Matt Ream                                                                                                 FIRST PLACE

Dr. Houghton

Comp. Std. 270N

29 April, 2005

 

Haitian Voodoo: The Possession of the Spirits

Within the small third-world country of Haiti, poverty holds a powerful grip over the people. It is widely considered to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and for its people, survival is a daily struggle. Yet Haitians draw strength from Voodoo, the African-born religion in which many different spirits help guide a person through the physical journey of life. Within the realm of Voodoo, there is nearly no distinction between the spiritual and the physical worlds (“Origins of Voodoo”). Spirits are authentic and are everyday experiences for Haitians (“Haiti Makes Voodoo Official”). To a Voodoo believer, nothing happens by chance; there are neither accidents nor coincidences. Everything happens for a purpose, a purpose determined by the thousands of spirits that surround and guide each worshipper.

Anthropologists believe that Voodoo is somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years old, originating among the Fon-Ewe tribes of West Africa (“Origins of Voodoo”). It was carried over to Haiti during the European colonization of the West and was strengthened through the transatlantic slave trade. African slaves who were brought to Haiti to serve the French colonists were forced to convert to Catholicism and forbidden to practice their native African religions, including Voodoo. The French tried to suppress this “pagan” religion, which they felt posed a threat to the colonial system (Guynup). Voodoo was consequently forced into secrecy. One attempt at keeping it alive involved the intricate weaving of Catholic aspects into their religious beliefs, which allowed them to continue to practice their religion by masking it in the guise of Christianity. After the Haitian Revolution in 1804 and the exodus of their French captors, Haitians were able to freely practice Voodoo without the fear of punishment, but elements of Catholicism still remained a very large and integral part of their religion. Today, Voodoo stands as an official religion in the country, a decision made in 2003 by the Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (“Haiti Makes Voodoo Official”).

Haitian Voodoo is an interesting blend, comprised of a strict monotheism mixed with the worship of many spirits (Caistor).  Haitians believe in one all-powerful deity, Bondieu, who is manifest in all and has reign over the entire universe, the spirits, and all of life. Under Bondieu, there are three general categories of spirits that Haitians believe control and direct the universe. Loa are spirits that embody the major forces of the universe. They control characteristics of nature such as the wilderness, the grave, and the fresh waters. There are hundreds of loa, each in dominion over a specific aspect of nature. In addition to loa, there are spirits that are not well understood and even somewhat mysterious; these spirits are sometimes referred to as the “twins,” because they represent the contradictory forces in nature, such as good and evil, happiness and sadness, health and illness. In this way, the twins are comparable to the Chinese yin and yang. It is believed that if they are honored, these spirits will give the worshipper the better side of these contradicting forces. The souls of dead family members constitute the final group of spirits. After death, these ancestors stay with their families and help them navigate through the trials of life. A Voodoo worshipper believes that when he dies, his soul will remain on earth to provide guidance to his family (Corbett).

Voodooists believe that it is important to honor and care for all of the spirits, as it is believed they become weak over time and depend on humans for nourishment. Rituals and sacrifices are used to rejuvenate them, and it is believed that the life force of a sacrificed animal will transfer to the spirit, in essence “feeding” it (Guynup). On an individual level, each household will set up one or more tables for their ancestors and honor them with candles, perfumes, foods, drinks, pictures, or other effects that please them (Rock). Bondieu and the spirits are also honored at ceremonies, where groups can congregate and worship. Houngans and/or mambos lead most of the Voodoo ceremonies. A tree or pole is central to the ceremony, and drumming and dancing almost always accompany the rituals (Corbett). These rituals are done to gratify Bondieu and the loas. An animal, such as a sanctified chicken is sacrificed in order to satisfy loas, which are sustained by the life energy that is released during the sacrifice (Corbett). During the ceremony, worshippers can be “mounted,” or possessed, by a loa. The loa will take complete control of the individual and will offer advice, give cures, and prophesy to the assembly (Rock). Possession is usually accompanied by frenzied dancing, and after some time has passed, the loa will release the exhausted individual.

There are two main types of Voodoo in Haiti, Rada and Petro (Corbett). In both types, believers hold a sort of mystical power. Rada is the most commonly practiced form, and focuses on spirits that are perceived to be “sweet,” or loving, as well as the spirits of the family ancestors. Rada Voodooists believe that when the loa are angry or displeased, these spirits will inflict illness on people.  For this reason, coupled with the poor sanitary conditions and rampant disease, one of the central facets of Voodoo is healing (Guynup). Houngans and mambos, which are Voodoo priests and priestesses, conduct many healing rituals, utilizing herbal remedies and spells, as well as the help of “sweet” loa.  In this way, Voodoo becomes more than just a religion; it becomes a culture, a common and valid way of life, and an answer to material and spiritual needs.

While the vast majority of Voodoo follows the “sweet” loa, some believers focus on the “bitter” loa, spirits that are ill tempered and demanding of their worshippers (“Religion in Haiti”); this is known as Petro Voodoo (Corbett). Petro believers wield a great amount of power, and practice sorcery and black magic. They are capable of such dangerous activities as casting death spells, writing curses, and creating zombies. Petro Voodooists are extremely rare.  In some estimates they account for less than five percent of all Voodoo worship (Corbett). However, they hold a very real power. Don and Karen Davis, missionaries who live near the Haitian city of Cap Haitien, have witnessed Petro Voodoo firsthand. The Davis’ cite times where Petro worshippers have created “death potions.” Petro worshippers will pour these concoctions into two wooden bowls, placing one on either side of the path where they believe their enemy will pass. When their enemies walk between these two bowls, some have been known to immediately die in that spot on the path, and others will become fatally ill.

Power is not limited strictly to the Petro believers; even in Rada Voodoo, houngans and mambos possess power, such as the ability to kill animal sacrifices by simply pointing loa fetishes at them. There is no known scientific reason for these occurrences, other than the sheer power of Voodoo. In an August 1995 article for National Geographic, journalist Carol Beckwith tells of the strange events that she witnessed while researching Voodoo for her story:

A woman splashed sand into her eyes, a man cut his belly with shards of glass but did not bleed, another swallowed fire. Nearby a believer, perhaps a yam farmer or fisherman, heated hand-wrought knives in crackling flames. Then another man brought one of the knives to his tongue. We cringed at the sight and were dumbfounded when, after several repetitions, his tongue had not even reddened. (Beckwith 111)

Participants of these rituals claim that the spirits protect them and would allow no harm to befall them.

To the Haitians, Voodoo is the true path, and fulfillment comes through service to the spirits. Some worshippers hold a fearful respect of the spirits, while others joyfully worship and love the spirits.  After death, Voodooists aspire to join the other spirits and help future generations.  But until that time comes, they persist in their struggle of poverty, somewhere in between the physical and spiritual realms, relying on Bondieu and the spirits to carry them through the day, through this life and into the next. This is the power that is Voodoo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Beckwith, Carol.  “The African Roots of Voodoo.”  National Geographic 188.2 (Aug. 1995): 102-113. 

Caistor, Nick.  “Voodoo’s Spell Over Haiti.”  BBC News World Edition 4 Aug. 2003.  15 April 2005 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3122303.stm>.

Corbett, Bob.  Introduction to Voodoo in Haiti.  March 1988.  Webster University.  15 April    2005 <http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/haiti/voodoo/overview.htm>.

Guynup, Sharon.  Haiti: Possessed by Voodoo.”  National Geographic Online 7 July 2004.  15 April 2005          <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/07/0707_040707_tvtaboovoodoo.html>.

Haiti Makes Voodoo Official.”  BBC News World Edition 30 April 2003.  15 April 2005          <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2985627.stm>.

“Origins Of Voodoo.” The Afrocentric Experience.  1 Feb. 2005.  15 April 2005          <http://www.swagga.com/voodoo.htm>.

“Religion in Haiti: Voodoo.”  Dec. 1989.  About.com.  15 April 2005          <http://athiesm.about.com/library/world/AJ/b1_HaitiVoodoo.htm>.

Rock, Michael.  “More about Haitian Vodou.”  Erzulie’s Authentic Voudou: Honoring the Great          Voudou Goddess of Passion, Pleasure, and Prosperity.  2004.  15 April 2005          <http://www.erzulies.com/about_haitian_vodou_2.php>.