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An Overview of Haitian Voodoo

By Jean Leonard, student at Webster University, 1994

Publisher's note: This was a student paper from Bob Corbett's course on Haitian Voodoo. It is present in this set of archives at his recommendation and with the student's permission. It consists of two letters written home by a fictitious character, named Aimee.

Dear Mom,

Thanks so much for the early Christmas card - it meant a lot. It has really been difficult for me to adjust to college life. I never realized what a challenge it would be to live alone and away from home for the first time. It hasn't been easy. I still question my choice not to live in the dorms. This apartment has become quite a burden to my bank account. Also, living off campus has made it harder to make any friends from school. Friends? Ha! What are those? I've been so busy trying to keep up in all of my classes (college is much harder than high school!!) and working so I can afford my apartment that I've had no time to socialize. Things are definitely different than they were one year ago when I was living at home and breezing through high school! So your Christmas card helped take away some of the loneliness - thanks.

And Mom, don't worry about me, either. Yes, New York can be very scary - but I take all of the necessary precautions to protect myself. I can only do so much, and the rest I leave up to my spirits. Remember my telling you about that neat lady I met in Brooklyn? Alourdes is her name.

Anyway, I know that when I told you about her, you didn't approve because she practices Voodoo. (Yes- this again!!) But, Mom, Alourdes and this way of life - the Voodoo spirits we follow (yes, we) - have become so significant to my life that I need for you to try to understand this world. I've taken vows and I'm now married to my special spirit, or loa. This event has been a turning point in my life, and I want to explain it all to you so you'll understand and not worry so much about me.

I indicated earlier that I've felt lonely and alienated, but the loneliness has subsided a little. Two months ago I was at my wit's end with it. But now, since I've discovered the loa, I've achieved some peace. I had heard about Alourdes from someone I work with. He knew I'd been struggling and told me that Alourdes was a healer and that she could help me. I was so desperate that I was ready to try anything. I knew there was the possibility that she could be just another hoax who was out to rip me off, but that was a chance I was willing to take. Well she isn't a hoax, and I knew this the minute I set foot in her house. She treated me with such concern - she really wanted to help me. Mom, I know you think Voodoo is some sort of evil cult. And I'll admit, I at one time questioned its validity as well, but this is so far from the truth. I wish more people knew how beautiful the world of the loa really is. Advocates of Voodoo have worked hard to change its image. Some writers have even tried to change the spelling of the word Voodoo (to vodun, vaudin, vodoun, vodou, vaudoux) in attempts to disguise it. It is widely believed by some defenders of Voodoo that the mere word, Voodoo, holds such negative connotations in peoples' heads that they immediately close their mind when they see the word and they won't read any further about it. Sound familiar?

Anyway Mom, I'm here to tell you that Voodoo - no matter how you spell it - is a positive religion. True, it has its negative aspects, but so do all religions. Most of the negative stuff you've seen and heard about Voodoo (cannibalism; dolls with pins in them; zombies; black magic) is either completely false or so rare that it hardly ever takes place. But c'mon, you and I both know that Hollywood producers aren't going to profit by making a two hour movie portraying a day in the life of the Catholic Church. But if a movie-maker can get some kind of negative angle on a religion - something out of the ordinary, like an exorcism or devil worship, then those producers will take this all the way to the bank! After all, Aunt Evelyn is Catholic, but I'd be willing to bet that she's never once gone to church and found the crucifix upside down or blood where the holy water is suppose to be. Well, I've never been to a Voodoo ceremony where there are dolls with pins in them, or people getting sacrificed and eaten. Just as there have been occasional exorcisms within the Christian religion, and a small percentage of people who worship the devil - Voodoo also has its dark side. But also like Christianity, Voodoo's darker side isn't nearly as graphic as Hollywood portrays it. Take zombification for example: when you break it down, its just a boring technical procedure where some guy called a bokor (he's basically like a priest gone bad) administers a few drugs that knocks the person (zombi) out and leaves him or her helplessly dazed for the rest of his or her life. It's pretty basic stuff. No wands or whips or daggers. Even the evil spells that bokors put on people sound anti-climactic (When a bokor puts a bad spell on someone, he says he's doing work on that person). All that an evil spell really does (if it works) is give the recipient of the spell some bad luck. And bad luck can be anything from a bladder infection to a plane crash. Still, there is no blood dripping from ceilings, and there are no human organs in the middle of dinner tables.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to defend the evil, or dark side of Voodoo. I think it's horrifying, and that's why I don't practice it. I stick with people who follow the nice spirits - the sweet loa we call them. No one I know even practices Voodoo with their left hand. Alourdes, my friend that I mentioned earlier, is a mambo (Voodoo priestess) and she practices Voodoo with her right hand - meaning she follows the sweet loa, too. This side of Voodoo that I associate with (and so do 95% of all of the people who follow the spirits) is called the Rada side. In Rada Voodoo, the only time it can really get nasty is when the spirits are upset. See, Mom, these spirits aren't like the big almighty Christian God who's way up there in the sky. The Voodoo God - we call him/her Bondye or sometimes Granmet, (Grand Master) - is too busy and also, quite frankly, he/she is too snobbish. My spirits have feelings just like I do. They're not too high and mighty to talk to little old me. They understand me. My spirits know what it's like to be angry, sad, happy, lonely, or tired. They can feel that way, too. That's why they can sometimes get a little nasty, If I ignore them, they feel jilted just like I would if someone ignored me. So, yeah, things can sometimes get a little strange - if I ignore my spirits I'm liable to run into some sort of misfortune (illness, accident etc.) But they're usually pretty forgiving, and they give ME a lot of notice when they're upset (my professor at school calls my spirits Anthropomorphic).

I don't want you to get the wrong impression - my spirits aren't so temperamental that they can't be relied upon. They're benevolent spirits as long as I remember them. Our relationship is based on love. I love and adore my spirits, and they love and protect me.

There are a lot of loa, too. I'm not responsible for all of them, though - just my personal spirits. I already told you that I married my special spirit, Loko. The ceremony was about a month ago. It was really neat. Loko is kind of in charge of nature. He's really into leaves and herbs, and Alourdes says he's the guard of sanctuaries and upholder of justice. The reason I married him out of all of the other spirits is because he is the spirit that is most like myself (No wonder I'm studying law!) It's funny 'cause there are all these other spirits that I thought I would be way more compatible with than I am with Loko. Papa Ghede is the loa of eroticism; life and death; protector of children; guardian of the cemetery; and just a real funny guy who likes to smoke cigars (you know how I love the smell of cigar smoke!) Agwe is the spirit of the sea. Ougon is the strong, dominant, and prophetic warrior spirit. Erzulie is the refined loa of love and beauty who likes to flirt and get attention. It's interesting because she's so lovely and happy all throughout ceremonies, but right before she leaves she gets real sad and sinks into a deep depression that she bears all alone because no one can comprehend her pain. But the thing is - she comprehends everybody else's pain (maybe that's why she cries?) Anyway, there's also Dumballah, who is a snake spirit. He's a real loving father-figure type. Then there's Zaka, Papa Ghede's brother, and he's kind of gross. He's just really immature and sometimes acts disgustingly. Ghede usually gets lewd at ceremonies, but it's all in good humor. However when Zaka acts that way, it's not always funny. He's just not as smooth at it as Ghede is.

Simba is one of the Petro spirits, they're more angry than sweet. They often get a bad rap. Most of the left handed Voodoo is from the Petro spirits, but there is also a justified rage in Petro which Haitian history explains. Anyway, Simba rules the waters. Ti-Jean is another Petro spirit.

Gran Bwa is the guy we go to when somebody wants to be initiated into the priesthood. Ayida and Erzulie are both married to Dumballah. But I guess the most important spirit is Papa Legba. Legba is so important because without him, we can't get to our other spirits. He's kind of like a telephone operator because he connects you with the spirit you need to get a hold of. We call Legba's role opening the gates to the spirit world. Legba is a Rada spirit, so when bokors want to do work on somebody and they need to open the gates to the Petro spirits, Kalfu is who they ask.

So do you see what I mean about there being a lot of spirits?! That's why I couldn't believe it when Alourdes told me that Loko is my spirit. I thought for sure that my bouts with depression were enough evidence to prove that I belonged with Erzulie; or my love of swimming and the ocean would surely make me one of Agwe's descendents. Heck, even Papa Ghede and I both love children! But the more I think about it, the more I know that Alourdes is right. Every day I learn more and more about Loko. The other day I surprised Alourdes with a birthday cake. She wanted to know how I found out it was her birthday, and I just smiled mysteriously. It wasn't until then that Alourdes told me I was so much like Loko 'cause he hears everything. She said he's like the wind and you never know when he's around! I thought that was pretty neat. The more I get to know Alourdes, the more I'm amazed at how brilliant she is. I can't even fathom how she can see so much in people. Just by talking with someone, she can see deep within her psyche, and can detect who her personal loa are. She claims she knew Loko was my main spirit before she ever even met me! She said she had a dream where her spirit (Ougon) told her I'd be coming to her and she should take care of me! Then, when she read my cards that first day, she told me that the spirits sent me to her. At the time I was confused, but now, in retrospect, I think she was right. I think that my loneliness and frustration with school and my financial insecurity were all results of the work of the spirits. Ever since I've been following the loa, my life has been virtually trouble-free. Someday I hope to become more than a serviteur in Voodoo. I'd like to be further initiated into Voodoo in a ceremony called lave-tet. Alourdes calls this a washing of the head, and she says I'll know when I'm ready for it because my spirits will let me know.

Anyway Mom, I'm really excited about all of this. I'm happy with the direction my life is moving. I hope I didn't shock you, or even bore you with all of this new information. I know it's a lot to digest, but it is vital to me that I share myself with you because I don't want us to grow apart. Please let me know how all of this hit you. I'm anxious to hear your opinion. And remember also, that I am under the care and protection of my spirits, so you don't need to worry about me.

Thanks again for the card!

Love Always, Aimee

Hi Mom!

Wow! Thanks for writing me back so quickly! I didn't expect to hear from you for at least a few weeks. I'm so excited that you read my last letter with such an open mind. I appreciate that. And I'm glad that you want to know more about the loa.

First, in answer to your question: no, I'm not studying Catholicism in school! I alluded to it so much in my last letter because it happens to have a lot to do with the Voodoo religion. The two religions are intertwined. You see, when the slaves were brought over to Haiti from Africa in 1503, they were forbidden by their owners (first the Spanish, but mainly the French) to practice Voodoo. However, the French did force Catholicism on the slaves. But the weird thing was - the French slave owners really didn't tell the slaves anything about the Catholic religion; the slaves were left clueless. The French were afraid that the slaves would take all of the Catholic teachings to heart and realize from these doctrines that they had rights as human beings, and that slavery was wrong. The French wanted to keep the slaves under control. So the slaves went along using the Catholic religion as a cover-up - adopting the Catholic saints and symbols - and then worshipping their Voodoo spirits under the facade of a Catholic ceremony. So a lot of the Voodoo spirits to this day are associated with Catholic saints (Erzulie is associated with the Virgin Mary; Ougon with St. Jacques; Legba with St. Peter; Damballah with St. Patrick, etc). So, no, I haven't converted to Catholicism, too!

Also, I'm sorry I didn't explain myself better concerning my marriage to Loko and my interactions with other spirits. I can see how you would be confused. I left out a major detail. No, the spirits don't come to ceremonies as ghosts. They actually talk to us through other people at the ceremonies. The spirits take over, or possess, a person's body. We call this mounting a person because it's as if the spirits were on the person and ride him or her as if they're a horse. When a person is mounted like this, his or her own soul goes away to make room for the loa. Loko possessed a renowned Voodoo priest (houngan) who happened to be at our marriage ceremony. So that's how I married Loko.

Another thing I wanted to address was your worry over the actual ceremonies. Yes, there are animal sacrifices. But usually it's only a chicken or rooster that we sacrifice. And it's necessary because that's how we feed our spirits. The loa get energy - their life-force - from the sacrificed animals' souls. We don't sacrifice any animals unless we're suppose to. If they don't eat the veve (drawings made out of cornmeal) then that means the loa will not accept our sacrifice.

The ceremonies are actually very fun. There's lot's of food and good music (there're usually three drums which are beaten incessantly), and normally three or four of the spirits show up. It's like a great party and it goes on all night long. Although I've heard it's a lot more fun to be at a Voodoo service in Haiti. Alourdes is from Haiti and she goes back often to pay homage to her dead relatives (this is where I luck out, 'cause all of my dead relatives' bodies are here in America). She says the ceremonies in Haiti are more intense because they're outdoors and held on the soil. So they're more in touch, and everything's more real.

Anyway, speaking of the spirits, I have a date with Loko tonight. Every Saturday night I make sure I go to bed alone (I do that every night anyway!) because that's my time for Loko.

So good-bye for now, and thanks for showing interest in my world and my spirits. If you have anymore questions, I'll be happy to answer them.

Love Always, Aimee