Whose Vodou?

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.



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23 responses to “Whose Vodou?

  1. The only place I have found Deka referenced was in Karen McCarthy Brown’s dissertation thesis. She makes mention of it in a footnoted conversation with an older houngan. As that particularly thesis was written in 1973, I think we can assume Deka was a known line back then and for a prior length of time as well. I know its been bandied about on the internet of late, but that was only “scholarly” reference I have ever come across.

  2. This is an extremely important point to make. It runs counter to the older discourse in academic studies of African inspired religions in the Americas which created the trope of African religion “hiding” behind Catholicism; a trope which has been widely adopted by practitioners and converts to African inspired religions because it supports contemporary cultural and political agendas.

    It is also important to realize that Kongo dya Ntotila (the Kingdom of Kongo), was a sophisticated multi-class society. By the time they made contact with Europeans, they had established a complex political and social structure, urban centers and satellite states including Cacongo, Ndongo, and Matamba. After their initial contact with Europe and Christianity, the nobility and learned classes also became literate, not merely in European languages, but under the guidance of Mvemba a Nzinga (c. 1456 – 1543), in Kikongo as well. A system of schools was established for the elite classes, and the Kongo began to develop what has becomerecognized as an international creolized culture, combining cultural, economic, political, and military forms from both European and African origins. Christianity and native Central African religious interaction and combinations must be viewed in light of this broader cultural phenomenon. The Kongolese sent scholars, priests, and traders to Europe and the New World (most notably Brazil) and these developments exercised profound influence over the development of cultural and social practice, not merely religion, throughout the Americas.

    That these historical facts have largely been forgotten in Western history until recently and remain not widely acknowledged, in no way negates the profound influences these Central African peoples had upon our modern world, especially for those of us who, regardless of ethnicity, are their spiritual descendants.

    • Thanks so much for this wonderful comment, Eoghan! Yes, yes, yes. It’s so important to reintroduce the world to this heritage and show how Kongo, as a civilization, contributed immeasurably to our world. Without Kongo cultural patrimony, there would be no Americas or Europe as we know them today.

  3. Mesi anpil for writing this, houngan. I find that the longer I serve Ginen, the more appreciation I get for how complex it is – and how well and respectfully it accommodates various strands of the Haitian experience, including things that might cause friction or conflict for outsiders or descendants. There’s much to learn about tolerance and what is really important here. May we all have eyes to see and ears to hear it.

  4. Well Adam, we certainly wouldn’t have gumbo, jambalaya, or Delta Blues. We can further argue that the African Inspired religious traditions of the Americas would not look anything like they do, had it not been for the baKongo. Thanks for the fabulous work. And yes, we need to see more made available about other Haitian traditions, no matter what term is currently used to describe them.

  5. There is also a great deal of exploration of the Masonic connections to be made yet.

  6. Pingback: Whose Vodou? « The Hermit's Journey

  7. Lunine Pierre-Jeromie

    Adam, I take great interest in your topic “Whose Vodou?” for various reasons that I will try to explicate in the short lines below.
    First, the definition of ‘Haitian Vodou’ being emanated from African traditions but with the inclusion of European and in particular ‘Native American cultural and religious elements’ is a reasonable approach. Native Americans inhabited Haiti before the slave trade that brought our African ancestors to the shores of Haiti. Recently, the well-known Haitian artist, Yole Desrose, choreographed Native Indians (Tainos) ceding the land to Haitians in her presentation “Haiti Terre de Feu.” To date, it is believed that some Native Indians still live in Haiti, especially in areas where caves are common. Thus, when speaking of Vodou, one must speak of a Trilogy, mainly Africans, Native Indians, and the Creoles.
    Additionally, having grown up in the Plateau Central with roots in the Northern part of Haiti, I experienced first-hand the distinctive contention among many terms in the practice of Vodou. In my town, “Vodou” is a dance, a party for the ‘loas’ which is usually taken place in the ‘bitasyon’, sometimes for days (at home ceremonies are called ‘sèvis loas). Often, a member of the family, a ‘sèvitè’ leads the ceremony. However, that ‘sèvitè’ could be compared to a houngan/manbo due to his/her high rank in the ‘lakou’ having been chosen by the spirits to carry on the tradition of the ‘lakou’. Indeed, in the ‘lakou’, the Rada Nanchon is believed to be ‘Fran Ginen’, not a ‘lwa achte’. Those who are possessed by the spirits are chosen to serve the ‘loas’ according to the norms, traditions, and principles of the ‘lakou’. The most prominent demarcation is that nothing is done for a fee including healing, prayers, and readings, among others.
    With that said, I believe that Vodou practitioners should strive for the unification of the religion to avoid another ‘rejete’.

    • Dear Lunine, thank you so much for this wonderful comment. I’m so happy that you mentioned Native American (endijèn) influence on Haitian Vodou–which along with Africa and Europe make up the “twa rasin” [three roots] of Vodou. I neglected to write about it here, but it’s something that interests me a lot–as it should anyone who studies Vodou. I’m fascinated to hear you say that there may still be Indian communities living in Haiti. I have heard from others that there are some lakou that still preserve Native American religion, but I unfortunately have never been to any myself.

      I recently did research on possible Native American influences on practices and beliefs related to the Marasa. Perhaps I’ll have to post about it here.

      And, thank you thank you thank you for this information about Sèvis Ginen of the Plateau Central. I would love to talk with you more about it, and perhaps I might convince you to do a guest post or an interview about it?

  8. Although most of the Haitians who migrated to Cuba to work as cane cutters and coffee pickers in the early twentieth century were from the south or Port au Prince (particularly areas around Aux Cayes, including Torbek, Cavallion, Port Salut, San-Luis du Sud), the Vodú known in Cuba has been focused on spirits inherited from parents and grandparents and practiced within families, rather than temple based. Hmmm, I’ve never heard the term kanzo used among Vodúistas in Cuba. However, Cubans of Haitian heritage increasingly use the term “initiation” and the concept is familiar because it’s important within Regla de Ocha/Santería and Palo on the island. Perhaps more elaborate initiations, larger temples, and initiatory hierarchies will become more common. Vodú is spreading from rural haitiano-cubano enclaves to the cities. Elders are beginning to attract urban godchildren and to visit cities like Havana and Santiago regularly to attend to their clientele. Interestingly, when I showed oungans and mambos in Cuba my photos and videos of Vodou events in Jacmel and Port au Prince, they exclaimed that it appeared similar to Santería because of the elaborate infrastructure, altars, ritual clothing, and long sequestered initiations.

    • Thanks so much for your reply, Grete! It’s so interesting to think about the way that all of these things come to be the way they are. I know we’ve talked about this before, but I can’t remember whether the Haitian-Cubans that you study use the ason. My memory seems to be that they don’t. If that’s the case, it isn’t surprising they wouldn’t talk about kanzo, since that’s quite specific to ason lineages. It sounds like what people brought with them to Cuba was more along the lines of inherited, family practices. Very interesting!

      I ran out of steam before I got around to mentioning it, but in addition to Cuban Haitian Vodou, there is also Dominican Haitian Vodou, called Vudú Dominicano or 21 Divisiones. Although Cuban Vodou is clearly different from present-day Haitian Vodou, it is much more similar than Dominican Vodou, which has really developed a quite unique system and pantheon. The 21 Divisiones has now spread to numerous other places in Latin America, maybe most notably Puerto Rico–and, of course, also to the United States. I confess that’s about the limit of my knowledge about it, since most of the information about it is in Spanish and I don’t personally know any practitioners.

      Still, yet two more expressions of the religious complex that, for heuristic purposes, can be called “Haitian Vodou.”

      • Nope, true, I haven’t seen Vodú practitioners in Cuba use an ason.

        Beads are an identifying part of practice, however. Ritual specialists do wear long chains of beads crossed over the chest, largely made of seeds, husks, wood and natural materials, not brightly colored glass or plastic.

        Gosh, at some point I want to spend more time in the Dominican Republic, a fascinating place, and it’s interesting that even the spelling of Haitian-inspired spiritual practices are different: “Vodú” in Cuba but usually spelled “Vudu” by writers from the DR.

  9. Marsha Steinberg

    Hi Adam, and thanks for your research and respect in locating this spiritual tradition. One quick question/comment: here is LA, I have know several people who indentify and certainly look Mexican who also practice some version of this practice. do you know anything of that history? Of course there was African Slavery there, and increasingly I see the use of the term Afro Mestizo being used by Mexicans clearly of African descent. But they are not the ones talking about Santeria at least to my knowledge, admittedly limited.

    • Thanks for your comment, Marsha, and for reading! There are a lot of spiritual practices in Latin America that look fairly similar on the surface. Without knowing more, it’s difficult to guess which Mexican spiritual tradition you are seeing. It could be some form of curanderismo, or perhaps spiritualism. Or something else entirely. In all likelihood, it is some form of Native American indigenous religion that is mixed with elements of Catholicism.

    • Santería is expanding in Mexico. When I visited Cuba in January, I was surprised to find that two local Santería leaders had accumulated so many Mexican godchildren they had started traveling to Mexico City (and other towns) regularly to attend to them. I think relationships have been building recently as Mexicans increasingly vacation in Cuba or travel there to study music, dance, or drumming. It’s interesting that your friend in LA mentioned a connection spanning more than one generation. Ties between Mexico and Cuba were not close in the decades immediately following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, but, hmm, prior to that, Mexican laborers, particularly from Yucatan, sometimes traveled to Cuba in search of seasonal work cutting sugar cane. There may have been other Mexican communities in Cuba as well, maybe in business or trades…

  10. Grete,
    La Ocha and even Palo was at least a small presence in Mexico as far back as the 1960’s and perhaps even the 1950’s. I know that the Palo lineage to which Olga Guillot belonged established a munansó in Mexico by the early 1960s if not earlier, and continues there to this day. Cuban religion tended to expand most with Cuban exiles rather than through adoption by visitors to Cuba. If one examines the early expansion into the US, in the early years of the 20th century, it expanded with migrant communities into the US, but also, and in some ways more significantly, with musical professionals. Because music is such an essential component of Afro-Caribbean religious performance, musicians are perhaps the most widely represented professionals among the faithful. The reason musicians were especially significant is this: while families and communities bring religious traditions with them, they tend to maintain them within the context of family and community. Musicians in exile, tend to be less rooted in family and community, more transient, and more likely to mix with a broad range of people other than their own nationality. For that reason, Cuban Musicians were frequently responsible for introducing first non-Cuban latinos and subsequently even non-latinos to Afro-Cuban religious practices. This is not merely my own observation, but is well documented by historians of Afro-Cuban religion and of Cuban musical history. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that Olga Guillot’s Congo traditions found themselves transplanted to Mexico, although as I understand it, her involvement with the development of that religious house was for the most part indirect, especially as she was never public about her religious practices.

    As far as I can see from my acquaintances with those who practice Vodú in Cuba and Vudu in the DR, the most significant difference between these two religious diasporas, probably that from which most of their other differences derive, is that in Cuba, Haitian identity is intimately tied to the practice as a positive self identity, while in the DR, reflecting the common attitude to Haitian culture there, the connection with Haiti is minimized when it is not overtly denied, and it often is overtly denied.

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