Vodou, Serving the Spirits

The term VodouVodou refers to the religious traditions of Haiti—a blend of Fon, Yoruba and Kongo traditions of Africa with French Catholicism. While Haitians do use the term Vodou, they more often speak of “serving the spirits,” the lwa, who are honored on altars... derives from a word meaning “spirit” or “god” in the Fon and Ewe languages of West Africa. It has come to be used as the name for the religious traditions of Haiti, which blend Fon, Kongo, and YorubaThe Yoruba are a West African people in the area now called Nigeria and Benin. The religious traditions of Yoruba culture formed the foundations of many Afro-Caribbean traditions, includin. Shango in Trinidad, Lucumi or Santería in Cuba, and, to a lesser... African religions with French Catholicism. However, while Haitians themselves speak more often of “serving the spirits,” today they also use the term Vodou. Since the late 1950s, with the Haitian immigrant and refugee population increasing in the United States, these traditions of “serving the spirits” have become part of the American religious landscape.

By the late eighteenth century, the Caribbean island of St. Domingue, or Hispaniola, of which Haiti occupies the western third, had already received considerably more African captives than Cuba or the United States would receive throughout their participation in the slave trade. Nearly half of the laborers who worked the island’s sugar plantations came from West and Central Africa. After the Haitian revolution made Haiti an independent nation in 1804, the influx of African slaves was cut off, but the large Haitian citizenry of African descent continued to develop elaborate African-inspired traditions.

The Vodou godsThe term god with a small “g” is used to refer to a deity or class of deities whose power is understood to be circumscribed or localized rather than universal, or to refer to a plurality of deities. or spirits, called lwa, are grouped into several “nations,” linked to areas and peoples in Africa. Vodou templesA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... in Haiti, and some in North America, are marked by a sacred center pole. Intricate corn meal drawings called veve are traced on the ground around the pole to summon individual spirits. On an altarAn altar is a raised platform or stand which bears the central symbols of a religious tradition—whether in a temple, church, shrine, or home—and at which offerings are made, worship is offered, or prayers are said., gifts of food and drink are presented. Singing, drumming, and dance invoke particular spirits to become manifest in one of the devotees. The spirit is said to “mount” and “ride” a devotee as one might ride a horse. The movements, the voice, and the words of one so possessed are understood to be those of the spirit. In this way, the lwa communicate with human beings.

In Haiti, a symbiotic syncretism of Vodou gods with Catholic saintsSaints are human beings whose lives have displayed extraordinary holiness and devotion. As such they become examples for others. Indeed some of the faithful may understand them to be intermediaries and seek their help in time of need. Roman Catholics and ... began to take place, possibly one way in which slaves, who were expected to be baptized in the Roman Catholic churchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ..., maintained their own religious traditions under the veneer of Catholicism. As Karen McCarthy Brown, scholar of Vodou in both Haiti and the U.S., points out, however, expanding the visual and ritual vocabulary of Vodou through Catholicism was also a natural evolution of African religious syncretism. Dambala of the Fon people, for example, has come to be served as St. PatrickSt. Patrick (c.390-c.460) was born in Britain and became known as the Apostle of the Irish, having spent most of his life establishing and nourishing the church in Ireland., while OgouOgun or Ogou is the lord of iron, metal-work, and technology and is understood to be a warrior god. As such, he is identified through syncretis. in Haiti with St. James, and in Cuba with St. Peter. is served as St. James and Ezili Danto as Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. In present day urban Haiti and urban North America, the ritual calendar of Vodou is closely associated with the yearly cycle of the Catholic saints’ feast days.

Vodou practitioners are dispersed throughout the United States, with disproportionate numbers in New York, Florida, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. Though their exact number is difficult to determine, it has been estimated that there are over 450,000 practitioners in greater New York City alone. For many a Haitian oungan (priestA priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood.In the...) or manboA manbo or mambo is a female ritual specialist in the Haitian Vodou tradition. Like her male counterpart, the oungan (or houngan), she performs ceremonies, initiations, healings, and divinations. She is a spiritual guide for those who make contact with th... (priestessA priestess is a female leader of a religious community, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Pagan traditions have many forms of priestesses. The ma...), it is a challenge to transplant and reconstruct the practices of Vodou in ways meaningful to life in the United States. Quite often, this means that ritual ceremonies that might have taken place in semi-public sanctuaries in Haiti are conducted in crowded homes and basements in order to insure privacy. Some practitioners, however, meet in storefronts, or rent halls in which to perform their ceremonies. Around a specially selected tree in Riverside Park, a priestess might light a series of multicolored candles to invoke the various lwa. Or Prospect Park in Brooklyn might become the Great Woods—the Gran Bwa—where rituals are performed.

The priestsA priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood.In the... and priestessesA priestess is a female leader of a religious community, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Pagan traditions have many forms of priestesses. The ma... of the United States have assumed the responsibility of hosting ceremonies, teaching young initiates or “godchildren” new to the religion, and conducting individual and private consultations for those in search of healing and spiritual well-being. In the United States, Haitian VodouVodou refers to the religious traditions of Haiti—a blend of Fon, Yoruba and Kongo traditions of Africa with French Catholicism. While Haitians do use the term Vodou, they more often speak of “serving the spirits,” the lwa, who are honored on altars... is also assuming new forms as non-Haitians, many of them African Americans, begin to discover the lwa.


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