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Haitian Vodou – Complex and Misunderstood

Haitian Vodou (or Voodoo, as it is often spelled in Western accounts) is no doubt one of the most interesting religions known to the world. A religion, whose roots lie firmly in ancient West African thought, has inseparable ties with the cultural heritage and history of Haiti. Vodou, as well as its practitioners, have unfortunately suffered centuries of ugly stereotyping and open persecution, caused by the widespread efforts of white, Catholic colonists to stigmatise them, as they feared the idea of Africans in Haiti getting involved with African spirituality. Due to this, many myths and misconceptions about Vodou still exist today. Yet, the intriguing truth and history of Vodou has lived on through this.

 

Vodou – A Brief History

A large number of enslaved Africans brought to Haiti in the 1700s, known as Saint-Domingue before the Declaration of Haitian Independence on 1st January, 1804 by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, were from the Kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa, which was located in what is now known as Benin. The word Vodou derives from the word Vodu in the eponymously named language of the Fon people of West Africa; Vodu means “god” or “spirit”. Haitian Vodou developed syncretically in the 18th century; being primarily influenced by West African Vodun (practised by the Fon and Ewe), it also grew with aspects of Yoruba and Kongo culture and beliefs, along with those of the autochthonous Taíno people of Haiti, and was also influenced by elements of European beliefs, including Roman Catholicism brought by slave owners.

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Areas known to practise West African Vodun

Practitioners of Vodou, known as Vodouisants, believe in a Supreme, unreachable God, known as Bondye, from the French bon dieu, meaning “good God”. The Lwa/Loa (from the French lois, meaning “laws”), also known as the mistè (mystères in French), are Vodou spirits, and serve as the necessary conduits between Vodouisants and Bondye. While the Lwa are not actually classed as deities, Vodouisants still serve and pray to them. As time passed, associations between Haitian figures (Bondye and the Lwa) and those of Roman Catholicism (God and saints) were made often, highlighting how many practitioners of Vodou follow a more syncretic adoption of the religion. The Lwa are divided into nations (nanchons) and families, each in charge of different aspects of life.

Examples of Lwa:

Petwo: the Petwo nation of Lwa are considered war-like. A notable Lwa is Ezili Dantor, a dark-skinned black woman modelled on a warrior of the N’Nonmiton, meaning “our mothers” in Fon, which was a female-only regiment of the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey. She is associated with the now extinct Creole pig of Haiti, one of which was sacrificed to Ezili Dantor during Bois Caïman, the famous, and arguably the most important, Vodou ceremony, which is often marked as the start of the Haitian Revolution, on August 14th, 1791, being the only successful insurrection of enslaved people leading to an independent state.

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Depiction of Ezili Dantor, whose face is distinctively scarred from battle

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