Vodou is a Caribbean religion brought about by slavery. It developed in the western, French side of the island of Santo Domingo through the forced coexistence of Africans from diverse cultures such as the Dahomey, Congo, Yoruba, Fon, etc. Some 100 different ethnic groups came to Saint Domingue and as was customary, the slave owners separated the cultural groups to keep them from communicating among themselves. Despite the lack of a common language, the slaves were able to reproduce a religious system common to all. Added on top of this base of African syncretism were elements of the Taino and Carib indigenous cultures as those peoples were enslaved along with the Africans. All of them found themselves under the control of the French slave owners and the Apostolic and Roman Catholic Church. From this mix of cultures, races and creeds – and with a strong African flavor – came Haitian Vodou.
The slaves were forced to participate in Catholic rites and abandon their previous beliefs, however. Because of this, just as in Cuba, the slaves in Haiti disguised their gods —or lwa— as Catholic saints to worship them. When they had the opportunity, however, they met in secret to hold their traditional rites. This way, they carried on their ancestral African values under the reality of a new situation. Vodou is a very important social force in Haiti. Its practitioners were active members and leaders of the war of independence against French control. Despite that, Vodou has been constantly persecuted by those that consider its beliefs to be primitive or savage. Followers of the religion also participated in the resistance against the Duvalier dictatorship, which was overthrown in 1986. The following year, in 1987, a new constitution was approved that recognized freedom of religion. Since then, Vodou followers in Haiti have been free to practice their rites.
The word Vodou means “spirit” or “god” in the Fon language from the kingdom of Dahomey. Vodou is a form of understanding that makes sense of the human experience in relation to the forces of nature and their ties to a higher force or energy. Followers of the religion, like those of other faiths, believe in harmony, in maintaining balance and in cultivating positive virtues and values. Through the worship of ancestors, Vodou establishes ties that unite families and maintain community life in Haiti.
One of the most important lwa for the slaves was Ogou. In its origin in Dahomey, Ogou was the god of iron and war, but in Haiti he became a spiritual guide and supported the communities of runaway slaves. Representative figures of the slave resistance, such as Macandal, or leaders of the Haitian Revolution, such as Boukman and Toussaint L’Ouverture, are tied to the rites associated with Ogou. Another important spirit in the Vodou pantheon is Legba, who stands at a spiritual crossroads and is the one who grants or denies permission to speak with the spirits that live in the hereafter.
Author: Pablo Samuel Torres
Published: May 24, 2012.
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