Haitian Vodou is a religion created by the descendents of Africans brought as slaves to the French colony of St. Domingue. It combines components of multiple west and west central African religious complexes (notably Fon/Ewe, Kongo, and Yorùbá) with European and Native American cultural and religious elements to create a religion entirely unique to Haiti and her diaspora. Outsiders have tended to fixate on only one facet of this mingling, namely the “syncretism” of Vodou–that is, how it uses Catholic elements, notably saint images and Catholic prayers, to supposedly disguise African spirits and worship practices. However, this view that Christianity is purely a form of subterfuge misses that, for many Vodouisants, the identification as Christians is neither superficial or disingenuous.
It is helpful, even necessary, to keep in mind that west central Africans were introduced to Christianity by the Portuguese as early as the 15th century, and in most cases had extensive control over how they chose to practice the new religion. Many converted but continued to practice their traditional religion alongside Christianity. During the Haitian Revolution, fully half of the people living in present-day Haiti had been born in west central Africa, and many probably practiced some elements of Christianity. As Jerry and Yvrose Gilles have demonstrated in their book Remembrance, many of the most popular elements of Catholic piety in Haiti to this day are elements that were also popular in 17th and 18th century west central Africa–for example, devotion to Ss. Anthony and James the Greater (Sen Jak Majè/Santiago Matamoros). Therefore, to dismiss Christianity as purely a mask–or dispense with all Christian elements, as some Vodouisants wish to do–risks forsaking the contributions of these ancestors.
It is also known that many west Africans who were enslaved in St. Domingue were either Muslims or had extensive exposure to Islam. West Africans were some of the earliest adopters of Islam and among its most fervent proselytes. The great Mali Empire, for example, began officially to convert to Islam in the early 14th century, under the rule of Mansa Musa. Extensive ancedotal evidence suggests that a number of leaders of slave rebellions in Haiti practiced at least some elements of Islam. Although Islam did not end up enduring as a distinct practice in Haiti, there remain elements of it and Arabic ritual speech that have been incorporated into Vodou, more in some areas of the country than in others.
Haitian Vodou is the religion of millions of Haitians, though precisely how many is difficult to say. It is equally difficult to say what Haitian Vodou is, since it is, in reality, an umbrella term for a variety of religious practices that often—though not always—share common assumptions about the world, as well as a common Afro-Haitian genesis. Even the term itself, Vodou, is not a term that Vodouisants until very recently tended to use to describe their religious practices, preferring instead to say simply that they served Ginen.
Most scholarship about Haitian Vodou has, in fact, been about the Afro-Haitian religious practices of the Haitian south—generally speaking, from the area below the Plateau Central. This encompasses, most importantly, the capital city of Port-au-Prince, where urban, temple-based (and therefore transportable) Vodou was largely generated. It also includes the important southern cities of Léogane, Jacmel, Les Cayes (Okay), and Jérémie, as well as their surrounding environs. This region broadly represents one dominant style of Vodou, based largely around temples (peristyl) that utilize the initiation called kanzo which grants the ason (beaded rattle and bell) to initiates. Questions around exactly where and when these ason lineages began is difficult to say, and can become extremely contentious. To the present day, the ason is little known in the north of Haiti, and is most especially almost absent in the central region. Karen Richman has argued in her book Migration and Vodou that the practice of using kanzo to confer the ason began in the early 20th century in Léogane. According to her timeline, the ason then spread from there to Port-au-Prince, and from there to the rest of the south, quickly supplanting traditional, family-based practices that did not use the ason. This theory certainly seems to explain the process by which the ason and its accompanying style of Vodou became so popular and widespread within the past one hundred years. However, it is unlikely to account entirely for the use of the ason and the practice of kanzo, as their roots seem to lie quietly much further back in time.
This style of Vodou can be distinguished from the Vodou of the center and north of Haiti, where the ason is largely unknown and religious practice is centered around lakou (compounds) that typically honor only one particular nanchon (lit. “nation”, a pantheon of spirits perceived to share an ethnic origin), as opposed to the composite temples found in the south that honor many nations. This central and northern style of Vodou has often been called makout or tcha-tcha, but has recently begun to organize itself around the name Deka as a descriptor of its style. The term makout refers to the straw bag that these religious experts use to transport their sacred items. Tcha-tcha references the rattle they use when serving the spirits, much as the ason is used in the south. The word Deka is of unclear origin and may or may not be antique. Its use has been popularized recently by the organization ZANTRAY (lit. “guts,” which stands for Zanfan Tradisyon Ayisyèn [Children of Haitian Traditions]). ZANTRAY was founded in 1987 as an emergency response to the dechoukaj by Vodou leaders in the north and central regions. Dechoukaj (lit. “uprooting”) is the name given to the murders of Vodou clergy and the destruction of Vodou temples that followed the ouster of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Many of the most famous Vodou temples in Haiti–such as Souvenans, Soukri, and Badjo–fall under this category. They do not use the ason, do not practice kanzo, and honor only one nanchon of spirits (Rada/Daome, Kongo, and Nago, respectively). Tensions persists between these lineages and the ason lineages of the south of the country, with both periodically trading jabs about which is better or more authentic. However, the history suggests that they are probably best thought of as sister religions that have different points of origin but underwent parallel evolutions.
Additionally, neither ason nor Deka satisfactorily describe the family-based styles of Vodou that persist in compounds to this day. In these cases, religious practice propitiates a limited number of inherited spirits, and services are directed by an elderly member of the family who functions as the family’s spiritual leader. Many of these lakou preserve priceless elements of Haiti’s (and Africa’s) spiritual heritage and history, but because they tend to be isolated and private, their stories are rarely heard.
Furthermore, there are numerous secret societies in Haiti that may or may not be part of Vodou, depending on whom you ask. These secret societies (such as Chanpwèl, Makandal, and Bizango) often trace their origins to maroon and revolutionary groups (as well as west and west central African secret societies), and tend to practice mercenary, morally ambiguous forms of magic. Many other Vodouisants regard them as outright evil. Whether or not they are, they certainly functional out of a distinct moral-aesthetic modality that is largely inimical to fran Ginen practices–exemplified by expressions like “Gine pa Bizango” [“Gine is not Bizango”] and “Gine pa mele” [“Gine doesn’t mix”]. In other words, they are mutually exclusive. One cannot be both.
Finally, there are numerous Masonic and pseudo-Masonic fraternal organizations in Haiti that operate under modalities informed deeply by Vodou, although they are not religious bodies, per se.
Scholarship about Vodou has been written almost exclusively in reference to the southern, ason-based variety of Vodou, with few exceptions. Problematically, this scholarship has tended to make it seem (whether by accident or unawares) as though this is the only kind of Vodou that there is. While I admit that I contribute to this by writing mostly about what I know best–namely, ason-based Vodou–I hope that other voices will be heard that begin to correct this representative imbalance.