Haitian Vodou is an African diasporic religion that developed in Haiti between the 16th and 19th centuries. It arose through a process of syncretism between the traditional religions of West Africa and Roman Catholicism. Adherents are known as Vodouists (French: vodouisants [voduizɑ̃]) or “servants of the spirits” (Haitian Creole: sèvitè).
Vodou focuses on the veneration of deities known as lwa. These are often identified both as Yoruba gods as well as Roman Catholic saints. Various myths and stories are told about these lwa, which are regarded as subservient to a transcendent creator deity, Bondyé. An initiatory tradition, Vodouists usually meet in ounfò, temples run by priests known as oungans or priestesses known as manbos, to venerate the lwa. A central ritual involves practitioners drumming, singing, and dancing to encourage a lwa to possess one of their members. They believe that through this possessed individual, they can communicate directly with a lwa. Offerings to the lwa include fruit and the blood of sacrificed animals. Several forms of divination are utilized to decipher messages from the lwa. Healing rituals and the preparation of herbal remedies, amulets, and charms, also play a prominent role.
Vodou developed among Afro-Haitian communities amid the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. It arose through the blending of the traditional religions brought to the island of Hispaniola by enslaved West Africans, many of them Yoruba, and the Roman Catholic teachings of the French colonialists who then controlled the island. Many Voudou practitioners were involved in the Haitian Revolution which overthrew the French colonial government, abolished slavery, and formed modern Haiti. The Roman Catholic Church left for several decades following the Revolution, allowing Vodou to become Haiti’s dominant religion. In the 20th century, growing emigration spread Vodou elsewhere in the Americas. The late 20th century saw growing links between Vodou and other orisha-worshipping traditions in West Africa and the Americas, such as Cuban Santería and Brazilian Candomblé. Since the late 20th century, some practitioners have emphasized a “Yorubization” process to remove Roman Catholic influences and create forms of Vodou closer to traditional Yoruba religion.
Practitioners of Vodou are primarily found in Haiti, although communities exist in other parts of the Americas, especially among the Haitian diaspora in the United States. Both in Haiti and abroad it has spread beyond its Afro-Haitian origins and is practiced by individuals of various different ethnicities. Vodou has faced much opposition and criticism through its history, having repeatedly been described as one of the world’s most misunderstood religious traditions.
Names and etymology
The term Vodou “encompasses a variety of Haiti’s African-derived religious traditions and practices”. Vodou is a Haitian Creole word that formerly referred to only a small subset of Haitian rituals. The word derives from an Ayizo word referring to mysterious forces or powers that govern the world and the lives of those who reside within it, but also a range of artistic forms that function in conjunction with these vodun energies. Two of the major speaking populations of Ayizo are the Ewe and the Fon—European slavers called both the Arada. These two peoples composed a sizable number of the early enslaved population in St. Dominigue. In Haiti, practitioners occasionally use “Vodou” to refer to Haitian religion generically, but it is more common for practitioners to refer to themselves as those who “serve the spirits” (sèvitè) by participating in ritual ceremonies, usually called a “service to the loa” (sèvis lwa) or an “African service” (sèvis gine).
“Vodou” is the commonly used term for the religion among scholars and in official Kreyol orthography. Some scholars prefer to spell it as “Vodoun” or “Vodun.” The Haitian term “Vodou” derives from Dahomey, where “Vôdoun” signified a spirit or deity. In Haiti, the term “Vodou” was generally used in reference to a particular style of dance and drumming, rather than a broader religious system. In French, such traditions were often referred to as le vaudoux. Many practitioners instead use the term “Ginen” to describe the broader framework of their beliefs; this term refers particularly to a moral philosophy and ethical code regarding how to live and to serve the spirits. Many of the religion’s practitioners will not describe themselves as an adherent of a distinct religion but rather will describe how they sèvi lwa (“serve the lwa”).
Outside of Haiti, the term Vodou refers to the entirety of traditional Haitian religious practice. Originally written as vodun, it is first recorded in Doctrina Christiana, a 1658 document written by the King of Allada’s ambassador to the court of Philip IV of Spain. In the following centuries, Vodou was eventually taken up by non-Haitians as a generic descriptive term for traditional Haitian religion. There are many used orthographies for this word. Today, the spelling Vodou is the most commonly accepted orthography in English.
The spelling voodoo, once very common, is now generally avoided by Haitian practitioners and scholars when referring to the Haitian religion. This is both to avoid confusion with Louisiana Voodoo, a related but distinct set of religious practices, as well as to separate Haitian Vodou from the negative connotations and misconceptions the term “voodoo” has acquired in popular culture.
Vodou is an Afro-Haitian religion, and has been described as the “national religion” of Haiti. Many Haitians take the view that to be Haitian is to practice Vodou. Vodou is one of the most complex of the Afro-American traditions. The anthropologist Paul Christopher Johnson characterized Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, and Brazilian Candomblé as “sister religions” due to their shared origins in Yoruba traditional belief systems. Practitioners are also referred to as serviteurs (“devotees”). In Haitian society, religions are rarely considered totally autonomous from one another, with people not regarding it as a problem to attend both a Vodou ceremony and a Roman Catholic mass. Many Haitians practice both Vodou and Roman Catholicism, and the Vodou priest and painter Andre Pierre stated that “To be a good practitioner of Vodou, one must first be a good Catholic.” This engagement in different religious practices can also be seen elsewhere in Haitian society, with some members of the country’s Mormon community also continuing to engage in Vodou practices. Vodou has been referred to as a syncretic religion.