The term Voodoo (Vodun in Benin; also Vodou or other phonetically equivalent spellings in Haiti; Vudu in the Dominican Republic) is applied to the branches of a West African ancestor-based religious tradition with primary roots among the Fon-Ewe peoples of West Africa, in the country now known as Benin, formerly the Kingdom of Dahomey, where Vodun is today the national religion of more than 7 million people. In addition to the Fon or Dahomeyan tradition which has remained in Africa, there are related traditions that put down roots in the New World during the days of the transatlantic African slave trade. Besides Benin, African Vodun and its descendent practices may be found in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil, Ghana, Haiti and Togo. The word Vodun is the Fon-Ewe word for spirit. The more or less pure Fon tradition in Cuba is known as La Regla Arara. In Brazil, the Fon tradition among former slaves has given rise to the tradition known as Jeje Vodun.
The majority of the Africans who were brought as slaves to Haiti were from the Guinea Coast of West Africa, and their descendants are the primary practitioners of Vodou (those Africans brought to the southern US were primarily from the Kongo kingdom). One of the largest differences however between African and Haitian Vodou is that the transplanted Africans of Haiti were obliged to disguise their lwa (sometimes spelled Loa) or spirits as Roman Catholic saints, a process called syncretism. Most experts speculate that this was done in an attempt to hide their pagan religion from their masters who had forbidden them to practice it. In addition to combining the spirits of many different African and Indian nations, pieces of Roman Catholic liturgy have been incorporated to replace lost prayers or elements; in addition images of Catholic saints are used to represent various spirits or mistè (mysteries, actually the preferred term in Haiti), and many saints themselves are honoured in Vodou in their own right. This syncretism allows Vodou to encompass the African, the Indian, and the European ancestors in a whole and complete way.
The most historically important Vodou ceremony in Haitian history was the Bwa Kayiman or Bois Caïman ceremony of August 1791 that began the Haitian Revolution, in which the spirit Ezili Dantor possessed a priestess and received a black pig as an offering, and all those present pledged themselves to the fight for freedom. This ceremony ultimately resulted in the liberation of the Haitian people from their French masters in 1804, and the establishment of the first black people's republic in the history of the world. Haitian Vodou grew in the United States to a significant degree beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the waves of Haitian immigrants fleeing the Duvalier regime, taking root in Miami, New York City, Chicago, and other major cities.
In Haitian Vodou, spirits are divided according to their nature in roughly two categories, whether they are hot or cool. Cool spirits fall under the Rada category, and hot spirits fall under the Petwo category. Rada spirits are familial and mostly come from Africa, Petwo spirits are mostly native to Haiti and are more demanding and require more attention to detail than the Rada, but both can be dangerous if angry or upset. Neither is good or evil in relation to the other. Everyone is said to have spirits, and each person is considered to have a special relationship with one particular spirit who is said to own their head, however each person may have many lwa, and the one that owns their head, or the met tet, may or may not be the most active spirit in a person's life in Haitian belief. In serving the spirits, the Vodouisant seeks to achieve harmony with their own individual nature and the world around them, manifested as personal power and resourcefulness in dealing with life. Part of this harmony is membership in and maintaining relationships within the context of family and community. A Vodou house or society is organized on the metaphor of an extended family, and initiates are the children of their initiators, with the sense of hierarchy and mutual obligation that implies.
Most Vodouisants are not initiated, referred to as being bosal; it is not a requirement to be an initiate in order to serve one's spirits. There are clergy in Haitian Vodou whose responsibility it is to preserve the rituals and songs and maintain the relationship between the spirits and the community as a whole (though some of this is the responsibility of the whole community as well). They are entrusted with leading the service of all of the spirits of their lineage. Priests are referred to as Houngans and priestesses as Manbos. Below the houngans and manbos are the hounsis, who are initiates who act as assistants during ceremonies and who are dedicated to their own personal mysteries. One doesn't serve just any lwa but only the ones they have according to one's destiny or nature. Which spirits a person has may be revealed at a ceremony, in a reading, or in dreams. However all Vodouisants also serve the spirits of their own blood ancestors, and this important aspect of Vodou practice is often glossed over or minimized in importance by commentators who do not understand the significance of it. The ancestor cult is in fact the basis of Vodou religion, and many lwa like Agasou (formerly a king of Dahomey) for example are in fact ancestors who are said to have been raised up to divinity. After a day or two of preparation setting up altars, ritually preparing and cooking fowl and other foods, etc., a Haitian Vodou service begins with a series of Catholic prayers and songs in French, then a litany in Kreyòl and African langaj that goes through all the European and African saints and lwa honoured by the house, and then a series of verses for all the main spirits of the house. This is called the Priyè Gine or the African Prayer.
After more introductory songs, beginning with saluting the spirit of the drums named Hounto, the songs for all the individual spirits are sung, starting with the Legba family through all the Rada spirits, then there is a break and the Petwo part of the service begins, which ends with the songs for the Gede family. As the songs are sung spirits will come to visit those present by taking possession of individuals and speaking and acting through them. Each spirit is saluted and greeted by the initiates present and will give readings, advice and cures to those who approach them for help. Many hours later in the wee hours of the morning, the last song is sung, guests leave, and all the exhausted hounsis and houngans and manbos can go to sleep. On the individual's household level, a Vodouisant or sèvitè/serviteur may have one or more tables set out for their ancestors and the spirit or spirits that they serve with pictures or statues of the spirits, perfumes, foods, and other things favoured by their spirits. The most basic set up is just a white candle and a clear glass of water and perhaps flowers. On a particular spirit's day, one lights a candle and says an Our Father and Hail Mary, salutes Papa Legba and asks him to open the gate, and then one salutes and speaks to the particular spirit like an elder family member. Ancestors are approached directly, without the mediating of Papa Legba, since they are said to be in the blood.
The cultural values that Vodou embraces centre around ideas of honour and respect to God, to the spirits, to the family and sosyete, and to oneself. There is a plural idea of proper and improper, in the sense that what is appropriate to someone with Dambala Wedo as their head may be different from someone with Ogou Feray as their head, for example.. one spirit is very cool and the other one is very hot. Coolness overall is valued, and so is the ability and inclination to protect oneself and one's own if necessary. Love and support within the family of the Vodou sosyete seems to be the most important consideration. Generosity in giving to the community and to the poor is also an important value. One's blessings come through the community and there is the idea that one should be willing to give back to it in turn. Since Vodou has such a community orientation, there are no solitaries in Vodou, only people separated geographically from their elders and house. In contrast to European-based Neopagan tradition, it is not a do it yourself religion. A person without a relationship of some kind with elders will not be practicing Vodou as it is understood in Haiti and among Haitians. While the overall tendency in Vodou is very conservative in accord with its African roots, there is no singular, definitive form, only what is right in a particular house or lineage. Small details of service and the spirits served will vary from house to house, and information in books or on the internet therefore may seem contradictory. There is no central authority or pope in Haitian Vodou since every manbo and houngan is the head of their own house, as a popular saying in Haiti goes. Another consideration in terms of Haitian diversity are the many sects besides the Sèvi Gine in Haiti such as the Makaya, Rara, and other secret societies, each of which has its own distinct pantheon of spirits.
The purpose of rituals is to make contact with a spirit, to gain their favour 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 centre 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.
The houngan and mambos confine their activities to white magic which is used to bring good fortune and healing. However caplatas (also known as bokors) 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. The practice of sticking pins in voodoo dolls has been used as a method of cursing an individual by some followers of what has come to be called New Orleans Voodoo, which is a local variant of hoodoo. This practice is not unique to New Orleans voodoo however and has as much basis in European-based magical devices such as the poppet as the nkisi or bocio of West and Central Africa.
Some Voodun Gods;
Adjasou - Characterized by protruding eyes and a bad humour, lives under the mombin tree near a spring and is very fond of vermouth, rum, and cognac.
Agassu - Dahomean in origin and belonging to the Fon and Yaruba tribes. When a person is possessed by Agassu, his hands become crooked and stiffened, therefore resembling claws. In Dahomey, he is the result of a union between a panther and a woman. He is associated with water deities and sometimes takes the form of a crab. He is one of the mythical creatures who once gave assistance to the Ancestor. He is considered one of the Loa masons.
Agau - is a very violent god. Earth tremors and the frightening sounds associated with storms are because of Agau. The trances induced by his mounting are so violent there have been deaths associated with his brutality. When one is mounted one attempts to imitate the sounds of thunder and tremors, if they are strong enough to utter sounds under the possession. The possessed person keeps repeating, "It is I who am the gunner of god; when I roar the earth trembles."
Ayezan - (Aizan, Ayizan) This is the Legba's wife. She protects the markets, public places, doors, and barriers, and has a deep knowledge of the intricacies of the spirit world. Selects and instructs certain novice houngans. When feeding her or her husband, a black or white goat or russet colored ox is offered up. Her favorite tree is the palm tree. Ayezan is symbolized by mounds of earth sprinkled with oil and surrounded by fringes of palm. Ayezan is Dahomean in origin and represented by an old woman in personification. She is one of the oldest gods and is therefore entitled to first offerings at services. She often mounts people only after her husband appears at the scene. Her mounts are never severe; therefore, she can sometimes take quite a while to spot. She is the mate of Loco (Loko). Ayida- The female counterpart of Dumballah, his mate, is Ayida. She is the mother figure. She is the rainbow. Together they are the unitary forces of human sexuality. Her symbol is also a serpent. She is quite submissive and very delicate. Her co-wife is Erzullie. It is said that whoever "can grasp the diadem of Ayida will be assured wealth". Also known as Ayida Wedo- her job is that of holding up the earth.
Azacca or Zaka - This is the Loa of agriculture, but is generally seen as the brother of Ghede. For this reason Ghede will often come to the ceremonies for Zaka and come when Zaka has mounted someone. Zaka is a gentle simple peasant, but greatly respected by the peasants since he is a very hard worker.
Bade - The Loa of wind. He is the inseparable companion of Sogbo, god of lightning. He also shares his functions with Agau, another storm spirit.
Bakulu - (Bakulu-baka) He drags chains behind him and is such a terrible spirit that no one dares to invoke him. His habitat is in the woods where offerings are taken to him. He himself possesses no one. Since no one wants to call on him, people simply take any offerings that go to him and leave them in the woods.
Baron Samedi - represents the death side of Ghede (Guede). He talks through his nose, is cynical, jovial, and tells broad jokes. His language is full of the unexpected. His tools are the pick, the hoe, and the spade. He is the power behind the magic that kills. He controls the souls of those who have met death as a result of magic. When he appears (mounting someone at an invoking ceremony), he wears a pair of dark glasses, from which he knocks out the right lens- for with his right eye he watches those present, lest anyone steal his food.
Bosou Koblamin - Violent petro Loa. Bosou is a violent Loa capable of defeating his enemies. He is very popular during times of war. He protects his followers when they travel at night. Bosou's appearance is that of a man with three horns; each horn has a meaning--strength, wildness, and violence. Sometimes Bosou comes to the help of his followers but he is not a very reliable Loa.
Brise - Brise is a Loa of the hills. He is boss of the woods. Brise is very fierce in appearance. He is very black and has very large proportions. Brise is actually a gentle soul and likes children. Brise lives in the chardette tree and sometimes assumes the form of an owl. Brise is a protectorate. He is strong and demanding and accepts speckled hens as sacrifices.
Congo - A handsome but apathetic Loa. Content with any clothing and eats mixed foods with much pimiento, and is fond of mixed drinks.
Congo Savanne - A fierce petro Loa. He is malevolent, fierce, and strong. Savanne eats people. He grinds them up as we would grind up corn. His color is white. He is a Loa not to be messed with.
Dinclusin & Chalotte - These two Loa are among the French "mysteries." People mounted by these gods talk perfect French and seem to be unable to speak Creole normally or properly. Chalotte often demands upon the most defined forms of ritualistic protocol. Dinclusin can be recognized by his habit of pocketing everything given to him.
Dumballah (Dumballah Wedo, Damballah) - Known as the serpent god, he is one of the most popular. Dumballah is the father figure. He is benevolent, innocent, a loving father. He doesn't communicate well, as though his wisdom were too aloof for us. Dumballah is the snake. He plunges into a basin of water which is built for him, or climbs up into a tree. Being both snake and aquatic deity, he haunts rivers, springs, and marshes.
Erzulie - (Ezili) Voodoo does not have a woman as goddess of fertility. Fertility is regarded as a unified principle, equally held by male and female forces. Thus Dumballah is united to his Ayida. Agwe has his counterpart in La Sirene, the Marasa; the twins are contradictory and complementary forces of nature and so on. Erzulie is the female energy of Legba. She has tremendous power and is feared as much as she is loved. Also, she has several different roles- goddess of the word, love, help, goodwill, health, beauty and fortune, as well as goddess of jealousy, vengeance, and discord. She is usually known as a serpent that coiled upon itself lives on water and bananas.
Erzulie Jan Petro - Violent spirit Loa belonging to the Petro tradition. Jan Petro is called upon to take responsibility for the temple where spells are on display; although she is a neutral entity, when not called upon it is the duty of the devotees to make them behave peacefully or violently, depending on their motivation for dealing with the spirits. Jan Petro as a protector of temples is very powerful; when people come to the temple they soon find out. Jan Petro likes fresh air and water; she is a sea spirit. She likes perfume and lotion--any temple dedicated to her usually smells like lotion, for it is thrown on those things she possesses.
Ghede - (Papa Ghede) Ghede is the eternal figure in black, controlling the eternal crossroads at which everyone must someday cross over. His symbol is the cross upon a tomb. Known as the spirit of death, other spirits fear him and try to avoid him. He operates under the direction of Baron Samedi.
Gran Boa - Lives in the deep forest where the vegetation is wild. He is the protector of wildlife, and doesn't like to be seen. He eats fruits and vegetables all day in the woods and when called in a ceremony, he is usually not hungry but the people always have food for him anyway. He is the Loa that must be called upon before one is ordained into voodoo priesthood.
Grande Ezili - An old woman, crippled with rheumatism and she is only able to walk by dragging herself along on the ground with a stick.
Ibo Lele - He is independent and hateful; proud of himself and ambitious. He likes to be exclusively served and doesn't like to associate with the other Loa. He relies heavily on the people for his food, but the people are never certain what kind of food he is likely to eat.
Jean Petro - Jean Petro is a deformation of Don Pedro, the name of the Spanish slave. Jean Petro is the spirit-leader of a group of strong and violent spirits called petro. The difference between the good Loa (rada) and the evil Loa (petro) is still far and wide. Voodoo services are rarely held for petro Loa; however, they still do occur but most services are for family and rada Loa. Some say that Jean Petro was brought about by Don Pedro who was a Negro slave of Spanish origin. He acquired much influence by being denounced as the instigator of some alarming plots to overthrow the government. Because of this he symbolizes resistance, force, uprisings, and a sort of black power ideology.
Kalfu (Carrefour, Kalfou) - Legba is twined with his Petro opposite. Kalfu too controls the crossroads. Actually, were it not for him the world would be more rational, a better place. But, not unlike Pandora in Greek religion and myth, Kalfu controls the evil forces of the spirit world. He allows the crossing of bad luck, deliberate destruction, misfortune, injustice. Kalfu controls the in-between points of the crossroads, the off- center points. Legba controls the positive spirits of the day. Kalfu controls the malevolent spirits of the night.
Krabinay - Krabinay Loa are petro Loa. They dress all in red and do high impressive jumps. People are warned away from Krabinay. However, they are very tough and can offer a great deal of assistance to a houngan. These Loa behave in a truly devilish way. Possessions induced by them are so violent that spectators are advised to keep their distance. They take pleasure in cynicism. However, they undertake treatment of desperate cases.
Legba - Old man who guards the crossroads. He is the origin of life, so he must be saluted each time a service or any other activity with the Loa will begin. Legba controls the crossing over from one world to the other. He is the contact between the worlds of spirit and of flesh. He can deliver messages of gods in human language and interpret their will. He is the god of destiny and is also the intermediary between human beings and divine gods. Voodooists believe that if Legba grants their wishes, they can contact the forces of the universe. He is the guardian of voodoo temples, courtyards, plantations,, and crossroads. He protects the home. If you are going on a trip, it is believed that you pray to Legba for protection from harm and a safe return home.
Linglessu - This is one of the Loa free masons. When feeding this Loa, all meat prepared for him must be liberally salted. He prefers the ends of the tongue, ears, front teeth, and the end of a tail of a goat. When this Loa mounts somebody, it is violent and his voice is highly distorted.
Linto - The child spirit of the Guede family. He induces childish behavior in those he rides. They walk clumsily, much like a baby who hardly knows how to use his legs. They babble and cry for food. The company Linto is in teases him but only in good humor.
Loco - (Loko) is the spirit of vegetation and guardian of sanctuaries. Mainly associated with trees. He gives healing properties to leaves; the god of healing and patron of the herbs doctors who always invoke him before undertaking a treatment. Offerings are placed in straw bags which are then hung in its branches. He is only recognizable by the pipe smoked by his servant and the stick which he carries in his hand. His favorite colors are red and white. Animals that are most likely to be offered to this god are black or white goats or russet colored oxen.
Marasa - Twins who died in their early childhood and are innocent and capricious. They are thought to be orphans with no discipline in terms of good eating habits. They eat from twin plates and they eat all of what they are offered at once, always coming very hungry to the ceremonies. They must be fed until they are content and then they will listen to the people. They have a reputation for doing harm to those who have forgotten to provide food or who have not kept their promises, but also refuse to take responsibility for any wrong doing or illnesses.
Marinette-Bwa-Chech - Literally "Marinette of the dry arms." This is a petro Loa or an evil spirit. Worship of her is not spread all over Haiti but is growing rapidly in southern parts. Her ceremonies are held under a tent and lit with a huge fire in which salt and petrol are thrown. She is most dreaded; a she-devil; the sworn servant of evil. She is respected by werewolves, who hold services in her honor. She is an agent of the underhand dealings of Kita who is, herself, an outstanding Loa sorceress.
Obatala - Obatala is a sky Loa. He is the Loa responsible for forming children in the womb. Thus, Obatala is responsible for birth defects. He is also called king of the white cloth, and all his followers wear white. Obatala's favorite food is edible snails.
Ogoun - (Ogorin, Ogu-badagri) Ogoun is the traditional warrior figure in Dahomehan religion. He is quite similar to the spirit Zeus in Greek religion/mythology. As such Ogoun is mighty, powerful, triumphal. In more recent time Ogoun has taken on a new face which is not quite related to his African roots. This is the crafty and powerful political leader. However, this political warrior is much more of an image of where struggle is in modern Haiti. Originally, he was the god of blacksmithing; however, now that blacksmithing has become obsolete, he has become the warrior Loa. He can give strength through prophecy and magic.
Petite Pierre - is a gluttonous and quarrelsome spirit who tries to pick fights with the audience.
Petro - Comes from a new nation of spirits forged directly in the steel and blood of the colonial era. They reflect all the rage, violence and delirium that threw off shackles of slavery. The drums, dancing, and rhythm are offbeat sharp, and unforgiving, like the crack of a rawhide whip. The Bizango is an extreme form of the Petro and it is sometimes described as the wild Petro. Bizango occurs by night, in darkness that is the province of the djab, the devil.
Rada - The Loa that represents the emotional stability and warmth of Africa, the hearth of the nation. Rada derived almost directly from the Dahomean deity is highly religious in nature; rite is never celebrated without the performance of Mahi dances and without honoring and invocation of Nago gods. The Rada drumming and dancing is on beat whereas the Petro is offbeat. Rada stands for light and the normal affairs of humanity.
Simbi - (Simba, Simbe, Simbi Andezo) is guardian of the fountains and marshes and cannot do without the freshness of water. Voodoo rituals are held near springs. Several of their songs mention these sorts of places. He is a very knowledgeable Loa because he spends a lot of time learning about the nature of illnesses of supernatural origin and how to treat them. He is either with you or against you by protecting those who have good relations with him and turning his back on those who do not. As part of Ogou's army he is the chief of the coast guard and goes wherever he pleases.
Siren and Whale - These two Loa are marine divinities, so closely linked that they are always worshipped together and celebrated in the same songs. Some people say the Whale is the mother of the Siren, others that he is her husband; others say they are used for one and the same deity. Popular opinion says the Siren is married to Agwe. When Siren turns up in a sanctuary, the person possessed by her appears simply in the role of a young coquette most careful of her looks, and speaking in French, often offending the peasant serviteurs. Both the Siren and the Whale are often viewed as "upper class."
Sobo (Sobo Kessou) - Loa of strength. Sobo is a very powerful Loa and well known for his bravery as a warrior. When he possesses someone, that person must dress up like a general in the army. When he addresses the congregation during a mounting it is like a general addressing his troops. Sobo is considered an important figure in voodoo mythology. He is the symbol of strength, the ideal of voodoo priests who want to be respected figures in their communities. Because of the strength he procures for his followers, Sobo's presence is continually requested to bring security and protection to the congregation. He who is with Sobo is protected against wild spirits.
Sogbo (Soybo) - He is the god of lightning and the protector of flags. Sogbo is the brother of the three-horned Bosu. Sogbo is always accompanied by his companion Bade, who is the Loa of the winds. These Loa share functions with Agau, who is also a storm Loa. When possessed by Sogbo, one hurls down polished stones which are piously collected and used as symbols of the Loa. Despite their divine origins, thunderstones are not uncommon in Haiti. The spirit hurls a lightning bolt to the earth, striking a rock outcropping and casting the stone to the valley floor. There it must lie for a year and a day before the houngan may touch it.
Taureau-trois-graines - His name means bull with three testicles. This Loa is a product of the fanciful imagination of the people in Haiti and is considered a Creole Loa. He is the great Loa of the Jacmel region. His appearances are terrible; people possessed by him are seized with destructive rage and create havoc all round unless appeased by the offer of a handful of grass. This they munch at once. During trance, they bellow ceaselessly.
Ti-Jean-Petro - This is a black magic or "petro" Loa that is depicted as a dwarf with one foot. Even though Ti-Jean-Petro has a French name, his roots can be traced back to Africa. He is easily comparable to a spirit that roamed through the bush. This spirit, too, was depicted as having only one leg. This Loa often protects and assists black magic sorcerers. Ti-Jean-Petro also is recognized under the names of Petro-e-rouge, Ti-Jean-pied-fin, Prince Zandor, and Ti-Jean-Zandor. He has a violent and passionate nature that becomes apparent when he mounts people.