Vodun, voudoun, or, more popularly, voodoo, means "spirit" in the language of the West African Yoruba people. Vodun as a religion is a mixture of African beliefs and rites that may go back as many as 6,000 years with the teachings, saints, and rituals of Roman Catholicism. Early slaves, who were snatched from their homes and families on Africa's West Coast, brought their gods and religious practices with them to Haiti and other West
The connotations of evil and fear that are associated with vodun originated primarily from the white plantation owners' obsession with the threat of slave revolts, for they and their overseers were outnumbered 16 to 1 by the field hands whom they worked unmercifully in the broiling Haitian sun. As the black population increased and the white demand for slave labor remained unceasing, vodun began to take on an anti-white liturgy. Several "messiahs" emerged among the slaves, who were subsequently put to death by the whites in the "big houses." A number of laws began to be passed forbidding any plantation owner to allow "night dances" among his Negroes.
In 1791, a slave revolt took place under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture (1743–1803) which was to lead to Haiti's independence from France in 1804. Although L'Ouverture died in a Napoleonic prison, his generals had become sufficiently inspired by his example to continue the struggle for freedom until the myth of white supremacy was banished from the island.
After the Concordat of 1860, when relations were once again reestablished with France, the priests who came to Haiti found the vestiges of Catholicism kept alive in vodun. The clergy fulminated against vodun from the pulpits but did not actively campaign against their rival priesthood until 1896 when an impatient monseigneur tried to organize an anti-vodun league without success. It wasn't until 1940 that the Catholic Church launched a violent campaign of renunciation directed at the adherents of vodun. The priests went about their methodic attack with such zeal that the government was forced to intercede and command them to temper the fires of their campaign.
Today there are more than 60 million people who practice vodun worldwide, largely where Haitian emigrants have settled in Benin, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Togo, various cities in the United States, and, of course, in Haiti. In South America, there are many religions similar to vodun, such as Umbanda, Quimbanda, or Candomble. A male priest of vodun is called a houngan or hungan; his female counterpart, a mambo. The place where one practices vodun is a series of buildings called a humfort or hounfou. A "congregation" is called a hunsi or hounsis, and the hungan cures, divines, and cares for them through the good graces of a loa, his guiding spirit.
The worship of the supernatural loa is the central purpose of vodun. They are the old gods of Africa, the local spirits of Haiti, who occupy a position to the fore of God, Christ, the Virgin, and the saints. From the beginning, the Haitians adamantly refused to accept the church's position that the loa are the "fallen angels" who rebelled against God. The loa do good and guide and protect humankind, the hungans argue. They, like the saints of Roman Catholicism, were once men and women who lived exemplary lives and who now are given a specific responsibility to assist human spirituality. Certainly there are those priests, the bokors, who perform acts of evil sorcery, the left-hand path of vodun, but rarely will a hungan resort to such practices.
The loa communicates with its faithful ones by possessing their bodies during a trance or by appearing to them in dreams. The possession usually takes place during ritual dancing in the humfort. Each participant eventually undergoes a personality change and adapts a trait of his or her particular loa. The adherents of vodun refer to this phenomenon of the invasion of the body by a supernatural agency as that of the loa mounting its "horse."
There is a great difference, the hungan maintains, between possession by a loa and possession by an evil spirit. An evil spirit would bring chaos to the dancing and perhaps great harm to the one possessed. The traditional dances of vodun are conducted on a serious plane with rhythm and suppleness but not with the orgiastic sensuality depicted in motion pictures about voodoo or in the displays performed for the tourist trade.
All vodun ceremonies must be climaxed with sacrifice to the loa. Chickens are most commonly offered to the loa, although the wealthy may offer a goat or a bull. The possessed usually drinks of the blood that is collected in a vessel, thereby satisfying the hunger of the loa. Other dancers may also partake of the blood, sometimes adding spices to the vital fluid. After the ceremony, the sacrificed animal is usually cooked and eaten.
The traditional belief structure of the Yoruba envisioned a chief god named Olorun, who remains aloof and unknowable to humankind, but who permitted a lesser deity, Obatala, to create the earth and all its life forms. There are hundreds of minor spirits whose influence may be invoked by humankind, such as Ayza, the protector; Baron Samedi, guardian of the grave; Dambala, the serpent; Ezli, the female spirit of love; Ogou Balanjo, spirit of healing; and Mawu Lisa, spirit of creation. Each follower of vodun has his or her own "met tet," a guardian spirit that corresponds to a Catholic's special saint.
Vodun has a supernatural entity that is unique among the practitioners of sorcery—the zombi, those dread creatures of the undead who prowl about at night doing the bidding of those magicians who follow the left-hand path. Vodun lore actually has two types of zombi: the undead and those who died by violence. A Haitian is most cautious in his or her approach to a cemetery for it is there that one is most likely to meet one of the unfortunate wraiths who died without time for proper ritual. For the Haitian peasant, zombies, the living dead, are to be feared as real instruments of hungan who have succumbed to the influence of evil and become sorcerers. The people of the villages believe that the sorcerer unearths a corpse and wafts under its nose a bottle containing its soul. Then, as if he were fanning a tiny spark of life in dry tinder, the sorcerer nurtures the spark of life in the corpse until he has fashioned a zombi. The deceased are often buried face downward by considerate relatives so the corpse cannot hear the call of the sorcerer. Some villagers take the precaution of providing their departed with a weapon, such as a machete, with which to ward off the evil hungan.
Haiti is filled with terrible tales of the zombi. There are eyewitness accounts from those who have allegedly discovered friends or relatives, supposedly long-dead, laboring in the field of some native sorcerer. Upon investigation, such zombi usually turn out to be mentally defective individuals who bear a strong resemblance to the deceased. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous hungan have been known to take advantage of mentally handicapped individuals and turn them into virtual beasts of burden. Then, too, it is quite likely that certain hungan have discovered the secret and utilization of many powerful jungle drugs. Modern science owes a heavy debt to native sorcery for some of its most effective painkillers and tranquilizers. It seems possible that a hungan who follows the left-hand path, seeking his own vengeance or that of another, could mix a powerful drug into the victim's food and induce a deep state of hypnotic lethargy in the person, transforming him or her into a blank-eyed, shuffling, obedient zombi.
There is also the matter of the voodoo doll and voodoo curses. Anthropologist Walter Cannon spent several years collecting examples of "voodoo death," instances in which men and women died as a result of being the recipient of a curse, an alleged supernatural visitation, or the breaking of some tribal or cultural taboo. The question that Cannon sought to answer was, "How can an ominous and persistent state of fear end the life of a human?"
Fear, one of the most powerful and deep-rooted of the emotions, has its effects mediated through the nervous system and the endocrine apparatus, the "sympathetic-adrenal system." Cannon has hypothesized that, "if these powerful emotions prevail and the bodily forces are fully mobilized for action, and if this state of extreme perturbation continues for an uncontrolled possession of the organism for a considerable period . . . dire results may ensue." Cannon has suggested, then, that "vodun death" may result from a state of shock due to a persistent and continuous outpouring of adrenalin and a depletion of the adrenal corticosteroid hormones. Such a constant agitation caused by an abiding sense of fear could consequently induce a fatal reduction in blood pressure. Cannon assessed voodoo death as a real phenomenon set in motion by "shocking emotional stress to obvious or repressed terror." Dr. J. C. Barker, in his collection of case histories of individuals who had willed others, or themselves, to death (Scared to Death ), saw voodoolike death as resulting, "purely from extreme fear and exhaustion…essentially a psychosomatic phenomenon."