The African-based religion of Haiti. Voudou can be traced to the first Africans brought to Haiti in the sixteenth century. However, it was during the years of French acquisition of land in Haiti that the bulk of African people were brought to the island. Between 1664 and 1830 some 1,650,000 Africans arrived in Haiti. The dominant group came from Dahomey, and the Dahomean religion became the most important element in the emergence of Voudou.
The Africans brought with them beliefs found throughout West Africa, including a belief in a supreme deity or divine power. In Haiti that deity came to be known as le Bon Diei (the Good God). This deity had largely withdrawn from human affairs, but under him were a number of greater and lesser deities. Among the major deities were Legba, Erzulie, and Damballah. The lesser deities (loas ) are numerous, and are of two varieties, those of African origin (the Rada) and those of Haitian origin (Pétro). Many of the African deities, especially those tied to local sites, did not survive the Atlantic crossing, and they were replaced with new local deities. The name Pétro derived, according to oral tradition, from a man named Don Pédro who introduced a distinctive dance into Haitian religion.
The plantation owners in Haiti attempted to impose Catholicism on the slave population. One of the means by which Voudou survived was in the identification of the loas with various Catholic saints. Thus Legba was identified with Saint Anthony, Erzulie with the Virgin Mary, and Damballah with Saint Patrick. Damballah is pictured as a snake, and, as in Ireland, there are practically no snakes in Haiti. Hence the association with St. Patrick.
Voudou worship and practice is conducted by male (oungan ) and female (manbo ) priests. They operate out of a worship center called ounfo. In the center of the ounfo is a peristil, a pole that usually has a representation of Damballah coiled around it. Worship includes honoring the deities (which may involve the sacrifice of various animals), lively dancing with drum accompaniment, and the possession of priests or others in attendance by loas.
Like all West African religion, Voudou includes the practice of magic. Voudou has a particularly bad image, even among other African-based religions, as the home to much sorcery (malevolent magic), even to the extent of the calling forth of zombies, dead people brought back to life to handle menial labor in the fields.
The image of evil attached to Voudou in the popular imagination seems to have begun with what is known as the Affaire de Bizoton. On December 27, 1863, a little girl of the town of Bizoton was kidnapped and used in a sinister cannibalistic ritual. Eventually the perpetrators were caught, tried, and convicted. While the actions of the people who had killed the girl were offensive to all, in the popular press, especially the foreign press, the actions of the murderers were identified with the Voudou community. Besides the gruesome stories printed at the time, in the 1880s a volume on Haiti by Sir Spenser St. John describes the incident in vivid detail and uses it in a diatribe against Voudou. His work has been followed by a variety of writings, varying from the academic to the journalistic to the merely exploitive, that point a self-righteous finger at Voudou adherents.
There is, of course, an element of magic, even of black magic in Voudou, but it operates quite differently than outsiders have usually presented it. Besides the oungans and manbos, there are bocors (sorcerers), and caplatas (lesser magical functionaries). Most magic is used to ward off evil. Charms ward off the evil eye and various loas are seen as the cause of the different ills people suffer. Magic will be applied to discover the loa responsible and the means of getting the loa to go away. There are also accounts of evil spirits, creatures such as vampires and werewolves.
During the eighteenth century, the ruling class did not take particular notice of Voudou. They tended to identify it with the nocturnal gatherings most notable for dancing. The dancing drums, however, served as a communication system across Haiti, and in 1804 they became the means of organizing a massive and successful revolt. Haitians were able to pull off the revolution without the aid of a great leader because they were united by their religious beliefs. Those beliefs, including the protection of the loas, allowed them to rise against the better-armed rulers.
The use of Voudou in this revolt led the first black ruler of Haiti to oppose it. Later rulers embraced Voudou, most notably Jean-Claude Duvalier, who promoted his own image as a great Voudou magician and his use of Voudou priests in his militia.
Voudou was brought to the United States in 1804 and the years following the Haitian revolt. It spread through the black population of New Orleans and the surrounding countryside. It found its most famous practitioner in Marie Laveau in the mid-nineteenth century. Legal measures were taken to curb its power in the years prior to the Civil War, but they merely drove the practice underground. It survives today, both in a public mode accessible to tourists and as a semisecret religious community. In the 1920s it provided inspiration for the development of African American Spiritualism and the Spiritual Church movement.
Bisnauth, Dale. History of Religion in the Caribbean. Kingston, Jamaica: Kingston Publishers, 1989.
David, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Warner, 1985.
Denning, Melita, and Osborne Phillips. Voudou Fire: The Living Reality of Mystical Religion. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications,1979.
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti. New York: Chelsea House, 1970.
Selden, Rodman. Spirits of the Night. Dallas: Spring, 1992.