Vodou in Haiti

Leslie Desmangles. Encyclopedia of African Religion. Editor: Molefi Kete Asante & Ama Mazama. Sage Publications, 2009.

Vodou designates the indigenous religion of Haiti. Emerging out of the contact between enslaved Africans and white planters during Haiti’s colonial period (1492-1804), Vodou is fundamentally an African religion, which, in Haiti, given the peculiar historical circumstances, combined in its theology some Roman Catholic beliefs and practices.

Popular Western novels, films, and spurious accounts by tourists have depicted Vodou (and its derivative Voodoo) incorrectly as sorcery, ritual zombification, and ritual cannibalism. Such depictions are derisive or even racist because a close examination of the religion’s rituals or practices fails to find any evidence that would give credence to these negative views. The word Vodou derives from the Beninese (or Dahomean) Fon words vodu or vodun, meaning “deity” or “spirit.” The word is used in Benin and Haiti to designate a community of divine and ancestral spirits who are identified with the natural forces of the universe and who participate actively in the lives of their devotees. Like other world religions, Vodou is a system of beliefs that instills in its devotees a need for solace and self-reflection; it is an expression of a people’s longing for meaning and purpose. Vodou provides an explanation for death, which is envisaged as a spiritual transformation, a portal to the sacred world beyond this life in which morally upright individuals continue to influence their progeny. By extension, Vodou includes a whole assortment of artistic and cultural expressions and the belief in the efficacy of an elaborate system of traditional healing practices.

The word belief in Haiti and in Benin has a different connotation than it does to Westerners. Belief in English suggests a cerebral process by which one may or may not choose to identify with a system of thought or, by extension, with a community that affirms such a system. To Vodouists, spiritual reality cannot be the subject of casual investigation by skeptics. In the Vodouists’ world-view, skepticism is the outcome of an improper or otherwise faulty apprehension of what to them is patently apparent—that the world harbors powerful and mysterious entities that are the cause of all events and ensure the mechanical operation of the cosmos. Asked if they believe in the spirits, Vodouists think of themselves as “obeying the mysteries of the world” or “serving the lwas.” Their statements reflect their outlook on the nature of belief in general. In West African and Haitian cultures, religion is a way of life, and devotees do not merely think of their religion in abstract, but in practical terms. The spirits are the fount of wisdom and the source of all things, and the devotees conceive of themselves as affecting the will of these spirits by the living of life.

Hence, Vodou is an African-derived religion that, through a complex system of myths and rituals, relates the life of each devotee to incommensurable spirits called lwas (pronounced has). These lwas are thought to direct the affairs of humankind by manifesting themselves in the bodies of their devotees in spirit possessions—altered states of consciousness during which the devotees’ souls are believed to be temporarily displaced by that of a spirit. During spirit possession, a spirit is believed to mount the body of the devotee like a horse, and it is through this medium that it is given voice with which to impart its wisdom to the members of the community and, conversely, ears to listen to its devotees’ concerns. In Vodou, spirit possession is considered a quintessential nonmaterial achievement, during which a believer experiences a direct engagement with the spirit world; it is also a public witness of one’s personal commitment to a spirit and a belief in its authority over the community.


The theology of Vodou was transplanted from Africa onto the sugar plantations of Saint Domingue, as Haiti was called during the colonial period. Few details survive about the communities of enslaved Africans during that period, and no one is sure how many Africans were brought to the colony, but general estimates note that there may have been nearly 1 million. A significant number of them were brought to Haiti from Dahomey (modern-day Benin), but others came from Nigeria, Guinea, Kongo, and Angola, as well as many other parts of West Africa. Despite the hardships of enslaved labor, they managed to preserve whole enclaves of West African religious traditions. For instance, the myths describing the personae of the spirits and many of the rituals performed in their honor continued to bear the mark of Africa. In time, however, many of these were transformed to shape Haitian cultural and religious life.

One such transformation is the assimilation of Roman Catholic traditions in Vodou’s largely African theology. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the French colonial invaders regarded Vodou as an aberration and worked unremittingly to extricate it from colonial life. Zealous French Catholic missionaries went to Saint Domingue to convert the enslaved Africans to Christianity in an effort to eradicate African religious practices from the colony. To achieve this goal, they enacted a series of edicts that regulated the religious lives of the inhabitants of all the French colonies, including Louisiana. One such edict, the Code Noir of 1685, made it illegal for the enslaved Africans to practice their religion and, under stiff penalties, ordered all French colonists to have the Africans living on their plantations converted to and baptized in the Catholic faith within 8 days upon their arrival in the colony. The Police Rulings of 1757 and 1777 controlled the enslaved Africans’ resort to items that might have had ritualistic use. These rulings also prohibited the enslaved Africans from congregating in remote places, especially in the absence of a Catholic priest or a civil servant.

The severity of these laws drove African religious practices underground. To prevent the officious interference of the white owners in their religious rituals, the Africans learned to mask their African traditions with the veneer of the symbols and rituals of the Catholic church. In effect, they used the Catholic symbols as “white masks over black faces,” veils behind which they could conceal their African religious practices. In time, they succeeded in realizing a religious amalgam in which they not only learned to integrate the Christian symbols in their African rituals, but achieved a system of correspondences between the African spirits and the Catholic saints. These correspondences consisted of a system of reinterpretation by which particular symbols associated with the saints in Christian hagiology were made to correspond to (or were transfigured into) similar symbols about the spirits in African mythology. Thus, for instance, Vodou’s Ezili, the beautiful Dahomean water spirit, “becomes” the Virgin Mary because of her beauty and because of her apparitions in Catholic popular belief near bodies of water. Likewise, Benin’s python spirit Damballa “becomes” St. Patrick because of the triumph of Patrick over the snakes of Ireland in Catholic hagiology. Similarly, Legba or Elegua, the guardian of the world’s destiny, the one who holds the keys to the doors of the underworld, “becomes” St. Peter, and so forth.

The encroachment of Vodou practices on Catholicism has caused the Catholic church to campaign vehemently against “fetishism” throughout Haitian history. In 1896, 1913, and again in 1941, the Catholic church, with the assistance of the local police, conducted what it called the “Anti-Superstitious Campaigns,” in which it sought and burned Vodou temples and ritual paraphernalia throughout the country. Also, a catechism that was written by the Catholic clergy in a question-answer format that children and adults were made to memorize circulated widely throughout the country. It admonished Vodou by encouraging Haitians to renounce their “superstitious” practices, to renew their vows with the Christian church, to abandon their services to the Vodou lwas, and to promise to raise their children according to the teachings of the Catholic church. More often than not, suppression destroys what is benevolent and gentle, but also inspires violent reactions from those whose religious practices are endangered. The threat of pending violence in the country made Haitian president Elie Lescot order that the campaign be stopped in 1942. These attempts to eradicate Vodou have had little effect on Haitian culture because many Haitians today practice the two religions simultaneously and maintain their allegiance to both. Indeed, they see little contradiction between the two religions.

Recent political developments in Haiti have brought changes in the relationships of the two faiths. Perhaps the most prominent of these is an article in Haiti’s 1987 Constitution that guarantees religious liberty to all citizens and accords Vodou a status equal to that given to other faiths. This new provision has allowed a new sense of openness in the devotees’ religious expressions [p. 697 ↓]about both faiths and has accorded to Vodouists a religious freedom and legitimacy that heretofore they have not been able to experience.


According to Vodou theology, the lwas are grouped into several pantheons or families called nansbons. Vodouists believe that there are 17 nan-shons, although they know only a few of these: the Rada (or Arada), the Kongo, the Ibo, the Petwo, and the Nago (or Anago). Each nanshon has its own characteristic ethos and demands of its devotees certain corresponding attitudes. The Wangol and Nago are the least known in Haiti and derive from the region of Angola. Ibo refers to Nigeria and Benin, whereas Rada derives from Arada, the name of an important kingdom in ancient Dahomey during the Haitian colonial period. Similarly, the Kongo lwas originated in the Bakongo region of West Africa, which was the place of origin of thousands of Africans sent to Saint Domingue. Petwo reportedly derives from a legendary character Dom Pedro, a leader of a rebellion during the latter half of the 18th century. Some lwas bear African-derived names such as Ezili Freda Dahomey and Damballah Wèdo, where both terms, Freda and Wèdo, derive from the name of the kingdom of Whydah in Dahomey. The lwas are said to reside in the mythological city of Vilokan in Dahomey or, more precisely, on a mythological island far below the sea that few privileged Haitians are said to have visited, having been taken there by the lwas. Some nanshons are known for their healing power and manifest their aptitudes through various medicinal plants or other ritual paraphernalia prescribed to believers by folk healers. Others are cosmic spirits that ensure the mechanical operation of the universe. Hence, the principle that guides the particular choice of the nanshon to which a lwa belongs is based on his or her mythological persona, as envisaged by the devotees.

Because Vodou teaches that a lwa can have several functions related to his or her persona, each lwa can belong to several nanshons simultaneously and bear a different name for each. In spirit possession, for instance, the devotees’ behavior reflects the lwas’ different personae according to their respective nanshons, sometimes consecutively or simultaneously. Thus, they can present themselves as creative and destructive or as terrible and beneficent. Despite the notable differences between these personae, Vodouists do not see them as belonging to different spirits, but rather as attributes of the same being, each corresponding to the notion of complementarity of opposites, of what may be called a coincidentia opposito-rum. On the one hand, a lwa expresses the diametric opposition of two divine personae sprung from the same divine principle. On the other hand, each lwa is a manifestation of Bondye who is the Godhead, the creator, and Grand Master of the universe. Hence, the lwas and their diverse personae are “faces” of the one cosmic spirit who reconciles all differences and whose power transcends that of the lwas; his vital force permeates the cosmos and fosters the forces of good and evil, florescence and decay, permanence and change.

Communal Rituals

The lwas are said to live in a sacred world and can be invoked in the context of religious ceremonies. To invoke the spirits, devotees use every possible auditory and visual means possible in their rituals. Each lwa has its own songs, drum rhythms, and dance movements. Ritual paraphernalia associated with the lwas are used during the ceremonies and are kept in a part of the oumfò’s (or temple’s) holy of holies. During a ceremony, the houngan (priest) or his laplace (assistant) draws a geometric cabbalah-like figure that includes the various symbolic tracings that are associated with a lwa’s personae. The drawings are made on the floor of the oumfò with cornflower that the officiant sifts through his or her thumb and index fingers of the right hand. Vodouists believe that these auditory and visual media summoned the spirits to leave Vilokan to possess them during the ceremonies offered in their honor. The number of lwas who are invoked during a ritual depends on the occasion, the particular feast day in Vodou’s liturgical calendar, or the particular needs of the community. Although the rituals are performed in honor of the spirits, indirectly they are offered to Bondye, the Godhead himself for whom, as in West Africa, libation is poured at the beginning of each ceremony.

Unlike Western religions, Vodou rituals are not weekly occurrences. Most temples hold them three or four times a year. They can be occasions requiring elaborate preparations such as the acquisition of flowers, live animals, foodstuff, and other ritual paraphernalia to be tended as offerings to the lwas and for the consumption of the community. Among the significant rituals in the Vodou liturgical year is the pilgrimage and the feast that celebrates the apparition of the Virgin Mary (and, by extension, Ezili Freda Dahomey) near the waterfalls outside of Saut d’Eau, a village in the central portion of Haiti. Thousands of devotees gather at the site on July 16, the day dedicated to the Virgin, to attend the celebration of the Catholic mass in the nearby church of Mirebalais, a town in the central portion of Haiti, and to pay homage to the saint near the waterfalls. Devotees bathe in the pool of water beneath the fall, anticipating spirit possession and spiritual healing. They also tie blue and pink (Ezili and the Virgin’s symbolic colors) ribbons about their waists that they remove and tie around some of the adjacent trees near the fall as protection from defilement or as a way of ridding themselves of diseases and misfortunes.

All Saints’ Day on November 1 is also an important holy day in the Vodou liturgical calendar. Special ceremonies and offerings are tendered to Cede (from the family of Dahomean Ghedevi spirits), Ginen’s gatekeeper. In Vodou mythology, Ginen (or Guinea) is Africa where the ancestral spirits of the “living dead” reside in the primordial waters of the abyss far underneath the Earth’s surface; it is the place whence they are said to ascend from their sacred abyss to “visit” their progeny during the rituals. In time, they return to the world of the living by entering a young mother’s womb at the conception of a child and may be reborn in the body of a newborn. Gede is then Ginen’s guardian, who allows these ancestral spirits to travel back and forth to the world of the living. He is the lord of death, but is also identified with life; his symbols include skulls and crossed bones, but also the phallus, which represents life. Gede is the emblematic coincidence of opposites; he is symbolic of the womb and the tomb, of life and death, of the beginning and the end, and of florescence and decay.

The cycle of funerary rituals entails an elaborate set of observances performed by members of the family to ensure both the passage of the deceased spirit into the abyss and its reclamation into the world of the living. This cycle of rituals lasts an entire year after the death of the person and is based largely on many African concepts of the self. As in West Africa, Vodouists believe that the human spirit derives its existence from sacred and human sources. Through many rebirths, each individual is the continuation of the dead father’s spirit, the grandfather’s, and so on, extending in retrogression through his or her entire lineage. Thus, in Vodou, as it is in West African religious traditions, the individual self does not exist, but is conceived to be a single-branching organism beyond the self to enlarge its circle out of sight to include limbs far beyond this life. One participates in the visible and invisible worlds simultaneously, and one’s sense of selfhood is realized by the acknowledgment of one’s dependence on the visible and invisible human family.

Vodouists believe that the human body is a manifestation of the Godhead and that it is constituted of three principal compartments, characterized by their psychic functions in the human body. The first concept of the human spirit is the gwobonanj (which means literally “big good angel”). It is the immortal, cosmic spirit of Bondye—an internal self-generating life force and source of divine energy that ensures the vital signs of life, such as the inhalation and exhalation of the thoracic cavity, the flow of blood, the beating of the heart, and the movements of the body in general. The second compartment of the human psyche is the tibonanj (which literally means “little good angel”). It is the personality, the ego soul that represents the unique quality of an individual’s persona and is discernible in one’s facial expression and general deportment. The third is the mèt-tèt (which literally means “master of the head”); it is the guardian spirit that has protected a person from danger throughout his or her life and has been the subject of that person’s devotion. Shortly after death, a special ritual known as dessounen (the uprooting of life) is performed by a priest that is designed to extract the parts of the spirits from the body and dispatch them to their respective abodes: the gwobonanj and the mèt-tèt [p. 699 ↓]to Ginen and the tibonanj to Heaven (as a result of the influence of Catholicism), and the body to the navel of the Earth where, as an empty shell, it will disintegrate and never rise again.

As in much of West Africa, ancestral spirits exercise authority over the living. That authority derives from a ritual of reclamation performed a year after a person’s death, in which the soul of the dead is reclaimed from Ginen and placed into a govi (a clay jar or a bottle), where it is kept in the temple. It is from this new shell that an ancestral spirit is believed to assist the living. The memory from past experiences, the wisdom gained from their time spent in Ginen, is preserved as a legacy for their progeny.

Private Rituals

The spirits do not merely manifest themselves in public rituals, but in private ones as well. Many Vodouists may keep pés, or altars, in their homes for the Catholic saints and, by extension, for the lwas. A pé may be a simple table covered with a tablecloth and adorned with vases of flowers, the chromolithographs of a saint, or the picture of a deceased member of the family. Or these images may simply be affixed onto a wall.

The spirits also manifest themselves in times of misfortune in the ritual of divination. Divination is the art of foretelling the future or ascertaining certain truths as they are revealed by an object or an event. Divination is one of the most important aspects of life among Vodouists; they are prompt to consult oracles, especially in circumstances over which they have little or no control, such as a chronic fever, a barren garden, life’s sporadic privations or its uncertainties, and so on. The person in need may confer with a religious specialist who is the conduit between the sacred and profane worlds. For theoretical purposes, divination in Vodou may be divided into two categories: intuitive and prognostic. The first may or may not involve spirit possession, but the religious specialist receives his or her answer intuitively from ancestral spirits by the manipulation of an oricular object. The second involves the drawing of meaning from unanticipated natural phenomena, such as an unexpected gust of wind, the sudden appearance of an animal, the occurrence of an unforeseen event, or an act such as sneezing. These incidents are interpreted immediately as suggesting certain outcomes of impending events. Both types involve the application of interpretive schemes based on observation and with which the community is familiar. The difference between the two, however, is that the intuitive divination requires the assistance of a diviner, whereas the prognostic type does not.

Vodou in the Diaspora

Unfavorable political and economic circumstances in Haiti since the 1970s have forced substantial numbers of Haitians to emigrate into many parts of the world. Living in many of the world’s largest cities (namely, New York, Chicago, Miami, Québec, Montréal, or Paris), they have established communities where they continue to perform their sacred rituals. Even the pilgrimages are reproduced in the diaspora.

In many parts of the United States, Haitians have created communities, or lakous, that approximate the African rural courtyard. In Haiti, a lakou is an area in which an extended family is gathered and where its members live in separate dwellings. The lakou often includes matriarchs or patriarchs who serve as spiritual leaders and who are revered by the members of the lakou as the links between the secular and sacred worlds.

The lakou as a social and religious phenomenon has waned considerably in Haiti since the 1950s. Job opportunities and the prospects for a good education have resulted in the emigration of the lakous’ younger members to other areas of the country and have engendered the gradual disintegration of the lakou’s infrastructure. But it has reemerged among Haitians in the diaspora. The house systems are analogous to the lakous; they consist of an entire building in which several families live in individual apartments, but share domestic and financial resources. They gather around a priest or priestess whose apartment often functions as both living quarters and a temple.

In the context of rituals, most of the paraphernalia used in the rituals are readily available in large cities in the diaspora. Even the pilgrimages are reproduced. For instance, All Souls’ Day in the Catholic church’s liturgical calendar (November 1) corresponds to Halloween in North America, the day consecrated to the souls of the Dead in the Catholic liturgical calendar. Similarly, July 16, the day devoted to the Virgin Mary in the Catholic liturgical calendar, is reserved for Ezili in Vodou. On that day, many Haitians in New York will make pilgrimages to the Lady of Mount Carmel Church in New York and to St. Anne de Beaupré, near the city of Québec, in Canada.

Perhaps one of the significant aspects of Vodou in the diaspora is its multiethnic and multicultural character. Ritual participation is open to members of other cultural and ethnic groups from other parts of the world. The names of the spirits have become familiar to many African Americans seeking to integrate Black Nationalism with an authentic African worldview. The energy, creativity, and resources of these new religious urban communities in the diaspora will undoubtedly change Vodou in the future because their members may well incorporate into the theology of these communities their own cultural and religious traditions—a factor that may not only change the character of Vodou in the diaspora in the future, but distinguish it from its counterpart in Haiti. Moreover, Vodou in the diaspora will undoubtedly be instrumental in the preservation and diffusion of African religious traditions in different parts of the world.