One of the things that you will find in most books that you pick up about voodoo is a history lesson about Haiti. This is because it would appear that to understand the religion itself, one must understand the history of Haiti. To an extent, I can see where this is the case. It has been with the re-telling of the historical narrative of Haitian history that I’ve been able to understand and even appreciate the secret nature of voodoo, as a whole. However, you get to the point where the history lesson is repeated too often, in some cases, because the author in question is trying very diligently to nail the point home: the religion would not exist without the unique flavor that is Haiti and Haitian history. I agree that understanding and knowing the history of the religion itself is uniquely tied with the country. I also agree that without knowing this basic history of the country, a lot can be lost when it comes to the religion itself. Especially for pagans who follow a reconstructionist path, the need for historical documentation and belief is tantamount to having a practice. The same could be said with voodoo. However, as time has passed, the religion itself has changed. What one practices in Haiti is not necessarily the same thing as what is practiced in America.
However, the basic history of the religion is necessary to understand who it is you are working with when you begin a path with the lwa, and more specifically, with voodoo itself.
As seen in its various forms today, almost the entire root of voodoo comes from various African tribes, which were enslaved and brought to the New World. The various tribes that have fed into voodoo vary, depending on the time frame the book you’re reading is published in. For example, in older books that detail the slave trade and the budding of the voodoo religion, you’ll often read the words “Fon” and “Yoruba.” However, as time has gone on, the ever-growing sentiments is that while these areas of Africa have huge sway in the religion we know about nowadays, other tribes’ beliefs also went into the foundation of Haitian Vodou*. As it stands now, the exact number of tribes that have fed into the Haitian practices as seen today are, in all honestly, too numerous to count. However, there are certain arenas of the island, as seen today, where specific rites and rituals can be rooted down to specific tribes in Africa, such as Kongo, Yoruba, Fon-Ewe, Ibo, and Nago.
However, on top of the African Diaspora, there is also noted some very small but essential aspects to the Haitian religion that stems from the native tribes that lived on the island prior to its conquest by the Spanish. This is the Taíno tribe, which was seeded throughout the Bahamas and is thought to be a subset of the Arawak peoples of South America. (Their language is classified as Arawakan.) Within 30 years of the colonization of Hispaniola, as it was known, the Taíno peoples were all but extinct. Those that did survive ran off to live in encampments in the mountains. It is believed that these secret mountain encampments were also destinations for runaway African slaves, which could explain that Taíno vestiges alive in the practice of Haitian Vodou today. Those relics are “the sound of the conch shell horn, woven into patterns of Vodou vévé, and in the use of magical stones.” (P10, The Book of Vodou by Leah Gordon.)
It appears that through the practice of their religions that the African slaves of Haiti were able to give themselves something to hold onto. It was through this religion that they were able to survive the terrible burdens and horrors that the colonists put them through on a daily basis. For example, upon coming to the island of Saint Domingue (as it was then known), members of the same tribe were carefully split up. To be kidnapped from your home, sent to live in a boat for months on end, and then separated from everyone who even knew your language is abominable and horrifying. Since this religion gave them something to believe in, the colonists were very brutal in trying to their utmost best to stamp it out – to failed results. “Slaves found in possession of any symbol of Voodoo were punished with lashings, imprisonments, hangings, and even ‘blanchings’ (flaying alive a disobedient slave by laying bare with a knife the subcutaneous white tissues).” (P13, Secrets of Voodoo by Milo Rigaud.) It is from these practices the slave masters put their slaves through that a fusion with Christianity, specifically Catholicism, can still be seen and felt in voodoo practices today.
Within three hundred years of the colonization and slave trade in Saint Domingue, dissent began to grow rife throughout the slaves on the island. At first, it appears that the African slaves believed that their time in slavery was limited, but as time past, this view changed. Upon hearing the knowledge of the French Revolution, slaves began to actively and willfully disobey and rise against their masters. However, it wasn’t just the knowledge that uprising was something that they could do, but it seems, too, that the lwa themselves began to teach their Vodouisants could battle against the white men who had enslaved them. It appears that after the time of disillusionment was over, “…priests of Voodoo consulted the gods (sic) to learn through supernatural revelations how the religious and political battles would have to be waged in order to be won.” (P13, Secrets of Voodoo by Milo Rigaud.) It appears that the beginning of the battle for freedom started in a ceremony held in the woods in which, after the sacrifice of a black pig, the houngan wrote the words “liberty or death.” And within days of this particular ceremony, independence was being fought for throughout the island.
I am going to stop here with the history lesson. The rest of the history of the country – the various battles for freedom and leaders that utilized Vodou to get what they wanted – are also integral to the religion itself. However, these portions will be discussed further in a future post. Let’s stop on a pleasant note anyway: the freedom of an entire nation from its oppressors.
* I utilized the v-o-d-o-u spelling of voodoo when associating it with its Haitian counterpart to distinguish it from the American version of voodoo that is practiced in Louisiana. Though their creation and inception stem from the same history, some practices are completely different.
- The Book of Vodou by Leah Gordon
- The Secrets of Voodoo by Milo Rigaud
- The Haitian Vodou Handbook by Kenaz Filan