Inside Haitian Vodou

The Haitian Vodou religion is well-known for its dramatic ritual; the personal mysticism of Vodou, however, is rarely described.

An African mask

Haitian Vodou developed from a combination of African religions and Catholicism.

Photo by Fotolia/abunadir

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While there have been many works focusing on the outward manifestations of Vodou observance — hypnotic drumming and chanting, frenetic dancing and fits of spirit possession — Nan Dòmi (City Lights Books, 2013) by Mimerose Beaubrun is different. Beaubrun focuses on the internal, mystical dimension of Haitian Vodou, offering an insider’s account of its mysteries. The following excerpt comes from the preface, contributed by Madison Smartt Bell.

Since Europe (and later the United States) first became acquainted with it, Haitian Vodou has been known and popularized only through its darkest, most sinister side. The misperception is very severe; it is as if one were to promulgate a definition of Christianity based entirely on a description of Satanism. Like so many false images of its kind, this spooky picture of Vodou is based on incomprehension and fear.

The spectacular outward manifestations of Vodou observance—hypnotic drumming and chanting, which drive frenetic dancing, which itself is likely (and intended) to culminate in violent-seeming fits of spirit possession—are off-putting to the European mind and its descendants. Since Europe first began to penetrate Africa, white explorers and reporters have described such scenes under the rubric of “savage rites”—spiced with hints or outright accusations of cannibalism, the latter seldom justified by any facts whatsoever. It is a very common human habit to take alarm at anything which seems alien, and then, using rules of spiritual polarization that are by no means unique to Christianity, repel it by defining it as diabolical.

And, to be sure, these diabolical definitions have always had their political motives. The ideology of conquest and colonialism requires that the conquered and colonized be depicted as unenlightened and uncivilized and, if possible, even somewhat less than human. To justify the slave trade it is helpful to see those who are to be enslaved as unfortunate heathens in desperate need of redemption by a militant Christianity, equipped with whips and chains. For centuries, Europe used these rhetorical devices to put itself at a safe distance from Africa. Therefore, whenever a blanc (in Haitian nomenclature all non-Haitians are defined as blanc, whatever the color of their skin) encounters Vodou for the first time, the psychological reflexes of his reaction are already in place . . . and have been there for centuries. We have been well instructed to fear the strange. And yet, if Vodou is disturbing to the European mind, that is partly because, after all, it is not so strange. The tremor that Vodou makes us feel down in the older deeper roots of our brain is a pulse of atavistic memory—a response to ancient, original religious impulses which are better called “primary” than “primitive.” So when the misik rasin group Boukan Ginen sings

Lafrik, Lafrik maman nou
Lafrik, Lafrik papa nou
Lafrika, se ou ki wa….
(Africa, Africa is our mother
Africa, Africa is our father
Africa it’s you who are king….)

they are singing to those of us of European descent as much as to themselves. Lafrik se lakay tou nèg. In Haitian parlance, nèg means not “black” but “human being”; the “blanc” is distanced as a potentially monstrous alien. Since all humankind originally evolved out of Africa, then inevitably, Africa is the home of all human beings.

The Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas, who was among many other things a sort of ur–liberation theologian, was not alone in suggesting that Africans be transported to Hispaniola, to replace the native Taino people whom the conquistadors had almost completely exterminated by slave labor. Las Casas had seen a population of over a million Taino reduced—in a mere thirty years—to less than ten thousand. He was wrong to hope that the substitution of Africans for Indians might save the remnant of the latter, who after all did not survive. But his disappointed hope helped turn the trickle of African slaves toward the New World into a flood.

Today’s Haiti, the western third of the island of Hispaniola, was ceded by Spain to France in the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. French Saint Domingue, as the colony was known, soon became the most important producer of sugar and coffee in the whole Western Hemisphere—France’s richest overseas possession by far. The wealth was created by African slaves; when the French Revolution erupted in 1789, they numbered about half a million. The conditions of slavery in Saint Domingue were extraordinarily harsh—slaves who were not literally worked to death were inclined to commit suicide—to the point that the slave population came nowhere near reproducing itself. Between 1784 and 1790 some two hundred and twenty thousand slaves were imported to the colony—merely to maintain a stable workforce. In 1791, when the Haitian Revolution broke out, two-thirds of Saint Domingue’s slaves had in fact been born in Africa.

Most were shipped from the West African coast, out of the kingdoms of Benin and Dahomey. They came from many different cultures and tribes: Senegalese, Yolof, Bambara, Mandingo, Arada, Ibo, Nago and Kongo—to mention only a few. The languages of these different groups were for the most part mutually unintelligible. Their religions, though different in detail, shared common fundamentals. The white land- and slave-owners, outnumbered by their chattel by a factor of twelve to one, made some effort to jumble slaves from different tribes, to make it more difficult for them to whisper among themselves or plot against their masters. At the same time, some means of communicating with all the slaves was necessary. The lingua franca of the colony was a patois described by a twentieth-century manual as what one would expect to evolve from requiring half a million Africans to learn French by listening to it but without being told any of the rules.

In theory, the French colonists were meant to bring their slaves into the fold of the Catholic Church, but in fact the evangelical program was fairly weak, especially after the Jesuit order was expelled from Saint Domingue on suspicion of excessive sympathy for the slaves. The slaves did have some exposure to Catholicism, however, and incorporated many aspects of the cult of the saints into their own beliefs and practices—which were prohibited more in theory than in fact. Slaveholders tolerated gatherings of slaves for the purpose of drumming, singing and dancing—these Calenda, as they were called, were seen as useful to release tensions that might otherwise be expressed in the slave rebellion that all the white colonists quite reasonably feared. These assemblies were officially understood as entirely secular “country dances,” though contemporary descriptions by whites reveal that at least some of the colonists knew very well that they had a religious dimension.

On August 14, 1791, a secret gathering (secret from the whites) took place in a forest called Bois Caïman on the border of the Plaine du Nord, Saint Domingue’s richest sugar-producing region. The written historical record (set down, of course by Europeans) establishes that at this meeting a general insurrection of the slaves was planned—whose outbreak, the first explosion of the Revolution that ten years later would make Haiti independent, reduced the plantations of the Plaine du Nord to ashes within the first few days. The Haitian oral tradition holds, with equal if not superior conviction, that the centerpiece of the meeting at Bois Caïman was a great Vodou ceremony in which the entire pantheon of immortal spirits was called to assist and inspire the Revolution.

Understanding of the meeting at Bois Caïman tends to split on a sharp racial and cultural fault line. For Europeans and their descendants, the most significant thing about it is the diabolical plot to raze the plantations and massacre the white population—in its entirety if possible—a plot sealed by a blood sacrifice and perhaps abetted by actual devils summoned to the scene by the powers of African sorcery. For Haitians, however the slaughter of the blancs (whom the slaves had small reason to regard as human beings like themselves) is a relatively insignificant byproduct of the event, whose real purpose was to create a Haitian national identity, complete not only with a shared revolutionary purpose but also with a common language—Haitian Kreyòl—and a common religion—Vodou. In historical reality the evolution of Kreyòl from the contact of numerous African languages with French and the coalescence of Vodou from various African religions with a common exposure to Catholicism must have taken a great deal longer to happen, but (like the Creation story from Genesis) the legend of Bois Caïman makes it happen in one instantaneous flash of an enormous spiritual power. Given the massacres that were part of the immediate practical result, it’s understandable that blancs should find this story frightening—but to Haitians, what it most resembles is the Sermon on the Mount.


Preface to Nan Dòmi: An Initiate's Journey into Haitian Vodou by Mimerose Beaubrun, copyright © Madison Smartt Bell. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.