Vodou in Haiti- Fact and Fiction

Vodou in Haiti- Fact and Fiction

Considerable deliberation went into opening “When Dreams Touch” with the Vodou scene, chronicling Adelaide and Yvonne’s pilgrimage to the Saut d’Eau (Waterfall). This blended Vodou and Christian journey still takes place each July in honor of the Vodou lwa (spirit) Erzuli Dantor, and coinciding with the Christian feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

 

Typical of Haiti, I have found there are many misconceptions and misunderstandings about Vodou and I hope some of those are dispelled as you read “When Dreams Touch.” However, in the interest of full disclosure… although I have visited and passed by Vodou temples and talked with Vodou priests, I have not actually attended a Vodou ceremony—YET?!

 

So perhaps like my readers, during my initial visits to Haiti, the mention of Vodou conjured up images of pin-stuck dolls, black magic, zombies and animal sacrifice—images that Hollywood movies have propagated and have greatly contributed the myth and mystique and fear which surrounds Haiti and the Vodou religion.

 

I’m often asked do people really practice Vodou in Haiti? My answer is yes, but… it is not what you think.

 

“One common saying is that Haitians are 70 percent Catholic, 30 percent Protestant, and 100 percent voodoo,” said Lynne Warberg in a 2004 National Geographic documentary. Warburg is a photographer who has documented Haitian Vodou for many years.

 

But the 4 million adult Haitians are not alone; an estimated 60 million people worldwide practice Vodou.  As a religion and a set of beliefs about oneself, the natural world and a “higher power”, Vodou encompasses philosophy, medicine, justice, and religion.

 

Vodou, similar to Haiti’s Creole language is a synthesis, a blended system of beliefs and practices, carried by the slaves on ships from West Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries, and residual rituals from the Taino Indians who originally inhabited Haiti. Haitian slaves combined these beliefs and “humored” Christian missionaries by replacing their sacred objects with icons of Catholic saints. Some historians believe Christianity was used as a justification for the slave trade. Salvation for one’s heathen soul was considered as reward for being worked to death on a Haitian plantation. Based on these assumptions, many believe Vodou played a large part in both the inspiration and organization if the struggle for independence in Haiti.

 

Some things you might find interesting about Vodou in Haiti are:

  • The word Vodou means “spirit” or “deity” in the Fon language of the African kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin). Benin provided many of the slaves transported to Haiti.
  • The primary goal and activity of Vodou is to “sevi lwa” (“serve the spirits”)—to offer prayers and perform various devotional rites directed at God and particular spirits in return for health, protection, and favor.
  • “Lwa” are called by song, dance, drumming and costume.
  • All forms of Voudo believe in only one God- the Great Master or “Gran Met.”
  • Other similarities exist between Christianity, particularly Roman Catholocism, and Vodou: 1.) Both believe in the existence of invisible evil spirits or demons and in an afterlife; 2.) Important “lwa” are celebrated on saints’ days (for example: Danbala on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17; and the spirits of the ancestors on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, November 1 and November 2); 3.) Each religion focuses services around a central point—an altar in Catholicism, a pole or tree in voodoo; 4.) Many of the “lwa” resemble Christian saints, endowed with similar responsibilities or attributes. For example, Legba, an old man, is said to open the gates between Earth and the spirit world, much like St. Peter traditionally throws wide the gates to heaven.
  • Erzuli Dantor is described in Chapter 1 of  “When Dreams Touch” as the goddess of love comparable to Venus and the Black Madonna, religious counterpart being the Virgin Mary, is a fiercely protective matriarchal spirit. Erzuli is depicted in many forms varying from: a knife-yielding warrior to a rum-drinking, unfiltered Camel cigarette-smoking woman to a mermaid to images reminiscent of Our Lady of Perpetual Health and the Black Madonna.
  • Djab such as painted on Natalie and Giselle’s porch in “When Dreams Touch” Chapter 41, don’t fit into orthodox Vodou religion. But rather, djab are felt to be wild spirits served by only one individual, more magical than religious, and are often invoked to take aggressive action against an enemy or competitor.
  • Vodou has been banned many times in Haiti, for fear of its political potential but has survived and is now protected under the 1987 constitution.
  • In April 2003, then president Jean-Bertrand Aristide issued an executive decree sanctioning Vodou as an officially recognized religion.

 

Vodou is a religion and as such offers people a pathway to prayer and hope and celebration. It is also a source of fascination, if not entertainment, for some of us. But for people who are uneducated, it can be used as a powerful force to control and at times, cause physical, emotional and mental harm. As pointed out by Giselle in Chapter 14 of “When Dreams Touch”, “Most Haitians practice a little Vodou. It is a way of honoring and respecting nature…only a few use Vodou for evil…The power doesn’t come from the evil spirits, but from the fear created in people’s hearts and minds.”

 

If you are interested in making the Saut d’Eau Pilgrimage in Haiti, July 2015, please contact me for details at rhedreamstouch@gmail.com.

 

As always, your thoughts, suggestions and comments on this blog are welcome!!

 

References on Vodou:

  • “Lonely Planet, Dominican Republic and Haiti”, 4th edition by Paul Clammer, Michael Grosberg and Jens Porup
  • “Divine Horsemen: Living Gods of Haiti” by Maya Deren (1st published in 1953)
  • “Haiti: Possessed by Voodoo” by Sharon Guynup National Geographic Channel, July 7, 2004. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/07/0707_040707_tvtaboovoodoo.html

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