Looking at Vodou

Looking at Vodou

Michael Hogan

Several major waves of migration have brought Haitians to Boston. They have brought with them their culture, language and religion. For some Haitians, this means Vodou. KOSANBA will host its 8th International Colloquium at UMass Boston on November 2 and 3, and The Mass Media invited Haitian-American students to talk about their understanding of Vodou.

An amalgam of religions, Haitian Vodou has grown and evolved from its roots in west and central Africa. It includes aspects of the many different religious practices that have graced the island, from the original inhabitants, the native American Tiano people, to the European influences of Roman Catholicism, Freemasonry, and 18th century mysticism. For many, Haitian vodou has become a religion of tolerance and of unity.

The island that Christopher Columbus dubbed Hispaniola, or “Little Spain,” left full Spanish control in 1697, under the Treaty of Ryswick. The western portion of the island was acquired by the French and renamed Saint Domingue. Using the labor of slaves taken from west and central Africa, Saint Domingue would flourish to become the richest colony in the world. These enslaved Africans brought with them the religious beliefs of their homelands. Each group contributed unique aspects to Haiti’s hybrid religion, in which the spirits, or lwa, are grouped by “nation,” roughly corresponding to the culture that brought them. The lwa are minor gods who act as intercessors between mankind and God, and are capable of visiting Earth by means of possessing the faithful during ceremonies and rituals, during which they are fed and feted.

Chastised by the European Catholics who ruled the island, Vodou was forced into hiding in order to survive. Rituals took place in secret and the images of Catholic saints began to be used in ceremonies as ways of masking what the Europeans saw as evil practices.

In August of 1791, it is widely believed that a Vodou ceremony at Bwa Kayiman provided the courage and the spark for Haitian slaves to revolt and fight for their freedom. This revolt led to the nation of Haiti gaining its independence from the French in 1804, becoming the first independent black republic in history.

Through the “civilized” eyes of modern Western society Vodou has taken on a dark image as a result of Hollywood’s molding of the religion into horror movie fodder. The two main images that most Americans equate with Vodou are those of “zombies” and “voodoo dolls.”

While there is belief in “zombies,” the dead brought back to life and enslaved by sorcerers, it is not a component of the religion itself; rather, it is the work of sorcerers, not priests, men operating in secret societies in rural Haitian culture.

Dolls have been used for healing purposes to identify pressure points; the act of using such things to cause pain rather than take it away is a phenomenon of the variant that has become known as “New Orleans Voodoo.” It is speculated by some that slaves may have used the practice in as an act of self-defense, instilling fear into the slave owners.

The use of dolls in cemeteries and on altars as messengers to the dead is well known, but it is vastly different from the sinister usage seen on the silver screen.

Vodou is a nature-based religion that has endured and developed through the volatile history of the island itself. Haiti has been a place of colonialism, violent revolution and fierce dictatorship. Through it all Haitian Vodou has adapted with the times while still holding strong to its roots.

Some aspects of European Mysticism that was popular throughout the continent in the 18th century found their way to Haiti and, while remaining separate from the religion itself, have sometimes found a certain compatibility with Vodou practices. Card reading, crystal gazing and magical works flourish across the island.

Haitian Vodou has spread throughout the world as a result of the fleeing of refugees to places like the United States and other islands of the Caribbean. Taken from the independent island of Haiti and placed in a vastly Eurocentric society, Haitian Vodou has once again been forced into hiding. Despite the effects of the warping of Hollywoodism and the narrow views of the Western world, Vodou continues to flourish throughout the world.