At the beginning in Africa, voodoo was there, more specifically in West Africa around Nigeria, Togo and Benin. Some anthropologists trace the origin of voodoo to 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. It was brought into Haiti, then St Domingue, through the Middle Passage around 1517 when Las Casas negotiated a permit from the King of Spain to start selling permits to transport black Africans to the Western Hemisphere.
Voodoo suffered strong opposition from the French colonists who practiced Catholicism in the colony. The African voodoo to survive took the form, the syncretism and the rhythm of the Catholic Church. Indeed 500 years later, voodoo in Haiti and its grasp on power and in the minds of the people is strong, alive and well entrenched in the Haitian ethos.
My Own Journey Into The World Of Voodoo
It started with some trepidation. My Catholic upbringing did not have any voodoo residual I could hold on to for comfort and insurance. I attended my first voodoo ceremony at a cultural festival at the Brooklyn Museum some 30 years ago. My next one was recently in the city of Thomazeau, officered by a good friend, Houngan (voodoo priest) Sergo.
Speaking about voodoo in good or bad terms could draw unintended consequences. But with the support of a good friend, a Catholic priest, in voodoo infested Bord de Mer Limonade, as well as the accolade of my friend Houngan Sergo, I have the confidence I can resist the spell of the lwas as well as the ire of the Mighty that the vodou practitioners called themselves BonDye, (Good Lord).
The first large manifestation of voodoo as a force in the Haitian psyche was registered around 1791 and produced not by a Haitian but by a Jamaican voodoo priest who migrated into Haiti at the end of the 18th century. His name, Dutty Bookman, galvanized the slaves into revolting against the state of slavery practiced not only in St Domingue aka Haiti but also in the entire Western Hemisphere. In a memorable voodoo ceremony that took place on August 14, 1791, at a plantation near La Plaine du Nord named Boi Caiman, Bookman, assisted by the mambo priestess Cecile Fatiman, invited the assistants (Toussaint Louverture was present at the ceremony) to drink the blood of a fresh immolated pig and to pledge in their own blood to chase the colonists out of Haiti, then St Domingue.
The movement sparked a full blown insurrection that destroyed some 1,800 plantations and the killing of some 1,000 slaves. Dutty Bookman was captured, beheaded and left to rot to inflict a lesson of submission to the remaining slaves. Toussaint surnamed Louverture, because of his strategic skills in aligning him and his troops to hit, destroy and then pacify first the Spanish, then the English and later the French apparatus, later succeeded in taking command of the island. St Domingue knew another era of prosperity not under slavery but under a state controlled economy.
The model was appealing to James Adams, the second president of the United States. He was plotting to help Toussaint declare himself king of St Domingue, when he lost his second mandate in 1800 to Thomas Jefferson, who himself was plotting a whole new paradigm. By helping Napoleon Bonaparte to re-establish slavery in the most prized colony of the Caribbean, Ayiti, the fate of the world changed. The Haitian model of independence against slavery was contained for another 60 years. It took the Civil War to put an end to slavery in the United States.
Voodoo And Power Amongst The Haitian Heroes
Toussaint Louverture was a practicing Catholic. In fact, he attended mass every day, had good knowledge of Latin and often served as mass attendant. He abhorred the practice and the development of voodoo in the island. His reign did not last long, through a subterfuge that has more to do with sentimental family roots, Toussaint was kidnapped by the troops of Napoleon that descended on St Domingue with force. He was imprisoned put on a boat that took him to France, where he died of pneumonia in a freezing jail in Fort de Joux.
He did not see the full blown Haitian revolution that produced the first black independent republic in the Western Hemisphere. But his predictions on departing were telling:
“The roots of the liberation are so strong that the tree of Liberty could not be destroyed.”
Indeed, Jean Jacques Dessalines took the command of the indigenous troop after the arrest of Toussaint, and with bravado, gust, and a sheer determination to put an end to slavery he destroyed some of the best soldiers that helped Napoleon to conquer almost half of the remaining Roman Empire.
Dessalines was a fervent voodoo practitioner. He did not escape treason from his own peers, who caused his assassination two years after his coronation as Emperor Jean Jacques. His successor Henry Christophe did not believe in voodoo practice. He was a fervent Catholic with royal chapels all over his kingdom. Defying God, he was struck with a heart attack while hitting a priest as he was officiating mass. Christophe killed himself soon after leading the way to a whole phalange of Haitian rulers who used voodoo as a whip to gain and retain power.
I will use only the latest Haitian governments to make my point that voodoo has been a hallmark of power in Haiti.
Emile Jonassaint, the interim president, with Raoul Cedras as commandant in chief of the Haitian army, is reputed to have used the power of voodoo to deflect the strike force sent by President Bill Clinton to bring back Jean Bertrand Aristide to power in Haiti. In fact, it was rather his wisdom acquired as president cum voodoo priest that led him to yield without kneeling on September 18, 1994, through the agreement of Port au Prince.
The same Jean Bertrand Aristide, losing a grip on the government around 2003, used the 200th anniversary of the death of Toussaint Louverture to make voodoo an official national religion. You remember Toussaint’s policy was against the practice of voodoo as a religion in the country and Jean Bertrand Aristide was a Catholic priest.
Francois Duvalier had a pact with the lwas to keep his grip on power in Haiti for 35 years. At the end of 14 years he was visited by the lwa who informed him that his time was up. Upon confronting the lwa of the pact, he was told that the time of the day was one day and the time at night was another day. Duvalier negotiated with the lwa for his son to continuing in power after his death, both remaining in power for 33 years.
What Is Haitian Voodoo?
It is this set of practice brought from Africa, transformed through the centuries in Haiti with the addition of Catholic, Freemasonry and the Taino religion into a way of life where the sacred and the secular are made one. In voodoo, the ultimate personage is Bondye, the Good Lord. But He is a distant God. Closer to humans are the lwas or the spirits who can be bought or inherited, who attend to your material and spiritual needs. Those lwas have their counterparts in the Catholic liturgy. For example, Ogou is feted on July 25, the feast of St James. Esili Danto has her corresponding deity, Our Lady of Carmel, feted on July 16, and Dambala is linked with St Gabriel, feted on May 17.
The lwas or spirits need nourishment to survive. It is the reason why the worshippers bring food and drink to the voodoo service, which is consumed at the end of the ceremony.
In the voodoo culture, the souls of the dead ones serve as an anchor for the worshipper. It is a usual custom to throw out on the ground the first drink from a newly-opened bottle for those who left before us. As such, November 1 and November 2 are major voodoo celebration days in the voodoo pantheon. Food and drink are consumed in the cemetery in communion with the dead ones. Since we find that custom also in Mexico, I suspect it may have some Indian origin.
“When the derriere is tired where does it rest? On the ground!”
This is a common greeting in voodoo ritual ceremony in guise of conclusion; the Haitian voodoo transformed into a Haitian mythology has value and moral lessons not only for the youth of Haiti but for children the world over. Akin to the Greek and the Latin mythology, the Haitian voodoo mythology has the same resonance as the Sanskrit, the Greek Zeus and the Roman Jupiter.
Erzuli Freda and Aphrodite have the same features. Except because of the underground nature and the lack of codification of its many deities, voodoo is seen as a suspect institution with sinister motivation that causes more evil than good. I told the priest in charge of the parish of St Ann in voodoo infested Limonade that the voodoo practitioners seem to be more fervent Catholics than the usual Catholic practitioners.
He smiled with the expression of someone who knew the observation was closer to a reality that he knows about.
Voodoo has been an escape for the mass of Haitians who suffered discrimination, lack of integration and lack of minimum services from society and its government. Retreating into voodoo has been a lifeline of support for those seeking justice, material and spiritual comfort. In one parish in southern Haiti, Baconois, voodoo has retreated because the practitioners have more faith in the redeeming power of St Yves and St Laurent (who are feted today) than in the lwas.
The future of voodoo is closely linked to the future of Haiti. It will cease to be a religion and will enter the realm of mythology when Haiti starts to become hospitable to its own inhabitants. Cursing God for treating the majority of the Haitian people as illegitimate and alien children will not be necessary because their own country will have treated them otherwise. Voodoo is like Haiti, a nation in waiting to be discovered to transmit to the world the legacy and the patrimony of some 6,000 years of human discourse. It has secrets to be discovered in easy solutions and comprehension in health, mental health, wisdom, responsible diet, and respect for the Maker and for nature as well as solidarity with and hospitality to each other.
It will survive not as a religion but as mythology. Greek mythology is consumed by the classicists the world over. Roman mythology is studied by elementary students everywhere. The Haitian voodoo needs the support of believers and non believers alike to free itself of the religious shell and adopt the dress of Haitian mythology to continue to enrich humanity.
Books on Voodoo in Haiti: