The Inside Story About One of the Most Maligned Religions in the World

Fellows 2016

By Meghan Dhaliwal

May 10, 2016

Also published by ThinkProgress

From Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to Hollywood renditions of Haitian traditions, American media has often connected the Vodou religion to the darkest aspects of black magic. While the faith is closely connected to elements of the supernatural, it is also very much grounded in natural phenomenon. Many Vodou ceremonies honor the elements of air, water, fire, and earth. Some traditional Vodou healers are schooled in the medicinal powers of plants and herbs. A focus on the darker aspects of Vodou has overshadowed its brighter side, and caused a lot of misinformation to gain currency.

Here are some aspects of the faith that are often overlooked.

Vodou Helped Haiti Win Its Independence

Haiti is the only country in the world to have won independence through a slave revolt.

In the summer of 1791, a Vodou priest name Boukman presided over a religious ceremony during which he and fellow slaves solemnified a pact to combat their masters through honorific animal sacrifices and prayers to various Vodou spirits, or lwa. Many Haitians believe that the support of the lwa endowed their forebears with the force needed to overthrow French rule.

Jean-Daniel Lafontant, a Vodou spiritual leader based in Port-au-Prince, is among them. 

“The essence of Vodou makes it something really vibrant, something really dynamic, and [gives it an] almost a military structure,” he told ThinkProgress. “[That’s] the only way you would fight your oppressor and win against the army of the greatest power there was at that time.”

Those Pin-Cushion Dolls Have a Whole Slew of Uses

“Vodou is not only about dolls,” according to Blanc Chantale, a 40-year-old who runs a shop for sacred items used in Vodou along with her mother in the Haitian city of Gonaives. “Dolls are just one small part of it.”

The two women do sell dolls — both handmade Haitian ones and ones manufactured outside of the country in factories, but their shop is full of many other items that are used in Vodou rituals and ceremonies too. 

 

Okay, we need to talk about Vodou dolls. Are they one of the first things that come to your mind when you think of Vodou? Images of magical vengeance dancing through your head? Well, first I'll give you this: they do exist. Here is a picture of one at a botanica in Gonaives. BUT they aren't common and they aren't for the purpose that you're imagining. Vodou dolls are much more complicated than Hollywood portrays. Often stuffed with different kind of herbs, leaves or flower petals depending on what the buyer needs it for, they then might have a personal artifact from the person the doll symbolizes attached to it (allegedly this is where the pin imagery comes from). The dolls can be used at home or left in a special place (the main cemetery in Port-au-Prince has a tree with hundreds of dolls nailed to it). The dolls are a way to communicate with the spirits, or loa, about the wishes or needs for a particular person. Sometimes these have to do with bringing people back--either from a physical place or emotionally, or health. These dolls aren't usually used for bad things. Of course, the power belongs to those who wield it--in Vodou they say, "Everyone has a left hand and a right hand." With everything that can be made light, there is also an option to make it dark. But the perversion of the Vodou doll came from Hollywood sensationalization--not from the botanicas of Haiti. For more from Haiti, follow me along on my personal account at @meghandhaliwal and follow my reporting partner @beenishfahmed #vodou #voodoo #irpfellows #voodoodoll #haiti #nopinshere

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“Vodou is fragrances, rum, all of the icons, scarves,” she said, gesturing to the array of bottles and posters that lined the shop’s shelves.

The human figurines aren’t necessarily used to do harm, as popular culture representations might have us believe. Instead, as Chantale said through a translator, “Dolls are used for when someone has relationship issues.”

They can be tied back-to-back to reunite a couple after a breakup, or placed in a small chair to get an absent father to return home.

Not All Possessions Are Scary

Vodou is connected to an array of spirits, and possessions are one way for those spirits to convey a message to someone who practices the faith. Sometimes, a Vodouizant, or Vodou practitioner, might ask to be possessed by a certain spirit in order to get clarity on an issue important to them, a friend, or a broader community.

Other times, however, a Vodouizant might become possessed without their consent. It could be to give them a message or else as a form of punishment, according to Fito Auguste, an houngan who lives in Gonaives.  

 

Possession is an aspect of Vodou, a way for the spirits to communicate with a practitioner or to enter the earthly world with a practitioner as their vessel. At the ceremonies at Souvenance, initiates enter this muddy pool and become possessed as soon as they touch the water. Events at Souvenance honor loa of Dahomey origin--namely the Rada loa. Following me? Dahomey is present day Benin, the home of many of the slaves transported against their will to the "New World." Remember in my last post I talked about the syncretism between Catholicism and Vodou? The Rada loa are a group of loa (spirits) that are most closely syncretized with Catholicism. But back to Souvenance: in this ceremony, many initiates become possessed the moment they enter the pool. We saw a lot of people helping each other out if they were deep in trance. That's one of the things I notice most about Vodou: people are always interacting with each other, helping each other. Holding on to someone who is in trance, wiping sweat from each other's faces, dancing together, holding hands. For more from Haiti, follow me along on my personal account at @meghandhaliwal and follow my reporting partner @beenishfahmed #vodou #voodoo #irpfellows #souvenance #haiti #dahomey #ayiticherie

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“They’re just punishing their own sons and daughters, that’s their own way to do it,” he said in an interview.

Auguste has never experienced possession as a form of punishment, but he knows people who have.

“It’s really hard,” he said. “They have bad pain and smell bad odors. Sometimes insects bite them. It’s a punishing system, that’s what it is.”

Christianity and Vodou Are Closely Connected in Haiti

Many Vodou of the houses of worship, or peristyles, are adorned with images of Catholic saints who double as certain Vodou lwa. For example, the Vodouizants often invoke the lwa Papa Legba at the beginning of ceremonies. That’s because he’s believed to be a gatekeeper between the human world and the spiritual world, which also explains why he’s often depicted as Saint Peter, who Catholics believe holds the keys to heaven.

“At the beginning, there weren’t pictures in Vodou,” Fito Auguste explained. “When the Catholics came [from France], we tried to use their pictures to continue our mission.”

The faith took aspects of Catholicism into its fold, not least because French slave masters and American occupiers after them forbade Haitians from practicing Vodou.

“For the time we spent with Catholics, we learned how to use their spirits to make our own thing,” Auguste said. “That’s why most Vodouizant people go to church and [honor] Jesus. We learned how to play with it. We don’t really have to face it. We go with it, doing our own thing.”

As a consequence, many follow aspects of both religions. Vodouizants are readily seen wearing crucifix necklaces and many who identify as Catholic will seek the aid of Vodou spiritual healers if they fall ill.

As a popular saying maintains, “Haiti is 70 percent Catholic, 30 percent Protestant, and 100 percent Vodou.”

Vodou Is Joyful, Too

Some elements used to harness the power of Vodou spirits — from animal sacrifices to spiritual possessions — have caste the faith as a macabre one.

“There are Vodou ceremonies which may not necessarily be appealing to the majority of people,” Lafontant admits, but many aspects of the faith celebrate the gift of life and the bounties of nature. With drumming, singing, and dancing used as forms of worship, some Vodou practices are more joyful.

Rara is one example. Much of Haiti is overtaken by vivacious parades throughout Lent and the week of Easter. Led by a band playing Afro-Haitian music with spiritual or political themes, thousands of people flood the streets.

“Bands stop traffic for hours to play music and perform rituals for Afro-Haitian deities at crossroads, bridges, and cemeteries,” Wesleyan Professor Elizabeth McAlister explains in her book on Rara. “They are conducting the spiritual work that becomes necessary when angels and saints, along with Jesus, disappear into the underworld on Good Friday.”

Here’s what that sounded like on Good Friday in Saint-Marc:

Although it has Vodou at its core, Rara parades bring together people of various religious backgrounds.

“It’s a Haitian tradition that stems from Vodou, but some people are here just for fun. It’s a mixture of things that brings people out,” Charles Nestle said on the sidelines of the parade in Saint-Marc. A Protestant, he doesn’t practice Vodou even though he does enjoy the spirit of the celebration.

“Someone might be at home and not feeling well and they just come out to enjoy themselves,” he said.

Beenish Ahmed and Meghan Dhaliwal reported on religion in Haiti on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).