Wednesday, September 19, 2012


I'm am about to describe the things I found out via the internet about a religion that is affiliated with a culture that I am not part of and know very little about. I understand this is the quickest way to accidently say something totally stupid/ignorant/offensive. As such, I feel the need to explain why I am interested in learning about voodoo before I do anything else.

Voodoo is something I've wanted to know more about for a very long time but only recently looked into.

It started in college when I took an education class (one of many) in order to get an endorsement to teach science. The class was called Science and Society and in this class we were tasked with picking apart various non-western traditions (astrology, acupuncture...ect) and exposing all the reasons why these things were "pseudo-science". It seemed to me that a large part of the class was applying our western values to various belief systems that none of us could really claim to know anything about. It also seemed to me that the whole attitude behind this class was congratulating ourselves on our superior, well-informed, western beliefs and scoffing at cultures that don't base their beliefs on the all-mighty, infallible, scientific method. It felt like supremacy to me. I didn't like it.

One of the texts from this class was called "Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud". I remember being annoyed at the title.

"That's someone's religion!" I said to my professor.

"Well, what would you call the book?" He asked.

"I don't know...Debunking Pseudoscience?"

"And then you'll never sell a book"

...And we moved on to talking about how people who believe in intelligent design aren't interested in facts or some other judgmental bullshit about other peoples' deep seated beliefs, as though ours are intrinsically better. It's the same kind of self righteousness that makes people think science and spirituality need to be pitted against each other instead of seen as allies on the mutual mission to explore our place in this universe.

I didn't do very well in this class because instead of turning in a paper ripping apart palm reading and going through the various ways the lines of your hand couldn't possibly mean anything to your personality or life, I turned in a research paper on palm reading. I had 6 people photo copy their hands for me and gave them personality tests and questionnaires about their life style. I examined the ways their palm features correlated or did not correlate with their personalities and lives. Even though my sample size was small, I did what I could to look for statistical significance. I made pie charts and histograms. I used peer reviewed resources from the British Journal of Medical Psychology and The Journal of Medical Science showing that schizophrenia has been shown to manifest itself in the hand. I tried to convey my feelings that perhaps the reason no one had ever done extensive research on this topic is because delving into non-western traditions is a career-ruiner in the science world. It makes you sound like a spooky, psuedo-scientific kook that no one wants to give grant money.

I put lots of work into it and wrote an awesome paper. But I got an F because according to my prof, I missed the point. I guess that's true, I didn't write about the ways palm reading is psuedo science. Maybe because I felt like the difference between science and pseudo science was extremely obvious to me and the whole assignment was insulting to my intelligence and I wanted to make a statement about my feelings on this class rather than do some busy work. I was a pain in the ass, what can I say? I'm pretty sure he didn't get it, though. He just thought I was kooky. I should be used to that by now, I suppose.

Anyway, this whole palm reading rant was just a chance for me to get on my soap box and a digression from the point: Voodoo. The use of the expression, "voodoo science" in lieu of "psuedo" or "fake" science got me thinking about the way we members of western culture, we offspring of the semitic religions, tend to view other belief systems. In my research on Voodoo, I found this syllabus from a college course on voodoo. I think it's pretty telling that right away the instructor felt the need to remind his students,

"First and foremost Voodoo is a religion. It is the dominant religion of Haiti. Many of the practices and descriptions of Voodoo belief may sound to us like rank superstition, but then, imagine the beliefs of Christianity to people who know nothing about it. Tell them about the trinity or the resurrection, or the presence of Jesus in the eucharist. Any of these practices which very intelligent Christians believe in the fullest would seem no less superstitious to someone unfamiliar with Christianity.
Thus I urge you to recognize that Voodoo is Haiti's religion, it is taken very seriously not merely by unlettered peasants, but many intelligent and learned members of the Haitian society believe as sincerely in Voodoo as do German theology professors in their Christianity. In no way do I expect you to believe in Voodoo; no more than I would expect you to convert to Islam if I taught a course on that religion. But, please do recognize that it is every bit as real a religion as the major religions of the world."

 Voodoo is particularly interesting because not only are westerners usually ignorant about it and consider it frivolous superstition...lots of them are actually afraid of it! Something people know nothing about and also fear? What better thing to nerd out on?

Mainly, I would like it to make it clear that in learning about Voodoo, I am coming from a place of respect and fascination.

So here we go! Voodoo!

It's a syncretic religion, which is a word I just learned. That means it's a combination of various belief systems and schools of thought. Voodoo is a combination of the African religion, Vodun, and Catholicism.

A relatively young religion, Voodoo started up in Haiti in the late 1600's/early 1700's when the French established an agricultural colony on the island. The success of this colony was completely driven by slave labor. In order to preserve their culture, the African slaves practiced their religion under the guise of practicing Catholicism. To this day, Voodoo is pretty much only practiced in Haiti and places where there are a large density of Haitian immigrants (like Louisiana).

Voodoo's main god is named Bondyé. Bondyé is far beyond human understanding and doesn't interact with humans or get involved in human affairs. In order to interact with the spiritual realm, Voodooist invite spirits, which they call lwa or loa, to possess them. These loa are the conduits between the physical and spiritual world.

The way Voodooists view spiritual possession seems to be very different than the way people from my cultural background view it. It's not like Regan from "The Exorcist" at all. In fact, Voodooists don't even use a word that translates to possession or ownership over someone's body. They use a word that translates to "ride" or "mount". A loa will "ride" a human body after being invited to do so in community ceremony where everyone participates. It is in this way that the spiritual world can transmit messages to the community.

 This guy has some cool stuff to say about spiritual possession in Voodoo. He talks about spiritual possession as letting your unconscious mind take over, not so much letting something else enter you. We should be wary of listening to any one person's relationship with Voodoo and using that to generalize, however. Voodoo is a tradition passed down orally, which allows for lots of individualism and the potential for the practice to vary widely from one person to the next. No matter how you slice it though, spiritual possession in Voodoo is seen as positive and necessary as opposed to evil and scary. Furthermore, it's something that well practiced Voodooists have complete control over.

The loa that ride community members during the ceremony are associated with Catholic saints. This was a necessary guise during the slave days. To evoke a certain loa, a symbol is drawn on the ground with sand, cornmeal, or other powdery substance. Each loa has their own symbol, called veves. They are usually really cool looking like a tattoo Bjork would get. Here are two of my favorites:
This is the veve for a loa known as Gran Bwa or Gran Bois, which means great woods or big tree. He's the kind hearted master of the wilderness and he's associated with the Catholic Saint Sebastian who was tied to a tree and shot with arrows. 

This is the veve for the loa known as Oguon, the loa credited for getting the Haitian slaves all riled up for the revolution. Oguon is associated with St. James. Maybe because James was killed with a sword and Oguon is usually pictured holding a machete. (That's just me hypothesizing) 

Gran Bwa is the master of the forests of vilokan, the Voodoo spirit realm. Vilokan is described as a forested and submerged island.
This is kind of how I imagine it. What a beautiful heaven!
Voodoo has a strong connection with nature and a special relationship with the mapou tree, which is used as a central part of their holiest ceremonies.
I'm pretty sure the movie Avatar drew lots of inspiration from Voodooism and Haitian history.
The mapou tree is seen as a connection between the physical and spiritual world and is used as a temple of sorts.

With such a close relationship to the spiritual realm and the dead, Voodooists know they have the power to use spirits for both positive and negative magic. They are dissuaded from negative magic by a deep concern for the well being of their ancestors. The Haitian Vodou Handbook by Kenaz Filan states, "Taking spirits who were violent in life and using them as attack dogs will only hinder their enlightenment. Instead of helping those spirits grow and to conquer their problems, you will be encouraging them to wallow in their weakness and become more, not less, flawed."

For some reason, Voodoo has become associated with devil worship for some. This certainly is the attitude of the Christian missionaries that were interviewed in Real Voodoo, a short film. This is obviously flawed logic because Voodooists don't even believe in the devil...why would they worship him?

Maybe it makes certain Christians more comfortable to describe any sort of spirituality they don't understand as devil worship. We've seen Christians associate pagan beliefs with the devil again and again throughout Christianity's historical conquest to convert everyone in the world. The very image of the devil with his goat lower half was based off pagan god Pan in attempts to scare people away from nature worship.

For a good description of Pan, read Tom Robbins' book Jitter Bug Perfume 

 Even though Christians have a long history of pointing fingers and yelling "Devil!", I think some of the main reasons Voodoo became associated with the devil are political.

To understand the evolution of Voodoo and the stereotypes that come with it, it's becomes very important to understand the history of Haiti.

During the European colonization of the Americas, the French got a hold of the western part of Hispañola, the island that the Haiti and the Dominican Republic share.

The French were successful at growing tobacco, sugar, indigo, and coffee but not so successful at enslaving the natives to do their work for them. To sustain their labor-driven society, the French started importing slaves from West Africa, the area that is now Benin. By the late 1700s, Haiti (then known as Saint Domingue) was the most profitable of all French colonies and known for being one of the most "brutally efficient" slave holding societies. They followed the code noir (the black code) which was a document written by the French government that basically instructed the colonists to treat the Africans worse than the most soulless person would ever treat a dog. Seriously, read that shit. It's disgusting.

So brutal were conditions for slaves, that many died within a few years of being imported. Many African mothers were suspected of abortions and infanticide to prevent their babies from growing up in slavery.

In Benin the Africans had practiced Vodun. This evolved into Voodoo in Haiti due to the code noir's strict policies on Catholicism being the only religion practiced by anyone. Code noir also had strict rules about slaves gathering. However, since black slaves out numbered their white masters 10 to 1...this may have been hard to keep track of and enforce. This gave the slaves opportunity to gather and practice Voodoo.

Probably the most famous Voodoo gathering was named Bois Caiman and happened on August 22nd, 1791. During this ceremony, the slaves discussed their resentment of the conditions forced upon them and evoked Oguon (pictured above) who is credited with planting the seeds of revolution in their souls. That night, the slaves revolted. They killed all the whites they met and set fire to the plantations. This was at the same time as the French Revolution so the French government really didn't have their shit together enough to defend the colony. On top of that, Haiti's slave revolt and successive cry for independence made the new leadership of France ask themselves, "how strong ARE our convictions?  I mean, if poor people in France get rights...why don't black people in Haiti?"

All of these factors combined made Haiti the first and only state to ever be formed from a slave rebellion. In addition, Haiti and The United States were the only two countries in America to become sovereign nations before the 1900's. Not bad, Haiti.

With the onset of the revolution and Haiti's successive independence, the remaining white plantation owners and the slaves they were able to retain fled to Louisiana. As a result of this exodus, the population of New Orleans doubled.

The French, undoubtably bitter at getting their asses handed to them for being total dicks, starting spreading propaganda about the evil Haitians and their worship of the devil. Regardless, Haiti was left alone for a couple hundred years. That is, until 1915 when US president Woodrow Wilson got all bent out of shape because Germans were moving to Haiti and were pretty good at mingling with the Haitians. The Germans had been more successful than any other Europeans at marrying into Haitian families and becoming land owners. At the time, Haiti had a law that said foreigners could not own land. US troops were sent to Haiti to "protect US interests". The entire point was to change the law so that foreigners could own land and Americans could profit from Haiti's rich farmland instead of the Haitians.

US troops occupied Haiti for 19 years. During this time, Haitians were pretty much enslaved again. The National Guard ruled Haiti with a violent regime and the Haitians were left with no choice but to support themselves doing back breaking labor building roads for the US military.

Why did the US get away with this? I'll bet that it was because of erroneous propaganda that made Haiti out to be a nation of devil worshippers. A Christian nation like the US is probably not going to feel all that bad about taking away the rights and sovereignty of a nation they deem evil.

For such a community-based religion, Voodoo sure has had to overcome a lot of hatred and ignorance. It wasn't until 2003 that Voodoo was even declared an official religion within Haiti.

Along with healing the wounds of oppression and slavery, the catastrophic earthquake that occurred in Haiti in 2010 has made lots of work for Haitians in rebuilding their nation. I hope that Haitians can turn to their culture and spirituality as a means of empowering themselves and defining their own destiny.

As a closer, watch this interview with La Belle Deesse, Voodoo priestess.

"Voodoo teaches us how to love one another, be there for one another and never let each other down. Don't betray your sisters and brothers. If they have a problem you stand by their side and fight till the end."

1 comment:

  1. As always, a very thought-provoking and interesting read. Well done, Val!