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The ceremony begins with a Roman Catholic prayer. Then three drummers begin to play syncopated rhythms. The attendees begin to dance around a tree in the center of the yard, moving faster and harder with the rising pulse of the beat. The priest draws sacred symbols in the dust with cornmeal, and rum is poured on the ground to honor the spirits.

One woman falls to the ground, convulsing for a moment before she is helped back to her feet. She resumes the dance, moving differently now, and continues dancing for hours. It is perhaps no longer she who is dancing: She is in a trance, apparently possessed by Erzuli, the great mother spirit.

It is an honor to be entered and "ridden" by a Loa, or spirit. In Haiti these rituals are commonplace: Voodoo is the dominant religion.

"One common saying is that Haitians are 70 percent Catholic, 30 percent Protestant, and 100 percent voodoo," said Lynne Warberg, a photographer who has documented Haitian voodoo for over a decade.

In April 2003 an executive decree by then president Jean-Bertrand Aristide sanctioned voodoo as an officially recognized religion.

"It is a religion in the same way Judaism or Christianity is," said Bob Corbett, professor emeritus of philosophy at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. "Voodoo doesn't have a sacred text, a church, or a hierarchical structure of leaders, but it is very similar culturally."

Ancient Traditions

Voodoo, meaning "spirit," may be one of the world's oldest ancestral, nature-honoring traditions, according to Mamaissii Vivian Dansi Hounon, a member of OATH, the Organization of African Traditional Healers in Martinez, Georgia.

Some anthropologists estimate that voodoo's roots in Benin—formerly Dahomey—West Africa may go back 6,000 years. Today an estimated 60 million people practice voodoo worldwide.

At a voodoo ceremony, believers gather outdoors to make contact with the Loa, any of a pantheon of spirits who have various functions running the universe, much like Greek gods. There is also a responsibility to care for beloved and deified family spirits and to honor a chief god, Bondieu.

Messages From the Spirits

During the ceremony, the houngan or mambo—priest or priestess—sacrifices a sanctified chicken or other animal to the Loa. Participants then ask the spirits for advice or help with problems. More than half the requests are for health.

It is said that the Loa sometimes communicate prophecies, advice, or warnings while the believer is possessed. Other messages are sent through the priest or priestess, or sometimes come later in dreams.

These disembodied spirits are believed to become tired and worn down—and rely on humans to "feed" them in periodic rituals, including sacrifices. "It's not the killing of the animals that matters," Corbett said. "It's the transfer of life energy back to the Loa."

Each of the spirits has a distinct identity. Some are loving and good, while others are capricious or demanding. Haitians believe that the Loa most often express their displeasure by making people sick.

Black Magic?

In the West voodoo has been portrayed in zombie movies and popular books as dark and evil, a cult of devil worship dominated by black magic, human sacrifice, and pin-stuck voodoo dolls—none of which exist in the voodoo practices that originated in Benin.

In Haiti voodoo began as an underground activity. During the 1700s thousands of West African slaves were shipped to Haiti to work on French plantations.

The slaves were baptized as Roman Catholics upon their arrival in the West Indies. Their traditional African religious practices were viewed as a threat to the colonial system and were forbidden. Practitioners were imprisoned, whipped, or hung.

But the slaves continued to practice in secret while attending masses. What emerged was a religion that the colonialists thought was Catholicism—but they were outfoxed.

Hybrid Rituals

It was easy to meld the two faiths, because there are many similarities between Roman Catholicism and voodoo, Corbett said. Both venerate a supreme being and believe in the existence of invisible evil spirits or demons and in an afterlife.

Each religion also focuses its ceremonies around a center point—an altar in Catholicism, a pole or tree in voodoo. Their services include symbolic or actual rituals of sacrifice and consumption of flesh and blood, Corbett noted.

Many of the Loa resemble Christian saints, endowed with similar responsibilities or attributes. For example, Legba, an old man, is said to open the gates between Earth and the world of the Loa, much like St. Peter traditionally throws wide the gates to heaven.

But there are differences. Westerners tend to believe in free will and personal choice. Not so in voodoo.

"The Haitian people have a view of the world that is unimaginably different from ours," Corbett said. The Loa are believed to determine our lives to an astonishing degree, he explains, and they are always present in great numbers: There might be two people in a room, but there are also 20 Loa.

"Our view is dominated by physical, touchable reality. In Haiti the spirits are as real as your wife or your dog," Corbett said.

Like any other religious practice, voodoo brings great benefits, explains Warberg, the photographer. "Participation in voodoo ritual reaffirms one's relationships with ancestors, personal history, community relationships—and the cosmos. Voodoo is a way of life," she said.

See Also:
  • Top/Regional/Caribbean/Haiti/Society and Culture/Religion
  • Afrocentric Experience: Origins of Voodoo - Voodoo is a derivative of the world's oldest known religions which have been around in Africa since the beginning of human civilization. Some estimate these civilizations and religions to be over 10,000 years old. This page is part of the large and multif
  • An Introduction to Vodou - a Traditional African Religion - "Guide" to Vodou as practiced in West Africa, Haiti, and Louisiana, USA.
  • Ancestors in Haitian Vodou by Mambo Racine Sans But - Essay on respect for ancestors in Vodou, with information on the ceremony of "desounin" and related beliefs and practices.
  • Authentic Voodoo: Queen Mother Bishop's Spiritual Products - FAQ page for this online botanica. Answers to questions such as "What is prayer and how do we use it?" and "Is New Orleans Voodoo the same as Haitian or Dominican Vodou?"
  • Calling on the Gods: the Embodied Aesthetic of Haitian Vodou - Academic essay, with many photo illustrations, discussing the art and visuals of Vodou in Haiti.
  • Carrefour - Discussion group, mainly about Haitian Vodou, but sometimes covering African Vodun and New Orleans Voodoo as well. "Seekers, syncretists, mambos, houngans, longtime practitioners, and those who love us are all welcome!" Public message archives;
  • CityLore Magazine - The Gods Speak English in New York - Subtitled "Haitian Spirits Adjust to Urban Life". Article by Lois Wilcken about Haitian-American Vodouisants in New York City. Black and white photos.
  • Dahomean Vodoun - The world's oldest Vodoun tradition alive in the diaspora.
  • Gede.org - Small but well-designed site which features pages of information about some of the major Vodou lwa, and also reviews of books about Vodou.
  • Haitian Vodou: Serving the Spirits - Description of the Haitian Vodou tradition, including history, core beliefs, role of clergy, standards of conduct and ways of worship. Also full-color graphics.
  • Haitian Vodoun Culture - Excerpts from the encyclopedic work on Haitian Vodoun compiled by Estelle Manuel. Vevers, langaj, samples of drum rhythms, and a catalogue of over 2000 songs.
  • New Orleans Cemetery & Voodoo Pages - Information on New Orleans Voodoo, with lots of original photos of New Orleans historic cemeteries. Includes extensive references with commentary and links to other New Orleans web sites.
  • New Orleans Mistic -- Magical Primer - FAQ page for this "Spiritual Supplier and Botanica for the African Diaspora, Latin American and Caribbean Religious traditions", based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Gives answers to questions such as, "What is Voodoo?", "How do I kno
  • New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple Homepage - Website of "New Orleans Voodoo" temple, run by Priestess Miriam Chamani. This temple is influenced by African-American Spiritualism, and Belizean Obeah, as well as by Haitian Vodou.
  • Ozzie's Dominican Voodoun - Voodun in the Dominican Republic / Voodun en La Republica Dominicana
  • Profile of a Belief System -- Vodoun - Introduction to Haitian Vodoun and New Orleans Voodoo by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance and the editors of the e-zine PorchNus.
  • Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou - "Online companion" to the exhibit hosted by the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, from October 1998 to January 1999. Dozens of full-color images.
  • Scully Elly's Voodoo Joint - "New Orleans Voodoo" botanica run by a hounsi kanzo (initiated in Haiti). Wide assortment of books, music, ritual supplies, and art. This link takes one directly to the "What is Voodoo" FAQ, rather than the store entrance.
  • TRADITIONAL RELIGION IN AFRICA: The Vodun phenomenon in Benin - Academic essay on Vodun practices of the Fon, Gun, Mina and Ewe peoples of South Benin.
  • Temple of Yehwe Home Page - Website for the Vodou temple, which is located in Washington D.C., and is an offshoot of Le Peristyle de Mariani, founded in 1974 in Mariani, Haiti, by Max-G. Beauvoir. Site includes much information about Caribbean herbology, as well as upcoming events a
  • The Integration of Roman Catholicism Into Vodou In Haiti - Hunter College student paper discussing the interaction between Catholicism and Vodou in Haiti, from colonial times to the present.
  • The New Orleans Voodoo Foundation - Excellent educational resource about New Orleans Voodoo. Contains an extensive Voodoo Glossary,Vever Drawings, FAQ page, and a free service in which email questions are answered by Authentic practitioners.
  • The Quick and the Dead -- The Souls of Man in Vodou Thought - Essay by Richard Hodges on the Vodou concept of "soul." Vodou recognizes three spiritual components which together with the physical body make up a man: the ti-bonanj (petit bon ange) "little angel," gwo-bonanj (gros bon ange) "bi
  • The Vodou Page - Articles by Mambo Racine Sans Bout, a legitimately initiated and ordained priestess of Haitian Vodou.
  • The traditional religion of Vodun (Voodoo) in Haiti - Collection of scholarly and informative documents, by various authors, on the history and practice of Vodun (Voodoo) in Haiti; part of an even larger site on Haitian history in general.
  • TravelingHaiti.com - Voodoo in Haiti. An look at the history of voodoo and its profound impact on this island nation. Also maps, photos, and a Creole dictionary.
  • Vodou - History & Gods - "Sosyete de Marche, a Vodou society". Calendar of Vodou holidays in Haiti; articles; descriptions of a number of lwa; color photographs and images.
  • Vodou Spirit: Casa Alta Gracia and Vodou Society in New Orleans - Homepage for Casa Alta Gracia, a house of Vodou headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana. Content of the site includes articles on contemporary Vodou practice in the US, links, annotated reading lists and descriptions of Vodou services.
  • Vodou, voodoo, and western cultural anxieties - Academic article by John Cussans about the misrepresentations of Vodou in the Western media. Originally presented as a lecture at the October Gallery, London, in fall 2000.
  • Vodou_Arts - Open (but moderated) discussion list to "to actively provide training in Vodou and to encourage the practice of Vodou religion and related magic."
  • Vodoun ("Voodoo") - Brief description of Vodoun as practiced in Benin, by a student of Martine de Souza [Research Manager of The Historic Museum of Ouidah, Benin]. Page also includes photos and artwork.
  • Vodun (a.k.a. Voodoo) and Related Religions - Historical and practical information on Vodoun, its panteon, and its rituals, from religioustolerance.org
  • Voodoo - Website of Jean Kent, a Haitian houngan living in Florida.
  • Voodoo - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - Article about the religion and practice of Voodoo [by whatever spelling] on the Web's free and open-edited encyclopedia.
  • Voodoo Information at Baton Rouge Net - Short, factual, well-illustrated introductory essay on Voodoo in the Caribbean and Louisiana, with a focus on Marie Laveau.
  • Voodoo Lives on in West Africa - Article about Vodoun in Ouidah, Benin. Also discusses the religion's ties to Haitian Vodou and other Afro-Caribbean traditions.
  • Voodoos and Obeahs - Phases of West India Witchcraft - By Joseph J. Williams (1932), e-text from the Internet Sacred Text Archive.
  • Windows on Haiti: Wisdom and Beauty in Haitian Vodou - Essay by Dr. Marie-Jose Alcide Saint-Lot, a scholar of Haitian popular culture with graduate degrees from Brooklyn College and CUNY. This paper first presented at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
  • arealvoodooclub - Forum ["club"] for discussion on both Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo. Open membership, public archives.
  • tristatevodou - Discussion group "dedicated to the practice of (Haitian) Vodou in the NY/NJ/CT Tristate Area. All servants of God, Gineh and the Lwa, as well as those who would like to learn more about the religion, are welcome." Open membership.