When American troops arrived in Haiti in 1915 at the start of a two-decade occupation, they encountered a mysterious faith that animated all aspects of Haitian life and enabled its adherents to commune with spirits, or Lwa. Soon “lurid accounts of Vodou” found their way into the popular press and films in the US. During the 1920s and 1930s, Vodou was co-opted for the screen, appearing in reductive form in films such as White Zombie. These films helped to create a stereotype which persists to this day. While pervasive, these popular misconceptions are well-wide of the mark.
As a result of the context of its clandestine development in the midst of plantation slavery, defining the core principles and even primary adherents of Haitian Vodou is complex. Fundamentally a syncretic religion, Vodou encompasses inherited African spiritualities and aspects of Catholicism, bound together through the material conditions of enslavement. Such religious and cultural exchange is evident in the adoption of St. James from Portuguese traders and his association with the warrior Lwa, Ogun. The correlation of St. James and Ogun demonstrates that interchange was performative and that Vodou was an organic, evolving religion, which developed from a dialectic between different practices and as a response to the institution of slavery.
In this sense, Haitian Vodou did not shun other practices but, rather, was informed by them, becoming an inclusive and, to an extent, pluralistic faith. Vodou, then, does not represent a ‘preserved’, doctrinal faith, but a ‘live’ one, which responded to the particular challenges of San Domingue society and was forged through the “violence, terror and sexuality of slavery and revolution”. This sentiment is still prevalent in Haiti today, where there remains a firm belief in Vodou’s importance in remembering a common past. Indeed, Vodou is regarded as a core part of Haitian identity. As the saying goes, Haiti is “70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% Vodou”.
Most of the misunderstanding of Vodou is centred on accusations concerning ‘Black Magic’ and an infatuation with the dead, and certainly the deceased play an important part in Vodou philosophy. Yet, as Joan Dayan has explained, “in Haiti, the very notion of what constitutes a person or identity is indelibly tied to the Lwa”, in much the same way that Saints in the Catholic Church are revered as protectors and deliverers of particular groups or requirements. Indeed, faiths around the world have, in their own ways, communed with their forebears without the judgemental rancour and fear used to describe Vodou. The duality at the centre of the Vodou belief between the two primary ‘nations’ of Lwa – ‘Petwo’ and ‘Rada’ – has long been misinterpreted and poorly characterised, usually in moralised terms pitching one against the other. However, Vodou does not operate within the typical Western moral framework, which asserts the existence of a spiritual battle between forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – as with the Abrahamic faiths. Instead, Vodou Lwa can do both good and bad depending on the way in which one validates them, or for what purpose they are summoned. They are neither intrinsically malevolent nor benign. As the saying goes, “serving the gods with the right hand is to call on forces of good, and the left, the forces of bad”. The difference between good and bad in Vodou faith then, is a matter of practice, rather than some essential and intrinsic dualism, leaving the moral implications up to the decisions of the votary.
A more helpful distinction is between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, implying a certain activity on the part of the Petwo Lwa, where the Rada Lwa may be seen as more contemplative, and it was believed that the Lwa could intercede in the real world, such as by aiding in the revolution of 1791. The ceremonies through which these changes are enabled have been typically portrayed negatively by outsiders, such as Moreau de Saint-Méry (a French lawyer in Saint Domingue writing during the revolution). Moreau described the Don Pédre dance as a “ridiculous but a potentially terrible weapon” of the “dangerous Vodou cult”, a stance unsurprising to the uninitiated. A basic understanding of the explanations of these dances, however, shows that far from the violent, destructive, and cultish, perceptions of colonial commentators, the dynamic, high-energy performances represent the Lwa entering the human vessel. Indeed, the presence of the Lwa is thought to be manifested in physical movements as a new identity and a liberation from societal constraints. To practitioners this is a deeply significant moment described not as ‘possession’ but in active terms, as an interaction between human and spirit. The human recipient’s ‘self’ must leave for the Lwa to descend and yet the self is not erased. Through these dances then, the faithful may come into direct contact with divine forces. It is hardly surprising that such a moment was beyond the comprehension of Europeans who were privy to the dances, but it seems wrong that they continue to be represented as such.
As recently as the Haitian Earthquake in 2010, controversial American preacher Pat Robertson, blamed the tragedy on a “pact with the Devil” made at the Bois Caïman ceremony of 1791. His absurd statement provoked the re-animation of anti-Vodou sentiment in the US which spilled over into violence and targeted attacks in Haiti. Similarly, Christian denominations have long demonized Vodou and the church has actively sought to repress its practice. Such action is deeply ignorant, intolerant, and rather ironic – given that the doctrine forced upon enslaved people by the Catholic Church during the eighteenth century played a role in the development of Haitian Vodou. As with most prejudices, the best solution is education. Hopefully, as we learn more about its fascinating spiritualities, Haitian Vodou will continue to thrive, free from subjugation and attack.
Written by Charlie Horlick
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Image: Troi Anderson, Smithsonian Magazine (2017)