The following is the first part of an essay I wrote in seminary about the connection between Voodoo and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. This part addresses the background of Haitian Voodoo.
How does one determine what a religion is, and is not? That is the question many have asked in light of the events that took place in the country of Haiti in 2003. As reported in Christian Century magazine: “In late April, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest, declared voodoo an officially recognized religion.” Although recently recognized as an official religion, Voodoo has been present in Haiti since the arrival of African slaves. It may seem strange that a Catholic priest would be promoting Voodoo if one does not know about the development of Voodoo in the last two centuries. But in fact there is a close link in Haiti between Voodoo and Roman Catholicism. This makes Voodoo difficult to define. Josh McDowell and Don Stewart do not even give it the status of “religion,” but rather a “religious cult…characterized by belief in sorcery, fetishes, and séances.” However it is categorized, the growing power and influence of Voodoo should not be ignored. The intention of this paper is to gain insight on Voodoo as a faith in light of its history and present practice in Haiti, then to use that information to develop a strategy in how a Christian may evangelize an individual who subscribes to Voodoo.
In order to make an impact of any people-group, one must respect the power of religious history in how it has shaped the culture and faith of that group. Voodoo began in Haiti with the slave trade as early as 1510. Due to the wide-spread epidemic of slave trade, it is difficult to know exactly where slaves that landed on the island of Hispaniola were taken from. However, by observing the writings of slaves in Haiti, a clear link can be drawn to West Africa. As Leslie Gerald Desmangles writes, “One might deduce from this list that all of Africa contributed to the formation of Vodun. However, from other writings of the slave period, it is quite clear that the region of the Gold Coast, particularly that of Dahomey was the main provider of slaves.” These writings led scholars to find significant parallels with the Dahomey religion and Haitian Voodoo –none more convincing than the word Voodoo itself. Marlyn and J. Richard Wilmeth reveal that the word “Voodoo” is actually a Dehomean word meaning god, spirit, or sacred object. Understanding the origin of Haitian Voodoo has revealed much about this country’s tumultuous past, and can provide insight about how a Christian may influence individuals in this present day.
Haitian Voodoo is a religion that relies heavily on spirit consultation, superstition, and ritual. It was my experience that, much like Christianity in some areas, Voodoo has reduced to a cultural subscription for the majority of Haitian people. However, there still remain devout followers, primarily in the rural areas. Of these devotees, fundamental pieces of the original Dehomean faith can be seen.
One of these aspects is polytheism. In Dehomey, many different gods and spirits, particularly relating to natural phenomenon, were worshiped. “Originally the religion from which modern Voodoo is derived was organized into three churches, each dedicated to a different set of nature spirits, those of sky, earth, and thunder.” These beliefs evolved to an array of additional gods and spirits in Haitian Voodoo, all personified by areas of interest in culture. “In addition to nature gods, the Voodoo pantheon contained clan gods, gods of vassal tribes, monsters, and aborted royal foeti.”
Homage given to these spirits and gods is primarily carried out in the form of ceremony and ritual. These ceremonies contain various different elements according to the spirit being worshiped or the people administrating the event. One of these elements is sacrifice in Voodoo ceremony. As the gods are often personified in some way, they take on human desires; requiring sacrificed animals to fill the god’s longing.
Perhaps the most distinct aspect of Voodoo ceremony is possession. Even from the original religion in Dehomey, there were few limits as to what may possess an individual. One may be possessed by gods, spirits or even ancestors. However there were guidelines as to how one may be possessed and at what time. For example, possession was often a right of initiation or a privilege reserved only for members and other “insiders.” Even today, possession remains for the “temple officials and the sponsoring family or it may be experienced by anyone who is present.” Also, proper possession was not a casual experience that happened at random. “In Africa, initiates put themselves under the direction of priests and priestesses who trained them to sing, dance, and receive the gods.” Clearly it was the belief that possession was not a simple will of the gods, but was dependant upon the initiation of the recipient.
Thus, even to fake a possession was not forbidden, but encouraged. “Traditionally those who were only pretending to be possessed were considered to be acting just as appropriately as those who experienced true trance.” Therefore, possession is a statement not of the god, spirit, or ancestors, but of the human participant.
The possession of ancestors is a particularly intriguing addition to the possession phenomenon. Perhaps in fascination with death and afterlife, different beliefs were developed about distinct human figures. These developments are clearly evident in Voodoo ceremonies. During such ceremonies, those who undergo an apparent possession experience are those who belong to the family, clan or tribe. As Desmangles writes, “…Haitians believe that when ceremonies are held in honor of these ancestors, celebrants who experience spirit possession are the descendents of those ancestors.” In fact in Voodoo today, if one other than the family is possessed, they may be removed from the sight because it is considered disrespectful, as it was the family who has paid for the ritual.
It is now assumed that the majority of events in Voodoo take place at night. However, night time ritual is not linked to darkness or evil as one might assume. Desmangles explains: “The severity of such laws as the 1685 Code Noir, which ordered all masters to have their slaves instructed and baptized ‘in the Catholic religion, apostolic and Roman’ within eight days after their arrival, drove African rituals underground, and resulted in the nocturnal character of Vodun, a character which still persists today.”