A Modern Conjuring of Black Gods: 5 Things to Know About Vodoun

Firstly, we will begin from a position of respect. This is non-negotiable. While much of western media has distorted the reality of Vodoun to fit its agenda of Haiti as a superstitious cesspool of sacrifice and bloodlust, this piece will remain open to the real-world implications of a black religion. If it is violent, consider why the world in which it is practiced is also violent. If it is indeed superstitious, consider what kinds of baseless superstitions the world still holds about Haitians. Perhaps this piece will have more questions than answers, but it will certainly ask them with the implicit respect one would give Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Belief is sacred.

It is not Voodoo. This is an offensive way to belittle the real practices of Haitians. The word Voodoo highlights what white westerners in the early 1900s thought of black religions: unnatural, cannibalistic, bloodthirsty, savage, evil, supernatural, etc. The word itself is not offensive but in the undertones of the way it’s used, it’s best to avoid it altogether. Think of every superstition you’ve ever had about Voodoo, now leave it at the altar of ignorance and proceed with Vodoun[1].

It is polytheistic. There are numerous deities, known as loa, in Vodoun. These gods, like much of the African Diaspora, are from all over Africa. Some have been integrated from Dahomey, Congo, Ibo and Nago among other African regions. Slavery is responsible for much of the culture mixing that is western black religion because slave masters regularly mixed slaves from various locations in Africa. Moreover, it is an ancestral religion as well. Upon death, worthy practitioners can be assimilated into the loa by the Houngan, or priest. This specific knowledge of the loa is crucial because as ceremonies are performed, it is customary for the loa to be comfortably fed with their favorite food and drink. Altars are created for each loa and populated with special items that have been passed down from Houngans as well as color prints of the Catholic saints that have been adopted for the loa

It is heavily influenced by Christianity. Amid the slaves, there were strict French codes that prohibited slaves from gathering outside of church. African practices were banned and every slave was indoctrinated in the basic religious ideology of Christianity. Naturally, old African traditions and new Christian iconography merged into what would be known as Vodoun in private practice. Deities can be pictured in standard portraits of Catholic saints but with new interpretation. For example, Damballah-Wedo is the fertile snake god of the waters and can be depicted as St. Patrick with snakes under his feet with the snakes being the important iconography, not St. Patrick.[2]

In Haiti, it flourished under a need to understand suffering. Christianity had not done enough to explain why there was subjugation and cruelty. Haitians needed the traditional answers offered in ceremony and myth to make the evil of their lives make sense [3] while also needing Christianity to understand the nature of suffering. I would go out on a limb and say that the idea of a white man’s white religion, didn’t quite reach the hearts of the black bodies being enslaved. Initially practiced in secret, Vodoun eventually emerged as a staple religion in Haiti.

Vodoun is not a centralized religion. The religion that is practiced across various regions of Haiti, as well as across the world, varies from area to area. They may have different ancestral deities. They may perform rituals and ceremonies differently. They may even have slightly different mythological stories from one another. Much of this variety is born from the personal influences of each Houngan. In this way, the religion shares similarities with Christian denominations in the United States. Two well-known forms of Vodoun practiced are Rada and Petro. Rada began in the practice of the Dahomey and can be considered “traditional” while Petro evolved post-slavery as an answer to the experiences of slaves. Rada functioned as a peaceful form of balance in nature with Petro speaking to the violence and unpredictability of enslavement.

This is a small list but hopefully it highlights some misconceptions. For me, writing and reading about the diaspora has been an eye-opening experience from the prejudices I hold, to the fallacies that I’ve taken as truth. Please keep these five things in mind when trying to engage or research with others about Vodoun. As this is only an introduction with cursory knowledge, you can expect a more thorough analysis in the future. I encourage you to check out the footnotes for further reading to see where we get our information from. If you have further knowledge of Vodoun and would like to offer feedback, suggestions or insight, please feel free to comment on our Facebook page. We love to hear from our readers!

- S. R. Hallmen   

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[1] VOODOO, ZOMBIES, AND MERMAIDS: U.S. NEWSPAPER COVERAGE OF HAITI. By: Potter, Amy E., Geographical Review, 00167428, Apr2009, Vol. 99, Issue 2;
[2] Dayan, Joan. "Vodoun, Or The Voice Of The Gods." Raritan 10.3 (1991): 32. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.
[3] Pinn, Anthony B. Varieties of African American Religious Experience. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998. Print.

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