A sequined drapo flag, depicting the vèvè symbol of the lwa Loko Atison; these symbols play an important role in Vodou ritual

Haitian Vodou[a] (/ˈvd/) is an African diasporic religion that developed in Haiti between the 16th and 19th centuries. It arose through a process of syncretism between several traditional religions of West and Central Africa and Roman Catholicism. There is no central authority in control of the religion and much diversity exists among practitioners, who are known as Vodouists, Vodouisants, or Serviteurs.

Vodou teaches the existence of a transcendent creator divinity, Bondye, under whom are spirits known as lwa. Typically deriving their names and attributes from traditional West and Central African deities, they are equated with Roman Catholic saints. The lwa divide into different groups, the nanchon ("nations"), most notably the Rada and the Petwo, about whom various myths and stories are told. This theology has been labelled both monotheistic and polytheistic. An initiatory tradition, Vodouists commonly venerate the lwa at an ounfò (temple), run by an oungan (priest) or manbo (priestess). Alternatively, Vodou is also practised within family groups or in secret societies like the Bizango. A central ritual involves practitioners drumming, singing, and dancing to encourage a lwa to possess one of their members and thus communicate with them. Offerings to the lwa, and to spirits of the dead, include fruit, liquor, and sacrificed animals. Several forms of divination are utilized to decipher messages from the lwa. Healing rituals and the preparation of herbal remedies and talismans also play a prominent role.

Vodou developed among Afro-Haitian communities amid the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. Its structure arose from the blending of the traditional religions of those enslaved West and Central Africans brought to the island of Hispaniola, among them Kongo, Fon, and Yoruba. There, it absorbed influences from the culture of the French colonialists who controlled the colony of Saint-Domingue, most notably Roman Catholicism but also Freemasonry. Many Vodouists were involved in the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1801 which overthrew the French colonial government, abolished slavery, and transformed Saint-Domingue into the republic of 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 abroad. The late 20th century saw growing links between Vodou and related traditions in West Africa and the Americas, such as Cuban Santería and Brazilian Candomblé, while some practitioners influenced by the Négritude movement have sought to remove Roman Catholic influences.

Most Haitians practice both Vodou and Roman Catholicism, seeing no contradiction in pursuing the two different systems simultaneously. Smaller Vodouist communities exist elsewhere, especially among Haitian diasporas in Cuba and the United States. Both in Haiti and abroad Vodou has spread beyond its Afro-Haitian origins and is practiced by individuals of various ethnicities. Having faced much criticism through its history, Vodou has been described as one of the world's most misunderstood religions.

Definitions and terminology

Vodou paraphernalia for sale at the Marché de Fer (Iron Market) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Vodou is a religion.[6] More specifically, scholars have characterised it as an Afro-Haitian religion,[7] and as Haiti's "national religion".[8] Its main structure derives from the African traditional religions of West and Central Africa which were brought to Haiti by enslaved Africans between the 16th and 19th centuries.[9] Of these, the greatest influences came from the Fon and Bakongo peoples.[10] On the island, these African religions mixed with the iconography of European-derived traditions such as Roman Catholicism and Freemasonry,[11] taking the form of Vodou around the mid-18th century.[12] In combining varied influences, Vodou has often been described as syncretic,[13] or a "symbiosis",[14] a religion exhibiting diverse cultural influences.[15]

As formed in Haiti, Vodou represented "a new religion",[16] "a creolized New World system",[17] one that differs in many ways from African traditional religions.[18] The scholar Leslie Desmangles therefore called it an "African-derived tradition",[19] Ina J. Fandrich termed it a "neo-African religion",[20] and Markel Thylefors called it an "Afro-Latin American religion".[21] Several other African diasporic religions found in the Americas formed in a similar way, and owing to their shared origins in West African traditional religion, Vodou has been characterized as a "sister religion" of Cuban Santería and Brazilian Candomblé.[22]

Vodou has no central institutional authority,[23] no single leader,[24] and no developed body of doctrine.[25] It thus has no orthodoxy,[26] no central liturgy,[27] and no formal creed.[28] Developing over the course of several centuries,[29] it has changed over time.[30] It displays variation at both the regional and local level[31]—including variation between Haiti and the Haitian diaspora[32]—as well as among different congregations.[33] It is practiced domestically, by families on their land, but also by congregations meeting communally,[34] with the latter termed "temple Vodou".[35]

In Haitian culture, religions are not generally deemed totally autonomous. Many Haitians thus practice both Vodou and Roman Catholicism,[36] with Vodouists usually regarding themselves as Roman Catholics.[37] In Haiti, Vodouists have also practiced Protestantism,[38] Mormonism,[39] or Freemasonry;[40] in Cuba they have involved themselves in Santería,[41] and in the United States with modern Paganism.[42] Vodou has also absorbed elements from other contexts; in Cuba, some Vodouists have adopted elements from Spiritism.[43] Influenced by the Négritude movement, other Vodouists have sought to remove Roman Catholic and other European influences from their practice of Vodou.[44]


In English, Vodou's practitioners are termed Vodouists;[45] in French and Haitian Creole, they are called Vodouisants[46] or Vodouyizan.[47] Another term for adherents is sèvitè (serviteurs, "devotees"),[48] reflecting their self-description as people who sèvi lwa ("serve the lwa"), the supernatural beings that play a central role in Vodou.[49]

An oungan (Vodou priest) with another practitioner at a ceremony in Haiti in 2011

Many words used in the religion derive from the Fon language of West Africa;[50] this includes the word Vodou itself.[9] First recorded in the 1658 Doctrina Christiana,[51] the Fon word Vôdoun was used in the West African kingdom of Dahomey to signify a spirit or deity.[52] In Haitian Creole, Vodou came to designate a specific style of dance and drumming,[53] before outsiders to the religion adopted it as a generic term for much Afro-Haitian religion.[54] The word Vodou now encompasses "a variety of Haiti's African-derived religious traditions and practices",[55] incorporating "a bundle of practices that practitioners themselves do not aggregate".[56] Vodou is thus a term primarily used by scholars and outsiders to the religion;[56] many practitioners describe their belief system with the term Ginen, which especially denotes a moral philosophy and ethical code regarding how to live and to serve the spirits.[32]

Vodou is the common spelling for the religion among scholars, in official Haitian Creole orthography, and by the United States Library of Congress.[57] Some scholars prefer the spellings Vodoun, Voudoun, or Vodun,[58] while in French the spellings vaudou[59] or vaudoux also appear.[60] The spelling Voodoo, once common, is now generally avoided by practitioners and scholars when referring to the Haitian religion.[61] This is both to avoid confusion with Louisiana Voodoo, a related but distinct tradition,[62] and to distinguish it from the negative connotations that the term Voodoo has in Western popular culture.[63]


Bondye and the lwa

A selection of ritual items used in Vodou practice on display in the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Vodou is monotheistic,[64] teaching the existence of a single supreme God.[65] This entity is called Bondye or Bonié,[66] a name deriving from the French term Bon Dieu ("Good God").[67] Another term for it is the Gran Mèt,[68] borrowed from Freemasonry.[40] For Vodouists, Bondye is the ultimate source of power,[69] the creator of the universe,[70] and the maintainer of cosmic order.[71] Haitians frequently use the phrase si Bondye vle ("if Bondye wishes"), suggesting a belief that all things occur in accordance with this divinity's will.[72] Vodouists regard Bondye as being transcendent and remote;[73] as the God is uninvolved in human affairs,[74] they see little point in approaching it directly.[75] While Vodouists often equate Bondye with the Christian God,[76] Vodou does not incorporate belief in a powerful antagonist that opposes the supreme being akin to the Christian notion of Satan.[77]

Vodou has also been characterized as polytheistic.[75] It teaches the existence of beings called the lwa,[78] a term varyingly translated into English as "spirits", "gods", or "geniuses".[79] These lwa are also known as the mystères, anges, saints, and les invisibles,[48] and are sometimes equated with the angels of Christian cosmology.[76] Vodou teaches that there are over a thousand lwa.[80] Serving as Bondye's intermediaries,[81] they communicate with humans through their dreams or by directly possessing them.[82] Vodouists believe the lwa are capable of offering people help, protection, and counsel in return for ritual service.[83] Each lwa has its own personality,[48] and is associated with specific colors,[84] days of the week,[85] and objects.[48] They are however not seen as moral exemplars for practitioners to imitate.[86] The lwa can be either loyal or capricious in their dealings with their devotees;[48] they are easily offended, for instance if offered food they dislike.[87] When angered, the lwa are believed to remove their protection from their devotees, or to inflict misfortune, illness, or madness on an individual.[88]

Although there are exceptions, most lwa names derive from the Fon and Yoruba languages.[89] New lwa are nevertheless added to the pantheon, with both talismans and certain humans thought capable of becoming lwa,[90] in the latter case through their strength of personality or power.[91] Vodouists often refer to the lwa living in the sea or in rivers,[85] or alternatively in Guinea,[92] a term encompassing a generalized understanding of Africa as the ancestral land of the Haitian people.[93]

The nanchon

A painting of the lwa Danbala, a serpent, by Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite. Hyppolite was himself an oungan[94]

The lwa divide into nanchon or "nations".[95] This classificatory system derives from the way in which enslaved Africans were divided into "nations" upon their arrival in Haiti, usually based on their African port of departure rather than their ethno-cultural identity.[48] The term fanmi (family) is sometimes used synonymously with nanchon or alternatively as a sub-division of the latter category.[96] It is often claimed that there are 17 nanchon,[97] of which the Rada and the Petwo are the largest and most dominant.[98]

The Rada lwa are seen as being 'cool'; the Petwo lwa as 'hot'.[99] This means that the Rada are dous or doux, or sweet-tempered, while the Petwo are lwa cho, indicating that they can be forceful or violent and are associated with fire.[100] Whereas the Rada are generally righteous, their Petwo counterparts are more morally ambiguous and associated with issues like money.[101] The Rada owe more to Dahomeyan and Yoruba influences;[102] their name probably comes from Arada, a city in the Dahomey kingdom of West Africa.[103] The Petwo derive largely from Kongo religion,[104] although also exhibit Dahomeyan and creolised influences.[105] Some lwa exist andezo or en deux eaux, meaning that they are "in two waters" and are served in both Rada and Petwo rituals.[106]

Vodou teaches that there are over a thousand lwa,[80] although certain ones are especially widely venerated.[107] In Rada ceremonies, the first lwa saluted is Papa Legba, also known as Legba.[108] Depicted as a feeble old man wearing rags and using a crutch,[109] Papa Legba is the protector of gates and fences and thus of the home, as well as of roads, paths, and crossroads.[110] In Petwo rites, the first lwa invoked is usually Mèt Kalfou.[111] The second lwa usually greeted are the Marasa or sacred twins.[112] In Vodou, every nanchon has its own Marasa,[113] reflecting a belief that twins have special powers.[114] Another important lwa is Agwe, also known as Agwe-taroyo, who is associated with aquatic life and is the protector of ships and fishermen.[115] Agwe is believed to rule the sea with his consort, La Sirène.[116] She is a mermaid, and is sometimes described as Èzili of the Waters because she is believed to bring good luck and wealth from the sea.[117] Also given the name Èzili is Èzili Freda or Erzuli Freda, the lwa of love and luxury who personifies feminine beauty and grace,[118] and Ezili Dantor, who takes the form of a peasant woman.[119]

A vèvè pattern designed to invoke Baron Samedi, the chief of the Gede lwa

Azaka is the lwa of crops and agriculture,[120] usually addressed as "Papa" or "Cousin".[121] His consort is the female lwa Kouzinn.[122] Loco is the lwa of vegetation, and because he is seen to give healing properties to various plant species is considered the lwa of healing too.[123] Ogou is a warrior lwa,[124] associated with weapons.[125] Sogbo is a lwa associated with lightning,[126] while his companion, Bade, is associated with the wind.[127] Danbala is a serpent lwa and is associated with water, being believed to frequent rivers, springs, and marshes;[128] he is one of the most popular deities in the pantheon.[129] Danbala and his consort Ayida-Weddo are often depicted as a pair of intertwining snakes.[128] The Simbi are understood as the guardians of fountains and marshes.[130]

Usually seen as a fanmi rather than a nanchon,[131] the Gede are associated with the realm of the dead.[132] The head of the family is Baron Samedi ("Baron Saturday");[133] he is associated with the phallus, the skull, and the graveyard cross,[134] the latter used to mark out his presence in a Haitian cemetery.[135] His consort is Gran Brigit,[136] who has authority over cemeteries and is mother to many of the other Gede.[137] The Gede regularly satirise the ruling authorities,[138] and are welcomed to rituals as they are thought to bring merriment.[132] The Gede's symbol is an erect penis,[139] while the banda dance associated with them involves sexual-style thrusting,[140] and those possessed by these lwa typically make sexual innuendos.[141]

The lwa and the saints

Most lwa are associated with specific Roman Catholic saints.[142] These links are reliant on "analogies between their respective functions";[143] Azaka, the lwa of agriculture, is for instance associated with Saint Isidore the farmer.[144] Similarly, because he is understood as the "key" to the spirit world, Papa Legba is typically associated with Saint Peter, who is visually depicted holding keys in traditional Roman Catholic imagery.[145] The lwa of love and luxury, Èzili Freda, is associated with Mater Dolorosa.[146] Danbala the serpent is often equated with Saint Patrick, who is traditionally depicted with snakes, or with Moses, whose staff turned into serpents.[147] The Marasa, or sacred twins, are typically equated with the twin saints Cosmos and Damian.[148]

Scholars like Desmangles have argued that Vodouists originally adopted the Roman Catholic saints to conceal lwa worship when the latter was illegal during the colonial period.[149] Observing Vodou in the latter part of the 20th century, Donald J. Cosentino argued that by that point, the use of Roman Catholic saints reflected the genuine devotional expression of many Vodouists.[150] The scholar Marc A. Christophe concurred, stating that most modern Vodouists genuinely see the saints and lwa as one, reflecting Vodou's "all-inclusive and harmonizing characteristics".[151] Many Vodouists possess chromolithographic prints of the saints,[150] while images of these Christian figures can also be found on temple walls,[152] and on the drapo flags used in Vodou ritual.[153] Vodouists also often adopt and reinterpret biblical stories and theorise about the nature of Jesus of Nazareth.[154]

Soul and afterlife

A Haitian drapo banner depicting a Roman Catholic saint

Vodou holds that Bondye created humanity in its image, fashioning humans from water and clay.[155] It teaches the existence of a soul, usually called the nanm,[156] or sometimes the espri,[157] which is divided in two parts.[158] One of these is the ti bonnanj ("little good angel"), understood as the conscience that allows an individual to engage in self-reflection and self-criticism. The other part is the gwo bonnanj ("big good angel") and this constitutes the psyche, source of memory, intelligence, and personhood.[159] Both parts are believed to reside within an individual's head,[160] although the gwo bonnanj is thought capable of leaving the head and travelling while a person sleeps.[161]

Vodouists believe that every individual is connected to a specific lwa, regarded as their mèt tèt (master of the head).[162] They believe that this lwa informs the individual's personality.[163] Vodou holds that the identity of a person's tutelary lwa can be identified through divination or by consulting lwa when they possess other humans.[164] Some of the religion's priests and priestesses are deemed to have "the gift of eyes", capable of seeing the identity of a person's tutelary lwa.[165]

Vodou holds that Bondye has preordained the time of everyone's death,[166] but does not teach the existence of an afterlife realm akin to the Christian ideas of heaven and hell.[167] Instead, a common belief is that at bodily death, the gwo bonnanj join the Ginen, or ancestral spirits, while the ti bonnanj proceeds to face judgement before Bondye.[168] This idea of judgement is more common in urban areas, having been influenced by Roman Catholicism, while in the Haitian mountains it is more common for Vodouists to believe that the ti bonnanj dissolves into the navel of the earth nine days after death.[169] The land of the Ginen is often identified as being located beneath the sea, under the earth, or above the sky.[170] Some Vodouists believe that the gwo bonnanj stays in the land of the Ginen for a year and a day before being absorbed into the Gede family.[171] However, Vodouists usually distinguish the spirits of the dead from the Gede proper, for the latter are lwa.[172] Vodou also teaches that the dead continue to participate in human affairs,[173] with these spirits often complaining that they suffer from hunger, cold, and damp,[174] and thus requiring sacrifices from the living.[75]

Morality, ethics, and gender roles

See also: Haitian Vodou and sexual orientation

Vodou ethical standards correspond to its sense of cosmological order,[71] with a belief in the interdependence of things playing a role in Vodou approaches to ethical issues.[175] Serving the lwa is central to Vodou and its moral codes reflect the reciprocal relationship that practitioners have with these spirits;[176] for Vodouists, virtue is maintained by ensuring a responsible relationship with the lwa.[86] Vodou also promotes a belief in destiny, although individuals are still deemed to have freedom of choice.[177] This view of destiny has been interpreted as encouraging a fatalistic outlook,[178] something that the religion's critics, especially from Christian backgrounds, have argued has discouraged Vodouists from improving their society.[179] This has been extended into an argument that Vodou is responsible for Haiti's poverty,[180] a view that in turn has been accused of being rooted in European colonial prejudices towards Africans.[181]

A vèvè pattern designed to invoke Papa Legba, one of the main lwa spirits worshipped in Haitian Vodou

Although Vodou permeates every aspect of its adherent's lives,[182] it offers no prescriptive code of ethics.[183] Rather than being rule-based, Vodou morality is deemed contextual to the situation,[184] with no clear binary division between good and evil.[185] Vodou reflects people's everyday concerns, focusing on techniques for mitigating illness and misfortune;[186] doing what one needs to in order to survive is considered a high ethic.[187] Among Vodouists, a moral person is regarded as someone who lives in tune with their character and that of their tutelary lwa.[184] In general, acts that reinforce Bondye's power are deemed good; those that undermine it are seen as bad.[71] Maji, meaning the use of supernatural powers for self-serving and malevolent ends, are usually thought bad.[188] The term is quite flexible; it is usually used to denigrate other Vodouists, although some practitioners have used it as a self-descriptor in reference to Petwo rites.[189]

The extended family is of importance in Haitian society,[190] with Vodou reinforcing family ties,[191] and emphasising respect for the elderly.[192] Although there are accounts of male Vodou priests mistreating their female followers,[193] in the religion women can also lay claim to moral authority as social and spiritual leaders.[194] Vodou is also considered sympathetic to gay people,[195] with many gay and bisexual individuals holding status as Vodou priests and priestesses,[196] and some groups having largely gay congregations.[197] Some Vodouists state that the lwa determined their sexual orientation, turning them homosexual,[198] while the lwa Èzili is seen as the patron of masisi (gay men).[199]


The anthropologist Alfred Métraux described Vodou as "a practical and utilitarian religion".[85] Its practices largely revolve around interactions with the lwa,[200] and incorporate song, drumming, dance, prayer, possession, and animal sacrifice.[201] Practitioners gather together for sèvices (services) in which they commune with the lwa.[202] Ceremonies for a particular lwa often coincide with the feast day of the Roman Catholic saint which that lwa is associated with.[203] The mastery of ritual forms is considered imperative in Vodou.[204] The purpose of ritual is to echofe ("heat things up"), thus bringing about change, whether that be to remove barriers or to facilitate healing.[205]

Secrecy is important in Vodou.[206] It is an initiatory tradition,[207] operating through a system of graded induction or initiation.[101] When an individual agrees to serve a lwa, it is deemed a lifelong commitment.[208] Vodou has a strong oral culture, and its teachings are primarily disseminated through oral transmission,[209] although many practitioners began to use texts after they appeared in the mid-20th century.[210] The terminology used in Vodou ritual is called langaj.[211] Unlike in Santería and Candomblé, which employ Yoruba as a liturgical language not understood by most practitioners, in Vodou the liturgies are predominantly in Haitian Creole, the everyday language of most Vodouists.[212]

Oungan and Manbo

Ceremonial suit worn in Haitian Vodou rites, on display in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, Germany

Male priests are referred to as an oungan, alternatively spelled houngan or hungan,[213] or a prèt Vodou ("Vodou priest").[214] Priestesses are termed manbo, alternatively spelled mambo.[215] Oungan numerically dominate in rural Haiti, while there is a more equitable balance of priests and priestesses in urban areas.[216] The oungan and manbo are tasked with organising liturgies, preparing initiations, offering consultations with clients using divination, and preparing remedies for the sick.[217] There is no priestly hierarchy, with oungan and manbo being largely self-sufficient.[217] In many cases, the role is hereditary.[218] Historical evidence suggests that the role of the oungan and manbo intensified over the course of the 20th century.[219] As a result, "temple Vodou" is now more common in rural areas of Haiti than it was in historical periods.[220]

Vodou teaches that the lwa call an individual to become an oungan or manbo,[221] and if the latter refuses then misfortune may befall them.[222] A prospective oungan or manbo must normally rise through the other roles in a Vodou congregation before undergoing an apprenticeship with a pre-existing oungan or manbo lasting several months or years.[223] After this apprenticeship, they undergo an initiation ceremony, the details of which are kept secret from non-initiates.[224] Other oungan and manbo do not undergo any apprenticeship, but claim that they have gained their training directly from the lwa.[225] Their authenticity is often challenged, and they are referred to as hungan-macoutte, a term bearing some disparaging connotations.[223] Becoming an oungan or manbo is expensive, often requiring the purchase of ritual paraphernalia and land on which to build a temple.[226] To finance this, many save up for a long time.[226]

Vodouists believe that the oungan's role is modelled on the lwa Loco;[227] in Vodou mythology, he was the first oungan and his consort Ayizan the first manbo.[228] The oungan and manbo are expected to display the power of second sight,[229] something regarded as a gift from Bondye that can be revealed to the individual through visions or dreams.[230] Many priests and priestesses are often attributed fantastical powers in stories told about them,[231] and may bolster their status with claims to have received revelations from the lwa, sometimes via visits to the lwa's own abode.[232]

There is often bitter competition between different oungan and manbo.[233] Their main income derives from healing the sick, supplemented with payments received for overseeing initiations and selling talismans and amulets.[234] In many cases, oungan and manbo become wealthier than their clients.[235] Oungan and manbo are generally powerful and well-respected members of Haitian society.[236] Being an oungan or manbo provides an individual with both social status and material profit,[237] although the fame and reputation of individual priests and priestesses can vary widely.[238] Respected Vodou priests and priestesses are often literate in a society where semi-literacy and illiteracy are common.[239] They can recite from printed texts and write letters for illiterate members of their community.[239] Owing to their prominence in a community, the oungan and manbo can effectively become political leaders,[230] or otherwise exert an influence on local politics.[237]

The ounfò

A Vodou temple is called an ounfò,[240] varyingly spelled hounfò,[241] hounfort,[242] or humfo.[34] An alternative term is gangan, although the connotations of this term vary regionally in Haiti.[243] Most communal Vodou activities centre around this ounfò,[228] forming what is called "temple Vodou".[35] The size and shape of ounfòs vary, from basic shacks to more lavish structures, the latter being more common in Port-au-Prince.[228] Their designs are dependent on the resources and tastes of the oungan or manbo running them.[244] Each ounfò is autonomous,[245] and often has its own unique customs.[246]

A Vodou peristil in Croix des Mission, Haiti, photographed in 1980

The main ceremonial room in the ounfò is the peristil,[247] understood as a microcosmic representation of the cosmos.[248] In the peristil, brightly painted posts hold up the roof;[249] the central post is the poto mitan,[250] which is used as a pivot during ritual dances and the pillar through which the lwa enter the room during ceremonies.[249] It is around this central post that offerings, including both vèvè patterns and animal sacrifices, are made.[200] However, in the Haitian diaspora many Vodouists perform their rites in basements, where no poto mitan are available.[251] The peristil typically has an earthen floor, allowing libations to the lwa to drain directly into the soil;[252] where this is not possible, libations are poured into an enamel basin.[253] Some peristil include seating around the walls.[254]

Adjacent rooms in the ounfò include the caye-mystéres, also known as the bagi, badji, or sobadji.[255] This is where stonework altars, known as , stand against the wall or are arranged in tiers.[255] Also present may be a sink dedicated to the lwa Danbala-Wedo.[256] The caye-mystéres is also used to store clothing that will be worn by those possessed by the lwa during rituals.[257] If space is available, the ounfò may also have a room set aside for the patron lwa of that temple.[258] Many ounfòs have a room known as the djévo in which the initiate is confined during their initiatory ceremony.[257] Every ounfò usually has a room or corner of a room devoted to Erzuli Freda.[259] Some ounfò will also have additional rooms in which the oungan or manbo lives.[258]

The area around the ounfò often contains objects dedicated to particular lwa, such as a pool of water for Danbala, a black cross for Baron Samedi, and a pince (iron bar) embedded in a brazier for Criminel.[260] Sacred trees, known as arbres-reposoirs, sometimes mark the ounfò's external boundary.[261] Hanging from these trees can be found macounte straw sacks, strips of material, and animal skulls.[261] Various animals, particularly birds but also some mammal species such as goats, are sometimes kept within the perimeter of the ounfò for use as sacrifices.[261]

The congregation

A Vodou ceremony taking place in an ounfò in Jacmel, Haiti

Forming a spiritual community of practitioners,[200] the ounfò's congregation are known as the pititt-caye (children of the house).[262] They worship under the authority of an oungan or manbo,[34] below whom is ranked the ounsi, individuals who make a lifetime commitment to serving the lwa.[263] Members of either sex can join the ounsi, although most are female.[264] The ounsi's duties include cleaning the peristil, sacrificing animals, and taking part in the dances at which they must be prepared to be possessed by a lwa.[265] The oungan and manbo conduct initiatory ceremonies whereby people become ounsi,[230] oversee their training,[228] and act as their counsellor, healer, and protector.[266] In turn, the ounsi are expected to be obedient to their oungan or manbo.[265]

One of the ounsi becomes the hungenikon or reine-chanterelle, the mistress of the choir. They are responsible for overseeing the liturgical singing and shaking the chacha rattle which dictates the rhythm during ceremonies.[267] They are aided by the hungenikon-la-place, commandant general de la place, or quartermaster, who is charged with overseeing offerings and keeping order during the rites.[228] Another figure is le confiance (the confidant), the ounsi who oversees the ounfò's administrative functions.[268] Congregants often form a sosyete soutyen (société soutien, support society), through which subscriptions are paid to help maintain the ounfò and organize the major religious feasts.[269]

In rural areas especially, a congregation may consist of an extended family.[217] Here, the priest will often be the patriarch of that family.[270] Families, particularly in rural areas, often believe that through their zansèt (ancestors) they are tied to a premye mèt bitasyon (original founder); their descent from this figure is seen as giving them their inheritance both of the land and of familial spirits.[32] In other examples, particularly in urban areas, an ounfò can act as an initiatory family.[271] A priest becomes the papa ("father") while the priestess becomes the manman ("mother") to the initiate;[272] the initiate becomes their initiator's pitit (spiritual child).[210] Those who share an initiator refer to themselves as "brother" and "sister."[223] Individuals may join a particular ounfò because it exists in their locality or because their family are already members. Alternatively, it may be that the ounfò places particular focus on a lwa whom they are devoted to, or that they are impressed by the oungan or manbo who runs the ounfò in question, perhaps having been treated by them.[265]


A vèvè pattern designed to invoke Gran Brigit, one of the lwa spirits worshipped in Haitian Vodou

Vodou is hierarchical and includes a series of initiations.[273] There are typically four levels of initiation,[274] the fourth of which makes someone an oungan or manbo.[275] There is much variation in what these initiation ceremonies entail,[113] and the details are kept secret.[276] Each initiatory stage is associated with a state of mind called a konesan (conaissance or knowledge).[277] Successive initiations are required to move through the various konesans,[230] and it is in these konesans that priestly power is believed to reside.[278]

The first initiation rite is the kanzo;[279] this term also describes the initiate themselves.[280] Initiation is generally expensive,[281] complex,[275] and requires significant preparation.[113] Prospective initiates are for instance required to memorise many songs and learn the characteristics of various lwa.[113] Vodouists believe the lwa may encourage an individual towards initiation, bringing misfortune upon them if they refuse.[282]

Initiation will often be preceded by bathing in special preparations.[283] The first part of the initiation rite is known as the kouche or huño, and is marked by salutations and offerings to the lwa.[284] It begins with the chire ayizan, a ceremony in which palm leaves are frayed and then worn by the initiate.[113] Sometimes the bat ge or batter guerre ("beating war") is performed instead, designed to beat away the old.[113] During the rite, the initiate comes to be regarded as the child of a particular lwa, their mèt tèt.[113]

This is followed by a period of seclusion within the djèvo known as the kouche.[113] A deliberately uncomfortable experience,[160] it involves the initiate sleeping on a mat on the floor, often with a stone for a pillow.[285] They wear a white tunic,[286] and a specific salt-free diet is followed.[287] It includes a lav tèt ("head washing") to prepare the initiate for having the lwa enter and reside in their head.[288] Voudoists believe that one of the two parts of the human soul, the gwo bonnanj, is removed from the initiate's head, thus making space for the lwa to enter and reside there.[160]

The initiation ceremony requires the preparation of pot tèts (head pots), usually white porcelain cups with a lid in which a range of items are placed, including hair, food, herbs, and oils. These are regarded as a home for the spirits.[289] After the period of seclusion in the djèvo, the new initiate is brought out and presented to the congregation; they are now referred to as ounsi lave tèt.[113] When the new initiate is presented to the rest of the community, they carry their pot tèt on their head, before placing it on the altar.[160] The final stage of the process involves the initiate being given an ason rattle.[290] The initiation process is seen to have ended when the new initiate is first possessed by a lwa.[160] Initiation is seen as creating a bond between a devotee and their tutelary lwa,[291] and the former will often take on a new name that alludes to the name of this lwa.[292]

Shrines and altars

An altar in Boston, Massachusetts established during the November festival of the Gede

The creation of sacred works is important in Vodou.[204] Votive objects used in Haiti are typically made from industrial materials, including iron, plastic, sequins, china, tinsel, and plaster.[30] An altar, or , will often contain images (typically lithographs) of Roman Catholic saints.[293] Since developing in the mid-19th 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.[294] 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 wearing a black sombrero,[295] and in another by a statue of Star Wars-character Darth Vader.[296] In Port-au-Prince, it is common for Vodouists to include human skulls on their altar for the Gede.[214] In ounfòs where both Rada and Petwo deities are worshipped, their altars are kept separate.[297]

Various spaces other than the temple are used for Vodou ritual.[298] Cemeteries are seen as places where spirits reside, making them suitable for certain rituals,[298] especially to approach the spirits of the dead.[299] In rural Haiti, cemeteries are often family owned and play a key role in family rituals.[300] Crossroads are also ritual locations, selected as they are believed to be points of access to the spirit world.[298] Other spaces used for Vodou rituals include Christian churches, rivers, the sea, fields, and markets.[298]

An ason, the ritual rattle emblematic of the Vodou priesthood

Certain trees are regarded as having spirits resident in them and are used as natural altars.[239] Different species of tree are associated with different lwa; Oyu, for example, is linked with mango trees, and Danbala with bougainvillea.[85] Selected trees in Haiti have had metal items affixed to them, serving as shrines to Ogou, who is associated with both iron and the roads.[301] Spaces for ritual also appear in the homes of many Vodouists.[302] These may vary from complex altars to more simple variants including only images of saints alongside candles and a rosary.[35] Many practitioners will also have an altar devoted to their ancestors in their home, to which they direct offerings.[303]

Drawings known as vèvè are sketched onto the floor of the peristil using cornmeal, ash, coffee grounds, or powdered eggshells;[304] these are central to Vodou ritual.[248] Usually arranged symmetrically around the poto-mitan,[305] these designs sometimes incorporate letters;[239] their purpose is to summon lwa.[305] Inside the peristil, practitioners also unfurl ceremonial flags known as drapo (flags) at the start of a ceremony.[306] Often made of silk or velvet and decorated with shiny objects such as sequins,[307] the drapo often feature either the vèvè of specific lwa they are dedicated to or depictions of the associated Roman Catholic saint.[153] These drapo are understood as points of entry through which the lwa can enter the peristil.[308]

A batèms (baptism) is a ritual used to make an object a vessel for the lwa.[309] Objects consecrated for ritual use are believed to contain a spiritual essence or power called nanm.[310] The ason is a sacred rattle used in summoning the lwa,[311] especially for Rada rites.[312] It consists of an empty, dried gourd covered in beads and snake vertebra.[313] Prior to being used in ritual it requires consecration.[314] It is a symbol of the priesthood;[314] assuming the duties of a manbo or oungan is referred to as "taking the ason."[315] For Petwo rites a different rattle, the tcha-tcha, is favored.[312] Another type of sacred object are the "thunder stones", often prehistoric axe-heads, which are associated with specific lwa and kept in oil to preserve their power.[316]

Offerings and animal sacrifice

A drapo flag, which are used to invoke the lwa at Vodou ceremonies

Feeding the lwa is of great importance,[317] with offering rites often termed manje lwa ("feeding the lwa").[318] Offering food and drink to the lwa is Vodou's most common ritual, conducted both communally and in the home.[317] The choice of food and drink offered varies depending on the lwa in question, with different lwa believed to favor different foodstuffs.[319] Danbala for instance requires white foods, especially eggs,[320] while Legba's offerings, whether meat, tubers, or vegetables, need to be grilled on a fire.[317] The lwa of the Ogu and Nago nations prefer raw rum or clairin,[317] while the lwa Ayizan avoids alcohol.[321] Certain foods are also offered in the belief that they are intrinsically virtuous, such as grilled maize, peanuts, and cassava.[176]

A manje sèk (dry meal) is an offering of grains, fruit, and vegetables that often precedes a simple ceremony; it takes its name from the absence of blood.[322] Animal sacrifices are often favored at annual feasts that an oungan or manbo organizes for their congregation.[176] Species used for sacrifice include chickens, goats, and bulls, with pigs often favored for Petwo lwa.[323] The animal may be washed, dressed in the color of the specific lwa, and marked with food or water.[324] Often, the animal's throat will be cut and the blood collected in a calabash.[325] Chickens are often killed by the pulling off of their heads; their limbs may be broken beforehand.[326] In the case of Agwé, a lwa of the sea, a white sheep may be sailed out to Trois Ilets and thrown overboard as a sacrifice.[327]

Once killed, the animal may be butchered and organs removed, sometimes cooked, and placed on the altar or vèvè.[328] Here, it sometimes sites within a kwi, a calabash shell bowl.[329] Vodouists believe that the lwa consume the essence of the food.[176] Food is typically offered when it is cool, and is left for a while before humans may eat it.[329] Offerings not consumed by the celebrants are often buried or left at a crossroads.[330] Libations might be poured into the ground.[176]

The Dans

Multiple styles of drum are employed in Vodou ritual; this example is used in rites invoking Rada lwa

Vodou's nocturnal gatherings are often referred to as the dans ("dance"), reflecting the prominent role that dancing has in such ceremonies.[251] Their purpose is to invite a lwa to enter the ritual space and possess one of the worshippers, through whom they can communicate with the congregation.[331] The success of this procedure is predicated on mastering the different ritual actions and on getting the aesthetic right to please the lwa.[331] The proceedings can last for the entirety of the night.[251]

On arriving, the congregation typically disperse along the perimeter of the peristil.[251] The ritual often begins with Roman Catholic prayers and hymns;[332] these are often led by a figure known as the prèt savann, although not all ounfò have anyone in this role.[333] This is followed by the shaking of the ason rattle to summon the lwa.[334] Two Haitian Creole songs, the Priyè Deyò ("Outside Prayers"), may then be sung, lasting from 45 minutes to an hour.[335] The main lwa are then saluted, individually, in a specific order.[335] Legba always comes first, as he is believed to open the way for the others.[335] Each lwa may be offered either three or seven songs, which are specific to them.[336]

The rites employed to call down the lwa vary depending on the nanchon in question.[337] During large-scale ceremonies, the lwa are invited to appear through the drawing of vèvè on the ground using cornmeal.[220] Also used to call down the spirits is a process of drumming, singing, prayers, and dances.[220] Libations and offerings of food are made to the lwa, which includes animal sacrifices.[220] The order and protocol for welcoming the lwa is referred to as regleman.[338]

Dancing at Vodou ceremony in Port-au-Prince in 1976

A symbol of the religion,[339] the drum is perhaps the most sacred item in Vodou.[340] Vodouists believe that ritual drums contain an etheric force, the nanm,[341] and a spirit called ountò.[342] Specific ceremonies accompany the construction of a drum so that it is considered suitable for ritual use.[343] In the bay manje tanbou ("feeding of the drum") ritual, offerings are given to the drum itself.[341] Reflecting its status, when Vodouists enter the peristil they customarily bow before the drums.[344] Different types of drum are used, sometimes reserved for rituals devoted to specific lwa; Petwo rites for instance involve two types of drum, whereas Rada rituals require three.[345] Ritual drummers are called tanbouryes,[346] and becoming one requires a lengthy apprenticeship.[347] The drumming style, choice of rhythm, and composition of the orchestra differs depending on which nation of lwa are being invoked.[348] The drum rhythms typically generate a kase ("break"), which the master drummer will initiate to oppose the main rhythm being played by the rest of the drummers. This is seen as having a destabilizing effect on the dancers and helping to facilitate their possession.[349]

Drumming is typically accompanied by singing,[344] usually in Haitian Creole,[350] although sometimes in Fon or Yoruba.[351] These songs are often structured around a call and response, with a soloist singing a line and the chorus responding with either the same line or an abbreviated version.[352] The soloist is the oundjenikon, who maintains the rhythm with a rattle.[353] Lyrically simple and repetitive, these songs are invocations to summon a lwa.[344] Dancing also plays a major role in ritual,[354] utilising the rhythm of the drummers.[352] The dances are simple, lacking complex choreography, and usually involve the dancers moving counterclockwise around the poto mitan.[355] Specific dance movements can indicate the lwa or their nanchon being summoned;[356] dances for Agwe for instance imitate swimming motions.[357] Vodouists believe that the lwa renew themselves through the vitality of the dancers.[358]

Spirit possession

Drummer Frisner Augustin in a Vodou ceremony in Brooklyn, New York City during the early 1980s.

Spirit possession is important,[359] being central to many Vodou rituals.[86] The person being possessed is called the chwal (horse);[360] the act of possession is termed "mounting a horse".[361] Vodou teaches that both male and female lwa can possess either men or women.[362] Although children are often present at these ceremonies,[363] they are rarely possessed as it is considered too dangerous.[364] Some individuals attending the dance will put a certain item, often wax, in their hair or headgear to prevent possession.[365] While the specific drums and songs used are designed to encourage a specific lwa to possess someone, sometimes an unexpected lwa appears and takes possession instead.[366]

The possession trance is termed the kriz lwa.[347] Vodouists believe that the lwa enters the head of the chwal and displaces their gwo bon anj,[367] making the chwal tremble and convulse.[368] As their consciousness has been removed from their head during the possession, Vodouists believe that the chwal will have no memory of the incident.[369] The length of the possession varies, often lasting a few hours but sometimes several days.[370] Sometimes a succession of lwa possess the same individual, one after the other.[371] Possession may end with the chwal collapsing in a semi-conscious state,[372] being left physically exhausted.[358]

Once the lwa possesses an individual, the congregation greet it with a burst of song and dance.[358] The chwal will typically bow before the officiating priest or priestess and prostrate before the poto mitan.[373] The chwal is often escorted into an adjacent room where they are dressed in clothing associated with the possessing lwa. Alternatively, the clothes are brought out and they are dressed in the peristil itself.[374] These costumes and props help the chwal take on the appearance of the lwa;[352] many ounfò have a large wooden phallus used by those possessed by Gede lwa, for instance.[375] Once the chwal has been dressed, congregants kiss the floor before them.[362]

The chwal adopts the behavior of the possessing lwa;[376] their performance can be very theatrical.[366] Those believing themselves possessed by the serpent Danbala, for instance, often slither on the floor, dart out their tongue, and climb the posts of the peristil.[128] Those possessed by Zaka, lwa of agriculture, will dress as a peasant in a straw hat with a clay pipe and will often speak in a rustic accent.[377] The chwal will often join in with the dances,[358] eat or drink.[352] Sometimes the lwa, through the chwal, will engage in financial transactions with members of the congregation, for instance by selling them food that has been given as an offering or lending them money.[378]

Possession facilitates direct communication between Vodouists and the lwa;[358] through the chwal, the lwa communicates with their devotees, offering counsel, chastisement, blessings, warnings about the future, and healing.[379] Lwa possession has a healing function, with the possessed individual expected to reveal possible cures to the ailments of those assembled.[358] Clothing that the chwal touches is regarded as bringing luck.[380] The lwa may also offer advice to the individual they are possessing; because the latter is not believed to retain any memory of the events, it is expected that other members of the congregation will pass along the lwa's message.[380] In some instances, practitioners have reported being possessed at other times of ordinary life, such as when someone is in the middle of the market,[381] or when they are asleep.[382]


A common form of divination employed by oungan and manbo is to invoke a lwa into a pitcher, where it will then be asked questions.[383] Other forms of divination used by Vodouists include the casting of shells,[383] cartomancy,[384] studying leaves, coffee grounds or cinders in a glass, or looking into a candle flame.[385] A form of divination associated especially with Petwo lwa is the use of a gembo shell, sometimes with a mirror attached to one side and affixed at both ends to string. The string is twirled and the directions of the shell used to interpret the responses of the lwa.[383]


A pakèt kongo on display in the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen in the Netherlands

Healing plays an important role in Vodou.[386] A client will approach a manbo or oungan complaining of illness or misfortune and the latter will use divination to determine the cause and select a remedy.[387] Manbo and oungan typically have a wide knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses.[189] When collecting plants they are expected to show them respect, for instance by leaving coins in payment for removing leaves.[388]

To heal, Vodou specialists often prescribe baths, consisting of water infused with various ingredients,[389] or produce powders for a specific purpose, such as to attract good luck or aid seduction.[390] Alternatively, they may create a material object infused with spirits or medicines, a wanga,[391] although these can also be devoted to harmful purposes.[392] Manbo and oungan often provide talismans,[393] called a pwen (point),[394] travay (work),[395] travay maji (magic work),[396] pakèt or pakèt kongo.[397] The latter term highlights the potential influence of the Bakongo minkisi on these Haitian ritual creations.[398]

In Haiti, oungan or manbo may advise their clients to seek assistance from medical professionals, while the latter may also send their patients to see an oungan or manbo.[235] Although in the late 20th century there were concerns that the Haitian reliance on oungan and manbo was contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS,[399] by the early 21st century, various NGOs and other groups were working on bringing Vodou officiants into the broader campaign against the virus.[400] In Haiti, there are also doktè fèy ("herb doctors"; "leaf doctors") who offer herbal remedies for ailments but deal in fewer problems than oungan and manbo.[401]

Harming practices

Vodou teaches that supernatural factors cause or exacerbate many problems.[402] It holds that humans can cause supernatural harm to others, either unintentionally or deliberately,[403] in the latter case exerting power over a person through possession of hair or nail clippings belonging to them.[404] Vodouists also often believe that supernatural harm can be caused by other entities. The lougawou is a human, usually female, who transforms into an animal and drains blood from sleeping victims,[405] while members of the Bizango secret society are feared for their reputed ability to transform into dogs, in which form they walk the streets at night.[406]

An individual who turns to the lwa to harm others is a choché,[185] or a bòkò,[407] although this latter term can also refer to an oungan generally.[185] They are described as someone who sert des deux mains ("serves with both hands"),[408] or is travaillant des deux mains ("working with both hands").[221] As the good lwa have rejected them as unworthy, bòko are believed to work with lwa achte ("bought lwa"),[409] spirits that will work for anyone who pays them,[410] and often members of the Petwo nanchon.[411] According to Haitian popular belief, bòkò engage in anvwamò ("expeditions"), setting the dead against an individual to cause the latter's sudden illness and death,[412] and utilise baka, malevolent spirits sometimes in animal form.[413] In Haiti, there is much suspicion and censure toward those suspected of being bòkò.[221] The curses of the bòkò are believed to be countered by the oungan and manbo, who can revert the curse through an exorcism that incorporates invocations of protective lwa, massages, and baths.[414] In Haiti, some oungan and manbo have been accused of working with a bòkò, arranging for the latter to curse individuals so that they can financially profit from removing these curses.[221]

Funerals, the dead, and zonbis

A cross in a Haitian cemetery, photographed in 2012. The crucifix is central to the iconography of the Gede; the Baron La Croix is a public crucifix associated with Baron Samedi, chief of the Gede.[415]

Vodou features complex funerary customs.[416] Following an individual's death, the desounen ritual frees the gwo bonnanj from their body and disconnects them from their tutelary lwa.[417] The corpse is then bathed in a herbal infusion by an individual termed the benyè, who gives the dead person messages to take with them.[418] A wake, the veye, follows.[419] The body is then buried in the cemetery,[420] often according to Roman Catholic custom.[421]

In northern Haiti, an additional rite takes place at the ounfò on the day of the funeral, the kase kanari (breaking of the clay pot). In this, a jar is washed in substances including kleren, placed within a trench dug into the peristil floor, and smashed. The trench is then refilled.[422] The night after the funeral, the novena takes place at the home of the deceased, involving Roman Catholic prayers;[423] a mass for them is held a year after death.[424] Vodouists fear the dead's ability to harm the living;[425] it is believed that the deceased may for instance punish their living relatives if the latter fail to appropriately mourn them.[426]

Many Vodouists believe that a practitioner's spirit dwells in the land of Ginen, located at the bottom of a lake or river, for a year and a day.[427] A year and a day after death, the wete mò nan dlo ("extracting the dead from the waters of the abyss") ritual may take place, in which the deceased's gwo bonnanj is reclaimed from the realm of the dead and placed into a clay jar or bottle called the govi. Now ensconced in the world of the living, the gwo bonnanj of this ancestor is deemed capable of assisting its descendants and guiding them with its wisdom.[428] Practitioners sometimes believe that failing to conduct this ritual can result in misfortune, illness, and death for the family of the deceased.[429] Offerings then given to this spirit of the dead are termed manje mò.[430] The notion of a spirit being encased in a vessel and then used for workings likely derives from Bakongo influences,[431] and has similarities with the Bakongo-derived Palo religion from Cuba.[432]

Haitian skulls at the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin. In Vodou, human skulls may be used either for sorcery or for healing.[433]

Another belief about the dead, that of zonbis, is one of the most sensationalized aspects of Haitian religion.[434] Zonbi are often regarded as the gwo bonnanj of the recently deceased that have been captured and forced to work for their master.[435] The gwo bonnanj may then be kept inside a bottle or other vessel.[436] The practice is often linked to Chanpwèl (secret societies), which are suspected of murdering the individual they wish to turn into a zonbi.[437] To achieve this, they may obtain the bones of a deceased person, especially their skull, sometimes by bribing cemetery workers;[438] the skull will often be baptised, given food, and set a particular task to specialise in, such as healing a specific malady.[47] Those intending to take a gwo bonnanj as a zonbi may have to borrow or buy them from Baron Samedi.[439]

An alternative idea in Haitian lore is that it is the body that is turned into a zonbi,[440] in which case a bòkò has seized an individual's ti bonnanj and left the body as an empty vessel that can be manipulated.[441] The reality of this phenomenon is contested,[439] although the anthropologist Wade Davis argued that this was based on a real practice whereby Bizango societies used poisons to make certain individuals more pliant.[442] Haitians generally do not fear zonbis, but rather fear becoming one themselves.[441] The figure of the zonbi has also been interpreted as a metaphor for the enslavement central to Haitian history.[443]

Festival and pilgrimage

Vodouists washing in a river following a ceremony; photographed in Haiti in 2010

On the saints' days of the Roman Catholic calendar, Vodouists often hold "birthday parties" for the lwa associated with the saint whose day it is.[444] These are marked with special altars for the celebrated lwa,[445] as well as the preparation of their preferred food.[446] Devotions to the Gede are particularly common around the days of the dead, All Saints (1 November) and All Souls (2 November),[447] with celebrations largely taking place in the cemeteries of Port-au-Prince.[448] At this festival, those devoted to the Gede dress in black and purple, with funeral frock coats, black veils, and top hats, all linking to the Gede's associations with death.[449]

The build-up to Easter sees Rara bands, largely consisting of peasants and the urban poor, process through the streets singing and dancing.[450] Each Rara band is considered to be under the patronage of a particular lwa, holding a contract with them that typically lasts seven years.[451] Performing Rara is regarded as a service to the lwa,[452] and some Rara leaders claim that a lwa instructed them to form their band.[453] An oungan will typically be part of the Rara band and will oversee their religious obligations, for instance performing rituals during their procession,[454] or providing members with a benyen protective bath before they perform.[455] They may also attempt to curse or poison rival Rara bands.[456]

Pilgrimage is part of Haitian religious culture.[457] In late July, Vodouist 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 twou (mud pits).[458] The pilgrims often mass before the Church of Saint Jacques, with Saint Jacques perceived as being the lwa Ogou.[459] Another pilgrimage site is Saint d'Eau, a mountain associated with the lwa Èzili Dantò.[460] Pilgrims visit a site outside the town of Ville-Bonheur where Èzili is claimed to have once appeared; there, they bathe under waterfalls.[461] Haitian pilgrims commonly wear coloured ropes around their head or waist;[457] a tradition that may derive from a Bakongo custom, kanga ("to tie"), during which sacred objects were bound with rope.[462]


Before the Revolution

Area of West African Vodun practice, the religion with the greatest influence on Haitian Vodou

In 1492, Christopher Columbus' expedition established a Spanish colony on Hispaniola.[463] A growing European presence decimated the island's indigenous population, which was probably Taíno, both through introduced diseases and exploitation as laborers.[464] The European colonists then turned to imported West African slaves as a new source of labor; Africans first arrived on Hispaniola circa 1512.[465] Most of the enslaved were prisoners of war.[466] Some were probably priests of traditional religions, helping to transport their rites to the Americas.[466] Others were probably Muslim, although Islam exerted little influence on Vodou,[467] while some probably practiced traditional religions that had already absorbed Roman Catholic iconographic influences.[468]

By the late 16th century, French colonists were settling in western Hispaniola; Spain recognized French sovereignty over that part of the island, which became Saint-Domingue, in a series of treaties signed in 1697.[469] Moving away from its previous subsistence economy, in the 18th century Saint-Domingue refocused its economy around the mass export of indigo, coffee, sugar, and cocoa to Europe.[470] To work the plantations, the French colonists placed a renewed emphasis on importing enslaved Africans; whereas there were twice as many Africans as Europeans in the colony in 1681, by 1790 there were eleven times as many Africans as Europeans.[471] Ultimately, Saint-Domingue became the colony with the largest number of slaves in the Caribbean.[472]

Roman Catholicism was the official religion of Saint-Domingue.[473] The Code Noir issued by King Louis XIV in 1685 forbade the open practice of African religions on the colony.[474] This Code compelled slave-owners to have their slaves baptised and instructed as Roman Catholics;[475] the fact that the process of enslavement led to these Africans becoming Christian was a key way in which the slave-owners sought to morally legitimate their actions.[476] However, many slave-owners took little interest in having their slaves instructed in Roman Catholic teaching;[476] they often did not want their slaves to spend time celebrating saints' days rather than laboring and were also concerned that black congregations could provide scope to foment revolt.[477]

Enslavement destroyed the social fabric of African traditional religions, which were typically rooted in ethnic and family membership.[478] Although certain cultural assumptions about the nature of the universe would have been widely shared among the enslaved Africans, they came from diverse linguistic and ethno-cultural backgrounds and had to forge common cultural practices on Hispaniola.[479] Gradually over the course of the 18th century, Vodou emerged as "a composite of various African ethnic traditions", merging diverse practices into a more cohesive form.[480]

African religions had to be practiced secretly, with Roman Catholic iconography and rituals probably used to conceal the true identity of the deities venerated.[149] This resulted in a system of correspondences between African spirits and Roman Catholic saints.[149] Afro-Haitians adopted other aspects of French colonial culture;[481] Vodou drew influence from European grimoires,[482] commedia performances,[483] and Freemasonry, with Masonic lodges having been established across Saint-Domingue in the 18th century.[484] Vodou rituals took place in secret, usually at night; one such rite was described during the 1790s by a white man, Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry.[485] Some enslaved Afro-Haitians escaped to form Maroon groups, which often practiced Vodou.[486]

The Haitian Revolution and the 19th century

The Affaire de Bizoton of 1864. The murder and alleged cannibalization of a child by eight Vodou devotees caused a scandal worldwide and was taken as proof of the evil nature of Vodou.

In Haitian lore, Vodou is often presented as having played a vital role in the Haitian Revolution,[21] although scholars debate the extent to which this is true.[487] According to legend, a Vodou ritual took place in Bois-Caïman on 14 August 1791 at which the participants swore to overthrow the slave owners before massacring local whites and sparking the Revolution.[488] Although a popular tale in Haitian folklore, it has no historical evidence to support it.[489] Moreover, two of the revolution's early leaders, Boukman and Francois Mackandal, were reputed to be powerful oungans.[490] Amid growing rebellion, the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte ordered troops into the colony in 1801,[491] but in 1803 the French conceded defeat and the rebel leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed Saint-Domingue to be a new republic named Haiti.[492]

The Revolution broke up the large land-ownings and created a society of small subsistence farmers.[493] Haitians largely began living in lakous, or extended family compounds, which enabled the preservation of African-derived Creole religions.[494] These lakous often had their own lwa rasin (root lwa),[495] being intertwined with concepts of land and kinship.[496] Many Roman Catholic missionaries had been killed in the Revolution,[497] and after its victory Dessalines declared himself head of the Church in Haiti.[497] Protesting these actions, the Roman Catholic Church cut ties with Haiti in 1805;[498] this allowed Vodou to predominate in the country.[499] Many churches left abandoned were adopted for Vodou rites, continuing the syncretization between the two systems.[500] At this point, with no new arrivals from Africa, Vodou began to stabilise,[501] transforming from "a widely-scattered series of local cults" into "a religion".[502] The Roman Catholic Church re-established its formal presence in Haiti in 1860.[499]

Haiti's first three presidents sought to suppress Vodou, using police to break-up rituals which they feared as a source of rebellion.[503] In 1847, Faustin Soulouque became president; he was sympathetic to Vodou and allowed it to be practiced more openly.[504] In the Bizoton Affair of 1863, several Vodou practitioners were accused of ritually killing a child before eating it. Historical sources suggest that they may have been tortured prior to confessing to the crime, at which they were executed.[505] The affair received much attention.[505]

20th century to the present

Haitian president François Duvalier called Vodou "the supreme factor of Haitian unity".[506]

The United States occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934,[507] although it faced armed resistance from Haitian peasants, many of them Vodouists.[508] American occupation encouraged international interest in Vodou,[509] something catered for in the sensationalist writings of Faustin Wirkus, William Seabrook, and John Craige,[510] as well as in Vodou-themed shows for tourists.[511] The period also saw the growing influence of the Roman Catholic Church,[512] and in 1941 the Church backed Operation Nettoyage (Operation Cleanup), a government campaign to expunge Vodou, during which many ounfòs were destroyed.[513] Violent responses from Vodouists led President Élie Lescot to abandon the Operation.[514]

During the occupation, the indigénisme (indigenist) movement developed among Haiti's middle classes, later transmogrifying into the international Négritude movement. These encouraged a more positive assessment of Vodou and peasant culture, a trend supported by the appearance of professional ethnological research on the topic from the 1930s onward.[515] Church influence in Haiti was curtailed by François Duvalier, the country's president from 1957 to 1971.[516] Although he restored Catholicism as the state religion, Duvalier was widely perceived as a champion of Vodou,[517] calling it "the supreme factor of Haitian unity".[506] He utilized it for his own purposes, encouraging rumors about his own supernatural powers,[518] and selecting oungans as his chefs-de-sections (rural section chiefs).[519]

After Duvalier's son and successor, Jean-Claude, was overthrown in 1986, there were attacks on Vodouists perceived to have supported the Duvaliers, partly motivated by Protestant anti-Vodou campaigns; practitioners called this violence the Dechoukaj ('uprooting').[520] Two groups, the Zantray and Bode Nasyonal, were formed to defend the rights of Vodouists and hold rallies.[521] Haiti's 1987 constitution enshrined freedom of religion,[522] after which President Jean-Bertrand Aristide granted Vodou official recognition in 2003,[523] thus allowing Vodouists to officiate at civil ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.[524]

A Vodou ceremony taking place at the National Black Theatre in New York City in 2017

The latter half of the 20th century saw the substantial growth of evangelical Protestantism in Haiti, generating tensions with Vodouists.[525] These Protestants regard Vodou as Satanic,[526] and unlike the Roman Catholic authorities have generally refused to compromise with its practitioners.[527] The 2010 Haiti earthquake fuelled conversion from Vodou to Protestantism,[528] with many Protestants claiming that the earthquake was punishment for the sins of the Haitian population, including their practice of Vodou.[529] Mob attacks on Vodouists followed in the wake of the earthquake,[530] and again following the 2010 cholera outbreak.[531]

The first three decades of the 20th century saw growing Haitian migration to eastern Cuba, introducing Vodou to the island.[532] From 1957, many Haitians emigrated to escape Duvalier, taking Vodou with them.[533] In the U.S., Vodou has attracted non-Haitians, especially African Americans and Caribbean migrants,[411] and has syncretized with other religions like Santería and Spiritism.[411] During the latter half of the 20th century, those seeking to revive Louisiana Voodoo initiated practices that brought the religion closer to Haitian Vodou or Santería than it had been early in that century.[534]


Many Vodouists interpret Haiti's flag through their own theology; in this view, the blue is for Ezili Dantò, and the red for Ogou Feray.[535]

Vodou is the majority religion of Haiti,[536] for most Haitians practice both Vodou and Roman Catholicism.[48] An often used joke about Haiti holds that the island's population is 85% Roman Catholic, 15% Protestant, and 100% Vodou.[537] Even some of those who reject Vodou acknowledge its close associations with Haitian identity.[21]

It is difficult to determine how many Haitians practice Vodou, largely because the country has never had an accurate census and many Vodouists will not openly admit they practice the religion.[538] Among the country's middle and upper-classes, for instance, many individuals publicly decry Vodou yet privately practice it.[539] Estimates have nevertheless been made; one suggested that 80% of Haitians practice Vodou,[540] while in 1992, Desmangles put the number of Haitian practitioners at six million.[541] Not all take part in the religion regularly, but many will turn to Vodou priests and priestesses when in times of need.[542]

Vodouists learn about the religion by taking part in its rituals,[543] with children learning by observing adults.[275] Vodou does not focus on proselytizing;[544] according to Brown, it has "no pretensions to the universal."[536] It has nevertheless spread beyond Haiti, including to other Caribbean countries like the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, as well as to France and the United States.[545] Major ounfòs exist in U.S. cities such as Miami, New York City, Washington, DC, Boston, and Oakland, California.[546]

Reception and legacy

Various scholars describe Vodou as one of the world's most maligned and misunderstood religions.[547] Throughout Haitian history, Christians have often presented Vodou as Satanic,[548] while in broader Anglophone and Francophone society it has been widely associated with sorcery, witchcraft, and black magic.[549] In U.S. popular culture, for instance, Haitian Vodou is usually portrayed as destructive and malevolent,[550] attitudes often linked with anti-black racism.[76] Non-practitioners have often depicted Vodou in literature, theater, and film;[551] in many cases, such as the films White Zombie (1932) and London Voodoo (2004), these promote sensationalist views of the religion.[552] The lack of any central Vodou authority has hindered efforts to combat these negative representations.[553]

Humanity's relationship with the lwa has been a recurring theme in Haitian art,[331] and the Vodou pantheon was a major topic for the mid-20th century artists of the "Haitian Renaissance."[554] In the late 1950s, art collectors began to take an interest in Vodou ritual paraphernalia and by the 1970s an established market for this material had emerged.[555] Exhibits of Vodou ritual material have been displayed abroad; the Fowler Museum's exhibit on "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou" for instance traveled the U.S. for three years in the 1990s.[556] Vodou has appeared in Haitian literature,[557] and has also influenced Haitian music, as with the rasin band Boukman Eksperyans,[558] while theatre troupes have performed simulated Vodou rituals for audiences outside Haiti.[559] Documentaries focusing on Vodou have appeared[560]—such as Maya Deren's 1985 film Divine Horsemen[561][562] or Anne Lescot and Laurence Magloire's 2002 work Of Men and Gods[563]—which have in turn encouraged some viewers to take a practical interest in the religion.[564]

See also



  1. ^ "Vodou" is the "customary spelling" of "the traditional religion of the Haitian people."[1] Alternative spellings have included Voodoo /ˈvd/[2] Vaudou /ˈvd/;[3] Vodun /ˈvd/;[3][4] Vodoun[1][3][4] /ˈvdn/; Vodu[5] /ˈvd/, or Vaudoux[5] /ˈvd/


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  3. ^ a b c Michel 1996, p. 280.
  4. ^ a b Courlander 1988, p. 88.
  5. ^ a b Corbett, Bob (16 July 1995). "Yet more on the spelling of Voodoo". www.hartford-hwp.com. Archived from the original on 1 March 2021. Retrieved 14 October 2020.
  6. ^ Desmangles 1992, p. 2; Desmangles 2012, p. 27; Thylefors 2009, p. 74.
  7. ^ Germain 2011, p. 254.
  8. ^ Cosentino 1996, p. 1; Michel 1996, p. 293; Bellegarde-Smith 2006, p. 21; Clérisme 2006, p. 60.
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  10. ^ Bellegarde-Smith & Michel 2006, p. xix.
  11. ^ Cosentino 1995a, p. 26; Derby 2015, p. 396.
  12. ^ Derby 2015, p. 397.
  13. ^ Métraux 1972, p. 324; Desmangles 1990, p. 476; Desmangles 1992, p. 7; Hammond 2012, p. 64; Derby 2015, p. 396.
  14. ^ Desmangles 1990, p. 476; Desmangles 1992, p. 8.
  15. ^ Mintz & Trouillot 1995, p. 123.
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Further reading

  • Benedicty-Kokken, Alessandra (2014). Spirit Possession in French, Haitian, and Vodou Thought: An Intellectual History. Lanham: Lexington. ISBN 978-0-7391-8465-3.
  • Cosentino, Donald J. (1988). "More On Voodoo". African Arts. 21 (3 (May)): 77. doi:10.2307/3336454. JSTOR 3336454.
  • Daniel, Yvonne (2005). Dancing Wisdom: Embodied Knowledge in Haitian Vodou, Cuban Yoruba, and Bahian Candomblé. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-07207-9.
  • Deren, Maya (1953). Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. New York: Thames and Hudson.
  • Hebblethwaite, Benjamin (2021). A Transatlantic History of Haitian Vodou: Rasin Figuier, Rasin Bwa Kayiman, and the Rada and Gede Rites. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-4968-3560-4.
  • Herskovits, Melville J. (1937). Life in a Haitian Valley. New York City: Knopf.
  • Joseph, Celucien L.; Cleophat, Nixon S. (2016). Vodou in the Haitian Experience: A Black Atlantic Perspective. Lanham: Lexington. ISBN 978-1-4985-0834-6.
  • Joseph, Celucien L.; Cleophat, Nixon S. (2016). Vodou in Haitian Memory: The Idea and Representation of Vodou in Haitian Imagination. Lanham: Lexington. ISBN 978-1-4985-0834-6.
  • Largey, Michael (2009). Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism (enlarged ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-46865-5.
  • Long, Carolyn (2001). Spiritual Merchants: Magic, Religion and Commerce. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 978-1-57233-110-5.
  • McAlister, Elizabeth (1993). "Sacred Stories from the Haitian Diaspora: A Collective Biography of Seven Vodou Priestesses in New York City". Journal of Caribbean Studies. 9 (1 & 2 (Winter)): 10–27. Archived from the original on 2012-04-22. Retrieved 2012-03-22.
  • McAlister, Elizabeth (1998). "The Madonna of 115th St. Revisited: Vodou and Haitian Catholicism in the Age of Transnationalism". In Warner, S. (ed.). Gatherings in Diaspora. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press. Archived from the original on 2009-08-27.
  • Rey, Terry; Stepick, Alex (2013). Crossing the Water and Keeping the Faith: Haitian Religion in Miami. New York and London: NYU Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-7708-4.
  • Richman, Karen E. (2005). Migration and Vodou. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0-8130-3325-9.
  • Strongman, Roberto (2019). Queering Black Atlantic Religions: Transcorporeality in Candomblé, Santería, and Vodou. Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-1-4780-0310-6.
  • Vanhee, Hein (2002). "Central African Popular Christianity and the Making of Haitian Vodou Religion". In L. M. Heywood (ed.). Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 243–264. ISBN 978-0-521-00278-3.