Haitian Vodou

Haitian Vodou (, , also written as Vaudou ; known commonly as Voodoo , sometimes as Vodun , Vodoun , Vodu , or Vaudoux ) is a syncretic religion based on West African Vodun, practiced chiefly in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. Practitioners are called "vodouists" (French: vodouisants ) or "servants of the spirits" (Haitian Creole: sèvitè).

Vodou focuses on the veneration of deities known as lwa. These are often identified both as Yoruban gods as well as Roman Catholic saints. Various myths and stories are told about these lwa, which are regarded as subservient to a transcendent creator deity, Bondyé. An initiatory tradition, Vodouists usually meet in ounfò, temples run by priests known as oungans or priestesses known as manbos, to venerate the lwa. A central ritual involves practitioners drumming, singing, and dancing to encourage a lwa to possess one of their members. They believe that through this possessed individual, they can communicate directly with a lwa. Offerings to the lwa include fruit and the blood of sacrificed animals. Several forms of divination are utilized to decipher messages from the lwa. Healing rituals and the preparation of herbal remedies, amulets, and charms, also play a prominent role.

Vodou developed among Afro-Haitian communities amid the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. It arose through the blending of the traditional religions brought to the island of Hispaniola by enslaved West Africans, many of them Yoruba, and the Roman Catholic teachings of the French colonialists who then controlled the island. Many Voudou practitioners were involved in the Haitian Revolution which overthrew the French colonial government, abolished slavery, and formed modern Haiti. The Roman Catholic Church left for several decades following the Revolution, allowing Vodou to become Haiti's dominant religion. In the 20th century, growing emigration spread Vodou elsewhere in the Americas. The late 20th century saw growing links between Vodou and other orisha-worshipping traditions in West Africa and the Americas, such as Cuban Santería and Brazilian Candomblé. Since the late 20th century, some practitioners have emphasized a "Yorubization" process to remove Roman Catholic influences and create forms of Vodou closer to traditional Yoruba religion.

Practitioners of Vodou are primarily found in Haiti, although communities exist in other parts of the Americas, especially among the Haitian diaspora in the United States. Both in Haiti and abroad it has spread beyond its Afro-Haitian origins and is practiced by individuals of various different ethnicities. Vodou has faced much opposition and criticism through its history, having repeatedly been described as one of the world's most misunderstood religious traditions.

Names and etymology

The term Vodou "encompasses a variety of Haiti's African-derived religious traditions and practices". Vodou is a Haitian Creole word that formerly referred to only a small subset of Haitian rituals. The word derives from an Ayizo word referring to mysterious forces or powers that govern the world and the lives of those who reside within it, but also a range of artistic forms that function in conjunction with these vodun energies. Two of the major speaking populations of Ayizo are the Ewe and the Fon—European slavers called both the Arada. These two peoples composed a sizable number of the early enslaved population in St. Dominigue. In Haiti, practitioners occasionally use "Vodou" to refer to Haitian religion generically, but it is more common for practitioners to refer to themselves as those who "serve the spirits" (sèvitè) by participating in ritual ceremonies, usually called a "service to the loa" (sèvis lwa) or an "African service" (sèvis gine)."Vodou" is the commonly used term for the religion among scholars and in official Kreyol orthography. Some scholars prefer to spell it as "Vodoun" or "Vodun." The Haitian term "Vodou" derives from Dahomey, where "Vôdoun" signified a spirit or deity. In Haiti, the term "Vodou" was generally used in reference to a particular style of dance and drumming, rather than a broader religious system. In French, such traditions were often referred to as le vaudoux. Many practitioners instead use the term "Ginen" to describe the broader framework of their beliefs; this term refers particularly to a moral philosophy and ethical code regarding how to live and to serve the spirits. Many of the religion's practitioners will not describe themselves as an adherent of a distinct religion but rather will describe how they sèvi lwa ("serve the spirits").

Outside of Haiti, the term Vodou refers to the entirety of traditional Haitian religious practice. Originally written as vodun, it is first recorded in Doctrina Christiana, a 1658 document written by the King of Allada's ambassador to the court of Philip IV of Spain. In the following centuries, Vodou was eventually taken up by non-Haitians as a generic descriptive term for traditional Haitian religion. There are many used orthographies for this word. Today, the spelling Vodou is the most commonly accepted orthography in English. Other potential spellings include Vodoun, vaudou, and voodoo, with vau- or vou- prefix variants reflecting French orthography, and a final -n reflecting the nasal vowel in West African or older, non-urbanized, Haitian Creole pronunciations.

The spelling voodoo, once very common, is now generally avoided by Haitian practitioners and scholars when referring to the Haitian religion. This is both to avoid confusion with Louisiana Voodoo, a related but distinct set of religious practices, as well as to separate Haitian Vodou from the negative connotations and misconceptions the term "voodoo" has acquired in popular culture. Over the years, practitioners and their supporters have called on various institutions including the Associated Press to redress this misrepresentation by adopting "Vodou" in reference to the Haitian religion. In October 2012, the Library of Congress decided to change their subject heading from "Voodooism" to Vodou in response to a petition by a group of scholars and practitioners in collaboration with KOSANBA, the scholarly association for the study of Haitian Vodou based at University of California Santa Barbara.

Vodou is an Afro-Haitian religion, and has been described as the "national religion" of Haiti. Vodou is one of the most complex of the Afro-American traditions. The anthropologist Paul Christopher Johnson characterized Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, and Brazilian Candomblé as "sister religions" due to their shared origins in Yoruba traditional belief systems. Practitioners are also referred to as serviteurs ("devotees").


Vodou is popularly described as not simply a religion, but rather an experience that ties body and soul together. The concept of tying that exists in Haitian religious culture is derived from the Congolese tradition of kanga, the practice of tying one's soul to something tangible. This "tying of soul" is evident in many Haitian Vodou practices that are still exercised today.

There is no central liturgical authority within Vodou. There is regional variation within Vodou, including differences in how it is practiced in rural and urban areas and in how it is practiced both in Haiti and among the international Haitian diaspora. Practices vary between congregations. A congregation may comprise of an extended family, especially in rural areas of Haiti. In other examples, particularly in urban areas, an ounfo can act as an initiatory family.

Bondyé and the Lwa

Vodou teaches the existence of single supreme god, and in this has been described as "essentially a monotheistic religion." This entity, which is believed to have created the universe, is known as the Grand Mèt, Bondyé, or Bonié. The latter name derives from the French Bon Dieu (God). For Vodou practitioners, the Bondyé is regarded as a remote and transcendent figure. Haitians will frequently use the phrase si Bondye vie ("if Bondye is willing"), suggesting a broader belief that all things occur in accordance with this creator deity's will.

Vodou also teaches the existence of a broader range of deities, known as the lwa or loa. These are also known as the mystères, anges, saints, and les invisibles. The lwa can offer help, protection, and counsel to human beings, in return for ritual service. The lwa are regarded as the intermediaries of the transcendent creator deity. Each lwa is viewed as having its own personality. Each is also associated with specific colours and objects. The lwa can be either loyal or capricious in their dealings with their human devotees.

The lwa are divided into a series of "nations". This classificatory system derives from the way in which enslaved West Africans were divided into distinct "nations" upon their arrival in Haiti, usually based on their African port of departure rather than any ethno-cultural grouping that they had originally belonged to. These loa can be divided into 21 nations, which include the Petro, Rada, Congo, and Nago. Of these nations, the Rada and the Petwo are the largest. The Rada lwa are usually regarded as dous or doux, meaning that they are sweet-tempered. The Petwo lwa are conversely seen as lwa cho or lwa chaud, indicating that they can be forceful or violent and are associated with fire. Many lwa exist andezo or en deux eaux, meaning that they are "in two waters" and are served in both Rada and Petwo rituals.Papa Legba also known as Legba, is the first lwa to be saluted during Vodou ceremonies. Visually, he is depicted as a feeble old man using a crutch. Papa Legba is regarded as the protector of gates and fences and thus of the home, as well as of roads, paths, and crossroads. The second lwa that are usually greeted are the Marasa or sacred twins. In Vodou, every nation has its own Marasa, reflecting a belief that twins have special powers. Agwé, also known as Agwé-taroyo, is associated with aquatic life, and protector of ships and fishermen. Agwé is believed to rule the sea with his consort, Lasiren. She is a mermaid or siren, and is sometimes described as Ezili of the Waters because she is believed to bring good luck and wealth from the sea. Ezili Freda or Erzuli Freda is the lwa of love and luxury, personifying feminine beauty and grace. Ezili Banto is a lwa who takes the form of a peasant woman.

Zaka or Azaka is the lwa of crops and agriculture. He is usually addressed as "Papa" or "Cousin". Ogu is a warrior lwa. Damballa or Danbala is a serpent lwa and is associated with water, being believed to frequent rivers, springs, and marshes; he is one of the most popular deities within the Vodou pantheon. Danbala and his consort Ayida Wedo are often depicted as a pair of intertwining snakes.

Bawon Samdi or Baron Samedi ("Baron Saturday") is considered head of the Guédé or Gede family of lwa. His consort is Grand Brigitte. The Guédé are confined to the realm of the dead and when they are believed to arrive at a Vodou ceremony they are usually greeted with joy because they bring merriment.

The lwa are associated with specific Roman Catholic saints. For instance, Azaka, the lwa of agriculture, is associated with Saint Isidora the farmer. Similarly, the lwa of love and luxury, Ezili Frida, is associated with Mater Dolorosa. Danbala, who is a serpent, is often equated with Saint Patrick, who is traditionally depicted in a scene with snakes; alternatively he is often associated with Moses. The Marasa, or sacred twins, are typically equated with the twin saints Cosmos and Damian.

In dressing the spirits there is a powerful relation in which is followed. There is an aura of sorts and with each form of cloth (there are many different styles and props used) there might be a different spirit (Lwa) attached to that specific style. This way of dress can be seen in a more contemporary style where there is this balance of having power to being powerless. The workings or ritual side of "dress in Vodou cultural production lies in the tension between inner and outer selves; the material, the physical and the spiritual; the seen and the unseen."


Vodou permeates every aspect of its adherent's lives. Vodou's moral code focuses on the vices of dishonor and greed. There is also a notion of relative propriety—and what is appropriate to someone with Dambala Wedo as their head may be different from someone with Ogou Feray as their head. For example, one spirit is very cool and the other is very hot. Coolness overall is valued, and so is the ability and inclination to protect oneself and one's own if necessary. Love and support within the family of the Vodou society seem to be the most important considerations. Generosity in giving to the community and to the poor is also an important value. One's blessings come through the community, and one should be willing to give back. There are no "solitaries" in Vodou—only people separated geographically from their elders and house. A person without a relationship of some kind with elders does not practice Vodou as it is understood in Haiti and among Haitians; additionally, Haitian Vodou emphasizes the 'wholeness of being' not just with elders and the material world, but also unity with the interconnected forces of nature.

There is a diversity of practice in Vodou across the country of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. For instance, in the north of Haiti, the lave tèt ("head washing") or kanzwe may be the only initiation, as it is in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico, whereas in Port-au-Prince and the south they practice the kanzo rites with three grades of initiationkanzo senp, si pwen, and asogweand the latter is the most familiar mode of practice outside Haiti. Some lineages combine both, as Mambo Katherine Dunham reports from her personal experience in her book Island Possessed.

The scholar of Africana studies Felix Germain suggested that Vodou "defies patriarchy" by rejecting French colonial gender norms. Critics have accused Vodou of promoting a fatalistic outlook.

Practitioners are usually critical of maji, which refers to the use of supernatural powers for self-serving and malevolent ends.


According to Vodou, the soul consists of two aspects, in a type of soul dualism: the gros bon ange (big good angel) and the ti bon ange (little good angel). The gros bon ange is the part of the soul that is essentially responsible for the basic biological functions, such as the flow of blood through the body and breathing. On the other hand, the ti bon ange is the source of personality, character and willpower. "As the gros bon ange provides each person with the power to act, it is the ti bon ange that molds the individual sentiment within each act".


Charlotte Hammond, finds this source from three sources pertaining with this idea of dress in the Haitian Vodou practice to be a good kick off within the section "Decoding Dress" from the anthology; Vodou in the Haitian Experience: A Black Atlantic Perspective. It states that "the importance of the materiality of dress and fabric, in Haiti as a mediator between spirits and people, and in organizing society, is a belief which can be traced to West African Yoruban culture" (Buckridge, Tselos, Farris Thompsan). Haitian dress and the practice of Vodou are tied together, but with the great importance of other pieces dealing with the religion "such as dance, music, and song."

Those devoted to the Gede spirits dress in a manner linking in with the Gede's associations with death. This includes wearing black and purple clothing, funeral frock coats, black veils, top hats, and sunglasses.


Mostly revolving around interactions with the lwa, Vodou ceremonies make use of song, drumming, dance, prayer, possession, and animal sacrifice.

Shrines and altars

The Vodou temples are referred to as the ounfò, hounfò, or the hounfort. In Vodou, most communal activities center around this temple, forming a spiritual community of practitioners. The size and shape of these ounfo can vary, from basic shacks to more lavish structures, the latter being more common in Port au Prince than elsewhere in Haiti. Ounfos are autonomous. Families, particularly in rural areas, often believe that through their zansèt (ancestors) they are tied to a prenmye mèt bitasyon' (original founder); their descent from this figure is seen as giving them their inheritance both of the land and of familial spirits.

The main ceremonial space within the ounfo is known as the peristil. In the peristil, brightly painted posts hold up the roof. The central one of these posts is the poto mitan or poteau mitan, which is used as a pivot during ritual dances and serves as the "passage of the spirits" by which the lwa enter the room during ceremonies. It is around this central post that offerings, including both vèvè and animal sacrifices, are made. Adjacent rooms in the ounfo include the caye-mystéres, which is also known as the bagi, badji, or sobadji. This is where a number of stonework altars, known as , stand against the wall or are arranged in tiers. The is also used to store clothing associated with the possessing oricha that is placed onto the individual experiencing possession during the rituals in the peristil. Many also have a sink which is sacred to the lwa Danbala-Wedo. Many ounfos have a room known as the djévo in which the initiate is confined during their initiatory ceremony. Ever ounfo usually has a room or corner of a room devoted to Erzuli Freda.

Since developing in the mid-nineteenth century, chromolithography has also had an impact on Vodou imagery, facilitating the widespread availability of images of the Roman Catholic saints who are equated with the lwa. Various Vodouists have made use of varied available materials in constructing their shrines. Cosentino encountered a shrine in Port au Prince where Baron Samedi was represented by a plastic statue of Santa Claus that had been given a black sombrero. In another instance, a cut-out of the U.S. politician Harold Stassen had been used to represent Damballa.

Various trees in Haiti have had metal items affixed to them, serving as shrines to Ogou, who is associated with both iron and the roads.

Liturgy and practice

Vodou practitioners believe that if one follows all taboos imposed by their particular loa and is punctilious about all offerings and ceremonies, the loa will aid them. Vodou practitioners also believe that if someone ignores their loa it can result in sickness, the failure of crops, the death of relatives, and other misfortunes. Animals are sometimes sacrificed in Haitian Vodou. A variety of animals are sacrificed, such as pigs, goats, chickens, and bulls. "The intent and emphasis of sacrifice is not upon the death of the animal, it is upon the transfusion of its life to the loa; for the understanding is that flesh and blood are of the essence of life and vigor, and these will restore the divine energy of the god."

In a Vodou home, the only recognizable religious items are often images of saints and candles with a rosary. In other homes, where people may more openly show their devotion to the spirits, noticeable items may include an altar with Catholic saints and iconographies, rosaries, bottles, jars, rattles, perfumes, oils, and dolls. Some Vodou devotees have less paraphernalia in their homes because they had no option but to hide their beliefs. Haiti is a rural society and the cult of ancestors guard the traditional values of the peasant class. The ancestors are linked to family life and the land. Haitian peasants serve the spirits daily and sometime gather with their extended family on special occasions for ceremonies, which may celebrate the birthday of a spirit or a particular event. In very remote areas, people may walk for days to partake in ceremonies that take place as often as several times a month. Vodou is closely tied to the division and administration of land as well as to the residential economy. The cemeteries and many crossroads are meaningful places for worship: the cemetery acts as a repository of spirits and the crossroads acts as points of access to the world of the invisible.

Devotions to the Guédé are particularly common around the days of the dead, All Saints (1 November) and All Souls (2 November).

Offerings and animal sacrifice

The choice of foodstuffs is often determined by the lwa in question; Danbala for instance requires white foods, especially eggs.

Because Agwé is believed to reside in the sea, his devotees sometimes sail out to Trois Ilets, drumming and singing, where they throw a white sheep overboard as a sacrifice to him.


Spirit possession constitutes an important element of Haitian Vodou. The rites employed to call down the lwa vary depending on the nation in question. The behaviour of the possessed is impacted by the lwa possessing them; those possessed by Danbala the serpent for instance often slither on the floor, darting out their tongue, and climb the posts of the peristil. Many ounfo have a large wooden phallus on hand which is used by those possessed by Gede lwa during their dances.

The drum is perhaps the most sacred item in Vodou. Practitioners believe that drums contain a nam or vital force. Specific ceremonies accompany the construction of a drum so that it is considered suitable for use in Vodou ritual. In a ritual referred to as a bay manger tambour ("feeding of the drum"), offerings are given to the drum itself. Reflecting its status, when Vodouists enter the peristil they customarily bow before the drums. Becoming a drummer in Vodou rituals requires a lengthy apprenticeship.

Different Vodou nations have different traditions informing their drumming style. The composition of the orchestras also varies between the nations.

The drumming is typically accompanied by the singing of specific Vodou songs. The singers are led by a figure known as the hungerikon, whose task it is to sing the first bar of a new song. These songs are designed to be invocations to summon a lwa, and contain lyrics that are simple and repetitive.

During large-scale ceremonies, the lwa are invited to appear through the drawing of patterns, known as vèvè, on the ground using cornmeal. Also used to call down the spirits is a process of drumming, singing, prayers, and dances. Libations and offerings of food are made to the lwa, which includes animal sacrifices. The order and protocol for welcoming the lwa is referred to as regleman. The trance of possession is known as the crise de lwa. The person being possessed is referred to as the chwal (horse); the act of possession is called "mounting a horse". Through the chwal, the lwa communicates with their devotees, varyingly offering counsel, chastisement, blessings, or healing. During this process, practitioners believe that the gwo bon anj (consciousness) of the possessed individual is displaced by the lwa and that they will therefore have no memory of what occurs during the possession.


In Vodou, male religious leaders are referred to as oungan or houngan, and female religious leaders as manbo. The oungan and manbo are tasked with organising liturgies, preparing initiations, offering consultations with clients using divination, and preparing remedies for the sick. There is no established priestly hierarchy, with the various oungan and manbo being largely self-sufficient.

The role of the oungan is believed by practitioners to be modelled on the lwa Loco, who is understood as the chief of Legba's escorts. According to Vodou beleifs, Loco and his consort Ayizan were the first oungan and manbo, providing humanity with knowledge of the konnesans. The oungan and manbo is expected to display the power of second sight, something that is regarded as a gift from the creator deity that can be revealed to the individual through visions or dreams.

Vodou entails practitioners being encouraged to undertake stages of initiation into a state of mind called konesans (conaissance or knowledge). Successive initiations are required to move through the various konesans.

Houngans (priest) or Mambos (priestess) are usually people who were chosen by the dead ancestors and received the divination from the deities while he or she was possessed. His or her tendency is to do good by helping and protecting others from spells, however they sometimes use their supernatural power to hurt or kill people. They also conduct ceremonies that usually take place "amba peristil" (under a Vodou temple). However, non-Houngan or non-Mambo as Vodouisants are not initiated, and are referred to as being "bossale"; it is not a requirement to be an initiate to serve one's spirits. There are clergy in Haitian vodou whose responsibility it is to preserve the rituals and songs and maintain the relationship between the spirits and the community as a whole (though some of this is the responsibility of the whole community as well). They are entrusted with leading the service of all of the spirits of their lineage. Sometimes they are "called" to serve in a process called being reclaimed, which they may resist at first.

Due to their prominence in a community, the oungan and manbo can effectively become political leaders. Some of these priests and priestesses have linked themselves closely with professional politicians, for instance during the reign of the Duvaliers. Historical evidence suggests that the role of the oungan and manbo intensified over the course of the 20th century. As a result, "temple Vodou" is now more common in rural areas of Haiti than it was in historical periods.

A ritual specialist who works with "both hands" is referred to as a bòkò. The bokor, in that sense, deals in ''baka' (malevolent spirits contained in the form of various animals).

The asson is a sacred rattle used in summoning the lwa. Assuming the duties of a Vodou priest is referred to as "taking the asson."

Practitioners gather together for sèvices (services) in which they commune with the lwa. Ceremonies for a particular lwa often coincide with the feast day of the Roman Catholic saint that that lwa is associated with.

The individuals who congregate at the temple are known as the pititt-caye (children of the house). Ranked below the oungan and manbo are the ounsi, individuals who make a lifetime commitment to serving the lwa. It is the oungan and manbo who are responsible for overseeing initiatory ceremonies whereby people become ounsi, and more broadly for training the ounsi. The majority of ounsi are female. One of the ounsi becomes the hungenikon or reine-chanterelle, the mistress of the choir. This individual is responsible for overseeing the liturgical singing and shaking the chacha rattle which is used to control the rhythm during ceremonies. They are aided by the hungenikon-la-place, commandant general de la place, or quarter master, who is in charge of overseeing offerings and keeps order during the ceremonies. Another figure is le confiance (the confidant), the ounsi who oversees the ounfo's administrative functions.


The initiation rite into Vodou is known as the kanzo. This is also the term used to describe the initiate themselves. There is much variation in what these initiation ceremonies entail. Initiation is generally expensive and requires significant preparation. Prospective initiates are for instance required to memorise a large number of Vodou songs and to learn the characteristics of the different lwa.

The first part of the initiation rite is known as the kouche, coucher, or 'huño. During the rite, the initiate comes to be regarded as the child of a particular lwa.

This is followed by a period of seclusion within the djèvo known as the kouche. The kouche is meant to be an uncomfortable experience for the initiate. The initiation process is seen to have ended when the new initiate is first possessed by a lwa.

Death and the afterlife

Practitioners of Vodou revere death, and believe it is a great transition from one life to another, or to the afterlife. Some Vodou families believe that a person's spirit leaves the body, but is trapped in water, over mountains, in grottoes—or anywhere else a voice may call out and echo—for one year and one day. After then, a ceremonial celebration commemorates the deceased for being released into the world to live again. In the words of Edwidge Danticat, author of "A Year and a Day"—an article about death in Haitian society published in the New Yorker—and a Vodou practitioner, "The year-and-a-day commemoration is seen, in families that believe in it and practice it, as a tremendous obligation, an honorable duty, in part because it assures a transcendental continuity of the kind that has kept us Haitians, no matter where we live, linked to our ancestors for generations." After the soul of the deceased leaves its resting place, it can occupy trees, and even become a hushed voice on the wind. Though other Haitian and West African families believe there is an afterlife in paradise in the realm of God.


In late July, Voudoist pilgrims visit Plaine du Nord near Bwa Caiman, where according to legend the Haitian Revolution began. There, sacrifices are made and pilgrims immerse themselves in the trou (mud pits). The pilgrims often mass before the Church of Saint Jacques, with Saint Jacques perceived as being the lwa Ogou.


Before 1685: From Africa to the Caribbean

The cultural area of the Fon, Ewe, and Yoruba peoples share a common metaphysical conception of a dual cosmological divine principle consisting of Nana Buluku, the God-Creator, and the voduns(s) or God-Actor(s), daughters and sons of the Creator's twin children Mawu (goddess of the moon) and Lisa (god of the sun). The God-Creator is the cosmogonical principle and does not trifle with the mundane; the voduns(s) are the God-Actor(s) who actually govern earthly issues. The pantheon of vodoun is quite large and complex.

West African Vodun has its primary emphasis on ancestors, with each family of spirits having its own specialized priest and priestess, which are often hereditary. In many African clans, deities might include Mami Wata, who are gods and goddesses of the waters; Legba, who in some clans is virile and young in contrast to the old man form he takes in Haiti and in many parts of Togo; Gu (or Ogoun), ruling iron and smithcraft; Sakpata, who rules diseases; and many other spirits distinct in their own way to West Africa.

A significant portion of Haitian Vodou often overlooked by scholars until recently is the input from the Kongo. The entire northern area of Haiti is heavily influenced by Kongo practices. In northern Haiti, it is often called the Kongo Rite or Lemba, from the Lemba rituals of the Loango area and Mayombe. In the south, Kongo influence is called Petwo (Petro). Many loa (a Kikongo term) are of Kongo origin such as Basimba belonging to the Basimba people and the Lemba.

In addition, the Vodun religion (distinct from Haitian Vodou) already existed in the United States previously to Haitian immigration, having been brought by enslaved West Africans, specifically from the Ewe, Fon, Mina, Kabaye, and Nago groups. Some of the more enduring forms survive in the Gullah Islands.

European colonialism, followed by totalitarian regimes in West Africa, suppressed Vodun as well as other forms of the religion. However, because the Vodun deities are born to each African clan-group, and its clergy is central to maintaining the moral, social, and political order and ancestral foundation of its villagers, it proved to be impossible to eradicate the religion.

1685-1791: Vodou in colonial Saint-Domingue

The majority of the Africans who were brought as slaves to Haiti were from Western and Central Africa. The survival of the belief systems in the New World is remarkable, although the traditions have changed with time and have even taken on some Catholic forms of worship. Two important factors, however, characterize the uniqueness of Haitian Vodou as compared to African Vodun; the transplanted Africans of Haiti, similar to those of Cuba and Brazil, were obliged to disguise their loa or spirits as Roman Catholic saints, an element of a process called syncretism.

Two keys provisions of the Code Noir by King Louis XIV of France in 1685 severely limited the ability of enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue to practice African religions. First, the Code Noir explicitly forbade the open practice of all African religions. Second, it forced all slaveholders to convert their slaves to Catholicism within eight days of their arrival in Saint-Domingue. Despite French efforts, enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue were able to cultivate their own religious practices. Enslaved Africans spent their Sunday and holiday nights expressing themselves. While bodily autonomy was strictly controlled during the day at night, the enslaved Africans wielded a degree of agency. They began to continue their religious practices but also used the time to cultivate community and reconnect the fragmented pieces of their various heritages. These late night reprieves were a form of resistance against white domination and also created community cohesion between people from vastly different ethnic groups. While Catholicism was used as a tool for suppression, enslaved Haitians, partly out of necessity, would go on to incorporate aspects of Christianity into their Vodou. Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, a French observer writing in 1797, noted this religious syncretism, commenting that the Catholic-style altars and votive candles used by Africans in Haiti were meant to conceal the Africanness of the religion, but the connection goes much further than that. Vodounists superimposed Catholic saints and figures onto the Iwa/Ioa, major spirits that work as agents of the Grand Met. Some examples of major Catholic idols re-imagined as Iwa are the Virgin Mary being seen as Ezili. Saint Jacques as Ogou, and Saint Patrick as Dambala. Vodou ceremonies and rituals also incorporated some Catholic elements such as the adoption of the Catholic calendar, the use of holy water in purification rituals, singing hymns, and the introduction of Latin loanwords into Vodou lexicon.

1791–1804: The Haitian Revolution

Vodou would be closely linked with the Haitian Revolution. Two of the revolution's early leaders, Boukman and Makandd, were reputed to be powerful oungans. It was on 14 August, 1791 that a Vodou ritual took place in Bois-Caïman where the participants swore to overthrow the slave owners.

Vodou was a powerful political and cultural force in Haiti.The most historically iconic Vodou ceremony in Haitian history was the Bois Caïman ceremony of August 1791 that took place on the eve of a slave rebellion that predated the Haitian Revolution. During the ceremony the spirit Ezili Dantor possessed a priestess and received a black pig as an offering, and all those present pledged themselves to the fight for freedom. While there is debate on whether or not Bois Caiman was truly a Vodou ritual, the ceremony also served as a covert meeting to iron out details regarding the revolt. Vodou ceremonies often held a political secondary function that strengthened bonds between enslaved people while providing space for organizing within the community. Vodou thus gave slaves a way both a symbolic and physical space of subversion against their French masters.

Political leaders such as Boukman Dutty, a slave who helped plan the 1791 revolt, also served as religious leader, connecting Vodou spirituality with political action. Bois Caiman has often been cited as the start of the Haitian Revolution but the slave uprising had already been planned weeks in advance, proving that the thirst for freedom had always been present. The revolution would free the Haitian people from French colonial rule in 1804 and establish the first black people's republic in the history of the world and the second independent nation in the Americas. Haitian nationalists have frequently drawn inspiration by imagining their ancestors' gathering of unity and courage. Since the 1990s, some neo-evangelicals have interpreted the politico-religious ceremony at Bois Caïman to have been a pact with demons. This extremist view is not considered credible by mainstream Protestants, however conservatives such as Pat Robertson repeat the idea.

Vodou in 19th-century Haiti

On 1 January 1804 the former slave Jean-Jaqcues Dessalines (as Jacques I) declared the independence of St. Domingue as the First Black Empire; two years later, after his assassination, it became the Republic of Haiti. This was the second nation to gain independence from European rule (after the United States), and the only state to have arisen from the liberation of slaves. No nation recognized the new state, which was instead met with isolation and boycotts. This exclusion from the global market led to major economic difficulties for the new state.

Many of the leaders of the revolt disassociated themselves from Vodou. They strived to be accepted as Frenchmen and good Catholics rather than as free Haitians. Yet most practitioners of Vodou saw, and still see, no contradiction between Vodou and Catholicism, and also take part in Catholic masses.

The Revolution broke up the large land-ownings and created a society of small subsistence farmers. Haitians largely began living in lakous, or extended family compounds, and this enables the preservation of African-derived Creole religions. In 1805, the Roman Catholic Church left Haiti in protest at the Revolution, allowing Vodou to predominate in the country. Many churches were left abandoned by Roman Catholic congregations but were adopted for Vodou rites, continuing the sycretisation between the different systems. The Roman Catholic Church returned to Haiti in 1860.

20th century to the present

François Duvalier, the President of Haiti from 1957 to 1971, appropriated Vodou and utilised it for his own purposes. Duvalier was involved in the noirisme movement and hoped to re-value cultural practices that had their origins in Africa. Duvalier manipulated Vodou to suit his purposes throughout his Reign of Terror. He organized the Vodou priests in the countryside and had them advance his agenda, instilling fear through promoting the belief that he had supernatural powers playing into the religion's mysticism. After his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, was ousted from office in 1986, there were attacks on Vodou specialists, partly motivated by Protestant anti-Vodou campaigns. Two groups, the Zantray and Bode Nasyonal, were formed to defend the rights of Vodouizans to practice their religion. These groups held several rallies and demonstrations in Haiti.

In March 1987, a new Haitian constitution was introduced; Article 30 enshrined freedom of religion in the country. In 2003, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide granted Vodou official recognition as an "essential constitutive element of national identity." This allowed Vodou specialists to register to officiate at civil ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. Since the 1990s, evangelical Protestantism has grown in Haiti, generating tensions with Vodouists. These Protestants have opened a range of medical clinics, schools, orphanages, and other facilities to assist Haiti's poor, with those who join the Protestant churches typically abandoning their practice of Vodou. Protestant groups have focused on seeing to convert oungan and manbo in the hope that the impact filters through the population. The 2010 Haiti earthquake has also fuelled conversion from Vodou to Protestantism in Haiti. Many Protestants, including the U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson, argued that the earthquake was punishment for the sins of the Haitian population, including their practice of Vodou. Mob attacks on Vodou practitioners followed in the wake of the earthquake, and again in the wake of the 2010 cholera outbreak, during which several Vodou priests were lynched.

Today, Vodou is practiced not only by Haitians but by Americans and people of many other nations who have been exposed to Haitian culture. Related forms of Vodou exist in other countries in the forms of Dominican Vudú, Cuban Vodú, Brazilian Vodum, and also in places to which Haitians have immigrated. There has been a re-emergence of the Vodun traditions in the United States, maintaining the same ritual and cosmological elements as in West Africa.


Because of the religious syncretism between Catholicism and Vodou, it is difficult to estimate the number of Vodouists in Haiti. The CIA currently estimates that approximately 50% of Haiti's population practices Vodou, with nearly all Vodouists participating in one of Haiti's Christian denominations.

The majority of Haitians practice both Vodou and Roman Catholicism. An estimated 80% of Haitians practice Vodou.


Fernández Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert stated that Vodou was "the most maligned and misunderstood of all African-inspired religions in the Americas." Ramsey thought that "arguably no religion has been subject to more maligning and misinterpretation from outsiders" during the 19th and 20th centuries," while Donald Cosentino referred to Vodou as "the most fetishized (and consequently most maligned) religion in the world." In broader Anglophone and Francophone society, Haitian Vodou has been widely associated with sorcery and black magic. Its reputation has been described as being notorious. Vodou has often been associated in popular culture with Satanism, witchcraft, zombies and "voodoo dolls". Zombie creation has been referenced within rural Haitian culture, but is not a part of Vodou.

The general fear of Vodou in the US can be traced back to the end of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). There is a legend that Haitians were able to beat the French during the Haitian Revolution because their Vodou deities made them invincible. The US, seeing the tremendous potential Vodou had for rallying its followers and inciting them to action, feared the events at Bois Caïman could spill over onto American soil. After the Haitian Revolution many Haitians fled as refugees to New Orleans. Free and enslaved Haitians who moved to New Orleans brought their religious beliefs with them and reinvigorated the Voodoo practices that were already present in the city. Eventually, Voodoo in New Orleans became hidden and the magical components were left present in the public sphere. This created what is called hoodoo in the southern part of the United States. Because hoodoo is folk magic, Voodoo and Afro-diasporic religions in the U.S. became synonymous with fraud. This is one origin of the stereotype that Haitian Vodou, New Orleans Voodoo, and hoodoo are all tricks used to make money off the gullible.

The elites preferred to view it as folklore in an attempt to render it relatively harmless as a curiosity that might continue to inspire music and dance.

The Vodou pantheon was a major topic for the mid-twentieth century artists of what came to be known as the "Haitian Renaissance." Exhibits of Vodou ritual material have been displayed at museums in the U.S, such as the Fowler Museum. Some ritual paraphernalia has been commodified for sale abroad. In the United States, theatre troupes have been established which stage simulated Vodou rituals for a broader, non-Vodou audience. Some of these have toured internationally, for instance performing in Tokyo, Japan.


Scholarly research on Vodou and other African spiritual retentions in Haiti started in the early 20th century with chronicles such as Zora Neale Hurston's "Tell My Horse", amongst others. Other notable early scholars of Haitian Vodou one could cite are Milo Rigaud, Alfred Metraux and Maya Deren, for example. In April 1997, thirteen scholars gathered at the University of California Santa Barbara for a colloquium on Haitian Vodou. From that meeting the Congress of Santa Barbara was created, also known as KOSANBA. These scholars felt there was a need for access to scholarly resources and course offerings studying Haitian Vodou, and pledged, " create a space where scholarship on Vodou can be augmented."

In the fall of 2012, KOSANBA successfully petitioned the Library of Congress to change the terms "voodoo" and "voodooism" to the correct spelling "Vodou".