I have decided to share a bit about the history and development of Voodoo both in Haiti and in Louisiana in this first installment of a series of articles of Voodoo culture and history.
Vodou is a monotheistic religion.
As I have stated many times in my writings, I am not an expert or practitioner of Haitian Vodou and my knowledge is limited to my interactions with Haitian people and from academic sources. So, I do apologize if any information given is erroneous or incomplete and I welcome comments from those more familiar with the religion in Haiti. I am however an experienced priest of New Orleans Voodoo and I possess a vast knowledge of the rites, traditions and practices of Louisiana Voodoo and there is no denying that the influences from Haitian Vodou run deep in New Orleans and for that reason I feel it is necessary to begin our journey on the island of Hispaniola during colonial times when a variety of West African spiritual practices fused with Catholicism to create the religion of Vodou.
Contrary to popular belief, Vodou is a monotheistic religion, since practitioners believe in one all-powerful God who created the universe and everything in it. In Haiti, where Vodou together with Catholicism is the majority religion, God is referred to simply as “Bon Dieu”, which translates as “Good God” or “Holy God.” The same name is often used in reference to God by Christians all over the Francophone world. It is a common misconception that Voodoo is a polytheistic religion. Most Voodooists are of the Catholic faith, so we choose to see God in three divine persons-the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Why then do so many assume Voodoo to be a polytheistic religion? Aside from Hollywood and popular fiction’s portrayal of the religion as a savage cult of black magic, there is a popular misconception that Voodooists, especially in Haiti, are polytheists since they serve a pantheon of spirits called the “lwa”. Vodou is essentially an African spirit religion that has found a home in the Caribbean. The name “Vodou” comes from the Dahomey language of Western Africa and means simply “Divine Spirit” which is a reference to God, whom Voodooists revere and worship as all powerful and all merciful. Voodoo has it origins in what is today Benin, Togo and parts of Nigeria, and is not to be confused with the Yoruba religion, also from Nigeria, that would become Santería, Macumba and Candomblé in the New World. Today, Vodou is still practiced by an estimated 10-20% of the population of Benin and Togo and the African practice bears little resemblance to the religion in Haiti and New Orleans, where because of Catholic influence many new spirits and saints are venerated and new forms of worship have evolved. The religion in Benin and Togo was suppressed first by Christian missionaries and later by the socialist regimes that ruled from 1971 until 1992. Today, Christianity and Islam are the dominant faiths in West Africa, yet in many rural areas as well as throughout the Caribbean the rich legacy of traditional African spirit religions remain prevalent to this day.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the island of Hispaniola was inhabited by the Taíno people, who were closely related to the Arawaks of the South American continent, albeit a more peaceful tribe. The name in Taíno for the island was “Ayiti,” which means “mountainous land”, a name that would be later adopted by the new Haitian government after the revolution of 1804. Columbus set foot on the western side of Hispaniola on December 5th, 1492 in what is today the Republic on Haiti. Shortly after the arrival of these first Europeans, the native population died out due to diseases such as small pox and diphtheria to which they had no immunity, and left the island essentially deserted. The Spanish explorers quickly lost interest in the island following the discovery of vast deposits of gold and silver in the Mexico and South America, and what few settlements they had there were concentrated on the eastern side of the island that is today the Dominican Republic. It was not until the end of the 17th century when the western third of the island was ceded to France and the massive production of sugar began under French colonial rule. The colony of Saint Domingue prospered. By the early 18th century, it was known as the “Paris of the New World” and was the richest of all the Caribbean islands, a far cry from the corrupt and poverty stricken nation that it is today. In order to supply a labor force for the massive scale plantation economy, the French began importing boatloads of slaves from West Africa. These slaves, along with their music, languages and food preparation techniques, also brought to Saint Domingue their religion: Vodou.
Upon their arrival in Saint Domingue, the French colonizers splashed some water in the slaves’ faces, declared them Christians and set them to work in the sugar cane fields. Rarely did the African population receive any formal religious instruction, and therefore they did not learn or fully understand the faith which they were told they must practice, and often times they maintained their traditional African beliefs and practiced them along side the Catholicism of their white captors. The most widely accepted theory regarding the crystallization of the Vodou religion in Haiti is that the slaves continued to venerate the spirits of their native land, but prayed to them in secret, hiding them behind Catholic iconography as not to be discovered by the French clergy. This was most likely true in the early days of colonization, but I personally feel that Caribbean slaves overtime accepted many aspects of the Catholic faith and began to pray to European saints alongside their traditional African spirits. Hence the syncretism between Vodou spirits and Catholic saints, which does not exist in Africa. This syncretism is especially prevalent in Cuba where Santería is widely practiced, the name itself meaning “the way of the saints.” A friend of mine named Suzie Rivera from the Dominican Republic, where a religion closely related to Vodou called Las 21 Divisiones is practiced once told me, “más poderosa que todos los santos es la Divina Hostia,” more powerful than all the saints is the Devine Host. This is an example of the acceptance of the Catholic faith on the part of practitioners of Vodou. Such an assumption is logical if one takes into account the fact that by their very nature African religions borrow and incorporate elements of other faiths such as can be seen in the veneration of Yoruba and Congolese sprits in Vodou despite its obvious origins in West Africa. Any claim that Vodou survived without Catholic influence in the Caribbean is most likely an attempt to decatholocize the religion by New Age practitioners in the United States.
Vodou pratitioners venerate a pantheon of spirits which are called “lwas.” The term “lwa” comes from the French word “loi,” meaning “law.” Each lwa represents a law of nature or of the human condition. Practitioners can call upon the lwa for favors and blessings to improve their state of life and one may communicate with the lwa by means of possession through an initiated priest of priestess. The roles of Vodou initiates will be detailed below. In Haitian Vodou, as is New Olreans Voodoo, there are three families of lwas-The Rada, the Petro and the Ghede. The Rada lwa are the original spirits that came from Africa and which are still venerated there today. The Petro lwa are the angry, fiery aspects of the Rada lwa. According to Vodou teaching, the Petro lwa were born at the beginning of the Haitian Revolution in 1791 when the revolutionary leaders and several run-away slaves gathered in the woods at Bois Caïman and sacrificed a black pig to the lwa and begged for the strength to overthrow their French captors. A great storm arose and the Petro lwa were born and empowered the slaves to bring their captors to their knees. A Voodooist would invoke a Rada lwa and a Petro lwa for help in the same dominion, but for a different reason. One might call upon the Rada lwa Erzulie Freda for help in finding a lover, and one might invoke the Petro aspect of the same lwa, Erzulie Dantor, to punish a abusive husband or get revenge on a unfaithful lover. So, both aspects of Erzulie deal with love, but under different circumstances. The third group is the Ghede lwa who are the lwa of death. The idea of death is important in Vodou since death is the gateway through which we must all pass in order to enter into the spirit world to be with our ancestors and God. In Vodou, the spirit world, much like the Christian heaven, is called Guinea, which is no doubt a reference to the ancestral homeland. The Ghede lwa are important because they assist people on their final journey into the spirit world and retrieve them from the lake of death and welcome them into the eternal paradise of Guinea. The Ghede lwa can also be called about to assist in the preparation of magical charms and spells by Voodoo priests. The most important holiday of the Vodou liturgical year is the Fête Ghede, which is the three day festival coinciding with the Catholic Feasts of the All Saints and All Souls, November 1st and 2nd, respectively.
Voodoosits serve, but do not worship, the lwa. They believe that the lwa will grant them material blessings in this world, but only faith in Almighty God can bring them a happy afterlife. Each person, according to Vodou, is born under the patronage of a specific lwa and will often exhibit that lwa’s characteristics as their own personality traits. For example, a child of Erzulie Freda may be physically beautiful, flirtatious and enjoy owning exotic and expensive items. There are several hundred lwa, and more are invented all the time as the need or desire arises. A Vodou practitioner may even serve a lwa known only to him and his family. In the next installment I will share some of the names and attributes as well as a variety of other information about some of the more widely known lwa. Thank you again for checking out my blog and may your life be filled with abundant blessings!