Tuesday, October 2, 2012

[HoI] Getting to know the spirits: Haitian Vodou (Haiti Today 2/6)



You can find the outline for the course here and a brief history of Haiti here. Please post all comments, requests, and questions in the Reddit post rather than the blog. That way we can continue our discussion within the History of Ideas subreddit.

Getting to Know the Spirits
An Introduction to Haitian Vodou

       When slaves were brought over from West Africa they were not tabula rasa. Rather, they retained their religious beliefs, cultures, traditions, and memories from their own complex and highly developed societies. These experiences and bodies of knowledge informed the ways in which they understood being enslaved and the new cultures they encountered. In Haiti, this meant that while slave owners were required to baptize and instruct their slaves in Catholicism, slaves found ways to retain their own beliefs in spite of them being outlawed. Remember that at the time of the revolution 2/3 of the slaves in Haiti had been born in Africa so they had already grown up with their own cultural and religious beliefs. When they were introduced to Catholicism, they found creative ways to use the saints as a facade for their own spirits. For example, the snake spirit Danballah became associated with Saint Patrick because icons of Saint Patrick often include snake at his feet. This allowed them to pray openly to Danballah via the name and image of Saint Patrick. Over generations, however, this relationship became more than a facade. Today, Catholicism and West African religious traditions exist in Haiti both as parallel traditions and in a form that mixes the two. In other words, sometimes people really are praying to Saint Patrick the long dead Catholic Irish man. But other times people are specifically referring to Danballah as the ancient African creator spirit. And yet these concepts are not contradictory - Danballah is both an ancient African snake and Saint Patrick

       It is hard for many people in America and Europe to fully understand this because we're often raised with the idea that you have to pick just one religious worldview and that to do otherwise is insincere or even hypocritical. But much of the world does not see religion in this way. In many areas of Africa and Asia people hold overlapping religious views without it creating anxiety about cognitive dissonance. And if we really look hard at our own cultures we'll see that people in America do this too. A Christian might believe in both the Bible and a form of reincarnation and karma, without this jeopardizing their mental health or views of their own damnation. And if we look at this cross-culturally and historically we'll find that religions and cultures overlap, intersect, and influence one another constantly. These moments create traditions through a process we sometimes call syncretism, creolization, or hybridity. These terms come in and out of favor but the important thing is to recognize that Haitian Vodou is not unusual in this sense. In fact, many other colonial communities in the Caribbean and Central & South America created similar religious responses. Lukumi (Santeria), Candombl√©, Obeah, Orisha, and Vodou are all cousin religions in that they were created through the process of slavery, colonialism, West African traditions, and Christianity intersecting. If you have studied any of these traditions you might notice similarities, though of course each religion is unique and a product of its own history and people. 

       The revolution in Haiti began with a Vodou ceremony and today religious system retains some of its revolutionary aspects, and has been a source of inspiration to guerilla fighters and political dissidents. Yet, it also encourages a harmonious relationship with society and nature, providing ideal examples for behavior that fit within rather than against legal and social systems. It provides an encompassing worldview that connects individual, society, environment, luck, health, and action. However, this system also retains a huge range of potentials that allows individuals to creatively respond to different situations in a way that works with their current conditions. Like many African traditions, two or more aspects that at first seem like internal contradictions are juxtaposed to suggest that together they create a third deeper truth, a mystical knowledge that touches upon the really-real. Therefore, while there are general ways to characterize the religious system of Vodou, it is also important to recognize its plasticity that allows practitioners to adjust it for changing socio-political conditions in Haiti and the experience of diaspora. My goal here is to give an overview of the religion as it is practiced in Haiti, while acknowledging that there are variations. There is no pope of Vodou or overarching governing body. Each religious house gains and retains status through recognition by other houses, but they are their own traditions and no house has control over another. My description of Vodou comes not just from scholarly research but from working with Vodou communities, studying the religion hands on, and going to ceremonies for over four years. Most of my information here is about how the religion is practiced in Southern Haiti, though I am happy to discuss some variations found in the North in comments. This blog post from a Vodou scholar is also useful for understanding the variation in the religion. 

       Vodouisants believe that spirits (lwa) and ancestors are active agents in the material human world, and this belief is a given - a post that holds up the reality of the system and which other cultural beliefs exist in relation to. These beings exist without a material body and on a spiritual plane, but this plane can be accessed through divination, dreams, ritual, possession, and geographical and temporal spaces of bleed through. Contact provides a way to mitigate relationships with these beings who otherwise could impact lives without individuals having the ability to negotiate their situation. These spirits and ancestors have individual personalities and preconceived notions about proper behaviors that can cause them to help or hinder people as they see fit. Engaging with these beings allows humans to gain their aid and take control over their own luck. However, this usually requires a pledge of either a direct exchange of offerings for services or a lifelong commitment to serve and honor. Failure to uphold a person’s end of the deal or to recognize when a spirit is making a demand can result in punishment that affects luck, health, personal relationships, and financial situations. Since it can be difficult to decipher exactly what a spirit wants and which spirit is affecting a person’s life, religious professionals are consulted to ensure that life is being led in harmony with these beings. These beings also become part of an extended spiritual family, and as such individuals love them and provide offerings because they enjoy making their spirits and ancestors happy. This bolsters the spirits and ancestors, because they need humans in order to be fed. Thus, humans and spirit beings exist in a symbiotic relationship.  

       The arrangements of social and familial obligations, relationships, and interactions move outwards from this central spiritual worldview. Vodou morality is not a black and white understanding of right and wrong, but rather a contextual response that above all works to maintain harmony in the community. The universe exists in harmony as a natural state, and any action that creates discord is a moral transgression. It would be a mistake to consider this the same way that Catholics view sin. Moral transgressions are not individual acts that permanently taint the soul and change the outcome of the afterlife. There is no defined concept of heaven in Haitian Vodou and reincarnation is not affected by the sins of the past life. Rather, these moral transgressions change the circumstances of the individual and community in the here and now but can be overcome and moved past. Also important is that the moral violation of harmony by one individual can affect the morality of the group and cause repercussions from spirits and ancestors that affect the community. This places a huge focus upon the collective and tends to downplay the individual. Yet, it would be wrong to characterize the Haitian worldview as solely a collective one. Individual action is an important part of disrupting, maintaining, and repairing balance. Also, religious leaders and elders of the community hold a special place in social hierarchies. Outside of the racial economic divide of elite mulattos and peasant blacks, the countryside divides the community according to age and status achieved.  Children are at the bottom and elders at the top since they are the closest to becoming future ancestors. This arrangement is similar to many African societies. As future ancestors, elders are the bearers of wisdom and deserve extreme respect for their position. Elders who are Vodou oungan asogwe or manbo asogwe (high priests and priestesses) and who have had children are the most respected, having gone through all rites of passage besides death. If properly honored now, they will also be more likely to respond positively after death and if they are not immediately reincarnated they will provide assistance and guidance as ancestral spirits. 

       Vodouisants often grow up in households where these spirits and ancestors are part of their extended families. Home altars dedicate a space to honoring and feeding them, dreams bring messages, and daily experiences reinforce their presence. A whiff of perfume when no one is nearby indicates that a spirit who likes that perfume is spiritually close. A song that suddenly comes to mind might be related to a spirit and a reminder of the message in the lyrics. These everyday moments and experiences introduce people to these lwa saint-spirits and they get to know their personalities, preferences, tendencies, and attitudes. Over time they often develop personal relationships with certain spirits. These spirits make frequent appearances in dreams and visions and are believed to provide assistance. For example, Ogou the warrior king may appear in dreams as a father figure, policeman, and protector. He might make his presence known during times of difficulty through the scent of the cigar he loves to smoke, reminding the person he is there for them. And at group ceremonies he might even possess a body and use that to speak directly to individuals, lay hands to heal, and perform important rituals. Spirit possession in the West is often seen as something scary. But in Haiti and many other places it is a welcome event. Spirits do not have corporeal bodies but they enjoy corporeal things such as drinking, eating, smoking, dancing, and talking. In certain contexts practitioners can give up their own bodies so that the spirits can temporarily use them. The person retains no memory of the event and no aspect of their personality or self-hood should show during the possession. The body is just a vehicle and the spirit is believed to push out the current driver and seat him or herself behind the wheel during possession. Group ceremonies are a chance for practitioners to come together as a community to honor spirits on their special day but also to gain direct contact with the divine. 

       Once these experiences build up a person may recognize that he or she is called to have a deeper relationship with the spirits. Each person has a spiritual court, meaning that particular spirits show interest in them and become intertwined in their lives. Everyone's spiritual court is different and people must learn to recognize their spirits so they can effectively work with them. Vodou is sometimes mischaracterized as a tradition similar to some other faiths where you select spirits most relevant to your issue at hand and attempt to work with them. While Ezili Freda, for example, is sometimes represented as the spirit of love and romance if you do not have a relationship with her you would not approach her for help in that arena. Rather, you work with the relationships you've already developed and the spirits most likely to be interested. To determine a spiritual court, a person can go to a oungan or manbo (priest or priestess) for a card reading. Many people then use this knowledge to create a home altar where they can strengthen these relationships and focus their attention. For individuals who are called further they may choose to have a head washing, which connects them permanently to their met tet (ruler of the head) who is the spirit most closely aligned with them. The next step would be to initiate into the religion into one of three stages: hounsi (congregation member), manbo or oungan (priestess or priest), and manbo asogwe or oungan asogwe (high priestess or high priest.) These levels of initiation (kanzo) are not decided by the individual but by the spirits and revealed through dreams, card readings, and other forms of communication. This is a permanent life-time commitment and each level requires different duties to spirit and community. 

       In Haitian Vodou, men and women can both attain equal status levels as manbo asogwe and houngan asogwe. This doesn't mean that there aren't issues with sexism and in the countryside the traditional arrangement was to have the eldest male hold the highest level of power for the family compound. Yet, changing economic situations have meant that women have better odds finding work than men - especially in the city. In the past forty years more and more female led spiritual houses have popped up. In the countryside religious houses were usually made up of actual family members. In cities, members may not be blood related but through initiation they become spiritual family members with the same obligations and responsibilities they have towards blood kin. The priests and priestesses become the fathers and mothers of this extended family and the religious community becomes a place where members can receive healing, shelter, food, counseling, a loan, and other assistance. The temple is often a space that between services is used for sleeping, cooking, and socializing. These spaces and communities are important places for disenfranchised people to gain status and help. Since homosexuality is religiously sanctioned, Vodou houses are often safe havens for gay men and women who otherwise can be persecuted in Haitian society. Poor people - especially single mothers - also often find Vodou to be an avenue to bettering their lives.

       Access to the spirits and the power of religious officials provides ways to use their faith to make what they believe are real world changes. However, these networks and the religious philosophy also encourage people to change their situation in non-religious ways too. It is important to counter claims by people such as Lawrence Harrison that Vodou encourages laziness and is somehow progress-resistant. First, almost everything in Haiti gets done through social networks and relationships. Being part of a Vodou community links you into an important network and provides a safety net. This is especially important for people who leave their family homestead for opportunities in cities. Second, Vodou encourages people to take individual responsibility and proactively work to fix their situation. It is not enough just to pray or make an offering. This can help open doors, but it is the person's responsibility to walk through them. Hard work, supporting their family, fighting injustice, and respecting the environment are all important aspects of Vodou religious philosophy. The lwa also provide models of how individuals can succeed through appropriate behaviors. For example, Azaka is a hard-working peasant farmer who is dedicated to his wife and a smart businessman. Likewise his wife is a shrewd negotiator in the market place, the one who controls the money in the marriage, and a dedicated wife. Together they provide a model for marriage and hard-work, but they are not perfect in the way Christians would describe Jesus or Muslims Mohammad. Sometimes Azaka drinks too much or the two fight. They are flawed because they represent real models of living - not an idealized model that is unattainable for the normal person. 

       Like any religion, Vodou is a lived tradition meaning that there are overarching religious tenants but people bring these with them out from the temple and altar into the world where they live. Religion permeates every aspect of life so that it is difficult at times to separate out religious beliefs from ideas about family, the land, economy, and other daily concerns. This is why it is helpful to learn about Vodou if you want to understand Haiti but also to learn about Haiti if you want to understand Vodou. The two are intertwined and impossible to fully untangle. Though people do convert to Protestant forms of Christianity that reject any mixing with African based traditions, they still grow up in a world where Vodou folkstories, songs, art, dietary restrictions, and religious calendars are important parts of the culture. People may find that claiming to be purely Catholic or Protestant useful for gaining certain positions or access to NGOs, but then turn to Vodou for healing when the doctor fails. These lines are porous and overlapping and in the end people often do what works for them and is meaningful at that moment. These negotiations and tensions become complicated for Haitians who immigrate to other areas such as New York, Miami and Boston. Here they have to rethink what it means to be a Haitian Vodouisant outside of the context of Haiti. Also, in response to the negative stigmas we often see of Vodou in movies and the media, many practitioners have sought to educate people about their faith. Therefore, Vodou is in an interesting moment where practitioners are thinking about their religion both as insiders and outsiders and figuring out how to present it to the world. This has also meant a sudden interest in the religion from some New Age and Neo-Pagan traditions, which has created mixed feelings from Vodouisants. On the one hand it helps legitimize their faith and make it seem safe. On the other, the Neo-Colonial attitudes of some people who co-opt their religion and represent it in ways that are very offensive to Haitians is highly upsetting to them. 

       These issues of negotiating diasporic experiences through Vodou are what my own dissertation work focus upon. In addition to answering any questions about Vodou in general I am also happy to talk about experiences of Vodouisants in the diaspora. Below you will find suggestions for further reading if you would like to do your own scholarly research. I've also added a brief excerpt from some of my early fieldnotes that I typed up a few years ago. You can also see some photos I've taken along with descriptions for clarity here

If you have questions or want clarification please comment on the HoI post here so that we can hold our discussion via Reddit. Thanks for reading!



Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick and Claudine Michel
2006. Haitian Vodou: Spirit, Myth, and Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

- 2006. Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers. New York: Palgrave

Brown, Karen McCarthy
1987. "Plenty Confidence in Myself”: The InitiationMcAlister, E.

- 2002. Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora. Berkeley and
Los Angeles: University of California Press.

- 2001. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California

- 2001. “Mimesis in the Face of Fear: Femme Queens, Butch Queens, and Gender Play in
the Houses of Greater Newark.” In Linda Schlossberg and Maria Sanchez, ed. Passing:
Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion. New York: NYU Press.

Deren, Maya.
1953. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Kingston: Documentext

Desmangles, Leslie
1992. The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press.

Drewal, Henry John
2008. Sacred Waters: Arts for Mami Wata and Other Divinities in Africa and the
Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Richman, Karen
2005. Migration and Vodou. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press.

All photos and text are my own original work. 
If you would like to reproduce them in whole or in part please contact me first. Thanks!

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