What’s in a name?

In my introduction, I took for granted that the name of the religion is “Haitian Vodou,” and “Vodouisant” what one calls an adherent.  However, the uses of these terms and other near-synonyms have long histories that deserve some attention.

To begin, the idea of separating out certain beliefs and activities into a category one calls “religion” is fairly unusual in the history of ideas.  The definition of religion as a unique thing set apart from the rest of one’s life–so distinct, in fact, that it can be separated from other kinds of activities–is largely a European idea with roots in the Enlightenment.  This is, by itself, neither good nor bad.  However, it is simply worth noting that, for many people, past and present, it is a peculiar concept.  By extension, if you don’t see your religious activities as separate from everything else you do–and moreover, you have no interest in attracting converts–you probably have little need to give a name to what you believe and do.

In the case of the religion now commonly called Haitian Vodou, the term “Vodou” (or “Voodoo,” “Vaudou,” “Voudou,” “Vodun,” etc.) has a long history of use by Europeans and Americans.  Typically, the word has been used by outside observers who sought to denigrate the worship practices of Africans and their American descendants.  These were frequently seen as akin to witchcraft, sorcery, superstition, Satanism, and idolatry.  While the Atlantic slave trade was foremost about profit for Europeans, it was often conducted under the pretense of bringing Christianity to supposedly benighted Africans.  Beliefs described as Vodou/voodoo, sorcery, witchcraft, obeah, and conjure were high on the list to be stamped out–ostensibly for religious reasons, but more realistically because they were suspected of having revolutionary potential.

As it turned out, they were right.  From 1791 to 1804, the inhabitants of present-day Haiti, the majority of whom had been born in west central Africa, fought a long and eventually successful war to gain their freedom from France and be recognized as equal before the law.  Both oral and written accounts of the Revolution support the hypothesis that African-derived religious beliefs (including Islam and Kongolese Christianity) were crucial to sustaining Haitians during their long struggle for manumission and independence.

For many Europeans and Americans, the Haitian Revolution was their darkest nightmare sprung to life, violent delights come to violent ends.  As the suspected catalyst for the Revolution, Vodou was envisioned by its “cultured despisers” to be peopled with all the fiends of hell.  It is ultimately owing to racist, pro-slavery propaganda that Vodou came to be one of the most despised and misrepresented religions in the world, even down to the present day.

Within Haiti, the term “Vodou” was not, until the twentieth century, commonly used to describe the religion as a whole, but only a particular rite and its related dances and drum rhythms.  It was Haitian intelligentsia and foreign scholars who first began to speak of “Vodou” and “Haitian Vodou” as descriptors for the religion itself, for reasons that frankly remain unclear.  In time, the term became popular with Haitians, who now largely agree that this is an acceptable name, even if one with a heavy history.  However, the term presents at least a few challenges:

  1. The term has a great deal of negative propaganda stacked against it.
  2. It is confusingly similar to the term “voodoo,” common in the American South, as well as the use of “Voodoo” or “Vodun” as a name for African indigenous beliefs in West Africa.  Thus it requires the disambiguating term “Haitian.”
  3. By having the same name as the indigenous religion of the Fon/Ewe region of West Africa (especially Togo and Benin), it misleadingly suggests that Haitian Vodou is derived directly from this religion, which is not true.  If anything, Haitian Vodou is as much or more influenced by eighteenth century West Central African beliefs (notably, those of Kongo and Angola).

In fact, Haitian Vodou does have an internal name, Sèvis Ginen (Service to Ginen), corresponding to the closest thing one will find in Vodou to an affirmation of faith, the often employed phrase, “Mwen sèvi Ginen” (“I serve Ginen”).  The word Ginen (alternately called Gine, nan Ginen, peyi Ginen, Lafrik Ginen, etc.) can be literally translated as “Africa.”  The word owes obvious debt to the French word Guinée—the name for the region, the so-called Guinea Coast, from which numerous Africans were deported to St. Domingue (present-day Haiti) as slaves during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  However, in the context of Vodou cosmology, the Africa of Ginen is different from the continent presently identified by that name, for which a different Kreyòl word, Afrik or Lafrik, is used.  Rather, Ginen is the home of the spirits, a forested island residing simultaneously at the bottom of the cosmic waters (anba dlo) and at the backs of mirrors (do miwa).  As a living and accessible mythic past of ancestors, heroes and divine spirits, Ginen serves as a vouchsafe for matters of religious practices and belief.

To say that one serves Ginen it to say that one serves the ancestors and spirits that are perceived to come from, and continue to exist in, Ginen.  This mythical present-past is a source of limitless spiritual power, in large part because it is seen as the true source of authentic, which is to say right, religious practice—of konesans (spiritual wisdom) and règleman (ritual knowledge).  At the same time that Ginen is a past and an eternal present, Ginen is also a sacred future, a place which is longed for, and which one hopes to see someday.  All Vodouisants hope eventually to become holy spirits that can dwell in the utopian world of Ginen.  For these reasons, Ginen is in some respects comparable to the Christian idea of heaven, the New Jerusalem of the Revelation of St. John, Augustine’s City of God, Aztlan of the Aztecs, and the Dreaming of Aboriginal Australians.

The term Sèvis Ginen has obvious appeal, first, because it has no immediate associations with a campaign of fear and denigration.  Additionally, by emphasizing a verb–to serve–it signals that Sèvis Ginen is not a static set of shared beliefs but an active way of engaging in shared, family- and community-sustaining practices.  More than being a religion in the Enlightenment sense, Sèvis Ginen is a way of living.  The term for someone who practices this way of life is sèvitè, literally, one who serves.  Unfortunately, this has no appealing direct translation into English.  “Servitor,” while functional, is ugly, and “servant” has undesirable connotations.

While I advocate for using the term Sèvis Ginen when possible, it is inevitable that one will often have to use the name Haitian Vodou.  As mentioned earlier, it has been widely adopted by both insiders and outsiders of the tradition, and is recognizable in a way that the term Sèvis Ginen is not.  For what it is worth, I do think that the term Haitian Vodou has several positive aspects.

  1. It signals a uniquely Haitian contribution to the world’s great religions, and emphasizes that it cannot and should not be disentangled from its deep rootedness in Haitian culture and history.
  2. By correcting the record about Vodou, one contributes to a slow erosion of centuries of racist beliefs that have rallied around the abuse of this term.
  3. The choice to spell the word as “Vodou,” the official Haitian Kreyòl spelling, acknowledges the right of the Haitian people to shape their own language.

Regarding names, I am only unyielding in my refusal to use the English word Vodouist, which I find too evocative of Hollywood stereotypes.  Instead, I prefer the term Vodouisant–or Vodouwizan, in Kreyòl–as the name for an adherent of Vodou.  In addition to being prettier, it seems to hold fewer negative connotations (at least for native English speakers), and is widely preferred by Kreyòl speakers.


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