I know that the loa live in the earth, in the rivers, under the sea, in the waters of the lake, in the sun when it rises or sets, in the seasons, in the harvests, in the smile of the stars…How could they not live eternally in the heart of men?
-Jacques-Stephen Alexis, The Tree Musicians
Vodou1 is a religion practiced in Haiti that was brought over by the Aradas from Ouida on the West Coast of Africa during the height of the slave trade and “although in the most restricted sense it refers only to Arada rites, the word Vodou has over the years come to stand for all African-derived religious practices in Haiti” (Fernandez-Omos and Paravisini-Gerbert 102). The term means “spirit,” “god,” “image,” or “sacred energy.” Vodou is rather miraculous in the plethora of Caribbean religious traditions because despite frequent repression and persecution, many of the traditions used by the first slaves imported to Haiti are still adhered to by the practitioners today. Though it is creolized with elements from Catholicism and other African practices, it has adapted those practices to suit its need instead of adapting Vodou to suit the needs of Catholicism. Vodou is traditionally a religion of resistance to colonial power, and its mischaracterization as a religion of “black magic” is directly related to this fact and to the obvious point that writing Haiti as a nation full of cannibals and zombies justifies the presence of colonial, civilizing forces from the French to the United States. As Joan Dayan suggests, “a mythologized Haiti of zombies, sorcery, and witchdoctors helps to derail our attention from the real causes of poverty and suffering: economic exploitation, color prejudice, and political guile” (14). Despite poverty and colonization, however, practitioners of Haitian vodou continue to maintain their communal practices and adhere to the philosophy that the vodou gods share in their everyday experiences, though the gods of Haiti are always being reborn and reconstructed. Vodou is ultimately a religion of memory, it is “a story passed on through generations of Haitians who remember the gods and ancestors left out of books, who bear witness to what standard histories would never tell” (Dayan 23) and its varied stories are open to multiple meanings to be interpreted through ceremony by its practitioners.
Beliefs and Practices
Practitioners of vodou have retained the West African belief of a Supreme God called Le Bon Dieu or Le Grande Maitre who does not require the worship of mankind because he is already predisposed to like man. Instead, worship is directed at loa2 who number in the hundreds, and who are the primary actants in the day-to-day lives of human beings. Many loa are African in origin, but many also come to be identified with Christian saints and many more were created or modified to suit the needs of the displaced Africans living in the New World. Saints that were appropriated as loa were given personalities and attributes that were not from Biblical sources or Catholic traditions. For example, St. John is supposedly disposed to a desire for alcohol and the meat of black cattle and white sheep, and though many vodunists attend the Catholic Church, their understanding of the world is Vodou. The loa can be classified as best as possible by their personality attributes and by the groups, nations, or tribes to which they belong. Vodou has developed a rich ceremonial and ritual aspect in which they honor, summon, and question the loa.
Vodou ceremonies take place in a community at the hounfort, the temple or vodou house. At these houses (and sometimes at private homes), the objects displayed are a mixture of Catholic and African paraphernalia such as thunder stones, flowers, and food especially liked by that particular god. As Joan Dayan asserts, “Each god has his or her own alter, which contains a mélange of objects, flowers, plates of food and drink, cruches and govis—the earthen jars or bottles belonging to the spirits of the dead—and the pots-de-tźte, which contain the hairs or nail parings of the initiates there kept safe from harm” (17). The objects place upon the loa’s alter capture the personality and attributes of the loa. The loa are perceived as functioning in the everyday lives of the men and women who practice vodou, and the objects they desire are both the treasures and the hurts of Haiti and the Haitian people, “what appears as randomness is actually a tough commitment to the facts of this world. The gods relate to and are activated by things that do not conform to cravings for purity or longings for transcendence” (Dayan 18). Due to the involved nature of the loa, the ceremonies that take place in the hounfort involve a summoning of particular loa by marking the vévé (visual symbol) of that particular god on the ground. The first deity to be invoked is Legba because he is the god who ‘removes the barriers’ between the living world and the spirit world. He is the gatekeeper of the other world, and thus his permission must be asked before any of the other gods can be spoken to. Since he is the protector of the barrier between the spirit world and the human world, he is also the protector of the home. Erzulie is another loa who is frequently summoned and she is the goddess of love and luxury, portrayed artistically as a light-skinned Creole who is the personification of beauty and grace. Her vévé is filled with sensuality, luxury, and unrequited love. Loa are summoned for their function in the human world, and may be called upon to help with a love problem, with a harvest, a political situation, or any number of human activities.
After being summoned, the loa speaks through a “horse” or a body that he or she possesses in order to communicate with the adherents, and the serviteur (the one who is possessed) goes “through a set of violent contortions” (Bisnauth 168). Behavior during possession depends on the personality of the loa in question, and they “allow the loa to communicate in a concrete and substantial way with their congregation, allowing them to ask pressing questions and to receive guidance and advice” (Fernandez-Omos and Paravisini-Gerbert 123). Possession, contrary to popular belief, is not a matter of dominion, since the serviteur and the loa mutually rely on one another. The loa needs a body in order to communicate, and the possessed “gives herself up to become an instrument in a social and collective drama” (Dayan 19). Once a god has been summoned and a possession has occurred, it is interpreted that the loa will meet the request of those gathered.
Along with the loa, the universe is thought to be peopled by dead ancestors and by the dead in general. This is why the most important vodou ceremonies surround the release of the petit bon ange or the shadow of a person from their corporeal body, so that they are not trapped in the world of the living. The dead of vodou practitioners fall into several categories:
The popular notion of a zombie is that of a dead person brought back to life by black magic and controlled by another person. Wade Davis, in his groundbreaking ethnobiological study of Haitian vodou, The Serpent and the Rainbow, demystified zombification by providing the formula for the drug that, in some cases, can make a person seem dead and once given an antidote, is controlled by the person who administered the poison. According to Davis, this practice was a tool of Bizango, a secret society, to sanction one of their members who violated its codes. Despite this demystification, “Zombification continues to be perceived as a magical process by which the sorcerer seizes the victim’s ti bon ange—the component of the soul where personality, character, and volition reside—leaving behind an empty vessel subject to the commands of the bokor” (Fernandez-Omos and Paravisini-Gerbert 129). Many scholars and authors view zombification as a metaphor for colonialism, and zombies continue to be one of the most feared beings in Haitian vodou.
Politics of the Movement
Vodou has traditionally been a religion of resistance to colonial power in Haiti. For example, one group of 3500 hundred slaves fled the plantations into the hills, and specific vodou rites were developed among them. They became known as the Petro practitioners, and they “were born in protest against slavery and…the theme of revolt, ‘Vive la liberté,’ was dominant in Petro ceremonies” (Bisnauth 170). Vodou inspired slave revolts between 1750 and 1790, culminating in the August 1971 Turpin Plantation revolt led by Boukman that came just before the St. Domingue revolution. Boukman was “undoubtedly a worshipper of African divinities” and “it was a Petro ceremony which he conducted on the night of August 14, 1791, that he inspired the slaves to revolt” (Bisnauth 171). Though vodou was periodically suppressed after Independence, it has nonetheless survived and still continues to be a major part of the political and social sphere.
As Joan Dayan asserts, “whether President Eli Lescot’s support of the church and its ‘antisuperstition’ campaign in 1941 to clear peasant land for United States rubber production or ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s cynical deformation of what he called a uniquely Haitian tradition,” vodou continues to serve a political purpose (14). The use of vodou was negative when appropriated by Papa Doc Duvalier and his secret police. While he was ruler of Haiti, he would dress as Baron Samedi who is famous for sending thousands to their grave, as did Papa Doc. The violence of the secret sects of vodou and of Papa Doc’s police merged with the criminal loa, and random reports of terror by the loa were merged with reports of terrorism by Papa Doc. Vodou, then, became more and more associated with darkness. Further related to the recent “darkness” of vodou, the economic situation of Haiti forces peasants to be displaced from the ancestral land where the loa reside, forcing them into cities where they are too poor to serve the loa, resulting in the proliferation of “bad magic.” The petit bon ange, which is inseparable from what constitutes our personality or thoughts, is what the loa depend upon for possession, and “without the loa, the petit bon ange in turn loses its necessary anchor: the petit bon ange will be free-floating, attaching itself to anything, or in its dislocation be stolen by a sorcerer and turned into a zombie” (Dayan 31). It is from the constant displacement and exploitation of the peasant class that the “bad magic” of zombification is born. Zombies are directly related to the neocolonial interests of places like the United States, who continue to exploit Haiti for its resources and for its labor.
Zombies, therefore, are part of the collective memory and present reality of colonialism, since “the most horrible projections of the victimized are no worse than the macabre facts of their daily life” (Dayan 32). Dayan explains that zombies are “born out of the experience of slavery and the sea passage from Africa to the New World, the zombi tells the story of colonization: the reduction of human being into thing for the ends of capital” (33). If vodou is a religion of remembering the past, and the Bois-Caēman is a ceremony that reminds the practitioners of their collective struggle for sociopolitical independence, then the zombie is a reminder of the failure of that struggle and of the continued economic exploitation and racism that exists in Haiti today.
1 I will be using a variety of spellings for Vodou, including Vodoun, Voodoo, Vodun, etc., when they are quoted directly in various pieces of scholarship. For my own purposes I will consistently use Vodou because that is the spelling most traditionally used by French writers and the linguistic variations and origins of Haitian Creole are controversial and numerous.
2 Though it is impossible to create a comprehensive lists of loas and their character traits or attributes, George E. Simpson has a fairly informative list of the major loas. See Simpson, George E. Religious Cults of the Caribbean: Trinidad, Jamaica, and Haiti. Puerto Rico: University of Puerto Rico, Institute of Caribbean Studies. 1970(1965), pages 248-249.
Bisnauth, D.A. History of Religions in the Caribbean. Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc. 1996.
Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1985.
Dayan, Joan. “Vodoun, or the Voice of the Gods.” Fernandez-Omos Margarite and Lizbeth Paravisini-Gerbert (eds). Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santería, Obeah, and the
Caribbean. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 1997. 11-36.
Fernandez-Omos Margarite and Lizbeth Paravisini-Gerbert. Creole Religions in the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería
to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University Press. 2003.
Simpson, George E. Religious Cults of the Caribbean: Trinidad, Jamaica, and Haiti. Puerto Rico: University of Puerto Rico, Institute of
Caribbean Studies. 1970(1965).