As we saw in our previous post about the History of Voodoo #2, this cult originated in Africa and spread throughout the Americas starting in the 18th century as a consequence of the slave trade carried out by the European empires that colonized the continent. In Haiti a small proportion of Roman Catholics combine aspects of their faith with vodou, a practice that Haitian Protestants denounce as a diabolical cult.
Vodou is a Creole word that refers to a wide range of Haitian rituals dedicated to “serving the spirits” through diverse ceremonies. The first documented record of the practice of Vodou in Haiti was recorded in the Christian Doctrine, a document of 1658. Over the years several institutions have attempted to erase the stigma associated with voodoo and spread through popular culture. KOSANBA, an association for the study of Haitian vodou, is one of these organizations.
More than a religion, vodou is an experience that unites the body and the soul. This concept derives from the Congolese tradition of kanga, a practice that unites the soul to a tangible object. Vodou practitioners believe in a supreme god called Bondye (from the French bon “good” and Dieu “God”). When vodou came into contact with Christianity, this supreme god was associated with the Christian god and the loa were linked to the saints. As Bondye is considered unattainable, practitioners of vodou pray to minor entities known as loa or mistè. Like the Christian saints, each loa is dedicated to one aspect of life: Pope Legba is the guardian of the roads; Erzulie Freda is the spirit of love; Simbi the spirit of rains and magicians and so many more. The loa are divided among 21 African nations.
The love and support for the family are the pilars of the society that practices vodou. Generosity is about giving to the community and those in need. There are no “lonely” people in vodou, only people geographically separated from their home or their ancestors. In Haiti and in nearby areas (Dominican Republic, Cuba) there is a wide variety of vodou practices. Although all retain their African roots, there is no single and true expression of their rites and customs as there is no central religious authority or sacred written documents that dictate the way forward.
Soul and religious cults
For the vodou the soul is divided into two planes: the gros bon ange (great good angel) and the ti bon ange (good little angel). The gros bon ange is responsible for the biological functions of the body while the ti bon ange is in charge of the character and strength of will. Therefore, a person can exist with the ti bon ange even if his body disappears after death. Vodou is practiced in small improvised temples called peristyls. The religious acts begin with offerings of food and prayers in French, a litany in Haitian Creole and langaj that goes over the European and African saints. Then follows a praise to honor the house and some verses dedicated to their spirits, an act called Priyè Gine. The verses to the spirits are sung and the participants believe that the spirits visit the ceremony possessing the individuals and acting through them. A believer of the vodou must follow the canons imposed by his particular loa, fulfilling offerings and ceremonies. In this way the loa will help him, but ignoring the requests of the spirits can bring diseases and all kinds of misfortunes. Sacrifices are also common in Haitian vodou: pigs, goats, chickens and bulls are just some examples. The objective of the ritual is not the death of the animal, but the transfusion of his life to the loa, since blood and flesh are an essence of life whose energy can be transferred to the god who receives the sacrifice.
Domestically, each vodou practitioner is a “server” and can have one or several tables dedicated to their ancestors and spirits that serve with photos and statues of spirits, perfumes, foods and other offerings. The most basic thing is to place a white candle, a glass of fresh water and some flowers. For the spirits, the light of the candle indicates a greeting to Papa Legba, who opens the door between the worlds to speak with the spirits and ancestors of the family. However, it is not necessary to mediate Papa Legba to speak with the closest ancestors since their presence is in the blood. In Haiti, the vodou cult is closely related to rural life and the values of the peasants.
In the vodou there are male (hougan) and female (mambos) priests. Priests are chosen by deceased ancestors through a possession. Their job is to do good by helping and protecting others from spells, although some claim that they can use their supernatural powers to harm or kill other people. They also preserve the rituals and songs that maintain a relationship between the spirits and the community.
The asson (a maraca made of pumpkin) is the symbol of someone who has acquired the status of houngan or mambo in the vodou of Haiti. The asson contains small stones and snake bones to make noise, and is surrounded by a network of porcelain stones. This magical object was created by the first hougan, Loko, priest of all the priests and guardian of the secrets of initiation to vodou. There are no secrets for him and he is too powerful to appear before humans, so he never performs acts of possession. It is represented through the wind and can appear in the shape of a butterfly. The offerings to Loko are placed inside a djakout (a straw bag) that hangs on the branches of the trees. Loko only receives the services of hougan and mambos and is usually represented with the Christian image of St. Joseph for being the adoptive father and mentor of Jesus, the most important figure of Catholicism.
But not everything inside the vodou is kindness. There is also the figure of the bokor, a sorcerer who performs spells on request. They do not have to be priests and they can serve dark spirits that are not accepted by mambos or houngan. These evil spirits are called baka and take the form of various animals.
Vodou practitioners revere death and believe that it is a great transition from this life to another or to the beyond. Some Vodou families believe that the spirit of a person leaves the body but is trapped in the water, in the mountains, in caves – or anywhere where a voice can echo – for a year and a day. After this a ceremonial celebration commemorates the deceased so that his soul can occupy trees or even become a voice in the wind.