Vodun, Voudo, Voodoo
Since we are fast approaching Fat Tuesday and Marti Gras, I felt that it would be appropriate to discuss the much maligned religious tradition of Vodun or Voodoo as it is known in the United States. There are few religious practices that have a more demonized portrayal throughout mainstream religion and the media. Depictions of zombies, voodoo dolls, animal sacrifices, and possession are images that Hollywood has painted into our consciousness, but are not completely accurate.
Vodun’s lineage can be traced back to over 100 African traditions of the 17th century. The tribal practices and beliefs of these cultures were combined by the slaves brought to Haiti. The Catholic Church sought to convert the slaves in order to save their souls and they were forbidden to practice their native religions. On the surface they seemed to have acquiesced to the demands of the Church. In reality they merely adapted and they superimposed the Christian teachings over their own beliefs to ensure their longevity.
At the core, Vodun still possesses some of the fundamental practices of the African tribes. It is essential that the knowledge and information is passed from generation to generation. They believe in only one God. However, ancestor worship is an important part of the practice. It is vitally important that people have a personal relationship with the loa. The loa speak either through possessing the individual or a priest/priestess of Vodun. Ritual allows them the opportunity to speak with the spirits, their ancestors who are their honored dead.
The ‘pantheon’ for Vodun consists of the loa. They are similar to the saints or angels of Catholicism. They are a syncretic fusion of African deities and Catholic saints. Though they are a combination of many different cultures the most predominant are Dahomey and Yoruba. They overlook all aspects of human interaction. They are subdivided into groups or nanchons. There are two main groups the petro and the rada. The petro is of Creole origin and the rada is of Dahomey descent.
Priests and Priestess (houngan and mambo) of Vodun are charged with communicating with the loa. They are often ‘born’ into service. They go through a formal initiation process. Initiation allows the houngan or mambo to contact the loa directly and enables them to intensify the bond with the spirit. These individuals are highly respected members of the community. They either allow the loa to possess them directly to deliver messages or offer interpretations if the loa chooses another vessel.
Ceremonies are held for specific purposes and can be done whenever the need arises. There are a few basic components to a Vodoun ceremony. The ceremony opens with a prayer to the saints. An invocation of one or more loa is made so that they may participate. Offerings of food or sacrifices are made to the loa. The loa is asked to manifest. The participants commune with the loa and once an answer is received the ceremony ends.
Despite the sensationalism that has surrounded Vodun over the decades it is similar in many ways to other Pagan paths. There is a common thread in the overlay of Christianity onto pre-existing beliefs. There are also similar ritual components. It is a complex and unique religion that has preserved much of its ancestral heritage adapting to subvert difficult social situations. Vodun possesses intricate nuances that are known to skilled practitioners. It should not deter others from studying about this tradition and taking the time to appreciate its complexities.
De Heusch, Luc. ” Kongo in Haiti: A New Approach to Religious Syncretism.” Slavery and Beyond: The African Impact on Latin America and the Caribbean. Ed. Darien J. Davis. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1995. 103-119. Print.
Vodoun (2010). Retrieved January 10, 2010, from Whispering Woods: http://whisperingwoods.homstead.com/voudon.html.