An Introduction to Haitian Vodou
Updated: Oct 19, 2018
In our nationalist pride, we include a great variety of things ; our diverse peoples, our strength, history, gastronomy, dances and values. We often leave out – purposely, might I add – the glue that holds all these pieces together. There is a whisper amidst the noise, that teaches all the speakers what hasn’t always been written in books, or formally taught; Haitian voodoo. More a practice, than a religion, Haitian vodou is the root under the tree, and the true story behind the “myth”. Among our people, there are many misconceptions on the practice that have been ingrained in us over the years, by colonization. As the years went on, we spread those false interpretations as truths, that strangers adopt to degrade us. It is important to mention that a big majority of the ignorant spreading is intentional; especially if it helps to justify hatred for our people as a whole, and convinces certain groups that our beliefs are contrary to theirs - notably Christians.
A relatively monotheist religion, Haitian vodou actually centers, just as Christianity does, an all powerful God (Bondye), or Grand Master (Gran Mèt). He created the universe and continues to do so each day. In addition, he exists in correspondence with the universe, being as much a part of it, as being its creator (As above, so below). It is believed that to tend to his creation, he's allocated power to Spirits or Loas (LO-WAH), whom humans can call on for help. Though there are widely known loas, no one knows EVERY loa, since different locations have their own local loas, or variations of the common ones. Loas, - considered lesser gods, divinities - bring in the polytheistic aspect of Voodoo, as they are served either as alternatives, or conduits to God (Bondye/Gran Mèt). In fact, they're considered finger tips to God's hands, part of his plan and power. In that way, belief in them, is still belief in the one all powerful Gran Mèt. The serving of loas is practice based. Each loa has its attributes and altars are set up to cater to them. The specifics on what each loa would like at their respective altar, are included in the "regleman", an informal set of rules by which practitioners serve the loas., and become priests or initiated members. When initiated, they become apart of a family or sosyete.The services are usually done in gatherings of families/societies (sosyete), in large rooms, or in a lakou with multiple houses. The service houses are called hounfo and the room where the service is held is called peristil. It is centered by a Poto Mitan (middle pole) where the loas climb down to mount the servants during the ceremony. Mounting , commonly referred to as possession, is when the loa descends to our plane of life, and possess a servant whom they will ride for the duration of their stay, interacting with the rest of the servants, drinking, eating, dancing, as that specific loa would be known to. Once the loa is finished, they leave the body. To outsiders, this all sounds very unorthodox, and there are many ways to demonize all these practices, even when there are many parallels to vodou in Catholicism. Not that voodoo needs to be justified by these parallels ; Haitian vodou's true essence will be what it is, with or without that justification, - but it is important for people to understand that it is not this outlandish belief so far from others. For instance, Haitian voodoo practitioners use a lot of catholic symbolism. There are several reasons for this. Part of it is due to the practice of voodoo during slavery, and the way it had to be hidden with the use of Catholic symbols and names, so that masters would not recognize that slaves weren’t really praying to Mother Mary, but to Èzili or Ayida Wedo, and not to Saint Lazarus, but to Legba: there’s approximately a catholic saint for every loa. Another reason for this is that vodouisants do not see a need to reject parts of any culture that they’ve had to adopt for survival. Still, even with vodou’s ability to merge so well with catholic symbolism, outsiders never seem to generally understand the way it works. One misunderstood concept is the loas. The way it is perceived, practitioners are replacing God by serving the loas. What is important to know about their servitude, is that the loas are not worshiped in the same manner that the Gran Mèt is. Each loa is responsible for an aspect of the Universe, and are in a way, angels of God. It is no different from the way Catholics pray to intermediates (the saints), or the way the books of the Bible are written by disciples who knew God's work - in a way- more intimately than we do . There are various nations of Loas. Mainly, Rada (indigenous loas), Petwo (loas of the Haitian revolution) and Gede (loas of death).
The name Rada, comes from Arada, - now modern day Benin, in West Africa. The Arada peoples, prior to slavery, conquered neighboring tribes, becoming the Dahomey Kingdom, who would then be imported to Haiti (then called Hispaniola). Being the oldest fragment of memory current servants hold, they are the rasin (root), and are wiser loas. It is said that their bodies and spirits were relatively intact, and that this bit of ease, makes them more peaceful loas, who promote growth, life, greater good, order and tradition. They are in addition associated with light and purity. However, Rada loas can be wrathful and capable of violence. These loas are honored right after the Gran Mèt at the beginning of services. Some Rada loas, include Papa Legba, Èzili Freda, the Ogou family (Osanyin, Batala, Senjak, Badgari, Shango, Feray); Danbala/Damballa and Ayida Wedo , Marasa, Papa Loko, Agwe, and Lasirèn. Because they all have their respective aspects - which may slightly vary in different locations, we will only briefly discuss each, so that the reader has a general idea.
Papa Legba is described as a trickster, and the spirit of crossroads. The crossroad is where men's plane of life and that of God's meet. He usually is the first called during a service after God, as he is the one to open the gate for the loas to descend the Poto Mitan, into the peristil and mount the individual of their choice. Legba is said to have the keys and or answers to all things. Some say he walks around with a cane and two dogs, others say he carries a large sac of woven straws. Regardless of his appearance, it is understood that Legba is keeper of the gate.
Èzili Freda is associated with womanhood, sexuality, lust and feminity. When she mounts her servants, she is referred to as Mistress or Bèl Fanm. She is said to be a rich complicated classist lightskinned woman with "perfect" features, who doesn't associate herself with peasants. She wears expensive jewelry - notably three rings on her fingers for each of her lovers/husbands (Agwe, Ogou Feray and Dambala Wedo). While good, giving and kind, Freda is also jealous, and wrathful.
The Ogou Family, briefly explained, are a group of spirits that were originally people from Benin and Nigeria. They're a family of orishas. Overall, they are warrior spirits in different aspects.
Danbala Wedo: In Voodouo Danbala is supposed to be the world itself, he is a kind and loving being, represented by a white or green snake. Contrary to this belief that the snake represents malice, wrath and evil, Danbala' s symbolic snake is in itself the goodness of the creator.
Ayida Wedo is Danbala's wife, represented by a snake in the sky - a rainbow. She is the Earth's restorer of beauty, and completes Danbala.
Marasa: The Marasa spirits/loa are twin spirits, that represent duality and polarity. In the motherland, they are understood to be powerful and sometimes dangerous , which is why a lot of effort is put into pleasing them.
Papa Loko is the very first vodou priest. He is said to sometimes be the personification of the Poto Mitan, which is also a metaphor for him holding up the roof, with his wisdom and knowledge. He is depicted as a spirit who hates injustice, and is often called on to settle disputes, and give answers and advice. Papa Loko is also a master of herbs and healing.
After Rada, comes the Petwo loas, the more vengeful spirits of Voodoo, who aided in our people's revolution. Easily demonized as devils, or as Satanism, the Petwo loas are simply the reflection of an important part of our history and culture; the resiliency, the fight and the necessary violence. Petwo and Rada are a duality that each represent two aspect of our lifestyle. As previously explained, The Rada spirits are that of the imported peoples from the Dahomey kingdom who were relatively untouched. They're an emblem of that circumstantial peace, and holder of traditions. In comparison to the Petwo loas, they are not less wrathful, but were simply less triggered in their rage. While they can be vengeful themselves, they are so by conditioned nature. To not forget, is that Petwo loas are actually from warrior tribes such as Ibo and Kongo. Even so, Petwo loas aren't one dimensional angry spirits, as you will see below. Apart of the Petwo nation of loas, are Èzili Dantò, Ti Jan Petwo, Gran Bwa and Simbi.
Èzili Dantò is very famous in Haitian vodou. She is the Petwo aspect of Èzili Freda, though she stands on her own. She is the spirit of (single) motherhood, and is always pictured with a child (boy or girl). Unlike Freda, Dantò is a peasant, who only wants to provide for her children. Uninterested in coquetry, or jewelry, Dantò is sometimes said to be quite unattractive. She's fond of raw rum, griyo, and the two daggers she holds. Dantò is also non-verbal. Some say it's because when she was a slave, her tongue was ripped out so she wouldn't warn other slaves. Others speak of a fight she had with Freda, due to Freda's jealousy, and Freda scratched her cheek and ripped her tongue out. Regardless of how she looks, Dantò is a very loving loa, and protects the marginalized - specifically orphans, queer women, and overall abused people.
Ti Jan Petwo: Ti Jan Petwo is either Èzili Dantò's baby (whom she is always holding), or her husband, depending on the lineage. He is a fierce, loud, extravagant loa, understood to be a powerful healer, magician and exorcist. Similar to his mother or wife, his appearance can be deceptive to outsiders, and described as evil, when in fact, he is a very caring and devoted loa.
Gran Bwa: is the spirit of all trees, leaves, herbs, forests in Haiti.
The last type of loa is the Gede loas, the archetypal dead. Once someone dies, their spirit spends a year under water with Agwe and LaSirèn. Then, there is a ceremony to celebrate their ascension from the waters, to their placement among the dead, the Ginen. Overall, Vodou does not adopt the pretense that all is good and peaceful, there are various parts, aspects, sides to life, and the various loas reflect that. There is no central authority telling the peoples the rules to live by, but it is their belief that one reaps what one sows, and that one must always try their best to do good.
Lastly there are the Gede loas, spirits of the forgotten dead. When a person dies, it is said that they go under water to rest with Mèt Agwe for a year and a day. If they were a servant of the loas, they are elevated by a ceremony, to join the Ginen. If they are not, Papa Gede and his wife Manman Brijit round them up, and give them purpose as Gede loas. As the father and mother of the Gede loas, Papa Gede and Manman Brijit understand what living was like, and because they are said to miss it, they hold a special connection with the living. In fact, no gate needs to be opened by Papa Legba to contact them, and anyone can serve the Gede loas regardless of status and initiation. The Gede are both very amusing and sweet loas. They sometimes arrive to ceremonies uninvited, and have their fun - which can be disruptive. They are widely known to be free humorous loas, who test boundaries, bcause they are dead, and do not need to answer to anyone. The Gede loas are dedicated the whole month of November, notably the first 3 days which open "Fèt Gede". There are many Gede loas, as other nations, but the most widely know are Bawon/Baron (Samdi, Simityè), Manman Brijit, Brav Gede, Gede Plimaj.
Baron/Bawon/Papa Gede is the leader of the forgotten dead. Dressed in a suit with a top hat, he eats spicier food than humans can, and wears glasses to block all the light. He gathers the souls that are going to be given purpose by serving the Gede nation. When they mount their servants, they often playfully mimic sexual intercourse (as dead people can't actually part-take in it) and smoke unfiltered cigars.
Manman Brijit, is Baron's wife, who hold the wisdom of the ancestors, and is said to live in the largest tree of the cemetery alongside Baron. Brijit is a woman with lots of hair, associated with a black rooster.
Brav Gede/Gede Nibo is Baron's hand. Where Baron cannot kill a man, he can send Nibo to do the work. Essentially, Nibo carries out Baron's orders. He makes sure things amongst the new Gede run smoothly, and is the enforcer of his leaders' rules over the nation.
Gede Plimaj is a regular Gede, a diviner and teacher. He walks in the way of the banda dance. He takes the souls that Baron and Brijit have found, and teaches them magic.
There are other Gede loa, as there are other variations of the loas we've mentioned. One cannot name or serve them all, and their attributes may vary by location. However, those mentioned, as well as the ones apart of these different nations that have been left out, are the ones most vodouisants choose to work with. That cannot be said of the "dangerous" loas, such as "djab", "pwen cho", the "sanpwèl" society, etc. These are angry, lesser and spirits of the sold and enslaved. They are difficult to handle, and control, which is why they are not typically served, and if they are so, the servant must be properly trained and warned. In addition, most vodwizan's know that they are to be approached only in certain circumstances.
Vodou is a way of life, that of millions in Haiti. It is in itself diverse, and the merging of various cultures and practices, whether forced upon or adopted. A very community -centered practice, vodou is more than just a set of beliefs, but the home and refuge of many. In fact, in Haiti, many LGBTQIA folks find comfort in the religion, and many voodoo servants, and priests are of the LGBTQIA. In fact, most think they are one and the same, and that one affects the other. Of course, this is rooted in queerphobia and hatred for the practice altogether.
A person does not have to respect vodou as its own valid religion or entity, or even practices, however, as Haitian people, to hate Haitian vodou, is to hate our culture a great deal. A central piece to our language, dances, music and understandings of how the world works, is Haitian voodoo. The separation of what makes us distinct as a people and Haitian vodou is almost impossible, - and while for some it's something they boil down to preference, any one person who selects which part of their culture they recognize, refusing to acknowledge how it is all ultimately growing from the same root, is cognitively dissonant.