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Voodoo: The Haitian Religion Essay, Research Paper

Juan Diez

Voodoo: The Haitian Religion

To a person who may be unaware of the teachings and history of Voodoo, it may seem apparent that it is a negative religion. To make such accusations without learning about the religion is not right. Voodoo is a religion. It is the dominant religion of Haiti. Many of the practices and descriptions of Voodoo belief may sound like rank superstition, but it is only to those who know little or nothing about the religion. In Haiti, Voodoo is taken very seriously, not merely practiced by illiterate peasants, but by many intelligent and learned members of the Haitian society. It is a religion that has endured many hardships throughout its existence, from slavery in Africa all the way to prosecution from Protestants in modern day Haiti. This paper will try not to give a defensive or condescending attitude towards the religion of Voodoo, but more of a presentation of facts that will enable the reader to decide of what he or she thinks about the religion. Voodoo is not the cannibalistic, child-sacrificing religion that modern day society has made it out to be, but more of a religion in touch with its ancestors and its spirits. Advocates of Voodoo have worked hard to change its image because it has been slandered by many people. Some writers of Voodoo have even attempted to change the spelling of the word Voodoo to vodun, vaudin, vodoun, vodou, or vaudoux, in an attempt to disguise the religion. Changes in the name of Voodoo also stem from the way many of the people in Haiti pronounce the word Voodoo. To begin a discussion on Voodoo and its elements, a history of Voodoo and how this religion came to be is needed.

Fist and foremost, Voodoo is probably the best example of African syncretism in the Americas. Although its essential wisdom originated in different parts of Africa long before the Europeans started the slave trade, the structure of Voodoo, as it is known today, was born in Haiti during the European colonization of Hispaniola (Anonymous). Ironically, it was the enforced immigration of African slaves from different tribes that provided the circumstances for the development of Voodoo. European colonists thought that by destroying the various tribes, they could not come together as a community. However, in the misery of slavery, the transplanted Africans found in their faith a common thread. They began not only to include their own personal gods, but also to practice rites and rituals other than their own. In this process, they combined and modified rituals of various tribes. The result was that the different religious groups integrated their beliefs, thereby creating a new religion. Voodoo the Afro-Caribbean religion mixes practices from the Fon, the Nago, the Ibos, Dahomeans, Congos, Senegalese, Haussars, Caplaous, Mondungues, Mandinge, Angolese, Libyans, Ethiopians, and the Malgaches. These were basically all the major tribes that made up the religion of Voodoo. The strength that the Africans in Haiti gained from their religion was so strong and powerful that they were able to survive the cruel prosecution of the French rulers against Voodoo. When the French saw that the religion of the Africans was a threat to the colonial system, they prohibited all forms of African religious practices and severely punished the practitioners of Voodoo with imprisonment, lashings, and hangings. This religious struggle continued for three centuries, but none of the punishments could extinguish the faith of the Africans who kept their religion in secret. It was in the midst of this struggle that the revolution was conspired. The Voodoo priests consulted their oracle and learned how the political battle would have to be fought in order for them to be victorious. The revolution finally gained Voodoo its independence in 1804. Through the years of 1815 through 1850 there was quiet diffusion. Under emperor Soulouque, Voodoo became acceptable to the regime and emerged publicly (Leyburn). After the liberation of 1804, all white people were kicked out of Haiti and many were killed, which included Roman Catholic priests. Thus in 1804, the Vatican broke with Haiti and did not establish relations with her again until 1860. During this fifty-six year period, houngans (male Voodoo priests) and mambos (female Voodoo priests) built up the public religion of Haiti, which was Voodoo in a copulation of African spirit religion and Catholicism (Corbett, Introduction to Voodoo in Haiti). Virtually all Voodoo spirits, or loa, became associated with Catholic saints. The most important consequence of this is that Haitians see nothing wrong with practicing Voodoo and Catholicism side by side and are often devout about each of them (Corbett, Voodoos Relationship to Christianity). From the 1860 s to the 1940 s, some elements of the Catholic Church waged an all out holy war against Voodoo. They burned peristyle, Voodoo shrines, beat and killed houngans and mambo, and demanded their ostracism form society. However, they lost because Voodoo went underground to some extent, but it grew in popularity, in large measures due to the oppression. By the early 1950 s the Catholic Church hierarchy halted the war and got rid of the oppressors and made its peace with Voodoo. Voodoo drums and melodies were incorporated into Catholic Church services. The Catholics have maintained a relative peace with Voodoo serviteurs ever since (Corbett, Voodoos Relationship to Christianity). Then in the 1970 s, Evangelical Protestantism came to Haiti due to the fact that after Reagan came to power, Evangelization mushroomed. Evangelical Protestants are bitter enemies of Voodoo and denounce it and its ways as being devil worship and idolatry. Many of these Protestants claim that Haiti s misery is because God is punishing it for the sins of its Voodoo serviteurs, which is a very serious issue for Voodoo in Haiti. Evangelical Protestant groups have grown massively and own seven of Haiti s eleven radio stations and have made significant gains in conversions. Today, most observers believe that at least fifteen percent of the Christians in Haiti are Protestant Evangelists. Now an emergency reform for Voodoo is present as a force in the peasant movement toward progressive reform in Haiti. Voodoo s history is a hard one. It has been persecuted and oppressed even to this day. What makes the religion so taboo in eyes of many people? The religion of Voodoo is an intricate one. It combines bits of culture from other African religions, thus making it complex.

The word Voodoo, which is a distortion of the Dahomean word for vodu means god or spirit , but unfortunately, in popular literature and films the word has been misconstrued as sorcery, witchcraft, and in some cases, cannibalistic practices. All of these accusations are false and have sparked many prejudices not only about Voodoo but also about Haitian culture in general. Voodoo is a monotheistic religion. Its follower s answer to only one God, they call him or her Bondye. This God is very similar to the God of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. The characteristics of their other spiritual beliefs in entities include the following: Loa, the Twins, and the dead. Loa are the various spirits of family members; the spirits of major forces of the universe, which include good, evil, reproduction, health, and all aspects of daily life. Loa interact with people on earth, they do this by mounting them now and again during religious ceremonies and give messages while doing so. They even cause various good and bad things to happen to people, depending on how they feel. Mounting, when referring to loa, is the instance when a loa comes and takes over a person s body from time to time. This is usually done in religious ceremonies or when a loa is trying to communicate with a person. When the loa enters the body, the person is gone. The body is the body of the individual person, but it is really the loa. For instance, if a male loa enters the body of a female person, he is referred to as a he and not as a she, only during the mounting. The next entities of Voodoo are the Twins. These are much like the ying and yang. The spirits are curious and rather mysterious forces of contradictories: good and evil, happy and sad, right and wrong, and other balances. If honored now and again in religious services, they will tend to help one have the better side of life. The final entity of Voodoo is the dead. These are mainly the souls of one s own family members who have died but have not yet been reclaimed by the family. Ignored family dead can be dangerous, often holding grudges and causing bad things to happen. Honored and cared for family dead are helpful and very nice. All three entities of Voodoo are shown great respect and treated with dignity, because it is dangerous to anger any of them. Loa spirits are everywhere, but no one is responsible for every single one of them. Only personal loa need to be honored and remembered. Other loa that are significant are the popular ones. These include the loa that a person marries, followed by Legba, who is the gatekeeper between the two worlds, the World of Earth and the world of the Invisibles. He is the origin of life, and the sun is one of his symbols, but he is also the source of regeneration and uses the symbol of the phallus. Kalfu is the next loa, whose name means crossroads and is the Petro counterpart to Legba. He is the spirit of the night, the origin of darkness. The moon is his symbol. He can be placated, but is a dangerous loa. Papa Ghede is the loa of death and resurrection. He is an absolute clown, very erotic and comic. He is the lord of eroticism. Dumballah is the father figure. He is the good snake, the source of peace and tranquility. He is much loved and sought after. Agwe is the sovereign of the seas, she is especially honored, as one might well expect by people who live near the sea. Ogoun the warrior, is the voice and the force of politics, who is very violent. Erzulie is the earth mother. She is the spirit of the goddess of love, the muse of beauty, and is strongly identified with the Virgin Mary. Her appearance is one of cleansing, dressing, delicate foods daintily eaten. She can read the future in dreams and is very honored and loved (Corbett Loa). Along with honoring spirits and loa, Voodoo practitioners, called serviteurs, also provide many services in their religion.

The central and key aspect of Voodoo is healing people from illness. Such healing activities probably constitute sixty percent of all Voodoo activity. Healers heal with herbs, faith healing with the help of loa and other spirits, and today, even with western medicine. The priesthood of Voodoo contains both men and women. The male priests are called houngans, and the female priests are called mambo. Both have equal responsibilities and are equally important. The functions of mambos and houngans include healing, performing religious ceremonies to call or calm the spirits, holding initiations for new priests (Kanzo) , telling the future, reading dreams, casting spells and creating protections, and creating potions for various purposes. These include love and death spells. For any of these services there are fees, depending on the mambo or houngans. Another central feature of Voodoo is the service, the religious rites of the religion. The service is usually held outside, under a rough roof around the potomitan, the center pole. A houngan or mambo almost always directs these. Drums are used extensively to provide music, and dancing is absolutely essential to the whole service. Services are fully participatory, which means that not only the houngans and mambo participate but nearly everyone present. The master of ceremonies called La Place is often present, along with the hounganikon whom directs the music and motion. Hounsi, whom are the serving ladies, are usually dressed in white. All those in attendance are nearly all participants and most can be mounted. Nearly every voodoo service has animal sacrifice. By killing the animal, one releases life. The loa are exhausted by the taxing task of running the universe. Thus, they can receive this life sacrificed to them and are rejuvenated. This act makes them quite happy. This type of Voodoo is known as Rada Voodoo. This is family spirit Voodoo and the Voodoo of the relatively peaceful and happy loa. Another type of Voodoo is called Petro (Congo) Voodoo. This is black magic Voodoo and the Voodoo of angry, mean, and nasty loa. Dangerous things happen in Petro including death curses, the making of zombi , and wild sex orgies. By virtually all scholarly estimates, it is found that Rada Voodoo accounts for more than 95% of all Voodoo. Thus the tales of black magic, while very real, are extremely limited. Petro is not the typical Voodoo but it does exist. According to Voodoo, humans have two spirits and a body. The ti-bon-ange (little good angel) is similar to the conscience in the Western understanding of people. There is also gros-bon-ange (big good angel) which is similar to the soul of a person in Western theories. Except the soul is so much more separate from the person than is a western soul. For example, when a person goes before God for judgment it is the gros-bon-ange which presents the person to God and makes the person s case (Leonard, Overview of Haitian Voodoo).

There are many exaggerations and false convictions that have been stated about Voodoo and its practices. Much of this stems form the fact that there exists Petro Voodoo, which is the black magic sector of Voodoo. In Petro Voodoo, a bokor, which is a priest gone bad, performs basically the same functions as a regular priest but with bad intentions. These functions range from casting spells on people to zombification. These spells are performed with the intent to cause bad luck on someone, whereas zombification causes a regular person to be dazed and helplessly confused for the rest of his or her life. It is done by administering a few drugs and not with wands or totems. Although Voodoo does have a dark side, it is nowhere near as horrifying as it has been portrayed in the past. Several myths about Voodoo that have been displayed before include sticking pins in Voodoo dolls to try to hurt or kill someone. This is a definite exaggeration on normal Voodoo and is only an exception in rare cases. Another exaggeration are the sex orgies that take place. According to Hugh B. Cave, this notion of sex orgies is disillusioning, because there is very little sex in Voodoo. Erzulie, the love loa, when possessing a female participant at a service, may command the sexual attention of a chosen male. This is a form of sex, no doubt, though ritualistic rather than orgiastic. As for animal sacrifices, the only animals that are sacrificed are chickens and roosters and are only killed to offer life force to the loa s. Sacrifices are not made unless they are necessary. Many other false and exaggerated accusations toward Voodoo include cannibalism and child sacrifice. Due to these prejudices, Voodoo is much criticized by foreigners in Haiti. Sometimes it is simply because they profess another religion and do not want Voodoo to get in the way. At other times, they claim it to be devil worship. When speaking about Rada Voodoo, these claims are nonsense and have no merit. In Petro, however, it is less clear how to describe. There are no devils in Voodoo, but it does have its evil spirits. Many of the non-religious aspects of Voodoo that people often criticize, really seem to be more the result of Voodoo s overwhelming fatalism. The view is that to an astonishing degree, the loa determine their lives. The Haitian serviteur has little or no use for anything like free will or personal responsibility. Rather, whatever has happened, it is the loa who have caused it (Corbett, Fatalism of Voodoo). If a person would like to change anything in their life, they would have to ask the loa. A person does not act on his or her own. Furthermore, the loa are not very changeable. Things are the way they are because the loa have decided it. This fatalism contributes significantly to the peasants unwillingness to struggle for liberation.

While Voodoo has been struggling with a reputation as a despised religion, working on this paper and researching the religion has made me realize that it is not at all what I thought it was. The concept I had for this religion was a negative one. First of all, I thought Voodoo was a polytheistic religion having more than one god, but now I realize that I made an error. I grew up with the notion that Voodoo was the black religion that used dolls with pins in them to make other people suffer. While it is a part of Voodoo known as Petro Voodoo, I know now that it is a very rare circumstance. As are many other exaggerations made about this religion. Having read carefully the many roles a serviteur of Voodoo has, I have greatly developed a respect for this dying religion. It is such a shame that more people do not have the open mindedness to see that it is unique and should be treated like so. Armed with a newfound knowledge of this religion, I will put forth my best effort to make others aware that Voodoo is not the sadistic religion that society has made it out to be.

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