in the United States, it is almost always used as a derogatory term that focuses on black magic spells and charms.
Sensationalized novels and films, as well as spurious travelers' accounts, have painted a negative picture of Haitian religion. Vodou has been depicted as primitive and ignorant. Vodou rituals have been described as arenas for uncontrolled orgiastic behavior, and even cannibalism. The same writers stir up fear of Vodou and suggest that if whites get too close to a Vodou ceremony terrible things could happen. These distortions are attributable to the fear that the Haitian slave revolution sparked in whites. Haiti achieved independence in 1804, and thus became the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere at a time when the colonial economy was still heavily dependent on slave labor.
In Vodou there are three (not always clearly distinguished) categories of spiritual beings: lemò, lemistè, and lemarasa (respectively, "the dead," "the mysteries," and "the sacred twins"). While certain Vodou prayers, songs, and invocations preserve fragments of West African languages, Haitian Creole is the primary language of Vodou. Creole is the first and only language of more than one half the population of Haiti. It has a grammatical structure familiar to speakers of West African languages and an eighteenth-century French vocabulary mixed with a smattering of English words and expressions.
Although individuals and families regularly serve the Vodou spirits without recourse to religious professionals, throughout most of Haiti there is a loosely organized priesthood open to both men and women. The male priest is known as an oungan and the female priest is a manbo. There is a wide spectrum of Vodou ritualizing. There are individual acts of piety, such as lighting candles to petition particular spirits, and elaborate feasts, sometimes lasting days and including the sacrifice of several animals as part of the meals offered to the spirits. Energetic singing, dancing, and polyrhythmic drumming accompany the larger rituals. In the countryside, rituals often take place outdoors, on family land set aside for the spirits, and there is often a small cult house on that land where the family's altars are kept. Urban Vodou rituals tend to take place in an ounfò ("temple"). Urban altars, dense with sacrificial food and drink, sacred stones, and chromolithographs of the Catholic saints and other images, are maintained in jèvo ("altar rooms") off the central dancing and ritualizing space of the temple, the peristyl. In the cities, those who serve the spirits also tend to keep more modest altars in their own homes.
The goal of Vodou drumming, singing, and dancing is to chofè, to "heat up," the situation sufficiently to bring on possession by the spirits. As a particular spirit is summoned, a devotee enters a trance and becomes that spirit's chwal ("horse"), thus providing the means for direct communication between human beings and the spirits. The spirit is said to ride the chwal. Using the person's body and voice, the spirit sings, dances, and eats with the people and also deals out advice and chastisement. The people in turn offer the spirit a wide variety of gifts and acts of obeisance, the goal being to placate the spirit and ensure his or her continuing protection.
There are marked differences in Vodou as it is practiced throughout Haiti, but the single most important distinction is that between urban and rural Vodou. Haitian society is primarily agricultural, and the manner in which peasants serve the spirits is determined by questions of land tenure and ancestral inheritance. Urban Vodou is not tied to specific plots of land, but the family connection persists in another form. Urban temple communities become substitutes for the extended families of the countryside. The priests are called "papa" and "mama"; the initiates, who are called "children of the house" or "little leaves" refer to one another as "brother" and "sister." In general, urban Vodou is more institutionalized and often more elaborate in its rituals than its rural counterpart.
Haiti's slave population was built up in the eighteenth century, a period in which Haiti supplied a large percentage of the sugar consumed in Western Europe. Vodou was born on sugar, sisal, cotton and coffee plantations out of the interaction among slaves who brought with them a variety of African religious traditions, but due to inadequate records, little is known about this formative period in Vodou's history. It has been argued by Haitian scholars such as Michel-Rolph Trouillot that the religion did not coalesce until after the revolution, but others suggest it had an effective presence, particularly in northern Haiti, during the latter part of the eighteenth century. James G. Leyburn in The Haitian People (1941) and Carolyn Fick in The Making of Haiti (1990) argue that Vodou played a key role in the organization of the slave revolt.
Among the African ethnic groups brought to Haiti as slave laborers, the most influential in shaping Haitian culture, including Vodou, were the Fon, Mahi, and Nago from old Dahomey (the present Republic of Benin), those who came to be known as the Yoruba (Nigeria), and Kongo peoples (Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Many of the names of Vodou spirits are easily traceable to their African counterparts; however, the spirits have undergone change in the context of Haiti's social and economic history. For example, Ogun among the Yoruba is a spirit of ironsmithing and other activities associated with metal, such as hunting, warfare, and modern technology. Neither hunting nor modern technology plays much of a role in the lives of Haitians. Haiti, however, does have a long and complex military history. Thus, the Haitian spirit Ogou is first and foremost a soldier whose rituals, iconography, and possession-performance explore both the constructive and destructive uses of military power, as well as its analogues with human relations—anger, self-assertion, and willfulness.
Africa itself is a powerful concept in Vodou. Haitians speak of Ginen ("Guinea") both as their ancestral home, the Guinea coast of West Africa, and as the watery subterranean home of the Vodou spirits. Calling a spirit franginen, ("fully and completely African") is a way of indicating that the spirit is good, ancient, and proper. The manner in which an individual or a group serves the spirits may also be called franginen, with similar connotations of approval and propriety.
Roman Catholic Influence
For the most part, the slaveholders were Catholics and baptism for slaves was mandatory by French law. Many have argued that slaves used a veneer of Catholicism to hide their traditional religious practices from the authorities. While Catholicism may well have functioned in this utilitarian way for slaves on plantations, it is also true that the religions of West Africa from which Vodou was derived, already had a tradition of borrowing the deities of neighbors and enemies alike. Whatever Catholicism represented in the slave world, it was most likely also used as a means to expand Vodou's ritual vocabulary and iconography, thus helping captive laborers function in a nominally Catholic world. In 1804, immediately after Haiti declared its liberation, the Catholic Church withdrew all of its clergy from the new republic. Yet Catholicism survived in Haiti for fifty years without contact with Rome and it did so through the imitative ritualizing of a Vodou figure known as prêtsavan ("bush priest") as well as the competitive market for healing charms and talismans that was kept going by defrocked Catholic priests and the self-appointed "clergy" who ended up in Haiti in the early nineteenth century.
Catholicism has had the greatest influence on the traditional religion of Haiti at the level of rite and image rather than theology. This influence works in two ways. First, those who serve the spirits call themselves Catholic, attend Mass, and undergo baptism and first communion. Because these Catholic rituals at times function as integral parts of larger Vodou rites, they can be even directed to participate by their Vodou spirits. Second, Catholic prayers, rites, images, and saints' names are integrated into the common ritualizing of Vodou temples. The prêtsavan is an active figure in Vodou. He achieves his title by knowing the proper, that is the Latin or French, form of Catholic prayers.
Over the years, a system of parallels has been developed between the Vodou spirits and the Catholic saints. For example, Dambala, the ancient and venerable snake deity of the Fon people, is venerated in Haiti both as Dambala and as St. Patrick, who is pictured in the popular chromolithograph with snakes clustered around his feet. In addition, the Catholic liturgical calendar dominates in much Vodou ritualizing. Thus the Vodou spirit Ogou is honored in Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora on July 25, the feast day of his Catholic counterpart.
Bondye, "the good God" is identified with the Christian God, and is said to be the highest, indeed the only, god. The spirits are said to have been angels in Lucifer's army whom God sent out of heaven and down to Ginen. Although the Vodou spirits may exhibit capricious behavior, they are not evil. Rather, they are seen as intermediaries between the people and the high god, a role identical to the one played by the so-called lesser deities in the religions of the Yoruba and Fon. Bondye is remote and unknowable. Although evoked daily in ordinary speech (almost all plans are made with the disclaimer si dye vle ("if God wills"), Bondye's intervention is not sought for help with life's problems. That is the work of the spirits.
Both the Catholic Church in Haiti and the government of Haiti have participated energetically in the persecution of those who serve the Vodou spirits. The last "antisuperstition campaign" was in the 1940s, but clerical and upperclass disdain for the religion has persisted much longer. In the twentieth century, Catholic clergy routinely preached against serving the spirits, and those who served them remarked, "That is the way priests talk." Many Catholic holy days have a Vodou dimension that church officials routinely manage to ignore.
For years Catholicism was the only religion in Haiti with official approval. Thus, the degree to which Vodou has been attacked, oppressed, tolerated, or even encouraged through the years has been largely a function of local politics. Presidents Dumarsais Estime (1946–1950) and Francois Duvalier (1957–1971) stand out from other Haitian heads of state because of their sympathy with Vodou. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was first elected president in 1990, was also a supporter of Vodou; in fact he changed the balance of religious power. On April 5, 2003, President Aristide fully recognized and fully empowered Vodou as a Haitian religion that could legally exercise its influence throughout Haiti according to the constitution and the laws of the republic.
The Vodou spirits are known by various names: lwa, a common name with an uncertain origin; sen,"saints"; mistè, "mysteries"; envizib, "invisibles"; and more rarely, zanj, "angels." At some point in the development of Vodou the spirits were sorted into nanchon, "nations." The nanchon at an early point in their development appear to have functioned primarily as ethnic slave categories. The majority of the nation names are easily traceable to places in Africa: Rada, Ibo, Nago, Kongo. Later, however, these so-called nations became religious categories, diverse ritual styles of drumming, dancing, and honoring the Vodou spirits.
The Rada spirits (named after the Dahomean principality Allada, once a busy slave depot) comprise a collection of ancient, sweet-tempered, wise, and usually patient lwa. Then there are the fiery and powerful Petwo spirits. The origin of the name "Petwo" is contested, but the strong Kongo influence is not. The home of the Ogou, also hot spirits, is the Nago nanchon, a Dahomean name for Ketu Yoruba. Most big feasts end with the playful Gede, inveterate rule breakers, who insist they are a fami ("family"), not a nanchon. In rural Vodou, a person may inherit responsibilities to one or more of these nanchon through maternal or paternal kin. Familial connections to the land, where the lwa are said to reside in trees, springs, and wells, may determine which particular spirits are served. In urban Vodou, there are a few important spirit nanchon that make their appearance, according to seniority and importance, in most major rituals. In Port-au-Prince, two nanchon, the Rada and the Petwo, have emerged as dominant largely by absorbing other nanchon. Rada and Petwo spirits contrast sharply. The Rada are dous, "sweet," and the Petwo, cho, "hot." When an individual, family, or temple is described as ritualizing in a mode that is Rada net ("straight Rada"), a great deal is being said about how that person or group functions socially as well as ritualistically. Each spirit has drum rhythms, dances, and food preferences that relate to its identifying characteristics. For example, Danbala, the gentle Rada snake spirit, is said to love orja, thick sugary almond syrup. His devotees perform a graceful spine-rippling dance called yanvalu. By contrast, the Petwo rhythm played for rum-drinking spirits is energetic and pounding, and the accompanying dance is characterized by fast, strong body movements.
The Vodou View of Person
In Vodou teachings the human being is composed of various parts: the body, that is, the gross physical dimension of the person who perishes after death, in addition to two to four souls, of which the most widely acknowledged are the gwo bonanj, and ti bonanj. The gwo bonanj ("big guardian angel") is roughly equivalent to consciousness or personality. When a person dies the gwo bonanj lingers, and immediately after death it must be protected because it is most vulnerable to capture and misuse by sorcerers. During possession, it is the gwo bonanj who is displaced by the spirit and sent to wander away from the body, as it does routinely during sleep. The ti bonanj ("little guardian angel") may be thought of as the spiritual energy reserve of a living person and, at times, as the ghost of a dead person.
Each person has one special lwa who is their mèt-tet, "master of the head." (The top of the head and the back of the neck are places where spirits may enter and leave.) The mèt-tet is the most important lwa served by a particular person and it reflects that person's personality to some degree. A Haitian whose family serves the spirits may inherit spiritual responsibilities to a deceased family member's mèt-tet. That is a big responsibility, but there are also things that can be gained. If the mèt-tet is conscientiously fed and honored, good luck and protection from both ancestor and lwa will be gained. In addition to the so-called masters of the head, most people who serve the spirits have a small number of other lwa with whom similar reciprocity has been established.
Unlike Catholic saints who are usually known through formulaic hagiography, Vodou lwa have richly developed histories, personalities, needs, desires, character strengths, and flaws, and even taste in food and drink. Because the lwa are fully developed characters and interact so intimately with vivan-yo, "the living," the practice of Vodou also functions as a system for categorizing and analyzing human behavior, in the individual and in the group. One of the characteristics of virtually all Caribbean African-based religions is the great amount of care given to analyzing social behavior and dealing with the results of that behavior.
Vodou and the Dead
Cemeteries are major ritual centers in both urban and rural Haiti. The first male buried in any cemetery is known as Bawon Samidi. Bawon's wife (or sister) is Gran Brijit, the first woman buried in the cemetery. Most cemeteries have a cross for Bawon either in the center of the cemetery or near its gate. Lakwa Bawon ("Bawon's Cross") marks the site's ritual center. Lighted candles and food offerings are left at the base of this cross. People stand with their hands on the cross praying aloud. Rituals for healing, love, or luck performed in rural cult houses or urban temples are not considered complete until physical remnants of the "work" are deposited at crossroads or at Bawon's Cross, which is itself a kind of crossroads marking the intersection of the land of the living and the land of the dead.
Haitians who serve the lwa usually make a clear distinction between the dead and the spirits. Yet a few of the ancestors, particularly if they were exceptional people when alive, actually evolve into spirits or lwa. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint L'Ouverture, and John Kennedy have all been reported making cameo appearances through possession in Vodou ceremonies. The group of spirits, known as the Gede, have Bawon as their leader and are spirits of the dead as might be expected, but they are not ancestral spirits. Instead, they stand in for the entire community of human beings now deceased and in this context, Gede's crude comic performances make some sense. They are designed to bring the haughty to their knees and convince them that in the end, human beings all face the same fate. The Gede are inclusive, with no limits, and therefore almost any image will work on a Gede altar. Statues of the Buddha, LaoTzu, King Kong, St. Gerard, and Elvis Presley have all been sighted on Vodou altars. In and around Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti and its largest city, the Gede are the object of elaborate ritualizing in the cemeteries and Vodou temples during the season of the Feast of All Souls, Halloween.
The Gede are not only spirits of death but also boosters of human sexuality, protectors of children, and irrepressible social satirists. Dances for Gede tend to be boisterous affairs, and new Gede spirits appear every year. The satirical, and often explicitly sexual, humor of the Gede levels social pretense. The Gede use humor to deal with new social roles and to challenge alienating social structures. Through possession-performance, they not only appear as auto mechanics and doctors, they also critique government bureaucrats, military figures, and Protestant missionaries.
In some parts of rural Haiti, the ideal Vodou ceremony is one that serves the spirits as simply as possible because simplicity is said to reflect discrete but strong spiritual power, the African way of doing things (Larose, 1977). In practice, rural ritualizing tends to follow the fortunes of extended families. Bad times are often attributed to the displeasure of family spirits. When it is no longer possible to satisfy the spirits with small conciliatory offerings, the family will hold a large drumming and dancing feast that includes animal sacrifice. Urban Vodou, by contrast, has a more routine ritualizing calendar, and events tend to be larger and more elaborate. Ceremonies in honor of major spirits take place annually on or around the feast days of their Catholic counterparts and usually include sacrifice of an appropriate animal—most frequently a chicken, a goat, or a cow.
In both rural and urban settings, a rich variety of ceremonies meet specific individual and community needs: For example, healing rites, dedications of new temples and new ritual regalia, and spirit marriages in which a devotee is wed to a spirit usually of the opposite sex and must pledge sexual restraint one night each week, when he or she receives that spirit in dreams. There is also a cycle of initiation rituals that has both public segments and segments reserved for initiates. The latter include the kanzo rituals, which mark the first stage of initiation into Vodou, and those in which the adept takes the ason, the beaded gourd rattle symbolizing Vodou priesthood. Certain rituals performed during the initiation cycle, such as the bule zen ("burning the pots") and the chirè ayzan ("shredding the palm leaf") may also be used in other ritual contexts. Death rituals include the desounen, in which the soul is removed from the corpse and sent under the waters of Ginen, which is followed by the wète mò nan dlo ("bringing the dead from the waters"), a ritual that can occur only after a person has been dead for one year and one day. Herbal good-luck baths are routinely administered during the Christmas and New Year season. Elizabeth McAlister's 2002 book on Rara has convinced scholars, in the habit of dismissing Rara as an entertaining aspect of Carnival, of the deeply religious character of these irreverent parades that pour from the Vodou temples into the cemeteries and streets during the Catholic Lent.
Annual pilgrimages draw thousands of urban and rural followers of Vodou. The focal point of these Catholic-Vodou events is often a church situated near some striking feature of the natural landscape that is sacred to the lwa. The two largest pilgrimages are one held for Ezili Danto (Our Lady of Mount Carmel) in mid-July in the small town of Saut d'Eau, named for its spectacular waterfall, and one held for Ogou (St. James the Elder) in the latter part of July in the northern town of Plain du Nord, where a shallow, muddy pool adjacent to the Catholic church is dedicated to Ogou.
Vodou and Magic
Serge Larose (1977) has demonstrated that magic is not only a stereotypic label that outsiders have applied to Vodou, but also a differential term internal to the religion. Thus an in-group among the followers of Vodou identifies its own ritualizing as "African" while labeling the work of the out-group as maji ("magic"). Generally speaking, this perspective provides a helpful way to grasp the concept of magic within Vodou. There are, however, those individuals who, in search of power and wealth, self-consciously identify themselves with traditions of what Haitians would call "the work of the left hand." This includes people who deal in pwen achte ("purchased power points"), which means spirits or powers that have been bought rather than inherited, and people who deal in zonbi. A zonbi may be either the disembodied soul of a dead person whose powers are captured and used for magical purposes, or a soulless body that has been raised from the grave to do drone labor in the fields. Also included in the category of the left hand are secret societies known by such names as Champwel, Zobop, Bizango, and Zanglando. In Urban settings in the late twentieth century secret societies began to operate as if they were a branch of the Mafia, but their deep history is quite different: They once represented religiously enforced rural law and order. The secret societies were groups of elders who used their power not for personal gains but to enforce social sanctions. For example, Wade Davis (1985) says that zonbi laborers were created by secret society tribunals who voted to use zonbi powder against a sociopath in their community.
The "work of the left hand" should not be confused with more ordinary Vodou ritualizing that can have a magical flavor, such as divination, herbal healing, and the manufacture of wanga, charms for love, luck, or health, or for the protection of the home, land, or person. Much of the work of Vodou priests is at the level of individual client-practitioner interactions Theirs is a healing system that treats problems of love, health, family, and work. Unless a problem is understood as coming from God, in which case the Vodou priest can do nothing, the priest will treat it as one caused by a spirit or by a disruption in human relationships, including relations with the dead. Generally speaking, Vodou cures come about through ritual adjustment of relational systems.
Vodou in the Haitian Diaspora
Drought and soil erosion, poverty, high urban unemployment, and political oppression have led to massive emigrations from Haiti in the last half-century. Vodou has gone along with the Haitians who, in search of a better life, have come to major urban centers of North America. In New York, Miami, and Montreal, the cities with the greatest concentrations of Haitian immigrants, Vodou ceremonies are carried on in storefronts, rented rooms, high-rise apartments, and basement storage areas. North American rituals are often somewhat truncated versions of their Haitian counterparts. There may be no drums, and the only animals sacrificed may be chickens. However it is possible to consult a manbo or oungan in immigrant communities with ease, and the full repertoire of rituals can be followed there, in one form or another. Even the pilgrimages are duplicated. On 16 July, rather than going to the mountain town of Saut d'Eau to honor Ezili Danto, New York Vodou practitioners take the subway to the Italian-American Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Harlem.
Alfred Metraux's Voodoo in Haiti (New York, 1959) is a complete and accurate, if not sympathetic, treatment of Haitian Vodou. Melville J. Herskovits's Life in a Haitian Valley (New York, 1937) is an early and popular ethnography of the Mirebalais Valley located fifty-five kilometers inland from Port-au-Prince. Herskovits worked there during a period when Vodou influence had been significantly repressed by Christian missionaries and consequently he saw it as a dying religion. Maya Deren, dancer and filmmaker, wrote a rich and insightful work on her encounter with Vodou, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1953; reprint, New Paltz, N.Y. 1983). In addition, Harold Courlander's The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People (Berkeley, Calif., 1960) provides much helpful information about Vodou and its larger cultural contexts. It is especially good on music. To greater and lesser extents all of the above works are outdated. Donald Cosentino's, The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou (Los Angeles, 1995), a selection of essays by leading Haitian scholars and also the catalog from Cosentino's highly successful exhibition of the same name, is the richest and most diverse academic work on Vodou. A classic article by Serge Larose, "The Meaning of Africa in Haitian Vodu," can be found in Symbols and Sentiments: Cross-Cultural Studies in Symbolism, edited by Ioan Lewis, 85–116, (New York, 1977).
The most complete, although not necessarily the best, history of Haiti and Haitian Vodou is still James G. Leyburn's The Haitian People (1941, rev. ed. with a new introduction by Sidney Mintz, New Haven, 1966). Joan Dayan's Haiti, History, and the Gods (Berkeley, Calif., 1998) brings postmodern analytic skills and fresh archival work to her gendered account of Haiti's revolutionary history. Carolyn Fick's The Making of Haiti: The San Domingue Revolution From Below (Knoxville, Tenn., 1990) makes a carefully researched and convincing argument that Vodou played a significant role in Haiti's revolution and did so from the beginning. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who argues that Vodou came together only in the first half of the nineteenth century, does a brilliant job in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, 1997) of problematizing other versions of Haiti's taken-for-granted history.
Anne Greene's The Catholic Church in Haiti: Political and Social Change (East Lansing, Mich., 1993) provides important information about the role of Catholicism in Haiti, as does Terry Rey's Our Lady of Class Struggle: The Cult of the Virgin Mary In Haiti (Trenton, N. J., 1999). Leslie G. Desmangles's The Faces of the Gods: Voudou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1993) explores the syncretism dimension of the relationship between Vodou and Catholicism. Robert Ferris Thompson's Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York, 1981) contains the best analysis yet done on the specific African retentions within Haitian Vodou.
A handful of scholarly works cover new areas in Vodou scholarship. E. Wade Davis opened the world of the secret societies in The Serpent and the Rainbow (New York, 1985) and Passage of Darkness (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1988). Elizabeth McAlister's Rara: Vodou Power and Performance in Haiti and the Diaspora (Berkeley, Calif., 2002) changes the relationship between Vodou temples and Carnival, and thus, to some extent, between the sacred and the secular. My own work, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Berkeley, Calif., updated edition, 2001), provides an extensive case study of Vodou in diaspora.
Karen McCarthy Brown (1987 and 2005)
c/o Oyotunji African Yoruba Village, PO Box 51, Sheldon, SC 29941
In December 1973 a group of blacks from Harlem received national news coverage for their establishment of a “vodou kingdom” in Beaufort County, South Carolina. This kingdom was called the sacred village of Oyotunji, and it was headed by one of the founders, Oba (King) Efuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I (1928–2005), born Walter Eugene King. King had abandoned the Baptist Church of his family during his teens and begun a search for the ancient gods of Africa. He traveled to Haiti in 1954 and discovered vodou. Early in 1955 he traveled to Europe and North Africa, and upon his return to the United States he founded the Order of Damballah Hwedo Ancestor Priests. In 1959 he traveled to Cuba and was initiated in the Orisha-Vodou African priesthood by Afro-Cubans at Matanzas, Cuba. The Order of Damballah was then superceded by the Shango Temple, and in 1960 King incorporated the African Theological Archministry. The Shango Temple was then renamed the Yoruba Temple.
In 1970 King Efuntola moved with most of the temple members to rural South Carolina, where the Yoruba Village of Oyotunji was established. He began a complete reform of the Orisha-Vodu priesthood along lines of the Nigerian tradition. In 1972 he traveled to Nigeria and was initiated into the Ifa priesthood. Upon his return he was proclaimed oba-king (Alashe) of Oyotunji. He opened the first Parliament of Oyotunji chiefs and landowners and founded the priests’ council (Igbimolosha) in 1973. These two groups make the rules for the community, and they attempt to adhere closely to African patterns in doing so.
Oyotunji was modeled on a Nigerian village, including a palace for the King and his wives (Efuntola had four in 1995) and children. There are also several temples dedicated to the various deities. Only Yoruban is spoken before noon each day. Efuntola was invited to a convention of Orisha-Vodum priests at Ile-Ife, Nigeria, in 1981, and on June 5 he was coronated by the King of Ife.
The Yoruba religion is considered to be the “rain forest version of the Ancient Egyptian Mystery System.”It is the source for Afro-Cuban Santeria, but it makes no attempt to equate its gods with Christian saints. The Yoruba world is headed by Olorun, a universal energy without anthropomorphic characteristics. Olodumare, equated with Ifa, the God of Destiny and Divination, sets a destiny for everything in nature. It was Orishanla (Obatala), the Creator God, who created the solid land mass and the first earthlings. The pantheon also includes Eshu-Elegba, God of Luck and the personification of the unpredictable element in life; Ogun, God of Iron, or the violent element in life; Oshoun/osun/, Goddess of Sex and Beauty, or the sensuous element in life; and Shango, God of Lightening and Thunder, or the political element in life. Yoruba practices include animal sacrifice, polygamy, ecstatic dancing, and the appeasement of the gods by various offerings. Worship centers upon the veneration of the deities, and it is also directed toward the ancestors, the spiritual forces closest to individual humans.
In 2002 there were 51 residents of Oyotunji Villabe, 55 affiliated centers in the United States, and the Yoruba Temple reported that it had more than 10,000 members.
African Theological Archministry, Sheldon, South Carolina.
Yoruba Theological Archministry, Brooklyn, New York.
King Efuntola became a leader in the African Nationalist movement in the 1960s. After he moved to South Carolina, his village became a pilgrimage site for many blacks, irrespective of their acceptance of his religious stance.
Oyotunjia Village. www.oyotunjiafricanvillage.org.
Adefunmi, Baba Oseijeman. Ancestors of the Afro-Americans. Long Island City, NY: Aims of Modzawe, 1973.
Adefunmi I, Oba Efuntola Oseijeman Adelabu. Olorisha, A Guidebook into Yoruba Religion. Sheldon, SC: Author, 1982.
Canet, Carlos. Oyotunji. Miami, FL: Editorial AIP, n.d.
Hunt, Carl M. Oyotunji Village. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1979.
Mason, John. Ebo Eje (Blood Sacrifice). New York: Yoruba Theological Archministry, 1981.
———. Sin Egun (Ancestor Worship). New York: Yoruba Theological Arch-ministry, 1981.
———. Usanyin. New York: Yoruba Theological Archministry, 1983.
———. Unje Fun Orisa (Food for the Gods). New York: Yoruba Theological Archministry, 1981.
Odunfonda I Adaramila. Obatala, The Yoruba God of Creation. Sheldon, SC: Great Benin Books, n.d.
Current address not obtained for this edition.
Occasionally, a leader of a Vodou group will allow an outsider (such as a reporter) to have limited access to the organization. Such a leader was High Priestess Madam Arboo of Afro-American Vodoun. Born in Georgia, Madam Arboo was reared in Vodou and migrated to New York City, where she settled in Harlem. As described in a lengthy 1964 article that is the only source of information about her, she described Vodoun as an Afro-Christian cult centered on Damballah, the chief Vodou deity and god of wisdom, personified as a serpent. As a high priestess, she was his messenger. Her group differed from Haitian Vodou groups in that it reduced the remainder of the pantheon to the position of subdeities or spirits. Damballah was equated with the brass serpent that Moses made in the wilderness (Numbers 21:9).
Healing is a high priority of Afro-American Vodoun, and it includes both psychic and psychological counseling and (where permitted) the dispensing of folk remedies such as rattlesnake oil. Worship is held on the evening of the new moon and is centered around ecstatic dance accompanied by flute and drum and led by the papaloi (priest) and mammaloi (priestess). The members, as they dance, enter trance-like states, which become occasions for revelations and messages from the spirits.
Elements of Christianity survive in this form of Vodoun in the use of spirituals. The threefold way of Vodoun teaches faith, love, and joy as virtues. The pentagram (for females) and the Star of David (for males) are major symbols. Animals carry symbolic power: the goat represents fertility; the eagle, majesty; the turtle, caution; and the vulture is Damballah’s “sanitation department.”
No direct contact has been established with Madame Arboo, and the current status of her group is uncertain. Vodoun groups exist along the East Coast and are organized into gatherings of from 15 to 20 persons.
Arboo, Madam, as told to Harold Preece. “What ‘Voodoo’ Really Is.” Exploring the Unknown 4, no. 6 (April 1964): 6–19.
PO Box 22627, Hialeah, FL 33002
The Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye was founded in the early 1970s and incorporated in 1974 in Miami, Florida, by Ernesto Pichardo, its president, and his brother Fernando Pichardo in an effort to provide a public center for the largely secretive Santeria religion. Santeria has become a significant practice in the Cuban-American community of southern Florida, where it was introduced by refugees from the Cuban Revolution under Fidel Castro. The church existed in relative quiet for many years, with its main public appearance being in a class Pichardo conducted at Miami-Dade Community College. The practice of Santaria also featured in a series of cases in the city courts in which the church defended its members. Then, in the mid-1980s, a decision was made to open a Santeria church that would hold public services in the Miami suburb of Hialeah, and this helped make the religion more well known, though it also created controversy.
Santeria is based upon the worship of the orishas, African deities from the country of Nigeria. This worship was brought to the Americas by the many slaves transported to the region from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. In Spanish colonies such as Cuba, the Nigerian religion took on a veneer of Roman Catholicism, and many of the orishas became identified with Catholic saints. The resultant New World practice became known as the “religion of the saints,” or Santeria. Worship in the religion is built around the possession of the priest/priestess and the believer by an orisha. During this time of possession, the possessed person will take on the characteristic of the particular divinity involved. Integral to the worship of the deities, especially on special occasions such as a marriage ceremony, is animal sacrifice. This characteristic has made Santeria controversial in the otherwise very tolerant religious environments of Miami, New York, and Los Angeles, the three cities with the largest number of Santeria practitioners.
Shortly after announcing the opening of the church in the 1980s, the city of Hialeah passed four ordinances outlawing ritual animal sacrifice, ostensibly to protect residents from the spread of disease, to prevent cruelty to animals, and to prevent traumatizing any children who might witness the death of an animal. The case became the subject of a court battle that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the ordinance in 1993.
Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye. www.church-of-the-lukumi.org.
Resnick, Rosalind. “To One City, It’s Cruelty. To Cultists, It’s Religion.” National Law Journal (September 11, 1989).
PO Box 453336, Miami, FL 33245
The Church of the Seven African Powers is one of several churches founded during the 1980s through which the largely secretive Santeria community could reach out to the public at large, especially those who had become curious about it and wanted to experience it first hand. The church promotes the worship of the orishas, the African deities whose actions form the heart of the Santeria faith. The church offers a correspondence course for people wishing to become knowledgeable about the faith. Each lesson contains instructions for ebbos (spells) designed to aid the believer. The church also provides a means for seekers to come to Miami and to experience direct contact with the orishas through meetings with a Santeria priest-ess or priest.
In 2002 the church reported 100 to 200 members.
Church of the Seven African Powers. geocities.com/athens/sparta/1332/.
Current address could not be obtained for this edition.
The Religious Order of Witchcraft was incorporated in 1972 in New Orleans, Louisiana, by Mary Oneida Toups, its high priestess. A housewife and mother, she began her magical career in 1969 in a Kabbalistic system. In 1970 she opened the Witches’Workshop (now the Witchcraft Shop), a magick/witchcraft/vodou shop in the city. She continued her study in the ritual magick systems of Aleister Crowley and Israel Regardie and, in 1971, reached the point of mystical communion with her holy guardian angel. That communion led to the founding of the order. According to her textbook, Magick, High and Low, the order was focused on Kabbalistic magick with a strong emphasis on astrology, Egyptian mythology, and the Tarot. Members venerated the “God of the Witches” popularly known as the Goat of Mendes. They did not worship it, but rather what it symbolized: the magical light of universal intelligence always available to people when they learn how to use it, the belief that sacrifice must come before complete illumination, the balance between justice and mercy, eternal life, and the dual masculine-feminine nature of the body, among other things.
Prior to her death, Toups created several Wiccan priestesses who continue her lineage at different locations around the country. Among those who claim Toups’s heritage is Rev. Samantha Corfield (a.k.a. Mambo Sam, b. 1956), who resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She and her husband operate Sheer Goddess and www.spellmaker.com, through which they keep in touch with believers. They also sponsor an annual Voodoo Convention.
The Witchcraft Shop Toups operated in New Orleans continued under new management, but did not survive the Katrina hurricane disaster of 2005.
Samantha Corfield. www.spellmaker.com/.
Toups, Oneida. Magick, High and Low. Jefferson, LA: Hope Publications, 1975.
828 N Rampart St., New Orleans, LA 70116
The Voodoo Spiritual Temple, located on the northern edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans, is an important center of Vodou. Its importance lies in its openness to people not of African lineage, especially visitors to New Orleans, and its willingness to introduce outsiders to the often secret world of Vodou
The term Vodou comes from the French word Voudon, which can mean “the power,” “that who is invisible,” or “the creator of all things.” Originating in Benin, West Africa, and the Congo, Central Africa, Vodou is an earth-based religion that honors the forces of nature and the universe, as well as ancestral spirits that provide guidance in the present. During the slave trade, Africans taken from these regions kept their traditional spiritual practices alive despite constant attempts to destroy the spirit and traditions of those who had been captured and sold into slavery.
Since its introduction in the Western Hemisphere, Vodou’s opponents have depicted the religion as a sinister, even abominable, belief system, and the leaders of the Voodoo Spiritual Temple have noted that these characterizations are the result of both misunderstandings and deliberate misconceptions on the part of writers, anthropologists, scholars, and even Hollywood producers.
Vodou devotees believe in an Omnipresent Creator and the loas, or orishas (forces or saints of the universe). The loas act as intermediaries between the creator and the human world, comparable to saints in Catholicism. Each loa interacts with people and things to help create and maintain a spiritual balance.
The temple was founded in 1990 by Priestess Miriam Chamani (b. 1943) and her husband, Priest Oswan Chamani (1944–1995). A native of Mississippi, Miriam had experienced the power of mysterious forces since childhood, and she was led to various spiritual orders, culminating in the attainment of vast spiritual and metaphysical knowledge. In 1982 she was consecrated as a bishop at the Angel Angel All Nations Spiritual Church in Chicago. Oswan Chamani was born in Belize, Central America, where he studied Vodou (known as Obeah in Central America) under three teachers, two of whom were African Diviners.
Voodoo Realist Newsletter.
Voodoo Spiritual Temple. www.voodoospiritualtemple.org.
Costonie, Toni. A Brief History of Priestess Miriam & the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. New Orleans: Voodoo Spiritual Temple, 2003.
Based primarily on an amalgamation of spirit and ancestor cults and healing traditions brought by African slaves to the New World, and secondarily on African and European forms of folk Catholicism, Vodou (Voodoo) is the most popular religion among Haiti’s eight million citizens, most of whom are peasants. It is also practiced by a sizable minority of the two million Haitian immigrants (and a small number of converts of diverse ethnic backgrounds) in the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, and North American cities like Miami, New York, and Montreal. The first Vodou practitioners in the United States were the African and Creole slaves of French plantation owners fleeing the violence of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), who settled mainly in New Orleans, where the religion remains part of the city’s religious fabric, sometimes practiced in concert with Hoodoo, a form of African American folk spirituality that is also based on ancient African traditions. Like any religion, Vodou is a system of symbols, beliefs, and practices that provides its adherents, whether in Haitian or American society, with a sense of meaning and purpose in life, a means of communing with the sacred, moral guidelines, a source of personal identity and group solidarity, and the courage to face life’s struggles.
Vodou emerged in the sixteenth century among enslaved Africans and their descendants in the western region of the Spanish Caribbean colony of Santo Domingo, which became the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1697 and eventually the Republic of Haiti in 1804. Although possessing deep roots in West Africa and Central Africa, the religion is more correctly identified as African-derived or African-based rather than African, even if the term vodou (whose original meaning in the West African Fon language is “spiritual entity”) was reappropriated by practitioners of traditional African religions in West Africa in the twentieth century to designate their own religion. Like Santería and other major African-derived religions in the Americas, Vodou is an example of diffused monotheism, meaning that the sacred power of a single creator god, called Bondye (Good God) or Granmèt (Great Master), is diffused through a pantheon of divinities, which in Vodou are called lwa, and throughout nature. As such, the lwa are deeply enmeshed in nature, and each lwa is associated with some natural force or feature, like rivers, rainbows, the earth, and the sea.
From the beginning of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, a total of some 800,000 enslaved Africans were brought to Santo Domingo/Saint-Domingue, the majority from the West African Fon and Central African Kongo ethnic groups. Numbering relatively few and facing opposition by slaveholders, Catholic missionaries managed little success in evangelizing slaves beyond administering the legally required sacrament of baptism. The syncretism that would thereafter characterize Vodou thus resulted, as Catholic saints merged with African spirits, and crosses, holy water, and rosaries joined spiritual forces with amulets that slaves refashioned from African traditions, which proved remarkably resilient in the face of the unspeakable oppression of slavery.
Prior to the Haitian Revolution, a multiplicity of African religious traditions thus persevered in Saint-Domingue, whose sugar plantations made it Europe’s most lucrative colony. To speak of Vodou prior to the revolution is therefore somewhat anachronistic, as three of the religion’s cornerstones were not laid until the second half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century: (1) the unity of purpose of the Haitian Revolution, as exemplified by the powerful ceremony at Bwa Kayman in August 1791, led by a prototypical Vodou priest named Boukman Dutty, which is widely credited with having sparked the revolution; (2) the integration of essential African religious traditions that were being practiced during the colonial era in clandestine maroon settlements of escaped slaves in the island’s mountains and forests; and (3) the acceleration of the adoption of Catholic elements (especially hagiography) during the period of the “great schism” between Haiti and Rome from 1804 to 1860, when the Vatican refused to send Catholic priests to the young nation. After the schism, the Catholic Church, in alliance with the Haitian government, orchestrated several formal campaigns to suppress Vodou. These ultimately failed, however, and today the religion enjoys protection under the 1987 Haitian constitution, while in 2003 its baptisms and marriages gained legal recognition in Haiti.
Vodou has always been heterogeneous and decidedly uncentralized, relying on neither the teachings of a founder, nor scripture, nor formal doctrine. In some parts of Haiti, for example, the religion is primarily characterized by ancestor veneration, and elsewhere by cults of spirits of West African origins, such as Ezili, the female lwa of love, sensuality, and feminine power, and Ogou, the male lwa of iron and all powers associated with metals. The Vodou pantheon is divided into two principle rites: the rada, whose lwa are “cool” and serene; and the petwo, whose lwa are “hot” and feisty. Many lwa have manifestations in each rite. Rada and petwo cults are supplemented for most practitioners by the veneration of their ancestors (zanset or lemò, “the dead”). Collectively, the lwa, zanset, and lemò, along with angels and Catholic saints, are identified simply as the “mysteries” (mistè ).
Principal forms of communication and contact with Vodou’s mistè include prayer, praise, ablutions, offerings, spirit possession, drum and dance ceremonies, divination, and animal sacrifice. These rituals’ overarching aim is to ensure, establish, or reestablish harmony between practitioners and the mistè, or to protect practitioners from sorcery (wanga ). In the event of bad things happening, Vodouists consult with ritual specialists (female: manbo ; male: oungan ), who perform divination and orchestrate ceremonies (which most often take place either in temples (ounfò ), family burial compounds, or public cemeteries) to provoke spirit possession and thereby enter into communication with the mistè in order to discover the cause of the underlying discord, disease, problem, or misfortune, and to determine and prescribe means of reestablishing harmony, healing, or achieving relevant solutions. Further drum ceremonies may be prescribed, while others are held according to a liturgical calendar derived from Catholicism.
Harmony between humans and the mistè and healing comprise Vodou’s raison d’être. In general, such harmony requires the ritual appeasement of the mistè, whether through splendidly artistic communal drum and dance ceremonies, animal sacrifice, or more frequent personal devotions such as praising and feeding the lwa. Healing, meanwhile, often involves herbalism and ritual baths. Leaves, water, song, dance, drums, blood, healing, and communion with the sacred are thus what Vodou is truly about. It is a dignified and complex religion of survival, resistance, and African roots that is quite the opposite of the ignorant and racist stereotypes that malign Vodou in Western imagination and media.
SEE ALSO Haitian Revolution; Peasantry; Religion; Rituals; Roman Catholic Church; Santería; Slavery; Zombies
Hurbon, Laënnec. 1995. Voodoo: Search for the Spirit. Trans. Lory Frankel. New York: Abrams.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1995. Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings. New York: Library of America.
Métraux, Alfred.  1972. Voodoo in Haiti. Trans. Hugo Charteris. New York: Schoken.
Voodoo is an animist religion that consecrates a cult to Loas (gods) and to the ancestors—the cult of ancestors constitutes a system of religious beliefs and rites which are used principally to reinforce the social system as well as the dependence of the family—and at the same time, voodoo spirits, guardians, deities, or forces of nature. Voodoo originated in Africa, specifically with the Fon, Yoruba, and Ewe tribes. Geographically, those ethnic groups can be found throughout Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. More than a religion or a cult of death, voodoo plays a major role in everyday life through the symbolization of the African traditions for the Haitian people. Voodoo is far from a uniform worship, but evolved differently from one region to the next.
Voodoo is more than a synthesis of different African beliefs because it incorporates significant influences from Christianity. The word voodoo comes from the Fon language, spoken in Benin, meaning "a kind of power which is mysterious and, at the same time, fearsome." Voodoo is invested in all parts of Haitian life and has a considerable influence on each person and on each natural element. The voodoo pantheon consists of many Loas, which are generally associated with a Catholic saint. Despite the existence of these Loas, voodoo is essentially monotheist; in their conception, the Loas are neither more or less than the intermediaries between God and the human ones.
The cult of voodoo appeared in the New World with the African slave trade, which began in Haiti during the 1700s. The slaves brought with them these African traditions. There are also some variations of this cult in Brasilia and in Islands of Antigua. Voodoo involves a mix of different ethnic beliefs and it rapidly became an important element of cultural cohesion for the slaves, who came from different cultures and used different languages.
According to the tradition of voodoo, humans enter into communication with the Loas in a very ritualized manner. The Loas are capricious and they will only be of help if one comes into contact with them correctly through the elaboration of different rituals (according to the Loas one wishes to contact). The voodoo service takes place in the oúfo (voodoo temple) and this ritual must be officiated by a hougan (priest) or a mambo (priestess). Voodoo adherents attribute illnesses and deaths to the wrath of angry ancestors—hence, the considerable importance given to the ritual and appeasement ceremony. The voodoo ceremony embraces several elements, including music, dance, food offering, drumming, and animal sacrifices.
The ritual Rada, which is used in the initiation rite, involves the "Good Loas" who have come from Africa, and who represent the lost mystic world. Inside the voodoo ceremony, the Rada Loas are the first to be served; they represent the guardians of custom and tradition. The Rada Loas play an important function through the different healing processes and their principal characteristic is the fact that all of their actions are directed toward good. In opposition, the ritual Petro involves "Bad Loas," which originated in Haiti. The Petro Loas are considered to be the masters of magic. They embody a kind of relentless force. As the ethnologist Alfred Métraux describes, "the word Petro inescapably conjures up visions of implacable force of roughness and even ferocity" (1972).
The Rada and Petro rituals use both defensive and offensive magic, and can help to obtain justice for someone who has been wronged. The ritual of possession, which appears in the Petro ritual, constitutes the most important way to connect the spirits or ancestors with human beings. A possession crisis appears when the voodoo practitioner is in a situation of marriage with a Loa and becomes his "horse." The possessed person suffers from amnesia, which is explained by the fact that no one can be at the same time god and human. This possession crisis generally appears in a ceremony called Manger-Loa and constitutes the major happening in the voodoo ceremony.
The voodoo conceptualization of the world involves the belief in continuity between life and death. In voodoo, death is perceived as a regeneration of all society if the various death rituals and the burial services are well executed. Also, considerable importance is attributed to dead persons and the regular maintenance of the tomb. Thus the cult of voodoo succeeds in attaining a reconciliation between the world of the alive and the world of the dead.
See also: Zombies
Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.
Derem, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. 1953. Reprint, New Paltz, NY: McPherson, 1983.
Métraux, Alfred. Voodoo in Haiti. New York: Schrocken, 1972.
voo·doo / ˈvoōˌdoō/ • n. a black religious cult practiced in the Caribbean and the southern U.S., combining elements of Roman Catholic ritual with traditional African magical and religious rites, and characterized by sorcery and spirit possession. ∎ a person skilled in such practice.• v. (-doos, -dooed) [tr.] affect (someone) by the practice of such witchcraft.DERIVATIVES: voo·doo·ism / -ˌizəm/ n.voo·doo·ist / -ist/ n.