The term Voodoo (Vodun in Benin; also Vodou, Voudou, or other phonetically equivalent spellings in Haiti; Vudu in the Dominican Republic) is applied to the branches of a West African ancestor-based spiritist-animist religious tradition.
As a religion, Voodoo is not so old. Some scholars say it is a mix of West African religions with a veneer of Roman Catholicism. Vodou is believed to have been brought to Haiti, and also to Jamaica, Cuba and Brazil, by slaves from the Guinea Coast of Africa. It would be right to call religion a product of the slave trade.
Under slavery, African culture and religion were suppressed, lineages were fragmented, and people pooled their religious knowledge and out of this fragmentation became culturally unified. In addition to combining the spirits of many different African and Indian nations, Vodou has incorporated pieces of Roman Catholic liturgy to replace lost prayers or elements.
Vodou is a complex mystical vision of the world. It combines man, nature and supernatural powers i.e. relating to, or being above or beyond what is natural. Vodou is a rather democratic religion with everybody having direct access to the spiritual world, no go-between is required.
Vodou holds as a practical aim what is referred to as the state of being possessed (by the devil) in other religions. “A Catholic goes to church to speak of God and a Vodouisant goes dancing near a church to become God,” as a popular Haitian saying goes.
From the point of view of Vodou, a human being is a combination of several bodies overlaid on one another. Only one body – a physical one – is within reach to usual perception. The next one is something akin to the body’s energy dublicate, “the spirit of the flesh” which enables it to function.
The above spirit begins to ooze from the body after death, it passes to organisms living in the ground. The process takes 18 months to complete. According to Vodou doctrines, the soul or non-physical, spiritual center of a human is made up of two parts: a “little good angel” and a “big good angel.”
A “big good angel” is similar to “the spirit of the flesh”, it is a pure yet finer energy creature that instantly goes back to an endless energy reservoir after death. A “little good angel” is an individualized part of the soul, a source of every personal characteristic.
It is capable of easily separating from the body (while being in a dream or a strong fright or possessed temporarily by the external spirits called lwa). The last spiritual component is located in the heavens, it does not relate to the body of a human, it is connected with his fate, it is his personal “star” or what is called karma in Buddhism.
Vodouisants believe the invisible power of lwa fills everything under the sun. Lwa are without number like the sand on a seashore. Each lwa has its own sign, name and destiny. Worshiping the snake which swallows its own tails one of the focal points of the Vodou rites. The snake symbolizes harmony of the universe and eternity in the ancient world.
Dambala Wedo is a key required component of any Vodou sacrament; it is the beginning and the end of all things, the Ocean of Eternity, which surrounds the material world. It is the limitless space whence every thing came and where to every thing will come back sooner or later. These are the aspects of the light side of Vodou. Not unlike any religion, Vodou contains profound philosophical views based on the worship of nature and its elements.
Everyone is said to have spirits, and each person is considered to have a special relationship with one particular spirit who is said to “own their head”, however each person may have many lwa, and the one that owns their head, or the “met tet”, may or may not be the most active spirit in a person’s life in Haitian belief.
In serving the spirits, the Vodouisant seeks to achieve harmony with their own individual nature and the world around them, manifested as personal power and resourcefulness in dealing with life.
Part of this harmony is membership in and maintaining relationships within the context of family and community. A Vodou house or society is organized on the metaphor of an extended family, and initiates are the “children” of their initiators, with the sense of hierarchy and implied mutual obligation.
Most Vodouisants are not initiated referred to as being “bosal”; it is not a requirement to be an initiate in order to serve one’s spirits. There are clergy in Haitian Vodou whose responsibility is to preserve the rituals and songs and maintain the relationship between the spirits and the community as a whole (though some of this is the responsibility of the whole community as well).
They are entrusted with leading the service of all of the spirits of their lineage. Priests are referred to as “Houngans” and priestesses as “Manbos”. Below the houngans and manbos are the hounsis, who are initiates who act as assistants during ceremonies and who are dedicated to their own personal mysteries.
One does not serve just any lwa but only the ones they “have” according to one’s destiny or nature. Which spirits a person “has” may be revealed at a ceremony, in a reading, or in dreams.
However all Vodouisants also serve the spirits of their own blood ancestors, and this important aspect of Vodou practice is often glossed over or minimized in importance by commentators who do not understand the significance of it. The ancestor cult is in fact the basis of Vodou religion.
Vodou has come to be associated in the popular mind with such phenomena as “zombies” and “voodoo dolls”. While there is ethnobotanical evidence relating to “zombie” creation, it is a minor phenomenon within rural Haitian culture and not a part of the Vodou religion as such. Such things fall under the auspices of the bokor or sorcerer rather than the priest.
Translated by Guerman Grachev