Sinister Images
Voodoo, the very word conjures up sinister images of zombies and sorcery or at the very least something obscure and tinged with fraud as in that wonderful phrase "voodoo economics". There is in truth a fraud involved but it rests not so much with voodoo as with Hollywood and the producers of pulp fiction pandering to the fears and prejudices of their audience regarding other peoples and their beliefs.

The name and its associated beliefs and practices is African in origin and has been phoneticised variously as voodoo, vodu, vodun, voudoun, and vodoun. Because voodoo has been the orthography preferred by the sensation mongers more serious writers have tended to use one of the other spellings to help disassociate themselves from the worst excesses. Vodoun is regarded as being the more accurate phonetically and will be used here.

Among Haitian peasants vodoun is not used as the name of their religion but refers to a specific dance ritual in which spirits take possession of and speak through the dancers. The peasants do not see their beliefs as a religion distinct from others but as simply how things are; so there is no distinct name for it. In this view one either serves the spirits or loa or does not. For our purposes here I will follow what has become the normal outsiders use of the term as referring to the religion as a whole.

A Sophisticated Spirituality
In vodoun belief there is a central all powerful deity but this is somewhat remote and not concerned with individual human affairs. A pantheon of lesser spirits or loa are the multiple manifestations of God. There are hundreds of loa. They embody the spiritual forces which underlie all creation.. Particular loa are concerned with particular phenomena and processes and are called upon for advice and assistance. Loa often reside in places of special natural beauty such as waterfalls, caves and mountain tops. Some such locations have become famous as destinations for pilgrimage where one can experience the presence of the divine. The parallel with Catholic saints has not gone unnoticed and certain saints have become identified and blended with particular loa. Rituals involving dances and offerings are used to commune with the loa. Particular loa may mount and take possession of a dancer and by words and actions communicate advice, prophesies, demands or other messages.

The vodoun concept of spirituality is a sophisticated one in which there are several distinct components to human spiritual existence. A gros-bon-ange or big good angel, is the life force shared by all sentient beings. It provides the body with life and upon death returns to God and the pool of energy which sustains all life. A ti-bon-ange or little good angel is the force behind our individuality. It gives us our personality, character, and will. Its energy gives rise to our aura. The n'âme is the spirit of the flesh itself which gives it form and function. The corps cadavre is the physical body itself, its substance alone without its energy. Finally there is the z'étoile, a force which resides not in the body but the cosmos. It is the pattern for one's destiny including past, present, and future lives, the form of the future being determined by the shape of the past.

Priests, Pristesses and Secret Societies
Vodoun has no central hierarchy. Every individual may approach the loa directly themselves. As in all spheres of human activity, however, certain individuals become adepts, attract a following, and establish special facilities. Such a vodoun priest or priestess is called a hûngan or mambo respectively. Their temple is a hûnfor and may be in the open air or inside a building. Often they are assisted by a number of female acolytes or hounsi.

Another structural aspect of vodoun is secret societies. They are similar in form to Masonic lodges and in fact may have drawn to some extent from them. As in everything else the Masonic lodges of the French colonists were undoubtedly attended upon by slaves. Unlike the Masons however women, are full members and may even head them. In addition to serving the purposes of social networking the secret societies assist and protect their members and may serve a quasi-legal role in punishing wrongdoers and resolving disputes. Not much is known by outsiders of the secret societies but they apparently have some degree of higher organization at least to the regional level.

What about sorcery and zombies. As with any powerful social force religion can and will be used for selfish and destructive ends. In Haiti misfortune is often attributed to sorcery. Whether it’s just bad luck, the victims own belief , supernatural forces or all of these is beyond knowing. Zombies are another matter. Instances of the phenomenon are well documented and a scientifically acceptable basis for it has been proposed. We won’t go into it here but it appears to be a sanction for socially disruptive individuals and there are no known instances of tourists being turned into zombies.

Top left:       Vodoun is often the subject of Haitian art.
Top right
:     Graveyards are everywhere in the Haitian countryside.
                     Vodoun connects the living with the dead.
Lower right: A child is treated in a vodoun healing ceremony.
Lower left:    Vévé: a sacred diagram designating and calling forth a
                      particular loa.
Center:          Hounsi.


Sign on display of "Voodoo" artifacts at Christian Mission

For a detailed and very readable account of the zombie phenomenon see: "The Serpent and the Rainbow" by Wade Davis, Warner Books.

Haiti Main Page