Inside Haitian Vodou

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

| September 2014

  • An African mask
    Haitian Vodou developed from a combination of African religions and Catholicism.
    Photo by Fotolia/abunadir
  • Nan Domi
    “Nan Domi” by Mimerose Beaubrun is an exploration of the internal, mystical aspect of Haitian Vodou.
    Cover courtesy City Lights Books

  • An African mask
  • Nan Domi

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.

3/25/2016 12:23:46 PM

Vodou and Christianity are both fear-based superstitions. Neither one can withstand the test of our innate God-given reason. And regarding cannibalism, if Vodou does embrace it, it is not alone as cannibalism is at the hear of Christianity in that believers eat the body and drink the blood of their savior, Jesus. Perhaps it's time we unite our reason and our belief. The Deist Thomas Paine was correct when he wrote in The Age of Reason ( ) that we need a revolution in religion based on our innate God-given reason and Deism. This will help to end fear-based superstitions and religious violence and make for a much better and happier world. Progress! Bob Johnson

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