Vodou, A Haitian religion deeply rooted in colonialism stems from several African sources, which have constructed and maintained a hybrid Africana and European diaspora in the Caribbean. In an effort to preserve African tradition and spiritual belief, slaves in Haiti prior to the Haitian Revolution of 1791, established and developed the heterogeneous religion known as Vodou. As Vodou became a more prominent aspect of slave culture in Haiti the hybridization between traditional Africana religion and European religion fashioned a new system of belief.
The fusion of Catholicism from Europe and African religions make up one of the most influential religions in Haiti today, in fact Vodou plays an imperative role in Haitian life. In addition to having a tremendous effect on Haitian religious practices, Vodou also plays a fundamentally important role in driving Haitian politics, economics, community, and social relations. From a student and non-Haitian perspective I seek to obtain knowledge on how Vodou has and continues to play a detrimental role in every aspect of Haitian life.
Through analyzing and cross-examination of several texts it appears that without boundaries Vodou is important. Before delving into how Vodou effects nearly every aspect of Haitian culture I would like to first analyze the importance of understanding the roots and origin of a belief and practice that has become such a prominent aspect of Haitian life. In the eighteenth century the slave trade in Haiti ushered in a number of African slaves from various groups. These groups of African people brought with them to Haiti their traditions, beliefs, and lifestyles.
In “Haitian Vodou” of Creole Religions of the Caribbean, the authors state that the slave trade was in fact the European way of “destroying all cultural connections” to the homelands of the slaves (Fernandez-Olmos and Paravisini-Gerbert 101). European slave owners and slave traders thought it necessary to force European ideals and beliefs onto their slaves, ridding and dismantling the beliefs and tradition of their native land. In this respect the slave trade played a significant role in the creation of Vodou, catalyzing Afro-European syncretism into a new belief system.
Vodou began as a way for slaves to hold on to their cultural beliefs, and helped refute the impositions of Catholic religion that the French attempted to employ, as they saw it necessary to condition African slaves to their lifestyle (102). In my opinion Afro-European syncretism is one of the more complex and intriguing religious developments as it pertains to Vodou. In Voodoo Africa’s Secret Power author Gert Chesi describes the fusion of African and European culture stating that slaves brought with them the gods of Africa to the Caribbean where they then blended with the Saints and other Catholic and Christian symbols (Chesi 231).
The imposition of Catholic and Christian beliefs by Europeans onto African slaves made it nearly impossible for African slaves to remain entirely devoted to their home land beliefs and traditions. African slaves in Haiti adopted Vodou as a means of maintaining their traditional beliefs, however, Christian and Catholic ideals were still important influential factors in the establishment of Vodou. The spirits often associated with Vodou known, as Lwa are similar to Saints in the Catholic Church.
Slaves in Haiti dealt with the pressures of forcibly having to adapt to European religion by integrating their belief system with that of the European belief system. I think that Slaves in Haiti used Vodou as a stabilizing factor in Haitian culture. The ritual and practice that developed through the integration of European tradition with African tradition ensures that African tradition will remain considerably important regardless of the fact that Europeans once tried to dismantle African tradition and impose Western tradition on those slaves living in Haiti. Vodou serves as a mechanism for passing on tradition from generation to generation.
In Voodoo: Truth and Fantasy the author states that Vodou has emerged as a vibrant cultural force in twenty-first century Haiti (Hurbon 126). This statement supports the idea that Vodou has and continues to have a role in Haitian life and Haitian culture. Vodou has undoubtedly helped restore an almost lost identity to African slaves in Haiti, and has allowed generation after generation to know and understand the beliefs of the homeland from which their ancestors originated. The foundation of many Haitian affairs may not be solely rooted in Vodou, however, the religion holds weight in many political spheres throughout Haiti.
Starting from the moment of its development, Vodou has been politically important to Haiti. In fact, its very creation resulted from various political, cultural, and religious “struggles for freedom” (33). After analyzing the roots of Vodou it has become quite apparent that Vodou played an important role during Haiti’s revolutionary period. During and before the Haitain revolution Vodou was used as a means of protecting and politicizing the interest of Haitian slaves. From that time forward Haitian people have continued to use Vodou as a political tool to protect their interests and assets.
Vodou has indeed been subjected to “persecution at the hands of both Church and state” leaving many non-believers and outsiders to attribute negative connotations to Vodou as a whole (117). In 1835 Vodou began to publically suffer from political ostracizing under president Jean-Pierre Boyer who passed a penal code that called for the imprisonment of six months to two years for followers of Vodou practicing superstitious act (118). It seems to me that the reason behind the ban on Vodou practices not only stemmed from political issues occurring at the time, but also from past political experiences in Haiti.
Hurbon does not mention Boyer’s reasoning behind implementing a penal code, therefore allowing one to speculate whether or not Boyer, although Haitian had ties to France. The reason I bring this point to light is because for one, Jean-Pierre Boyer sounds relatively French and secondly Boyer implemented a code that put restrictions on a religion that has roots deep within African culture. In addition to dealing with the idea of possible imprisonment, if caught practicing Vodou, Haitians also faced the possibility of abandoning and giving up the African culture and belief that was associated with Vodou.
In response to government restrictions some Haitians created secret societies in order to keep the bonds of Vodou ritual and ties to kinship in motion. In 1957 President Francois Duvalier also known as “Papa Doc” started a political rehabilitation for Vodou (118). Duvalier’s involvement in Vodou was for the soul purpose of engaging the Lwa through ceremonies in order to gain the Lwas’ good will and also to spark enthusiasm in those who practice Vodou. Papa Doc’s presidency marked a period characterized by dark magic and sorcery.
This period in Haitian history displays the negative aspects often associated with Vodou. In my opinion President Francois Duvalier’s understanding of Vodou curtails from misinterpretation and misuse. Duvalier did not seem to grasp the reasoning behind certain Vodou rituals and ceremonies, using them only as a way to advance himself politically. During Duvalier’s reign Haiti saw tremendous political change resulting from the misunderstanding or misuse of Vodou. On one hand Jean-Pierre Boyer refused to let any one in Haiti practice Vodou because of the negative connotations surrounding the religion.
On the other hand Francois Duvalier used Vodou to bolster his political appeal, which dismantled the meaning and reasoning behind the ceremonies and rituals performed by those who practiced and truly understood and appreciated the meaning that those Vodou acts carry. In Creole Religions of the Caribbean, the authors mention that within Vodou practices the chief communicators that draw “konesans” or connaissance/knowledge are the Oungand and the Manbo (Fernandez-Olmos and Paravisini-Gerbert 107). The Oungand and the Manbo are believed to receive knowledge passed down from the Lwa.
The Oungand and the Manbo act as political leaders and have rural political power within their own community because the ability to communicate with the Lwa is looked up to. In Michel Laguerre’s book Voodoo and Politics the author states that Francois Duvalier used the political power of the Oungand and the Manbo to establish legitimacy among those who practiced Vodou (Laguerre 87). Today Vodou can be represented in popular culture as dark, sadistic, and involving many acts of superstition, denying it a position central to Haitian culture.
However, despite the misconceptions surrounding Vodou today many religious works are carried out by Haitian elites. This goes to show yet another transformation in Haitian politics, and Vodou’s role in shaping a new system of life. From my examination of the texts that emphasized Vodou’s relationship to Haitian politics I have concluded that Vodou does in fact affect politics in Haitian communities and Haiti as a whole. The relationship between Vodou and Haitian economics is a long-standing phenomenon that has existed prior to the Haitian revolution in 1791 and continues to exist today.
The slave trades influence on the creation of Vodou links the existence of the religion and also the economics involved between masters and sellers of slaves. During this time the Haitian economy was being stimulated by the slave trade. As the slaves grew weary, a number of rebellions occurred and Vodou greatly affected the plantation economy that the Haitian people originally were forced into. According to Omos and Gerbert, the economy in Haiti shifted from one of plantation to that of a “rural economy” of “subsistent farmers” working their own lands (Fernandez-Olmos and Paravisini-Gerbert 103).
Vodou practices and rituals play an important role in shaping and maintaing Haitian economics. The initiation and sacrificial rituals performed by many Vodou sects involve a great amount of “financial sacrifice” (Fernandez-Olmos and Paravisini-Gerbert 117). From my examination of several texts, including that of Olmos and Gerbet I have concluded that preparation for the many Vodou festivals, initiations, and temple gatherings are intensive and call for many financial sacrifices from those who may already be financially unstable. Animal sacrifice plays an important role in the finances of Haitian people.
In Voodoo Africa’s Secret Power the author, Gert Chesi, included various photographs of Haitian Vodou sacrifices and rituals. Many of the photographs throughout Chesi’s book showed the sacrificing of cattle, sheep, and chicken. The cross-examination of various texts did not leave me with much information on the Haitian economy as it related to Vodou, however, I was able to infer that the economic sacrifices made by Haitian people were performed in order to obtain personal advancements or for the betterment of the community as a whole.
Some sacrifices were performed to win the protection and trust of the Lwa spirits, and some sacrifices were performed in hopes that the Lwa would shed some rain to strengthen planation production. I think that the Haitian economy and the Vodou religion are dependent on each other. The dependency I see in the relationship stems from the fact that without an economy like the one in Haiti, Vodou would not be as prominent or even meaningful to the Haitian people. The economy as it is creates a buffer for Vodou as a religion.
The economy allows for Haitians to use their beliefs and connections with the spirits to envoke hope, or optimism that the plantation life in Haiti will somehow flourish. This claim can be supported through the existence of rituals performed for protection, knowledge, and even rainfall. In Hurbon’s, Olmos’ and Gebert’s, Chesi’s, Laguerre and Michel’s and Smith’s descriptions of Vodou in Haitian culture one thing is for certain, Vodou has and continues to influence communities through and through. In Chesi’s pictorial account of Vodou in Haiti one can see pictures of various ways that the religion is linked to community.
In one picture, Chesi captured a ritual being performed near a beach where one individual was having a ritual performed on him (ritual not clear from picture) while dozens of his Vodou community member looked on and supported him. What puzzles me the most is how instinctual and ritualized Vodou actually is. Chesi’s pictures show dozens and dozens of Haitian people flocking to support another Vodou practice, but for what reason? Why do these members feel so indebted to one another?
From my observation the answer to this question comes from the simple fact that Vodou needs a sense of community mong its members to remain relevant. It was from the simple yearning to keep tradition relevant that Vodou stemmed, so it appears to me that the idea of community or family has been long standing, even deep within Vodou’s African roots. Hurbon’s choice of words within Voodoo: Truth and Fantasy shed’s lite on the communal aspect of Vodou a little differently. Like Chesi, Hurbon acknowledges the importance of community, even stating that Vodou “bring families together in large gatherings, a festive way of ensuring that religious traditions will endure” (Hurbon 14).
In Hurbon’s text it appears that the family and passing of tradition from generation to generation is in fact important to the survival of Vodou. In my examination of Hurbon’s text it seemed as though Hurbon was promoting a balance of kinship and communal ties. Hurbon states that it is important to have family agreement in order to have a positive communal bond. One aspect of Hurbon’s text was that Vodou was often referred to as “a cult dedicated to spirits. ” Hurbon did not let the wording of her description interfere with the way information was conveyed, however, I found it quiet bias that she would call Vodou a cult.
Personally I associate the word cult with negative connotations. It is unclear whether Hurbon planned on conveying Vodou in a negative light, but one thing is for certain a cult describes a group of people or the communal bond that Vodou encourages. In Michel’s and Smith’s book, Voodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers, The authors proceed to explain how the “magical” or “superstitious” aspect of Vodou conveys a sense of community among its supporters. The authors show that not only is Vodou practice a family effort, but a community effort as well.
Smith and Michel both depict a type of Vodou were literally everyone in a community is involved. From small children to the eldest members of a community, all play an important role in carrying on and performing the tradition of Vodou culture. The elaborate rituals and preparation described by the authors is only made possible through communal efforts. From my understanding of the community in Vodou culture, it appears that only through community and unity can tradition be kept alive.
Despite any negative connotations Vodou may have, each author showed how important Vodou is in respects to several aspects of Haitian culture. Vodou is not only a religious matter, but also a political, economic, and social one as well. On May 14, 2013 guest lecturer Carnie Fabious stated, “Vodou is a way of life. ” This statement alone sums up what Vodou was, and what Vodou continues to be in regards to Haitian culture. Fabious’ words show the importance that Vodou plays in all aspects of Haitian life, and demonstrates how relative the religion is to such a vast group of people.