Voodoo (also spelled Vodou and Vodun) gave Haiti a reputation for sorcery and zombies. Voodoo-worship was brought from Africa by slaves and is still flourishing in Haiti and other West Indian islands. Not very long ago, it was still to be found in the Southern United States, but now as a faith it is practically dead. It has left, however, many superstitions that are to this day current. Voodooism consists in a practice of malicious, defensive, amatory, healing, or soothsaying enchantments, charms, witchcrafts or secret rites, tinctured with African superstitions and customs.
Voodoo has always been Haiti's most important religious tradition. Throughout the country, the most influential figures at the community level were the thousands of houngans, voodoo priests, and mambos, their female equivalents. Papa Doc Duvalier entrenched his political control in the 1950s and 1960s by securing the support of this local elite -- in part by offering them the privileged power of the Tontons Macoutes, and by projecting himself as the top houngan. To personalize his spiritual mastery of Haiti, Papa Doc appeared in public in a black, long tailed suit and top hat or bowler that Haitians identify with Baron Samedi [Baron Saturday], the incarnation of the powerful loa [voodoo spirit] that is the guardian of the graveyard in the voodoo belief system. Similarly, Macoutes would routinely wear sunglasses -- even at night -- in order to affect a frightening, "zombie-like" demeanor.
The people of the West Indies, whose grand-parents were from nearly every tribe living on or near the west coast of Africa, have inherited an almost unvarying belief in many things comprehended under the titles of "Obeah" (or Wanga) and "Voodoo" (or T'changa). Writers who mention the subject generally refer to Obeah and Voodoo as one and the same thing; but as cults they are perfectly separate and distinct. The Obeah means killing, and wanga means incantation or spell and represents the tribal system of single magic of the Popo, Koromantyn, Eboe, and other tribes. The Voudoo cult is the dual magical system of the Arada, Yuruba, and Dahomean tribes, and can only be performed by a priest and priestess together, and in presence of the sacred snake, the totem or fetish of the sect.
The Voudoo-T'changa, whose sacred color is yellow and white, has a totem snake of a harmless variety, to which are offered only ripe fruits, milk, and the blood of pure white cocks and spotless white goats. The Vidu has red for the sacred color, and the snake is the poisonous green Vidu or Mamba, to which are devoted the blood of black cocks and black goats, as well as other things mostly of that color [and, it is said, on great occasions, the "flesh and blood of the goat without horns" (the human victim)].
The vaudouxism of the French colonies had been magnified by attributing to it the imaginary doings of the French vaudois - the supposed cannibalistic witches whom every French peasant, white or black, thoroughly believed in. The superstition of the terrible doings of the vaudois was as firmly embedded in the folk-lore of the French peasant's mind as the modern's belief in the rotation of the earth,
As long as Voodoo was merely the name for rites of cannibalism, of kidnapping infants, poisoning adults, exhuming and reviving supposedly dead bodies and casting strange spells upon too inquisitive investigators - as long as Voodoo meant this it seemed to be among the unbelievable things, a sort of evil folklore. In the late 19th Century, quite apart from the Voodoo sacrifices, there had come to light many reports in Haiti where human flesh was eaten as a delicacy without that symbolical fetichism which accompanies cannibalism in all except the very lowest savage tribes.
Whether, excepting the slaves who were Mondongues, there was any cannibalism practised is a question to which the answer may well be in doubt. But at any rate, the secret Voodoo cult bound the slaves together in an organization of their own. It was this Voodoo tie which helped the slaves in keeping up their courage and retaining enough manhood to beat their white masters eventually. If a harmless fetich worship did this, or contributed in a measure to it, then Voodoo in its undefined form achieved something; for the treatment to which the Haitian slaves were subjected was calculated to break the spirit. We read of colonial French masters who punished their slaves by the cutting off of ears and other mutilations.
In the 19th Century every book of West Indian travels told of this subject, picturing the terrible doings of the obi-men, their influence over the ignorant peasants, and the deadly fear they create among the white planters. Some even went so far as to tell of horrible cannibalistic sacrifices and orgies which defy the most vivid imagination to describe. One who read St. John's book, "Hayti; or, The Black Republic," would be filled with horror at the tales of cannibalism and savagery it recounted, and shudder at the thought of such deeds. Yet the writer of this book committed the common mistake of adding to the actual facts of the African obi rites the imaginary French witch-lore known as vaudoux (voodoo).
African witchcraft went under many names. In the English colonies it is known as obiism, in Haiti and the French colonies as vaudouxism, in Louisiana as voodooism, and in the other Southern States of English settlement as conjure. The first and chief factor of this savage belief is the witch-doctor or obi-man- the voodoo-doctor of Louisiana and the conjure-doctor of the South.
The American conjure-doctors, like those of the West Indies, carried bags to hold their charms, consisting of lizards' claws, dried rats, human bones, and other gruesome objects. The Selma (Alabama) "Times" of May, 1884, described one of the bags picked up in Broad Street of that city, which contained a rabbit's foot, a piece of dried "coon-root," some other roots, and particles of parched tobacco. The rabbit's foot, perhaps, possesses more powers of sorcery than any other instrument in use among the black doctors of the South, being an especial charm against evil, particularly "if it is a left hind foot from an animal caught in a country graveyard on a cloudy night in the new of the moon." The rabbit's foot soon pervaded white society. Base-ball players and sporting men generally carried one; and, mounted in silver, they were displayed in the shops of great cities. Even statesmen could be seen wearing these as watch-charms in Washington. The Philadelphia "Evening Telegram" of August 7,1884, noted that the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit had been presented to Grover Cleveland as a talisman in the campaign.
The voodoo-doctor's power lies in the influence of his presence upon simple-minded folk, and the faith he creates in the potency of his charms and actions. He is usually a venerable man of hideous mien, who goes about pretending to practise spells and charms, and selling a few simple herb remedies. He is undoubtedly a survival of the medicine-man found in every tribe in Africa, and exercises a great power for good or evil through his hypnotic powers. He may or may not possess a knowledge of a few simple vegetable poisons, as alleged. In exceptional cases he may cause ignorant servants to administer poison or slow deranging drugs to their masters from motives of vengeance. All the whites of the West Indies believed that they did so, and weird stories were told of planters who had thus sickened and died.
These popular images of voodoo ignored the religion's basis as a domestic cult of family spirits. Adherents of voodoo do not perceive themselves as members of a separate religion; many consider themselves Roman Catholics. In fact, the word for voodoo does not even exist in rural Haiti. The Creole word vodoun refers to a kind of dance and in some areas to a category of spirits. Roman Catholics who are active voodooists say that they "serve the spirits," but they do not consider that practice as something outside of Roman Catholicism. Haitians also distinguish between the service of family spirits and the practice of magic and sorcery.
The belief system of voodoo revolves around family spirits (often called loua or mistè) who are inherited through maternal and paternal lines. Loua protect their "children" from misfortune. In return, families must "feed" the loua through periodic rituals in which food, drink, and other gifts are offered to the spirits. There are two kinds of services for the loua. The first is held once a year; the second is conducted much less frequently, usually only once a generation. Many poor families, however, wait until they feel a need to restore their relationship with their spirits before they conduct a service. Services are usually held at a sanctuary on family land.
In voodoo, there are many loua. Although there is considerable variation among families and regions, there are generally two groups of loua, the rada and the petro. The rada spirits are mostly seen as "sweet" loua, while the petro are seen as "bitter" because they are more demanding of their "children." Rada spirits appear to be of African origin while petro spirits appear to be of Haitian origin.
Loua are usually anthropomorphic and have distinct identities. They can be good, evil, capricious, or demanding. Loua most commonly show their displeasure by making people sick, and so voodoo is used to diagnose and treat illnesses. Loua are not nature spirits, and they do not make crops grow or bring rain. The loua of one family have no claim over members of other families, and they cannot protect or harm them. Voodooists are therefore not interested in the loua of other families.
Loua appear to family members in dreams and, more dramatically, through trances. Many Haitians believe that loua are capable of temporarily taking over the bodies of their "children." Men and women enter trances during which they assume the traits of particular loua. People in a trance feel giddy and usually remember nothing after they return to a normal state of consciousness. Voodooists say that the spirit temporarily replaces the human personality. Possession trances occur usually during rituals such as services for loua or a vodoun dance in honor of the loua. When loua appear to entranced people, they may bring warnings or explanations for the causes of illnesses or misfortune. Loua often engage the crowd around them through flirtation, jokes, or accusations.
Ancestors (le mò) rank with the family loua as the most important spiritual entities in voodoo. Elaborate funeral and mourning rites reflect the important role of the dead. Ornate tombs throughout the countryside reveal how much attention Haiti gives to its dead. Voodooists believe the dead are capable of forcing their survivors to construct tombs and sell land. In these cases, the dead act like family loua, which "hold" family members to make them ill or bring other misfortune. The dead also appear in dreams to provide their survivors with advice or warnings.
Voodooists also believe there are loua that can be paid to bring good fortune or protection from evil. And, they believe that souls can be paid to attack enemies by making them ill. Folk belief includes zombies and witchcraft. Zombies are either spirits or people whose souls have been partially withdrawn from their bodies. Some Haitians resort to bokò, who are specialists in sorcery and magic. Haiti has several secret societies whose members practice sorcery.
Voodoo specialists, male houngan and female manbo, mediate between humans and spirits through divination and trance. They diagnose illnesses and reveal the origins of other misfortune. They can also perform rituals to appease spirits or ancestors or to repel magic. Many voodoo specialists are accomplished herbalists who treat a variety of illnesses.
Voodoo lacks a fixed theology and an organized hierarchy, unlike Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Each specialist develops his or her own reputation for helping people.
François Duvalier recruited voodoo specialists to serve as tonton makouts to help him control all aspects of Haitian life. Duvalier indicated that he retained power through sorcery, but because voodoo is essentially a family-based cult, Duvalier failed to politicize the religion to any great extent.
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