Caribbean Weekly: What Do You Know About Haitian Voodoo?
Did You Know Haiti: Voodoo
Mention the word ‘Voodoo’ and you are guaranteed to elicit certain types of responses. These might range from fear and wonderment, to just plain old curiosity; but voodoo is far too complex a concept to be seen as just a primitive faith practiced by the less fortunate. Add to that the fact that the practise is synonymous with how people around the world view Haiti as a country, we at Buzzebly have decided to clear up whatever misconceptions might be out there about one of the Caribbean’s oldest indigenous religions.
Voodoo, stylized as Vodou in Haiti, has its origins in West Africa and was first brought to the Caribbean by slaves in the 17th century. These slaves were mainly from the kingdom of Dahomey, where they spoke the Fon language. Dahomey occupied parts of today’s Nigeria, Togo and Benin. In Dahomey, the word ‘voodoo’ was derived from ‘vodu’, which means ‘spirit’ or ‘god’.
Haiti was isolated during much of its history, therefore allowing Voodoo to develop with its own unique traditions, beliefs and gods. In Haiti, practitioners occasionally use “Vodou” to refer to Haitian religion generically, but it is more common for practitioners to refer to themselves as those who “serve the spirits” (sèvitè) by participating in ritual ceremonies, usually called a “service to the loa” (sèvis loa) or an “African service” (sèvis gineh).
Voodoo is seen as an experience of tying body and soul together. Practitioners of voodoo are called vodouists. Vodouists believe in a distant and unknowable Supreme Creator, Bondye (derived from the French term Bon Dieu, meaning “good God”). As the Supreme Creator is not to engage in human affairs, it is left to the lower spirits known as the loa to handle requests and accept worship. Vodouists undergo a long period of training before performing any ritual that opens themselves up to spiritual possession. During these rituals, one of the two spirits that inhabit the body—the ti bon ange—leaves the body so the spirit of a loa can possess it. The ti bon ange is the portion of the spirit that contains the individual, and must be protected when the individual is hosting a loa. The other part, the gros bon ange, is a spirit that is shared among all the living. Every loa is responsible for a particular aspect of life, with the dynamic and changing personalities of each loa reflecting the many possibilities inherent to the aspects of life over which they preside.
Voodoo ‘dolls’ while having quite a important role within the religion are not inherently evil. They could be used for a huge variety of purposes, and most are benevolent. Voodoo dolls don’t actually symbolize a person, in the respect that what happens to it, happens to the person. Instead, a doll is only associated with the person in question usually by attaching the picture of the person, or something that was in intimate contact with them, such as a lock of hair. Other things are usually added to the doll, and these vary based on the intended purpose. Garlic, flower petals, perfumes, or even money can be added—not as a direct message to the person, but as an appeal to the spirits to open themselves to the doll and the wishes of those involved.