From the early days of its inception and practice, Vodou has remained dominant in the Haitian culture as it provided common ground in the intermingling of Africans in the new world as well as playing a key role in the daily lives of the Haitian population. This paper aims to depict Haitian Vodou as not just a religion but as a philosophy guiding the ways of life of millions of Haitians and others who follow its belief system. It presents Vodou as a religion, its role in history and the Haitian revolution, Vodou as a way of life that is depicted through service, communal expectations, Lwa dependence and oral performance, the similarities, and differences between Vodou and other religions, as well as the myths and misconceptions surrounding Vodou.
Vodou as a religion
Studies of various mainstream religions point out that some underlying reason was behind the proliferation of each which can be some kind of disruption or change in the social order of the community. After forceful removal from their land, families, and culture, Africans in the new world found it difficult to recreate the lives they had back home having come from different linguistic and ethnic groups1 (Kamerling-Brown, 2016). Colonial powers in an effort to ensure that recollections of ties, lineage, and language were lost systematically intermixed the Africans and in order to re-stitch their past the Africans developed a new commonality that brought them together in the form of a new religion, Vodou. With roots in social cultural and spiritual traditional practices of different ethnic groups, Vodou was also influenced by Roman Catholic and French belief systems. Forceful impositions of western values including Catholicism and restrictions of slave gatherings made it necessary for Africans to hide their allegiances to their ancestral religions and forced them to develop innovative ways of worshiping African deities.
Realities in their new sociopolitical environment drove them to integrate elements of Catholic beliefs in Vodou religion such as prayers, hymns, and the Gregorian calendar. Practices in Catholicism became integral in the Vodou worship and led to the current Haitian Vodou religion that blends spiritual traditions from Africa with characteristics from Roman Catholicism. The blending led Vodou to become a syncretic religion with the transnational relationships evident in the foundations of Vodou itself. The religion is based on the belief of an almighty creator called Bondye which is derived from the French notion of Good God or Bon Dieu. Similar to the Yoruban God Olorun, Bondye is a supreme being and is divine. Believers of Vodou identify themselves as servants of the spirits in order to reach a connection with the greater divine realm through subservient smaller spirits to Bondye known as Lwa. This is similar to the belief of saints in Catholicism where there are different kinds of Lwa evident in Vodou practice with each having a name, personality, and characterization (Brown, 2011). The personalities of Lwa differ and can range from auspicious to harsh each representing different dynamics and life aspects that reflect on the Haitian experience over time and capture the different emotions of joy, pain, sorrow, excitement and everything in between2.
Possession is an important aspect of Vodou religion where a priestess or priest actually connects with a divine spirit or Lwa and the practitioners view it as an unparalleled and sacred privilege. Religious rituals incorporate music and dance with possession which depicts the vital manifestation of the reciprocity relationship between the devotees and the spirits that guide them and is considered a form of communication. This practice has been a target for criticisms by non-practitioners throughout history as the rituals were thoroughly distorted to deconstruct and demonize the slaves. Vodou has however kept its religious originality despite the catholic cloaks it has been forced to raise by circumstances it has reinterpreted them in its struggle to remain an independently thriving religion (Richman, 2007).
Role of Vodou in history and the Haitian revolution
Scholars have pointed out the deep-seated roots of Vodou in history and not just for Haiti and Africa but for the entire western hemisphere as it points out effects and outcomes of enslavement, cultural confrontation, and migration that have shaped the Americas (Dubois, 2001). In the late 1700's, growing importations of slaves created huge imbalances between the black and white populations as slaves greatly outnumbered the whites. Despite these great numbers, the colonizers used internally destructive tactics to maintain power. This involved dividing the slaves and separating them to maintain control and prevent them from having any form of consensus or gathering. Contemptuous mockery and ridicule were used to discourage the Vodou religion where Africans who were unbaptized were referred to as horses and not human beings and many of the slaves accepted baptism eventually. Colonists pushed for the Christianization of slaves and many Afro-Atlantic religions struggled to survive. Vodou could only be practiced in utmost secrecy as slaves were prohibited from meeting or organizing and Vodou at that time became a secret cult3.
Despite the restrictive conditions, slaves still met and organized secretly where they sang and danced while carrying out rituals which they considered an escape from the realities of their daily lives. The colonists could only control their material lives but could not control the religious lives and religious symbols of the slaves who did not forget to pray or to offer sacrifices to the gods served by their ancestors and through such practices, Vodou became a way of resisting the forced assimilation. In Haiti, Vodou became more than just a religion as it played a vital role in its political life and fueled different mass movements. It was a factor of unification in the liberation struggles. Historians agree that Vodou enabled a unification and motivation of slaves against the colonists as it became a channel for organization and resistance. The Haitian revolution, which was the first successful slave revolt, is believed to have its roots in a Vodou ceremony that took place in 1791 where a major slave insurrection was planned after slaves shared food and drink and made a pledge to do as a Vodou spirit named Boukman had commanded (Laguerre, 2016). A week later the sugarcane plantations where the slaves worked were on fire and the revolution against the French started and lasted 13 years until 1804 when the Haitians gained independence.
Vodou as a way of life
From the illustrations of Haitian Vodou in history, the practice is seen as more than just a religion and is a significant part of the life of Haitians and a mechanism for survival and a revolutionary politics catalyst. It has been at the center of the political, cultural and spiritual survival and advancement of the Haitian people by fostering coherency in a group of people that were oppressed. It has been termed as a means that enables a unification of the soul and the body, the intangible and the tangible, the undead, the living as well as the divine (Stone, 2011). Vodou can be regarded as an organized form of communal support that gives meaning to the human experience with regard to the supernatural and natural forces of the universe. It emphasizes on the belief of creating harmony, keeping a balance and the cultivation of positive values and virtues. It bases itself on reality concepts such as the goals in life, fates of all things, balancing of interpersonal relations, the appropriate social organization as well as ways of enhancing the welfare of everyone in the community. Vodou informs all aspects of the devotee's life in the interactions with other people in the community as well as interacting with the divine through its notions of service, oral performance, communal mindset and expectations and Lwa dependence.
The notion of service is a fundamental premise in Vodou and for many Haitians, the service is for the Vodou spirits. Service to the spirits permeates all areas of the devotee's life and most of the followers of Vodou refer to their practices and beliefs by the phrase 'serving the spirits.' The phrase reveals the nature of the religion were withdrawing the self and serving others is of prime importance (Platoff, 2015). It places significant emphasis on a sense of community over the individual and points out the connections of the spirit that exist between living people, ancestors, and God. The connections are portrayed in Vodou ceremonies where the divine and the human meet to create meanings and interpretations. Divine connections are however not restricted to the ceremonies as no human experience is beyond the influence of the Lwa and every day the life of those serving the spirits revolves around self-consciousness that their Lwa guides. The self-consciousness is also guided by African derived principles like respect and honor for others, holistic conceptions of life, community centrality, beneficence, human-centered orientation, forgiveness and a sense of justice.
The service notion is not one-sided in Vodou as the believers turn to the spirits or Lwa during times of crisis or need. Devotees of Vodou as of it the same things as the believers in other religions which are help in times of hardship, a way to make a daily living, needs satisfaction, hope and a remedy for ills. Believers turn to the spirits in an effort of securing a life that is better for themselves and their loved ones, to get advice on matters of importance in their lives and in the lives of others, and to look for assistance in various life matters (Lauer, 2014). Devotees expect to get blessings that can range from well-being and good health to love and marriage, rain and bountiful harvests, work, and riches, as well as children who grow up healthy and respectful to traditions and people. In return for the blessings on their land, families, and community, devotees offer sacrifices or food to the Lwa in appreciation and support. They believe that making such offers makes the relationship between the dead and the living strong and enable the exertion of cosmic powers by the spirits onto their lives.
This also prominent in Vodou as it involves a comprehensive and coherent system and worldview where everyone and everything is sacred and must be treated that way. People gain energy of life and insight when they interact with others, and this involves encounters with other humans, with nature, as well as with spirits. Through interactions, opportunities for growth, healing, and understanding are created and in Vodou one must understand that all things in the world ranging from animals, plants, or minerals share properties that are essentially similar in terms of physique, chemicals or genetics. The communal sense begins with the extended family and is valued highly as it prepares individuals to integrate with the broader community (Mocombe, 2016). Abandoning responsibilities of the family, placing your interest ahead of those of the community or not considering the Lwa are considered moral offences that are serious and can lead to disapproval from the community and endangerment of the protection and care provided by the spirits. Implicit rules and customs are put in place to regulate such occurrences and they require virtues like love, allegiance, faithfulness, prayers, respect as well as material support and the virtues are valued as they enable a development of knowledge and wisdom among the devotees and enable them to support one another.
Showing honor and respect is predominantly determined by seniority and particularly accorded to elders who are termed as the bearers of wisdom and knowledge and the repository of experie...
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