Bob Corbett, Introduction to Voodoo
Introduction to Voodoo in Haitiby Bob Corbett
(firstname.lastname@example.org)March 1988IMPORTANT NOTE
First and foremost Voodoo is a religion. It is the dominant
religion of Haiti. Many of the practices and descriptions of Voodoo
belief may sound to us like rank superstition, but then, imagine the
beliefs of Christianity to people who know nothing about it. Tell them
about the trinity or the resurrection, or the presence of Jesus in the
eucharist. Any of these practices which very intelligent Christians
believe in the fullest would seem no less superstitious to someone
unfamiliar with Christianity.
Thus I urge you to recognize that Voodoo is Haiti's religion, it
is taken very seriously not merely by unlettered peasants, but many
intelligent and learned members of the Haitian society believe as
sincerely in Voodoo as do German theology professors in their
Christianity. In no way do I expect you to believe in Voodoo; no more
than I would expect you to convert to Islam if I taught a course on
that religion. But, please do recognize that it is every bit as real a
religion as the major religions of the world.1. The most basic
concepts of Voodoo
There is one God, Bondye. This God is very similar to the God of
Islam, Judaism and Christianity. There is only one God.
There are three important categories of other spiritual beings:
Loa. These are the various spirits of family members; the spirits
of the major forces of the universe--good, evil, reproduction, health,
all aspects of daily life.
Loa interact with the people of earth.
They "mount" people now and again during religious ceremonies and
they give messages, and even cause various good and bad things to
happen to people.
The twins. A curious and rather mysterious set of forces of
contradictories: good and evil, happy and sad etc. If honored now and
again in religious services they will tend to help you have the better
side of life.
The dead. Mainly the souls of one's own family members who have
died but have not yet been "reclaimed" by the family. Ignored family
dead are dangerous. Honored and cared for family dead are helpful.
The central and key aspect of Voodoo is healing people from
illness. Such healing activities probably constitute 60% of all Voodoo
activity. Healers heal with herbs, faith healing (with the help of loa
and other spirits) and, today, even with western medicine!
The priesthood of Voodoo contains both men (houngan) and women
(mambo). Their functions are:
performing religious ceremonies to call or pacify the spirits.
holding initiations for new priests(tesses) (kanzo service and
taking the ason).
telling the future and reading dreams.
casting spells and creating protections.
creating potions for various purposes (From love spells to death
For any of these they may receive fees. But, they may not too.
This differs from one houngan and mambo to another. (Note his is
similar to fees paid to rabbis, mullahs, priests and ministers.)
Another central feature of Voodoo is the "service," the religious
rites of the religion.
These are usually held outside, under a rough roof and around the
"poto mitan," the center pole. A houngan or mambo almost always
Drums are used extensively to provide music and dancing is
absolutely essential to the whole service.
Services are fully participatory. Not only the houngan and mambo
participate but nearly everyone present.
A master of ceremonies (La Place) is often present.
A hounganikon directs the music and motion.
Hounsi (women only) are serving ladies, usually dressed in white.
Those in attendance are nearly all participants and most can be
"mounted" by loa.
In most services the loa "mount" people. That is, they come and
take over a person's body for a time. When the loa come the person is
gone. (It's not clear where the person goes.) The body is the body of
the person, but it is really the loa. If a male loa mounts a female
person, he is referred to as "he," not she, during the mounting.
Nearly every Voodoo service has animal sacrifice. By killing the
animal one releases life. The loa are exhausted by the taxing task of
running the universe. Thus they can receive this life sacrificed to
them and are re-juvenated. They are usually quite happy about this.
There are two primary sorts of Voodoo.
Rada. This is a family spirit Voodoo and the Voodoo of the
relatively peaceful and happy loa.
Petro (in some areas called Congo.) This is a black magic Voodoo
and the Voodoo of angry, mean and nasty loa. Dangerous things happen
in Petro including death curses, the making of zombi and wild sexual
SPECIAL NOTE By virtually all scholarly estimates one can find,
rada accounts for about 95% of Voodoo, if not more. Thus the
spectacular tales of black magic, while very real, are extremely
limited. Petro is not the typical Voodoo, but it does exist.
The analysis of humans. Humans have two spirits and a body.
ti-bon-ange (little good angel). This is similar to the
conscience in the Western understanding of people.
gros-bon-ange (big good angel). This is similar to the soul in
Western theories of person, except the soul is much more separate from
the person than is a western soul. For example, when the person goes
before God for judgment it is the gros-bon-ange which presents "the
person" to God and makes the person's case.
Key terms in Voodoo
the parish or region of a houngan or mambo's influence.
a small earthen bottle into which the gros-bon-ange of dead
ancestors can "rescued." After a person dies the gros-bon-ange goes to
the underwater place. A year and a day after he or she goes their the
relatives can recall the gros-bon-ange. Unfortunately this is a very
expensive service, requiring a significant animal sacrifice, often an
ox. Thus it is often considerable time before the service can be done.
If too much time passes the ancestor may get a bit restless and cause
serious practitioners of Voodoo.
the magic rattle of the houngan or mambo.
(washing of the head) an initiation ceremony held for serviteurs
after they have been mounted for the first time.
the initiation ceremonies for those moving into a very serious
level of Voodoo practice.
taking of the ason
the final initiation into being a houngan or mambo. NOTE:
Both kanzo and the taking of the ason are very secret services.
However, in Alfred Mtraux's book (VOODOO IN HAITI), through
observation and talking with people who were not too careful about the
secrecy of kanzo, he has pieced together a detailed account of the
ceremonial drawings done in flour, of the various loa.
the Voodoo temple. A tiny tiny place.
the center pole in a Voodoo peristyle. It represents the center
of the universe and all dancing revolves around the poto mitan.
1--the loa themselves.
2--sacred knowledge. Also called "konesans."
A central image in Voodoo. This is the place where the two worlds
(earth and spirit world) meet. Virtually all Voodoo acts, even
healing, begin with the acknowledgment of the crossroads.
Some of the central loa in the Voodoo pantheon.
An old man who is the gatekeeper between the two worlds, world of
earth and the world of the Invisibles. He is the origin of life. The
sun is one of his symbols, but he is also the source of regeneration
and uses the symbol of the phallus.
(crossroads) is the Petro counterpart to Legba. He is the spirit
of the night, the origins of darkness. The moon is his symbol. He can
be placated, but is a dangerous loa.
Loa of death and resurrection. A total clown. Very erotic and
comic. He is the lord of eroticism.
The father figure. He is the good snake. The source of peace
and tranquillity. The egg is offered to him when he comes to mount a
person. He is much loved and sought after. His wife Aida-wedo attends
The sovereign of the seas. Especially honored, as one might well
expect, by people who live near the sea.
The warrior. Today, too, the force of politics. Violent.
The earth mother. Spirit of the goddess of love. The muse of
beauty. (Strongly identified with the Virgin Mary.) Her appearance
(when she mounts someone) is one of cleansing, dressing, delicate foods
daintily eaten. She can read the future in dreams. A much loved loa.
The FATALISM of VoodooVoodoo is much criticized by foreigners
in Haiti. Sometimes it is simply because they profess a competing
religion and don't want the people to stay with Voodoo. At other times
they charge that it is devil worship. This claim is sheer nonsense
when speaking of Rada Voodoo, the numerically primary form. It is less
clear how to describe Petro. There are no "devils" in Voodoo, but
Petro ultivates the evil spirits. However, many of
the non-religious aspects of Voodoo which people often criticize really
seem to me to be more the result of Voodoo's overwhelming fatalism.
The view is that to an astonishing degree the loa determine our lives.
The Haitian serviteur has little use for anything like the Western idea
of free will and personal responsibility. Rather, whatever has
happened it is the loa who have caused it. If one
would like to change anything in one's life, from a current illness to
the fundaments of the social system, one must ask the loa. One does
not ACT on one's own. This would be counter-productive since it is the
loa who decide these things anyway. Further, the loa
are not very changeable. Things are the way they are because the loa
have decided it. This fatalism contributes significantly to the
peasants' unwillingness to struggle for liberation.
However, one can must the hard question: Is it Voodoo that has caused
Haitian fatalism, or is it the history of the African/Haitian
experience that has created Voodoo's fatalism?Voodoo's
relationship to Christianity.
The Catholic experience.
Under the French slaves were forbidden from practicing Voodoo.
Nonetheless Voodoo survived. The colonists did allow occasional dances
on the weekends. These dances were actually Voodoo services!
After the liberation of 1804 all white people were kicked out of
Haiti and many were killed. This included Roman Catholic priests.
Thus in 1804 the Vatican broke with Haiti and did not establish
relations with her again until 1860.
During this 56 year period houngans and mambos built up the public
religion of Haiti, Voodoo, in a weird amalgamation of African spirit
religion and Catholicism. Virtually all loa became associated with
Catholic saints (Dumballah the snake loa is St. Patrick; Erzulie, the
earth mother is the Virgin Mary). The most important consequence of
this is that Haitians see nothing odd at all with practicing Voodoo and
Catholicism side by side and are often very devout about each of them.
I can't explain this, I only describe it.
From time to time from 1860 until the late 1940s the Catholic
Church waged campaigns against Voodoo. They never came to anything.
In 1949 some elements of the Catholic Church waged an all out
physical, holy war against Voodoo. They burned peristyle, Voodoo
shrines, beat (some say even killed) houngans and mambo, demanded their
ostracism from society and shot things up. But, they lost. Voodoo went
under-ground to some extent, but it grew in popularity, in large
measure because of the oppression.
By the early 1950s the Catholic hierarchy halted this war, got rid
of these priest warriors and made their peace with Voodoo. Voodoo
drums and melodies were incorporated into Catholic church services.
The Catholics took the position, if you can't defeat them, co-opt them.
Relative peace has held between the Catholics and serviteurs ever
Until the 1970s Haiti was nearly 100% Catholic.
In the 1970s evangelical Protestantism came to Haiti. After
Reagan came to power evangelization mushroomed.
Evangelical Protestants are bitter enemies of Voodoo and denounce
it all the time as devil worship. Many of these people claim that
Haiti's misery is because she is being punished by God for the sins of
her Voodoo serviteurs.
Protestantism has come to Haiti as a serious business.
Evangelical Protestants groups own 7 of Haiti's 11 radio stations and
have made significant gains in conversions.
Today most observers believe that at least 15% of the Christians
in Haiti are Protestant evangelicals.