Most of the time, when people hear about Vaudou, what they know about it is from TV. The Hollywood version of Vaudou is conceived of by people who do not know about Vaudou.
The Vodou Tradition
Following the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the continent of the Americas, Africans were transported to the Americas which is also named the New World. The European conquest began in Haiti (back then Hispaniola), which was also the recipient of the first wave of displaced Africans. Many of the Africans escaped slavery and took refuge in the mountains of Haiti where they co-existed with the Amerindians who also fled to the mountains after the European attempted to enslave them. Those Africans, known as “Neg Marrons”, together with the Amerindians created a spiritual practice that integrated the contribution of knowledge of Antiquity brought by the Africans with the existing spiritual practice of the Amerindians. This integration is what is known as Vodou which is unique to Haiti. During the war that resulted in Haiti becoming the first Black Republic in 1804, Haitians migrated to Louisiana and created Voodoo which remains a descendant of Vodou. The Haitians that migrated to Louisiana are known as Creole; their tradition is ongoing in New Orleans.
The European brought Catholicism onto the Americas that became the primary Western religion of the Europeans as well as the free Haitian Mulattoes and Africans. As a result, Catholicism got incorporated into Vodou as a third spiritual root. Today, Vodou is a formally recognized religion after years of harassment. Vodou is simultaneously a spiritual practice and a religion. The resulting practice of its adherents can be Shaman, Pagan, or a combination of both. Vodou practitioners who receive the proper shamanic initiation operate under strict spiritual ethics of the Vodou tradition.
Finally, Vodou is a spiritual practice that is also known in the academic world as a “dancing religion” because rituals are based on transcendental music. However as a family religion, rituals are conducted without music or with the songs without drums. The vibrant Creole culture of New Orleans began with music of the Vodou tradition aka Voodoo music; Creole musicians made significant contribution to the evolution of jazz.
The music of Vodou has been of interest for years and the most comprehensive publication was compiled by the late Max Beauvoir. His work is continuing under the stewardship of Lakou Papiyon; our effort extends to guardianship and preservation of this vast repertoire for future generations.
odou, also spelled Voodoo, Voudou, Vodun, or French Vaudou, an official religion of Haiti (together with Roman Catholicism). Vodou is a creolized religion forged by descendents of Dahomean, Kongo, Yoruba, and other African ethnic groups who had been enslaved and brought to colonial Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was known then) and Christianized by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. The word Vodou means “spirit” or “deity” in the Fon language of the African kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin).
Vodou, a traditional Afro-Haitian religion, is a worldview encompassing philosophy, medicine, justice, and religion. Its
fundamental principle is that everything is spirit. Humans are spirits who inhabit the visible world. The unseen world is populated by lwa (spirits), mystè (mysteries), anvizib (the invisibles), zanj (angels), and the spirits of ancestors and the
recently deceased. All these spirits are believed to live in a mythic land called Ginen, a cosmic “Africa.” The God of the Christian Bible is understood to be the creator of both the universe and the spirits; the spirits were made by God to help him govern humanity and the natural world.
The primary goal and activity of Vodou is to sevi lwa (“serve the spirits”)—to offer prayers and perform various devotional rites directed at God and particular spirits in return for health, protection, and favour. Spirit possession plays an
important role in Afro-Haitian religion, as it does in many other world religions. During religious rites, believers sometimes enter a trancelike state in which the devotee may eat and drink, perform stylized dances, give supernaturally inspired advice to people, or perform medical cures or special physical feats; these acts exhibit the incarnate presence of the lwa within the entranced devotee. Vodou ritual activity (e.g., prayer, song, dance, and gesture) is aimed at refining and restoring balance and energy in relationships between people and between people and the spirits of the unseen world.
Vodou is an oral tradition practiced by extended families that inherit familial spirits, along with the necessary devotional practices, from their elders. In the cities, local hierarchies of priestesses or priests (manbo and oungan), “children of the spirits” (ounsi), and ritual drummers (ountògi) comprise more formal “societies” or “congregations” (sosyete). In these congregations, knowledge is passed on through a ritual of initiation (kanzo) in which the body becomes the site of spiritual transformation. There is some regional difference in ritual practice across Haiti, and branches of the religion include Rada, Daome, Ibo, Nago, Dereal, Manding, Petwo, and Kongo. There is no centralized hierarchy, no single leader, and no official spokesperson, but various groups sometimes attempt to create such official structures. There are also secret societies, called Bizango or Sanpwèl, that perform a religio-juridical function.
A calendar of ritual feasts, syncretized with the Roman Catholic calendar, provides the yearly rhythm of religious practice. Important lwa are celebrated on saints’ days (for example: Ogou on St. James’s Day, July 25; Ezili Danto on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, July 16; Danbala on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17; and the spirits of the ancestors on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, November 1 and November 2). Many other familial feasts (for the sacred children, for the poor, for particular ancestors) as well as initiations and funerary rituals occur throughout the year.