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Introduction to Voodoo in Haiti

By Bob Corbett, March 1988

Note of July 16, 1995. This paper is 7 years old. It is due for a revamping. I decided to use it here and then revise it partially on the basis of the responses to it. It's not that I think there's anything wrong with the position here, it's just that I've read a great deal since 1988, been to more services, talked with more serveteurs and so on. So, I'm ready to update. Soon.



First and foremost Voodoo is a religion. It is the dominant religion of Haiti. Many of the practices and descriptions of Voodoo belief may sound to us like rank superstition, but then, imagine the beliefs of Christianity to people who know nothing about it. Tell them about the trinity or the resurrection, or the presence of Jesus in the eucharist. Any of these practices which very intelligent Christians believe in the fullest would seem no less superstitious to someone unfamiliar with Christianity.

Thus I urge you to recognize that Voodoo is Haiti's religion, it is taken very seriously not merely by unlettered peasants, but many intelligent and learned members of the Haitian society believe as sincerely in Voodoo as do German theology professors in their Christianity. In no way do I expect you to believe in Voodoo; no more than I would expect you to convert to Islam if I taught a course on that religion. But, please do recognize that it is every bit as real a religion as the major religions of the world.

1. The most basic concepts of Voodoo

  1. There is one God, Bondye. This God is very similar to the God of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. There is only one God.
  2. There are three important categories of other spiritual beings:
  3. The central and key aspect of Voodoo is healing people from illness. Such healing activities probably constitute 60% of all Voodoo activity. Healers heal with herbs, faith healing (with the help of loa and other spirits) and, today, even with western medicine!
  4. The priesthood of Voodoo contains both men (houngan) and women (mambo). Their functions are:
  5. Another central feature of Voodoo is the service, the religious rites of the religion.
  6. There are two primary sorts of Voodoo.
  7. The analysis of humans. Humans have two spirits and a body.

Key terms in Voodoo

the parish or region of a houngan or mambo's influence.
a small earthen bottle into which the gros-bon-ange of dead ancestors can rescued. After a person dies the gros-bon-ange goes to the underwater place. A year and a day after he or she goes their the relatives can recall the gros-bon-ange. Unfortunately this is a very expensive service, requiring a significant animal sacrifice, often an ox. Thus it is often considerable time before the service can be done. If too much time passes the ancestor may get a bit restless and cause trouble--illness etc.
serious practitioners of Voodoo.
the magic rattle of the houngan or mambo.
lave tet
(washing of the head) an initiation ceremony held for serviteurs after they have been mounted for the first time.
the initiation ceremonies for those moving into a very serious level of Voodoo practice.
taking of the ason
the final initiation into being a houngan or mambo.

NOTE: Both kanzo and the taking of the ason are very secret services. However, in Alfred Mtraux's book (VOODOO IN HAITI), through observation and talking with people who were not too careful about the secrecy of kanzo, he has pieced together a detailed account of the ceremony.

ceremonial drawings done in flour, of the various loa.
the Voodoo temple. A tiny tiny place.
poto mitan
the center pole in a Voodoo peristyle. It represents the center of the universe and all dancing revolves around the poto mitan.
Les Invisibles
all spirits.
Les Mysteries
1--the loa themselves.
2--sacred knowledge. Also called konesans.
The crossroads.
A central image in Voodoo. This is the place where the two worlds (earth and spirit world) meet. Virtually all Voodoo acts, even healing, begin with the acknowledgment of the crossroads.

Some of the central loa in the Voodoo pantheon

An old man who is the gatekeeper between the two worlds, world of earth and the world of the Invisibles. He is the origin of life. The sun is one of his symbols, but he is also the source of regeneration and uses the symbol of the phallus.
(crossroads) is the Petro counterpart to Legba. He is the spirit of the night, the origins of darkness. The moon is his symbol. He can be placated, but is a dangerous loa.
Papa Ghede.
Loa of death and resurrection. A total clown. Very erotic and comic. He is the lord of eroticism.
The father figure. He is the good snake. The source of peace and tranquillity. The egg is offered to him when he comes to mount a person. He is much loved and sought after. His wife Aida-wedo attends him.
The sovereign of the seas. Especially honored, as one might well expect, by people who live near the sea.
The warrior. Today, too, the force of politics. Violent.
The earth mother. Spirit of the goddess of love. The muse of beauty. (Strongly identified with the Virgin Mary.) Her appearance (when she mounts someone) is one of cleansing, dressing, delicate foods daintily eaten. She can read the future in dreams. A much loved loa.

The FATALISM of Voodoo

Voodoo is much criticized by foreigners in Haiti. Sometimes it is simply because they profess a competing religion and don't want the people to stay with Voodoo. At other times they charge that it is devil worship. This claim is sheer nonsense when speaking of Rada Voodoo, the numerically primary form. It is less clear how to describe Petro. There are no devils in Voodoo, but Petro ultivates the evil spirits.

However, many of the non-religious aspects of Voodoo which people often criticize really seem to me to be more the result of Voodoo's overwhelming fatalism. The view is that to an astonishing degree the loa determine our lives. The Haitian serviteur has little use for anything like the Western idea of free will and personal responsibility. Rather, whatever has happened it is the loa who have caused it.

If one would like to change anything in one's life, from a current illness to the fundaments of the social system, one must ask the loa. One does not ACT on one's own. This would be counter-productive since it is the loa who decide these things anyway.

Further, 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. However, one can must the hard question: Is it Voodoo that has caused Haitian fatalism, or is it the history of the African/Haitian experience that has created Voodoo's fatalism?

Voodoo's relationship to Christianity

  1. The Catholic experience.
  2. The Protestants.