Posted by: universallearningcentreblog | August 21, 2011

Voodoo Dolls & Crucifixes

I’ve been dying to write a post about Voodoo (really spelled Voodou) in Haiti, but knew very little about it, and I would not want to disrespect Haitians by writing something without having as much information as possible.  So I’ve been reading and talking to people for a few weeks now and wanted to share what I’ve found.

First, I should share some statistics, which I “borrowed” from the U.S. State Department, and, granted, it might be outdated (dated 2003), it seems to be as accurate as one could hope.  So here are the numbers:

Roman Catholics = 80% of the population

Baptists = 10%

Pentacostals = 4%

Other smaller groups include Methodists, Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Adventists, Orthodox and nondenominational congregations. There also are many nondenominational Christian congregations. Non-Christian groups make up an even smaller number, including Jews, Muslims, Rastafarians, and Baha’is.

http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2003/24496.htm

Glaringly absent from the above list is a percentage of Voodou followers.  That’s because Voodou, despite having been recognized by the Haitian government as an official religion back in 2002, is not something that Voodou followers see as necessarily separate from other religions.  It is estimated that up to 50% of all Haitians practice some form of Voodou. Voodou is much more prevalent in rural areas of Haiti, and it presents more as more of a cultural practice than a religious set of beliefs.   Most Haitians who practice Voodou are also affiliated with specific churches.  Haitians have an odd ability to separate Voodou, which most Americans see as a religion, from their religious beliefs.  An article I found on DialogueJournal.com, a “journal of Mormon though,” by Jennifer Huss Basquiat, , explains it best (sorry, the quote is VERY long, but is the best explanation I’ve found):

Vodou, long misunderstood as solely a force of black magic, originated in West Africa. As a religion, it is the worship of animistic spirits or gods, Iwas in Haitian Creole, for the purpose of meeting the daily demands of living. There is a supreme being in Haitian Vodou recognized as Bon Dieu, but heavier emphasis is placed on the pantheon of lesser, more accessible deities that control nature, health, wealth, and happiness. In Haitian Vodou, gods are manifest through the spirits of ancestors and must be properly honored in ritualized ceremonies. Unlike the God of Christianity, Haitian Iwas must be fed, cared for, and entertained. Consequently, Vodou rituals include prayers, drumming, dancing, singing, and animal sacrifice, all designed to make a spirit feel welcome. It is the presence of these various Iwas that made it relatively easy for Haitian slaves to incorporate Catholic imagery into their worship. Because each Iwa is un- derstood to be a representation of humanity, it was quite easy for Haitian slaves to equate their gods with the pantheon of saints honored in the Catholic faith. Thus, Damballah, the serpent god, was visually connected to Saint Patrick; Erzulie, the love goddess, to the Virgin Mary; and Ogou, the war god, to Saint Jacques. During Vodou ceremonies, Catholic lithographs of these saints would be posted, leading French colonial masters to believe that their Haitian slaves were worshipping important figures in Catholic liturgy.

This piecing together of different mythologies to create an alto- gether syncretic pattern of living occurred over centuries, with the result that Vodou in contemporary Haiti cannot be practiced without the symbolic accoutrements of Catholicism and, occasionally, vice versa.

“Embodied Mormonism: Performance, Vodou and the LDS Faith in Haiti” by Jennifer Huss Basquiat; http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V37N04_19.pdf

Catholic Church, Pilate, Haiti

As a very brief history of Voodou, I thought readers should know that Voodou is believed to have come to Haiti with slaves from West Africa.  It is theorized that Voodou is entwined with Haitian Catholicism because Catholocism was forced on Haitian slaves who, rather than give up their Voodou practices, began to incorporate Voodou into their Catholicism.  The two are now very much intertwined.  For example, most important days (usually related to various deities) in Voodou coincide with Catholic Saints’ Days.

Also, the 1987 Constitution in Haiti officially separates the Roman Catholic Church from the government, but for all intents and purposes, the 1860 Concordat, which unites the two entities, is still in effect.  For example, all Catholic holidays are also national holidays, and, going back to the important days in Voodou, those days are also inadvertently linked to Voodou.  Also interesting is the fact that 15% of all schools in Haiti are “public” of which a good portion is Catholic, run by nuns, monks, or priests.  If Voodou is so intertwined in Catholicism, it stands to reason that Voodou practices/beliefs can be found in those schools, if not blatantly, at least in subtle, perhaps unintentional ways.

There’s a very strong perception in the U.S. that Voodou is bad, that it is “dark” or “black” magic.  What it seems to be, more than “magic,” is a sort of social service.  Elizabeth McAlister, a professor at Wesleyan University who studies religion in Haiti, had this to say when interviewed after Reverend Pat Robertson referred to a legend about Haitian slaves having signed a deal with the devil to get free from the French:

Most voodoo temples in Port-au-Prince function as social-services agencies, medical centers, psychologists, and places for trade. Voodoo priests and priestesses perform a function like social workers. Temples form imaginary families in which congregations are the children of priest and priestess, who are often charismatic local leaders. 

“Pat Robertson’s Haiti Comments Spark Controversy, Discussion of Country’s Religion” by Russell Goldman, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/pat-robertsons-haiti-comments-spark-controversy-discussion-countrys/story?id=9563274

I came across a letter written by a missionary to her congregation.  I don’t have permission to share it, but I was struck by her assertion that there had been several people who were Voodou followers, including one Voodou Houngan (priest), who denounced Voodou, had “found Jesus” and became a follower of the church that missionary represented.  I have no basis to question her assertions, but based on what I have read, I may doubt that the missionary fully understood Voodou and how most Haitians who believe in Voodou have the ability to separate it from religion.   I would not necessarily doubt that those people converted to the missionary’s religion.  I am sure that it happens quite often, and as I read on the U.S. State Department’s site, Protestant Churches are on the rise in Haiti.  I guess I just find it hard to believe that those people, especially the Houngan, would be able to completely rid themselves of cultural practices that go along with Voodou.

Haitians I have talked to here in the U.S. are quick to tell me that their families do not “practice” Voodou, but that many of their relatives “believe” in what Voodou can do.  For example, I was told about a Haitian woman who traveled to Haiti with her young son to visit her husband, the boy’s father, who had not yet received his papers to move to the U.S.  Apparently there was a woman in the boarding house where her husband was staying, who had a crush on the husband.  Allegedly, the woman’s son became sick with unexplained fevers, and that he suddenly had two bumps, one on either side of his forehead.  The woman believed that the bumps were “given” to the boy by the boarder, who she believed was attempting “to turn the boy into a goat” as a threat to the mother.  The mother is someone I personally know to be a devout Christian woman.  But apparently she believes that Voodou is real too.  How she can synthesize the two is something I don’t completely understand.  She believes in God, but knows that “Bondye” (the Haitian term for God) is the Creator of the Universe and can manifest in many ways, most of which are well beyond our comprehension.  The experience was enough that she quickly came back to the U.S. and apparently, her son got better almost immediately.

In a slight attempt to bring this lengthy post to something of a conclusion, I would have to say that I now know much, much more about Voodou, but can’t say that I fully understand everything I “know” about it.  And honestly, there’s SO much more out there to read about the subject!  My own religious background would not allow me to resolve Voodou beliefs with my religious beliefs.  But my curiosity about other cultures sure does make me want to know more, to see more.

I would love it if readers would leave comments about their own knowledge or experiences with Voodou, or with religions in other countries.  How does religion impact the culture of the country and vice versa?

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Responses

  1. Interesting but very informative post you wrote about voodoo. Thank you for sharing


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