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Vodoun; Voudon

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Voudon, or Voodoo, is a religion of initiation; a mystery religion stemming from the kingdom of Dahomey on the Ivory Coast of Africa. It was imported to the West Indies with the slaves in the late seventeenth century. The language of Dahomey was known as fon, meaning “king.” “Voudon” is the fon word for “spirit,” “god,” or a sacred object. It is not “black” magic and it does not consist of sticking pins into dolls.

A popular misconception of Voudon characterizes the religion as “black” magic that consists of sticking pins into dolls. This is not Voudon. In Voudon there are a number of gods, or loa. There is a priesthood and various festivals and ceremonies. The ceremonies are held at a sanctuary or temple known as a hounfor or hunfo. These sanctuaries vary greatly in size and style depending on the affluence of the immediate community. Some are very elaborate with a number of peristyles (covered altar areas) while others are small buildings with a rough cement block for an altar. The priest in Voudon is the Houngan and the priestess the Mambo. The many gods of Voudon have specific names and definite duties. They are invoked in ceremonies and make their presence known by possessing their worshippers.

There is one ritual in Voudon that is surprisingly similar to a Spiritualist séance. It is called Retraite de l’esprit de l’eau or “Retreat of the spirit of the water.” A small canvas tentlike enclosure is erected in the hounfor, which serves much like a Spiritualist cabinet. Various offerings are placed inside, with a tub of water and a stool. The Mambo goes inside and the entrance flap is closed and secured. Several hounsi (initiated followers) then sit or lie on the ground beside the structure, holding govi jars. These are earthenware jars that contain the spirits of the dead. As the people assemble, the Mambo can be heard chanting in langage, the secret ritual language of the priesthood. There is a litany as she calls on the loa and the people respond. A sharp cry from the Mambo is the signal for the first hounsi to slip her govi under the canvas into the tent. After a moment the sound of rushing water is heard, soon followed by a strained, hoarse voice. The spirit voice will call the name of one of those assembled around the tent. It is invariably recognized as being the voice of a dead relative. A conversation will then ensure between the two, with the Mambo interjecting a word here and there. It is not unknown for the Mambo to be speaking at the same time that the dead ancestor is talking.

The ancestor may be consulted on family matters, or advice may be sought on a variety of things. He or she may have some vital message to impart, and there are sometimes warnings of future problems. All the while the voices are speaking, there is the sound of rushing water in the background. Although the Mambo has a bowl of water in the enclosure with her, this background noise is not something that can be reproduced using such a bowl. Occasionally during the ceremony, the Mambo will give an example of glossolalia (speaking in tongues) though this is not common. When a number of voices have been heard, the govi is returned to the hounsi, under the flap, and the next jar taken in. Should the voices begin to fade at any time, the Mambo will again chant in langage until the strength returns. When all govi have been used, there is a final song and then the Mambo emerges from the tent. As sometimes happens with a Spiritualist medium after a séance, the Mambo frequently appears exhausted and has to be helped away.

Voudon is found in places other than Haiti, though that seems to be the main area of its religious emphasis. In New Orleans, and many other large cities around the United States, there is a variety of Voudon that has more emphasis on the buying and selling of gris-gris (charms and spells), candles, baths, powders, and such. Many South American countries have variations of Voudon. In Brazil, the official religion is Roman Catholicism yet as with Haiti, it is only superficial for most people. Macumba, Umbanda, Qimbanda and Candomblé are the names of the varieties of Voudon found throughout Latin America. The followers of these different versions of Voudon are increasing in number. The reason for this could be the very personal nature of the relationship between the worshiper and the deities. In Voudon, the follower is not just a spectator but also a participant. The communion with divinity is absolute.


Buckland, Raymond: Anatomy of the Occult. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1977
Buckland, Raymond: The Fortune-Telling Book: The Encyclopedia of Divination and Soothsaying. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2004
Deren, Maya: Divine Horsemen. London: Thames & Hudson, 1953
Lewis, John: Religions of the World Made Simple. New York: Doubleday, 1968
McGregor, Pedro: The Moon and Two Mountains: The Myths, Ritual and Magic of Brazilian Spiritism. London: Souvenir Press, 1966
Métraux, Alfred: Voodoo In Haiti. London: André Deutsch, 1959
St. Clair, David: Drum & Candle. New York: Bell, 1971
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