Vodun (Voodoo)

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Vodun (Voodoo)

The transatlantic slave trade removed Africans from their lands, families, and cultures. On the island of Haiti, the Fon people from Dahomey (Benin), and also the Yorubas, Kongos, and others, combined their African beliefs with Catholic lithographs, rites, and practices into a coherent whole. Slaves joined these various religious elements to create a belief system and worldview that constitute the core of Haitian vodou. The term most commonly used to refer to the religion, "Vodou," derives from the Fon word for "spirit" or "God." More accurate spellings are "Vodoun" or "Vodun." The term "Voodoo," an invention of the West, evokes malevolent notions that are not part of the religion. Vodun practitioners were forced to hide their religious practices and endured long periods of open persecutions and ostracism. Vodunists have finally begun to practice their religion openly since the 1987 Haitian Constitution recognized Vodun as a national religion. The majority of Haitians, who are also Catholic, do not see a contradiction in practicing both religions. Vodun today is practiced not only in Haiti but in Benin, the Dominican Republic, and various Haitian immigrant communities in the United States. Vodun is a comprehensive belief system and aesthetics that provides coherence within both the visible world and the realm of the invisible. It harmonizes the sacred and the profane, the material and the spiritual, and the world of the living with that of the departed, the ancestors, and the lwa, or spirits. The Vodou ethos or worldview constitutes the basis of the moral system, which regulates behavior, social interactions, and communal duties. Vodun shares a common ethical denominator with other world religions—a strong sense of justice and service, respect for elders, beneficence, forbearance, and humanism. The notion of the unity of all forces of nature is central to Vodun. The connection between the living and the spirits, the Earth, the land, and various bodies of water is important in that all work together to seek balance and to restore harmony and rhythm.

The lwa preside over specific aspects of life and serve as intermediaries between the humans and the absolute supreme being—God, the Gran Met. Some of the most important lwa are Atibon Legba, Marasa Dosou Dosa, Danbala, and Ayida Wedo. Azaka Mede, Ogou Feray, Agwe Tawoyo, Ezili Freda Daome, Lasirenn and Labalenn, and Gede Nimbo; all of these belong to the gentler Rada rite tradition passed down from West Africa. Other important lwa include Met Kalfou, Simbi Andezo, Ezili Danto, and Bawon Samdi, who come from the more intense Petwo rite tradition, which originated in the New World.

During Vodou ceremonies, the lwa possess, or "mount," the devotees to communicate with the living and to answer questions. They deal with the human and spiritual conflicts, antagonisms, oppositions, and lack of harmony that are the source of moral ills and societal imbalance. They intervene in human affairs as they guide, chastise, and praise. They assist with healing and open channels to facilitate the continous flow of energy. With imbalance, things do not flow; they are spoken of as being "tied" or "blocked," which goes against Vodun's dynamic, fluid, and ever-evolving philosophy. Vodun is a very practical religion that is primarily about sustaining life in the community. Its influences range from individual spiritual healing to the survival of the group and communal sustenance. It is grounded in the family and the community and underlies systems of traditional medicine, justice, art, music, education, and cooperative economics. Vodun is not only a belief system and worldview; it is also a way of life and a mode of survival. Thus, for its adherents in the United States, Haiti, and elsewhere, Vodun is present in all aspects of life.

See alsoAfrican-American Religions; Afro-Cuban Religions; Animal Sacrifice; Nature Religion; SanterÍa; Spirit Guides.


Brown, Karen McCarthy. MamaLola: A Voodoo Priestessin Brooklyn. 1992.

Murphy, Joseph M. Working theSpirit: Ceremonies of theAfrican Diaspora. 1994.

Claudine Michel