Haitian Voodoo

In the American colonies, African Voodoo became what is known as Haitian Voodoo today. In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on an island known to its indigenous Taino inhabitants as Ayiti, or "Land of the Mountains." Columbus re-named this island Hispaniola, or "Little Spain." Colonists arrived, building plantations that became rich sources of crops like sugar, coffee and indigo. To make these plantations profitable, colonists relied heavily on slave labor. Eventually, Hispaniola became the countries known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Many of the slaves brought to Hispaniola from northern and central Africa in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries practiced Voodoo. But the colony's slave code required all slaves to be baptized as Christians. This forced conversion had a big influence Voodoo. Since slaves could not observe their religion openly, they borrowed many elements from Catholicism to protect their own spiritual practice. This process, known as syncretization, strongly influenced voodoo in Haiti:

  • The names of Catholic saints became the names of loa. In many cases, the loa's role reflected that of the corresponding saint. For example, Saint Peter holds the keys to the kingdom of Heaven and corresponds to the loa Papa Legba, who is the spirit world's gatekeeper.
  • Catholic religious holidays became Voodoo holidays for the corresponding loa. For instance, celebration for a family of spirits called the Gedes, who are personifications of dead ancestors, take place on All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day.
  • Christian crosses became symbols for the crossroads, which represents life-altering choices and steps in the spiritual path for followers of Voodoo.
  • Catholic hymns and prayers became part of Voodoo services.

Several other influences affected Voodoo as well, including the traditions of the local Taino tribes.

The resulting form of Voodoo is a creolized religion, made up of influences from many other religions. But in spite of these additions, Haitian Voodoo strongly resembles African Voodoo. Priestesses, known as mambos, and priests, known as houngans, conduct religious services and provide traditional folk remedies. People who wish to become mambos or houngans often enter an apprenticeship as initiates with other leaders rather than joining a large-scale worship center. Many ceremonies take place in a structure called a honfour, which serves as a temple or sanctuary.

A woman in a trance stands in a pool of water during a voodoo Easter ceremony, April 16, 2006.­

THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images

­ As in Africa, possession is an important part of Voodoo in Haiti. The person being possessed is often called a horse who is ridden by the possessing loa. The possessed person may move unnaturally, speak in unknown languages or make clear, direct statements to the other followers. Sacrifice is also important, and many ceremonies involve sacrificing goats, chickens or other animals. In many cases, the combination of possession, animal sacrifice and the ritual dancing and music that accompany them can seem dramatic or even frightening to outside observers.

Voodoo ritual objects for sale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Public domain image

Haitian Voodoo also incorporates clothing, objects and decorations to invoke or show respect for the loa. Kongo packets, or medicine packets, hold healing or medicinal herbs and items. Worshippers carry flags called drapo through areas used for worship to show respect for the spirits. To call to and invoke the loa, people play a variety of drums, bells and rattles. Altars hold numerous ritual objects, such as decorated bottles, dolls and kwi, or calabashes full of food offerings. Worshippers use the dolls as mediums to contact specific loa or the spirit world in general, not to inflict pain or suffering on others. Today, many of the objects have become part of Haitian artwork and crafts. Some Haitian artists, for example, focus on creating depictions of different loa, elaborate drapo or ornately decorated ritual objects.

Although prevalent in Haitian lore, zombies are not typically part of voodoo practice.

As in African Voodoo, mambos and houngans do not typically curse or harm other people. However, some followers believe that bokors, or sorcerers, have the ability to use magic to cause misfortune or injury. Bokors are also part of zombie lore -- some believe that a bokor can use poisons and capture a person's soul to create a zombie. You can read How Zombies Work to learn more about the theories.

Voodoo is an important part in the day-to-day lives of many Haitians. Estimates vary, but in general anthropologists believe that more than half of Haitians practice Voodoo. The religion has also played an important role in Haitian history. The French Revolution in 1789 sparked revolutions elsewhere in the world, including in several colonies in the Americas. In 1797, a Voodoo priest performed a ceremony at Bois Caiman in the Haitian mountains. This ceremony prefaced a slave revolt that lasted until 1804, and the people of Haiti fought armies from Spain, France and Britain. Eventually, Haiti became the first free, black colony in the Americas. This ceremony and its importance are somewhat controversial, but they have become part of the Haitian lore.

Voodoo is widely and openly practiced in Haiti. It also exists in various forms in New Orleans and the southeastern United States. In some cases, the Voodoo practiced in other parts of the Western hemisphere is mixed with other, similar traditions, pagan practices or other customs. However, in some regions, practices known as hoodoo have overtaken Voodoo in the public eye. Hoodoo practitioners are said to use evil magic, or bad juju, to harm other people. Love spells, curses and methods of revenge generally fall under the umbrella of hoodoo and are not Voodoo practices at all.

Confusion with hoodoo is only one reason that Voodoo is controversial. We'll take a look at a few others next.