A set of beliefs and rites, African in origin but closely interwoven with practices borrowed from the Roman Catholic Church, constituting the living religion of both the rural and urban masses of the Republic of haiti. Its followers expect from it what every man has always expected from his religion, a remedy for his ills, the satisfaction of his needs, and the hope that at least part of him will survive death.
Voodoo was able to grow strong roots in Haiti because of the long "schism" or separation from Rome (1804–60). The Catholic cult never ceased but it had fallen into unworthy hands. A black legend of voodoo, fostered in colonial times by hatred and fear, was strengthened in the 19th century by Spencer St. John's report of a court case of cannibalism and other stories of doubtful veracity; its almost perfect expression is found in W. B. Seabrook's The Magic Island (New York 1929).
Voodoo worshipers believe in one supreme God, too good to get angry, and in numerous spirits to whom a cult is offered: the lwa, the marasa or twins, and the dead. Many lwa are African deities; others are local spirits. Communication between voodooists and the supernatural world is effected through possession. The individual becomes the instrument, the "horse" of a spirit, and displays in his new personality a behavior that has sometimes been characterized as hysteric.
There are undeniable affiliations between Dahomean and Haitian mythologies, but the tradition has been impoverished and only insignificant remnants are left of the functions and attributes of the major Dahomean gods. The ritual has suffered from its uprooting much less than the system of beliefs; the kanzo or initiation, for example, still reproduces the scheme of its Dahomean prototype.
magic and witchcraft have proliferated in the shadow of voodoo. One can still find suspicious objects at the crossroads, discover traces of mysterious ceremonies in the cemeteries, ponder over "werewolf passports" or hear about weird crimes, which prove that, although many stories of bewitchment and poisoning are the product of wild imagination, black magic is practiced. Moreover, if there are wizards, societies of witches, and "werewolves" who do not belong to the voodoo cult, there are also houngans (voodoo priests) who "serve with both hands," that is to say, are at the same time sorcerers. In fact a good houngan is expected to know everything about witchcraft (a mixed product of African and French medieval magic) in order to fight it.
Numerous similarities between voodoo and ancient Mediterranean orgiastic cults have been pointed out: groups centered on sanctuaries, dances followed by possessions, and initiation rites; but it should not be forgotten that voodoo deities move also in the industrialized modern world and form a part of modern civilization. Contributions to voodoo tax heavily the poor man's income; on the other hand, in many regions voodoo songs and dances are the only recreation and houngans the only healers. As a religious system, voodoo has lost nothing of its creative power; the faith of its followers is as deep as ever and its ritual and mythology are in constant growth. Two trends, however, favor an impending decay. First, the campaign of the Roman Catholic Church against superstition has made the peasant conscious of the opposition between voodoo and Christianity and of the evil in his use of Catholic liturgy in a pagan cult. Second, the commercialization of voodoo, favored in Port-au-Prince by the development of tourism, is bringing into the ritual changes that displease the majority.
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