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Vodun (also Vodou) is a West African religion, which in variant forms is also practised in the Americas, and is particularly associated with Haiti. Enslaved Africans created syncretic religions inspired by Vodun as they were forced to suppress their religion in favor of Christianity, specifically Roman Catholicism.

Types of Voodoo[edit]

There are several major types of "voodoo":

  • West African Vodun is likely the cultural origin of many vodou related religions from Dahomey among other African nations.
  • Haitian Vodou is the version that sprang up in the French colony of St. Domingue, present-day Haiti. It combines Roman Catholicism with native African beliefs. While it has traditionally been frowned upon and even suppressed by the (mostly Catholic) elite, it has recently been given the status of a full religion by the Haitian government.
  • Dominican Republic: Vudú (otherwise known more commonly as the 21 Divisiones)
  • Louisiana Voodoo (not to be confused with the North American tradition of "hoodoo")
  • Puerto Rico vudu

Although some people consider Brazilian Candomble and the Cuban Santería to be forms of Vodou, they are in fact completely separate religious paths. Their origins are Yoruban, whereas Haitian Vodou derives primarily from the Fon (Dahomeyan) practice, but also incorporates Kongo, Djoumba, Yoruban and other African spiritual traditions. Haitian Vodou is unique in that it also incorporates spirits and traditions of Taino (the native inhabitants of Haiti) origin. Vodoun in Benin is a living religious practice, and contributes nothing to Candomble and Santería. The Cuban traditions of Palo are also lumped in with the various Vodou pracices by the ignorant, but Palo is of Kongo origin and is its own separate tradition.

Vodou as a political movement[edit]

Throughout the history of slavery and then colonization, Vodou in its various forms has been used as a focal point to attempt to overthrow those who enslaved the people and later, corrupt governments. In 1791, in the north of Haiti at Bois Caiman, a Vodou ritual was performed with the intent of freeing the Haitian slaves from the French. The Revolution that followed would give rise to the Haitian Republic.

In some parts of West Africa, especially Benin, practitioners of Vodoun have begun organizing to protect their rights. In modern West African culture, both Christianity and Islam are seen as more "modern," and so being traditional adherents are often seen as backwards, rural, and uneducated. In Benin, a group of traditional adherents lobbied for government recognition of Vodoun, including a national holiday. They have been fairly successful, and January 10 is now the official "Fete du Vodoun." Groups in neighboring countries, including Togo, have begun lobbying for similar recognition, with less success.[1]


All of the "voodoo" branch religions that have grown from West African Vodun share the concept of a single supreme god that, upon contact with Christianity, became directly associated with the Judeo-Christian God. However, unlike the Christian God, the supreme God (Bondye in Haitian vodou, Mawu in West-African vodun) is too busy overseeing the universe to take an interest in the affairs of individual humans. Although He is still worshipped, he is not petitioned for favours or asked to grant requests. Instead, those who practice Vodou believe that God created several spirits to be able to aid and interact with humanity. In Haitian Vodou, these spirits are known as the Lwa. They occupy a similar role to Catholic saints, but the Lwa of Vodou are more varied in their personalities.


All Vodou ceremonies begin with prayer to God. In Haitian Vodou, this is known as 'la Priye Ginen' (the African prayer). This prayer encompasses the worship of God, the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and a number of Catholic prayers including a Litany of Saints. Then, each Lwa is sung for. Once La Priye Ginen has been sung, individual spirits are sung for and saluted. They are called down and invited to possess a member of the congregation and interact with the worshippers. Attempts have been made to study this form of possession, and while nothing conclusive has been determined, deceit has been mostly ruled out. The people who are ridden are convinced of it.

Vodou has a reputation when it comes to animal sacrifice, but most people misunderstand the concept. When an animal is killed, the blood is offered to the spirit. This pleases the spirit, but the animal must not be wasted. The Lwa want their children to be healthy and well fed, so each animal is butchered, cooked, and served to the attendees at the ceremony. The sacrifice often occurs the day before a fet (celebration/ceremony/party) so that the meat can be prepared and served the next day. Food is an important part of any vodou ceremony, and the spirit being honoured will be served their favourite foods and drinks. After the Haitian earthquake of 2010, Vodou ceremonies were often the only way people could eat. Each animal killed for a spirit in Vodou goes to feed an entire community, a fact often lost on those used to prepackaged meat from the supermarket.

Vodou in popular media[edit]

Vodun Voodoo has long been a popular theme in media, though almost always as a dark, evil force; a simplistic religion for superstitious black people. Most of the references to voodoo are generic, crossing from the Haitian Voudo, to Louisiana Hoodoo, to West African vodun. Sexy, supernatural of houngans raising the dead to act as zombis or using mannequins to strike down their enemies have been the norm in dealing with Vodou. (See:The Serpent and the Rainbow.) Rarely is the actual religion seen, in favor of some exaggerated "death worshiping" sex-crazed mayhem that provides nice white heroes something to be shocked by.

In fact, Vodou is a modest religion. Sex is not in any way at all a part of Vodou ceremony, and is outright forbidden from occurring at one. Participants and worshippers at a Vodou ceremony must dress modestly, and the idea of sex during a ceremony is viewed as blasphemous. There are a group of Lwa in Haitian Vodou, the Ghede, who can be crude and sexual. These spirits, however, are spirits of the dead. They are incapable of any sexual act themselves, but act in a crude and overtly sexual manner to challenge human perceptions and assumptions about modesty and to ridicule any hang-ups humans may have about sex. Ghede exist to remind humanity that life is short, and to live it to the fullest. Their sexual antics have little to nothing to do with actual sex, and more to do with encouraging people to enjoy life.

Within certain circles of neopaganism, Vodou has become rather chic, with purported 'houngans' even writing books about how to combine the two. More experienced neopagans usually look at this as a crass attempt at cultural appropriation, although a great number of people feel entitled to take the spirits of Vodou and other African Traditional religions, and do with them what they see fit. This often extends to the creation of online stores, where they sell necklaces and other items which they claim are authentically 'Voodoo'. Unfortunately, a large enough number of people who simply don't know any better purchase these items to make the venture profitable. There is a very simple way to determine if someone is a legitimate practitioner of any type of Vodou, and that is to ask them their lineage. Any initiated person will be able to immediately provide the names of their initiatory parents, and their place of and rank of initiation. This can then be verified by the wider community. Many legitimate practitioners of several different forms of Vodou are dedicated to educating the public about the truth of their traditions, and bringing an end to the cultural appropriation and exploitation of Vodou.

The Serpent and the Rainbow is a book written by ethnobotanist Wade Davis in 1985, where he detailed the creation of zombies with assistance from Max Beauvoir, who as of 2008 has been elected the head of unified Haitian Voodoo: a controversial move as there is often little hierarchichy among houngan priests and priestesses. Beauvoir is the son of a doctor and dislikes the unscientific portrayal of zombies as seen in most Hollywood films.[2]

To this day, a lot of Haitian Catholics will not dress up for Halloween because of the association of vodou with costumes. Because the aforementioned Hatian diocese despises them, many lay Catholics believe the Hatian diocese "forbids" them from dressing up despite the diocese wholly lacking the authority to actually do such a thing.

Vodou and sexual orientation[edit]

In contrast to mainstream Catholicism, Haitian Vodou views sexual orientation as a part of the way God makes a person; homosexuals are free to pursue members of the same sex just as heterosexuals are free to pursue members of the opposite sex.

It is common knowledge in Haiti that a significant number of Haitian Vodou are gay.[3] Many LGBT in Haiti believe that it is easier to be open about one’s sexuality and gender expression within Vodou culture, in the face of open hostility by mainstream Haitian society.[3]


Obeah is a collection of folk magic and religious practices common throughout the Anglophone Caribbean. Much like Vodun, Obeah draws upon the spiritual practices of the African people brought to the West Indies by the Atlantic slave trade. Until recently, the practice of Obeah was illegal in some countries, including Jamaica, where it was punishable by flogging.

See also[edit]