Haitian Vodou

Haitian Vodou is an Afro-American religion that developed in Haiti between the 16th and 19th centuries. It arose through a process of syncretism between the traditional religions of West Africa and the Roman Catholic form of Christianity. There is no central authority in control of the movement, which comprises adherents known as Vodouists or “servants of the spirits” (sèvitè).

Vodou focuses on the veneration of deities known as lwa. These are often identified both as Yoruban gods as well as Roman Catholic saints. Various myths and stories are told about these lwa, which are regarded as subservient to a transcendent creator deity, Bondyé. An initiatory tradition, Vodouists usually meet in ounfò, temples run by priests known as oungans or priestesses known as manbos, to venerate the lwa. A central ritual involves practitioners drumming, singing, and dancing to encourage a lwa to possess one of their members. They believe that through this possessed individual, they can communicate directly with a lwa. Offerings to the lwa include fruit and the blood of sacrificed animals. Several forms of divination are utilized to decipher messages from the lwa. Healing rituals and the preparation of herbal remedies, amulets, and charms, also play a prominent role.

Vodou developed among Afro-Haitian communities amid the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. It arose through the blending of the traditional religions brought to the island of Hispaniola by enslaved West Africans, many of them Yoruba, and the Roman Catholic teachings of the French colonialists who then controlled the island. Many Voudou practitioners were involved in the Haitian Revolution which overthrew the French colonial government, abolished slavery, and formed modern Haiti. The Roman Catholic Church left for several decades following the Revolution, allowing Vodou to become Haiti’s dominant religion. In the 20th century, growing emigration spread Vodou elsewhere in the Americas. The late 20th century saw growing links between Vodou and other orisha-worshipping traditions in West Africa and the Americas, such as Cuban Santería and Brazilian Candomblé. Since the late 20th century, some practitioners have emphasized a “Yorubization” process to remove Roman Catholic influences and create forms of Vodou closer to traditional Yoruba religion.

Practitioners of Vodou are primarily found in Haiti, although communities exist in other parts of the Americas, especially among the Haitian diaspora in the United States. Both in Haiti and abroad it has spread beyond its Afro-Haitian origins and is practiced by individuals of various different ethnicities. Vodou has faced much opposition and criticism through its history, having repeatedly been described as one of the world’s most misunderstood religious traditions.

A Haitian Vodou altar to the Petwo, Rada, and Gede spirits located in Boston, Massachusetts

A Haitian Vodou altar to the Petwo, Rada, and Gede spirits located in Boston, Massachusetts

Names and etymology

The term Vodou “encompasses a variety of Haiti’s African-derived religious traditions and practices”. Vodou is a Haitian Creole word that formerly referred to only a small subset of Haitian rituals. The word derives from an Ayizo word referring to mysterious forces or powers that govern the world and the lives of those who reside within it, but also a range of artistic forms that function in conjunction with these vodun energies. Two of the major speaking populations of Ayizo are the Ewe and the Fon—European slavers called both the Arada. These two peoples composed a sizable number of the early enslaved population in St. Dominigue. In Haiti, practitioners occasionally use “Vodou” to refer to Haitian religion generically, but it is more common for practitioners to refer to themselves as those who “serve the spirits” (sèvitè) by participating in ritual ceremonies, usually called a “service to the loa” (sèvis lwa) or an “African service” (sèvis gine).

A selection of ritual items used in Vodou practice on display in the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

A selection of ritual items used in Vodou practice on display in the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Vodou” is the commonly used term for the religion among scholars and in official Kreyol orthography. Some scholars prefer to spell it as “Vodoun” or “Vodun.” The Haitian term “Vodou” derives from Dahomey, where “Vôdoun” signified a spirit or deity. In Haiti, the term “Vodou” was generally used in reference to a particular style of dance and drumming, rather than a broader religious system. In French, such traditions were often referred to as le vaudoux. Many practitioners instead use the term “Ginen” to describe the broader framework of their beliefs; this term refers particularly to a moral philosophy and ethical code regarding how to live and to serve the spirits. Many of the religion’s practitioners will not describe themselves as an adherent of a distinct religion but rather will describe how they sèvi lwa (“serve the lwa”).

Outside of Haiti, the term Vodou refers to the entirety of traditional Haitian religious practice. Originally written as vodun, it is first recorded in Doctrina Christiana, a 1658 document written by the King of Allada’s ambassador to the court of Philip IV of Spain. In the following centuries, Vodou was eventually taken up by non-Haitians as a generic descriptive term for traditional Haitian religion. There are many used orthographies for this word. Today, the spelling Vodou is the most commonly accepted orthography in English.

The spelling voodoo, once very common, is now generally avoided by Haitian practitioners and scholars when referring to the Haitian religion. This is both to avoid confusion with Louisiana Voodoo, a related but distinct set of religious practices, as well as to separate Haitian Vodou from the negative connotations and misconceptions the term “voodoo” has acquired in popular culture.

Vodou is an Afro-Haitian religion, and has been described as the “national religion” of Haiti. Many Haitians take the view that to be Haitian is to practice Vodou. Vodou is one of the most complex of the Afro-American traditions. The anthropologist Paul Christopher Johnson characterized Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, and Brazilian Candomblé as “sister religions” due to their shared origins in Yoruba traditional belief systems. Practitioners are also referred to as serviteurs (“devotees”). In Haitian society, religions are rarely considered totally autonomous from one another, with people not regarding it as a problem to attend both a Vodou ceremony and a Roman Catholic mass. Many Haitians practice both Vodou and Roman Catholicism, and the Vodou priest and painter Andre Pierre stated that “To be a good practitioner of Vodou, one must first be a good Catholic.” This engagement in different religious practices can also be seen elsewhere in Haitian society, with some members of the country’s Mormon community also continuing to engage in Vodou practices. Vodou has been referred to as a syncretic religion.


There is no central liturgical authority within Vodou, which takes both domestic and communal forms. There is regional variation within Vodou, including differences in how it is practiced in rural and urban areas and in how it is practiced both in Haiti and among the international Haitian diaspora. Practices vary between congregations. A congregation may consist of an extended family, especially in rural areas of Haiti. In other examples, particularly in urban areas, an ounfo can act as an initiatory family.

Bondyé and the Lwa

Vodou teaches the existence of single supreme god, and in this has been described as a monotheistic religion. This entity, which is believed to have created the universe, is known as the Grand MètBondyé, or Bonié. The latter name derives from the French Bon Dieu (God). For Vodou practitioners, the Bondyé is regarded as a remote and transcendent figure, one which does not involve itself in everyday human affairs, and thus there is little point in approaching it directly. Haitians will frequently use the phrase si Bondye vie (“if Bondye is willing”), suggesting a broader belief that all things occur in accordance with this creator deity’s will. Although influenced by Roman Catholicism, Vodou does not incorporate belief in a powerful antagonist that opposes the supreme being akin to the Christian notion of Satan.

Vodou has also been characterised as a polytheistic religion. It teaches the existence of a broader range of deities, known as the lwa or loa, a term that can varyingly be translated into English as “gods”, “spirits”, or “geniuses”. These lwa are also known as the mystèresangessaints, and les invisibles. The lwa can offer help, protection, and counsel to human beings, in return for ritual service. The lwa are regarded as the intermediaries of the transcendent creator deity, although they are not seen as moral exemplars which practitioners should imitate. Each lwa is viewed as having its own personality, and is associated with specific colors, days of the week, and objects. The lwa can be either loyal or capricious in their dealings with their human devotees; Vodouists believe that the lwa are easily offended, for instance if they are offered food that they dislike. When angered, the lwa are believed to remove their protection from their devotees, or to inflict misfortune, illness, or madness on an individual.

Although there are exceptions, the majority of the Haitian lwa have names that ultimately derive from the Fon and Yoruba languages. New lwa are nevertheless added to the pantheon. It is for instance believed that some Vodou priests and priestesses become lwa upon their deaths. It is also believed that some objects which have been adopted as talismans become lwa. Vodouists often refer to the lwa residing in “Guinea”, but this is not intended as a precise geographical location. Many of the lwa are also understood to live under the water, at the bottom of the sea or in rivers. Vodouists believe that the lwa can communicate with humans through dreams and through the possession of human beings.

The lwa are divided into a series of nanchon or “nations”. This classificatory system derives from the way in which enslaved West Africans were divided into distinct “nations” upon their arrival in Haiti, usually based on their African port of departure rather than any ethno-cultural grouping that they had originally belonged to. The term fanmi (family) is sometimes used synonymously with “nation” or alternatively as a sub-division within the latter category. Of these nations, the Rada and the Petwo are the largest. The Rada derive their name from Arada, a city in the Dahomey kingdom of West Africa. The Rada lwa are usually regarded as dous or doux, meaning that they are sweet-tempered. The Petwo lwa are conversely seen as lwa cho or lwa chaud, indicating that they can be forceful or violent and are associated with fire; they are generally regarded as being socially transgressive and subversive. The Rada lwa are seen as being ‘cool’; the Petwo lwa as ‘hot’. The Rada lwa are generally regarded as being righteous, whereas their Petwo counterparts are thought of as being more morally ambiguous, associated with issues like money. At the same time, the Rada lwa are regarded as being less effective or powerful than those of the Petwo nation. The various lwa within the Petro nation derive from a range of backgrounds, including Creole, Kongo, and Dahomeyan. Many lwa exist andezo or en deux eaux, meaning that they are “in two waters” and are served in both Rada and Petwo rituals.

Papa Legba, also known as Legba, is the first lwa to be saluted during Vodou ceremonies. Visually, he is depicted as a feeble old man wearing rags and using a crutch. Papa Legba is regarded as the protector of gates and fences and thus of the home, as well as of roads, paths, and crossroads. The second lwa that are usually greeted are the Marasa or sacred twins. In Vodou, every nation has its own Marasa, reflecting a belief that twins have special powers. Agwé, also known as Agwé-taroyo, is associated with aquatic life, and protector of ships and fishermen. Agwé is believed to rule the sea with his consort, Lasiren. She is a mermaid or siren, and is sometimes described as Ezili of the Waters because she is believed to bring good luck and wealth from the sea. Ezili Freda or Erzuli Freda is the lwa of love and luxury, personifying feminine beauty and grace. Ezili Banto is a lwa who takes the form of a peasant woman.

Zaka or Azaka is the lwa of crops and agriculture. He is usually addressed as “Papa” or “Cousin”. Loco is the lwa of vegetation, and because he is seen to give healing properties to various plant species is considered the lwa of healing too Ogu is a warrior lwa, associated with weapons. Sogbo is a lwa associated with lightning, while his companion, Badé, is associated with the wind. Damballa or Danbala is a serpent lwa and is associated with water, being believed to frequent rivers, springs, and marshes; he is one of the most popular deities within the Vodou pantheon. Danbala and his consort Ayida Wedo are often depicted as a pair of intertwining snakes. The Simbi are understood as the guardians of fountains and marshes.

The Guédé or Gede family of lwa are associated with the realm of the dead. The head of the family is Bawon Samdi or Baron Samedi (“Baron Saturday”). His consort is Grand Brigitte; she has authority over cemeteries and is regarded as the mother of many of the other Guédé. When the Guédé are believed to have arrived at a Vodou ceremony they are usually greeted with joy because they bring merriment. Those possessed by the Guédé at these ceremonies are known for making sexual innuendos;  the symbol of the Guédé is an erect penis, while the banda dance that is associated with them involves much sexual-style thrusting.

The lwa are associated with specific Roman Catholic saints. For instance, Azaka, the lwa of agriculture, is associated with Saint Isidore the farmer. Similarly, because he is understood as the “key” to the spirit world, Papa Legba is typically associated with Saint Peter, who is visually depicted holding keys in traditional Roman Catholic imagery. The lwa of love and luxury, Ezili Frida, is associated with Mater Dolorosa. Danbala, who is a serpent, is often equated with Saint Patrick, who is traditionally depicted in a scene with snakes; alternatively he is often associated with Moses. The Marasa, or sacred twins, are typically equated with the twin saints Cosmos and Damian.


Vodou teaches the existence of a soul which is divided in two parts. One of these is the ti bònanj or ti bon ange, and it is understood as the conscience that allows an individual to engage in self-reflection and self-criticism. THe other is the gwo bònanje or gros bon ange and this constitutes the psyche, source of memory, intelligence, and personhood. These two elements are both believed to reside within an individual’s head. Vodouists believe that the gwo bònanje can leave the head and go travelling while a person is sleeping.

Vodouists hold that the spirits of dead humans are different from the Guédé, who are regarded as lwa. Vodouists believe that the dead can exert an influence on the living and require sacrifices. It does not teach the existence of any afterlife realm akin to the Christian idea of Heaven.

Morality, ethics, and gender roles

See also: Haitian Vodou and sexual orientation

Vodou permeates every aspect of its adherent’s lives. As a religion, it reflects people’s everyday concerns, focusing on techniques for mitigating illness and misfortune. Service to the lwa is a fundamental premise in Vodou and the religion features a moral code that imposes obligations toward the lwa as part of a broader reciprocal relationship with them. For practitioners, virtue is maintained by ensuring that one has a responsible relationship with the lwa. However, it includes no prescriptive code of ethics. Rather, the scholar of religion Claudine Michel suggesting that Vodou offers “no absolutes or generalities, only thematic possibilities for how life ought to be lived.” She added that Vodou’s cosmology emphasises “uniformity, conformity, group cohesion, and support for one another.” Respect for the elderly is a key value among Vodouists, with the extended family being of importance in Haitian society. A belief in the interdependence of things plays a role in Vodou approaches to ethical issues.

The scholar of Africana studies Felix Germain suggested that Vodou “defies patriarchy” by rejecting French colonial gender norms. As social and spiritual leaders, women can also lay claim to moral authority in Vodou. Some practitioners state that the lwa determined their sexual orientation, turning them homosexual.

Critics, especially those from Christian backgrounds, have accused Vodou of promoting a fatalistic outlook that discourages practitioners from improving their society. This has been extended into an argument that Vodou is responsible for Haiti’s poverty. Benjamin Hebblethwaite argued that this claim was a form of scapegoating that replicated old colonial tropes about African-descended people and overlooked the complex range of historical and environmental factors that have maintained poverty in Haiti.

Practitioners are usually critical of maji, which refers to the use of supernatural powers for self-serving and malevolent ends. Externally, Vodou has often been stereotyped as an antithesis to morality.


Those devoted to the Gede spirits dress in a manner linking in with the Gede’s associations with death. This includes wearing black and purple clothing, funeral frock coats, black veils, top hats, and sunglasses.


Mostly revolving around interactions with the lwa, Vodou ceremonies make use of song, drumming, dance, prayer, possession, and animal sacrifice. Practitioners gather together for sèvices (services) in which they commune with the lwa. Ceremonies for a particular lwa often coincide with the feast day of the Roman Catholic saint that that lwa is associated with. The religion operates through a system of graded induction or initiation. The mastery of ritual forms is considered imperative in Vodou.

Vodou has a strong oral culture and its teachings are primarily disseminated through oral transmission. Texts began appearing in the mid-twentieth century, at which point they were utilised by Vodouists.

Métraux described Vodou as “a practical and utilitarian religion”. Vodou practitioners believe that if one follows all taboos imposed by their particular loa and is punctilious about all offerings and ceremonies, the loa will aid them. Vodou practitioners also believe that if someone ignores their loa it can result in sickness, the failure of crops, the death of relatives, and other misfortunes.

Oungan and Manbo

In Vodou, male priests are referred to as oungan, alternatively spelled houngan or hungan, while their female counterparts are referred to as manbo, alternatively spelled mambo. The oungan and manbo are tasked with organising liturgies, preparing initiations, offering consultations with clients using divination, and preparing remedies for the sick. There is no established priestly hierarchy, with the various oungan and manbo being largely self-sufficient. In many cases, the role is hereditary, with children following their parents to become an oungan or manbo.

Vodou teaches that the lwa call an individual to become an oungan or manbo. If an individual refuses this call, it is believed that misfortune may befall them. A prospective oungan or manbo must normally rise through the other roles in a Vodou congregation before undergoing an apprenticeship with a pre-existing oungan or manbo lasting several months or years. After this apprenticeship, they undergo an initiation ceremony, the details of which are kept secret from non-initiates. Other oungan and manbo do not undergo any apprenticeship, but claim that they have gained their training directly from the lwa. Their authenticity is often challenged because of this claim, and they are referred to as hungan-macoutte, a term which bears some disparaging connotations. Becoming an oungan or manbo is an expensive process, often requiring the purchase of land on which to build a temple and the obtaining of ritual paraphernalia. To finance this, many save up for a long time before they can establish themselves in the profession.

The role of the oungan is believed by practitioners to be modelled on the lwa Loco, who is understood as the chief of Legba’s escorts. According to Vodou beliefs, Loco and his consort Ayizan were the first oungan and manbo, providing humanity with knowledge of the konnesans. The oungan and manbo are expected to display the power of second sight, something that is regarded as a gift from the creator deity that can be revealed to the individual through visions or dreams. Many priests and priestesses are often attributed fantastical powers in stories told about them, such as that they could spend several days underwater. Priests and priestess also bolster their status with claims that they have received spiritual revelations from the lwa, sometimes via visits to the lwa’s own abode.

Various oungan are homosexual. Based on his ethnographic research during the 1940s and 1950s, the anthropologist Alfred Métraux commented that many, although not all, oungan and manbo were “maladjusted or neurotic.” There is often bitter competition between different oungan and manbo. Their main income derives from healing the sick, supplemented with payments received for overseeing initiations and selling talismans and amulets. In many cases, these oungan and manbo become wealthier than their clients.

Oungan and manbo are generally powerful and well-respected members of Haitian society. Being an oungan or manbo provides an individual with both social status and material profit, although the fame and reputation of individual priests and priestesses can vary widely. Respected Vodou priests and priestesses are often literate in a society where semi-literacy and illiteracy are common. They can recite from printed sacred texts and write letters for illiterate members of their community. Due to their prominence in a community, the oungan and manbo can effectively become political leaders, or otherwise exert an influence on local politics. Some oungan and manbo have linked themselves closely with professional politicians, for instance during the reign of the Duvaliers. Historical evidence suggests that the role of the oungan and manbo intensified over the course of the 20th century. As a result, “temple Vodou” is now more common in rural areas of Haiti than it was in historical periods.

Vodou entails practitioners being encouraged to undertake stages of initiation into a state of mind called konesans (conaissance or knowledge). Successive initiations are required to move through the various konesans.

Houngans (priest) or Mambos (priestess) are usually people who were chosen by the dead ancestors and received the divination from the deities while he or she was possessed. His or her tendency is to do good by helping and protecting others from spells, however they sometimes use their supernatural power to hurt or kill people. They also conduct ceremonies that usually take place “amba peristil” (under a Vodou temple). However, non-Houngan or non-Mambo as Vodouisants are not initiated, and are referred to as being “bossale”; it is not a requirement to be an initiate 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. Sometimes they are “called” to serve in a process called being reclaimed, which they may resist at first.

The Ounfò

A Vodou temple is referred to as the ounfò, alternatively spelled as hounfò, hounfort, or humfo. An alternative term used for such a building is gangan, although the connotations of this term vary regionally in Haiti. In Vodou, most communal activities center around this temple, forming what is called “temple Vodou”. The size and shape of these ounfò can vary, from basic shacks to more lavish structures, the latter being more common in Port au Prince than elsewhere in Haiti; their designs are dependent on the resources and tastes of the oungan or manbo who run them. Ounfòs are autonomous of one another, and may have customs that are unique to them.

The main ceremonial space within the ounfò is known as the peristil or peristyle. In the peristil, brightly painted posts hold up the roof, which is often made of corrugated iron but sometimes thatched. The central one of these posts is the poto mitan or poteau mitan, which is used as a pivot during ritual dances and serves as the “passage of the spirits” by which the lwa enter the room during ceremonies. It is around this central post that offerings, including both vèvè and animal sacrifices, are made. However, in the Haitian diaspora many Vodou practitioners perform their rites in basements, where no poto mitan are available. The peristil typically has an earthen floor, allowing libations to the lwa to drain directly into the soil, although outside Haiti this is often not possible, with libations instead poured into an enamel basin on the floor. Some peristil feature a range of seats around the edge of the room.

Adjacent rooms in the ounfò include the caye-mystéres, which is also known as the bagibadji, or sobadji. This is where a number of stonework altars, known as , stand against the wall or are arranged in tiers. The caye-mystéres is also used to store clothing associated with the possessing oricha that is placed onto the individual experiencing possession during the rituals in the peristil. Many  also have a sink which is sacred to the lwa Danbala-Wedo. If space is available, the ounfò may also have a room set aside for the patron lwa of that temple. Many ounfòs have a room known as the djévo in which the initiate is confined during their initiatory ceremony. Every ounfò usually has a room or corner of a room devoted to Erzuli Freda. Some ounfò will also have additional rooms in which the oungan or manbo live.

The area around the ounfò often contains a range of sacred objects. These for instance include a pool of water for Danbala, a black cross for Baron Samedi, and a pince (iron bar) sticking out of a brazier for Criminel. Sacred trees, known as arbres-reposoirs, sometimes mark the external boundary of the ounfò, and are encircled by stone-work edging. Hanging from these trees can be found macounte straw sacks, strips of material, and animal skulls. A range of animals, particularly birds but also some mammal species such as goats, are sometimes kept within the perimeter of the ounfò for use as sacrifices.

The congregation

Forming a spiritual community of practitioners, the individuals who congregate at the ounfò are known as the pititt-caye (children of the house). Here, they worship under the authority of an oungan or manbo. Ranked below these figures are the ounsi, individuals who make a lifetime commitment to serving the lwa. Members of either sex can join the ounsi, although the majority of people who do so are female. The ounsi have many duties, such as cleaning the peristil, carrying out animal sacrifices, and taking part in the dances at which they must be prepared to be possessed by a lwa. The oungan and manbo are responsible for overseeing initiatory ceremonies whereby people become ounsi, for training the ounsi more broadly, and for acting as a counsellor, healer, and protector of the ounsi. In turn, the ounsi are expected to be obedient to their oungan or manbo, although the latter can often express frustrations about their ounsi, regarding them as negligent or lax in their ritual duties.

One of the ounsi becomes the hungenikon or reine-chanterelle, the mistress of the choir. This individual is responsible for overseeing the liturgical singing and shaking the chacha rattle which is used to control the rhythm during ceremonies. They are aided by the hungenikon-la-placecommandant general de la place, or quarter master, who is in charge of overseeing offerings and keeps order during the ceremonies. Another figure is le confiance (the confidant), the ounsi who oversees the ounfò’s administrative functions. The groups of initiates of a particular priest/priestess form “families.” A priest becomes the papa (“father”) while the priestess becomes the manman (“mother”) to the initiate; the initiate becomes their initiator’s pitit (spiritual child). Those who share an initiator refer to themselves as “brother” and “sister.”

Individuals may join a particular ounfò for various reasons. It may be that it exists in their locality or that their family are already members. Alternatively, it may be that the ounfò places particular focus on a lwa whom they are devoted to, or that they are impressed by the oungan or manbo who runs the ounfò in question, perhaps having been treated by them.

Congregants often form a société soutien (support society), through which subscriptions are paid to help maintain the ounfò and organize the major religious feasts held there each year. In rural Haiti, it is often the patriarch of an extended family who serves as the priest for said family. Families, particularly in rural areas, often believe that through their zansèt (ancestors) they are tied to a prenmye mèt bitasyon’ (original founder); their descent from this figure is seen as giving them their inheritance both of the land and of familial spirits.


The Vodou system is hierarchical and includes a series of initiations. There are typically four levels of initiation, the fourth of which makes someone an oungan or manbo. The initial initiation rite into Vodou is known as the kanzo. This is also the term used to describe the initiate themselves. There is much variation in what these initiation ceremonies entail. Initiation is generally expensive, complex, and requires significant preparation. Prospective initiates are for instance required to memorise a large number of Vodou songs and to learn the characteristics of the different lwa.

The first part of the initiation rite is known as the kouchecoucher, or huño. This begins with the chiré aizan, a ceremony in which palm leaves are frayed, after which they are worn by the initiate, either in front of their face or over their shoulder. Sometimes the bat ge or batter guerre (“beating war”) is performed instead, designed to beat away the old. During the rite, the initiate comes to be regarded as the child of a particular lwa. Their tutelary lwa is referred to as their mét tét (“master of the head”).

This is followed by a period of seclusion within the djèvo known as the kouche. The kouche is meant to be an uncomfortable experience for the initiate. It serves as a lav tét (“head washing”) to prepare the initiate for having the lwa enter and reside in their head. Voudoists believe that one of the two parts of the human soul, the gros bònanj, is removed from the initiate’s head, thus making space for the lwa to enter and reside there.

The initiation ceremony requires the preparation of pot tèts in which a range of items are placed, including hair, food, herbs, and oils. After the period of seclusion in the djèvo, the new initiate is brought out and presented to the congregation; they are now referred to as ounsi lave tèt. When the new initiate is presented to the rest of the community, they carry their pot tèt on their head, before placing it on the altar. The initiation process is seen to have ended when the new initiate is first possessed by a lwa.

Shrines and altars

Crowded tabletops with tiny flickering lamps; stones sitting in oil baths; a crucifix; murky bottles of roots and herbs steeped in alcohol; shiny new bottles of rum, scotch, gin, perfume, and almond-sugar syrup. On one side was an altar arranged in three steps and covered in gold and black contact paper. On the top step an open pack of filterless Pall Malls lay next to a cracked and dusty candle in the shape of a skull. A walking stick with its head carved to depict a huge erect penis leaned against the wall beside it. On the opposite side of the room was a small cabinet, its top littered with vials of powders and herbs. On the ceiling and walls of the room were baskets, bunches of leaves hung to dry, and smoke-darkened lithographs of the saints.

— The anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown‘s description of the altar room of Mama Lola, a Vodou manbo in Brooklyn, New York

Lithographs of Roman Catholic saints often appear on Vodou altars. Since developing in the mid-nineteenth century, chromolithography has also had an impact on Vodou imagery, facilitating the widespread availability of images of the Roman Catholic saints who are equated with the lwa. Various Vodouists have made use of varied available materials in constructing their shrines. Cosentino encountered a shrine in Port au Prince where Baron Samedi was represented by a plastic statue of Santa Claus that had been given a black sombrero. In another instance, a cut-out of the U.S. politician Harold Stassen had been used to represent Damballa.

Various spaces other than the temple are used for Vodou ritual. Cemeteries are seen as places where various spirits reside, making them suitable for certain rituals. Crossroads are also ritual locations, selected as they are believed to be points of access to the spirit world. Other spaces used for Vodou rituals include Christian churches, rivers, the sea, fields, and markets. In Vodou, various trees are regarded as having spirits resident in them and are used as natural altars. Different species of tree are associated with different lwa; Oyu is for linked with mango trees, and Danballa with bougainvillea. Various trees in Haiti have had metal items affixed to them, serving as shrines to Ogou, who is associated with both iron and the roads.

Spaces for ritual also appear in the homes of many Vodouists. These may vary from complex altars to more simple variants including only images of saints alongside candles and a rosary.

The creation of sacred works plays an important role in Vodou. In Vodou, drawings known as vèvè are sketched onto the floor of the peristil using cornmeal, ash, and powdered eggshells. Letters are sometimes incorporated into veve designs. Inside the peristil, practitioners also unfurl sequined ceremonial flags known as drapo (flags). These drapo are understood as points of entry through which the lwa can enter the peristil during Vodou ceremonies.

The asson is a sacred rattle used in summoning the lwa. It consists of an empty, dried gourd which has been covered in beads and snake vertebra. Prior to being used in a Vodou ritual it needs to be consecrated. It is a symbol of the priesthood in Vodou; assuming the duties of a manbo or oungan is referred to as “taking the asson.”

Offerings and animal sacrifice

Feeding the lwa is of great importance in Vodou. Offering food and drink to the lwa is the most common ritual within the religion, conducted both communally and in the home. The choice of food and drink offered varies depending on the lwa in question, with different lwa believed to favour different foodstuffs. Danbala for instance requires white foods, especially eggs. Foods offered to Legba, whether meat, tubers, or vegetables, need to be grilled on a fire. The lwa of the Ogu and Nago nations prefer raw rum or clairin as an offering.

mange sec is an offering of grains, fruit, and vegetables that often precedes a simple ceremony. An oungan or manbo will also organize an annual feast for their congregation in which animal sacrifices to various lwa will be made. The food is often placed within a kwi, a calabash shell bowl. The food is typically offered when it is cool; it remains there for a while before humans can then eat it.

Once selected, the food is then placed on special calabashes known as assiettes de Guinée which are located on the altar. Some foodstuffs are alternatively left at certain places in the landscape, such as at a crossroads, or buried. Libations might be poured into the ground. Vodouists believe that the lwa then consume the essence of the food. Certain foods are also offered in the belief that they are intrinsically virtuous, such as grilled maize, peanuts, and cassava. These are sometimes sprinkled over animals that are about to be sacrificed or piled upon the vèvè designs on the floor of the peristil.

Maya Deren wrote that: “The intent and emphasis of sacrifice is not upon the death of the animal, it is upon the transfusion of its life to the loa; for the understanding is that flesh and blood are of the essence of life and vigor, and these will restore the divine energy of the god.” Because Agwé is believed to reside in the sea, rituals devoted to him often take place beside a large body of water such as a lake, river, or sea. His devotees sometimes sail out to Trois Ilets, drumming and singing, where they throw a white sheep overboard as a sacrifice to him.

The Dans

A style of drum used in Haitian Vodou

A style of drum used in Haitian Vodou

The nocturnal gatherings of Vodouists are often referred to as the dans (“dance”), reflecting the prominent role that dancing has in such ceremonies. The purpose of these rites is to invite a lwa to enter the ritual space, at which point they can possess one of the worshippers and thus communicate directly with the congregation. The success of this procedure is predicated on mastering the different ritual actions and on getting the aesthetic right to please the lwa. The proceedings can last for the entirety of the night. On arriving, the congregation typically disperse along the perimeter of the peristil.

The ritual often begins with a series of Roman Catholic prayers and hymns. This is followed by the shaking of the asson rattle to summon the lwa to join the rite. Two Haitian Creole songs, the Priyè Deyò (“Outside Prayers”), may then be sung, lasting from 45 minutes to an hour. The main lwa are then saluted, individually, in a specific order. Legba always comes first, as he is believed to open the way for the others. Each lwa may be offered either three or seven songs, which are specific to them.

The rites employed to call down the lwa vary depending on the nation in question. During large-scale ceremonies, the lwa are invited to appear through the drawing of patterns, known as vèvè, on the ground using cornmeal. Also used to call down the spirits is a process of drumming, singing, prayers, and dances. Libations and offerings of food are made to the lwa, which includes animal sacrifices. The order and protocol for welcoming the lwa is referred to as regleman.

The drum is perhaps the most sacred item in Vodou. Practitioners believe that drums contain a nam or vital force. Specific ceremonies accompany the construction of a drum so that it is considered suitable for use in Vodou ritual. In a ritual referred to as a bay manger tambour (“feeding of the drum”), offerings are given to the drum itself. Reflecting its status, when Vodouists enter the peristil they customarily bow before the drums. Becoming a drummer in Vodou rituals requires a lengthy apprenticeship. The drumming style, choice of rhythm, and composition of the orchestra differs depending on which nation of lwa are being invoked in a ritual. The drum rhythms which are typically used generates a kase (“break”), which the master drummer will initiate to oppose the main rhythm being played by the rest of the drummers. This is seen as having a destabilising effect on the dancers and helping to facilitate their possession.

The drumming is typically accompanied by the singing of specific Vodou songs, usually in Haitian Kreyol, albeit words from several African languages incorporated into it. These are often structured around a call and response, with a soloist singing a line and the chorus responding with either the same line or an abbreviated version of it. The singers are led by a figure known as the hungerikon, whose task it is to sing the first bar of a new song. These songs are designed to be invocations to summon a lwa, and contain lyrics that are simple and repetitive. The drumming also provides the rhythm that fuels the dance. The choice of dance is impacted by which nation of lwa are central to the particular ceremony. The dances that take place are simple, lacking complex choreography. Those in attendance dance around the poto mitan counter-clockwise in a largely improvised fashion. Specific movements incorporated into the dance can indicate the nation of lwa being summoned.

Spirit possession

Spirit possession constitutes an important element of Haitian Vodou, and is at the heart of many of its rituals. Vodouists believe that the lwa renews itself by drawing on the vitality of the people taking part in the dance. Vodou teaches that a lwa can possess an individual regardless of gender; both male and female lwa are capable of possessing either men or women. Although the specific drums and songs being used as designed to encourage a specific lwa to possess someone, sometimes an unexpected lwa appears and takes possession instead. The person being possessed is referred to as the chwal or chual (horse); the act of possession is called “mounting a horse”.

The trance of possession is known as the crise de lwa. Vodou practitioners believe that during this process, the lwa enters the head of the possessed individual and displaces their gwo bon anj (consciousness). This displacement is believed to generate the trembling and convulsions that the chwal undergoes as they become possessed; Maya Deren described a look of “anguish, ordeal and blind terror” on the faces of those as they became possessed. Because their consciousness has been removed from their head during the possession, Vodouists believe that the chwal will have no memory of what occurs during the incident. The length of the possession varies, often lasting a few hours but in some instances several days. It may end with the chwal collapsing in a semi-conscious state. The possessed individual is typically left physically exhausted by the experience.

Once the lwa appears and possesses an individual, it is greeted by a burst of song and dance by the congregation. The chwal is often escorted into an adjacent room where they are dressed in clothing associated with the possessing lwa. Alternatively, the clothes are brought out and they are dressed in the peristil itself. These costumes and props help the chwal take on the appearance of the lwa. Many ounfo have a large wooden phallus on hand which is used by those possessed by Gede lwa during their dances. Once the chwal has been dressed, congregants kiss the floor before them. The chwal will also typically bow before the officiating priest or priestess and prostrate before the poto mitan. The chwal will often then join in with the dances, dancing with anyone whom they wish to, or sometimes eating and drinking. Their performance can be very theatrical.

The behaviour of the possessed is informed by the lwa possessing them as the chwal takes on the associated behaviour and expressions of that particular lwa. Those believing themselves possessed by Danbala the serpent for instance often slither on the floor, darting out their tongue, and climb the posts of the peristil. Those possessed by Zaka, lwa of agriculture, will be dressed as a peasant in a straw hat with a clay pipe and will often speak in a rustic accent. Sometimes the lwa, through the chwal, will engage in financial transactions with members of the congregation, for instance by selling them food that has been given as an offering or lending them money. It is believed that in some instances a succession of lwa can possess the same individual, one after the other.

Possession facilitates direct communication between the lwa and its followers; through the chwal, the lwa communicates with their devotees, offering counsel, chastisement, blessings, warnings about the future, and healing. Lwa possession has a healing function in Vodou, with the possessed individual expected to reveal possible cures to the ailments of those assembled. Any clothing that the chwal touches is regarded as bringing luck. The lwa may also offer advice to the individual they are possessing; because the latter is not believed to retain any memory of the events, it is expected that other members of the congregation will pass along the lwa’s message at a later point.

Healing practices

Healing practices play an important role in Haitian Vodou. In Haiti, oungan or manbo may advise their clients to seek assistance from medical professionals, while the latter may also send their patients to see an oungan or manbo. Amid the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus in Haiti during the late twentieth century, health care professionals raised concerns that Vodou was contributing to the spread of the disease, both by sanctioning sexual activity among a range of partners and by having individuals consult oungan and manbo for medical advice rather than doctors. By the early twenty-first century, various NGOs and other groups were working on bringing Vodou officiants into the broader campaign against HIV/AIDS.

In Haiti, there are also “herb doctors” who offer herbal remedies for various ailments; they are considered separate from the oungan and manbo and have a more limited range in the problems that they deal with.


Dancing as part of a Vodou ceremony in Port au Prince in 1976

Dancing as part of a Vodou ceremony in Port au Prince in 1976

In Vodou belief, an individual who turns to the lwa to harm others is known as a bòkò or bokor. Among Vodouists, a bokor is described as someone who sert des deux mains (“serves with both hands”), or is travaillant des deux mains (“working with both hands”). These practitioners deal in baka, malevolent spirits contained in the form of various animals. They are also believed to work with lwa acheté (“bought lwa”), because the good lwa have rejected them as being unworthy. Their rituals are often linked with Petwo rites, and have been described as being similar to Jamaican obeah. According to Haitian popular belief, these bokor engage in envoimorts or expeditions, setting the dead against an individual in a manner that leads to the sudden illness and death of the latter. In Haitian religion, it is commonly believed that an object can be imbued with supernatural qualities, making it a wanga, which then generates misfortune and illness. In Haiti, there is much suspicion and censure toward those suspected of being bokor.

The curses of the bokor are believed to be countered by the actions of the oungan and manbo, who can revert the curse through an exorcism that incorporates invocations of protective lwa, massages, and baths. In Haiti, some oungan and manbo have been accused of actively working with bokor, organising for the latter to curse individuals so that they can financially profit from removing these curses.

Zombies are among the most sensationalised aspects of Haitian religion. A popular belief on the island is that a bokor can cause a person’s death and then seize their ti bon ange, leaving the victim pliant and willing to do whatever the bokor commands. Haitians generally do not fear zombies themselves, but rather fear being zombified themselves. The anthropologist Wade Davis argued that this belief was rooted in a real practice, whereby the Bizango secret society used a particular concoction to render their victim into a state that resembled death. After the individual was then assumed dead, the Bizango would administer another drug to revive them, giving the impression that they had returned from the dead.

Death and the afterlife

Practitioners of Vodou revere death, and believe it is a great transition from one life to another, or to the afterlife. Some Vodou families believe that a person’s spirit leaves the body, but is trapped in water, over mountains, in grottoes—or anywhere else a voice may call out and echo—for one year and one day. After then, a ceremonial celebration commemorates the deceased for being released into the world to live again. In the words of Edwidge Danticat, author of “A Year and a Day”—an article about death in Haitian society published in the New Yorker—and a Vodou practitioner, “The year-and-a-day commemoration is seen, in families that believe in it and practice it, as a tremendous obligation, an honorable duty, in part because it assures a transcendental continuity of the kind that has kept us Haitians, no matter where we live, linked to our ancestors for generations.” After the soul of the deceased leaves its resting place, it can occupy trees, and even become a hushed voice on the wind. Though other Haitian and West African families believe there is an afterlife in paradise in the realm of God.

Festival and Pilgrimage

Vodouists washing in a river following a ceremony; photographed in Haiti in 2010

Vodouists washing in a river following a ceremony; photographed in Haiti in 2010

On the saints’ days of the Roman Catholic calendar, Vodouists often hold “birthday parties” for the lwa associated with the saint whose day it is. During these, special altars for the lwa being celebrated may be made, and their preferred food will be prepared. Devotions to the Guédé are particularly common around the days of the dead, All Saints (1 November) and All Souls (2 November). On the first day of November, Haiti witnesses the Gede festival, a celebration to honor the dead which largely takes place in the cemeteries of Port au Prince.

Pilgrimage is a part of Haitian religious culture. On the island, it is common for pilgrims to wear coloured ropes around their head or waist while undertaking their pilgrimage. The scholars of religion Terry Rey and Karen Richman argued that this may derive from a Kongolese custom, kanga (“to tie”), during which sacred objects were ritually bound with rope. In late July, Voudoist pilgrims visit Plaine du Nord near Bwa Caiman, where according to legend the Haitian Revolution began. There, sacrifices are made and pilgrims immerse themselves in the trou (mud pits). The pilgrims often mass before the Church of Saint Jacques, with Saint Jacques perceived as being the lwa Ogou.


Before 1685: From Africa to the Caribbean

The cultural area of the Fon, Ewe, and Yoruba peoples share a common metaphysical conception of a dual cosmological divine principle consisting of Nana Buluku, the God-Creator, and the voduns(s) or God-Actor(s), daughters and sons of the Creator’s twin children Mawu (goddess of the moon) and Lisa (god of the sun). The God-Creator is the cosmogonical principle and does not trifle with the mundane; the voduns(s) are the God-Actor(s) who actually govern earthly issues. The pantheon of vodoun is quite large and complex.

West African Vodun has its primary emphasis on ancestors, with each family of spirits having its own specialized priest and priestess, which are often hereditary. In many African clans, deities might include Mami Wata, who are gods and goddesses of the waters; Legba, who in some clans is virile and young in contrast to the old man form he takes in Haiti and in many parts of Togo; Gu (or Ogoun), ruling iron and smithcraft; Sakpata, who rules diseases; and many other spirits distinct in their own way to West Africa.

A significant portion of Haitian Vodou often overlooked by scholars until recently is the input from the Kongo. The entire northern area of Haiti is heavily influenced by Kongo practices. In northern Haiti, it is often called the Kongo Rite or Lemba, from the Lemba rituals of the Loango area and Mayombe. In the south, Kongo influence is called Petwo (Petro). Many loa (a Kikongo term) are of Kongo origin such as Basimba belonging to the Basimba people and the Lemba.

In addition, the Vodun religion (distinct from Haitian Vodou) already existed in the United States previously to Haitian immigration, having been brought by enslaved West Africans, specifically from the Ewe, Fon, Mina, Kabaye, and Nago groups. Some of the more enduring forms survive in the Gullah Islands.

European colonialism, followed by totalitarian regimes in West Africa, suppressed Vodun as well as other forms of the religion. However, because the Vodun deities are born to each African clan-group, and its clergy is central to maintaining the moral, social, and political order and ancestral foundation of its villagers, it proved to be impossible to eradicate the religion.

The majority of the Africans who were brought as slaves to Haiti were from Western and Central Africa. The survival of the belief systems in the New World is remarkable, although the traditions have changed with time and have even taken on some Catholic forms of worship. Most of the enslaved people were prisoners of war. Some were probably priests of traditional religions, helping to transport their rites to the Americas. Among the enslaved West Africans brought to Hispaniola were probably also Muslims, although Islam exerted little influence on the formation of Vodou. West African slaves associated their traditional deities with saints from the Roman Catholic pantheon. Andrew Apter referred to this as a form of “collective appropriation” by enslaved Africans.

1685-1791: Vodou in colonial Saint-Domingue

Slave-owners were compelled to have their slaves baptised as Roman Catholics and then instructed in the religion; the fact that the process of enslavement led to these Africans becoming Christian was a key way in which the slave-owners sought to morally legitimate their actions. However, many slave-owners took little interest in having their slaves instructed in Roman Catholic teaching; they often did not want their slaves to spend time celebrating saints’ days rather than labouring and were also concerned that black congregations could provide scope to foment revolt.

Two keys provisions of the Code Noir by King Louis XIV of France in 1685 severely limited the ability of enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue to practice African religions. First, the Code Noir explicitly forbade the open practice of all African religions. Second, it forced all slaveholders to convert their slaves to Catholicism within eight days of their arrival in Saint-Domingue. Despite French efforts, enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue were able to cultivate their own religious practices. Enslaved Africans spent their Sunday and holiday nights expressing themselves. While bodily autonomy was strictly controlled during the day at night, the enslaved Africans wielded a degree of agency. They began to continue their religious practices but also used the time to cultivate community and reconnect the fragmented pieces of their various heritages. These late night reprieves were a form of resistance against white domination and also created community cohesion between people from vastly different ethnic groups. While Catholicism was used as a tool for suppression, enslaved Haitians, partly out of necessity, would go on to incorporate aspects of Christianity into their Vodou. Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, a French observer writing in 1797, noted this religious syncretism, commenting that the Catholic-style altars and votive candles used by Africans in Haiti were meant to conceal the Africanness of the religion, but the connection goes much further than that. Vodounists superimposed Catholic saints and figures onto the Iwa/Ioa, major spirits that work as agents of the Grand Met. Some examples of major Catholic idols re-imagined as Iwa are the Virgin Mary being seen as Ezili. Saint Jacques as Ogou, and Saint Patrick as Dambala. Vodou ceremonies and rituals also incorporated some Catholic elements such as the adoption of the Catholic calendar, the use of holy water in purification rituals, singing hymns, and the introduction of Latin loanwords into Vodou lexicon.

1791–1804: The Haitian Revolution

Vodou would be closely linked with the Haitian Revolution. Two of the revolution’s early leaders, Boukman and Makandd, were reputed to be powerful oungans. According to legend, it was on 14 August, 1791 that a Vodou ritual took place in Bois-Caïman where the participants swore to overthrow the slave owners. This is a popular tale in Haitian folklore, also has scant historical evidence to support it.

Vodou was a powerful political and cultural force in Haiti.The most historically iconic Vodou ceremony in Haitian history was the Bois Caïman ceremony of August 1791 that took place on the eve of a slave rebellion that predated the Haitian Revolution. During the ceremony 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. While there is debate on whether or not Bois Caiman was truly a Vodou ritual, the ceremony also served as a covert meeting to iron out details regarding the revolt. Vodou ceremonies often held a political secondary function that strengthened bonds between enslaved people while providing space for organizing within the community. Vodou thus gave slaves a way both a symbolic and physical space of subversion against their French masters.

Political leaders such as Boukman Dutty, a slave who helped plan the 1791 revolt, also served as religious leader, connecting Vodou spirituality with political action. Bois Caiman has often been cited as the start of the Haitian Revolution but the slave uprising had already been planned weeks in advance, proving that the thirst for freedom had always been present. The revolution would free the Haitian people from French colonial rule in 1804 and establish the first black people’s republic in the history of the world and the second independent nation in the Americas. Haitian nationalists have frequently drawn inspiration by imagining their ancestors’ gathering of unity and courage. Since the 1990s, some neo-evangelicals have interpreted the politico-religious ceremony at Bois Caïman to have been a pact with demons. This extremist view is not considered credible by mainstream Protestants, however conservatives such as Pat Robertson repeat the idea.

Vodou in 19th-century Haiti

On 1 January 1804 the former slave Jean-Jaqcues Dessalines (as Jacques I) declared the independence of St. Domingue as the First Black Empire; two years later, after his assassination, it became the Republic of Haiti. This was the second nation to gain independence from European rule (after the United States), and the only state to have arisen from the liberation of slaves. No nation recognized the new state, which was instead met with isolation and boycotts. This exclusion from the global market led to major economic difficulties for the new state.

Many of the leaders of the revolt disassociated themselves from Vodou. They strived to be accepted as Frenchmen and good Catholics rather than as free Haitians. Yet most practitioners of Vodou saw, and still see, no contradiction between Vodou and Catholicism, and also take part in Catholic masses.

The Revolution broke up the large land-ownings and created a society of small subsistence farmers. Haitians largely began living in lakous, or extended family compounds, and this enables the preservation of African-derived Creole religions. In 1805, the Roman Catholic Church left Haiti in protest at the Revolution, allowing Vodou to predominate in the country. Many churches were left abandoned by Roman Catholic congregations but were adopted for Vodou rites, continuing the sycretisation between the different systems. The Roman Catholic Church returned to Haiti in 1860.

In the Bizoton Affair of 1863, several Vodou practitioners were accused of ritually killing a child before eating it. Historical sources suggest that they may have been tortured prior to confessing to the crime, at which they were executed.  The affair received much attention.

20th century to the present

The U.S. occupation brought renewed international interest on Vodou. U.S. tourist interest in Vodou grew, resulting in some oungan and manbo putting on shows based on Vodou rituals to entertain holidaymakers, especially in Port au Prince. 1941 saw the launch of Operation Nettoyage (Operation Cleanup), a process backed by the Roman Catholic Church to expunge Vodou, resulting in the destruction of many ounfos and much ritual paraphernalia.

François Duvalier, the President of Haiti from 1957 to 1971, appropriated Vodou and utilised it for his own purposes. Duvalier’s administration helped Vodou rise to the role of national doctrine, calling it “the supreme factor of Haitian unity”. Under is government, regional networks of hongans doubled as the country’s chefs-de-sections (rural section chiefs). By bringing many Vodouists into his administration, Duvalier co-opted a potential source of opposition and used them against bourgeois discontent against him. After his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, was ousted from office in 1986, there were attacks on Vodou specialists who were perceived to have supported the Duvaliers, partly motivated by Protestant anti-Vodou campaigns. Two groups, the Zantray and Bode Nasyonal, were formed to defend the rights of Vodouizans to practice their religion. These groups held several rallies and demonstrations in Haiti.

In March 1987, a new Haitian constitution was introduced; Article 30 enshrined freedom of religion in the country. In 2003, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide granted Vodou official recognition, characterising it as an “essential constitutive element of national identity.” This allowed Vodou specialists to register to officiate at civil ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.

Since the 1990s, evangelical Protestantism has grown in Haiti, generating tensions with Vodouists; these Protestants regard Vodou as Satanic, and unlike the Roman Catholic authorities have generally refused to compromise with Vodouists. These Protestants have opened a range of medical clinics, schools, orphanages, and other facilities to assist Haiti’s poor, with those who join the Protestant churches typically abandoning their practice of Vodou. Protestant groups have focused on seeing to convert oungan and manbo in the hope that the impact filters through the population. The 2010 Haiti earthquake has also fuelled conversion from Vodou to Protestantism in Haiti. Many Protestants, including the U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson, argued that the earthquake was punishment for the sins of the Haitian population, including their practice of Vodou. Mob attacks on Vodou practitioners followed in the wake of the earthquake, and again in the wake of the 2010 cholera outbreak, during which several Vodou priests were lynched.

Haitian emigration began in 1957 as largely upper and middle-class Haitians fled Duvalier’s government, and intensified after 1971 when many poorer Haitians also tried to escape abroad. Many of these migrants took Vodou with them. In the U.S., Vodou has attracted non-Haitians, especially African Americans and migrants from other parts of the Caribbean region. There, Vodou has syncretized with other religious systems such as Santería and Espiritismo. In the U.S., those seeking to revive Louisiana Voodoo during the latter part of the 20th century initiated practices that brought the religion closer to Haitian Vodou or Santería that Louisiana Voodoo appears to have been early in that century. Related forms of Vodou exist in other countries in the forms of Dominican Vudú and Cuban Vodú.


Because of the religious syncretism between Catholicism and Vodou, it is difficult to estimate the number of Vodouists in Haiti. The CIA currently estimates that approximately 50% of Haiti’s population practices Vodou, with nearly all Vodouists participating in one of Haiti’s Christian denominations.

The majority of Haitians practice both Vodou and Roman Catholicism. An often used joke about Haiti holds that the island’s population is 85% Roman Catholic, 15% Protestant, and 100% Vodou. In the mid-twentieth century Métraux noted that Vodou was practiced by the majority of peasants and urban proletariat in Haiti. An estimated 80% of Haitians practice Vodou. Not all take part in the religion at all times, but many will turn to the assistance of Vodou priests and priestesses when in times of need.

Vodou does not focus on proselytizing. Individuals learn about the religion through their involvement in its rituals, either domestically or at the temple, rather than through special classes. Children learn how to take part in the religion largely from observing adults.

Major ounfo exist in U.S. cities such as Miami, New York City, Washington DC, and Boston.


Fernández Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert stated that Vodou was “the most maligned and misunderstood of all African-inspired religions in the Americas.” Ramsey thought that “arguably no religion has been subject to more maligning and misinterpretation from outsiders” during the 19th and 20th centuries,” while Donald Cosentino referred to Vodou as “the most fetishized (and consequently most maligned) religion in the world.” Its reputation has been described as being notorious; in broader Anglophone and Francophone society, Haitian Vodou has been widely associated with sorcery, witchcraft, and black magic. In U.S. popular culture, for instance, Haitian Vodou is usually portrayed as being destructive and malevolent.

The elites preferred to view it as folklore in an attempt to render it relatively harmless as a curiosity that might continue to inspire music and dance.

Non-practitioners of Vodou have often depicted the religion in literature, theater, and film. Humanity’s relationship with the lwa has been a recurring theme in Haitian art, and the Vodou pantheon was a major topic for the mid-twentieth century artists of what came to be known as the “Haitian Renaissance.” Exhibits of Vodou ritual material have been displayed at museums in the U.S, such as 1990s exhibit on “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou” at the Fowler Museum. Some ritual paraphernalia has been commodified for sale abroad. In the United States, theatre troupes have been established which stage simulated Vodou rituals for a broader, non-Vodou audience. Some of these have toured internationally, for instance performing in Tokyo, Japan. Documentary films focusing on elements of Vodou practice have also been produced, such as Anne Lescot and Laurence Magloire’s 2002 work Of Men and Gods.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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