With its eerie assortment of spirits, zombies, Voodoo dolls, and the immortal Marie Laveau, Vodun has something to frighten everyone.
The connotations of evil, fear, and the supernatural that are associated with Vodun (also “Voudou” and, popularly, “Voodoo”) originated primarily from white plantation owners’ fear of slave revolts. The white masters and their overseers were often outnumbered sixteen to one by the slaves they worked unmercifully in the broiling Haitian sun, and the sounds of Voudou drums pounding in the night made them very nervous.
Vodun or Voudou means “spirit” in the language of the West African Yoruba people. Vodun as a religion observes an African tribal cosmology that may go back as many as six thousand years—and then it combines these ancient beliefs with the teachings, saints, and rituals of Roman Catholicism. Early slaves who were abducted from their homes and families on Africa’s West Coast brought their gods and religious practices with them to Haiti and other West Indian islands. Plantation owners were compelled by order of the French colonial authorities to baptize their slaves in the Catholic religion. The slaves suffered no conflict of theology. They accepted the white man’s “water” and quickly adopted Catholic saints into the older African family of nature gods and goddesses.
The traditional belief structure of the Yoruba envisioned a chief god named Olorun, who remains aloof and unknowable to humankind, but who permitted a lesser deity, Obatala, to create the earth and all its life forms. There are hundreds of minor spirits whose influence humans may invoke, such as Ayza, the protector; Baron Samedi, guardian of the grave; Dambala, the serpent; Ezli, the female spirit of love; Ogou Balanjo, spirit of healing; and Mawu Lisa, spirit of creation. Each follower of Vodun has his or her own met tet, a guardian spirit that corresponds to a Catholic’s special saint.
As the years passed, Vodun began to adopt an anti-white liturgy in some of its nocturnal meetings. Several “messiahs” emerged among the slaves and were subsequently put to death by the whites. A number of laws began to be passed forbidding any plantation owner to allow “night dances” among his Negroes.
A slave revolt begun in 1791 under the leadership of François-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture led to Haiti’s independence from France in 1804. Although Toussaint died in a Napoleonic prison, his generals had become sufficiently inspired by his example to continue the struggle for freedom until the myth of white supremacy was banished from the island.
After the Concordat of 1860, when relations were reestablished with France, the priests who came to Haiti found that vestiges of Catholicism had been kept alive in Vodun. Not until 1940 did the Catholic Church launch an aggressive campaign of renunciation directed at the adherents of Vodun. It was largely ineffective.
Today more than 60 million people practice Vodun worldwide, largely where Haitian emigrants have settled: in Benin, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Togo, various cities in the United States, and of course Haiti. In South America there are many religions similar to Vodun, such as Umbanda, Quimbanda, and Candomblé.
A male priest of Vodun is called a houngan or hungan; his female counterpart, a mambo. The place where one practices Vodun is a series of buildings called a humfort or hounfou. A “congregation” is called a hunsi or hounsis, and the houngan cures, divines, and cares for the members through the good graces of a loa, his guiding spirit.
The worship of the loa is the central purpose of Vodun. The loa are the old gods of Africa, the local spirits of Haiti, who occupy a position to the fore of God, Christ, the Virgin, and the saints. From the beginning the Haitians adamantly refused to accept the church’s position that the loa are the “fallen angels” who rebelled against God. The loa do good and guide and protect humankind. They, like the saints of Catholicism, were once men and women who lived exemplary lives and who now are given a specific responsibility to assist human spirituality. Certainly there are those who perform acts of evil sorcery, the left-hand path of Vodun, but rarely will a houngan resort to such practices.
The loa communicates with the faithful by possessing their bodies during a trance or by appearing to them in dreams. The possession usually takes place during ritual dancing. Each participant in the dance eventually undergoes a personality change and adapts a trait of his or her particular loa. The practitioners of Vodun refer to this invasion of the body by a supernatural agency as that of the loa mounting its “horse.”
There is a great difference between possession by a loa and possession by an evil spirit. An evil spirit brings chaos to the dancing and perhaps great harm to the one possessed. The traditional dances of Vodun are conducted on a serious plane with rhythm and suppleness—but not with the orgiastic sensuality depicted in motion pictures about Voodoo or in the gyrations performed for the tourist trade.
All Vodun ceremonies must climax with sacrifice to the loa. Chickens are most commonly offered, although the wealthy may offer a goat or a bull. The possessed usually drinks of the blood that is collected in a vessel, thereby satisfying the hunger of the loa. Other dancers may also partake of the blood, sometimes adding spices to it but most often drinking it “straight.” After the ceremony, the sacrificed animal is usually cooked and eaten.
The most legendary of all Voodoo priestesses is Marie Laveau (c. 1794–1881), a Creole freewoman who was said to be gifted with remarkable powers of sorcery and the ability to fashion charms of unfailing efficacy. Although she was the recognized Voodoo priestess of New Orleans, she did not find her beliefs incompatible with Catholicism and Christian charity, and she attended Mass daily.
Marie greatly popularized Voodoo by revising some of the rituals until they became her unique mixture of West Indian and African tribal religions and Roman Catholicism. She was certain to invite politicians and police officials to the public ceremonies that she conducted on the banks of Bayou Saint John on the night of June 23, Saint John’s Eve. On other occasions, she would hold Voodoo rituals on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain and at her cottage, Maison Blanche. Hundreds of the best families in New Orleans attended these public celebrations of Voodoo, hoping to get a glimpse of Marie Laveau herself dancing with her large snake, Zombi, draped over her shoulders. For the white onlookers, the music and the dance provided exciting entertainment. For Marie Laveau’s fellow worshippers, the rites were spiritual celebrations, and even Zombi was an agent of great Voodoo powers.
Legend has it that Marie Laveau discovered the secrets of immortality and lived to be nearly two hundred years old. Some say that she is still alive, conducting Voodoo rituals in the secret shadows of New Orleans. Such a legend quite likely began when Marie cleverly passed the position of high priestess to her daughter, who greatly resembled her, at a strategic time when the original Marie had just begun to age. Marie retired from public appearances to continue to conduct the intricate network of spies and informants she had built up, while her daughter assumed the public persona of Marie Laveau, Voodoo queen of New Orleans. Because she now appeared ageless and could sometimes be seen in more than one place at a time, her power and mystery grew ever stronger among her Voodoo worshippers and the elite white community as well. As far as it can be determined, Marie Laveau died in New Orleans on June 15, 1881.
Vodun features a supernatural entity that is unique among the practitioners of sorcery—the zombies, those dread creatures of the undead who prowl about at night doing the bidding of magicians who follow the left-hand path. Vodun lore actually has two types of zombi: the undead and those who died by violence. For the Haitian peasant, zombies, the living dead, are to be feared as those who have succumbed to the influence of evil and sorcerers. The people of the villages believe that the sorcerer unearths a corpse and wafts under its nose a bottle containing its soul. Then, as if he were fanning a tiny spark of life in dry tinder, the sorcerer nurtures the spark of life in the corpse until he has fashioned a zombi. The deceased are often buried face downward by considerate relatives so that the corpse cannot hear the call of the sorcerer. Some villagers take the precaution of providing their departed with a weapon, such as a machete, with which to ward off the evil houngan.
In the popular mind the so-called Voodoo doll is the best-known aspect of Vodun. Actually such figures have no role in the religion of Voodoo, and the practice of sticking pins in dolls or poppets (puppets) is a custom of Western European witches, rather than the Haitian or Caribbean practitioners of Vodun. Perhaps the misunderstanding arose when outsiders who witnessed certain rituals saw the followers of Vodun sticking pins in the figures of saints or guardian spirits. Such acts are done not to bring harm to anyone, but to keep the good force of magic within the object.
There is also the matter of Voodoo curses. The anthropologist Walter Cannon spent several years collecting examples of “Voodoo death,” instances in which men and women died as a result of being the recipient of a curse, an alleged supernatural visitation, or the breaking of some tribal or cultural taboo. The question Cannon sought to answer was, “How can an ominous and persistent state of fear end the life of a human?”
Fear, one of the most powerful and deep-rooted of the emotions, has its effects mediated through the nervous system and the endocrine apparatus, the “sympathetic-adrenal system.” Cannon hypothesized that “if these powerful emotions prevail and the bodily forces are fully mobilized for action, and if this state of extreme perturbation continues for an uncontrolled possession of the organism for a considerable period dire results may ensue.” Cannon has suggested that “Vodun death” may result from a state of shock due to a persistent and continuous outpouring of adrenalin and a depletion of the adrenal corticos-teroid hormones. Such a constant agitation, caused by an abiding sense of fear, could induce a fatal reduction in blood pressure. Cannon assessed Voodoo death as a real phenomenon set in motion by “shocking emotional stress” due to “obvious or repressed terror.” Dr. J. C. Barker, in his collection of case histories of individuals who had willed others, or themselves, to death (Scared to Death, 1969), saw Voodoo death as resulting “purely from extreme fear and exhaustion essentially a psychosomatic phenomenon.”