Vodun is sometimes called Voodoo, Vodoun, Vodou.
related to Vodun are: Candomble, Lucumi, Macumba, and Yoruba)
Vodun (a.k.a. Vodoun, Voudou, Voodoo,Sevi Lwa) is
commonly called Voodoo (vû'dû) by the public. The name was derived from the god Vodun of the West African Yoruba people who lived in
18th and 19th century Dahomey. Its roots may go back 6,000 years in Africa. That country occupied parts of today's Togo, Benin and
Nigeria. Slaves brought their religion with them when they were forcibly shipped to Haiti
and other islands in the West Indies.
Vodun was actively suppressed during colonial times.
"Many Priests were either
killed or imprisoned, and their shrines destroyed, because of the threat they posed to
Euro-Christian/Muslim dominion. This forced some of the Dahomeans to form Vodou Orders and
to create underground societies, in order to continue the veneration of their ancestors,
and the worship of their powerful gods." 1
Vodun has been freely practiced in Benin
since a democratic government was installed there in 1989; about 60% of the population follows this religion. Vodun was formally recognized
as Benin's official religion in 1996-FEB. It is also followed by most of the adults in
Haiti who are also nominally Roman Catholic. It can be found in many of the large cities in North America, particularly in the
Today over 60 million people practice Vodun worldwide. Religions similar to Vodun can
be found in South America where they are called Umbanda, Quimbanda or Candomble.
Today, there are two virtually unrelated forms of the religion:
An actual religion, Vodun practiced in Benin, Dominican Republic,
Ghana, Haiti, Togo and
various centers in the US - largely where Haitian refuges have settled.
An evil, imaginary religion, which we will call Voodoo. It has been created for
Hollywood movies, complete with violence, bizarre rituals, etc. It does not
exist in reality.
History of Vodun in the west:
Slaves were baptized into the Roman Catholic Church upon their arrival in Haiti and
other West Indian islands. However, there was little Christian infrastructure present
during the early 19th century to maintain the faith. The result was that the slaves
largely followed their original native faith. This they practiced in secret, even while
attending Mass regularly.
An inaccurate and sensational book (S. St. John, "Haiti or the Black Republic")
was written in 1884. It described Vodun as a profoundly evil religion, and included lurid
descriptions of human sacrifice, cannibalism, etc., some of which had been extracted from
Vodun priests by torture. This book caught the imagination of people outside the West
Indies, and was responsible for much of the misunderstanding and fear that is present
today. Hollywood found this a rich source for Voodoo screen plays. Horror movies began in
the 1930's and continue today to misrepresent Vodun. It is only since the late 1950's that
accurate studies by anthropologists have been published.
Other religions (Macumba, Candomble, Umbanda and Santeria) bear many similarities to
Vodun, like Christianity, is a religion of many traditions. Each group follows a
different spiritual path and worships a slightly different pantheon of spirits, called Loa.
The word means "mystery" in the Yoruba language.
Yoruba traditional belief included a senior God Olorun, who is remote and
unknowable. He authorized a lesser God Obatala to create the earth and all life
forms. A battle between the two Gods led to Obatala's temporary banishment.
There are hundreds of minor spirits. Those which originated from Dahomey are called Rada;
those who were added later are often deceased leaders in the new world and are called Petro.
Some of these are
Agwe: spirit of the sea
Aida Wedo: rainbow spirit
Baka: an evil spirit who takes the form of an animal
Baron Samedi: guardian of the grave
Dambala (or Damballah-wedo): serpent spirit
Erinle: spirit of the forests
Ezili (or Erzulie): female spirit of love
Mawu Lisa: spirit of creation
Ogou Balanjo: spirit of healing
Ogun (or Ogu Bodagris): spirit of war
Osun: spirit of healing streams
Sango (or Shango): spirit of storms
Yemanja: female spirit of waters
Zaka (or Oko): spirit of agriculture
There are a number of points of similarity between Roman Catholicism and
Both believe in a supreme being.
The Loa resemble Christian Saints, in that they were once people who led exceptional
lives, and are usually given a single responsibility or special attribute.
Both believe in an afterlife.
Both have, as the centerpiece of some of their ceremonies, a ritual sacrifice and consumption of
flesh and blood.
Both believe in the existence of invisible evil spirits or demons.
Followers of Vodun believe that each person has a met tet (master of the head)
which corresponds to a Christian's patron saint.
Followers of Vodun believe that each person has a soul which is composed of two parts:
a gros bon ange or "big guardian angel", and a ti bon ange or
"little guardian angel". The latter leaves the body during sleep and when the
person is possessed by a Loa during a ritual. There is a concern that the ti bon ange can
be damaged or captured by evil sorcery while it is free of the body.
The purpose of rituals is to make contact with a spirit, to gain their favor by
offering them animal sacrifices and gifts, to obtain help in the form of more abundant
food, higher standard of living, and improved health. Human and Loa depend upon each
other; humans provide food and other materials; the Loa provide health, protection from
evil spirits and good fortune. Rituals are held to celebrate lucky events, to attempt to
escape a run of bad fortune, to celebrate a seasonal day of celebration associated with a
Loa, for healing, at birth, marriage and death.
Vodun priests can be male (houngan or hungan), or female (mambo). A Vodun
temple is called a hounfour (or humfort). At its center is a poteau-mitan a
pole where the God and spirits communicate with the people. An altar will be elaborately
decorated with candles, pictures of Christian saints, symbolic items related to the Loa,
etc. Rituals consist of some of the following components:
a feast before the main ceremony.
creation of a veve, a pattern of flour or cornmeal on the floor which is unique
to the Loa for whom the ritual is to be conducted
shaking a rattle and beating drums which have been cleansed and purified
dancing by the houngan and/or mambo and the hounsis (students studying
The dancing will typically build in intensity until one of the dancers (usually a
becomes possessed by a Loa and falls. His or her ti bon ange has left their body and the
spirit has taken control. The possessed dancer will behave as the Loa and is treated with
respect and ceremony by the others present.
animal sacrifice; this may be a goat, sheep, chicken, or dog. They are usually humanely
killed by slitting their throat; blood is collected in a vessel. The possessed dancer may
drink some of the blood. The hunger of the Loa is then believed to be satisfied. The
animal is usually cooked and eaten. Animal sacrifice is a method of
consecrating food for consumption by followers of Vodun, their gods
The houngan and mambos confine their activities to "white" magic which is
used to bring good fortune and healing. However caplatas (also known as
perform acts of evil sorcery or black magic, sometimes called "left-handed
Vodun". Rarely, a houngan will engage in such sorcery; a few alternate between white
and dark magic.
One belief unique to Vodun is that a dead person can be revived after having been
buried. After resurrection, the zombie has no will of their own, but remains under
the control of others. In reality, a zombie is a living person who has never died, but is
under the influence of powerful drugs administered by an evil sorcerer. Although most
Haitians believe in zombies, few have ever seen one. There are a few recorded instances of
persons who have claimed to be zombies.
Sticking pins in dolls was once used as a method of cursing an
individual by some followers of Vodun in New Orleans; this practice continues occasionally
in South America. The practice became closely associated with Voodoo in the public mind
through the vehicle of horror movies.
Internet resources used:
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Voodoo Authentica of New Orleans' website at http://www.voodooshop.com
contains information about Voodoo, and provides a free service by which
individuals can Email questions. They sell Louisiana folk
art, including Voodoo dolls, Gris Gris bags, Ju-Ju's, Spells, Potion Oils, etc.
They also provide spiritual work and consultations by experienced
practitioners, and convention & special event planning.
A Web page titled "Voodoo: From Medicine to Zombies" has a
description of some Vodun altars, and a mythological dictionary. See: http://www.nando.net/
for more information about Vodun.
A Web page titled "Vodun Culture" has a glossary of Vodun terms,
descriptions of songs and dances, and a list of Vodun loa with their corresponding duties,
colors and symbols. See:
An unmoderated forum, alt.religion.orisha was started in 1996-FEB for the
discussion of African-based and derived belief systems throughout the African Diaspora.
This includes: Candomble, Fon, Hoodoo, Macumba Arara, Palo, Santeria, Yoruba Orisha and
Voudun. Some of the expected topics include: recent books, scholarly articles and tapes,
ethnography, information on acquisition and use of herbs in ritual practice, ritual music,
instruments and dance, divination systems, the changing role of traditional practice in
modern times, the law and repression of ritual practices.